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arbieroo

Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Old Man's War
John Scalzi
Hero And Leander
Christopher Marlowe
Progress: 24/100 pages
Charles Darwin
David C. King
An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics
P.A. DAVIDSON, E.J. Hinch, S.H. Davis, Mark J. Ablowitz
Progress: 47/452 pages
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (The Library of America)
Brian Attebery, Ursula K. Le Guin
Progress: 359/700 pages
Plasma physics
R.A. Cairns
Progress: 4/244 pages
Selected Short Stories - Conrad (Wordsworth Classics)
Keith Carabine, Joseph Conrad
Progress: 37/272 pages
A Student's Guide to Lagrangians and Hamiltonians
Patrick Hamill
Progress: 7/180 pages
Complete Poems, 1904-1962
E.E. Cummings
Progress: 108/1102 pages
The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe

Albert Einstein, Frieda Wishinsky

Albert Einstein - Frieda Wishinsky

If one respects the fact that this series is aimed at young people (young enough to need things like "geometry" and "Fascism" defined for them) then I think this is quite a good little book. It's short and inevitably superficial but I'm not sure how it could be anything else considering the intended audience. Nevertheless it gives an insight into Einstein's character and at least an indication of the significance of some of his work.

Reading progress update: I've read 24 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Ceremony (personified) is upset with Leander about the lack of a wedding and Hero is just upset.

Reading progress update: I've read 71 out of 128 pages.

Albert Einstein - Frieda Wishinsky

Einstein knew Franz Kafka when they were contemporaries in Prague!

Reading progress update: I've read 40 out of 128 pages.

Albert Einstein - Frieda Wishinsky

I was a startled to discover that this book is aimed at young people - I should really research biographies a little more before purchasing! If that is borne in mind, then this seems quite good and even includes some stories not in Isaacson's mammoth book. The trouble is, they aren't referenced (kids' book, remember!) which means checking them requires ploughing through the works in the list of of sources...

Reading progress update: I've read 1099 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

Menenius proves himself (and Shakespeare) a master of the abusive character assassination. I mean really, was there ever anyone better at inventively insulting people? It must have been devastating to get on the wrong side of Shakespeare's wit.

The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life Of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius - Graham Farmelo

The number of "if"s, "may"s, "probably"s and "likely"s in this book is alarming; the author speculates with a frequency that in the end (actually less than half way through, for me) undermines this detailed, comprehensive biography of one of the most influential and under-appreciated humans of all history.Biography is surely supposed to be factual. Forever filling in gaps with one's own guesses as to the subjects thoughts, actions and words is not helpful,it's misleading. This flaw really damages what could have been a definitive biography.

 

Since Dirac is not at all famous outside the physics community, I will mention why I think this is a travesty and redress the problem to a tiny extent: Your life has been root-and-branch influenced by Dirac's work. Yes, he was a Professor of theoretical physics working in a notoriously abstract, abstruse and just plain difficult field (quantum mechanics) that you may feel has nothing to do with your daily life - but you would be wrong if you think that. I know this because you simply would not be reading this without humanity having grasped the theory of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics underpins all of solid-state electronics - everything that makes modern computers, phones and the world wide web function would not be possible without it. You would not be reading this without the understanding of the world Dirac made such enormous contributions to. Heard of anti-matter? Dirac predicted its existence. Dirac's work underlies all our fundamental theories of how matter behaves; "particle physics", "the Standard Model", "Quantum Field Theory", whatever labels you might have heard it given, it is extra-ordinary the extent to which our current approaches to it relies on the work of Dirac. Quantum Mechanics has had more effect on modern society than any physical theory since the classical electromagnetism of the 19th Century that allowed for the distribution of power and lighting by electricity. Dirac has had more practical influence than any other 20th Century scientist - in my view he beats Einstein by a distance in this regard, despite Einstein's own contributions to the quantum revolution and the ever increasing importance of General Relativity to our daily lives. (Your car satnav couldn't work without GR).

 

Having mentioned Einstein leads me to why I'm reading about Dirac: if you've been paying attention to my reviews of late you will have noticed that I am retrospectively trying to determine whether Darwin, Einstein and Dirac were autistic, in preparation for a talk I am giving in July about the influence of autism on science and society. I concluded that both Darwin and Einstein had some form of autism. I have also concluded that Dirac was autistic. The evidence is overwhelming, even stronger than is the case for Einstein, which I found very compelling. The evidence in Darwin's case is weaker, but for me ultimately convincing. Now consider the impact those three people have had on the contemporary educated person's life, society and world-view. That's what autism has done.

 

Farmelo devotes a chapter towards the end of this book to the theory that Dirac was autistic. I caution readers about this chapter. It is heavily influenced by the views of two people who have each contributed to hugely inaccurate public misconceptions of what autism is and how autistic people think: Simon Baron Cohen and Temple Grandin.

Taking Baron Cohen first: he not only perpetuates the utterly false notion that autistic people lack empathy but whilst doing so re-enforces negative stereotypes about sex and gender using arguments and deceptions that don't so much break scientific ethics as atomise them. Temple Grandin, herself autistic, has repeatedly made the mistake of assuming that all autistic minds work in exactly the same way. Most famously, she assumed that, because she is a visual thinker, all autistic people must be visual thinkers and that this is a distinguishing feature, separating neurotypicals from autistic folk. When a tsunami of evidence that, to the contrary, not all autistic people think that way and a lot of neurotypical people do think visually crashed down upon her, she graciously accepted her error - but the misconception persists in the public mind and she's made similar errors about autistic thinking based on exactly the same false principle that if she's autistic and thinks in a particular way, all autistic people must do so.

Farmelo's chapter also perpetuates the notion that autistic people are emotionless; nothing could be further from the truth. The consensus view is that a fundamental aspect of autism is the inability to regulate emotion. This explains, for example, the tendency for autistic people to have "meltdowns" which are clearly an expression of extreme emotion.

 

Overall, then, this thoroughly researched biography is flawed by a lack of truly rigorous honesty, without actually outright falsifying anything, and a foray into psychological theory which is superficial and perpetuates numerous fallacious negative stereotypes about autism. This is a great shame because Dirac and the reading public deserve better.

Reading progress update: I've read 362 out of 539 pages.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life Of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius - Graham Farmelo

Yeah, the number of speculative statements is really detracting from the quality of this work.

Reading progress update: I've read 47 out of 452 pages.

An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics - P.A. DAVIDSON, E.J. Hinch, S.H. Davis, Mark J. Ablowitz I can't remember any other book deteriorating so rapidly from an excellent start...the issue (besides the typographical problems) seems to be that the author can give a good verbal description of what is going on but the mathematical presentation is awful. Even the verbal part is flawed by the use of undefined terms, however.

Reading progress update: I've read 1096 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

Hmmm - could Aufidius be about to do something despicable?

Reading progress update: I've read 20 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Having left Hero "devirginate" (what an amazing word!), Leander swims the Hellespont again - but, Doh! He forgot to marry her!

Reading progress update: I've read 302 out of 539 pages.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life Of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius - Graham Farmelo

I am reminded of the enormous extent to which the history of physics is the history of the world, ever more so from the discovery of electromagnetism onward.

Reading progress update: I've read 1095 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

Martius is braver than everybody; clue is in the name?

Reading progress update: I've read 16 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Apparently Marlowe got bored after Hero's eventual capitulation, since the remainder is written by George Chapman!

Reading progress update: I've read 14 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Leander can't even go for a swim without meeting spirits and gods - who mistake him for a goddess!

Reading progress update: I've read 1093 out of 1344 pages.

The Complete Works (Oxford Shakespeare) - William Shakespeare, John Jowett, Gary Taylor

Not only is food scarce but the Volscians have sent an invading force: things aren't going well in Rome!

Reading progress update: I've read 394 out of 517 pages.

Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being - Ted Hughes

Just impatient for this to be over; something prevents me from just abandoning it having got through ~4/5 already.