Tuesday, December 11, 2012

three books

My time lately has been filled caring for a neonate, but I have managed to do some reading (I have a tendency to read non-fiction). Here they are in order of the timeframes they cover:

The Man Who Ate His Boots’ by Anthony Brandt (2010)

I found this book in a used bookstore in Penticton. It’s an account of the British’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic early in the 19th century ending with Franklin’s ill-fated expedition. I’m flummoxed that so many people held the belief that a Northwest Passage existed and that so many were ready to attempt to find it in a sailing ship. Living though those trips that ended well seemed like such misery - those that didn’t end well must have been a nightmare.

The narrative was easy to follow and the main people were painted with great detail. For example: Sir William Edward Parry of the Royal Navy, while in charge of an Arctic expedition, grew sprouts, mustard and cress, in his cabin to prevent scurvy in his crew - I love this kind of detail. It was Franklin who ate his boots and I suspect he wasn’t the only one. Overall, I thought the book was great and would recommend it.

Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps’ by Peter Galison (2003)

I also found this book in Penticton. It focuses on the 1800’s to early 1900’s when physicists thought their mechanical view of the universe had solved everything - but there was hints they were so wrong. This is one of my favorite times in the history of science.

This book focused on standardizing time ending up with our modern time zones. It’s a very complex story and it amazes me that standardized time zones were ever agreed upon.

It has the best explanation of phase diagrams that I’ve ever read - although the author doesn’t call them that. Poincare spent a lot of time trying to solve the three body problem in physics. An example of a three body system is the orbits of the earth, sun and moon - there isn’t a one-stop mathematical solution to most of these problems, instead the calculations need to be done in increments. To help himself visualize solutions to this problem he came up with phase diagrams. These diagrams gave him a first view of chaos, however it took half a century for chaos to be recognized as something other than a calculation error.

The Infinity Puzzle’ by Frank Close (2011).

This book was given to me for my birthday as I generally enjoy books about physics. Described as “how the hunt to understand the universe led to extraordinary science, high politics, and the Large Hadron Collider.” It turned out to be a very detailed account of the personalities and theories in particle physics.

I found it difficult to keep the people straight as the author bounced back and forth between so many different people. With so many different people named throughout the book, I was surprised there wasn’t a single named woman (a wife or girlfriend deserves a name). Overall, I found it a difficult read and would have preferred it to be a more focused story on the physics or more a on one physicist. I think it just tried to cover too much.

Picture is from here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2 + 2 = 5

I have no mathy pictures, so here is a lobster instead
A segment on the news recently disturbed me. It was about a new way to teach math in elementary schools (I’ve become interested in these stories as my daughter is now in the world). The new way is a creative approach where there are no wrong methods, and they may also have reported that there are no wrong answers - I’m really hoping I heard the last part wrong. There may be more to the story than the news presented (as is often the case), however, if it is this way, I’m quite worried about our mathematical future.

I’m all for creative approaches, however, in math there are methods that will take you to the answer quickly. One of the nicest things about basic math is that there are right answers to be found and, they can be verified as correct. Creative methods may get the right answer eventually but are not necessarily effective tools for everyday math. It may be dull to memorize mathematical basics - never the less, one needs to get the basics down. No one ever suggests that we take a creative approach to learning how to read. We are expected to learn the grammar rules necessary to understand written text - so why is math different?

Technology takes away the necessity to do math in some circumstances, but technology doesn’t always work. Understanding some math is necessary - how would you determine if you can afford something? How about telling if you tax return is reasonable? Did you get the right amount of change back on a purchase? Or when is a sale at a store actually a good deal? Recently, I found a man looking at peanut butter in the grocery store trying to determine if it was a better deal to get a smaller jar on sale or a larger one - in this case the smaller jar was the better deal (he seemed relieved when I told him).

A lot of people have trouble with math, but I wonder if this is due to our society’s portrayal of math as scary. Math isn’t scary, it’s simply a set of rules to manipulate numbers. Since, people’s brains work slightly differently making picking up math harder for some, if someone is struggling to learn a mathy technique help should be available to coach them towards the right answer.

I’m biased about math because I use it all the time and am comfortable with it. Although, I’m not very good at doing math in my head but, I’ve practiced tricks allowing me to do everyday computations. With a pen and paper I can work out most things - calculators make it even easier. At higher level university courses, math becomes more abstract and harder to intuitively grasp. One needs to use this type of math regularly, or be mathematically gifted (which isn’t me), to apply it. As a scientist, I understand the math that describes my field but the pure abstract math is often baffling to me as I haven’t spent time working with it.

Picture is from here