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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

Reading progress update: I've read 12 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Leander, unable to part the waters of the Hellespont, dives in, instead. All in order to go see Hero, of course.

Reading progress update: I've read 1090 out of 1344 pages.

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

In Rome food is scarce and the plebeians are revolting.

Reading progress update: I've read 31 out of 452 pages.

An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics - P.A. DAVIDSON, E.J. Hinch, S.H. Davis, Mark J. Ablowitz

OK, no; the "derivation" of the appropriate electrodynamic equations just states stuff without proof or any indication of how to proceed by oneself. That's crap textbook writing (but all too common).

The Feynman Lectures on Computation, Richard Feynman

Feynman Lectures On Computation - Robin W. Allen, J.G. Hey, Anthony Hey, David Pines, Richard P. Feynman

There is much that is meritorious here: Feynman's distinctive voice comes through clearly. One gets an insight into both his teaching philosophy and his working methods. The book heavily reflects what Feynman thought was important, interesting and essential to know about the field and makes accessible some really unusual topics as well as some familiar ones (if one has ever done an entry level course on the subject). There is a 10p memoir of Feynman by the book's editor at the end, which contains some delightful anecdotes that are not recorded elsewhere in the Feynman canon.


Feynman's working method, which he encourages others to adopt, was to work out as much as he can on his own first and look up what others had done afterwards. He would find that usually he had come up with no original results but quite often would have reached the same conclusions by an alternative route. Occasionally he proved something that was not known before. This technique is fabulous if one has both a wide knowledge (in memory) of physics and maths and a great facility with both, too. For lesser mortals it's completely useless.


The book oscillated from fascinating (reversible computing, quantum computers) to excruciatingly dull (logic circuit design, chip fabrication, semi-conductor device theory) depending on my personal level of interest. Even Feynman can't make engineering interesting to me! But that's not his fault; if you're into these topics it'll be great. If you're not, it's for Feynman completists only.

Reading progress update: I've read 30 out of 452 pages.

An Introduction to Magnetohydrodynamics - P.A. DAVIDSON, E.J. Hinch, S.H. Davis, Mark J. Ablowitz After some revision of classical electrodynamics, this is beginning to look tractable, though not easy.

Reading progress update: I've read 20 out of 539 pages.

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

Could do with fewer digressions; it's billed as a biography of Dirac, not the history of quantum mechanics.

Reading progress update: I've read 184 out of 539 pages.

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

The number of speculations is increasingly annoying and alarming.

Reading progress update: I've read 10 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

OK, she actually manages to run off with her virginity intact.

Reading progress update: I've read 8 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

Shagging. Haven't they only just met?!

Reading progress update: I've read 150 out of 539 pages.

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

My one concern about this book is the way the author fills in gaps with speculation along the lines of, "If Dirac was true to form he would have..."

Reading progress update: I've read 114 out of 539 pages.

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

Initially I struggled as I felt like it wasn't clear that this was a biography of Paul Dirac rather than his brother, Felix, or his father, Charles. At the point where Paul left Bristol for Cambridge, however, it got more focused and therefore better.


Random fact; the Dirac delta function was first invented by Fourier, which is not that much of a shock, given how useful it is in Fourier analysis and how crap Science is at properly crediting the right people when it names stuff.

Charles Darwin: A New Life, John Bowlby

Charles Darwin: A New Life - John Bowlby

This biography arose out of what was originally intended as a much shorter discussion of the causes of Darwin's chronic ill-health (stomach pains, vomiting) by an author trained in psychology. The thesis is that Darwin did not have any kind of "organic" illness but instead suffered from chronic hyperventilation due to anxiety. Bowlby attributes this anxiety in turn to repressed grieving for the death of Darwin's mother when he was 8 years old and a "difficult" relationship with his father until the Voyage of the Beagle. The "organic illness" theory arises from a notion that Darwin could have been infected with a parasitic illness whilst in South America. There are strong reasons for discounting the latter theory, the two most telling being that symptoms were first mentioned by Darwin in the run up to the departure of the Beagle, before he had ever set foot outside Britain and that symptoms had eased during his final years and he died of something unrelated.


All of this is convincing but it has been suggested that Darwin was autistic and autistic people are prone to anxiety and depression, just as Darwin was. They often show the obsessive focus on narrow topics, "special interests", that Darwin did first in relation to geology, then in relation to natural history, including his eight year definitive study of every living and fossil species of barnacle then known, which was merely part of his 20+ year campaign to justify the evolution of species by natural selection. Darwin also struggled in school (and was bullied) despite his enormous ability - this is not unusual for autistic people either. Nor is his childhood penchant for collecting things for their own sake.


Bowlby suggests Darwin was "sociable" which would counter an autism diagnosis but in fact goes on to say that he could only meet people for 1/2 hr max. before anxiety would overcome him and lead to a vomiting attack. Darwin also moved out of London to the country in Kent, attended few formal functions, including receipt of medals, memberships of learned societies and so forth and had only one real friend who was not also a scientific colleague. He much prefered to communicate by letter and wrote extensively to other scientists.


The idea that Darwin was traumatised in childhood and that this affected his later life is not mutually exclusive to the notion that he was autistic but the latter clearly explains more of the significant features of Darwin's life than the former and though the idea is currently controversial (much more so than for Einstein and Dirac) I am convinced he was.


As for the biography in general, it's good: the author expressly states that he is not competent to give a deep explanation of Darwin's science or how it is viewed now. You'll have to look elsewhere for that. If you accept that, then this is a good, detailed, look at Darwin's life. My one criticism is that Bowlby keeps on being dragged off on tangents; the coverage of Darwin's parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, wife and colleagues is excessive and probably would cut the book down by ~50p if reduced to a sensible level, without really impairing one's understanding of the real subject: Darwin.

Reading progress update: I've read 6 out of 100 pages.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

They were obsessed with virginity in the 16-17th Century!

Reading progress update: I've read 7 out of 539 pages.

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

Opens with an account of Dirac telling the story of his abusive, bullying father. Makes me feel both ill and lucky.

Pericles, William Shakespeare

Pericles: The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford World's Classics) - William Shakespeare, George Wilkins

I would guess this is a pretty obscure, rarely performed Shakespeare play these days, but back in his day it was really popular and it was revived quickly later in the 17th Century when the theatres re-opened after the plague had closed them. This shows a fairly big shift in taste, because Pericles is a pretty faithful adaptation of a prose Romance that is akin to Mediaeval Saintly Lives Romances, complete with preposterous plot with numerous ridiculous coincidences, exiled/orphaned/mistaken for dead characters, undeserved suffering and triumphant return home.


I like that kind of tale, just accepting the silliness, and was amused by the goings on; how many times can one person get shipwrecked? How many supposedly dead relatives can you be unexpectedly re-united with? Basically, it's a romp and I'm not surprised contemporary audiences loved it en mass; it's the equivalent of a bad "guilty pleasure" Hollywood movie nowadays.


There's some debate as to whether Shakespeare wrote all of it. Many have noted "marked improvement" after about ~2/5 the way through. Few argue that Shakespeare had no hand in it, these days.


Some people thought it was a very early play, because not very good, but later scholarship suggests otherwise. I suspect that, given that it is actually a late play and very faithful to its source material, Shakespeare, who was then by then very busy running a theatre company (admittedly jointly with others) and acting, had less time to write than in earlier years and needed a new play in a particular hurry.


I suspect modern audiences tolerate the preposterous plots of the comedies because they are too busy laughing but reject the same in Pericles because it's considered "serious" and they can't take it seriously, which conflict leaves them disliking it. But it's a Romance; it shouldn't be taken seriously. The preposterousness is part of the fun and a feel good ending makes one - feel good!


Not all of Shakespeare is profound...

Reading progress update: I've read 4%.

Hero And Leander - Christopher Marlowe

I'm really reading this in an ancient Marlowe Complete Works that pre-dates ISBNs by decades...printed in 1910.



So far: Hero is a hottie. So is Leander.

And Insta-love.