Saturday, January 10, 2015
Reading List: Enlightening Symbols
- Mazur, Joseph.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Sometimes an invention is so profound and significant yet apparently
obvious in retrospect that it is difficult to imagine how people
around the world struggled over millennia to discover it, and how
slowly it was to diffuse from its points of origin into general use.
Such is the case for our modern decimal system of positional
notation for numbers and the notation for algebra and other
fields of mathematics which permits rapid calculation and
transformation of expressions. This book, written with the extensive source citations
of a scholarly work yet accessible to any reader familiar with
arithmetic and basic algebra, traces the often murky origins of
this essential part of our intellectual heritage.
From prehistoric times humans have had the need to count things,
for example, the number of sheep in a field. This could be
done by establishing a one-to-one correspondence between the
sheep and something else more portable such as
one's fingers (for a small flock), or pebbles kept in a sack.
To determine whether a sheep was missing, just remove a
pebble for each sheep and if any remained in the sack,
that indicates how many are absent. At a slightly more abstract
level, one could make tally marks on a piece of bark or clay
tablet, one for each sheep. But all of this does not imply
number as an abstraction independent of individual items of
some kind or another. Ancestral humans don't seem to have
required more than the simplest notion of numbers: until the
middle of the 20th century several tribes of Australian
aborigines had no words for numbers in their languages at all,
but counted things by making marks in the sand. Anthropologists
discovered tribes in remote areas of the Americas, Pacific
Islands, and Australia whose languages had no words for numbers
greater than four.
With the emergence of settled human populations and the
increasingly complex interactions of trade between villages
and eventually cities, a more sophisticated notion of numbers
was required. A merchant might need to compute how many
kinds of one good to exchange for another and to keep records
of his inventory of various items. The earliest known
written records of numerical writing are Sumerian cuneiform clay
tablets dating from around 3400 B.C.
These tablets show number symbols formed from two distinct
kinds of marks pressed into wet clay with a stylus. While
the smaller numbers seem clearly evolved from tally marks,
larger numbers are formed by complicated combinations of the
two symbols representing numbers from 1 to 59. Larger numbers
were written as groups of powers of 60 separated by spaces.
This was the first known instance of a positional number system,
but there is no evidence it was used for complicated calculations—just
as a means of recording quantities.
Ancient civilisations: Egypt, Hebrew, Greece, China, Rome, and the
Aztecs and Mayas in the Western Hemisphere all invented
ways of writing numbers, some sophisticated and capable of
representing large quantities. Many of these systems were
additive: they used symbols, sometimes derived from
letters in their alphabets, and composed numbers by writing
symbols which summed to the total. To write the number 563,
a Greek would write
γ=3. By convention, numbers were
written with letters in descending order of the value they
represented, but the system was not positional. This made
the system clumsy for representing large numbers, reusing
letters with accent marks to represent thousands and an
entirely different convention for ten thousands.
How did such advanced civilisations get along using number systems
in which it is almost impossible to compute? Just imagine a
Roman faced with multiplying MDXLIX by XLVII
(1549 × 47)—where do you start?
You don't: all of these civilisations used some form of
mechanical computational aid: an abacus, counting rods, stones
in grooves, and so on to actually manipulate numbers. The
Zi Suan Jing, dating from fifth century China, provides
instructions (algorithms) for multiplication, division, and
square and cube root extraction using bamboo counting sticks
(or written symbols representing them). The result of the
computation was then written using the numerals of the language.
The written language was thus a way to represent numbers, but
not compute with them.
Many of the various forms of numbers and especially computational
tools such as the abacus came ever-so-close to stumbling on the
place value system, but it was in India, probably before the
third century B.C. that a positional
decimal number system including zero as a place holder, with
digit forms recognisably ancestral to those we use today
emerged. This was a breakthrough in two regards. Now, by
memorising tables of addition, subtraction, multiplication,
and division and simple algorithms once learned by schoolchildren
before calculators supplanted that part of their brains, it was
possible to directly compute from written numbers. (Despite
this, the abacus remained in common use.) But, more profoundly,
this was a universal representation of whole numbers.
Earlier number systems (with the possible exception of that
invented by Archimedes in
The Sand Reckoner
[but never used practically]) either had a limit on the largest number
they could represent or required cumbersome and/or lengthy conventions
for large numbers. The Indian number system needed only ten symbols
to represent any non-negative number, and only the single
convention that each digit in a number represented how many of that
power of ten depending on its position.
Knowledge diffused slowly in antiquity, and despite India being on
active trade routes, it was not until the 13th century
introduced the new number system, which had been transmitted
via Islamic scholars writing in Arabic, to Europe in
Abaci. This book not only introduced the new number
system, it provided instructions for a variety of practical
computations and applications to higher mathematics. As revolutionary
as this book was, in an era of hand-copied manuscripts, its
influence spread very slowly, and it was not until the
16th century that the new numbers became almost universally used.
The author describes this protracted process, about which a great deal
of controversy remains to the present day.
Just as the decimal positional number system was becoming established
in Europe, another revolution in notation began which would
transform mathematics, how it was done, and our understanding of
the meaning of numbers. Algebra, as we now understand it, was known
in antiquity, but it was expressed in a rhetorical way—in words.
For example, proposition 7 of book 2 of Euclid's Elements
If a straight line be cut at random, the square of the whole
is equal to the squares on the segments and twice the
rectangle contained by the segments.
Now, given such a problem, Euclid or any of those following in
his tradition would draw a diagram and proceed to prove from
the axioms of plane geometry the correctness of the statement.
But it isn't obvious how to apply this identity to other
problems, or how it illustrates the behaviour of general
numbers. Today, we'd express the problem and proceed as
Once again, faced with the word problem, it's difficult to know where to begin,
but once expressed in symbolic form, it can be solved by applying rules of
algebra which many master before reaching high school. Indeed, the process of
simplifying such an equation is so mechanical that computer tools are readily
available to do so.
Or consider the following brain-twister posed in the 7th century
A.D. about the Greek mathematician
and father of algebra
how many years did he live?
“Here lies Diophantus,” the wonder behold.
Oh, go ahead, give it a try before reading on!
Today, we'd read through the problem and write a system of two
simultaneous equations, where x is the age of Diophantus
at his death and y the number of years his son lived.
Through art algebraic, the stone tells how old;
“God gave him his boyhood one-sixth of his life,
One twelfth more as youth while whiskers grew rife;
And then one-seventh ere marriage begun;
In five years there came a bounding new son.
Alas, the dear child of master and sage
After attaining half the measure of his father's life
chill fate took him.
After consoling his fate by the science of numbers for
four years, he ended his life.”
Plug the second equation into the first, do a little algebraic symbol
twiddling, and the answer, 84, pops right out. Note that not only are
the rules for solving this equation the same as for any other, with a
little practice it is easy to read the word problem and write down the
equations ready to solve. Go back and re-read the original problem and
the equations and you'll see how straightforwardly they follow.
Once you have transformed a mass of words into symbols, they invite you
to discover new ways in which they apply. What is the solution of the
equation x+4=0? In antiquity many would have said the
equation is meaningless: there is no number you can add to four to
get zero. But that's because their conception of number was too
limited: negative numbers such as −4 are completely valid and
obey all the laws of algebra. By admitting them, we discovered
we'd overlooked half of the real numbers. What about the solution
to the equation x² + 4 = 0? This was again considered
ill-formed, or imaginary, since the square of any real number, positive
or negative, is positive. Another leap of imagination, admitting the
square root of minus one to the family of numbers, expanded the
number line into the
yielding the answer 2i as
we'd now express it, and extending our concept of number into one which
is now fundamental not only in abstract mathematics but also science and
engineering. And in recognising negative and complex numbers, we'd
come closer to unifying algebra and geometry by bringing rotation
into the family of numbers.
This book explores the groping over centuries toward a symbolic
representation of mathematics which hid the specifics while revealing
the commonality underlying them. As one who learned mathematics
during the height of the “new math” craze, I can't recall
a time when I didn't think of mathematics as a game of symbolic
transformation of expressions which may or may not have any
connection with the real world. But what one discovers in reading
this book is that while this is a concept very easy to brainwash
into a 7th grader, it was extraordinarily difficult for even some
of the most brilliant humans ever to have lived to grasp in the
first place. When Newton invented calculus, for example, he always
expressed his “fluxions” as derivatives of time, and
did not write of the general derivative of a function of arbitrary variables.
Also, notation is important. Writing something in a more expressive
and easily manipulated way can reveal new insights about it. We benefit
not just from the discoveries of those in the past, but from those who
created the symbolic language in which we now express them.
This book is a treasure chest of information about how the language of
science came to be. We encounter a host of characters along the way,
not just great mathematicians and scientists, but scoundrels, master
forgers, chauvinists, those who preserved precious manuscripts and those
who burned them, all leading to the symbolic language
in which we so effortlessly write and do mathematics today.
Friday, January 2, 2015
Reading List: The Strangest Man
- Farmelo, Graham.
The Strangest Man.
New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was born in 1902 in Bristol, England. His father,
Charles, was a Swiss-French immigrant who made his living as a French teacher at a
local school and as a private tutor in French. His mother, Florence (Flo), had
given up her job as a librarian upon marrying Charles. The young Paul and his
older brother Felix found themselves growing up in a very unusual, verging upon
bizarre, home environment. Their father was as strict a disciplinarian at home
as in the schoolroom, and spoke only French to his children, requiring them to
answer in that language and abruptly correcting them if they committed any
faute de français. Flo spoke to the
children only in English, and since the Diracs rarely received visitors at home,
before going to school Paul got the idea that men and women spoke different
languages. At dinner time Charles and Paul would eat in the dining room,
speaking French exclusively (with any error swiftly chastised) while Flo,
Felix, and younger daughter Betty ate in the kitchen, speaking English.
Paul quickly learned that the less he said, the fewer opportunities for error
and humiliation, and he traced his famous reputation for taciturnity to his
(It should be noted that the only account we have of Dirac's childhood
experience comes from himself, much later in life. He made no attempt to
conceal the extent he despised his father [who was respected by his
colleagues and acquaintances in Bristol], and there is no way to know
whether Paul exaggerated or embroidered upon the circumstances of his
After a primary education in which he was regarded as a sound but
not exceptional pupil, Paul followed his brother Felix into the
Merchant Venturers' School, a Bristol technical school ranked
among the finest in the country. There he quickly distinguished
himself, ranking near the top in most subjects. The instruction
was intensely practical, eschewing Latin, Greek, and music in favour
of mathematics, science, geometric and mechanical drawing, and
practical skills such as operating machine tools. Dirac learned
physics and mathematics with the engineer's eye to “getting the
answer out” as opposed to finding the most elegant solution
to the problem. He then pursued his engineering studies at
Bristol University, where he excelled in mathematics but struggled
Dirac graduated with a first-class honours degree in engineering, only
to find the British economy in a terrible post-war depression, the
worst economic downturn since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Unable to find employment as an engineer, he returned to Bristol University
to do a second degree in mathematics, where it was arranged he could skip
the first year of the program and pay no tuition fees. Dirac quickly
established himself as the star of the mathematics programme, and also
attended lectures about the enigmatic quantum theory.
His father had been working in the background to secure a position at
Cambridge for Paul, and after cobbling together scholarships and a
gift from his father, Dirac arrived at the university in October 1923
to pursue a doctorate in theoretical physics. Dirac would already have seemed
strange to his fellow students. While most were scions of the upper
class, classically trained, with plummy accents, Dirac knew no Latin or
Greek, spoke with a Bristol accent, and approached problems as an
engineer or mathematician, not a physicist. He had hoped to study
Einstein's general relativity, the discovery of which had first interested
him in theoretical physics, but his supervisor was interested in
quantum mechanics and directed his work into that field.
It was an auspicious time for a talented researcher to undertake
work in quantum theory. The “old quantum theory”,
elaborated in the early years of the 20th century, had explained
puzzles like the distribution of energy in heat radiation and the
photoelectric effect, but by the 1920s it was clear that nature
was much more subtle. For example, the original quantum theory failed
to explain even the spectral lines of hydrogen, the simplest atom.
Dirac began working on modest questions related to quantum theory, but
his life was changed when he read
Heisenberg's 1925 paper which is now
considered one of the pillars of the new quantum mechanics. After
initially dismissing the paper as overly complicated and artificial,
he came to believe that it pointed the way forward, dismissing Bohr's
concept of atoms like little solar systems in favour of a probability
density function which gives the probability an electron will be observed
in a given position. This represented not just a change in the model
of the atom but the discarding entirely of models in favour of a
mathematical formulation which permitted calculating what could be
observed without providing any mechanism whatsoever explaining how it worked.
After reading and fully appreciating the significance of Heisenberg's work,
Dirac embarked on one of the most productive bursts of discovery in
the history of modern physics. Between 1925 and 1933 he published one
foundational paper after another. His Ph.D. in 1926, the first granted
by Cambridge for work in quantum mechanics, linked Heisenberg's theory to
the classical mechanics he had learned as an engineer and provided a framework
which made Heisenberg's work more accessible. Scholarly writing did not
come easily to Dirac, but he mastered the art to such an extent that his
papers are still read today as examples of pellucid exposition. At
a time when many contributions to quantum mechanics were rough-edged
and difficult to understand even by specialists, Dirac's papers were, in
the words of Freeman Dyson, “like exquisitely carved marble statues
falling out of the sky, one after another.”
In 1928, Dirac took the first step to unify quantum mechanics and special
relativity in the
The consequences of this equation led Dirac to predict the existence
of a positively-charged electron, which had never been observed. This
was the first time a theoretical physicist had predicted the existence of a
new particle. This
was observed in debris from
cosmic ray collisions in 1932. The Dirac equation also interpreted the
(angular momentum) of particles as a relativistic phenomenon.
Dirac, along with Enrico Fermi, elaborated the statistics of particles
with half-integral spin (now called
of ensembles of one such particle, the electron, is essential to the devices
you use to read this article. He took the first steps toward a relativistic
theory of light and matter and coined the name,
for the field, but never found a theory sufficiently simple and beautiful
to satisfy himself. He published
The Principles of Quantum Mechanics
in 1930, for many years the standard textbook on the subject and still read
today. He worked out the theory of
(not detected to
this date) and speculated on the origin and possible links between
numbers in physics and cosmology.
The significance of Dirac's work was recognised at the time. He was elected
a Fellow of the
Royal Society in 1930,
became the Lucasian Professor of
Mathematics (Newton's chair) at Cambridge in 1932, and shared the Nobel
Prize in Physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger. After rejecting
a knighthood because he disliked being addressed by his first name, he was
Order of Merit in 1973. He is commemorated by a plaque in
Westminster Abbey, close to that of Newton; the plaque bears his name and
the Dirac equation, the only equation so honoured.
Many physicists consider Dirac the second greatest theoretical physicist of the
20th century, after Einstein. While Einstein produced great leaps of intellectual
achievement in fields neglected by others, Dirac, working alone, contributed
to the grand edifice of quantum mechanics, which occupied many of the
most talented theorists of a generation. You have to dig a bit deeper into the
history of quantum mechanics to fully appreciate Dirac's achievement, which
probably accounts for his name not being as well known as it deserves.
There is much more to Dirac, all described in this extensively-documented scientific
biography. While declining to join the British atomic weapons project during
World War II because he refused to work as part of a collaboration, he spent
much of the war doing consulting work for the project on his own, including
inventing a new technique for isotope separation. (Dirac's process proved less
efficient that those eventually chosen by the Manhattan project and was not
used.) As an extreme introvert, nobody expected him to ever marry, and he
astonished even his closest associates when he married the sister of his
fellow physicist Eugene Wigner, Manci, a Hungarian divorcée with two
children by her first husband. Manci was as extroverted as Dirac was reserved,
and their marriage in 1937 lasted until Dirac's death in 1984. They had two
daughters together, and lived a remarkably normal family life. Dirac, who
disdained philosophy in his early years, became intensely interested in the
philosophy of science later in life, even arguing that mathematical beauty,
not experimental results, could best guide theorists to the best expression
of the laws of nature.
Paul Dirac was a very complicated man, and this is a complicated and occasionally
self-contradictory biography (but the contradiction is in the subject's life,
not the fault of the biographer). This book provides a glimpse of a unique
intellect whom even many of his closest associates never really felt they
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
Books of the year: 2014
Here are my picks for the best books of 2014
, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't
the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read
last twelvemonth. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from
the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear
in alphabetical order by their author's surname.
Reading List: How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life
- Robinson, Peter.
How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.
New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.
In 1982, the author, a recent graduate of Dartmouth College who had spent
two years studying at Oxford, then remained in England to write a novel,
re-assessed his career prospects and concluded that, based upon experience,
novelist did not rank high among them. He sent letters to everybody he
thought might provide him leads on job opportunities. Only William F.
Buckley replied, suggesting that Robinson contact his son, Christopher,
then chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush, who might
know of some openings for speechwriters. Hoping at most for a few pointers,
the author flew to Washington to meet Buckley, who was planning to leave
the White House, creating a vacancy in the Vice President's speechwriting
shop. After a whirlwind of interviews, Robinson found himself, in his
mid-twenties, having never written a speech before in his life, at work
in the Old Executive Office Building, tasked with putting words into the
mouth of the Vice President of the United States.
After a year and a half writing for Bush, two of the President's speechwriters
quit at the same time. Forced to find replacements on short notice, the
head of the office recruited the author to write for Reagan: “He hired
me because I was already in the building.” From then through 1988,
he wrote speeches for Reagan, some momentous (Reagan's June 1987 speech
at the Brandenburg gate, where Robinson's phrase, “Mr. Gorbachev,
tear down this wall!”, uttered by Reagan against vehement objections
from the State Department and some of his senior advisers, was a pivotal
moment in the ending of the Cold War), but also many more for less
epochal events such as visits of Boy Scouts to the White House, ceremonies
honouring athletes, and the dozens of other circumstances where the President
was called upon to “say a few words”. And because the media were
quick to pounce on any misstatement by the President, even the most
routine remarks had to be meticulously fact-checked by a team of researchers.
For every grand turn of phrase in a high profile speech, there were many
moments spent staring at the blank screen of a word processor as the deadline
for some inconsequential event loomed ever closer and
wondering, “How am I supposed to get twenty minutes out of that?“.
But this is not just a book about the life of a White House speechwriter
(although there is plenty of insight to be had on that topic). Its
goal is to collect and transmit the wisdom that a young man, in his first
job, learned by observing Ronald Reagan masterfully doing the job to which
he had aspired since entering politics in the 1960s. Reagan was such a
straightforward and unaffected person that many underestimated him. For
example, compared to the hard-driving types toiling from dawn to dusk who
populate many White House positions, Reagan never seemed to work very hard.
He would rise at his accustomed hour, work for five to eight hours at his
presidential duties, exercise, have dinner, review papers, and get to bed on time. Some
interpreted this as his being lazy, but Robinson's fellow speechwriter, Clark
Judge, remarked “He never confuses inputs with output. …
Who cares how many hours a day a President puts in? It's what a
President accomplishes that matters.”
These are lessons aplenty here, all illustrated with anecdotes from the
Reagan White House: the distinction between luck and the results from persistence
in the face of adversity seen in retrospect; the unreasonable effectiveness and
inherent dignity of doing one's job, whatever it be, well; viewing life not
as background scenery but rather an arena in which one can act,
changing not just the outcome but the circumstances one encounters; the power
of words, especially those sincerely believed and founded in comprehensible,
time-proven concepts; scepticism toward the pronouncements of “experts”
whose oracle-like proclamations make sense only to other experts—if it
doesn't make sense to an intelligent person with some grounding in the basics,
it probably doesn't make sense period; the importance of marriage, and how the
Reagans complemented one another in facing the challenges and stress of the
office; the centrality of faith, tempered by a belief in free will and the
importance of the individual; how both true believers and pragmatists, despite
how often they despise one another, are both essential to actually getting things
done; and that what ultimately matters is what you make of whatever
situation in which you find yourself.
These are all profound lessons to take on board, especially in the drinking from
a firehose environment of the Executive Office of the President, and in one's
twenties. But this is not a dour self-help book: it is an insightful, beautifully
written, and often laugh-out-loud funny account of how these insights were
gleaned on the job, by observing Reagan at work and how he and his administration
got things done, often against fierce political and media opposition. This is one of those
books that I wish I could travel back in time and hand a copy to my twenty-year-old
self—it would have saved a great deal of time and anguish, even for a
person like me who has no interest whatsoever in politics. Fundamentally, it's
about getting things done, and that's universally applicable.
People matter. Individuals matter. Long before Ronald Reagan was a
radio broadcaster, actor, or politician, he worked summers as a lifeguard.
Between 1927 and 1932, he personally saved 77 people from drowning. “There
were seventy-seven people walking around northern Illinois who wouldn't have been there
if it hadn't been for Reagan—and Reagan knew it.” It is not just a
few exceptional people who change the world for the better, but all of those
who do their jobs and overcome the challenges with which life presents them.
Learning this can change anybody's life.
More recently, Mr. Robinson is the host of Uncommon Knowledge and co-founder of Ricochet.com.
Saturday, December 27, 2014
Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat updated, EPUB added
All 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library
collection. I am now returning to the earlier novels, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in recent years. The fourth novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Submarine Boat
, has now been updated. Several typographical errors in the original edition have been corrected, and Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes.
An EPUB edition of this novel is now available which may be downloaded to compatible reader devices; the details of how to do this differ from device to device—please consult the documentation for your reader for details.
It's delightful to read a book which uses the word "filibuster" in its original sense: "to take part in a private military action in a foreign country" but somewhat disconcerting to encounter Brazilians speaking Spanish! The diving suits which allow full mobility on the abyssal plain two miles beneath the ocean surface remain as science-fictional as when this novel was written almost a century ago.
Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Reading List: Hidden Order
- Thor, Brad.
New York: Pocket Books, 2013.
This is the thirteenth in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
Earlier novels have largely been in the mainstream of the “techno-thriller”
genre, featuring missions in exotic locations confronting shadowy adversaries
bent on inflicting great harm. The present book is a departure from this
formula, being largely set in the United States and involving institutions
considered pillars of the establishment such as the Federal Reserve
System and the Central Intelligence Agency.
A CIA operative “accidentally” runs into a senior intelligence
official of the Jordanian government in an airport lounge in Europe,
who passes her disturbing evidence that members of a now-disbanded CIA
team of which she was a member were involved in destabilising
governments now gripped with “Arab Spring” uprisings and
next may be setting their sights on Jordan.
Meanwhile, Scot Harvath, just returned from a harrowing mission on the high
seas, is taken by his employer, Reed Carlton, to discreetly meet a new client:
the Federal Reserve. The Carlton Group is struggling to recover from the devastating
blow it took in the previous novel,
Black List (August 2014), and its boss is
willing to take on unconventional missions and new clients, especially ones
“with a license to print their own money”. The chairman of the
Federal Reserve has recently and unexpectedly died and the five principal
candidates to replace him have all been kidnapped, almost simultaneously,
across the United States. These people start turning up dead, in
circumstances with symbolism dating back to the American revolution.
Investigation of the Jordanian allegations is shut down by the CIA hierarchy,
and has to be pursued through back channels, involving retired people who
know how the CIA really works. Evidence emerges of a black program that
created weapons of frightful potential which may have gone even blacker and
deeper under cover after being officially shut down.
Earlier Brad Thor novels were more along the “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
line of most thrillers. Here, the author looks below the surface of
highly dubious institutions (“The Federal Reserve is about as federal
as Federal Express”) and evil that flourishes in the dark,
especially when irrigated with abundant and unaccountable funds. Like
many Americans, Scot Harvath knew little about the Federal Reserve other
than it had something to do with money. Over the course of his investigations
he, and the reader, will learn many disturbing things about its dodgy history
and operations, all accurate as best I can determine.
The novel is as much police procedural as thriller, with Harvath teamed with
a no-nonsense Boston Police Department detective, processing crime scenes
and running down evidence. The story is set in an unspecified near future
(the Aerion Supersonic Business
Jet is in operation). All is eventually revealed in the end, with a
resolution in the final chapter devoutly to be wished, albeit highly unlikely
to occur in the cesspool of corruption which is real-world Washington. There
is less action and fancy gear than in most Harvath novels, but interesting
characters, an intricate mystery, and a good deal of information of which
many readers may not be aware.
A short prelude to this novel,
is available for free for the Kindle. It provides the background of
the mission in progress in which we first encounter Scot Harvath in
chapter 2 here. My guess is that this chapter was originally part
of the manuscript and was cut for reasons of length and because it
spent too much time on a matter peripheral to the main plot. It's
interesting to read before you pick up Hidden Order, but
if you skip it you'll miss nothing in the main story.
Saturday, December 13, 2014
Reading List: The Science of Interstellar
- Thorne, Kip.
The Science of Interstellar.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film
was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who,
having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies
that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely
implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this
effort would live up to its promise of getting the science
(mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible
speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.
The author of the present book is one of the most eminent
physicists working in the field of general relativity
(Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring
the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including
black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation.
Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became
Interstellar from its inception, and worked
closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects
team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the
movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating
black hole, have never been rendered accurately before,
and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light
paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published
as professional papers.
Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's
genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider,
perspective, how the development of the story presented him,
as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer),
with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible
solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then,
Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on
which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation,
black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and
scenarios stemming from string theory.
Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in
the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be
produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course,
this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of
story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a
non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure
images had to take priority over scientific authenticity,
and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.
Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as
“truth”: generally accepted by those working in
the field and often with experimental evidence,
“educated guess”: a plausible inference from
accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and
assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in
circumstances under which we've never tested them, and
“speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example
quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole)
which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have
no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.
This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which,
for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear
whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will
explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a
“SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that
the ending and major plot details are given away in the text.
I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to
make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and
I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read
the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the
visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently
outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically
plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation
For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text,
the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed
and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on
the first visit. Here is a
the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are
useless since the electronic edition does not contain real
page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and
one factual howler:
is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and
was captured in Saturn orbit by a
propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not
affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Reading List: A Troublesome Inheritance
- Wade, Nicholas.
A Troublesome Inheritance.
New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed
with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection
based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that
of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin
to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival
and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is
sufficiently small, the mechanism of
may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal
or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a
sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such
a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become
None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but
in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans
is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the
evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available
only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species
into distinct populations, or “races” if you like,
after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this
book the author argues that human evolution has been
“recent, copious, and regional” and presents the
genetic evidence to support this view.
A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are
members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as
a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to
most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went
through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population
was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed
in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might
expect different human populations to carry different genes, but
this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same
set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of
individuals carrying different
(variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely
inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by
the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father.
You might think that variation among human populations is then
a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that
too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most
cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the
This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of
individual members of human populations with different evolutionary
histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals
within populations is generally much greater than that of populations
as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage
is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.
Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that
“race does not exist” or is a “social construct”.
While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to
eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with
genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.
Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent
more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading
to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which
today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world.
Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence,
a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the
north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands
who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and
separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations.
These have remained the main three groups within the human species.
Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such
as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation
from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations,
conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between
these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture
of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always
effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University
professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the
evidence of one's own eyes.
As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes,
selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human
population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar
in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in
populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy
farming, parents who passed on an allele which
would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving
offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary
scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas.
Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only
for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.
Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had
dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the
Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe
and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise
sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern
winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles
of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and
East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten
their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution
blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.
Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can.
Humans carry a gene called
which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission
of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that
under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short
sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere
from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the
more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well,
actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable,
but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency.
Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while
0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make
of this what you will.
The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming
tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the
allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the
transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires
in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population
which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such
societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing
a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has
little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers,
courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging
independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which
are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be
selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or
put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a
family in these settled societies.
Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia
or so is a domestication of the human species.
Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them
in close proximity, human societies have selected for
humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who
conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with
new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have
more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions
there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know
today) will become increasingly common in the population.
It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities,
their skeletons became less robust. This same process of
gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to
their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many
human generations since the emergence of these complex societies
as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal
species under selective breeding.
Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection
process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies
which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies
tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised
on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are
fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies.
Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have
been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that
It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed
to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world
which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper
institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure,
then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the
history of colonialism, the
mission civilisatrice, and
various democracy projects and attempts at nation building
over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that
simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or
development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of
domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society
with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have
been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to
“help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or
occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert
itself because that's the society for which the people are
Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political
discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial
Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple
that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human
populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself
thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting
point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations
of recent scientific publications.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Reading List: The Martian
- Weir, Andy.
New York: Broadway Books,  2014.
Mark Watney was part of the six person crew of
Ares 3 which landed on Mars to carry out
an exploration mission in the vicinity of its landing
The crew made a precision landing at the target where
“presupply” cargo flights had already landed
their habitation module, supplies for their stay on
Mars, rovers and scientific instruments, and the ascent
vehicle they would use to return to the Earth-Mars transit
vehicle waiting for them in orbit. Just six days after
landing, having set up the habitation module and unpacked
the supplies, they are struck by a dust storm of unprecedented
ferocity. With winds up to 175 kilometres per hour, the
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), already fuelled by propellant made on
Mars by reacting hydrogen brought from Earth with the Martian
atmosphere, was at risk of being blown over, which would destroy
the fragile spacecraft and strand the crew on Mars. NASA
gives the order to abort the mission and evacuate to orbit
in the MAV for an immediate return to Earth.
But the crew first has to get from the habitation module to the
MAV, which means walking across the surface in the midst of the
storm. (You'd find it very hard to walk in a 175 km/h wind on Earth, but
recall that the atmosphere pressure on Mars is only about 1/200
that of Earth at sea level, so the wind doesn't pack anywhere near
the punch.) Still, there was dust and flying debris from equipment
ripped loose from the landers. Five members of the crew made it to
the MAV. Mark Watney didn't.
As the crew made the traverse to the MAV, Watney was struck by
part of an antenna array torn from the habitation, puncturing his
suit and impaling him. He was carried away by the wind, and
the rest of the crew, seeing his vital signs go to zero before
his suit's transmitter failed, followed mission rules to leave him
behind and evacuate in the MAV while they still could.
But Watney wasn't dead. His injury was not fatal, and his blood loss
was sufficient to seal the leak in the suit where the antenna
had pierced it, as the water in the blood boiled off and the residue mostly
sealed the breach. Awakening after the trauma, he made an
immediate assessment of his situation. I'm alive. Cool!
I hurt like heck. Not cool. The habitation module is
intact. Yay! The MAV is gone—I'm alone on
“Dang” is not precisely how Watney put it. This book
contains quite a bit of profanity which I found gratuitous. NASA
astronauts in the modern era just don't swear like sailors, especially
on open air-to-ground links. Sure, I can imagine launching a full
salvo of F-bombs upon discovering I'd been abandoned on Mars,
especially when I'm just talking to myself, but everybody seems to do
it here on all occasions. This is the only reason I'd hesitate to
recommend this book to younger readers who would otherwise be inspired
by the story.
Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth,
since all communications were routed through the MAV, which has
departed. He has all of the resources for a six-person mission,
so he has no immediate survival problems after he gets back to
the habitation and stitches up his wound, but he can work the
math: even if he can find a way to communicate to Earth that he's
still alive, orbital mechanics dictates that it will take around
two years to send a rescue mission. His supplies cannot be stretched
This sets the stage for a gripping story of survival, improvisation,
difficult decisions, necessity versus bureaucratic inertia,
trying to do the right thing in a media fishbowl, and all
done without committing any howlers in technology, orbital
mechanics, or the way people and organisations behave. Sure,
you can quibble about this or that detail, but then people
far in the future may regard a factual account of Apollo 13
as largely legend, given how many things had to go right to
rescue the crew. Things definitely do not go smoothly here: there
is reverse after reverse, and many inscrutable mysteries to be
unscrewed if Watney is to get home.
This is an inspiring tale of pioneering on a new world. People
have already begun to talk about
going to Mars to stay. These
settlers will face stark challenges though, one hopes, not
as dire as Watney, and with the confidence of regular re-supply
missions and new settlers to follow. Perhaps this novel will be
seen, among the first generation born on Mars, as inspiration
that the challenges they face in bringing a barren planet to life
are within the human capacity to solve, especially if their media
library isn't exclusively populated with 70s TV shows and disco.
A Kindle edition is available.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Reading List: Liberators
- Rawles, James Wesley.
New York: Dutton, 2014.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with
Patriots (December 2008),
then continued with
Survivors (January 2012),
Founders (October 2012),
Expatriates (October 2013),
These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in
that all describe events in the lives of their characters in
roughly the same time period surrounding “the
Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt
crisis and hyperinflation. Taking place at the same time,
you can read these books in any order, but if you haven't
read the earlier novels you'll miss much of the back-story of
the characters who appear here, which informs the parts they
play in this episode.
Here the story cuts back and forth between the United States,
where Megan LaCroix and her sister Malorie live on a farm in West
Virginia with Megan's two boys, and Joshua Kim works in security
at the National Security Agency where Megan is
an analyst. When the Crunch hits, Joshua and the LaCroix sisters
decide to team up to bug out to Joshua's childhood friend's
place in Kentucky, where survival from the urban Golden Horde
may be better assured. They confront the realities of a
collapsing society, where the rule of law is supplanted by
extractive tyrannies, and are forced to over-winter in a
wilderness, living by their wits and modest preparations.
In Western Canada, the immediate impact of the Crunch was less
severe because electrical power, largely hydroelectric,
remained on. At the McGregor Ranch, in inland
British Columbia (a harsh, northern continental climate
nothing like that of Vancouver), the family and those who have
taken refuge with them ride out the initial crisis only to
be confronted with an occupation of Canada by a nominally
United Nations force called UNPROFOR, which is effectively a
French colonial force which, in alliance with effete urban
eastern and francophone Canada, seeks to put down the fractious
westerners and control the resource-rich land they inhabit.
This leads to an asymmetrical war of resistance, aided by the fact
that when earlier faced with draconian gun registration and
prohibition laws imposed by easterners, a large number of
weapons in the west simply vanished, only to reappear when they
were needed most. As was demonstrated in Vietnam and
Algeria, French occupation forces can be tenacious and
brutal, but are ultimately no match for an indigenous insurgency
with the support of the local populace. A series of bold strikes
against UNPROFOR assets eventually turns the tide.
But just when Canada seems ready to follow the U.S. out of the
grip of tyranny, an emboldened China, already on the march
in Africa, makes a move to seize western Canada's abundant
natural resources. Under the cover of a UN resolution, a
massive Chinese force, with armour and air support, occupies
the western provinces. This is an adversary of an entirely
different order than the French, and will require the resistance,
supported by allies from the liberation struggle in the U.S.,
to audacious and heroic exploits, including one of the greatest
acts of monkey-wrenching ever described in a thriller.
As this story has developed over the five novels, the author
has matured into a first-rate thriller novelist. There is still
plenty of information on gear, tactics, intelligence
operations, and security, but the characters are interesting,
well-developed, and the action scenes both plausible and
exciting. In the present book, we encounter many characters we've
met in previous volumes, with their paths crossing
as events unfold. There is no triumphalism or glossing over the
realities of insurgent warfare against a tyrannical occupying
force. There is a great deal of misery and hardship, and
sometimes tragedy can result when you've taken every precaution,
made no mistake, but simply run out of luck.
Taken together, these five novels are an epic saga of survival
in hard and brutal times, painted on a global canvas. Reading
them, you will not only be inspired that you and your loved ones
can survive such a breakdown in the current economic
and social order, but you will also learn a great deal of the
details of how to do so. This is not a survival manual, but
attentive readers will find many things to research further for
their own preparations for an uncertain future. An excellent
place to begin that research is the author's own
survivalblog.com Web site,
whose massive archives you can spend months exploring.