The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin
I recently read (in translation, of course) the popular The Three-Body Problem science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. These books explore the idea of first contact, and touch on several topics that I have posted about before (such as the Fermi paradox and the 3-body problem itself). I enjoyed reading them (the first two books more than the third). It was fascinating to read a Chinese view on some of the issues explored.
The novels are somewhat darker than classic Western science fiction, largely due to the shadow cast by the Cultural Revolution. But given the possibility of aliens like the Borg, the Daleks, and the Vang, perhaps interstellar optimism is just naive. And apparently, most contemporary Chinese science fiction is even more pessimistic than that of Liu (one of the characters in the first novel comments on this).
It seemed a little strange that Liu accepts the speed-of-light limit on space travel, but allows faster-than-light communication (which other authors have called an ansible). After all, both relativity and quantum mechanics forbid such a technology. Still, any depiction of truly advanced technology is going to read like fantasy, and the plot did require an ansible (although partway through the trilogy, the speed-of-light limit seemed to vanish even for ordinary communication).
These books (at least the first two) are well worth a read. Wired magazine also posted a review last year, and Nature had an interview with the author.
The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Liu Cixin: 3.5 stars
by Theodore Gray
I recently purchased Molecules: The Elements and the Architecture of Everything by Theodore Gray of periodictable.com (this is the sequel to his superb The Elements, which I have previously reviewed). The book is packed with interesting facts about chemistry as it relates to daily life, and the photographs are absolutely beautiful, as this two-page spread shows:
The structure of the book is necessarily a little ad-hoc, lacking the obvious pattern of The Elements. However, it is still well-organised, informative, and compelling. Everyone interested in science should probably have this one on the coffee table too.
I would give this book five stars, except that nothing could be quite as good as The Elements. I should also note that Theodore Gray’s Reactions is coming out soon. I expect that to be worthwhile as well.
by Theodore Gray: 4 stars
Here are twelve influential books covering the history of science and mathematics. All of them have changed the world in some way:
1: Euclid’s Elements (c. 300 BC). Possibly the most influential mathematics book ever written, and used as a textbook for more than 2,000 years.
2: De rerum natura by Lucretius (c. 50 BC). An Epicurean, atomistic view of the universe, expressed as a lengthy poem.
3: The Vienna Dioscurides (c. 510 AD). Based on earlier Greek works, this illustrated guide to botany continued to have an influence for centuries after it was written.
That’s four books of biology, four of other science, two of mathematics, and two of modern IT. I welcome any suggestions for other books I should have included.
The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry
I recently read the 3rd (2008) edition of John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science – an excellent, though very brief, survey (it is 114 pages, not including the glossary and index).
Henry tends to see considerable continuity between the “natural magic” of medieval thought and the emerging scientific viewpoint, which was based on experiment and mathematical analysis. Personally, I think that he overstates the case a little. It is interesting that he never mentions Giordano Bruno, who was one of those who held on to the older magical view (then again, Bruno was not a scientist).
Replica of a van Leeuwenhoek microscope (photo: Jeroen Rouwkema)
Henry also puts emphasis on the emerging use of scientific instruments, such as the microscope and the telescope.
Galileo’s sketches of the moon, published in his Sidereus Nuncius of 1610
I was a little disappointed in the discussion of Galileo, which did not seem quite correct, but the main flaw in this book is its brevity. I’m giving it three stars.
The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science by John Henry: 3 stars
Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.
They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.
The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel (1991)
I recently, and somewhat belatedly, read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A partly fictionalised film based on the book was released in 2015 (see Scott Aaronson’s review of the film here).
Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, where Ramanujan lived when he first arrived in England in 1914 (photo: Cmglee)
Ramanujan had one of the greatest mathematical intuitions of all time (he himself credited his insights to the goddess Namagiri). However, his brilliant guesses were as likely to be wrong as right. Furthermore, Ramanujan often neglected formal mathematical proofs, so that the work of separating the many diamonds from the occasional paste was frequently left to collaborators (like G. H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to England, and who wrote several joint papers with him). There are still results in Ramanujan’s journals which have neither been proved nor disproved (see this perspective on Ramanujan by Stephen Wolfram).
One of Ramanujan’s formulae for π
Interest in Ramanujan seems to have peaked at around the year 2000, according to Google Ngrams (although this does not include the influence of the recent film):
Google Ngrams search for Ramanujan’s name in books
I found Kanigel’s book a very enjoyable read. There is extensive biographical detail, albeit with a few misquotes, and with apparent confusion at times about the language of a century ago (e.g. the word “cult,” used in a technical sense to mean “a particular system of religious belief,” referring to the Brahmin version of Hinduism which Ramanujan followed). Kanigel does not quite succeed in fitting Ramanujan into a larger context – I would have liked a bit more discussion of Ramanujan by other mathematicians. And I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had illness (probably chronic hepatic amoebiasis, although Kanigel suggests tuberculosis) not killed Ramanujan at the tragically young age of 32. I guess nobody can imagine what further mathematics we might have seen.
See here and here for other reviews of the book.
The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel: 3.5 stars
The chart below extends my previous colour analysis to an even more mixed collection of books. On the right are books with many descriptive passages involving colour, and thus a high frequency of colour words (calculated without excluding stop words this time). At the top of the chart are books with large colour vocabularies (counting colour words used twice or more). The dots show the most common colour word in each book.
Results are consistent with the fact that the most common colour words in English (in decreasing order of frequency) are black, white, red, green, blue, yellow, brown, grey, pink, orange, and purple. However, Anne of Green Gables and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have “green” as the most common word for plot-related reasons, while The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery has, not surprisingly, “blue.” The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle has “scarlet,” some uses of which are as the name “Will Scarlet.” Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea I have already discussed.