September 30, 2004

Science in Medieval Islam by Howard R. Turner

This is one of the few popular history books that I could find about the contributions of scientists who lived in the so-called Golden Age of Islamic culture from the seventh to the seventeenth centuries A.D. The books manages to give a fairly effective overview of a long and important historical period. While almost any scientific history published in the West will mention Aristarchus, for instance, very few bother to mention any of the major Islamic scientists who not only preserved the Greek scientific tradition but extended and improved on it.

In the rare cases when the ancient Islamic scientists' contribution is mentioned they are portrayed as caretakers of previous scientific knowledge which they transmitted back to Europe just in time for the Renaissance. The truth, of course, is much more interesting. This book is a lightweight introduction to this interesting and ignored time. It is an illustrated introduction and is a quick read with a lot of accompanying pictorial excerpts from the original scientific texts.

For me personally, the most interesting scientists mentioned in this book were:

  • Ibn al-Shatir's 14th century manuscript illustrating his concept of planetary motion. According to Turner, a diagram in Copernicus' Commentariolus (ca. AD 1530) bears remarkable resemblance to Ibn al-Shatir's schematic.
  • al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (from the 13th century).
  • Ibn al-Haytham's 11th century text: Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) and his theory of vision.

Turner makes some silly statements about the Arabic language being `more suited' than others for scientific pursuits, but apart from such minor failings the level of scholarship is very high.

Turner is also a bit jingoistic at times, but that is understandable since he has to counter the weight of all those stern Western Tradition professors who obsessively promote Greek contributions to Western culture at the cost of all else. With more books like this one perhaps historical teaching will be able to impart a more realistic tradition to students: that partnership between cultures and scientific interchange is not as modern as it seems.

%T Science in Medieval Islam
%T :an illustrated introduction
%A Howard R. Turner
%I University of Texas Press, Austin
%D 1995
%G ISBN: 0292781490 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0292781474 (hc)
%P 262
%K history, science

Review written: 2000/01/20

Posted by anoop at 03:38 PM

Bellwether by Connie Willis

I have read a few short stories by Connie Willis ("At the Rialto" was one excellent example), but I was unsure of picking up a novel length story by her since I don't usually have the patience for long time travel or alternative history plots which seem to be the themes behind her most popular novels. So it was with some trepidation that I accepted a friend's recommendation and started on "Bellwether". I'm glad that I did: this was one of those novels that reads so easily that I could finish it in one sitting.

The setting is not futuristic but a very commonplace (at least for 1996) research lab. Sandra Foster studies fads and trends obsessively, trying to find out why certain activities (with `low ability thresholds') or merchandising catch on for a brief period and then die out. Her life, and indeed the whole plot of this book, revolves around acquiring funding for her research. Like most researchers, the funding bureaucracy takes up 90% of her time. She even does research on getting funding to do research. A chance encounter with a fellow researcher in her lab who recently lost his funding for the study of chaos theory leads her closer to a scientific theory of fads. But can she retain her funding or her sanity before she makes her final discovery?

Like all caricatures, this book overstates its case about the contribution of pure chance to scientific breakthroughs. While it contains an impressive collection of cases where a new scientific discovery happened simply because the universe arrives at some state in a chaotic system. This is presented as the only `true' kind of breakthrough. Whatever `chaos theory' that Connie Willis assumes for the basic plot to work does not seem fit into any of the mathematical tools that actually comprise chaos theory (see "Chaos" by James Gleick).

In fact, the `Bellwether' theory as it is developed in the book has more to do with writing a novel than predictions in the real world. But the theory as implemented here does result in a wonderful story about scientific speculation and research. Good hard-sf in my book. Connie Willis inserts a fascinating collection of fads and accidental scientific breakthroughs (some of these should be familiar to everyone who has read `inspirational' science books for kids). A further enjoyable part of reading this book is that each chapter (there are about 50 of them) starts with a description of a different short-lived fad from time periods ranging from the 14th to the late 20th century.

One of my favorite fads from the book:

mah-jongg (1922-24) -- American game fad inspired by the ancient Chinese tiles game. As played by Americans, it was a sort of cross between rummy and dominoes involving building walls and then breaking them down, and `catching the moon from the bottom of the sea.' There were enthusiastic calls of `Pung!' and `Chow!' and much clattering of ivory tiles. Players dressed up in Oriental robes (sometimes, if the players were unclear on the concept of China, these were Japanese kimonos) and served tea. Although superseded by the crossword puzzle craze and contract bridge, mah-jongg continued to be popular among Jewish matrons until the 1960s.

For more information about chaotic systems and their initial discovery in the early 1960s to the current explosion of interest, see "Chaos" by James Gleick. It is a straightforward popular science treatment of the mathematics and science behind chaos theory.

Although introduced in the 1960s, chaos theory remained entrenched as a fad in the minds of many mathematicians and physicists. I remember taking a course on Recursion Theory in 1996 taught by a brilliant professor of mathematical logic, and a young student raising his hand in the first class asking impetuously whether the course would cover any chaos theory. The professor blinked twice and answered in the negative silently cursing to himself, I'm sure, about fads.

%T Bellwether
%A Connie Willis
%I Bantam Spectra Book
%D 1996
%G ISBN: 0553375628 (pb)
%P 247
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/05/13

Posted by anoop at 03:19 PM

September 24, 2004

Diaspora by Greg Egan

Quite easily one of the best among Greg Egan's novels, which is not saying much since Egan's novels have typically not been of the same high calibre as his short stories. In part, Greg Egan makes this novel a success by making it episodic with several shorter stories embedded within an overarching theme rather than a plot. In fact, one subplot is lifted directly from one of his earlier short stories: "Wang's Carpets".

While mathematicians convert coffee into theorems, Egan converts those theorems into sci-fi plots. For example, the chapter on "Wang's Carpets" provides an intriguing answer to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence by exploiting a theorem by Hao Wang which shows that when using tile patterns to tile the entire plane, the set of tile patterns can encode the moves of a Turing machine.

Egan's speculations are so varied and tied into so many scientific and mathematical facts, that Egan's writing rivals the best efforts in scientific non-fiction. The scientific speculations that pack each page this book are daring and encompass several fields including quantum gravity, planetary dynamics, atmospheric science, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, cellular automata, virtual reality and tiling theory to mention a few.

The central plot of "Diaspora" which takes up the third act in the novel reminded me strongly of one of Isaac Asimov's best hard-sf novels "The God's Themselves" ('against stupidity, the God's themselves contend in vain').

Some of the scientific speculations in this book (and other Egan novels) are visually presented using a series of Java applets on Greg Egan's web page.

Other Greg Egan books reviewed in Special Circumstances

%T Diaspora
%A Greg Egan
%I HarperPrism
%D 1998
%G ISBN: 0061057983 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0061052817 (hc)
%P 391
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/02/15

Posted by anoop at 10:03 PM

The Persian Expedition by Xenophon

Xenophon lived around the 4th century B.C. and this particular story is a fascinating insight into the military history of that time. He has written other books ranging from a treatise on Socrates to a history of his time. In this book he tells his own story of a doomed military expedition.

From the beginning, Xenophon is full of apparent contradictions: he clearly thinks that the Spartan way of life is superior to that of his native Athenians, despite or perhaps because of the fact that at the time the Spartans had dominion over Athens. He joins a mercenary army to fight in Persia for Cyrus who wants to take over the rule of Persia from his brother. Xenophon does this not because of the lucrative possibilities of plunder in a hostile land, but because he considers Cyrus to be the epitome of the ideal ruler: noble and brave in battle, yet gracious and generous to his friends.

Things fall apart quickly and Xenophon finds himself promoted up the chain of command responsible for thousands of Greek troops in the middle of Persia deep inside hostile territory faced with the problem of retreating to more friendly lands. This book is the story of this journey. For me, the story retained interest until the last few chapters where the problems Xenophon faces became repetitive. The last chapter (which ends the saga quite abruptly) tells us of the fall of a noble mercenary to common thievery.

%T The Persian Expedition
%A Xenophon
%I Penguin Books
%D 1949 (this edition)
%P 301
%K non-fiction, history

Review written: 1999/10/27

Posted by anoop at 09:28 PM

September 13, 2004

Graphviz Introduction

There is a good introduction to graphviz, the graph drawing tool from AT&T available at the Linux Journal web site.

Graphviz provides a general tool to visualize objects that are otherwise hard to see. One example of how graphviz can be used is in visualizing a forest which is a compact representation of a whole bunch of trees. It is compact because it does not duplicate common sub-trees. The figure below is one such forest that stores four simple trees (click on the figure to get a larger view).

It is a somewhat unorthodox view of a forest because entire (sub)trees are shown at each node instead of just non-terminals, so the forest as shown has some duplicated nodes (e.g. the four original trees) but it looks prettier. The figure above was produced by running some simple Perl code that I hacked together to convert a set of trees into a forest and store it in a format that can be read by graphviz tools.

For the original source code and binary distributions go to the Official GraphViz Web Site and the GraphViz Development Web Site. There is a very sophisticated native port to MacOSX.

There is a convenient Perl interface to graphviz available from CPAN and there is a C++ STL-style interface to graphviz that is part of the Boost library. There's even a MATLAB interface to graphviz.

Posted by anoop at 10:56 AM

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins

This is a short and precise book. It's greatest asset is that it does not stray too far from its point. A good first book on genetics and its relation to evolution.

Dawkins is not uniformly good in his analogies and explanations in this book and sometimes he goes off on a tangent unrelated to his main point, but the writing bears the mark of an accomplished science writer. Dawkins has published several other notable books on evolution including "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker". However, if you're looking to read Dawkins for the first time, this is a good book to evaluate his talents.

Famous biological facts about various species are usefully collected in one place here, for example, the complex mechanisms of communication among honeybees which are the among the canonical examples of complex universal language behaviour in a species other than humans.

Dawkins also spends time in the last chapter about how self-replication might arise and develop in complexity without considering details of how they occurred on Earth and thus speculating about how life might arise on other extrasolar planets.

If you have read other books by Dawkins on the subject, this book might have little new to offer other than a quick and entertaining read and the comforting thought that good science writing is not dead yet.

%T River Out of Eden
%T :a Darwinian View of Life
%A Richard Dawkins
%I BasicBooks
%D 1995
%G ISBN: 0465069908 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0465016065 (hc)
%P 172
%K science, genetics, evolution

Review written: 1999/09/24

Posted by anoop at 10:28 AM

September 09, 2004

The Symbolic Species by Terrence W. Deacon

This book might look like a popular science book describing all the wonderful research into neurolinguistics and what it has discovered about language acquisition. Unfortunately, the neuroscience described in this book, while fascinating, has little to do with language (apart from the parts mentioned later in this review). And the speculations about language acquisition in children and the evolution of language in the human species are poorly informed about linguistics.

Terrence Deacon only cites Chomsky's philosophy of language works and Pinker's popular book on the subject -- no mention anywhere of Principles and Parameters and any of the work on learning theory for natural language. As a result, at one point he equates Universal Grammar with `deep structure' which to anyone who has taken an introduction to linguistics course will make it clear what insights Deacon has about linguistics. This is not to say that he does not make some compelling points about the evolution of language: just that this book will not herald the revolution in thinking that Deacon clearly hopes it will accomplish. Particularly since Deacon's evolutionary `just-so stories' are also less than compelling.

The most interesting part of the book lies in Part Two: `Brain' which concentrates on the neuroscience of human and other species. The descriptions of the localization of language in the human brain and the motor control of vocalization are the most lucid passages in the book. After talking to some people who are more informed in this area, I also realized that the studies presented here about unconscious control that humans have over relaxation reaches and other aspects of planning in behaviour are quite important for the notion of composition in language syntax and semantics. Unfortunately, these links are barely touched upon and are not described in the detail that they deserve. Deacons spends most of his time instead talking about his co-evolution theory of language complexity in humans.

The co-evolution theory is fleshed out only in a fraction of this book and has many apparent problems which are left unresolved at the end of the book. However, Deacon presents some interesting examples of animal vocalization: Hoover the talking seal and language acquisition, without human intervention, by apes: the case of Kanzi. It is important to note that all the animal vocalization cases have been subject to some great skepticism in the psycholinguistics and linguistics literature. Deacons makes it clear that while humans share many communicative aspects with other primates and perhaps even seals, there is a clear jump in complexity in human language. Also interesting is the discussion on the communicative laughter in humans and other primates. It is a pity that the interesting parts alone were not strained out of this tome to make a shorter and more interesting book.

%T The Symbolic Species
%T :the co-evolution of language and the brain
%A Terrence W. Deacon
%I W. W. Norton & Company
%D 1997
%G ISBN: 0393038386 (hc)
%P 527
%K science, neuroscience, linguistics

Review written: 2000/06/05

Posted by anoop at 08:04 AM