Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: Einstein's Greatest Mistake

Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography
David Bodanis
Physics, biography

It's perhaps odd to describe a book about general relativity and quantum physics as being "written for young adults," but that's the sensation I kept getting while reading Einstein's Greatest Mistake. David Bodanis explains everything in simple language--even such common terms as "light year" are glossed in short words. I suppose that it's probably a Scylla-and-Charybdis problem. On the one hand, Bodanis doesn't want to write a popular-science book; he wants to write about Einstein the person, and how Einstein thought, and how his enormous genius could lead him to spend the last twenty years of his life barking up blind alleys. On the other hand, he can't do that without explaining the scientific breakthroughs that made Einstein so (over-) confident in his genius in the first place.

There's not a lot that's new here for anyone with a decent level of scientific literacy, but it's still a good story. The story in short: Einstein reluctantly included a clunky fudge factor in general relativity in order to conform with the experimental evidence. Ten years later, it turned out that the experimental evidence was incomplete. Einstein, his intuition vindicated, doubled down on it by never accepting quantum theory.

Einstein's Greatest Mistake lays out the whole sequence clearly and convincingly. It's a good book if you want to get a fairly qualitative yet still useful introduction to Einstein as a thinker. Personally, I'm going to check out the author's website, where he promises a 22,000-word outtake that goes into the science in more detail. But that's just me.

I thought Bodanis's earlier book, E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, did a good job of pulling the pieces together. (That's special relativity, which--believe it or not--can be understood pretty well using high-school algebra.) Walter Isaacson wrote a very fine and readable biography of Einstein back in 2007; it's well worth reading.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Book Review: Razor Girl

Razor Girl
Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen writes fiction in exactly one vein: the South-Florida bunch-of-whackos black humor almost-but-not-quite surrealistic crime novel. Razor Girl is no exception. It has a cast consisting mainly of Hiaasen stock characters, a Key West setting . . . and not much else.

One thing it doesn't have is a Plot--the capital P indicating that there's nobody that has any kind of plan or goal or sustained intention that drives the book. As a result, it doesn't have much in the way of lower-case-p plot. A bunch of characters run into each other in various combinations. Some hilarity ensues. There is a crime, but it's kind of an accident.

Another thing it doesn't have is anyone who's particularly likable. The nominal protagonist is hardly better than the villains: self-centered, short-sighted, ego-driven, obsessional, a poor friend, and all in all a loser. The most sympathetic character is a mobster. In earlier Hiaasen, you could usually count on there being at least one person who a non-insane reader could identify with. You also got your share of nutjob-but-on-the-side-of-the-angels characters; those you could at least admire from a distance. In Razor Girl, it's jerks all the way down.

There are some funny bits. There are some clever bits. There are some bitingly sarcastic bits. The prose flows smoothly. The setting is well-rendered. That's what you get.

If you don't like Hiaasen, don't read this. If you've never read Hiaasen, don't start here. If you do like Hiaasen, you might use this one for an airplane ride; it will help pass a couple of hours. Don't expect much more.

If you're new to Hiaasen, I'd suggest starting with one of his earlier books: Tourist Season, Double Whammy, Skin Tight, Native Tongue, or Strip Tease.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Book Review Two-fer: Brilliant Beacons and A Short Bright Flash

Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse
Eric Jay Dolin

A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse
Theresa Levitt
History, biography

I hadn't particularly intended to read two books about lighthouses in quick succession. I'd borrowed Brilliant Beacons from the library; then I received A Short Bright Flash as a gift (thank you, Lisa). They cover enough common turf (or possibly surf) that I can compare and contrast them.

A Short Bright Flash is an intriguing book, nicely written, and wide-ranging--part biography, part science, part history, and so forth. In its early pages, especially, there's some dramatic tension. Once Augustin Fresnel has triumphed over all opposition--justifiably; he had an immeasurably superior product--the pace slackens; once he's dead of tuberculosis, the narrative starts to wander somewhat. It passes through Augustin's brother to various closely-tied businesses to the wider world to the U.S. to the American Civil War before finally subsiding, after page 215 or so, in a welter of miscellaneous distributaries. It's pretty good nonetheless, save for the vague sense that Levitt ran short of material before she made her page count.

Brilliant Beacons is, for the most part, decidedly more episodic. It begins with a series of vignettes of the building of the first Colonial-era lighthouses. These are fine--who'd have guessed that many of these early structures were funded by lotteries?--if a bit blog-post-like. Then there's a chronological-narrative section on the travails of the U.S. system up through the Civil War. Again, this is fine on its own merits, but it adds very little to what's in A Short Bright Flash. Finally, the book returns to a fitful meander of anecdotes and interesting bits, sculling gently towards the 21st century. Among the elements it touches on:

  • Women as keepers
  • Anecdotes of the keepers' lives
  • Bird conservation
  • A mini-war over egg gathering on the Farallon Islands
  • The New England hurricane of 1938
  • Various administrative shifts
  • A few examples of unusual engineering challenges
  • The Flying Santa
  • Lighthouses in popular culture
I don't mean to dismiss Brilliant Beacons. For what it is, it's enjoyable: IYTTSMSIYPETB. It is, unabashedly, for lighthouse lovers--in the same way that books about trains are aimed at train nuts, and books about baseball appeal first to baseball fans. A Short Bright Flash is of more general interest.

Nitpicky P.S.: both books assert that even a perfect mirror reflects only 50% of the light that falls upon it. Neither my memory of high-school physics nor a quick Google search supports that assertion. At the minimum, Levitt should have explained how and why this supposed effect occurs.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Good Literary Cause

I don't normally use this blog to promote crowd-funded projects. However, the Kickstarter that includes Sean's forthcoming story--which is a fine one, by the way--is nearing the end of its run. Please do consider tossing them a few bucks.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Book Review: Justinian's Flea

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe
William Rosen
History, biography, science, medicine

Every so often I read a book that reminds me of why I love reading. Justinian's Flea is like that. This book has

  • Good, clear, engaging writing
  • Battles
  • Eye-popping characters
  • Novelistic tension
  • Informative, accessible science
  • Ideas, ideas, ideas!
I can't not love it.

William Rosen deserves special acclaim for having made Justinian's Flea into a thrilling story. It's not just a history of the sixth-century plague . It's an account of why it mattered. You have Justinian, arguably the last great Roman emperor, struggling heroically to restore his patrimony. He and his brilliant general Belisarius begin the reconquest. Great buildings go up. The laws are reformed.

And all the while, in the background, creeping closer, is the flea--the flea that carries the Yersinia bacterium.

Rosen doesn't fall into the single-cause fallacy of history writing. Nonetheless, he's surely onto something when he locates the Plague of Justinian at the hinge that marks the dissolution of the Roman world and the first genesis of ours. To paraphrase Justinian's Flea: between AD 536 and AD 552 the city of Rome changed hands five times. At the beginning of that time, it was still recognizably the city of the Caesars. At the end, it was recognizably the city of the Popes.

The best-known fictional treatment of the period is Robert Graves's Count Belisarius. For genre readers, L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall is a classic set in Ostrogoth-ruled Rome.

In non-fiction, Justinian's Flea overlaps somewhat with Jared Diamond's well-known (if slightly overrated) Guns, Germs, and Steel. Rats, Lice, and History (Hans Zimmer) and Plagues and Peoples (William H. McNeill) are both very fine books with a larger-scale viewpoint. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: The Best of Ellery Queen

The Best of Ellery Queen: Four Decades of Stories From the Mystery Masters
Frederic Dannay, Manny Lee

A collection of short stories. Amusing but slight.

Loosely related: I've read a couple of Susan Spann's historical mysteries lately. She gives good advice.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Book Review: The Book

The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
Keith Houston
History, books

The Book is a very good paean to, naturally, the book as physical object. Keith Houston chooses a clever and sensible arrangement. Rather than simply starting with cuneiform and moving forward, he traces the story of each of the book's components: the page (papyrus, parchment, paper), the text (writing and type), illustrations, and form. That turns out to be a dandy way of bringing together several separate but interrelated information streams.

Houston occasionally lapses into witticism of an notably English vintage. If you like this sort of thing, it's amusing; if you don't, it's merely arch. Other than that, his writing is good, his descriptions are clear, and his subject matter is first-rate.

Mark Kurlansky's Paper, for all of its lapses into highfalutin' nonsense, covers related topics. Also of interest: Henry Petroski's The Book on the Bookshelf (about how books have been stored) and Simon Garfield's Just My Type (fonts).

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Book Review: The Dream of Reason

The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy From the Greeks to the Renaissance
Anthony Gottlieb

The Dream of Reason is a very good, very readable, non-technical overview of the mainstream of Western philosophy. It doesn't contain anything that would surprise a student of the field, and it doesn't really invite the reader to get to grips with the really hard problems. It does, however, provide a very readable (and sometimes very witty) overview over who the main thinkers of antiquity were, what they thought, and especially how their thoughts related to one another. 

It's fairly evident that Gottlieb is more an Aristotelian than a Platonist. He tries to be fair, but he obviously likes Aristotle--with his ideas of carefully observing nature, as opposed to abstract reasoning about the true nature of things--a little bit better. A consequence of this is that he goes out of his way to absolve Aristotle of the various charges leveled against him by later critics. (Really, he's fairly generous to most of his subjects; he focuses more on what they got right, or at least what they did right, than on their numerous mistakes.) That's fine by me.

I wouldn't have minded a little more detail about the post-Aristotelian schools. The Middle Ages, as well, get decidedly (and undeservedly) short shrift; here I think Gottlieb is leaning too much on the conventional view of the Church as suppressor of knowledge. Overall, however, this is a really good read for anyone who wants to learn about the subject. It doesn't demand any specialist knowledge, nor does it descend into the pedantry or tortured prose that characterizes a lot of philosophical writing. If it's not quite the material of a popular best-seller, it's as close as a book of this sort is likely to get.