January 11, 2010

Book review: Beauty in Experimentation

Filed under: books,science — Nick @ 2:50 pm

The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, by George Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf)

In the lab it is sometimes necessary to do an experiment or other procedure in which cleverness of thinking or dexterity in procedure is not required, but rather mindless application of time, effort, or even money. We used to call this the “brute force method” of doing science. Other times a researcher may do an experiment that yields a clear answer not through raw application of effort, but rather through clever tricks in which it seems that nature herself is doing the experiment for you; the latter kind of experiments are sometimes labeled as “elegant.” Although the brute force approach is sometimes necessary, elegance in experiments (like pornography to Justice Potter Stewart) is a quality that is hard to define although is apparent when seen, and is always greatly appreciated as being part of the art of science when an experiment is called “beautiful.”

George Johnson, a science writer, columnist, and sometimes TV personality, gives readers a flavor of this type of beauty in science in his latest book, The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. This rather slim volume has a form factor that is somewhat reminiscent of the many inspirational volumes that fill the tables of booksellers, but it is both readable and informational as well as being inspiring to those who love or do science. One may quibble over which experiments deserve to be called the “most beautiful (and even Johnson acknowledges that the book might just have well been called simply Ten Beautiful Experiments);” he seems to choose experiments that represent the span of experimental science in various ages and scientific fields, from Galileo’s experiments of falling bodies (not, as a reader might assume, Galileo’s observation of heavenly bodies, which are discoveries rather than experiments) to Millikan’s experiments on charged oil drops that determined the charge of a single electron. In the latter case, Johnson even goes so far as to scrounge up enough surplussed equipment to repeat the famous oil drop experiment himself; the description of his efforts gives us vivid feel of what Millikan must gave seen and felt when doing the experiments himself.

In some cases Johnson gives some historical or biographical background to the scientists he writes about; in others (particularly if they are well known such as Galileo) he lets the experiments speak for themselves. In any case, enough detail about the experiments is presented such that the reader has a good appreciation for what has been accomplished without so much detail as to intimidate the non-scientific reader. The result is a book that is easy, entertaining, and informative.

January 4, 2010

Book review: Rome didn’t fall in a day

Filed under: books — Nick @ 8:30 pm

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, by Lars Brownworth (Crown Publishers)

When many think of the Roman Empire, they usually think of the “fall of Rome” (to the Germanic king Odoacer) in 476 A.D. to be the end the Roman Empire, after which the West went in the “dark ages” until the Renaissance. Others may acknowledge that an entity called the “Byzantine Empire” centered in Constantinople continued on for some time in slow decline until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. In fact the situation was more complex and more interesting. Lars Brownworth, in his book Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization, tells an entertaining and highly readable account of this near-forgotten episode of the Roman Empire.

In reality the Roman Empire didn’t fall in 476. The capital of the Empire had been Constantinople since 330 A.D., and even before, in Diocletian’s reign, government of the Empire was divided into Eastern and Western spheres. The term “Byantine Empire” is a relatively modern invention; the people of the Empire, their allies, and their enemies continued to call them “Roman” until the end. Moreover, that the Empire existed for over a thousand years in the face of external threats from the east and the west, as well as internal threats and dissensions, belies the belief that its history was a simple long decline. Rather, the fortunes of the Empire ebbed and flowed over its long history, and was a world power even as late as the 11th century. In addition, the Empire continued to be a haven of learning and culture and a bulwark against expansion of Islam into the West. Without its preservation of culture and learning and the dissemination of such after the fall of the Empire, it is doubtful that the Renaissance would have happened at all.

Brownworth’s book is relatively short, barely more than 300 pages, and so by necessity it can hardly be a comprehensive treatment of more than 1000 years of dynamic history. Thus, serious students of history who want or need a detailed analysis of this period should look elsewhere. Nevertheless, he does give a highly entertaining account that reads more like a historical novel than a dry work of non-fiction. He does this principally by focusing on emperors and other major players in key periods of history in which the actions of such figures were important. I had never been a big fan of the “Great Man Theory” of history, but Brownworth’s accounts of men and women who made huge impacts in the history of the Empire may make me rethink this position.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history who would like to learn about this important episode of western civilization, or even to those who may be well-versed in this history already but may want to revisit it with entertaining read.

December 31, 2009

Book review: perniciousness of positive thinking

Filed under: books — Nick @ 11:26 pm

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books)

One can hardly enter a bookstore these days without seeing a plethora of books that pledge that the reader can achieve any number of goals—money, love, health, to name a few—merely by thinking enough positive thoughts. Barbara Ehrenreich stands athwart this rising tide of pernicious positivism and shouts “Stop!” in her latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, which brings a badly needed breath of fresh air and dose of realism to forefront of modern culture.

Ehrenreich begins her book with some personal history: her diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer that introduced her to the world of the “pink ribbon culture” in which a kind of cheery optimism festooned with pink ribbons and kitschy bric-à-brac bothered her nearly as much as her disease did. She exposes some of the darker elements of this movement—for example, patients whose disease progress badly are made to feel as if they were to blame for not being positive enough—as well as demolishing the belief that patients’ mood could affect their outcome.

From there she traces the history of the positive thinking movement and how it infiltrated religion, business, and culture at large in addition to spawning a whole industry devoted to selling the idea that success and fortune come to those who merely wish hard enough. Although I think she may have slightly overstated her case that the pervasiveness of the positive thinking culture was a major contributor to the financial collapse of the 2000’s—after all, speculative bubbles that collapse have existed at least since the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century—she makes a compelling case that such thinking has gone beyond silly and into the harmful.

October 28, 2009

Book reviews: End of the Universe

Filed under: books,science — Nick @ 11:46 pm

Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World, by Philip Plait (Penguin Books, 2008)
Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (W. W. Norton & Co, 2007)

A couple of weeks ago I had a 15%-off coupon from Barnes & Noble that was about to expire; with that and a gift card I had laying around an emergency trip to the bookstore was clearly in order. I was browsing the science section and noticed a book I had been intending to read: Death From The Skies, by astronomer (actually “Bad Astronomer”) and blogger Phil Plait. Since I frequent his blog, as well as the forum associated with it, I was aware the book had been out for some time. As a bonus, I also noticed a book by astrophysicist, Hayden Planetarium director, and TV personality Neil deGrasse Tyson with a very similar title, Death By Black Hole, nearby on the shelf. Oddly, even though Tyson’s book came out the year before Plait’s, I had somehow missed hearing any mention of it. Naturally, I bought them both.

As I mentioned, I was looking forward to reading Death From The Skies for some time. The paperback version seems to have three subtitles associated with it. The cover’s subtitle is “The Science Behind the End of the World,” whereas the title page states the subtitle is “The ways the World Will End…” Finally, a note states that the hardcover’s subtitle is “These Are the Ways the World Will End.” Regardless, the three subtitles will give one a general idea of the purpose of the book. Plait discusses the various ways the universe might cause the end of world, which run the gamut from fairly local phenomena (at least by astronomical standards) such as by impact with a large asteroid, through universe-wide catastrophe. Plait gives good explanations on the various odds and timescales by which these events may (or will) happen without sounding sensationalistic.

Readers who have only a modest background in science or mathematics will find find the book easy to understand. Plait keeps the mathematics and unexplained technical jargon to a minimum. I must confess that before I started reading it I had some fear I would dislike the book. Plait’s blog is written in a very informal style that is peppered with pop-culture references and neologisms that I find off-putting when overdone. However, the book is free from these, whether by author’s design, or by editorial handling. In either case, the book remains informal and breezy without becoming overly twee.

Death By Black Hole, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, has the single subtitle “and Other Cosmic Quandaries.” Despite the rather similar-sounding name, Tyson’s book is very different than Plait’s. Death By Black Hole is actually a collection of essays that were written for Natural History magazine, and were then collected and edited for updates and continuity. The essays are grouped in sections by subject material and range from a variety of topics such as the ways we understand science or how science interacts with culture, in addition to essays that might be thought of as pure science. Only one section, titled “When the Universe Turns Bad (which contains the eponymous essay),” deals with end of the end-of-world (or universe) scenarios that are similar to the subject matter of Plait’s book.

The style of this book reminded me very much of a series of books by Stephen Jay Gould that were also collections of essays written for Natural History (although in his case the subject matter was largely biological), except that Tyson has less of a tendency to wander than Gould, and tends to get right to the subject matter of each essay without too much diversion. If one enjoyed reading Gould’s books (as I did) then the reader will also probably like this one.

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