What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Randall Munroe (2014)

One of the best science books of all time.

Really? Well, yes, actually. It’s exactly what you’d expect from the writer of xkcd : hilariously funny, critically insightful, and quite awesomely clever. And within this rubric, Randall Monroe introduces some serious scientific method and shows how to apply theory to practice. It really doesn’t matter that the practice is absurd: in fact it helps, by making the problems engaging in a way that real life (and, more importantly, exam questions) all too often fail to be.

I was sold on the book from the first question (Q: “What would happen if the earth and all terrestrial objects suddenly stopped spinning but the atmosphere retained its velocity?” A: “Nearly everyone would die. Then things would get interesting.”), but that’s only the start. Monroe manages to explain DNA inheritance through the medium of Dungeons & Dragons character tables, the core problems in rocketry (fuel has weight), and the unexpected dangers of parsnips (they can cause delayed-action chemical burns).

This is a book to be read by every computer scientist, physicist, and mathematician, and other scientist; by everyone who’s ever aspired to be one of the above; and by everyone who may encounter a small child asking questions. That about cover it.

(And if you have access to a hypersonic wind tunnel, I’ll bring the steak and a video camera.)

5/5. Finished Sunday 2 November, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

I Am a Strange Loop

Douglas R. Hofstadter (2007)

Douglas Hofstadter (always referred to parenthetically as “author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid“), returns to the subject of consciousness and identity for a book that has the feel of a swan song. Part philosophical treatise and part autobiography, he explores how the feeling of “I-ness” emerge from physical processes that underlie the brain. As with GEB, he still has a telling line in analogies and discourses that really light-up hi explanations.

I’m somewhat at a loss to try to sum up a book like this, but here goes:

Animal minds have evolved to filter the huge volume of sense data that they receive from their environments and distil it a smaller range of concepts. Humans are unusual in that their concept maps can be indefinitely extended as new concepts are discovered and linked together. Uniquely (or, perhaps, almost uniquely), humans have been able to develop concepts referring to concept formation itself, thereby having their conceptual system feed-back to explore and influence its own processes. It is this “strange loop” – the ability to perceive, influence, and conceptualise the ability to perceive , influence, and conceptualise – that gives rise to the “I”, the feeling that there is an observer observing the processes of thought as well as the world “outside”. It’s a pattern emerging from a symbolic representational system that’s sufficiently complex to represent itself symbolically.

This being Hofstadter, he relates these ideas back to Gödel’s use of self-description within the number system to argue that such hierarchies of meaning and manipulation are commonplace, and indeed inevitable in systems that are sufficiently representationally rich. It’s an unusual argument for a philosopher of mind to be able to make. But he scores some telling points: my favourite is when he examines the concepts firing in the reader’s mind when he mentions reading a Jane Austin novel, and shows that several parallel interpretations and contexts can be activated simultaneously. It’s a strange concept to have a writer write directly about what’s happening inside your (the reader’s) head as you read their words!

This further being Hofstadter, he explores the consequences of his models thoroughly, of of which is the notion that one person’s strange loop can live inside another’s mind, albeit at a greatly reduced resolution. He runs-down and makes more scientific the common notion that the dead live on in our memories: literally true, at low resolution, in Hofstadter’s formulation. (Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment sprang to my mind immediately.) He uses to explain funeral rituals, and to explore the sense that one speaks (and thinks) differently when talking to different people, because parts of your model of them become activated by their presence, making it literally the case that different symbols are being used in discussing the same concepts with different people, even without their direct input.

All in all, an interesting read and one that will hopefully inspire neuroscientists and psychologists to the same extent that GEB spoke to mathematicians and computer scientists.

4/5. Finished Friday 24 October, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Das Reich : The March of the 2nd Panzer Division Through France, 1944

Max Hastings (1981)

3/5. Finished Tuesday 14 October, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion (1968)

I read this book on the recommendation of Brain Pickings, where Joan Didion is a frequent feature. It doesn’t disappoint.

“Slouching towards Bethelehem” is a collection of essays on diverse topics: an unsolved murder, meetings with John Wayne and Joan Baez, the 1960’s at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, the troubles and joys of living in New York. The writing is quite exquisite at times, such as this in the discussion of keeping a notebook:

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of what I supposed to do, which is write – on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

(I feel the same way about my research notebooks: surely, eventually, I’ll get some benefit from them?) As a whole, the book is pitched as a meditation on the atomisation of society and life, but I think it can be read in a more positive light, as an exploration of diversity and the survival of the past into the present. Well worth taking time over.

4/5. Finished Monday 22 September, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

A Farewell to Arms

Ernest Hemingway (1929)

3/5. Finished Saturday 20 September, 2014.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)