While my obsession with the Simpson's has waned over the years this book is a reminder of what made me unwittingly fall in love with this show. The auWhile my obsession with the Simpson's has waned over the years this book is a reminder of what made me unwittingly fall in love with this show. The author's obsession with the show makes me feel/look like an amateur. ;-)
Simon Singh does a fantastic job (the book reads like he thoroughly enjoyed it too) of uncovering gems from this show. From the "Treehouse of Horror VI" Calculus joke (yeah I completely missed this one!) to the very famous Fermat's last theorem. It you are interested in Mathematics it is actually a pretty good refresher of what you miss by not doing maths on a daily basis. I mean c'mon do you really think about perfect numbers, narcissistic numbers or Mersenne Primes? Did you ever? Yeah, thought so. When you couple that with what appear to be random numbers to guess the attendance at an Isotopes Baseball game you really have to read this book.
In addition dissecting the show Singh provides the readers with short biographical information of the writers. Many (nay ALL) of them had brilliant careers in Mathematics and decided to move to writing comedy. The world I would argue is better off for it. In a strange way reading this book gave me an appreciation on the fascination with dealing with absurdity. It made me understand how oft acerbic social commentary that comes from the show.
As a final bonus the book also tackles the arguably EVEN more brilliant Futurama. ...more
This book is a slog. This book is worth the slog. We look at information and how technology starting with the telegraph changes the way is transmittedThis book is a slog. This book is worth the slog. We look at information and how technology starting with the telegraph changes the way is transmitted. It was actually quite fun for me to see the reaction of the Newspapers to the telegraph. (Spoiler: it read like what we say of the Internet today)
A good amount -no surprise really given the subject- is spent on Claude Shannon. We look at how computation changed the way the word information was used in fields that would prior to Shannon have been imagined to use it. The detour to biology and evolution and the transmission of information was a fun read for me.
The final third of the book where information is described as a mathematical abstraction caught me off guard. It was initially unsettling but he made a convincing argument. Highly, highly recommend!...more
I finished this book sitting at an airport + a round trip flight. It is that easy of a read. I will come back to this book frequently because it staysI finished this book sitting at an airport + a round trip flight. It is that easy of a read. I will come back to this book frequently because it stays with you.
Imagine a brilliant mind. Then put the pressure of a finite amount of time to have one last lecture. To this brilliant mind add a healthy dose of secular humanism and know that this is why you need to re-read this book to remind yourself... How will you be remembered?...more
This was a fantastic read. This was a fun book to read. The premise of the book is a subject that theologians have dealt with for a lot longer than anThis was a fantastic read. This was a fun book to read. The premise of the book is a subject that theologians have dealt with for a lot longer than any other field of study. The title says it all. One of the toughest problems faced by many an atheist is the ability to articulate altruism. I can't say that I did a literature review of what has been written out there on the matter. What I can say is this is a good primer for anyone keen to explain altruism using mathematical modeling.
I was expecting the book to be filled with mathematical proofs. I was expecting the book to be taxing. I was pleasantly surprised in the lack of both. The bottom line is that it is very readable. In a world that is celebrity mad it was very refreshing to read about brilliant people's lives. All the `life stories` are in context, but for me it personalized science. One of the biggest problems for Science is the lack of good PR. It has been wrongly marketed for a long time that we oft forget it is done by people as passionate about their work as they would be in any field, except there are no corners to cut because your work will be found out sooner or later... Where was I? Oh the book! :-)
The premise of the book is that the tension (paradox?) between evolutions survival of the fittest and altruism/cooperation can be explained through 5 different mechanisms. Reciprocity, Reputation, Spatial Selection, Multilevel Selection and Kin Selection. Nowak takes one through the simplest of games the Prisoner's Dilemna (yes that same one) to show how the aforementioned mechanisms can explain how cooperation has evolved and continues to develop in the human species. It is here that I am delighted the book didn't have too much math in it because all of this would have been lost. I confess to taking my time to actually follow his arguments to check out if they are verifiable. It ended up becoming more work than was worth it. It also was a good reminder that my math muscles need to be re-sharpened. To me this was the success of the book. It could have been a `serious` math book and would have reached a smaller audience who would wrestle on the minutiae of the proofs. (that's what the additional reading in the back of the book is for). In all I am hanging on to this book if perhaps to give it a second go and this time actually make it an exercise.
I would recommend this to any student of maths or biology. ...more
As a bit of a background I *discovered* Carl Sagan later in life than my peers. I learned about him by watching really crap videos of this man bangingAs a bit of a background I *discovered* Carl Sagan later in life than my peers. I learned about him by watching really crap videos of this man banging on about the Cosmos. I must say despite the dated videos what jumps out is he was articulate and was passionate about what he was talking about. I bring this up because I feel like this book probably won't work for many people who got to see these shows as they were produced. This book seems to be a summary of Sagan's `general audience` life works. So if you have followed his career you will likely be re-reading something you read before. If you watched the shows you will be get something you'd seen before.
This however shouldn't put you off because you probably need a refresher anyway. :-)
On to the book though. I found the first 5 or so chapters to be inspiring. To the point that I had to read them again. I think that this would be a good way to introduce kids to science or to make it easy for people to demystify the pursuit of knowledge. Again here he tells the story of why science is important and how everyone is capable of doing it if they allowed themselves to.
The middle of the book might be a bit tough to take for those who have followed his writings. After watching the Cosmos series (GO AND ADD THEM TO YOUR NETFLIX NOW!) I kept reading his works and so some of these chapters include articles I'd already read. (Boo to the editors on not fleshing these out) It isn't a total disaster and in many instances I was delighted to re-read some of his articles in the context of the book.
The last part of the book moved me me the most. It is short on science but is probably the closest one will ever get to actually having a personal audience with him and I daresay his philosophy on life. Even while facing death Carl Sagan's perspective on life and death put mine to shame. Truly inspiring. ...more
The world's most complicated machine was built to hunt down an elusive particle. Ian Sample doesn't focus much on the theory behind Higgs-Boson. ThatThe world's most complicated machine was built to hunt down an elusive particle. Ian Sample doesn't focus much on the theory behind Higgs-Boson. That said, reading this book can be a springboard to the fascinating world of particle physics. He also doesn't go much into the actual construction and running of particle colliders but still the reader will be enlightened on how these at once simple yet complex machines run. The primary focus and the stars of the book are the brilliant people behind CERN's Large Hadron Collider and USDOE/Fermilab's Tevatron Collider.
To be honest the Tevatron is almost a side show and isn't given nearly enough mention and/or credit and is almost an afterthought. Perhaps this is because Tevatron is in my neighborhood that I find this to be an oversight. :-) That said this was a fun read into the people behind the science. I am glad the book didn't get bogged down with the details behind particle physics and the construction and I feel I must drive this point home, the book itself remains a science book. ...more
Another book that I read for class that needed a re-visit. (See kids! Stay in School!) Stephen J. Gould that charts the way American and European scieAnother book that I read for class that needed a re-visit. (See kids! Stay in School!) Stephen J. Gould that charts the way American and European scientists have handled the debate about race, culture, intelligence and economic and political success.
I was a freshman when I read it the first time and it while the original one was written in 1981, he revised and expanded it in 1996, two years after two academic researchers published The Bell Curve, a book claiming to show that some hereditary lineages are innately less intelligent than others, leaving readers to draw the implication that money spent on educating them might be wasted.
The book itself is a who's who on very smart people with terrible assumptions who use their smarts to complete the circular argument.
Thomas Jefferson the blacks … are inferior to the whites in endowment both of body and mind.
Ben Franklin (step on up sir) Why increase the Sons of Africa, by planting them in America, when we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? AWESOME! but wait... there's more
Abraham Lincoln contemplated the physical differences between black and white and came out in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race
He doesn't single out great minds from America, the Europeans did their bit too Cuvier, Humboldt, Lyell and Darwin all said things that betrayed an unquestioning belief in innate Caucasian superiority. Their successors set out to confirm this belief. Louis Agassiz, a great 19th century scientist now in the US Hall of Fame, thought social equality between black and white a practical impossibility" and intermarriage "a perversion of every natural sentiment.
We look at the early attempts to reify intelligence into a measurable unit by looking at cranial sizes. In most of these cases one likes to think that our ability to use computing would spot some of the glaring errors. I very much doubt this. In many instances these very smart people were massaging the results, cooking the data, and eliminating the unwelcome findings. (Special mention of the Bell Curve which also had no burden of lack of computing power is warranted)
Robert Yerkes data from military recruits is "taken to the barn" and dressed down by Gould. Yerkes is a respected scientist but the consequences of his findings are truly frightening because they were used to justify segregation and generally limit progress of... I dread speculating... how many children. (Yes I went there!)
And so the whole, sorry, miserable story continues. These limits, constraints and segregation laws continued well into the second half of the 20th century – well into Gould's lifetime, and mine.
This book should make any sensible person wary of attaching too much value to IQ tests (there's some glorious stuff on the quixotic allotment of IQ ratings) and should make anybody very suspicious of statements about "group IQ" or the presumption that some races are innately more clever than others. If we all got it so shockingly wrong 150 and 100 years ago, and even 50 years ago, then why would we have got it right now?
But there is another, deeper lesson in this book. The people who debased the science of humankind rubbed shoulders with the people who successfully shaped the rest of modern science, from Faraday to Einstein and Dirac, from Thomas Henry Huxley to Watson and Crick.
Scientists find it possible to be objective about the consequences that follow from the discovery of the speed of light in a vacuum, or the architecture of the double helix, or almost any subject except perhaps the human race. But when we look at ourselves, we see from a limited viewpoint. ...more
All good books test the imagination. When you open them you must imagine for yourself before Peter Jackson's trilogy walking through Middle earth. YouAll good books test the imagination. When you open them you must imagine for yourself before Peter Jackson's trilogy walking through Middle earth. You cannot in reality go to Middle-earth (well technically go to New Zealand now), but in another sense you can.
This book is different. It requires you to examine everything about the very world you inhabit. Early in the book David Deutsch describes the interference pattern from a single photon passing through a single slit and infers from this experiment "the existence of a seething, prodigiously complicated, hidden world of shadow photons" and goes on from that to further infer "a huge number of parallel universes, each similar in composition to the tangible one, and each obeying the same laws of physics, but differing in that the particles are in different positions in each universe." All my prior experiences with multiverse differed markedly from the books description. In many ways I was saddened to have my imagination sullied but his case is much more compelling.
Deutsch's multiverse is different. All these universes weakly interacting with, the one I live in. It is a composite, a layer cake, a palimpsest of universes very similar but not quite identical to each other.
My inadequate imagination is my problem, not his: Deutsch has thought through what he wants to say about the nature of the reality we share, and he makes his points with patience and clarity. He wants not to explain the universe, but to understand it: to understand everything. And there are several eerie moments in this book when you think that he might, just might, be about to convince you that you, too, could follow his reasoning.
He addresses Darwin and Dawkins and makes a profound and fresh case for saluting the importance of life.
Deutsch plays beautifully with the Newtonian and the commonsense concepts of time summarizing it so serenely. "Time does not flow. Other times are just special cases of other universes.
Many a time in this book I felt out of my depth but I enjoyed being pulled out of my comfort zone. I enjoyed being pulled out of the Newtonian universe.
Furthermore he takes on time-travel and the Grandfather Paradox elegantly by making me visit with Shakespeare's clutching a copy of the Complete Works, and help a struggling author to complete Hamlet.
I have promised myself to re-read this book at a future date in the hopes that my knowledge with have evolved sufficiently to understand even more of it than the first read was. ...more
The missus loves fiction. It’s not my thing. I’ve tried, but I have a difficult time reading fiction. There are some novels that I’ve read but overallThe missus loves fiction. It’s not my thing. I’ve tried, but I have a difficult time reading fiction. There are some novels that I’ve read but overall every time I pick up a work of fiction I am reminded of books I was forced to read, dissect and "appreciate". The Selfish Gene is not a work of fiction but is a book that I was supposed to read for Biology class. As is my wont I was indifferent to the exercise until a recent discussion with someone who defined evolution as "...just a theory...".
I was forced to pick up this book again. After the second read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, is quite simply the most interesting book I’ve ever read.
If you haven’t read it… approximately this is what you’ll be thinking:
I understand evolution pretty well, and I don’t really need to read a book to understand evolution. Besides, evolution is kind of boring — the fittest survive, and pass on their genes, problem solved. I’d rather read (insert latest book here).
—me (and maybe you), before reading
Let me try to put into words how wrong this was. First, and foremost, this book made me realize how absolutely little I’ve actually thought about evolution, and how absolutely fascinating evolutionary biology is. This book is basically a series of mental experiments to explain the biological world through game theory. The organisms are playing a giant game, and those with the best strategies will survive. Please note that the “best” strategies often depend on what strategies everyone else is using. Therefore, a population will then tend towards evolutionary stable mixes of strategies. You will have repeated WTF moments as he makes the most unintuitive animal behaviors (ie, strategies) suddenly make perfect sense.
Second, let me say, that as a programmer, you have a VERY UNIQUE perspective that makes evolutionary biology (and the arguments in the book) extremely fascinating (more on this in a bit). Last, and maybe most importantly, for me, it is fairly safe to say that if I had read this book in secondary school, instead of recently, I’d probably have made dramatically different career decisions. It was that interesting.
A quick overview
In the book, Richard Dawkins basically argues for an evolutionary understanding from a “gene’s eye view”. In other words, everything in evolution makes sense if you think of genes as the unit of selection, and not individuals nor groups. Most of the book is set against the backdrop of Dawkins arguing against a competing theory known as group selection. Now, I am no evolutionary biologist, so I’m not going to weigh in too much on who is right (as I understand it, Dawkins is “mostly” right but there is some controversy at the edges), but the book itself makes so many fascinating arguments that it’s worth the read for that alone.
It is amazing how much the gene’s eye view of the problem changes the game. It can, to some extent, put your life into perspective. From a gene’s perspective, keeping you alive until you reproduce is a good thing. Keeping you alive for too long after is a bad thing, because you are now competition for your children. You are nothing but a survival mechanism built for and by your genes. At some point, your genes would prefer if you’d just die.
Certain behaviors are, seemingly, difficult to explain from a naive understanding of the theory of evolution. The primary one (one that is discussed at length) is altruism in the animal kingdom. It would seem that given the whole survival of the fittest thing, altruism would usually be a bad idea. Dawkins argues extensively, using numerous examples, of exactly how altruism helps particular genes reproduce. Or, and more to the title, how “selfish” actions by a gene (the gene looking out for only itself) leads to altruistic actions in the individual.
A giant exercise in game theory
Dawkins goes on to make plausible explanations for all sorts of phenomonan that you’ve probably never even considered as requiring an explanation. Here’s a great example: you might be able to think of a good evolutionary explanation for why sexual reproduction came about (Dawkins gives you the usual reason, if you can’t), but can you think of a sound reason why nature settled on two sexes? Why not just one (anyone can mate with anyone?) Why not three? Or Four? The answer Dawkins gives is a bit speculative, but fascinatingly plausible. [note: much of the book is Dawkins' summary of other people's work on these various issues... I don't want to give the impression that all of these discussions are his original work]
The basic argument goes as follows. In the beginning of sexual reproduction among early organisms, all sex cells were basically the same. This meant any pair of sex cells could merge and become a new organism (ie, there was just one sex). Larger sex cells had an advantage over smaller ones, as it started the new organism off with a larger food supply. Over time, these cells get bigger, last longer, and are more well protected. These large sex cells are increasingly expensive to produce, but they provide the future offspring with the best start. This opens up the gene pool to exploitation from a “selfish” strategy. If you could produce extremely small, extremely cheap sex cells in large numbers, you could mate and piggyback on the “expensive” large sex cells. So some organisms began flooding the area with these cheap cells, and succeeding by piggybacking. And from here, the two types of organisms continue to diverge, generating the two sexes we see today.
So while you might argue that an all-female population would be more successful (because the males are “cheating”), an all-female population is inherently unstable. A single male introduced to this all-female world will succeed at reproducing at an alarming rate (note: this argument takes place long before animals had the ability to properly “choose” their mate, and this “choosing” and it’s impact on evolution are discussed at length, with amazing results). Evolution is not creating the most fit populations, but the most stable.
This, by the way, forms the genesis of all sorts of sex-related differences seen throughout the animal kingdom: monogous preferences from females, promiscuity from males, male competition for females (in winner-take-all harem-like arrangements), and so on. And here’s an interesting follow-up: if one male can produce enough sex cells for multiple females, what is the optimal sex ratio? Almost all animals hover around 50/50, but why? Why couldn’t, for example, 75% female, 25% male work? Dawkins tries to explain this too!
The arguments made in the book just appeal right to the core of a computer programmer who is constantly thinking in optimizations, algorithms, and mathematics. As I said before, the entire book really reads as an attempt to explain various natural phenomenon through a combination of game theory, and the world of the genes. You cannot help but see the parallels in Dawkins arguments to computer algorithms. When Dawkins discusses, briefly, how computer programming is a secret passion (he might say vice) of his, you will immediately understand it “from the other side”. The two disciplines are so incredibly similar. For the exact same reason I am drawn to his arguments, he is drawn into computer science. The two fields have such interesting mental overlap.
The most fascinating take away from the book is a view of evolution not as a property intrinsic to life, but as an emergent property of certain types of systems. Perhaps most famously, this is the book that Richard Dawkins invents the word meme. A meme, in his context, is an “organism” that spreads not through the natural world, but in our own minds. In other words, memes are ideas, and some are more fit to “reproduce” from brain to brain. These memes exist in an enviornment (our culuture, history, morals, and so on), and adapt as necessary to continue surviving.
I’m less fascinated by memes themselves as I am about what memes represent. The existance of memes is basically Dawkins’ way of saying that evolution is an emergent property of a certain type of system. It follows directly from a set of axioms: given some form of descent with modification, and some non-random selection of those descendants, then evolution not only will happen, but must happen. Any system that fits that requirement will have evolution occurring. These systems will strive towards “organisms” that are stable within their “environment”. In other words, evolution is not just a theory of life but a direct and unavoidable consequence of the rules of the game....more
THIS BOOK SHOULD BE IN EVERY HOME AND MUST BE REQUIRED READING!
Science reporting is bad...no Science reporting is ATROCIOUS. Many a night I've sat andTHIS BOOK SHOULD BE IN EVERY HOME AND MUST BE REQUIRED READING!
Science reporting is bad...no Science reporting is ATROCIOUS. Many a night I've sat and watched the news, read a newspaper article and just cringed! I like to think that I know a tiny bit about science, so I can spot the poor reporting more easily. I've always wondered about the reason for this. Unfortunately it has always made me doubt ANY reporting as a result. Reading Bad Science is a good tonic and provides insight on this and the bad news is that WE are all in on it.
Thing about science is that it most requires us to "be human". It only requires us to be curious. Finally it DEMANDS and this is the hard bit that our claims be measurable. It DEMANDS that we don't just 'have an opinion' but carefully explain our hypothesis and make our conclusions be 'testable'.
Ben Goldacre does a fantastic job of this. No one is spared. Big Pharma? (Oh yeah), Late night quacks? (you bet), Chiropractors (the doctor will rip you a new one now), Homeopathy? (too easy), It would have been easy for him to be contemptuous of the rest of us who don't think about science like he does but he is engaging and funny despite all this. I kept re-reading chapters of this book because it is that good.
I could go on but below is a classic example of a news feature on BBC to illustrate
The headline is “EU biofuel push ‘to ruin forests’”. Then we read “Oil firms have warned that European Union plans on biofuels could wreck the world’s rainforests.”
So the news article is really an “anti bio-fuel” piece written by Big Oil. Big Oil is down on bio-fuel because you can grow it instead of drilling for it. Big Oil likes LPG and hydrogen because you can make those from crude. Imagine if cars ran on straight vegetable oil, you could grow it in your back yard! You can see why Big Oil might be a bit scared by that. Of course I don’t mean to say that Big Oil literally wrote the piece, but I mean that Big Oil hired a Respectable PR Company to write a Press Release which they put on the BBC editor’s desk and then passed to an intern who changed a couple of adjectives, rang a Rent-a-Quote and slapped it on the website. That seems to be how news is done these days.
Is this was a proper news article then I would expect to see a few sources. We should actually know all of this from high school science and Dr. Goldacre reminds you of this. Who are these “oil firms”, as in “oil firms have warned …”? We just don’t know. You see how this is used to lend an air of credibility to the piece without actually having information that can be independently verified? Later on “one government official told the BBC: ‘The policy is running ahead of the science … ‘”. A government official? With a name? From what department? In what capacity did he tell the BBC this? Pure flak. Again, no verifiable information.
You can always tell where the intern has been. Consider this paragraph: “Experts agree it makes sense to maximise wood waste and to grow energy crops on land that is marginally productive for food.” The nameless experts of course provide filler without leaving a verifiable trail. But what does “maximise wood waste” mean? Perhaps before the intern came along it said “maximise biofuel production from wood waste” or something that actually made sense. Who knows. (Aside: wouldn’t it be better to sequester the carbon in wood waste and simply bury it?)
Again faceless experts are called in: “Many biologists warn there is simply not enough land on the planet … “.
Next up is an explanation that we’re supposed to take as given: “Already President Bush’s highly-subsidised drive to get fuel from the Prairies has triggered food riots in Mexico because it has pushed up the price of corn.” There’s no reference to any research or paper (or even a rent-a-quote) that claims that the riots were caused by the farming subsidies. No critical eye has been applied, just a bland “reprint whatever the press release says” approach. Are there any other possible causes? Is it possible that the riots were caused by trade agreements between Mexico and the USA? Or that the Mexican people are using this issue to protest at their government? There’s simply no investigation of alternative explanations. Big Oil says bio-fuel is bad because it causes riots, so that’s what goes to press.
Towards the end of the article we get to some quantitative blindfolding: We see that the UK government wants to produce 20% of electricity from renewable resources, but that the EU wants 20% of all energy to come from renewables. The article points out that since electricity accounts for about a quarter of all energy then that’s four times as much energy from renewables (than the UK government had in mind). Close, but no banana. What about approaches that involve producing less energy overall? If we produce less energy overall then that’s less renewable energy also. A sound article would at least mention this possibility including strategies of more energy efficient housing, more energy efficient cars, mass transport policies, aviation tax, and so on. In this BBC article? Simply not on the agenda. Of course the proportion of renewable energy is still four times higher (in the EU position versus the UK position), but the total need not be. (Aside: it’s totally bogus to set a target as a proportion, but this article isn’t about that debate)
The BBC are not a bad organisation. These days they’re just doing what everyone else is doing. Repeating without thinking. This article again is not a particularly bad article, I’ve certainly seen worse; it just happened to be the one that tipped me over while reading a book about bad science reporting. There are lots of example to choose from.
When you see a news article about something that you know about, how often is the article on the mark? Do you suppose that news articles about other things, things you don’t know so much about, are more accurate than those about which you know something? This book will arm jumpstart you to stop and listen and demand better reporting. ...more
Graham Farmelo writes a book on Paul Dirac who is arguably the greatest Mathematician? Physicist? the 20th century produced. In the book we learn abouGraham Farmelo writes a book on Paul Dirac who is arguably the greatest Mathematician? Physicist? the 20th century produced. In the book we learn about a boy who learned how to speak German (which he gave up speaking because of WWII), French (which he gave up speaking because of his upbringing) and Russian. He is also famous for lengthy and uncomfortable silences despite his fluency in multiple languages. We get to know how this boy went on to explain his insightful perspective on the universe with elegant mathematical equations and plain language. The periodic breakdown format of the book makes it less intimidating than it otherwise it would be. We are able to follow Dirac from his formatives years. We are allowed to speculate on his influences where it wasn’t explicitly stated. Farmelo does a fantastic job of glossing over many of his insights. In Dirac’s case this would be a deterrent for most lay people. He does this without cheapening the experience.
This is a rich book that tells us how the science developed and brings out the excitement, anxiety, rivalry of scientific endeavor by looking at the life of one very strange but brilliant man....more
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I mean thoroughly enjoy this book. Prior to becoming a parental unit I devoured all manner of books which frightened mI thoroughly enjoyed this book. I mean thoroughly enjoy this book. Prior to becoming a parental unit I devoured all manner of books which frightened me. Nay, TERRIFIED ME. I mean I knew I was ill-qualified, I knew I was ill-equipped and I knew I had a challenge. I consulted other young parents and that was worse UNTIL I accidentally stumbled into Jeff Vogel's blog. At the time he was writing infrequent posts about parenting. He didn't make it seem easy "no I wasn't looking for an easy solution!" but he made me a believer that I can actually be a parent and manage not to raise a serial killer (yes these are the standards to follow!)
I recommend this book to any new parent. I REALLY recommend this book to a new parent who is a nerd. ...more