Book reviews: science
The Undivided Universe: an Ontological Interpretation
of Quantum Theory, by David Bohm and Basil J. Hiley. Yes,
it's a mouthful. This is aimed at the research physics community. It is
not light reading. Not being a research physicist myself, I mostly
passed over the numerous equations, and just got the ``gist''.
It goes like this. Conventional quantum theory is an epistemological theory:
it delineates how and what we can measure about the world, and how
to compute the probabilities of outcomes of experiments. It does not
purport to explain what is really going on -- it doesn't take the
point of view that ``This is reality and this is how it works''.
This is where Bohm and Hiley come in. They propose an underlying reality
that gives a ``complete'' and consistent mental model.
It predicts exactly the same outcomes to all experiments (except if one
can find a domain in which general relativity breaks down), so one can't
hope to ``prove'' or ``disprove'' this model in the ordinary experimental
The authors show their model to be complete, economical, and to have many
blemishes in comparison with other interpretations, e.g.
the (several) many-worlds interpretations.
If you're at all interested in quantum theory, read (or skim) this book.
Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs
by Ivars Peterson.
An introduction to computer (un)reliability for the layman. Includes
accounts of the 1990 crash of an Airbus A320 airplane,
the Therac-25 faults, the
Pentium division bug, and others. I got this 1995 book in hardcover
for only $3 at a used booksale. What a find! Not exactly very deep,
but it's an easy read, and useful as an introduction to the problems
software engineering and system design are trying to solve.
The Mythical Man-Month: 20th Anniversary
Edition by Fred P. Brooks.
Interesting, but the 20-year-old parts are really dated. For example,
he talks about IBM renting memory for such-and-such dollars per kilobyte
per month. Ok, the point is that space matters, but one can't help
but think how much of the book is twisted by that kind of restriction. Another
example, the chapter on "The Surgical Team" recommends that each expert
programmer be supported by 9 other people, at least half of whom
are doing purely clerical work. And surely, the one who does system
administration, can be shared by teams of programmers! Anyway, I found the
main value of the book in three of the last chapters, which were
written since 1986 (including the famous No Silver Bullet essay).
These are thoughtful and, thankfully, thoroughly up to date. However,
anyone who has to design software ought to read this book.
On a related topic, I found the October 1995
Communications of the ACM
article about the use of object-oriented tools and techniques in the
reimplementation of OS/400 by IBM to be very interesting. Go look at it.
The Emperor's New Mind
by Roger Penrose. A smart physicist
tries to debunk the ``strong AI'' view that minds are in principle complex
algorithms, and that the particular manifistation of that algorithm is
unimportant in principle.
Penrose argues that the physical embodiment is important
for the presence of actual consciousness. He believes there is a level
of physical action deeper than quantum mechanics (quantum gravity?)
that is essential to the operation of the brain and is a prerequisite
for the presence of ``real'' consciousness.
I happen to disagree with
Penrose, though I think he should be heard.
(Note added after finishing: Boy does he really lose it in the last two
chapters! IMHO, he has a very naive view what the mind is all about.
Sour ending. Blech.)
For the strong-AI point of view, read Goedel, Escher, Bach: The
Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader. This book
was way too slow for me. I only got about one quarter through it.
It did win the Pulitzer prize, though.
QED: The strange theory of light and matter
by Richard Feynman.
An explanation of quantum electrodynamics for the interested layman,
based upon four lectures by the great one himself. Lots of pictures
of little arrows; very clear explanation (but maybe because I've had
exposure to this kind of thing before, i.e. I'm more math-
and physics- educated than the intended audience of this book).
He does not resort to describing square
roots of negative numbers, i.e. no explicit reference to complex
numbers. By Jove, how does he do it? Well, he talks about ``little
arrows'', and shrinks and turns, which are, respectively, complex numbers, and
complex multiplication. He does a fabulous job at describing what we
know and what we don't know, and telling us which is which.
I glanced at the first chapter on July 29, 1995. I promised myself
that I'd finish Halberstam before continuing with this one...
Ok. Finished September 10, 1995. Very good.
by Jim Lovell and Jefferey Kluger.
This is about the Apollo 13 mission co-written by its commander.
The movie, starring Tom Hanks, is based on this book.
Well written, and a nice change from all the fiction in scifi.
Started June 11, 1995. Finished June 25 or so.
By the way, the movie (go see it!) stays quite close to the facts
as stated in the book.
When I was 14 I read William Poundstone's The Recursive Universe
It introduced me to cellular automata, information theory, thermodynamics, and
It is subtitled "Cosmic complexity and the limits to scientific knowledge."
It's quite packed with good stuff, tied together by
John Conway's game of Life.
I'd recommend it to any bright teenager.
James Watson's The Double Helix is
a lively look at the life of a scientist and at scientific discovery.
It's the highly entertaining look at the research that led to the Nobel
Prize awarded to Watson and his partner Francis Crick.
There are two books that I'm waiting to read about the role of science
with respect to war. The first is Modern Arms and Free Men: A discussion
of the role of science in preserving democracy by Vannevar Bush
(who happened to be the science advisor to both Franklin Roosevelt and
Harry Truman). It was written in 1949 during the turmoil at the start of
the Cold War. It's "old" and I can guess its thesis, but I still think the
issues are important today. (Don't worry, I've also got Noam Chomsky's
Deterring Democracy and Manufacturing Consent.)
The second is
Tongues of Conscience: war and the scientists' dilemma by
For a TV introduction into these issues, see the Star Trek: Voyager episode
Jetrel, which aired in Toronto on May 15, 1995. Also, see the
popular movie Fat Man and Little Boy for some background into
how the scientists of the Manhattan Project dealt with these issues.
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