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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

I have heard of ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘ by Apostolos Doxiadis for years and I finally decided to read it. I loved the graphic non-fiction book ‘Logocomix‘ which was co-authored by Apostolos Doxiadis and so was excited to read this.

The narrator of the story is a teenager in high school. He hears stories about his eccentric Uncle Petros from his dad and his other uncle. Though they both acknowledge that Uncle Petros was brilliant, they also regard him as a failure. So our narrator decides to find out more about Uncle Petros, and while he is attempting to do that, he stumbles upon the mysterious Goldbach’s Conjecture, one of the great unsolved problems in mathematics, which Uncle Petros had attempted to solve. The rest of the story is about what happened to Uncle Petros and his quest for solving the puzzle posed by the Goldbach Conjecture.

Though this book is a novel, it offers a dazzling overview of the history of mathematics in the twentieth century, especially the foundations of mathematics and number theory. Many great 20th century mathematicians make a guest appearance in its pages, including G.H.Hardy, Srinivasa Ramanujam, Kurt Godel, Alan Turing. The mathematics in the book is descriptive and informative and enjoyable and it is never intimidating. There is no equation in the main text. One can just read the story and enjoy the information it shares, or if one is more adventurous, one can research more on the things that the book talks about. So the book can be read in many ways at multiple levels. The story told in the book is also very beautiful and inspiring.

I enjoyed reading ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘. It made me think of George Gamov’s Mr. Tompkin books. But while Gamov’s book focuses more on the science, I think this book perfectly balances the math and the story, while leaning more towards the story, thus making it more appealing to the general reader.

I’m sharing a couple of my favourite passages from the book below. Hope you like them.

“…real mathematics has nothing to do with applications, nor with the calculating procedures that you learn at school. It studies abstract intellectual constructs which, at least while the mathematician is occupied with them, do not in any way touch on the physical, sensible world…Mathematicians find the same enjoyment in their studies that chess players find in chess. In fact, the psychological make-up of the true mathematician is closer to that of the poet or the musical composer, in other words of someone concerned with the creation of Beauty and the search for Harmony and Perfection. He is the polar opposite of the practical man, the engineer, the politician or indeed, the businessman.”

“During the course of the lessons I witnessed an amazing metamorphosis. The mild, kindly, elderly gentleman I had known since my childhood, one easily mistaken for a retired civil servant, turned before my eyes into a man illuminated by a fierce intelligence and driven by an inner power of unfathomable depth. I’d caught small glimpses of this species of being before, during mathematical discussions with my old room-mate, Sammy Epstein, or even with Uncle Petros himself, when he sat before his chessboard. Listening to him unravel the mysteries of Number Theory, however, I experienced for the first and only time in my life the real thing. You didn’t have to know mathematics to feel it. The sparkle in his eyes and an unspoken power emanating from his whole being were testimony enough. He was the absolute thoroughbred, pure unadulterated genius. An unexpected fringe benefit was that the last remaining trace of ambivalence…regarding the wisdom of my decision to abandon mathematics was now dispelled. Watching my uncle do mathematics was enough to confirm it to the full. I was not made of the same mettle as he – this I realized now beyond the shadow of a doubt. Faced with the incarnation of what I definitely was not, I accepted at last the truth of the dictum: Mathematicus nascitur non fit. The true mathematician is born, not made. I had not been born a mathematician and it was just as well that I had given up.”

Have you read ‘Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read T.H.White’sThe Goshawk‘ ever since I discovered that Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ was inspired by it. I finally got to read it today.

Sometime in the 1930s, T.H.White quits his job as a schoolteacher, moves to the countryside, and gets a goshawk, which is a type of hawk, and tries to train it. As a guide, he uses a hawk training manual written in 1619, which is clearly outdated. He describes this experience in this book. There are two parts to the book. One part is about how White trains the hawk. The second part is the one in which he describes the personality of the hawk, his relationship to the hawk, and delves into the history of hawk training, and takes digressions into literature, like when he describes how falconry / hawk training is embedded in some of Shakespeare’s plays. The first part was filled with a deluge of details which would be of interest to a fan of falconry. I was lukewarm towards it. I loved the second part. It was beautiful. Of course, the two parts are not clearly split, but are interwoven together like the warp and weft which make a fabric. So White will be talking about how he is training his hawk and I’ll find that hard to read and will be wondering when it will end and whether I should continue reading the book, when suddenly, there will be a page on the history of falconry or on how his hawk regarded him with contempt and he couldn’t do anything about it, and I’ll smile and will continue reading.

The book had these legendary lines –

“But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird.”

To train a person who was not human, but a bird” – how beautiful is that?

I loved the places in which White describes how his hawk regarded him with contempt, refused to listen to him, and he couldn’t do anything about it, because you can’t tame a hawk or make the hawk listen to you by force, and only patience, kindness and gentleness will work, while the hawk continues to treat you with contempt 😊 That passage goes like this –

“I could never make up my mind whether I was the master. Gos regarded me with tolerant contempt. He had no doubts about who was the slave, the ridiculous and subservient one who stood and waited. For himself, he had the whole day to fill in.” 😊

I also loved the passages where White describes how his hawk regards his love or kindness with suspicion, because the hawk knows instinctively that humans show kindness to it because they want to conquer its will and enslave it. It was amazing to discover how much wisdom was encoded in the hawk’s wild instinct. I also loved the part where White talks about how a hawk which grows up in the wild is sleek and cool and an accomplished hunter, because it was trained by its hawk parents and then learnt more by experience, while the hawk which is trained by humans is clumsy and a poor imitation of the wild version. Of course, this leads to the natural question on why train a wild bird like a hawk, when it can do better on its own, why reduce this magnificent wild being to a human pet. Well, that is a discussion for another day.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Goshawk‘. Marie Winn says in her introduction that it is a cult book now. At the time it was published in the 1950s, it must have been a unique book. I don’t know any other mainstream writer from that time trying to train a hawk or a wild animal and writing about it. T.H.White seems to have been an interesting, fascinating person.

Have you read ‘The Goshawk‘? What do you think about it?

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I read in the news today, that Steven Weinberg, one of the great physicists to walk the earth during our times, is no more. I have a soft corner for great physicists, and I felt very sad.

Steven Weinberg won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for making fundamental contributions to the Standard Model of Particle Physics. But for a science enthusiast and physics lover and book reader like me, my introduction to Steven Weinberg was through his book on the Big Bang Theory for the general reader, ‘The First Three Minutes‘. It is one of the great books written about the Big Bang Theory and the origin of the universe. How accessible is it? Can anyone understand it? That is a hard question to answer. I think it is easier than Roger Penrose’s books but harder than George Gamov’s, Simon Singh’s and Christophe Galfard’s. Weinberg himself says this in the preface of his book –

“I had better say for what reader this book is intended. I have written for one who is willing to puzzle through some detailed arguments, but who is not at home in either mathematics or physics. Although I must introduce some fairly complicated scientific ideas, no mathematics is used in the body of the book beyond arithmetic, and little or no knowledge of physics or astronomy is assumed in advance…However, this does not mean that I have tried to write an easy book. When a lawyer writes for the general public, he assumes that they do not know Law French or the Rule Against Perpetuities, but he does not think the worse of them for it, and he does not condescend to them. I want to return the compliment: I picture the reader as a smart old attorney who does not speak my language, but who expects nonetheless to hear some convincing arguments before he makes up his mind.”

I think Weinberg’s words describe the book perfectly. That is, if we put in the effort, while reading the book, we’ll be rewarded. I was.

One of the things I loved about Weinberg was the confidence he had as a scientist when he explained something, or made an analysis or prediction. But he also interwove that confidence with natural scientific scepticism and humility. The perfect combination of these two made his authorial voice pure music to listen to. For example, read this passage –

“In following this account of the first three minutes, the reader may feel that he can detect a note of scientific overconfidence. He might be right. However, I do not believe that scientific progress is always best advanced by keeping an altogether open mind. It is often necessary to forget one’s doubts and to follow the consequences of one’s assumptions wherever they may lead – the great thing is not to be free of theoretical prejudices, but to have the right theoretical prejudices. And always, the test of any theoretical preconception is in where it leads. The standard model of the early universe has scored some successes, and it provides a coherent theoretical framework for future experimental programs. This does not mean that it is true, but it does mean that it deserves to be taken seriously.”

The First Three Minutes‘ ends gloriously with one of the great passages that I’ve ever read in any science book, nearly elevating the book to a work of existentialist philosophy, asking all the big questions that humans have asked since the beginning of time. Here is how it goes –

“However all these problems may be resolved, and which ever cosmological model proves correct, there is not much of comfort in any of this. It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning. As I write this I happen to be in an airplane at 30,000 feet, flying over Wyoming en route home from San Francisco to Boston. Below, the earth looks very soft and comfortable – fluffy clouds here and there, snow turning pink as the sun sets, roads stretching straight across the country from one town to another. It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is atleast some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

When I read the lines – “It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes” – it makes me laugh, it almost feels like dark comedy from a Coen brothers movie 😊

That last passage is one of my all-time favourite passages from any science book.

As you can tell by now, Steven Weinberg’s ‘The First Three Minutes‘ is one of my favourite books on science and physics. Did I understand it completely? Definitely not. Did I understand most of it? Yes, I did.

Steven Weinberg was one of the last great scientists from the 20th century who was around when the great exciting things happened in physics – relativity, quantum physics, particle physics. He had a front row seat when many of these great things happened, and he played an active part and contributed to some of them. Many of the great scientists who made these great advancements were well known to him or were his friends. With his passing, we have nearly reached the end of an era. My favourite Roger Penrose is still around, but I am dreading the day, when he will move on.

Steven Weinberg lived a long life, a beautiful life, extended the frontiers of his field, and enhanced our understanding of the universe. It was a privilege and an honour to be around at the same time as the great Weinberg. I am glad our times overlapped. It is sad that all beautiful things have to come to an end. It is a heartbreaking day for science lovers and physics fans.

Farewell, Professor Weinberg. Thank you for all the beautiful things you did to extend the frontiers of science. We’ll never forget you and we’ll miss you. I can only repeat what Horatio tells Hamlet when he bids him goodbye – “Farewell, sweet prince. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

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