Category Archives: Books

Great Physicists

Over Thanksgiving vacation, I finished reading Great Physicists bt William H. Cropper. In this book, Cropper introduces us to 30 of the greatest physicists of all time, starting with Galileo and ending with Stephen Hawking. Even though many of these physicists made seminal contributions to multiple fields of physics, Cropper groups the scientists into nine sections, defined by sub-fields of physics. This presentation also lets him present the scientists in a rough chronological order that mirrors the development of physics. These sections include mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics, among others.Each chapter introduces one scientist, describes their early history, goes into their contributions to physics, and ends with the tale of each scientist’s later years. Cropper’s description of the contributions of these scientists does not skimp on the math. While complex integrals are not presented, the seminal equations along with their meaning are described. Their importance for physics are also discussed.I found this book to be marvelously interesting. Cropper does a great job with each scientist, not only describing the importance of his or her work, but putting it in the context of the development of physics as well as the state of the world during that scientist’s life. He describes how these scientists interacted, including the feuds amongst them. He also goes into the unique challenges each scientist encountered in growing up, trying to do their work, and in their later years.

I learned a great deal in reading this book. First, I was a bit dismayed by how much of my physics I have lost since school. While in the middle of graduate school I may have been more familiar with the science presented in this book, now, as I don’t use most of it on a daily basis, I am not as crisp with most of it as I would like. For that alone, this book is a nice primer or refresher of the basics of physics, covering all of the key fields.

As interesting are the lives of these men and women. Most of them were very unique personalities and most also went through a great deal in their pursuit of science. Many were very dedicated, almost obsessed, people. Many had some kind of mental issue, often in the form of depression. I was particularly captivated by the lives of Gibbs and Boltzmann, two of the most interesting but more unknown of the figures presented in this book.

I was struck, in reading this book, by how little most of us know of these great figures who have transformed our lives more than probably any other set of people. Not only did the people presented here radically transform our view of the world, from the development of Newtonian physics and the view of the world as a sophisticated clock to quantum mechanics and its revelation of the world as indeterminate and “fuzzy”, but their work led to the incredible technological advances science has afforded us. In my view, these people deserve greater recognition by society. They should be our celebrities, our rock stars.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is considering any kind of life in science, especially students in the midst of studying science. The amazing work of the people Cropper presents is an inspiration. The achievements of these physicists are also daunting as they seem so incredible, especially considering the state of science at the time they were made and the world conditions they were made in. The science that these people developed was amazing, and is difficult to understand even with the advantage of the further development and testing we now enjoy.

More treatments such as this book would be welcome for other fields. The format was great, with each chapter not overly long, but giving enough detail to give a basic understanding of each scientist. I would be interested in such an approach for historical figures, including say explorers of the US west or pirates, or mathematicians, etc.

The Texian Iliad

My reading has really taken a hit these days. It is taking me much longer to get through books as I’ve just got so many other things I’m doing. The last book I read was The Texian Iliad. I had picked it up during my visit to San Antonio and the Alamo in March. So, you can see how long it’s taken me to get through it.

That isn’t any kind of criticism of the book itself, though. I found the book very interesting and readable. My father-in-law, visiting for a weekend, got through the book during his visit. So, it is a highly engaging book.

It is a history of the Texas revolution against Mexico. It starts of with the initial confrontation, building up to the battle of the Alamo, and ending with the defeat of Santa Ana. The book is well written and gives a lot of insight into the people behind the war.

I’m always amazed when I read books on the history of war by just how much luck is involved. In this particular case, it seems that the initial skirmishes were nothing more than one shot and a flesh wound. This eventually escallated to the Alamo. And it seems that, much of the time, the Texans were victorious in spite of the incompetence of their commanders and government. But, on the other hand, if the Mexicans had just had a competent general of their own, they probably would have easily crushed the rebellion.

There were two things I found very interesting. First, the number of Basque names that popped up. Many of the leaders especially on the Mexican side had Basque ancestry.

Second, I found it very interesting how the war started and built up. It seems that a lot of the tensions that led to the war were the result of what would today be called illegal immigrants. But these immigrants were from the US, coming into what was then Mexican soil and settling the land without permission from the Mexican government. It seems inconceivable today that such a thing would be tolerated much less lead to a war of independence that was successful. It seems particularly ironic to me that much of the complaints against illegal immigration from Mexico are focused in areas like Texas which owe their current existence to equivalent forces.

Overall, I learned a great deal from this book. Each chapter begins with a small vignette about the different types of people involved in the war. I actually found these a little distracting, as they interrupted the flow of the history. However, they are easily skipped for future reading. My father-in-law found them really interesting, so I think it depends on personality how well they are received.

I really enjoyed learning about the different leaders involved and their personalities. Famous men such as Bowie, Houston, Austin, and Boone are described, their contributions to the war detailed. Again, it is amazing that the Texans won in spite of the personal conflicts between these leaders.

Overall, this was an excellent book. It delves into the actions behind the Texan war of independence, detailing the battles and the strategy behind them. It also describes the people responsible for the war, both the heroes and the villains. I highly recommend it.

San Francisco

Earlier this week, I was in San Francisco for the American Chemical Society meeting, which was held downtown, in the Moscone Center. On the last day, I took a bit of time for myself to wander around and see a little bit of the city. I am a book buff, and so I searched out some book stores. I started my day by finding a comic book store, Things From Another World. There is only one comic book store in Santa Fe, and they tend to have a smaller selection. TFAW had a good selection of graphic novels/trade paperbacks, which is what I buy as they are just easier to put on a bookshelf. I ended up getting The Freshmen and Powers Vol 5: Anarchy. Powers has been a great series so far, and The Freshmen looks very entertaining.

I then headed to a couple of bookstores around Market Street, Cody’s Books and Stacey’s Bookstore. Both specialize in new books. I tend to look for a few different but consistent things whenever I find a new bookstore: Science and Basque books. Neither had any books on Basques I could find, and the Science selection was ok, but not great. Both stores were pleasant, but didn’t quite satisfy my book cravings.

So, I headed down Sansome Street toward a Basque restaurant — more on that later. I was in the mood for some coffee, which is easy to find in downtown SF — as long as you want Starbucks. There literally seems to be a Starbucks on every other corner. I did find something else, though, a place called Morning Brew Coffee and Tea. I got my standard vanilla latte and they did a good job. It wasn’t overly sweet or bitter. Very nice coffee.

I continued down Sansome until it met Columbus and right about there I ran into the San Francisco Brewing Company. I noticed it because it was the only building that had steam coming out of a pipe on the side. I had their Shanghai Pale Ale, which was very good. Not too hoppy (though I tend to like hoppy beer), so it was a little lighter than most IPAs. And the atmosphere reminded me of the College Inn Pub and Big Time in Seattle, with a wood decor that was a bit worn. Highly recommended. I got a souvenir glass to remember the occasion.

Just down the street from the SF Brewing Company, I found a cool bookstore, City Lights Books. It is one of those stores where the bookshelves are shoved in every corner and books are everywhere. It reminded me of a smaller scale Elliot Bay Bookstore in Seattle. They had a good diversity and selection of books and I found two that I picked up: Great Physicists and Time of the Rabies. The first describes the lives and work of 30 famous physicists and the second is by Robert Laxalt, probably the greatest Basque-American author. This short novella is supposed to be about a rabies epidemic that hits a Basque sheep-rancher. It should be interesting. Any book fans in SF should check out City Lights Books.
I continued on down Columbus towards my goal, which was right around Union and Columbus. That was the Iluna Basque restaurant and it’s spin-off Eguna Basque. These names mean “Basque Night” and “Basque Day”. Accordingly, Eguna Basque is a cafe specializing in sandwiches and is open from 7AM to 5PM. I stopped by there first for a late lunch and had the Stuffed Croissant, which was a croissant sandwich with ham and swiss. It was warmed and served with a small side salad. It was very reasonably priced ($5.50), especially compared to the paninis we were getting in Union Square. The decor is a little spartan, but still very nice. Some of the tables are made from old wine barrels, which is pretty cool. And there were photographs on the wall as well.

I walked off some of the sandwich before heading to Iluna Basque for a small dinner. It’s decor is a bit more elegant, reflecting the night-time crowd it draws. I had a beer, some Marinated Lamb Skewers with Rosemary, and a selection of Basque Cheeses with Membrillo, for $20 exactly (plus tax and tip). The lamb was very good; the rosemary really added to the flavor. And the cheeses were excellent. That, with some bread, was a very filling dinner. I ate at the bar, though there were a number of tables for two plus a family-style table in the center of the room. None of the meals, though, are family style. They are all either tapas or individual entres. They had some variants on Basque staples, such as squid in its own ink (on Spanish rice), piquillo peppers stuff with cod, and various fish dishes. People who eat seafood would do well here, and there seemed to be enough purely vegetarian choices for those who eat neither seafood nor meat.

Afterwards, I headed back to my hotel along Powell Street. I stopped in a Borders, just to hang out for a moment, but didn’t see anything that really caught my eye. Overall, though, it was an excellent day spent exploring some of the city. I had no real disappointments in any of the places I stopped. And the views of San Francisco down the rolling streets are always incredible.

Picasso’s War by Russell Martin

One of my favorite pasttimes is reading. While I never feel quite up to writing a full review of the books I read, I do like to at least write down my thoughts, so that I can remember better what I read. From time to time, I’m going to share the thoughts I have on some of the books I’ve read. Today, I’m posting my thoughts on two books I read a while ago, Picasso’s War and A Whale Hunt.

Started reading: ~05/01/03
Finished reading: 05/26/03
Notes written: 05/28/03

This book tells the story of Guernica, the famous painting by Picasso. It tells the whole story, starting with the events that lead to the creation of the painting and following Guernica as it moves from museum to museum, becoming ever more the important symbol it has become today. In the telling of the story of Guernica, we come to understand better the current political climate in Spain and the Basque Country, and why things are still so difficult in the region, why some things are so difficult to forgive.

Any history of the painting Guernica necessarily starts with the town Gernika and the Spanish Civil War. This book does an amazing job of recounting that market day when the town was destroyed by German bombers, when the fleeing citizens where gunned down by machine gunners flying overhead. A sense of outrage filled me as I read the recreation of that day, based on accounts of people that were there, an outrage that left me angry at the governments that did this, that let this happen by ignoring events in Spain. Even though I was only reading about it nearly 65 years later, I still felt an anger that can only pale to that felt by the people that went through this, who’s grandparents were there, and it helped me understand why people are still angry today.

After the bombing comes Picasso’s creation. The book follows the efforts of the Spanish Republic to get Picasso to paint something for its exhibit at the world fair in Paris and the creative process that led to Guernica. We follow the painting from Picasso’s studio, to the world’s fair, to New York where it is held in safe keeping until democracy returns to Spain, and finally to Madrid, where it currently resides. We learn that efforts to get the painting to the Basque Country, to be displayed near the site that inspired it, have been met with rejection. That this symbolic act of reconciliation between the Basques and the Spanish government has yet to occur.

The story of Guernica is very much a history of the modern Basque Country. Guernica has become the modern symbol of the horrors of warfare, resonanting not only with the Basque people, but also with the Japonese, the Germans, and other peoples who have first hand witnessed these horrors. It is a telling fact that the US asked a reproduction of Guernica at the UN to be covered when the resolutions on military action in Iraq were being brought to a vote. This painting symbolizes all that is horrible and aweful in war, all of the suffering that occurs. In telling the story of the painting, Picasso’s War reminds us that all wars result in suffering, and that forgiveness is not easy.

A Whale Hunt by Robert Sullivan

Started reading: ~02/27/01
Finished reading: ~03/14/01
Notes written: 03/27/01

This book describes the observations and experiences of a journalist who decides to spend a significant amount of time with the Makah as they prepare for their hunt of the grey whale. Significant is something like at least a year, or so it seems (I don’t think it is ever explicitly stated). He gets to know the tribal members, especially those directly involved in the hunt, and meets many of the other people involved, including the protesters. The book focuses on Wayne Johnson, who is the captain of the hunting crew and who is also the person that seems to have the most to gain from the hunt in the sense of what the hunt stands for, from a tribal perspective: Wayne is, in some sense, lost, and it is through the hunt and the responsibilities he has during the hunt that he attempts to find his place in the tribe and the outside world, much in the same way that the tribe is attempting through the hunt in the first place.

We meet many people of the tribe, most of whom are in favor of the hunt, though the tribal politics rears its head and ostracizes some of the members. The story begins when the tribe first announces they are going to hunt a whale, and goes through their efforts of finding the right kind of gun to do a humane kill, of building a canoe, of training for the hunt, and of actually hunting the whale. Not much is said of why they are using the gun, a point that made many people feel that the hunt was not traditional. It seems that the Makah wanted to make the hunt as humane as possible, and the traditional way would have been to harpoon the whale and attach floats that would slowly weaken the whale until it died of blood loss and exhaustion. So, while the hunt was not conducted in the most traditional form, it wasn’t done so because they wanted to keep the whale suffering to a minimum. In addition, it is mentioned that the Makah always adapted to new materials that they encountered that helped in their hunts.

In the middle of the story, the author makes a pilgrimage to Mexico, to a bay where the grey whales are known to migrate to and where they birth. During this trip he learns quite a bit about the whales and their relationship with humans, about the white hunting trade that occurred there. He meets some of the protesters who are based in California and we learn a bit about why they are fighting the hunt.

Overall, we are learning about how the tribe learns from the hunt, from their efforts to prepare and from the final hunt itself. They attend meetings with other whale hunting groups in the world, and invite them to the reservation. They have a big feast after the hunt in which many people, mostly other tribes, come and celebrate. The hunt is mostly viewed as a restoration of their customs and as an affirmation of their individuality as a culture. At times, one feels that part of the purpose of the hunt is just to be defiant, to tell the world that they are tired of being told what to do and that they are going to do what they want. However, they do get all of the legal permissions that they need to conduct the hunt.

In the end, it is hard to say what they accomplished. Certainly, at least temporarily, the tribal members felt more pride in being Makah. The children were proud of their ancestry, they wanted to participate in a hunt. The world learned something, though not necessarily positive, about the Makah. And Wayne Johnson was able to accomplish something, to do something for his people, to find a place for himself, at least for a time. Only time will tell if this will be the beginning of a mini-renaissance for the Makah, but it seems that it at least has the potential to be so.