Category Archives: Books

Written in Fire by Marcus Sakey

25812667In the world of Brilliance, Marcus Sakey’s trilogy following the adventures of Nick Cooper, a federal agent, some people are born with extraordinary abilities. They don’t shoot laser beams from their eyes, or turn to steel, or anything like that. Rather, they have abilities that all of us have to some degree, but amped up to a much higher level. Some can see the patterns of people moving and thus can slip through a crowd without notice. Others experience time more slowly that normal, and so can react to events much faster than the rest of us. Cooper’s skill allows him to read body language and anticipate what other people are going to do, a useful skill when tracking down criminals.

In Written in Fire, Sakey takes Cooper on his biggest adventure yet. Without going into detail and ruining the plot, things have gotten out of control between the US government and the Wyoming enclave of the brilliant (the ones born with these abilities), to the point that war may be inevitable. Cooper has to both determine who is doing what — who are the bad guys — and try to stop it.

The problem is, it isn’t clear who the bad guys are. No one thinks of themselves as a bad guy, but rather as someone who has to change the way things are. In Sakey’s world, nothing is black and white — everything is grey. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. No one is evil, per se, but rather commit evil acts in the name of some greater good, at least in their own mind. However, sometimes, events escape them, spinning out of control.

I really like the greyness of Sakey’s world, as it reflects my own views of the world. Further, while Sakey has created a world of extraordinary people, the themes touch on real world concerns: meritocracy, the rights of minorities, the fear of a changing world, terrorism, the government response to terrorism, personal freedom and responsibility. While Sakey’s world is one of science fiction, the foundation of his world is our own world. He has much to say about the world, but in an even way that presents a nuanced and, yes, grey picture that maybe can help promote dialog.

A couple of quotes that I liked that illustrate this point:

Mostly, people believe they’re doing the right thing. Even the ones who are doing bad things usually believe they’re heroes, that whatever terrible thing they’re doing is to prevent something worse.

When people are scared, it’s easy for them to decide anything different is evil.

He’s broken. Most real-life villains are. Usually it’s not their fault. But that doesn’t matter.

That’s the risk of summoning a demon; they don’t tend to follow orders.

Written in Fire is a fitting end to the Brilliance trilogy, taking it to the greatest of heights and the deepest of depths. It is a great ride that provokes reflection, the way all great fiction should.

Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley

1009394Ludwig Boltzmann was one of the fathers of statistical mechanics, that field of physics that treats large collections of particles and has allowed us to understand how materials, which are large collections of atoms, behave. That atoms comprise everything around us is almost self-evident today, but only about 100 years ago, many scientists did not believe atoms existed. Scientists like Boltzmann postulated atoms to derive theories that could explain, for example, how gases behave when you squeeze them or heat them up, but, at the time, they were a theoretical construct. Sure, earlier scientists and philosophers had speculated on the existence of atoms, all the way back to the ancient Greeks, but no one had ever seen an atom, so building a whole theory on the assumption that atoms exist seemed, to many scientists, the utmost folly. They thought it was pointless to build theories on hypothetical entities that might never be observed.

In spite of pushback from many established scientists, Boltzmann dedicated his life to developing theories that relied upon the assumption that atoms exist. He was only fully vindicated when Albert Einstein published his paper explaining the origin of Brownian motion, that motion you can see in a microscope in which a particle of pollen, for example, seems to wander randomly around the slide. What caused that motion? Einstein showed it was atoms bombarding the pollen grain from all sides. He did this by using Boltzmann’s theories.

David Lindley’s Boltzmann’s Atom explores the state of physics during the end of the 1800s and how scientists like Boltzmann laid the foundation for modern theories about atoms. Not only did Boltzmann’s work establish some of the pillars of statistical mechanics, but, in some sense, laid the groundwork for the forth-coming quantum revolution. Lindley describes the scientific atmosphere, especially the conflict between pure theorists like Boltzmann and more pragmatic scientists that felt that theoretical physics was not fundamentally science. Ultimately, Boltzmann’s ideas prevailed, but that basic conflict still exists, particularly as modern scientists build theories based on super-strings and membranes, entities that no one knows how we will ever see. The debates we have today about the future of science and whether such theories are really science remind one of the similar debate over atoms.

Not only does Lindley provide a fascinating history of science, but he delves into the life of Boltzmann himself, who was a complicated man. Boltzmann seemed to never be at peace, never happy with the perceived lack of recognition his theories had during his life. He always felt isolated and alone, never in the center of the science world. He always felt like he was missing out, much like the social wallflower that hangs back against the wall at the party. Lindley’s portrayal of Boltzmann and the other scientists of the era shows that scientists are all too human, with their ambitions, egos, and insecurities. That the pillars of such an important branch of physics were such people provides a reality check on how science actually occurs. Breakthroughs aren’t automatically embraced by the community, but often need time to be assimilated, often via the passing of the old guard, before they are truly appreciated. Science, like all human endeavors, can be messy, and the life of Boltzmann highlights this fact.

Having read this accounting of Boltzmann’s life right after that of Alexander Hamilton’s, I am struck by the anxieties we have today. We fret that politics has degenerated or that science is at the cusp of some existential crisis. We always believe that our situation is somehow special, that things are at a tipping point never encountered before. However, reading about these men and their roles in the history of science and the United States, respectively, one cannot but be struck by how little things have changed. Sure, politics are nasty now, but they were nasty way back during the founding. Sure, theoretical physics has an uncertain future, but it did so back when atoms were being discussed. Things are different, but they really aren’t at some level. As they say, those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Alexander Hamilton, American by Richard Brookhiser

fe06a2d4dca55648482cbdfdb0ecf9ed-w204@1xWith the current election season in full swing, there is a lot of talk about the Founders and the Constitution. I’ve had my own fascination with this period. When I was a kid, Thomas Jefferson was my boyhood hero. I thought he was the epitome of what people could strive for, an excellent scientist who made profound contributions to the founding of our nation and to the ideals of human liberties more generally. Because of my boyhood fascination with Jefferson, I’ve made it a point to read as much as I can about that period in our history.

Richard Brookhiser’s Alexander Hamilton, American, focuses on one of the lesser-known figures in our founding. Of course Hamilton features on the $10 bill, but he was one of the few people adorning our money that wasn’t a president (Benjamin Franklin being the other). Hamilton owes his prominence on our money to his role as the first Secretary of the Treasury, in George Washington’s administration. Before that, however, he was a commander in Washington’s army and an ardent defender of the Constitution as it was being ratified by the various states — he was the most prolific of the three authors of The Federalist Papers.

Brookhiser’s account of the life and contributions of Hamilton to our nation is both concise and well-delivered. He provides a good sense of the man, both in his personal and public lives. Hamilton was an accomplished lawyer, and this colored how he presented himself and how he argued, for example, for the Constitution. These days, we hold the Constitution almost in reverence, but back then, it was a document that was not necessarily going to be approved by the majority of the states. Hamilton did a lot in making sure it was.

As Secretary of the Treasury, he was instrumental in providing the new nation a secure financial foothold. While his proposals were controversial at the time, especially opposed by the so-called Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Essentially, the debate was the same as it is today: what is the role of the federal versus state governments in the governing of the nation.

Of the Founders, Hamilton had perhaps the most unique perspective. Rather than being the son of landed gentry in Virginia or other established families in the Americas, he was born in the West Indies and his parents died early in his life. He eventually made his way to what would become the United States to attend school. He was very much a self-made man, but at the same time, he recognized that his rise was often the consequence of luck, of being noticed by the right person to facilitate, for example, his move to the colonies. He believed in his skills and the need for hard work, but he also realized that he could easily have stayed as a poor man in the West Indies if not for some fortunate circumstances.

Just as with the Constitution itself, we have a tendency to romanticize the Founders. We almost think of them as infallible. However, one thing that becomes immanently clear upon reading about the lives of figures such as Hamilton and Jefferson is just how human they were. We often complain about the sad state of affairs of politics in our own times, but it isn’t so obvious that they were much better back then. The leaders of the newly-minted political parties — the Federalists and the Republicans — were constantly attacking one another, revealing dirty laundry, and insulting one another in the press. They wrote letters to other important people disparaging one another. Jefferson, in some sense, was one of the worst. It seems that Hamilton never got overly personal in his attacks, attacking ideas more than specific people, but he ultimately lost his life in a duel due to, in part, his machinations behind the scenes to ensure that Aaron Burr did not win the presidency. They were very political beasts back then, as they still are today.

Hamilton’s contributions to the formation of our nation cannot be understated. He established institutions that provided for the stability and ultimately prosperity of our nation. He also defended the basic ideals upon which our nation was founded with a vigor and depth that continue to inspire. Brookhiser’s biography is certainly worth a read both for the perspective on Hamilton but also the time of the Revolution and the Founding more generally.

The Martian by Andy Weir

9780804139021As a kid, I was drawn a lot more to fantasy than to science fiction, mostly because, in science fiction, you have to suspend your disbelief regarding things that are rooted in science, while in fantasy, that foundation is explicitly thrown out at the beginning. That is, in fantasy, with its magic, dragons, elves, and demons, there was no pretense that the world could exist or was based on some realistic description of nature. Rather, that idea was tossed away and a new world with new rules was built. Science fiction, on the other hand, was meant to be an extension or extrapolation of our scientific understanding of the world and thus, in my mind, required a greater deal of substance to justify the more outlandish places that extrapolation took the author.

That said, there is a genre of science fiction, called hard science fiction, that Wikipedia characterizes as having a much stronger emphasis on scientific accuracy. The Martian, by Andy Weir, is an excellent example of this genre.

I haven’t seen the movie, though I imagine many others have. I actually read the book back in the spring, before the movie came out. The plot details the exploits of an astronaut who finds himself abandoned on Mars. For those who haven’t read the book nor seen the movie, I won’t spoil the plot any further.

What I will say is that the plot takes scientific accuracy to an extreme, with the protagonist doing everything he can with the equipment he has to stay alive. Weir has been praised for the accuracy of his science by many professional scientists. Of course, there are a few quibbles here and there, but overall, the book strives for, and achieves, a very high degree of scientific authenticity. It is maybe not a surprise to learn that Weir grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

For a book that centers, for the most part, on one man lost on effectively a very remote and very plain island, the plot is fast paced and intriguing. On many occasions, one can’t help but wonder how the hero will solve the next problem he encounters.

If I have one major quibble, it isn’t with the science itself (though I’m certainly not qualified to judge most of it in any technical depth), but rather that one person could be such an expert in so many disciplines. That is a conceit that a novel like this much have, but it is the one place where maybe a suspension of disbelief is really necessary to enjoy the story.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon

41P0iwFCz0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes science advances because of the constant but relatively small contributions of many scientists focused on a field. However, revolutionary advances are often the child of special individuals who see the world in a different way than their contemporaries. Such is the case for electromagnetism and the two people who took it out of the shadows and laid a solid foundation for how electricity and magnetism work. These two scientists were Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, two of the preeminent scientists of their day. And their story is wonderfully captured by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon in Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field.

Faraday-Millikan-Gale-1913Faraday came from a poor family and was not formally schooled in science. However, his insights and dedication to empirical experimentation provided the foundation for our modern society, discovering not only how the electromagnetic field behaved (even proposing the field in the first place) but using that insight to invent the dynamo and the electric motor. All without any resort to a mathematical description of these effects.

James_Clerk_MaxwellMaxwell, on the other hand, came from a family that could provide for a solid education. Even so, Maxwell stood apart from his peers. Inspired by Faraday’s writings, Maxwell provided the mathematical foundation to Faraday’s observations that led to our ability to really exploit Faraday’s discoveries and subsequently to a myriad of technologies we take for granted today.

This book not only recounts the development of the theories of electromagnetism, from the state of the field when Faraday began his experiments to the researchers who followed in Faraday and Maxwell’s steps, but also is a fascinating expose on how science is done and what motivates science. I was fascinated to learn that Faraday had no particular application in mind when he performed his experiments. Even when he invented the dynamo and electric motor, he couldn’t conceive of an application. The electromagnetic field that Maxwell codified in his famous equations, likewise, did not appear to have any immediate application. It wasn’t until later that other researchers exploited these discoveries, inventing the radio, and using the electric motor and dynamo to create our cities that are powered by electricity. This story highlights the extreme benefit to society of science for science’s sake. Not all science has a clear application and often it is that science that seems most esoteric that transforms our lives the most.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone that has any interest in science or science history. This story captures the wonder that motivates so many people to pursue science in the first place and places the scientific endeavor in the broader context of its role in human development and society as a whole. Simply, this is one of the best books I’ve read and I think every budding scientist would do well to read it.