September 26, 2006
William Congreve and the Rockets of Mysore
From This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, by William E. Burrows, 1998 (ISBN: 0-3757-5485-7)
The first major battles with rockets that involved Europeans occurred during a revolt against the British which began in 1781 in the Mysore region of southwest India and lasted through 1799. The Indians fired crude but effective rockets against British regulars during battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799. "No hall could be thicker," a young English officer named Bayly lamented in his diary. "Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them."
The Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal was therefore ordered to design and develop a dependable war rocket that could be produced in large quantities as standard equipment for the artillery. This was done by William Congreve, a Cambridge-educated socialite who was an intimate of the Royal Family and whose father was commandant of the Royal Artillery and Woolwich's comptroller. Congreve had studied law and run a newspaper. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, and in the aftermath of the battles in India (and in anticipation of others with France), he responded by turning his keen intellect and imagination to inventing a better rocket.
After at least three years of experiments, Congreve published A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System, in November 1807. Even then there were those who fretted about national security and the danger of leaks, and since Congreve was one of them, he happily "sanitized" his report. "In the following pages I have cautiously avoided any disclosure which might lead to a discovery of the interior structure and combination of the rocket, on which all powers depend, this rule I have observed for obvious reasons," the inventor wrote with evident pride.
Noting that the Indian rockets had had a range of less than a thousand yards, Congreve designed one that traveled twice as far. It was an iron cylinder stuffed with seven pounds of compressed powder, and it weighed thirty-two pounds. The breakthroughs were using metal "carcasses" instead of paperboard; refining the powder through granulation machines to give more predictable results; and using pile driver presses to compact the powder so it was a denser and therefore more even-burning charge. He also incorporated noses into his design--warheads, in today's jargon--that could carry a variety of munitions, including incendiary, shrapnel, explosive, or shot. Other models would follow in relatively quick succession.
Congreve realized early that rockets were particularly suited to naval warfare because, unlike cannons, they did not recoil and destabilize the ship. He therefore suggested that his 2,000-yard model be used as part of a plan, soon accepted, "for the annoyance of Boulogne" by the Royal Navy. Ten boats were fitted with incendiary rockets for an attack on the French port city on November 21, 1805, but a fierce storm prevented the attack. A second attempt, on October 8, 1806, was successful. "In about half an hour above 2,000 rockets were discharged," Congreve reported with evident relish. "The dismay and astonishment of the enemy were complete--not a shot was returned--and in less than ten minutes after the first discharge, the town was discovered to be on fire." The rockets were used with even greater success to shell Copenhagen in 1807 and then other European cities. And Congreve was at least indirectly responsible for the national anthem of the United States. On the night of September 13-14, 1814, his ubiquitous rockets were used to shell Baltimore's Fort McHenry, causing the "red glare" that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Previously posted: a review of This New Ocean.
December 23, 2005
From The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, ISBN: 0679451145), I quote footnote number 75 in its entirety:
The Copernican revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its revelation of the immensity of space, dealt a profound blow to man's sense of being at the center of the universe; this was voiced by no one more poignantly than Pascal: "The whole visible world is but an imperceptible speck," he lamented; man was now "lost in this remote corner of Nature," closed into "the tiny cell where he lodges." And Kepler spoke of a "hidden and secret horror," a sense of being "lost" in the infinity of space.
The eighteenth century, with its close attention to rocks and fossils and geologic processes, was to radically alter man's sense of time as well (as Rossi, Gould and McPhee, in particular, have emphasized). Evolutionary time, geologic time, deep time, was not a concept which came naturally or easily to the human mind, and once conceived, aroused fear and resistance.
There was great comfort in the feeling that the earth was made for man and its history coeval with his, that the past was to be measured on a human scale, no more than few score of generations back to the first man, Adam. But now the biblical chronology of the earth was vastly extended, into a period of eons. Thus while Archbishop Ussher had calculated that the world was created in 4004 B.C., when Buffon introduced his secular view of nature -- with man appearing only in the latest of seven epochs -- he suggested an unprecedented age of 75,000 years for the earth. Privately, he increased this time scale by forty -- the original figure in his manuscripts was three million years -- and he did this (as Rossi notes) because he felt that the larger figure would be incomprehensible to his contemporaries, would give them too fearful a sense of the "dark abyss" of time. Less than fifty years later, Playfair was to write of how, gazing at an ancient geologic unconformity, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time."
When Kant, in 1755, published his Theory of the Heavens, his vision of evolving and emerging nebulae, he envisaged that "millions of years and centuries" had been required to arrive at the present state, and saw creation as being eternal and immanent. With this, in Buffon's words, "the hand of God" was eliminated from cosmology, and the age of he universe enormously extended. "Men in Hooke's time had a past of six thousand years," as Rossi writes, but "those of Kant's times were conscious of a past of millions of years."
Yet Kant's millions were still very theoretical, not yet firmly grounded in geology, in any concrete knowledge of the earth. The sense of a vast geologic time filled with terrestial events, was not to come until the next century, when Lyell, in his Principles of Geology, was able to bring into one's vision both the immensity and the slowness of geologic change, forcing into consciousness a sense of older and older strata stretching back hundreds of millions of years.
Lyell's first volume was published in 1830, and Darwin took it with him on the Beagle. Lyell's vision of deep time was a prerequisite for Darwin's vision too, for the almost glacially slow processes of evolution from the animals of the Cambrian to the present day required, Darwin estimated, at least 300 million years.
Stephen Jay Gould, writing about our concepts of time in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, starts by quoting Freud's famous statement about mankind having had to endure from science "two great outrages upon its naive self-love" -- the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. To these, Freud added ("in one of history's least modest pronouncements," as Gould puts it) his own revolution, the Freudian one. But he omits from his list, Gould observes, one of the greatest steps, the discovery of deep time, the needed link between the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. Gould speaks of our difficulty even now in "biting the fourth Freudian bullet," having any real, organic sense (beneath the conceptual or metaphorical one) of the reality of deep time. And yet this revolution, he feels, may have been the deepest of them all.
It is deep time that makes possible the blind movement of evolution, the massing and honing of minute effects over eons. It is deep time that opens a new view of nature, which if it lacks the Divine fiat, the miraculous and providential, is no less sublime in its own way. "There is grandeur in this view of life," wrote Darwin, in the famous final sentence of the Origin, that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
From The Island of the Colorblind by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, ISBN: 0679451145), I quote footnote number 74 in its entirety:
Marie Stopes was born in London in 1880, showed insatiable curiosity and scientific gifts as an adolescent and despite strong disapprobation (similar to that which delayed the entry of women into medicine at the time) was able to enter University College, where she obtained a Gold Medal and a first-class degree in botany. Her passion for paleobotany was already developing by this time, and after graduating she went to the Botanical Institute in Munich, where she was the only woman among five hundred students. Her research on cycad ovules earned her a Ph.D. in botany, the first ever given a woman.
In 1905 she received her doctorate in science from London University, making her the youngest D.Sc. in the country. The following year, while working on a massive two-volume Cretaceous Flora for the British Museum, she also published The Study of Plant Life for Young People, a delightful book which showed her literary power and her insight into youthful imaginations, no less than her botanical expertise. She continued to publish many scientific papers, and in 1910 another popular book, Ancient Plants. Other writings, romantic novels and poems, were also stirring in her at this time, and in A Journal from Japan she gave poignant fictional form her own painfully frustrated love for an eminent Japanese botanist.
By this time other interests were competing with botany. Stopes wrote a letter to The Times supporting women's suffrage, and became increasingly conscious of how much sexually, as well as politically and professionally, women needed to be liberated. From 1914 on, though there was an overlap with paleobotany for a few years, Stopes's work dealt essentially with human love and sexuality. She was the first to write about sexual intercourse in a matter-of-fact way, doing so with the same lucidity and accuracy she had in her description of the fertilization of cycad ovules -- but also with a tenderness which was like a foretaste of D.H. Lawrence. Her books Married Love (1918), A Letter to Working Mothers (1919), and Radiant Motherhood (1920) were immensely popular at the time; no one else spoke with quite her accent or authority.
Later Stopes met Margaret Sanger, the great American pioneer of birth control, and she became its chief advocate in England. Contraception, Its Theory, History and Practice was published in 1923, and this led to the setting up of Marie Stopes clinics in London and elsewhere. Her voice, her message, had little appeal after the Second World War, and her name, once instantly recognized by all, faded into virtual oblivion. And yet, even in her old age, her paleobotanical interests never deserted her; coal balls, she often said, were really her first love.
November 11, 2005
Mapping the Deep: the Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science by Robert Kunzig
A readable introduction to ocean science, including oceanography, ocean cartography, marine biology and the effect of oceans on the environment.
What follows is a brief summary of the book by chapter:
Kunzig starts off in `Space and the Ocean' with the somewhat contentious issues surrounding exactly how Earth got its water in its formative years.
The chapters `Sounding the Depths', `The Rift in the Atlantic', `A Map of the World' and `The Seafloor at Birth' examine the history and current practice of mapping the depths of the ocean. The technical challenge of constructing a map was considerable since light does not penetrate very far into the ocean. Also interesting are the various geographical details that have been uncovered over the years. Under the seemingly flat ocean are deep-sea volcanoes, ridges, abyssal trenches and other features which in many cases dwarf their equivalents on land.
`Kingdom of the Holothurians', `Islands in the Deep', `Life on a Volcano', `Fantastic, Glistening Jellies', and `Animal Lights' covers the variety of life hidden under the ocean. Entire species were found when scientists first went looking for life under the ocean. Life which also provides a window into the evolutionary past, as well as into life that is quite unlike life anywhere else on Earth. Particularly striking are the organisms that can live off the hydrogen sulphide produced by volcanic activity with a process called chemosynthesis, just like other life on Earth uses energy from carbon dioxide with photosynthesis. They are the most alien lifeforms currently known.
`Greening the Ocean', `Twilight of the Cod' and `Where the Water Goes' provide a crucial insight into the effect humans have had on marine biology. Overfishing and the destruction of various fishing industries are given a detailed analysis here. As usual, nobody listens to the scientists and perhaps its just as well since sometimes the answers to scientific questions are not entirely clear. On the other hand, leaving the decisions in the hands of politicians seems to be definitely a bad idea and any other alternative even slightly thoughtful would be preferable.
Global warming wonks will appreciate `The Climate Switch' which is dedicated to the surprising effects on the global weather with simple weather control experiments in the ocean. A simple addition of iron into the ocean turns out to have a massive impact on the amount of plankton which in turn causes a measurable drop in carbon dioxide levels and fish populations. However, despite these seemingly easy solutions to the problems caused by carbon dioxide pollution, the risks are high. Nobody really knows what would happen, and science-fiction is full of cautionary tales about the hubris of weather control.
Robert Kunzig has several complaints about the lack of funding for ocean science and exploration as compared to the funding (not particularly extensive either) for astronomy and space exploration. It isn't surprising that this happens. Space is a much larger frontier and is mostly easily visible while remaining inaccessible at the wrong end of a gravity well, in constrast ocean science requires a greater imagination while remaining tantalizingly close at hand. This book provides a jump-start.
Perhaps someday we will be doing ocean science on a planet other than our own. When we get to Europa, as suggested in the final chapter of this book `Time and the Ocean', we don't want to wish then that we had done our homework now.
%T Mapping the Deep %T :the Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science %A Robert Kunzig %I W. W. Norton: New York, London %D 2000, 1999 %G ISBN: 0393320634 (pb) %P 345 %Z originally published under the title The Restless Sea: Exploring the World Beneath the Waves %K science, oceanography
Review written: 2002/05/17
October 21, 2005
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
This is the definitive history of the Apollo missions. Based on interviews with 23 Apollo astronauts along with a number of others involved in the missions, this book focuses on the actual visceral experiences of the astronauts and the scientists and engineers on the ground for what almost reads like an oral history of the entire Apollo space program.
The main advantage of reading a book focused on the Apollo missions is that the focus is not only on Apollo 11 which landed the first man on the moon or the ill-fated Apollo 13 which suffered catastrophic failures, but the entire history all the way upto the final Apollo 17 mission to the moon. The scientific exploration that was part of the final few missions is a story that is seldom told and is as compelling as any of the other stories in Apollo.
This book was also the inspiration for the HBO mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon". While the TV series faltered in a few episodes, this book never fails to hit the mark. In my experience, it was beneficial to watch the mini-series along with reading the book.
The following missions are the topic of this book:
Apollo 7 Oct 11-22, 1968
crew: Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, R. Walter Cunningham
Apollo 8 Dec 21-27, 1968
crew: Frank Borman, James A. Lovell Jr., William A. Anders
Apollo 9 Mar 3-13, 1969
crew: James A. McDivitt, David R. Scott, Russell L. Schweickart
Apollo 10 May 18-26, 1969
crew: Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, Eugene A. Cernan
Apollo 11 Jul 16-24, 1969
crew: Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin Jr.
location: Sea of Tranquility
Apollo 12 Nov 14-24, 1969
crew: Charles Conrad Jr., Richard F. Gordon, Alan L. Bean
location: Ocean of Storms
Apollo 13 Apr 11-17, 1970
crew: James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert, Fred W. Haise Jr.
Apollo 14 Jan 31-Feb 9, 1971
crew: Alan B. Shepard Jr., Stuart A. Roosa, Edgar D. Mitchell
location: Fra Mauro
Apollo 15 Jul 26-Aug 7, 1971
crew: David R. Scott, Alfred M. Worden, James B. Irwin
Apollo 16 Apr 16-27, 1972
crew: John W. Young, T. Kenneth Mattingly II, Charles M. Duke Jr.
location: Descartes highlands
Apollo 17 Dec 7-19, 1972
crew: Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, Harrison H. Schmitt
%T A Man on the Moon %A Andrew Chaikin %I Penguin Books %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0140272011 (pb) %P 670 %K non-fiction
Review written: 2002/02/23
August 02, 2005
Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson
© Image from
This book is a revised version of the Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland by Freeman Dyson in April-November 1985. The original title of the lectures was `In Praise of Diversity'. Dyson changed the title for this book to a vague description of the content. The content itself ranges in nature so greatly from chapter to chapter that no succinct description seems possible. Some of lectures that were actually delivered by Dyson do not appear in this book. Those lectures were published separately as a book called "The Origin of Life".
The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be about `Natural Theology'. Usually, when famous scientists lecture about religion they turn into babbling idiots. Dyson avoids this fate by not saying much about religion at all. He offers his view of scientific humanism which is a plea for civility rather than an offer to mediate between the issues usually raised between the firmly religious and the firmly scientific. There is a lot of nonsense that goes on at this frontier and Dyson does not say much to address this. He is clearly not interested in spending a whole lecture series on this topic.
He quickly departs on an episodic guide to the scientific answers to cosmology and the origin of life. It is interesting that this kind of science has chipped away at the authority with which religious thinking usually answers such questions. Dyson spends some time discussing the invention of DNA (invented by whom? RNA, it turns out according to the generally accepted theories). He talks of the theories of Alexander Oparin ('The Origin of Life on Earth', 1924) and Manfred Eigen ('Steps Towards Life : A Perspective on Evolution'). Dyson also spends time talking about his own particular theory of the dual origin of life. All of this is pretty much outdated since the publication of this book and if you wish to follow up on this topic there are several new books that might be better to read (e.g. R. F. Gesteland and J. F. Atkins (eds) (1993). The RNA World. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York.) Dyson also gives Schrödinger a lot of unwarranted credit for the idea of DNA and the theories of the origin of life. Read "Genome" by Matt Ridley for a different picture of the history behind Schrödinger's involvement in the discovery of DNA.
Dyson tries to do many things in this book. One of them is to try and predict the future. He predicts the rise of biotechnology, space science and artificial intelligence. I guess one out of three isn't bad. This notion of predicting the future also intersects with the uncertainty at the time caused by the Cold War. Many chapters are devoted to the burning issues of the day. With the fall of the Soviet Union, these concerns have vanished even though nuclear weapons remain with us in greater numbers than in the 80s. Dyson hopes that nuclear weapons might become the target of planned obsolescence just as carts were replaced by camel caravans in the Middle East and guns by swords in feudal Japan. No such future has occured. He does not dwell on the disturbing question of what could nuclear weapons obsolete?
Dyson also spends a lot of time on the notion of technology and offers several `green' ways of producing power, for example, which would fit right in with modern green power movements which emphasize clean self-sufficient power for small communities over large and dirty power grids.
Every avid reader of science fiction must read this book. In the course of his view of the future based on science, Dyson picks out the speculative writing of many famous scientists especially from late in the 19th and early in the 20th century. Their ideas seem shockingly contemporary when compared to several current sf ideas. Notable mentions are:
- Excerpts from "Dreams of Earth and Sky" by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky which feature animal-plants that inhabit a zero-gravity and zero-pressure environment with specialized adaptations including chemical solar panels that are span several thousand square meters.
- Dyson's own space science program that he calls AstroChicken. A speculative vision of planetary science conducted by a small 1 kg `caterpillar' probe that is launched cheaply from the Earth which exploits ideas from biotechnology to grow into a large `butterfly' with solar sails for wings. Biotechnology also permits the butterfly to `eat' resources from various sources to produce chemical rocket propulsion inspired by the Bombardier beetle. It would also be artificially intelligent and would be able to get itself by using planetary gravity in slingshot maneuvers to the outer Solar Sytem.
- Excerpts from the book "Daedalus" by J. B. S. Haldane written in 1924 which predict the rise of genetic engineering in the 1940s. Changes wrought by this technology actually changing the face of the planet Earth ('the sea assumed the intense purple colour that seems so natural to us').
Dyson uses these examples and others to compare and contrast the use of `big' science as epitomized by the Space Shuttle and small, cheap and often repeated science such as the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) which is controlled by one console at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. For more passionate arguments against 'big' science in space, see "Entering Space" by Robert Zubrin.
In the final chapter, Dyson realizes that he hasn't said much about science and religion and proceeds to give an admirably short summary of the main philosophical problems in this area and proceeds to quickly impugn himself by calling the Anthropic principle 'illuminating' (for another point of view, see "The Night is Large" by Martin Gardner) and then further sullying himself by calling free will a manifestation of quantum mechanics (sharing this rickety stage with Penrose, Dyson does not even acknowledge the many critics of this position).
In these lectures, Dyson manages to talk about the many things that he has spent time thinking about. The end result is more interesting than coherent. The balance in this equation is where it should be.
%T Infinite in All Directions %T :Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland (April-November 1985) %A Freeman Dyson %I New York: Harper and Row %D 1988 %G ISBN: 0060390816 (pb) %P 319 %K science, politics, religion
Review written: 2001/04/11
July 14, 2005
Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization by Robert Zubrin
Robert Zubrin is a plasma physicist and rocket scientist and a well known advocate for the human exploration of Mars. He is the president of the Mars Society that has the above purpose. He has written a previous book on this subject (with Richard Wagner) called "The Case for Mars".
This book is a more general attempt at advocacy laying out the various arguments for converting a (perhaps evanescent) global society into a spacefaring one. In the first section of the book: "Type I: Completing Global Civilization" Zubrin concentrates on various details of the space program run by NASA in the U.S. giving fascinating details on the development of the Space Shuttle and its potential replacement, and the International Space Station. He says little about the title of the section, assuming perhaps that global civilization is inevitable or that U.S. itself can be taken to be a global power and thus represent mankind. There are two good reasons to colonize Earth orbit and the nearby Solar System: one is business and the other science. A lucrative space business is difficult to come by as Zubrin himself points out in great detail. Science undertaken by a major superpower or a world at peace is the remaining reason. But when will this happen. On this point, Zubrin is silent.
The first section does have a detailed description of the various scientific and engineering aspects of spaceflight. This helps set the tone of the book which could easily drift into pie-in-the-sky speculation. Zubrin grounds all discussion in what is really feasible.
In the second section "Type II: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization", Zubrin lays out the various possibilities of human settlements on the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt and the Outer Solar System. The focus is on creating economical conditions where these settlements can be self-sustaining, usually by trading with Earth the local mineral resources unavailable elsewhere. Zubrin gives detailed information about chemical reactions that can be industrialized on the Moon and on Mars to produce valuable raw materials. These industries are also crucial to produce oxygen, nitrogen and water for sustaining these human settlements without constant supplies from the Earth. For many of these reasons, Mars seems to be the most likely candidate for a self-sustaining human settlement. Zubrin spends little time on a detailed Mars settlement plan since that is the topic of his earlier book. But the general arguments are well presented.
Once Mars is settled, Zubrin makes the case for the industrial exploitation of the Outer Solar System. The main reason to care about asteroids, of course, is because they are projectiles that can occasionally impact on the Earth. The only feasible solution to defend ourselves from these impacts is to catalog the asteroids exhaustively and to have a human presence in space which is capable of diverting them early at a point when the force needed for the change of orbit is feasible.
The third section: "Type III: Entering Galactic Civilization" gets increasingly speculative. Zubrin reviews the various techniques that would permit interstellar travel. As in other chapters, Zubrin debunks many ideas that are still commonplace in hard-sf. An interesting method for interstellar travel that Zubrin himself was involved with is one that merges the idea of a solar-wind or laser-pushed light sails with the Bussard ramjet to give a mode of transport called the magsail which seems a practical alternative to fusion-powered rockets for interstellar travel.
The last few chapters talk about terraforming and other extraordinary engineering projects (spending some time debunking the impossible-to-construct Dyson sphere), the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and spends the last few pages on unabashed speculations. Zubrin does give a good description of the Drake equation and a discussion of Fermi's famous question: ``Where are they?''
In the end, at the very least, you will come away with an appreciation of the delta-V required for launching rockets into space, a notion of the kinds of chemical processes we could sustain on the Moon and on Mars and perhaps elsewhere in the Solar System, and just perhaps you could end up sharing Zubrin's dream that humans will settle another world in our lifetime.
%T Entering Space %T :Creating a Spacefaring Civilization %A Robert Zubrin %I New York: Penguin Putnam %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0874779758 (hc) %P 305 %K astronautics, space-travel, science
Review written: 2001/05/07
December 01, 2004
The Great Human Diasporas by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza
There are many excellent popular science books on the subject of evolution and natural selection. Most of them pick examples that are clear-cut and easy to transmit in a pedagogical sense, avoiding the evolution of humans and the issues of similarity and dissimilarity between the various human races. In the first five chapters, the authors pursue answers to the following questions:
- How different are humans from other animals?
- What accounts for the differences between humans of different races?
- Why do scientists claim that we all come from Africa?
- Are there any beneficial mutations? (The answer is yes, and the book gives many excellent examples.)
- Can all humans trace our ancestry back to a single person? (the answer is surprising and complicated to understand)
This book answers all of these questions and more. You might find answers to some of these questions in other books as well, but for people interested in what evolution has to say about humans, this book is the most readable resource that I've found.
The primary author of this book is Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza who is an emeritus professor of genetics at Stanford University and this book is mostly a chronicle of his contributions to the field of genetics and how he used these tools to address questions about human origins and diversity.
The first five chapters deal with the author's main strength in the use of genetic drift in order to find answers about the movement of humans out of Africa and in other parts of the world. In chapter 6, the authors use archeology and in chapter 7, they use linguistics to show that these related fields concur with the genetic studies and importantly, do not contradict them. The facts in chapter 7 are a bit dated since the publication of this book and there are many recent books that give an updated picture of the evolution of language (see, for instance, "The Origins of Life" (From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language) by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathm\'ary).
In chapter 9 and in the postscript, the authors take on the use of genetics to prove that some races are inherently more intelligent than others and thoroughly debunk these approaches. In chapter 10, however, is the weakest chapter in the book where the authors simply descend into preaching and philosophy of life discussions.
One unfortunate thing about this book is the large number of typographical errors that have been carelessly allowed to remain in the final published version. The publisher should be ashamed that they did not proof-read this document more carefully.
%T The Great Human Diasporas %T :The History of Diversity and Evolution %A Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza %A Francesco Cavalli-Sforza %A :translated from the Italian by Sarah Thorne %I Perseus Books %D 1995 %D :First Italian Edition, 1993 %G ISBN: 0201442310 (pb) %G ISBN: 0201407558 (hc) %P 300 %K science, evolution
Date written: 2000/05/21
October 04, 2004
Chaos by James Gleick
Chaos is a term given to a particular brand of non-linear mathematics useful in the description of natural phenomena that saw its first light, according to this popular science exposition to the topic, in the mind of a meteorologist in the 1960s. Subsequently taken up by a biologist, several mathematicians, and then a whole set of physicists, and ultimately even by economists, ecologists and heart surgeons. It was only in the 1980s that chaos theory caught on as a legitimate field of study in the various scientific communities.
The chaotic properties in a simple root-finding method like Newton-Raphson is usually covered in most modern calculus textbooks, but this behaviour is often something to be avoided, leading us away from nice convergence properties. The history of how this behaviour turned from being something to work around, to something useful is an interesting story.
Gleick presents a concise and approachable guide to the math behind chaos theory and also a good history lesson in the forming of a new subfield within physics and other disciplines.
There are some nitpicking issues that I had with the book, none of which detract very much from the content of the book but are worth laying down nonetheless. As a necessary simplification for a general audience some of the math is simplified, however some parts were too watered down, especially the discussion of Feigenbaum's bifurcation theory. Also, I wished Gleick had given some more details about the Lyapunov exponent and its relation to entropy. Some of color plates were completely dissociated from the text. Direct pointers to those pretty fractals from the text would have been helpful.
If you're addicted to science books, pick up this short and eminently readable book and enjoy the bizarre tale of fractals and strange attractors.
%T Chaos %T :making a new science %A James Gleick %I Viking Penguin %D 1987 %G ISBN: 0670811785 (hc) %P 354 %K science
Review written: 2000/02/07
September 13, 2004
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
August 31, 2004
Planet Quest by Ken Croswell
The majority of popular science books are about cosmology, gravitation and/or quantum physics. But there are dismally few books about astronomy or astrophysics. So a book about the greatest astronomy story in this century is welcome news.
If you are remotely interested in astronomy, then this book is a must-read. Furthermore, I was pleased with how Ken Croswell has kept the book short enough to read over a single weekend but still included a fairly detailed history about the search and discovery of planets both within and outside our solar system. Croswell does a competent job in giving the reader enough peripheral knowledge such as theories of planetary formation in our solar system to give a context to the later chapters.
Croswell starts off gently with the discoveries of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto and describes the futile search for other planets in our solar system: Vulcan (which was postulated to exist within the orbit of Mercury to describe Mercury's eccentric orbit, later explained by Einstein); and the chimeric Planet X (the tenth planet).
Croswell next catalogs the controversy over `brown dwarfs' and whether such `failed' stars can be referred to as planets. The description of the varying methods used in discovering extrasolar planets such as the Doppler shift and astrometry (measuring the wobble size of a star) was adequate enough to understand the results although I would have preferred more details.
Surprisingly, the first extrasolar planets were discovered around the pulsar PSR B1257+12 and not around a main sequence star (in fact when planets were discovered finally around a main sequence star this historical precedent was not reported at all). Soon after this amidst fierce rivalry between the various teams working on this problem the first planet around a more `normal' star was discovered: 51 Pegasi. The controversy surrounding its announcement to the press was unfortunate and is documented here in full. In a field where retractions of claims are as common as the claims themselves, the story of the confirmation of extrasolar planets is also interesting. The final list at the close of the book includes 47 Ursae Majoris, Rho1 Cancri A, Tau Boötis A, and Upsilon Andromedae. All except for 47 Ursae Majoris are gas giants orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury orbits our sun. Of course, these are just the first results of an ongoing search.
This book also has a few tables of data that are useful as a reference: e.g. a list of the known stars within 12 light years and their properties. And, by the way, did you know that Copernicus was Polish?
For recent news about extrasolar planets visit the Extrasolar Planet Encyclopedia.
There is another book on the same topic: "Other Worlds : The Search for Life in the Universe" by Michael D. Lemonick. Also, "In Search of Planet Vulcan" by Richard Baum and William Sheehan is about the early 19th century futile search for a planet inside the orbit of Mercury.
%T Planet Quest %T :the Epic Discovery of Alien Solar Systems %A Ken Croswell %I The Free Press %D 1997 %G ISBN: 0684832526 (hc) %P 324 %K science, astronomy
Review written: 1999/09/17
August 18, 2004
John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death by Steve Heims
On the face of it, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener have little to do with each other. They did not collaborate in their professional careers and did not know each other very well. But the subtitle to the book is the key to Steve Heims intentions in putting the biographies of these two men into one book. He wants to discover what in the background of a scientist is responsible for such brilliant minds to collaborate in the construction of weapons of mass destruction and policies of mutually assured destruction.
John von Neumann was aggresively brilliant and made several contributions to mathematics and physics. He was also a key technical adviser and proponent of the nuclear proliferation conducted by the United States in order to target the Soviet Union. Norbert Wiener was arguably equally brilliant but sacrificed several aspects of his career as a scientist because he refused to create anything that could be misused to a destructive end. He practised an applied moral and social philosophy in his attitude towards technology. This is the juxtaposition that Heims offers in this book. A story of two men and their research programs.
What Heims seems to be after is the moral or ethical core of any scientist. Should you fund your research if you know that it will lead to an eventual misuse of it antithetical to your moral values (although von Neumann seemed to truly hate the Soviet Union enough to consider mutually assured destruction a valid option for the greater good). Heims gives us a crucial insight into this question. It is even more to his credit that Heims follows this objective without sacrificing any details in the biographical details of these scientists.
Those interested in these issues should also read "The First Circle" by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, where issues of ethics in research are covered in a fictional setting in a research station gulag in Stalinist Russia.
%T John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener %T :from Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death %A Steve Heims %I MIT Press %D 1980 %G ISBN: 026258056X (pb) %G ISBN: 0262081059 (hc) %P 547 %K science, biography
Review written: 1999/08/15
Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
The topic of this book is one to which no single book can do justice. Given the scope of the enterprise it is no surprise that the book falls short of its goal. However, if you have to read a single book about early astronomy, the gradual acceptance by humans of the laws of classical physics, the realization of subatomic particles, the evolution of life on earth, and the origin of the universe then you could do much worse than Ferris' offering.
In fact, if you are new to popular science writing then this is an excellent first book to read. Ferris also brings a unique historical view to his writing which is mostly missing from many popular physics books which usually spiral around the theory of black holes and quantum physics and so Ferris' book is a good companion to other books in this field.
Even if you have read everything there is to read about stellar physics from Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking; and imbibed all the natural selection you can from Dawkins, there is still something you should read in this book. Apart from the historical perspective, Ferris in the chapter "Mind and Matter" gives a beautiful description of a galactic network which will someday be used to transmit and store information across impossibly vast distances. Apparently, Ferris has returned to a similar topics in another book "The Mind's Sky".
%T Coming of Age in the Milky Way %A Timothy Ferris %I William Morrow and Company %D 1988 %G ISBN: 0688058892 %P 495 %K science, cosmology
Review written: 1999/08/14
July 30, 2004
Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy by Kip S. Thorne
The search for the nature of space-time after Einstein's contributions in this area forms the main topic of the book. Kip Thorne describes for the layperson the details of the many discoveries about gravitation (mostly related to the properties of black holes), and quantum physics (as it relates to the measurement of gravity waves) made by physicists in the second half of the twentieth century.
Kip Thorne embeds the details of these topics in a historical context, documenting the usual conflicts, camaraderie and sense of wonder that exist among all scientists. The different personalities are almost as interesting as the science itself. Ranks as one of the most interesting popular science books I've read. Some of the attempts at presenting a `science fiction' viewpoint of a particular phenomena mostly fall flat pedagogically but these instances are few and far between.
Kip Thorne has co-authored with Charles W. Misner and John Archibald Wheeler a seminal textbook about gravitational physics called "Gravitation". He is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech.
This book is somewhat similar in content but far greater in scope, the details covered and in readability when compared to "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
%T Black Holes and Time Warps %T :Einstein's Outrageous Legacy %A Kip S. Thorne %I W. W. Norton and Company %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0393312763 %P 619 %K science, cosmology
Review written: 1999/07/10
June 16, 2004
The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali
Salim Ali is the most famous ornithologist in India. He has won almost every science award in India and quite a few from outside the country as well. He won the J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize in 1975 for seminal contributions to natural history. His "Book of Indian Birds" is perhaps still the best resource for birdwatchers in the Indian subcontinent.
This book is his autobiography along with a few essays where he expounds on the marvels of birdwatching. I am used to reading only biographies of scientists, so it is a strange experience to listen to Salim Ali's exploits in the first person. I was amazed at how interesting this book was to me, since I have never been interested in ornithology. Apart from the science, this book intersects with an interesting part of Indian history as well. From his birth in 1914 to his career as a professional birdwatcher in the post-colonial 1950s. His memoirs move from Bombay (Dhobi Talao!) to Burma, from Germany to Hyderabad, from Afghanistan to the Himalayas and from Central India to motorcycling in Europe.
Here is an excerpt:
In my later days it has somehow been generally taken for granted that because I like birds I am bound to be revolted by the thought of anyone killing a bird, leave alone thinking of killing a bird myself. This assumption is far from correct, and it sometimes puts me in embarassing situations. It is true that I despise purposeless killing, and regard it as an act of vandalism deserving the severest condemnation. By my love of birds is not of the sentimental variety. It is essentially aesthetic and scientific, and in some cases may even be pragmatic. For a scientific approach to bird study it is often necessary to sacrifice a few. I do not enjoy the killing, and sometimes even suffer a prick of conscience...
%T The Fall of a Sparrow %A Salim Ali %I Oxford University Press %D 1985 %G ISBN: 0195621271 %P 265 %K science, ornithology
Review written: 1999/08/04
May 17, 2004
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard P. Feynman
The QED in the title stands for Quantum Electrodynamics and this is a book explaining this physical theory which underlies phenomena as diverse as heat, magnetism, electricity, light, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, indices of refraction and coefficients of refraction among other properties.
This book has the clearest descriptions and explanations of the so-called wave-particle duality that I have read. It is not as easy to read as Feynman's other book of lectures "The Character of Physical Law", however the payoff is greater as well. By the end of this book you might just get a real feeling of exactly how counter-intuitive Nature can be.
This book is a transcription of four lectures given by Feynman at UCLA to a non-expert audience. However, Feynman does not pull any punches and does not dilute the subject matter to the point that it becomes vacuous. By the end of the book, you are actually comfortable with his non-notational method of computing the probability of photon transmissions.
Feynman's style is as usual conversational and informal, although the figures and the text do not flow together very well since each figure has a detailed description of its own and it feels like it was added later as an afterthought even though the text refer to the figures often. This is perhaps a side-effect of this book being transcriptions of the original lectures.
%T QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter %A Richard P. Feynman %I Princeton Science Library %D 1985 %G ISBN: 0691083886 (hc) %G ISBN: 0691024170 (pb) %P 158 %K science, physics
Review written: 1999/07/26
May 06, 2004
Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
Pure lunacy. The story of getting a crippled spacecraft headed for the moon back to earth safely.
Reading about the Apollo 13 disaster in this book strangely had the opposite effect to what I was expecting. The story is not about heroism or miracles but rather about training, design and expertise which surprisingly turns out to be much more interesting.
This is a must-read for anyone interested in space travel since few other books describe it in such fascinating detail. Even though Jim Lovell is one of the authors, the presentation is in the third person since there are many viewpoints from which the story had to be told. So it is less of a memoir and more of an honest journal of the events (although there is a great story about Lovell in his early days trying to dead-reckon his way at night without instrumentation onto the deck of a carrier). In fact, the astronauts were (understandably) petulant during most of the trip home often losing their patience with the ground crew. Also interesting is the fact that amateur astronomers would try and pin-point the location of the Apollo spacecraft by trying to locate condensed urine streams.
Of course, most people since the release of the movie about Apollo 13 will not consider reading the book. The movie does help in visualising many details about the spacecraft, but the details in the book were not reflected in the movie. Also, there were many places where the movie where the facts were distorted, I assume, for dramatic effect. Ken Mattingly, the astronaut who was not allowed to fly due to a predicted attack of the measles is given a much larger role in the movie at the expense of the real people (John Aaron and Arnie Aldrich) who solved the problem of powering up the command module.
%T Lost Moon %T :The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 %A Jim Lovell %A Jeffrey Kluger %I Houghton Mifflin and Company %D 1994 %G ISBN: 0395670292 %P 378 %K science, spaceflight
Review written: 1999/07/20
March 19, 2004
The Night is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995 by Martin Gardner
Martin Gardner, of course, is famous for his mathematical recreation columns in Scientific American. He is also famous for the Annotated Alice books.
This is a collection of 47 essays spanning almost 70 years. The essays have some recurring themes which is either good or bad depending on whether you agree with Gardner's treatment of these themes.
For instance, he defends Platonic mathematical realism in many of his essays ("Mathematics and the Folkways", "How not to talk about Mathematics", "Computers near the Threshold ?", among others), defending it from the view that mathematics or any science as a purely solipsist human construct without any reality outside human brains. It is hard not to sympathize with this view for any person remotely connected with scientific activity. However, the controversy was still alive and well in the late 1990s, see The Sokal Hoax for more on this debate. But in none of his essays that deal with this issue does Gardner address any of the arguments that are put forth by other kinds of mathematicians like intuitionists or formalists. In fact, in defending the Lucas-Penrose arguments he also defends a narrow Platonist view that a mathematician can see, without proof, that certain statements of mathematics are true, which can then be used to see that certain artifacts like thinking machines are impossible. For more on this issue from another point of view read the essay by Edward Nelson called "Mathematics and the Mind" (available from Edward Nelson's web page).
Another common theme is the debunking of the fringe pseudosciences or other untenable positions. Since none of these were particularly controversial, these essays were not so interesting to me. Many of arguments used I had seen before. However, there were some essays in this theme which were novel and which I enjoyed, for instance, "The Laffer Curve" which talks about various half-truths that lie behind supply-side economics and the role of tax-cuts to rejuvenate the economy, which is a topic that seems to be one of the central dividing lines between left and right in politics.
In "WAP, SAP, PAP and FAP" Gardner takes on the proponents of the anthropic principle, and also "The Curious Mind of Allan Bloom" and "The Strange Case of Robert Maynard Hutchins" where the motivations behind a couple of tirades against the neglect of the `Great Books' of the western world in modern universities are explored with great dispatch.
Other enjoyable essays about literature and language were "The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle", "Lewis Carroll and his Alice books" , "H.G. Wells in Russia", "Coleridge and The Ancient Mariner", "Puzzles in Ulysses" (about James Joyce's penchant for wordplay) and "The Royal Historian of Oz" (Gardner wrote one of the first biographical essays about L. Frank Baum). These essays were very informative, although Gardner lacks Borges' flair for talking about literature. Also it is interesting that Gardner treats Lewis Carroll with the same cultural relativism that he argues against elsewhere (in "Beyond Cultural Relativism").
One common theme which I found particularly annoying was Gardner's belief which he is not shy to state as a fact, that there are some mysteries such as the nature of time ("Can Time Stop? The Past Change?"), or the nature of consciousness and `free will' ("The Mystery of Free Will", and "Computers near the Threshold?") which according to Gardner can never be discovered by puny human brains. Note that Gardner supports Penrose, even though what Penrose is saying is not that a theory of consciousness can never be discovered but that all will be explained when Penrose will discover how quantum mechanics relates to this issue. The Mysterians can only stand up, nay-say for a while, and then sit down and let the people working on these `unsolvable' problems continue with their work.
The back of this book has quotes from Noam Chomsky, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Raymond Smullyan, Douglas Hofstader and Arthur C. Clarke praising Martin Gardner and this book. High praise indeed.
%T The Night is Large %T :Collected Essays, 1938-1995 %A Martin Gardner %I St. Martins Press %D 1996 %G ISBN: 031214380X %P 586 %K science, philosophy
Review written: 1999/08/01
February 05, 2004
Y-chromosome diversity and Central AsiaA PNAS paper on Y-chromosome diversity in Central Asian populations includes the following tree:
It's filled with curious facts. For instance, check out the cluster that contains Sourashtran and Yadhava (both Indian populations) and the Tajik/Samarkhand or Arab/Bukhara populations.
This blog post by John McWhorter cites this paper in support of a particular theory of historical change from Avestan (Old Persian) to Modern Persian.
October 21, 2003
From Clockwork Science By Freeman J. Dyson, a review of Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps: Empires of Time by Peter Galison. (published in the New York Review of Books, Vol 50, Num 17, Nov 6, 2003 temporary url)
Galison uses the phrase "critical opalescence" to sum up the story of what happened in 1905 when relativity was discovered. Critical opalescence is a strikingly beautiful effect that is seen when water is heated to a temperature of 374 degrees Celsius under high pressure. 374 degrees is called the critical temperature of water. It is the temperature at which water turns continuously into steam without boiling. At the critical temperature and pressure, water and steam are indistinguishable. They are a single fluid, unable to make up its mind whether to be a gas or a liquid. In that critical state, the fluid is continually fluctuating between gas and liquid, and the fluctuations are seen visually as a multicolored sparkling. The sparkling is called opalescence because it is also seen in opal jewels which have a similar multicolored radiance.
Galison uses critical opalescence as a metaphor for the merging of technology, science, and philosophy that happened in the minds of Poincaré and Einstein in the spring of 1905. Poincaré and Einstein were immersed in the technical tools of time signaling, but the tools by themselves did not lead them to their discoveries. They were immersed in the mathematical ideas of electrodynamics, but the ideas by themselves did not lead them to their discoveries.
The one question that Galison's metaphor of critical opalescence does not answer is why Einstein discovered the theory of relativity as we know it and Poincaré did not. The theories discovered by Poincaré and Einstein were operationally equivalent, with identical experimental consequences, but there was one crucial difference. The difference was the use of the word "ether."
The essential difference between Poincaré and Einstein was that Poincaré was by temperament conservative and Einstein was by temperament revolutionary. When Poincaré looked for a new theory of electromagnetism, he tried to preserve as much as he could of the old. He loved the ether and continued to believe in it, even when his own theory showed that it was unobservable. His version of relativity theory was a patchwork quilt. The new idea of local time, depending on the motion of the observer, was patched onto the old framework of absolute space and time defined by a rigid and immovable ether. Einstein, on the other hand, saw the old framework as cumbersome and unnecessary and was delighted to be rid of it.
Looking back upon this history, I disagree with Galison's conclusion. I do not see critical opalescence as a decisive factor in Einstein's victory. I see Poincaré and Einstein equal in their grasp of contemporary technology, equal in their love of philosophical speculation, unequal only in their receptiveness to new ideas. Ideas were the decisive factor. Einstein made the big jump into the world of relativity because he was eager to throw out old ideas and bring in new ones. Poincaré hesitated on the brink and never made the big jump. In this instance at least, Kuhn was right. The scientific revolution of 1905 was driven by ideas and not by tools.
October 01, 2003
The Character of Physical Law by Richard P. Feynman
An excellent peek into the pedagogical mind of the most intriguing and colorful physicist of the last century. This book contains useful explanations about the meta-language of physics and what it describes. Feynman also gives a great analogy between the Babylonian and Greek way of doing mathematics and how to use math in physics.
Feynman touches on many disparate topics ranging from the classical physics of gravitation to magnetism to quantum mechanics. His pedagogy however is driven by the following quote from the first page of the book:
What I want to discuss in this series of lectures is the general characteristic of these Physical Laws; that is another level, if you will, of higher generality over the laws themselves. ... Now such a topic has a tendency to become too philosophical because it becomes too general, and a person talks in such generalities, that everybody can understand him. It is then considered to be some deep philosophy. I would like to be rather more special, and I would like to be understood in an honest way rather than in a vague way."
This book is a transcription of Feynman's Messenger Lectures originally given at Cornell University and recorded for television by the B.B.C.
For more details on the part of this book that deals with quantum mechanics pick up another book by Feynman called "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter".
%T The Character of Physical Law %A Richard P. Feynman %I MIT Press %D 1967 %G ISBN: 0262560038 (pb) %G ISBN: 0679601279 (hc) %P 173 %K science, physics
Review written: 2000/04/04