May 19, 2018

Book: Sun in A Bottle by Charles Seife

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:26 pm

imageSometimes, you just have to read a couple of pages in some books to know that this is one that you will enjoy. This seems to be such a book. This is about the quest of humankind to harness fusion as the solution for world’s energy needs. Starts from the gruesome scene of the result of fission, the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Also, the subtitle of the book explains the context better. “The Strange History of Fusion and The Science of Wishful Thinking”.

He gives a great layman’s account of what happens inside an atom bomb when the chain reaction starts and why such destructive power is unleashed, without the least bit resorting to any technical mumbo jumbo, the author provides interesting tidbits about how Enrico Fermi was the one who first showed how to control a nuclear reaction so that it does not become runaway (as in a bomb) but harnessed for power (as in a reactor).


Lovely portraits of the scientists themselves, reminding one of the style of that brilliant book from Bill Bryson, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’. Consider this. Oppenheimer was the most unlikely person you would pick to head the Manhattan project which was in charge of perfecting the atom bomb for the US during the forties.  He mastered more than half a dozen languages including Sanskrit. But had difficulty even soldering copper wires. He considered himself a failure in Cambridge and contemplated suicide. He became even more erratic and tried to strangle a colleague. And claimed he placed a poisoned apple on the desk of a fellow scientist. Imagine in the current world of Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin – would he now be given a chance to head perhaps the most important scientific project?


Still not convinced? Consider this. At the time of his appointment, Oppenheimer was a security risk.  His brother and sisters in law were members of the communist party.  In addition, his ex-girlfriend was also a member!


It is interesting to know also that Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi were both members of the team. Interesting stuff also about Edward Teller, the sinister scientist with an obsession on fusion and who was going his own way in the project.  Amazingly, Truman is forced to take the side of fission  bomb when it turns out that a senior scientist of the project was exposed as a Russian spy and has been handing the fusion research secrets to the Russians all along.


The latter humiliation of Oppenheimer by a vicious vindictive Teller is well told.


Fabulous backstory about how the scientific community figured out electrons, protons, and neutrons. Even radioactivity is put into perspective better than I have seen done anywhere. Great stuff to read. The chilling plans to build canals and change the shape of the earth is told well. How many of us were unaware of these plans!


To think that Lake Chagan in Russia was actually created by a fusion bomb is astonishing. The tests that America and Russia did, and especially the hoax which took in Juan Peron to spend tens of millions of dollars on a fusion engine by a fake scientist, all are brilliantly told.  It can be a bit too technically oriented (despite being explained in simple terms brilliantly by the author) for people looking for stories but it definitely is fascinating to read.


First he takes on the cold fusion fiasco bordering on fraud by two famous scientists, both with glorious pasts, and their ultimate humiliation and exile to the fringes of the scientific research and he explains it very well.


Again I must reiterate : I have never seen anyone explain complex concepts so well. He explains how lasers are generated. Fascinating. It is by hitting molecules with light particles in a particular way with a particular colour of light. And he describes how when another molecule of light simply passes by, the light emitted by the atom that is hit “marches in lockstep with it”


The fiasco of the Cold Fusion hype is well told. I knew what cold fusion even was only by reading this book. Nice. But the detailed description of failure after failure can seem a bit long and a bit of a narrow focus for some readers.  But his description of  Talayerkhan’s blind pursuit in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence and his final literary evisceration by the scientific community make fascinating reading. Then comes the fiasco of bubble fusion, where scientists seem to border on deceit or at least self deception to claim results that are not from quality experiments and sometimes bordering on fraud.


The next piece about the fusion research and the hidden agenda of the countries is well told.


The ending? Meh. A lot of proselytizing and some repetition of the older ideas. Could have been better. His explanation of complex concepts is awe inspiringly masterly. Just for that, this book should be read by anyone interested in fusion or fission.


In my final rating, the rate is a bit low only because of the subpar ending.



– – Krishna


March 10, 2018

Book: Uncertainty by David Lindley

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:46 pm

imageThe full title, to give it its due is : ‘ Uncertainty : Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and The Struggle for the Soul of Science‘.

Lovely at the start, really. A book about the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that opened the way for the weirdness of Quantum Theory.

Did you know that Heisenberg was only twenty years old when he wrote a thesis on that principle? Who was his teacher? Niels Bohr himself!

Very well told tale, again at the beginning. It is fascinating to learn how Einstein was disdainful at first and then became a reluctant convert, even then arguing that it is only a partial solution and a more elegant answer is waiting to be found. He was unwilling to commit himself to it fully.

The narration is brilliant and captures the passion for the subject matter the author feels. The argument that Brown (of the Brownian Motion fame) initially found perplexing movements in items like the pollen and even the leaves, ‘thereby kind of starting observations that culminated in quantum mechanics many years hence’ is fascinating and, to me at least, novel.

A lovely argument about how Einstein came up with the mathematical model for Brownian motion and how it moved science from a precise, measurable branch of knowledge into the realm of equations and verifications of impacts – much to the chagrin of positivists, who kept insisting that atoms are not real as they cannot be seen or measured directly.

The story now branches into the equally interesting history of the discovery of X-Rays (Rontgen) and radioactivity (with the addition of both Plutonium and Radium to the newly created periodic table) where most of the work was done by the Curie couple. How radioactivity overturned the principle of cause and effect hitherto considered sacrosanct in science (“The rock just sits there and emits energy out of nothing?”) is well told.

So is the discovery of electrons that led to the amazing realization that atom is not the smallest particle known.  The rays coming out of the vacuum tubes were “tiny electrically charged particles smaller than anything known before – and therefore named electrons. What is equally fun to read is the personal profiles of the personalities involved.

Especially Niels Bohr. With his bushy eyebrows and a thick jaw and a mouth drooping downwards, the big gangly man, when deep in thought, stood slack and looked, in the words of a fellow scientist “like an idiot”.

The idea of a nucleus of an atom is deduced by shooting electrons *the newly discovered particles with mass” through a gold foil. Most electrons sail right through as if the foil is not even there but inexplicably, a very few electrons bounce back. What is stopping them? Exhilarating definitions of how the atom’s structure was put together piece by piece.

When Bohr stumbles on the math involved, the German scientist Sommerfield takes over and the nucleus of research in this field shifts to Germany (prior to WW II).

There is also the interesting description of Planck supporting the German side during WW I and even supporting the Nazis so far as to deny any cruelty was being perpetrated by German army. At the end of the War he is left looking stupid and rapidly backpedalling.

Einstein’s iconoclastic views all through his life is also well described. The adamant and nonsensical obstinacy of Bohr to accept that light could be a particle, even in the face of mounting evidence is surprising to read.

The book  has a lot of detailed descriptions about the debate between classical and quantum theory camps. The only interesting thing towards the end is how adamantly Einstein was opposed to the uncertainty principle, even after repeatedly being proved wrong.

And the fact that the famous Schrodinger’s cat example was devised to prove how ridiculous quantum theory is – that is, to disprove it. You will like  the explanation of the author as to why that example is wrong.

Nice book but towards the end gets very verbose and draggy. An interesting read but not an exciting one. Could have been elevated to the level of truly great science books with a little adept cutting and pruning.


–  –  Krishna

October 23, 2017

Book: Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:04 am

imageScience books are getting better all the time. There are many authors who write exhilaratingly well about science, and Simon Singh is also one of them. Some of the others we have reviewed already are A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Ancestor’s Tale.


This is a well written book. It is a book about how Fermat’s Thoerem/ Puzzle, a mathematical enigma so great that it defied the world’s  best mathematicians’ efforts to provide a proof for three centuries after it was stated was finally solved by an unassuming, shy, scientist Andrew Wiles.


But first, by way of a great introduction,  Simon Singh takes us to the ancient Greek times and starts our journey with Pythagoras, who is famous for the Pythagoras Theorem. And his style is fluid and fascinating,  which tells you why his science books are so famous in the literary world. He shows how, even though ancient Egyptians knew how to calculate hypotenuse of a triangle using the same rule as Pythagoras, how the latter proved that it is true of all triangles, thus launching the concept of a rigorous mathematical proof that changed the scientific world forever. In addition, he mixes in some personal anecdotes of the man to keep our interest high. Nicely done.


The surprising section about the perfect numbers and how squares also have one surprising fact about their factors is all fascinating.


And surprising tidbits about the life of major players keeps coming and keep you fascinated. For instance, we learn that Pythagoras was killed in a riot engineered by an applicant rejected entry to his secretive school twenty years earlier and had nursed a grudge all that time.


He talks about the Dark Ages putting paid to all progress in the West for hundreds of years and the destruction of that great library in the seat of Alexandria, not once, not twice but three times and how some of the volumes survived all that – though a great majority were lamentably destroyed.


What is nice about this book is all the tangents Simon gets into. A straight narrative of Fermat’s rule and how it was proved may have been an interesting read but when he goes into Euclid’s contributions to the solution, he also goes into other things that Euclid did, his life, his loss of sight in one eye, and even the asides – the political scene and Catherine the Great inviting “the mathematical Cyclop” back – make this a brilliant story. (He loses sight in both eyes thereafter). The female mathematicians (Hypatia, who was killed as a witch in a mob lynching, xxx who married for convenience so that she can travel, why no one would marry female mathematicians and how they stayed single all their lives) are also well covered.


The extent to which lady mathematicians had to go in order to gain recognition is fascinating.


What is interesting is the presentation. The story is told well, and flows on, and the additional mathematical details, for those interested, is moved to the Appendix and simply referenced in the main text. Nice.


In addition you learn about the craze created by simple puzzles of Sam Lloyd, and the game theory and Truel problem with Mr Gray, Mr Black and Mr White in a truel. (Duel with three folks). Mr Gray is the worst shot, hitting opponent once in three times; Mr Black is better, hitting once in two shots and Mr White is a perfect shot, hitting every time. Being the weakest, Mr Gray gets the first shot. Who should he aim at? The answer is very surprising.


The life of Galois, who is a genius in maths but a total rebel and a republican in monarchist France is touching. He gets repeatedly arrested, his contribution “lost” or rejected, and finally he dies foolishly in a duel prompted by the infidelity of a woman betrothed to be married to the best shot in town who had an affair with him and the husband challenges him to a duel and kills him.


Andrew Wiles’s first effort at revealing the proof which caused worldwide headlines are well narrated. When his colleagues find a flaw, he tries for months to fix it and his refusal to publish the work so far earns him scorn and enmity of the people. Finally, he gets the full proof ready, his reputation reinstated.


Nice work, pleasant reading on a subject that some would consider dry and pedantic. Well done. Of course, Simon now is a famous science author and has published many more books.



–  – Krishna

November 6, 2015

Book: In Search of the Multiverse by John Gribbin

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:38 pm

imageThe subject matter is at once fascinating and difficult to explain but this book does a great job of it. I would even go so far to say that this is probably one of the best science books I have read.

The book seems to go effortlessly into Quantum physics and describes fabulously what it is.

The uncertainty principle is explained well, with the aid of the electron or light beams through two slits in the card. When he explains the weird phenomenon where the electrons behave one way when observed and quite another when unobserved, you are astounded.

Also beautifully told are: what is the big bang (which is not the bang at all) the expansion of the universe (the stars are not moving away at all) and how Einstein won the Nobel prize for not his Theory of Relativity but for proving that light behaves like a particle sometimes.

Schrodinger, of the cat fame, is considered the father of Quantum Theory and even won a Nobel Prize for it. His opinion of the subject that gave him fame and fortune? “I don’t like it and wish I had nothing to do with it”. Even his famous cat – the thought process – was to demonstrate how absurd the quantum theory can be. Fascinating factoids like this abound in this book.

Gribbin does a remarkable job of explaining the complex phenomena of the Quantum Theory before moving on to the Multiverse.

If you thought what you read so far is bizarre and totally contrary to any normal expectations, wait until you read about the main subject of the book – Multiverse. What you read would seem tame by comparison.

The serious facts sound so bizarre that it feels like a joke played by scientists on unsuspecting lay public.

The concept is this: You know the Schrodinger’s Cat thought problem where a cat could be either dead or alive when the box is opened, right? It postulates that, when you open the box (and this applies to every decision branch in each person’s life – presumably each animal’s life) the entire universe splits into two identical pieces. In one, you find the cat alive and in another, you find the cat dead. No, I am not kidding. And there is no way you can contact anything/ anyone in the other universe, and by extension, there are hundreds of thousands of you in each universe with a different life pattern. Each one is as real as any other; there is no “real” universe. Sounds like any supernatural story right?

Does it not sound similar to other unprovable facts? Ghosts exists but I cannot conclusively prove it; Big Foot exists but never been captured; Loch Ness Monster was sighted… you get the idea.

If science behaves like the weirdest stuff you have ever heard of in all its dead earnest, what is the proof for such an idea? Simply the same as anything else in quantum physics. The equations predict it and it neatly solves all the unsolved puzzles of quantum mechanics! That’s it. For instance, the fact that life exists is dependent on so many coincidental things going exactly right (the exact force of gravity, the exact amount of the weak and strong gravitational forces, the exact speed of the universe expanding etc) that to some scientists, this universe “looks like a put up job”. The multiverse theory neatly solves the puzzle neatly and logically. In all possible combinations, there are multiverses and only in those where these conditions are just right is life possible, and exists.  Interesting idea, right? It is the same theory as evolution, where random mutations go on all the time and beneficial mutations survive to form new life forms and species and harmful mutations die out.

Then there is the even more bizarre concept that these worlds can in fact interact with each other and they do all the time. That is the principle behind the efforts to build a quantum computer, it seems. At this point you check to make sure that this is really a science book and not a practical joke played by someone on you.

A fantastic explanation of why the old thermodynamic equations ignore gravity and how the stars and galaxies form in the primordial soup in the first place. I will let you read the book to get a full gist of it.

When he goes into how multiverse is not “parallel” and gives the example of jumbled pages in a library full of book pieces, your mind goes into further numbing shock. This is the modern theory of science? Wow!

He covers a theory that talks about all life being a simulation inside a computer a la Matrix. In addition, he talks about string theory, which is very nice. For the first time, I understood all this talk about strings and how they come into the picture, about Branes and about the 11 dimensions that you so often hear of. (Explains why can we not see the fifth and sixth dimension etc.)

The whole thing ends with a summation of the theories back to Multiverse and Schrodinger’s Cat. Even though this is the most simplified explanation of current thinking meant for laymen like you and me, it does get heavy in some places, and gets confusing in some places simply due to the nature of the discussions involved.

Also the earlier theories of Multiverse and splitting of the worlds is quietly replaced with more probable theories; however, it is not explicitly renounced and so you finally sit back and wonder ‘How do the theories described at the end of the book tally with the ones in the beginning?’.

I guess some subjects can be made as simple as possible but no simpler, and even at the simplest version such as this one, some readers do not get the full import of the theory.

What you do understand is the surprising new theory of the Black Holes and also of the possibility of designer universes.

I would say 9/10

– – Krishna

July 5, 2013

Book: Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kruger

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:32 pm

imagesI have not seen the Apollo 13 movie but I know it is a hit and a well made movie. Before reading the book, I wondered how a movie can be made and that too, made so interestingly that it makes it to the best movies of the year list. After all, how much can you tell about a problem in a space craft and how it was brought down safely? The book tells you how it should be done, very effectively.


The story is told by one of the astronauts, Jim Lowell, who was the captain of the flight, and he has engaged Jeffrey Kruger as his co-author to do the word craft. The result is immensely satisfying. The partnership works very well.


The story starts with the space flight but employs the interesting technique of going back and forth on the Lowell’s life, and captures the enthusiasm and love of space flights that permeated the NASA crew of the old days and how Jim was chosen to join NASA from the air force. His childhood was spent in launching home made rockets and so NASA was the perfect place for him.


Apollo 13 was his fourth space flight, his swan song, his chance to land on the moon – even if he was not the first to do so. It all went awry fast, and the story is told brilliantly, alternating between the thngs that went wrong in the spacecraft, the reactions of the NASA engineers, the full might of the NASA employed in figuring out how to get the ship back to earth on the one hand, and the personal lives of the astronauts, the reaction of the wives, how they coped, how they protected the children from the anguish on the other. All well told.


It is hard to make a technical subject as the internals of the space craft, which the reader needs to know a little bit of to understand the import of the disaster and the solution, engrossing but the authors manage to do it brilliantly. The language is just right for a lay reader to not only comprehend the issue but also get immersed in the enthusiasm and avid interest of all the players in the space program of that time.


The various measures suggested to ensure that the space craft stays on course are interesting, when the reader realizes that not only have they lost an oxygen tank and the venting of the oxygen was moving the ship off course dangerously, but also some of the jets were lost and some of the other equipment did not work properly. For instance, the heating system could not heat up the space ship and so the astronauts spent the last hours (days?) of their travel  in the lunar module which would have not been there had they been able to land on the moon successfully.


The story keeps the interest, and even the prolog on what happened afterwards to the crew and their friends over the years, the glimpse of Lowell as the grandfather of a growing family, the moving out of the space crew and friends to careers outside of NASA – only partly due to the budget cuts after this flight and the investigation into what exactly went wrong – without the modules to examine are all told fascinatingly.


Even if you are not a space program enthusiast, I would recommend that this book be read by all, as this is one well written yarn, guaranteed to keep you turning the pages until the end, and also sure to leave you satisfied at the end of having read a very good book! The fact that you know the ending already takes nothing away from the suspense and tension. Well done.


I think this one deserves a 9/10


— Krishna

February 2, 2013

Book: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:47 pm

imagesRichard Dawkins definitely has a gift for writing that draws you in and keeps you intensely immersed, interested and indeed fascinated throughout the book. The Selfish Gene by him was an immensely pleasurable read for the most part until he starts talking about memes in a context that is similar to the biological gene propagation (at which point you go ‘Is it the same author writing this chapter?’) but overall that was a very rewarding book.

This book is a great idea. It is true that the subject is very, very close to what The Selfish Gene describes and in fact, most of his books are on the same subject of Evolution and so tend to read very much alike. I am almost tempted to say that you can read just one of his books (anything other than the God Delusion, which is on a totally different subject) and you do not need to read any other book of his.

It is largely true of this, if you compare the subject matter with that of The Selfish Gene. However, if you want to pick one book out of the two, pick this one. This is a much better told tale and is cleverly designed as a pilgrimage back from the current times, especially us, tracing our ancestry back through the evolutionary (animal and other) ancestors until we reach the very origin of life.

He has attempted to keep a similarity with Pilgrim’s Progress  in theme, where on a long journey, several pilgrims join, each telling a tale. However the difference in this case is that the pilgrims do not ‘tell the tale’ and the travel is through evolutionary time. And I do not know about the Pilgrim’s Progress, not having read it, but in this book, you travel backwards with humans in the beginning, joined by the first ancestors and then the second etc. Interesting analogy, interesting theme, excellent storytelling style.

You easily get absorbed in the journey when you read on, caught up in the evolutionary tales and his virtuosity in telling a story with passion and skill, taking you along the ‘journey’, if you must think of it that way. Along the way, you meet various animals and their amazing ways of life, all told from the point of view of evolution and the competitive pressures to improve. The book reads like a fascinating story and, as I have already said, is much better than the Selfish Gene.

The pet themes surface, sometimes rather unnecessarily, and he cannot resist taking potshots at Creationists when there is no call to do so. We all have read how he thinks that evolution can explain all the variety of life, and personally, I happen to think he is right. However, bringing in Creationist’s views during a purely scientific book like this and refuting it all sounds unnecessary and artificial, and really takes away from the subject matter and the flow of the book.

The second critique is that he goes into some deep details in some cases, either explaining things in tedious detail (for instance the section on catalysts) or repetitively (you get tired of reading that he ‘really does not mean conscious decision on the part of evolution when he says that some organism was forced to evolve in a particular manner’ when you encounter it for the fourth time in the same book).

But these are few and far between and in places where he is bang on, his passion and the clarity of narration takes you along and make you admire not just the subject matter but his prose. I still think that Bill Bryson did a better job of making a science topic totally fascinating (Please see the review of A Short History of Nearly Everything in this forum), but Richard Dawkins is no slouch and does not lag far behind, and is at his best in this book (at least among the ones I have read)

A very good read, and is more than worth the effort. Deserves an 8/10

— Krishna

July 18, 2012

Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:47 pm

You think that the title of this book is the height of hubris? The amazing thing is that he nearly delivers on his promise! It is a
science book the way science books should be written. I have heard quibbles that he does not use the scientific language and that takes away from the seriousness of the book but if you consider the audience for whom he writes, it is a fantastic job!

Bill Bryson’s easy narration and his unique sense of humour are, of course, very famous in his travel books, starting from his first ‘Notes from a Small Island’ which catapulted him to instant Fame. He uses his breezy storytelling style to devastating effect in this well researched book. The style he uses is to mix the specific idiosyncracies of the scientists involved, including some amazing eccentricities with the science they were involved in slips scientific concepts by you even if you did not notice. But you do notice. Why, because the subject matter is amazing and varied. The Electric Universe by David Bodanis uses a similar technique to also good effect
But the sheer breadth of canvas of this book as well as the unique Bill Style takes it one level above the other book.

The Introduction grabs you by the throat: he explains how improbable it is for you to simply exist! He starts with our galaxy, the known universe and puts into context what insignificant speck a single planet is in the grand scheme of things: all old stuff, but the details in the telling take your breath away. He then turns to the early scientists, and their investigation of our planet: the measurement of the size of the earth, then the age of the earth. He then moves through the intricate concepts of quantum theory and then moves on to evolution and man’s place in the world.

If all these sound like dry stuff to you, that is because of the narration. In Bill’s words, they read like the latest thriller from Dan Brown.

An amazing book filled with facts like : “Slime molds, make no mistake, are among the most interesting organisms in nature. When times are good, they exist as one cell individuals, much like amoebas. But when conditions grow tough, they crawl to a central gathering place and become, almost miraculously, a slug…” and so on. Amazing facts, well reasearched, filling a book that is a delight to read from the beginning to end.

A great read, I would recommend it to anyone interested in pop science or those who are interested in science but do not want to crawl through a lot of scientific vocabulary or a slew of equations.

Another book that deserves a 9/10
— Krishna

July 6, 2012

Book: Electric Universe by David Bodanis

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:57 pm

The full title of this book is even more captivating :  `Electric Universe: The Shocking True Story of Electricity’.

A while after I finished reading the book, the buzz and  wonder stays with you. It is a remarkable piece of science writing, and brings to life the scientific discoveries from the beginning of the 19th century to the present day.

The introduction itself draws you in and keeps you hooked and the narration does not sag thereafter. The fascination and the wonder the author feels is contagious and as you read, you are caught up in the inventions of the time. The great thing about this book is that you not only read about the great leaps of technology that occurred but also have a ring side view of the author’s life and the compulsions, frustrations, and the triumphs of the various personalities. You see
the good, bad and the ugly side of many famous people and that vicarious gossipy thrill you feel enhances the story and makes it stick in your mind. It is a technique used to devastating effect by others too, especially Bill Bryson in his ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything‘ (Not yet reviewed in this blog)

The introduction speculates what would happen to modern cities like New York if Electricity just stopped working – the picture is amazing and is scarier than you think: you discover that even though you know how central electricity is to our lives, the reality is even more scary!  And then he opens up another level and says what would happen to world as we know it, if all electricity were to stop – amazing. He describes how you never actually touch anything in this world, even while kissing someone.

The joy ride starts explosively with the story of Joseph Henry who is the real inventor of the Telegraph and Samuel Morse, he of the Morse code fame, who stole it from him by way of patenting the idea as his own. The story of Aleck and Mabel is next, and the important discovery by Aleck not due to scientific curiosity alone but mainly because of love. The nuggets about how Edison tried to steal the invention of Telephone from Alexander Graham Bell (the Aleck above) and would have succeeded if not for his wealthy and persistently resistant father in law.

The description of Faraday and his fun filled youth is also fascinating.  (Once he wrote a reply to a friend thus: “no-no-no-none-right-no, philosophy is not dead yet – no – no – O no – he knows it – it is impossible – Bravo!”. This is supposed to be his answers to the questions asked by the friend in a previous letter, which of course were not reproduced in the answer.  His later contribution that led to our understanding of the electromagnetic waves is told with equal enthusiasm.

Cyrus West Field and his undersea Trans-Atlantic cable that nearly bankrupted the man before making him fabulously rich is another well told story, with the sidelines of how one William Thompson advised him initially and was sidelined by an ambitious but inept Edward Whitehouse. Whitehouse tried to increase the current in the cable to compensate for loss of quality to such an extent that he burnt parts of the undersea cable! Later, Thompson was quietly recalled as ruin stared Field in the face.

Hertz and his life, marriage and his early death (He was only 36 when he died) are movingly narrated, along with his scientific contributions that proved electromagnetic waves can be received wirelessly. (He occupied a house which was a lab before in spite of being advised of the dangers, and died because of the fumes of left over chemicals)

Marconi, we learn is really part Irish (his mother) and he perfected the art of radio waves. The author links the rise of demagoguery and the rise of people like Hitler to the ease of mass communication (and the ease of generation of mass hysteria) to the availability of media like the radio – a neat conclusion, even if that was not the sole cause of the rise of Nazism.

There is a lovely chapter on the invention of radar by Watson Watt and how the initial radars were kept secret from the Germans. When the Germans built an even more advanced version, it led to a strike to capture one unit and the hapless civilian Charles W Cox, who was sent to disassemble it and bring it home with a group of troopers is well told. (The Germans were aware of the British approach due to the same radar well before the British troops approached the place!)

Alan Turing’s story – his misunderstood genius, the “crime” of homosexuality and his eventual suicide – unsung,  unappreciated by all, is very well described. His mother wrote his biography, which, like him, was so far ahead of the times that it did not do well at the market – but later became a classic!

The story takes a detour on the body’s inner electricity (the brain, synapses, etc  with equally educational and entertaining results.

For instance, how about the pharmacologist Otto Loewi, who, when he was 40 years old, found the answer to a profound question related to the brain when he was in a dream state, woke up and elated that he made such a grand discovery in his dream, wrote down the idea and went back to sleep? When he woke up the next morning, he found that not only could he not remember what it was, but found to his horror that he could not read what he had written in the night! The biggest discovery of all was out of reach due to his bad handwriting! His solution? To go to sleep early next night in the hope that it would occur again! (It did.)
The chapter on PARC-Xerox, the lab where many modern technological breakthroughs were made but not much was commercially exploited is well told. The manager Shockley, who had racist and male chauvinist views, are shown, and how it destroyed the morale of the people there and how brilliant people left in droves. When he himself left PARC Xerox later, he settled down in California and attracted and quickly repelled by his personality up close so many people that they banded together without him in a nearby area that subsequently became the Silicon Valley.

The last section is equally interesting: How did these people fare next? We learn that William Thompson became Lord Kelvin, that Morse died, fearing till the very end that the true discoverer of telegraph would be identified and he would be exposed, Marconi became not only a wealthy recluse but a heavy donator of funds to Mussolini.

There are a lot more nuggets to read and enjoy in this fabulous book, and it is an example of how to make science writing exciting and interesting.

I would have no hesitation in giving it a 9/10

— Krishna

May 14, 2012

Book: The Double Helix by James D Watson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:30 pm

The full title, to give it its due, is “The Double Helix: Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA”.

It is an unusual science story. James tries to tell almost in a chatty way, as if you are sitting in his living room sipping a cup of coffee with him, the story of the times and personalities in the race to discover the structure of DNA. Partly it works but it reveals the author in a poor light at the same time, in my opinion. Why? Read on.

The personalities are definitely interesting. Francis Crick, who was a co-author of Watson and shared the Nobel Prize with him, comes across as a loud, opinionated, man with a booming voice, who made people dive for cover sometimes when he came their way. He is also recognized as a genius.

Watson’s own journey was in a different direction, until he came to Maurice Wilkins of King’s College, where he was into X-Ray Crystallography as a means of decyphering the structure of the DNA. Rosalind Frankin, the bright young genius of X-Ray crystallography, invokes an immediate dislike in Watson and his comments like, `if she only paid a bit of attention to make up, she may have more success in getting men’ sound a bit tasteless. Though in the last few pages, almost as an afterthought, he tries to make amends, the residual distaste in the mouth lingers for the readers. In this light, the later racial comment that James made which cost him the job he had held for 30 odd years is not so surprising.

That aside, Watson’s own story is interesting enough. He goes to Herman Kalcker in Copenhagen to learn bio chemistry but slacks off and does unauthorized DNA research on the side. Kalcker does not pay much attention due to a personal marital issue. He is in the middle of what seems to be a messy divorce.

When Linus Pauling, who is also in the race claims to have almost solved the structure of DNA, and also is building models to get to it, Watson and others almost give up, disheartened. When they learn that the proof did not fully hold up to verification, they dare to dream again of beating Linus to it.

This is when Watson moves to the Cambridge lab and meets Francis Crick, starting an association that was to see them through the discovery of the structure eventually.

Other colourful characters are Watson’s pretty sister and his resulting access to Maurice to get some important  information; the house where a lot of pretty French girls were eating and the young scientists’ desperation to get invited to lunches and parties; the idea that DNA was a triple helix in the beginning; the effort to hide the information from rivals (like Linus Pauling) even when almost directly asked;

It does not have complex technical explanations – OK, just three pages worth in the whole book, but reads like an anecdotal story and that way it is interesting. The irreverent tone and the author’s views on things is supposed to be a frank discussion of how Watson felt at that time when he was young but ends up bringing out his own character in a fairly unfavourable light.

But for all that, I think in projecting the research atmosphere of the time and bringing to light the rat race for fame and fortune, it does a decent job.

I would say a 5/10

— Krishna

April 12, 2012

Book: The Equation that Couldn’t Be Solved By Mario Livio

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:24 am

In fact, the full title of the book is ‘The Equation that couldn’t be Solved:  How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry’. The title is so long that I cannot even tweet the title, probably! The American nonfiction market, I understand, requires a secondary title by convention and the publishers generally ask the author to create one, if the author does not already have this in mind. British publishers, on the other hand, are OK with just a single title.

It is definitely a geek book! If you are not interested in science, do not even open the book! But, if you are interested in science, and do not understand the jargon or do not have the mathematics background to understand complex work, it does not matter, you will be quite OK with this book. This book is all about explaining the breakthrough advances in science in plain  language. You can follow along the discussion pretty easily and only in one or two places it gets hairy enough to cause some confusion. If that happens to you, simply skip to the start of the next chapter and you can still follow the story without missing anything much. The real mathematics of it is relegated to the Appendix in most cases, and again, you can skip these as well with no loss of continuity whatsoever.

The story is fascinating. It tracks the advances in “everything” with the central concept of symmetry. They describe the solution to equations (Of course! Look at the title.) starting from simple and going all the way via Quadratic, Cubic to Quintic. It tracks the life stories of the great minds who solved these equations and how Group Theory evolved from these efforts. It goes on to talk about the Theory of Relativity, the General Theory of Relativity and the current hunt for the ‘Universal Theory’. I love the fact that some of the concepts that I failed to understand in Stephen Hawkins’ book for the laymen was clearer when Mario explained it in a different way (including the explanation on string theory).

To repeat, it gets very technical in a couple of areas but these can be safely skipped, as long as you do not skip anything  to do with technology! (You have to skip the entire book then!) Some of the discussions are astounding, and interesting. Galios and Abel’s life stories are interesting in their own right, as are the insights Einstein got that led him to the theory of Relativity.

A good book to read, or to add to your collection of geek books.

I would give it a 7/10 only because it takes on too wide a subject and so you are left wondering about the various subjects it flitted through, and also because it got toooo technical in parts, which should have been avoided in a book that purports to address the lay reader. Otherwise it would have got a higher rating.

— Krishna

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