The Lost World by Michael Crichton: a book review

The Lost World, by Michael Crichton (1995)

Recently, because this is the season for extra reading, I re-read The Lost World by Michael Crichton (which was made into a 1997 film). This novel turns 25 years old in September. Its main plot needs no explanation, of course. Just like Jurassic Park, there’s action, there’s excitement, and there’s dinosaurs chasing people.

As with all Crichton novels, there are technical and scientific themes that do not make it into the film. I had forgotten, for example, that the original mobile laboratory is solar powered: “He wants them light, I build them light. He wants them strong, I build them strong – light and strong both, why not, it’s just impossible, what he’s asking for, but with enough titanium and honeycarbon composite, we’re doing it anyway. He wants it off petroleum base, and off the grid, and we do that too. … The Explorer with the black photovoltaic panels on the roof and hood, the inside crammed with glowing electronic equipment. Just looking at the Explorer gave them a sense of adventure…” (pages 64 & 94)

Velociraptor skeletal cast at the Dinosaur Journey museum in Colorado (original photo by Jens Lallensack)

Another theme, naturally, is the changing scientific view of dinosaurs, and indeed other things, over time (in fact, the book and film are already out-of-date in some respects): “Back in the 1840s, when Richard Owen first described giant bones in England, he named them Dinosauria: terrible lizards. That was still the most accurate description of these creatures, Malcolm thought. … the Victorians made them fat, lethargic, and dumb – big dopes from the past. This perception was elaborated, so that by the early twentieth century, dinosaurs had become so weak that they could not support their own weight. … That view didn’t change until the 1960s, when a few renegade scientists, led by John Ostrom, began to imagine quick, agile, hotblooded dinosaurs. Because these scientists had the temerity to question dogma, they were brutally criticized for years, … But in the last decade, a growing interest in social behavior had led to still another view. Dinosaurs were now seen as caring creatures, living in groups, raising their little babies.” (page 83)

Tortuga Islands, Costa Rica (original photo by “rigocr”) – is this the mysterious Isla Sorna?

As with many Crichton novels, scientific hubris is a major theme. Other themes include the education of children (both dinosaur children and human children), information systems design, the theories of Stuart Kauffman about self-organisation and evolution, and the importance of what is now called the complex systems view.

Overall, this is a good solid action novel, with several scientific and philosophical themes to think about. Goodreads rates it 3.78. I’m giving it only 3½ stars, in part because it’s a little too much like Jurassic Park. But it’s certainly well worth a read.

The Lost World, by Michael Crichton: 3½ stars

Dune by Frank Herbert: a book review

Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

I recently re-read the classic 1965 novel Dune by Frank Herbert. This is Frank Herbert’s best book, and one of the best science fiction novels ever written. It won the Hugo Award in 1966 (jointly with Roger Zelazny’s This Immortal) and won the inaugural Nebula Award. It became a quite terrible 1984 film and a somewhat better miniseries.

Parts of the novel are reminiscent of the work of Cordwainer Smith, notably the idea of a desert planet producing spice, and the idea that navigating a faster-than-light ship requires a guild of unusual navigators who can see into the future. However, most of the novel was so original that it became a huge hit when it first appeared. Themes that are particularly notable are those of planetary ecology, intergalactic politics, and unusual human skills.

I have always been moved by Herbert’s idea of a symbolic ecological language that can “arm the mind to manipulate an entire landscape” (Appendix 1), and the idea of making ecological literacy a key part of education:

At a chalkboard against the far wall stood a woman in a yellow wraparound, a projecto-stylus in one hand. The board was filled with designs – circles, wedges and curves, snake tracks and squares, flowing arcs split by parallel lines. The woman pointed to the designs one after the other as fast as she could move the stylus, and the children chanted in rhythm with her moving hand.
Paul listened, hearing the voices grow dimmer behind as he moved deeper into the sietch with Harah.
‘Tree,’ the children chanted. ‘Tree, grass, dune, wind, mountain, hill, fire, lightning, rock, rocks, dust, sand, heat, shelter, heat, full, winter, cold, empty, erosion, summer, cavern, day, tension, moon, night, caprock, sandtide, slope, planting, binder. …’
” (Chapter 22)

The unusual ecology of the desert planet Arrakis encourages us, of course, to think more deeply about our own planet (and Arrakis was apparently inspired by the Oregon Dunes here on Earth).

Also fascinating is the idea that the human race has turned away from computers and the Internet, and gone back to training human minds to remember, calculate, and think:

‘Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.’
‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a man’s mind,’ Paul quoted. […]
‘The Great Revolt took away a crutch,’ she said. ‘It forced human minds to develop. Schools were started to train human talents.’
” (Chapter 1)

The most obvious theme, and the source of the novel’s action, is the galaxy-wide intrigue between the noble House Corrino, House Atreides, and House Harkonnen; the resulting warfare between them; and the resistance of the desert Fremen to occupation (inspired by Lawrence of Arabia):

Paul took two deep breaths. ‘She said a thing.’ He closed his eyes, calling up the words, and when he spoke his voice unconsciously took on some of the old woman’s tone: ‘ “You, Paul Atreides, descendant of kings, son of a Duke, you must learn to rule. It’s something none of your ancestors learned”.’ Paul opened his eyes, said: ‘That made me angry and I said my father rules an entire planet. And she said, “He’s losing it.” And I said my father was getting a richer planet. And she said. “He’ll lose that one, too.” And I wanted to run and warn my father, but she said he’d already been warned – by you, by Mother, by many people.’” (Chapter 2)

Goodreads rates this classic science fiction novel 4.2. I’m giving it 4½ stars (but be aware that the sequels are not nearly as good).

Dune by Frank Herbert: 4½ stars

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. Smith: a book review

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. “Doc” Smith (serialised 1965)

I recently re-read E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark DuQuesne, the final story of Smith’s Skylark series. Smith, of course, is famous for the Lensman series, which is a bit annoying in places, but which is still full of all kinds of interesting ideas. This book is another matter. It’s just bad. Now poor writing may forgivable in “space opera,” and age may play a factor here too – the novel was serialised beginning in June 1965, when Smith was aged 75, and was published as a book in 1966 (Smith died during the serialisation). This novel has so many flaws, in fact, that I can only mention some of them.

To begin with, the sexual titillation for teenage boys is just over the top. Is there any reason why the characters need to be naked quite so often? Or for one of them to be a stripper? It’s a trifle creepy, to be frank.

The mathematics depicted in the book is also disappointing: “‘Hold it!’ Seaton snapped, half an hour later. ‘Back up – there! This integral here. Limits zero to pi over two. You’re limiting the thing to a large but definitely limited volume of your generalized N-dimensional space. I think it should be between zero and infinity—and while we’re at it let’s scrap half of the third determinant in that no-space-no-time complex. Let’s see what happens if we substitute the gamma function here and the chi there and the xi there and the omicron down there in the corner.’” (Chapter 24: DuQuesne and Sleemet)

Smith is describing simple high-school calculus (integrating a function on a single real variable). Even by the standards of the time (never mind the future!) there was a lot more mathematics out there. Robert Heinlein had no trouble getting that fact across in 1952 in The Rolling Stones / Space Family Stone: “Their father reached up to the spindles on the wall, took down a book spool, and inserted it into his study projector. He spun the selector, stopped with a page displayed on the wall screen. It was a condensed chart of the fields of mathematics invented thus far by the human mind. ‘Let’s see you find your way around that page.’ The twins blinked at it. In the upper left-hand corner of the chart they spotted the names of subjects they had studied; the rest of the array was unknown territory; in most cases they did not even recognize the names of the subjects.” (Chapter IV: Aspects of Domestic Engineering).

And hinting at new, future, mathematics is quite possible too. Isaac Asimov did it in 1942 in the first part of Foundation: “‘Good. Add to this the known probability of Imperial assassination, viceregal revolt, the contemporary recurrence of periods of economic depression, the declining rate of planetary explorations, the…’ He proceeded. As each item was mentioned, new symbols sprang to life at his touch, and melted into the basic function which expanded and changed. Gaal stopped him only once. ‘I don’t see the validity of that set-transformation.’ Seldon repeated it more slowly. Gaal said, ‘”But that is done by way of a forbidden sociooperation.’ ‘Good. You are quick, but not yet quick enough. It is not forbidden in this connection. Let me do it by expansions.’ The procedure was much longer and at its end, Gaal said, humbly, ‘Yes, I see now.’” (Chapter 4)

In contrast, Smith’s novel seems to have the goal of making his teenage readers feel good about what they know, rather than encouraging them to grow (and that applies to both intellectual and moral growth).

A PDP-8 computer of 1965

A related problem (common to Smith’s novels, and indeed to much early science fiction) is the failure to imagine how computers might be used. The novel assumes powerful computers (“brains”) which can both sense and influence the physical world. Yet manual information processing is still the order of the day: “Tammon was poring over a computed graph, measuring its various characteristics with vernier calipers, a filar microscope, and an integrating planimeter, when Mergon and Luloy came swinging hand in hand into his laboratory” (Chapter 9: Among the Jelmi)

Finally, the antagonist Marc DuQuesne (the name is a Genesis 4:15 reference, since the surname is pronounced duːˈkeɪn) is a rather unpleasant kind of Nietzschean Übermensch, and the protagonist (Richard Seaton) is not much better. Julian May, in her excellent Saga of Pliocene Exile (and even better Galactic Milieu Series) apparently based her character Marc Remillard in part on Smith’s Marc DuQuesne. But Marc Remillard repents of his crimes, and atones for them, and is actually interesting to read about. Smith’s novel finishes with DuQuesne as arrogant, as unrepentant, and as banal as ever.

Goodreads rates Smith’s novel 3.8, and some old-school science fiction fans still seem to enjoy it. It was even nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, back in 1966, although it can hardly be compared to the other nominees – Dune and This Immortal (tied winners), The Squares of the City, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (which was re-nominated, and won, in 1967). I give Smith’s novel just one star – but if you are nevertheless intrigued, it is now public domain in Canada and is online there.

Skylark DuQuesne by E. E. “Doc” Smith: 1 star

Infinitesimal by Amir Alexander: a book review

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander (2014)

I recently read Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander. This book concentrates on the “indivisibles” of Bonaventura Cavalieri and the “infinitesimals” of John Wallis (the man who introduced the ∞ symbol). As a history of pre-calculus, that’s rather incomplete. There are also some errors, noted by Judith Grabiner in her review for the MAA.

Alexander portrays the Jesuits as the “bad guys,” suppressing the idea of “indivisibles,” even though interesting and useful mathematical results can be obtained by using them. However, Alexander does not fully explain the Jesuits’ actions. There is not a word about their struggle with the Dominicans for intellectual leadership of the Catholic Church (although this played a major part in the Galileo saga). Nor does he explain the link between defending Aristotle and defending the doctrine of Transubstantiation. And, of course, the critics of Cavalieri and Wallis were actually quite correct. “Infinitely small numbers” greater than zero do not exist, and calculus did not have a rigorous foundation until the work of Cauchy and Weierstrass in the 1800s.

I was left rather disappointed with this book. GoodReads rates it 3.83, but I’m only giving it two stars.

Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World by Amir Alexander: 2 stars

Fictional books

A recent meme asked for “fictional books” that have influenced one. I’m not sure if it’s what they meant, but the obvious ones for me are the infamous Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, and Copper, Silver, Gold: An Indestructible Metallic Alloy by Egbert B. Gebstadter (my illustration above).

Scientific alignment

I was thinking recently about the alignment (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense) of fictional scientists (see diagram above).

I was brought up on the Famous Five children’s stories by Enid Blyton. Perennially popular, even though flawed in certain ways, these novels star a rather grumpy scientist called Quentin (who had more than a little to do with my own desire to become a scientist). Quentin is certainly altruistic:

‘These two men were parachuted down on to the island, to try and find out my secret,’ said her father. ‘I’ll tell you what my experiments are for, George—they are to find a way of replacing all coal, coke and oil—an idea to give the world all the heat and power it wants, and to do away with mines and miners.’
‘Good gracious!’ said George. ‘It would be one of the most wonderful things the world has ever known.’
‘Yes,’ said her father. ‘And I should give it to the whole world—it shall not be in the power of any one country, or collection of men. It shall be a gift to the whole of mankind—but, George, there are men who want my secret for themselves, so that they may make colossal fortunes out of it.’
” (Enid Blyton, Five On Kirrin Island Again, 1947)

However, Quentin works for no organisation (barring some government consulting work) and draws no regular salary. He is clearly Chaotic Good.

Long before Quentin, Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) created his famous monster out of selfishness and hubris. However, he also desires to make things right, so Frankenstein seems to me Chaotic Neutral.

On the other hand, the experiments of Doctor Moreau in The Island of Doctor Moreau (H. G. Wells, 1896) mark him as Chaotic Evil. The same is true of the scientist Rotwang in the movie Metropolis (1927), who is the prototype of the evil “mad scientist” of many later films – in contrast to good “mad scientists” like Emmett “Doc” Brown in the Back to the Future movies (1985, 1989, 1990).

In all cases, however, there seems to be a bias towards portraying scientists as Chaotic. This is a little strange, because the organisational structures, processes, and rules governing science in the real world are better described as “ordered” or Lawful (in the Dungeons & Dragons sense). Perhaps chaotic characters are just more fun?

Not that everyone follows all the rules and procedures of course. When I take the What is your Scientific Alignment? test, my personal alignment comes out as Neutral Good.

Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling: a book review

Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws

Having written before about nature journals, a while ago I purchased the Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws of This is a wonderful guide to both the scientific and artistic aspects of keeping a nature journal. There are chapter on how to observe as well as chapters on how to draw flowers, trees, and other things. Laws provides three useful observation cues: “I notice,” “I wonder,” and “it reminds me of” (click page photographs to zoom):

This wonderful book is full of practical tips, both on the scientific side and the artistic side. I particularly liked this little curiosity kit:

I haven’t quite finished with the book, but I really love it so far. Other reviews online are also very positive: “I can’t find a thing lacking in this book” (; “informative and inspiring” (; “the best book for nature journaling in your homeschool” ( Goodreads rates the book 4.67.

* * * * *
Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling by John Muir Laws: 5 stars

In the Wet by Nevil Shute: a book review

In the Wet by Nevil Shute (1953)

I recently re-read the novel In the Wet by Nevil Shute. Like An Old Captivity, reincarnation is a key part of the storyline. The novel is set partly in the year in which it was written (1953, which was the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) but mostly 30 years in the future (1983). The book is thus rather dated, with the “future” now 37 years in the past. There is also language that would be unacceptable today (“n—-r,” “b–ng,” and “g-n”) and, by modern standards, the novel is both fanatically monarchist and extremely right-wing.

The Hero

One of the things that makes the novel interesting is that the hero, David Anderson, is a quarter Aboriginal (the book expresses an optimistic view of Australian race relations). David is from Cape York. His maternal grandmother is of the Kaantju people, and his father is a white stockman. Born literally in a ditch, David grows up on a cattle station, learning to ride a horse at age 3 or 4, and eventually joins the Royal Australian Air Force. He becomes a pilot in some hypothetical 1970s war (note that the First Indochina War and the Malayan Emergency were both ongoing when the novel was written). After that David becomes a test pilot, rising to the rank of Wing Commander and earning the Air Force Cross. The novel focuses on his transfer to the Queen’s Wing, flying royalty in two aircraft donated by the Australian and Canadian people (while also dealing with some complex politics and falling in love).

The hero in a contemporary Australian Women’s Weekly serial of the novel

The Aircraft

Nevil Shute was an aircraft designer, and the hypothetical fast long-range private jet in this book seems to be based on a planned (but never built) civilian version of the Avro Vulcan bomber. Nevil Shute seems to me to have underestimated progress in the aircraft industry, however, with his reported speed of 500 knots (930 km/h) matched by the much larger Boeing 747, although matching the range of 8000 nautical miles (15,000 km) had to wait for the Boeing 747-400ER of 2000.

The Avro Vulcan bomber

The Society

Nevil Shute’s social prediction is even worse. A visitor to Australia, he underestimates the left-wing tendency in Australian politics, and overestimates the monarchist tendency. He postulates a large drop in the British population (with all kinds of economic consequences), and large rises in the Australian and Canadian populations (see dotted lines in the chart below). Immigration to Australia was, in fact, less than he expected, and much of it was to come from Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Malta, the former Yugoslavia, and (eventually) Vietnam. The UK, on the other hand, was to see substantial immigration from India and Pakistan.

On the whole, I would call this novel a well-written historical curiosity. As an old Danish proverb has it, it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Goodreads rates the book 3.86, which is similar to my rating.

In the Wet by Nevil Shute: 3½ stars
(subtract 2 if you voted for Australia to become a republic)

Looking back: 1987

In 1987, my PhD work at the University of Tasmania was beginning to take shape, and I produced a technical report with some preliminary results. I also started a side-project on functional programming language implementation which was to result in the design of a novel computer (a computer, sadly, that was never actually built, although many people joined in on the hardware aspects).

Also in that year, Supernova 1987A became visible within the Large Magellanic Cloud (picture above taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory). The programming language Perl also appeared on the scene, and Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld coined the term “self-organized criticality.” Prompted by a discovery in 1986, physicists held a conference session on high-temperature superconductivity, billed as the “Woodstock of physics.” The immediate benefits were somewhat over-hyped, however.

The usual list of new species described in 1987 includes Fleay’s barred frog from northern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland (picture below taken by “Froggydarb”).

In the world of books, James Gleick popularised chaos theory with his Chaos: Making a New Science, Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind (which Camille Paglia called “the first shot in the culture wars”), and Donald Trump co-wrote Trump: The Art of the Deal (nobody imagined that he would be President one day).

Horror writer Stephen King had a good year, with The Tommyknockers and several other novels being published. The term “steampunk” was coined in 1987, and Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, the sequel to Ender’s Game, won the Hugo Award for best science fiction or fantasy novel (it also won the Nebula Award in 1986, the year it was published).

In music, The Alan Parsons Project released their album Gaudi (which included the single below), U2 released The Joshua Tree, and Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton released Trio. The Billboard top song for 1987 was the rather silly 1986 single “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Films of 1987 included 84 Charing Cross Road (based on the wonderful 1970 book by Helene Hanff), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Japanese hit A Taxing Woman (マルサの女), sci-fi action film Predator, Australian film The Year My Voice Broke and, of course, the cult classic The Princess Bride (based on the 1973 novel by William Goldman).

In this series: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2009.

The Oikoumene of Ptolemy

I was reading recently about the Geographia of Ptolemy (written around 150 AD). This classic book applied Greek mathematical skills to mapping and map projection – and if there was one thing the Greeks were good at, it was mathematics. According to Neugebauer, Ptolemy believed the Oikoumene, the inhabited portion of the world, to range from Thule (63° North) to 16°25′ South, and 90 degrees East and West of Syene in Egypt.

The map above illustrates this Oikoumene, with a modern population overlay in red (data from SEDAC). Ptolemy was not too far wrong – today this region holds 80.6% of the world’s population, and the percentage would have been greater in antiquity.

Also shown on the map are some of the many cities listed in the Geographia. Open circles show Ptolemy’s coordinates (from here, adjusted to a Syene meridian), and filled circles show true positions. Ptolemy had reasonably good latitude values (an average error of 1.2° for the sample shown on the map), but much worse longitude values (an average error of 6.8°). The longitude error is mostly systemic – Ptolemy’s estimate of 18,000 miles or 29,000 km for the circumference of the earth was only 72% of the true value (several centuries earlier, Eratosthenes had come up with a much better estimate). If Ptolemy’s longitudes are adjusted for this, the average error is only 1.5°.

However, Ptolemy’s book deserves considerable respect – it is not surprising that it was used for more than a thousand years.