Monday, October 25, 2004

The Kindness of Strangers
edited by Don George (Lonely Planet Books)
This sounds like a sappy book: tales of travellers who received unexpected and unwarrented kindness from strangers. It even has a foreword by the trendy Dalai Lama. (He's great, but I get skeptical because I see his name too often.) But actually the stories are mostly all really good and make me feel better about wandering around here in Switzerland and France. The worst case scenarios in my travels couldn't be as bad as the woman who got lost in an African desert in the middle of the night, or the woman who got stranded on the far side of a huge lake in Israel, or the guy stuck in a blizzard in the mountains of Afganistan. But somehow, people always came to their rescue, they found their friends, their lost items were returned, whatever.
It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science
edited by Graham Farmelo
This book of essays is mostly about great equations in physics. Perhaps I'm jaded about physics, but I thought many of the best essays were on other sciences. My favorites were those on an equation for chemistry in the ozone layer and an equation for chaotic systems. Not surprisingly, these were by science journalists, rather than scientists, and focused on the people in addition to the concepts. Unlike most popular science writing which avoids equations at all costs, this assumes that people can understand something of the equations, and can themselves glimpse some of their beauty.

Friday, October 01, 2004

yes, i'm a dork

Strange Beauty by George Johnson
By one of the best science writers out there, this biography of one of the century's great theoretical physicists, Murray Gell-Mann, was fascinating and actually had enough physics, explained well enough, that it has already helped me in my own writing about physics for my internship at CERN. Murray Gell-Mann was a child prodigy, but apparently suffered from it. He had an amazing memory, which helped him in his work, and he won a Nobel prize, but it doesn't seem to have made him especially happy. So whenever I rue my bad memory at least I know I'll forget the failings of my life and they won't eat me alive.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I fell in love with this book. It's a travel writer's tour through science, a world he knew almost nothing about before he started the book. I think his outsider view makes it a fresh treatment of material that mostly scattered across other popular books on physics, genetics, anthropology, geology, you name it. It's full of experts throughout history saying stupid things and rejecting ideas that turned out to be right. It's got underdogs who overcome adversity, like the janitor who wrote scientific papers that were eventually accepted as brillant--a real-life Good Will Hunting. And it stresses how amazing science is, but nonetheless how little we know. And it's got weird, disturbing facts like that a pillow that's been used to a few years is a good portion--like ten percent by weight--dead skin and dust mites.
The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene
If you're dying to understand weird, complex physics without actually crunching any numbers or slogging through equations, this is the book for you. It's a bit pedantic--it seems he thinks it's really important for the reader to understand certain distinctions that maybe aren't that big a deal to most people. But the writing is smooth and, for this kind of book, lively (though the attempts at humor fall flat). A lot of the physics is acted out by Simpson's characters, like Itchy and Scratchy attacking each other on a moving train to illustrate relativity.