Friday, October 30, 2009

Recent Science Reading

I guess this will be a book post. More specifically, a science book post since I'm on one of my science bouts recently. They spring up out of nowhere about twice a year. I'm a lit major so I'm most certainly a total science amateur but it's been an amateur interest of mine for a long time. Since I hate actually tinkering with things in real life I'm handicapped by concrete ignorance, but I love the theory and like my oldest son I like musing about equations in my head when I have a spare moment or two. Only he does it at a much higher level than I do, because I had no real math or science to speak of in college.

I read two science books this week -- first Six Easy Pieces, which I already mentioned. I wanted to stay on the science trail but my physics brain was overloaded so I read The Double Helix by James Watson. It was sort of an autobiographical account of the discovery of the DNA pattern. Not much science knowledge required at all, mostly about the circumstances of the event -- sort of like a science whodunit, with the main character a bit of an anti-hero. I thought Rosalind Franklin got a rough deal in the book (and the author apparently thought so too, because he wrote an epilogue basically apologizing for his misconceptions about her; unfortunately too late, because she died at age 37). I would like to read more about her sometime.

Then with my physics brain somewhat refreshed and feeling motivated by ignorance, I grabbed Isaac Asimov's Understanding Physics: Motion, Sound and Heat. It's from the 60's but since it is about Newtonian physics for the most part it isn't too dated.

I read quite a bit on Monday when we were driving to town and back but my brain got overloaded somewhere around chapter 6. On the other hand, I learned a lot I had never known before. Physics was probably my favorite high school subject. I went to a European school where you took Biology, Chemistry and Physics all at the same time all four years of high school, or five years if you wanted to take an International Baccalaureate. But the presentation was mechanical, so far as I remember. You learned the formulae so you could do the problems. I loved formulae because they were like sentences that balanced, but I am afraid I didn't really know or care much about how or why they were formulized in the first place. Asimov fills in this gap nicely by showing how the "model" of reality looked BEFORE the equation was systemized, then showing how the scientist in question, say Newton (usually) solved the problem and why the formula is set up the way it is. You see, I am so ignorant that until I read it in a footnote in this book, I never knew that Pi was a circumference to diameter ratio. I could solve area and circumference of a circle problems till the cows come home but I just thought Pi was some arbitrary number floating out there. Sheesh! And this is just the tip of the iceberg of my non-knowledge. But I'm not embarrassed by my former ignorance; rather, I'm thrilled every time I think about that ratio. It's like a perfect line of poetry. Asimov can be wordy, but it works for me because if he hadn't bothered to explain Pi, probably unnecessarily to most people reading his book, I still wouldn't know about the C/D ratio.

But you can only take in so many formulae at one time, so for a break I started reading Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman which is sort of an informal picaresque autobiography of Richard Feynman. I think it is basically stories he told another guy, who then wrote them down, since it sounds very much like that -- informal language and all that. Nice connections since he actually was a contemporary of Watson and attended a lecture of his when he was taking a biology sabbatical some time in his early years. That's what I'm reading now. I'm probably going to go back to Asimov this weekend if I have time.

I guess when Feynman was only 11 or 12 he had work fixing peoples' radios. He was one of those kids who would buy broken radios and then tinker with them until he found out how they worked. After a while he knew enough about them to be able to repair some of them and from there he actually made a bit of money during the Depression when neighbors couldn't afford to hire a regular repairman. Nowadays those types of kids go into computer tech. He said he was on an "algebra team" that went from school to school competing so he learned to solve problems very fast by intuition rather than "grinding through" the steps properly. This helped him later in life -- supposedly from the introduction to Six Easy Pieces, Feynman was known for coming instantly to solutions that other people had to work out painfully through complex math procedures.

And by the way, he talks about the "fragility of knowledge" even of physics grads which relates to my utter ignorance of PI even though I could have deduced it from what I did know about measuring circles. There was a story about a French curve -- his fellow postgraduates at MIT didn't realize that the tangent of the highest point of the curve was horizontal even though they already knew that theoretically from their math class. I think that so many of us go through life that way that when there is someone who actually "knows" they have an immediate advantage over those who know in only a second-hand way.

I went on for a long time about my science reading so I don't have length left to list what the kids are reading, which I meant to do. That's probably what I'll post about next since it doesn't really fit here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!