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Showing posts from January, 2016

James D. Stein - Four Way Interview

James D. Stein writes: I was lucky; I had educated parents who stressed the value of education.  I obtained a solid general education at New Trier High School and Yale University, and I was fortunate to have Professor William Bade as my thesis advisor at the University of California at Berkeley – without his tolerance, I might never have finished, because I would disappear for weeks at a time playing duplicate bridge.  I taught briefly at UCLA and then went to California State University, Long Beach – where I met my wife Linda.  I retired from CSULB a couple of years ago, but because there was still some gas left in the tank, I teach one course a semester at El Camino Community College, located about ten minutes from my home in Redondo Beach.  I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have a career teaching a subject that I love, to have the freedom to investigate problems I thought were interesting, and to have had the opportunity to share my appreciation for math and science by writing b…

L.A. Math by James D. Stein ****

It has always seemed that it would be a great idea to write fiction which managed to painlessly get across ideas in science or mathematics, but usually the outcome of attempting to do this is something distinctly worthy that lacks any entertainment or effectiveness as a narrative. 
In L.A. Math, James Stein has managed the closest approximation to getting it just right I've yet to see. The stories work as detective tales, but the denouement relies not on sophisticated detection but on mathematical deduction. The style is quite old-fashioned - I'd liken it to a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and the classic American crime writer Ellery Queen - but I don't see this as a bad thing. The storylines might not be soul-searching literary fiction, but they are entertaining and engaging tales. The main character, Freddy Carmichael (we're already getting that Wodehouse vibe) is a detective, but struggles with solving cases where maths features strongly. Luckily, though, his slob of…

The End of Average - Todd Rose with Ogi Ogas *****

Averages are very convenient when used correctly, but even when dealing with statistics they can be misleading (when Bill Gates walks into a room of people who have no savings, on average they're all millionaires) - and it gets even worse when we deal with jobs and education. As Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas make clear, hardly anyone is an average person. Whether someone is trying to devise an aircraft cockpit for the 'average' pilot, define the average kind of person to fit a job, or apply education suited to the average student, it all goes horribly wrong.
If I'm honest, there isn't a huge amount of explicit science in the book (nor is it the kind of self-help book suggested by the subtitle 'how to succeed in a world that values sameness'), but scientific thinking underlies the analysis of how averaging people falls down, whether it's looking at brain performance or personality typing. What Rose and Ogas argue powerfully is that the way we run business and ed…

Measures of Genius - Alan Durden ***

There are broadly three ways to write a popular science book. The author can focus on one particular area of science, on the life and work of a key scientist, or use some linking mechanism to pull together a range of topics. This last approach can be very successful, and is tempting to authors and loved by publishers, which implies that they sell well - but it is the most difficult approach to take.
To compare the good and bad sides of such 'linked topic' books, it's only necessary to take a look at titles covering the periodic table. The less successful ones just work through the elements, or a subset of them, in some kind of pattern based on the table itself. But that results in a very mechanical approach, little more than textbook lite. The alternative, typified by The Disappearing Spoon, is to use the broad theme of the chemical elements, but to let the narrative structure carry the reader through, resulting in a far more successful presentation.
Measures of Genius is a …

Science: antiquity and its legacy - Philippa Lang ***

There is a lot of nonsense talked about Ancient Greek 'science', so it was genuinely interesting to get a clearer picture of who came up with in the capable hands of ex-classics professor Philippa Lang. Although written in an academic style, the book is approachable and fills in a lot of detail I've not come across elsewhere on the contradictory contributions of different Greek philosophers, organised by topics that vary from the origins of the universe to their decidedly fuzzy ideas about women. (Despite the received wisdom that some of the Greek philosophers were married, you get the impression they'd seen women from a distance, but certainly never got as far as a date.)

 Rather less successful is the 'legacy' part of the book - the attempt to lay the ideas about nature from antiquity alongside modern ones in order to compare and contrast. There are two problems here. One is the tendency (despite regularly emphasising the very different approaches then and n…

Snow Crash (SF) - Neal Stephenson *****

I've enjoyed several of Neal Stephenson's books, but find many of them far too long, suffering from bestselling author bloatitis, so I thought it would be interesting to get hold of a copy of his classic, Snow Crash - and I'm very glad I did.

Although not a pastiche, it depends heavily on four classics of science fiction. The obvious one is William Gibson's Neuromancer, because of the net-based cyberpunk aspects that are central to Snow Crash. (The snow crash of the title is nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with computers crashing.) However, the pace and glitteriness owes a huge amount to Alfred Bester's Tiger Tiger (that's the UK title - it was originally The Stars my Destination), while the corporate-run world has a distinct feel of Pohl and Kornbluth's Gladiator at Law,  though interestingly here it's a world without any laws whatsoever. And finally there's a touch of Samuel Delaney's Babel-17, where a language is capable of doin…

Kat Arney - Four Way Interview

Kat Arney has a degree in natural sciences and PhD in developmental genetics from Cambridge University. She joined Cancer Research UK in 2004, after spending a few years as a laboratory researcher and realising that life in the lab was not for her. Part of the Science Communications team, she translates science-speak into plain English, so that everyone can understand the charity’s work. Kat loves communicating about science, including writing for the charity’s award-winning blog and talking to supporters, and regularly comments in the media on the latest discoveries.

Outside the office, Kat co-presents the highly successful Naked Scientists BBC Radio show, presents and produces her own monthly Naked Genetics podcast, and has fronted several BBC Radio 4 science documentaries. As a science writer, her work has featured in the New Scientist, Mosaic, BBC Online, the Guardian Online and more. Her first book, Herding Hemingway's Cats: understanding how our genes work was published in Ja…

Herding Hemingway's Cats - Kat Arney ****

It's a book about cats, then? No, it isn't - but the author Ernest Hemingway gets a mention because at Key West he had a penchant for cats with a genetic variation that gave them an extra toe. (Apparently this is a myth, as Hemingway didn't have cats in Key West, but it's a good story.) Ah, I've got it - the title is a pun. The author's called Kat and the title says Cats. It's a joke. Nope. Okay, it's an attempt to duplicate the success of the rather similarly titled "In Search of Schrödinger's Cat"? That certainly might be the reasoning behind the title, but it's actually about the bizarre complexity of molecular biology, the weird and wonderful mechanisms that make use of DNA and RNA to develop living organisms and to keep them healthy.

 That 'bizarre complexity' part is no exaggeration. The real fascination of this book - and it truly is fascinating - lies in the Byzantine convolutions employed by living systems at the sub-c…