August 2007 October 2007

Book Reviews September 2007

Origins of Life Freeman DysonCambridge University Press, 1998ISBN: 0521626684
cover Origins of Life is based on a series of lectures which Freeman Dyson gave in Cambridge in 1985. Dyson was strongly influenced by Schrödinger's What is Life - a work by a physicist which had substantial infuence on the progress of biology. Dyson feels that it is time to tackle the question of the origin of life on this planet. While many accounts of the origin of life concentrate on replication, Dyson thinks that metabolism is more important. He looks at how a homeostatic system might have arisen, and in the third chapter he presents a simple mathematical model of his ideas. Continued..
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Wittgenstein's Poker
David Edmonds and John Eidinow
Faber & Faber, 2001ISBN: 057120547X
cover W (who has been fidgeting with the poker) asks for an example of a moral rule. P replies 'Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers', at which W storms out. In Wittgenstein's Poker Edmonds and Eidinow explain that it probably didn't happen quite that way. But this book is far more than just a discussion of a 10 minute incident involving Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cambridge in 1946. Rather it gives a critical look at the lives of the two philosophers, including their upbringings (both came from Jewish families in Vienna, and so both were faced with the problems of the rise of Hitler), their points of view, and how they interacted with those around them. Continued..
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The cosmic century Malcolm LongairCambridge University Press, 2006ISBN: 0521474361
cover When teaching a subject, some people feel that it helps to move away from its historical development. However, if you want an overview of a subject, or you are interested in current research, then a view of the history is much more important. In The cosmic century : a history of astrophysics and cosmology Malcolm Longair provides such a viewpoint. The book is in five parts. It splits the subject into pre and post-World War II sections, and within each has a section dealing with each of astrophysics and cosmology. In the middle there is a chapter on the boost which came from the opening up of the electromagnetic spectrum - the development of radio, X-ray, infrared and other forms of astronomy. Continued..
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Poetry of the Universe Robert OssermanWeidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995ISBN: 0297815164
cover I have to say that I felt that the preface of Poetry of the Universe was something of a disaster. Robert Osserman seemed to suggest that just as Columbus' voyage in 1492 had shown that the Earth wasn't flat, so the COBE microwave map showed that space wasn't flat - I would say that both ideas were seriously flawed. As I continued with the book I felt that I had been a bit hasty in my judgement, at least on the issue of the Earth. The book in fact gives an excellent account of how the size and shape of the Earth was known two millennia before Columbus, and of the problems its curvature presented for mapmakers. Continued..
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Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos Jeremy BernsteinBasic books, 1993ISBN: 0192880438
cover At the start Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos looks to be concerned with how to distinguish cranks from brilliant scientists - what was it about Einstein's theory of relativity that got it past the skeptics? As the book goes on however, it widens into a look at twentieth century science and scientists in general, selected from Bernstein's newspaper articles. He writes about the life and work of Erwin Schrödinger,Alan Turing, Primo Levi and Tom Lehrer, to name but a few, always examining how their work fitted in with the culture in which they lived. Continued..
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Algorithmics : the spirit of computing
David Harel and Yishai Feldman
Addison Wesley, 1987ISBN: 0321117840
Mentioned in
P vs NP
The ubiquity of computers means that most people who get into programming won't have been through a formal computer science course. However, if you are such a programmer, then you may well want to find out more about the subject. Algorithmics : the spirit of computing by David Harel provides an excellent resource for this purpose, and it would also be a useful introduction for those thinking of taking a computer science course. The book gives a wide ranging overview of computation and algorithms, but goes into more detail than most popular accounts of the subjects. It has exercises for each chapter, with solutions at the end, as well as copious notes for those wanting to study the topics further. Continued..
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August 2007 October 2007