Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reading is sexy XXXII

{image: The sorceress (1911) by John William Waterhouse (Rome 1849-London 1917) via Guarda chi legge}
7. Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine Following reading Jardine's biographies of both Christopher Wren (accidental architect/astronomer/anatomist/mathematician/occasional surgeon/man about town) and Robert Hooke (engineer/architect/microscopist/inventor/surveyor/secretary to the royal society/astronomer/botanist/unfortunate self-medicator and coffee enthusiast) I read her story of the birth of modern science. It is a well written, clear concise and beautifully-illustrated book detailing astronomy, microcopy, anatomy, the early pursuit of clockworks to solve the longitude problem, the collection of exotic specimens and wunderkammer, the birth of the peer-review with an epilogue on the discovery of DNA's double-helix. Disclaimer: Now, if you're like me, you are ill-equipped to read about the earliest discoveries of William Harvey about blood circulation and worse - those who tried to verify his claims through vivisection. I did enjoy learning more about a variety of scientists and enthusiastic supporters. I will also re-iterate my one frustration: scientists sometimes make loosy historians of science, because they can lack context or create hagiographies, conversely, my issue with this fascinating 'anthropology of scientists' created by Jardine is the lack of scientific context. Yes, I am interested in reading about Hooke and Christiaan Huygens battling it out over their respective attempts to claim priority for spring watches, however, insufficient technical detail is provided here to allow the reader to form an informed opinion on the issue! When Hooke claims priority over Newton for the inverse-square law form for the force of gravity, can this be substantiated? Was Oldenburg a spy? She points out that Newton himself erroneously dismissed astronomer-royal Flamsteed's ideas about periodicity in comet orbits by saying they follow straight line at a time that Hooke and Wren were discussing inverse-square laws for gravity, but she does not go that (to a physicist) obvious next step, to discuss who knew what when!

Also, I ♥ Edmond Halley. He should be the next topic of any scientific biography! Without Halley, all these prickly scientists would have not functioned. Not only was he a sea captain/astronomer/geophysicist/adventurer/gentleman and discoverer of the periodicity of his comet. He was the one who managed to pry data away from Flamsteed and the Principia Mathematica away from Newton! Poor man was repaid for many of his efforts on behalf of the Royal Society with 50 copies of Willoughby*'s A History of Fishes.

Also, the minimal sketches of a few interesting female astronomers left me wanting to read more.

8. One Letter Words - a Dictionary by Craig Conley Somehow, I became someone who reads dictionaries. The idea behind this one is intriguing (well, to me at least), and the definitions are illustrated with quotations from literature (some, sadly repeated). As the author points out, most people respond by saying there are only two or three one-letter words (the obvious ones: 'a', 'I' and maybe 'O'). However, if you put a little thought into it, you remember there are a large number of vitamins, musical notes, base pairs in our genetic sequence, personality types, Roman numerals and other things which are labelled with single letters. Then, of course, there are shapes (A-frame, f stop, j stroke, T-shirt, and so forth). Each and every letter can be used to signify a piece of type or a key for that letter. There are also numbers (c is the speed of light, e is the base of natural logorithms, h is Planck's constant, i is the square root of -1, k can be Boltzmann's constant - though sensible people use a subscript 'B'). He also includes commonly used scientific symbols - and here is where he goes wrong! Because the only real justification for such a dictionary could be some sort of completeness -otherwise, why segregate the words based on length? And yet, here, off the top of my head are single letter word definitions he has omitted: a for acceleration, B for magnetic field (and yet he does include H for magnetic field!) or b for bottom quark - formerly known as beauty, C for capacitance or c for charm quark, d for displacement or down quark or D for Deuterium (which is particularly annoying because he repeatedly uses a literary quotation which erroneoulsy calls heavy water H2O2, which is wrong, rather than D2O), E for energy or Young's modulus, f for frequency, g for gluon, h for height, I for the identity matrix (and yet he defines several other matrices!?!), j for i (hahah! it's true though, we often use j to signify the square root of negative one to distinguish it from I for current), k for 1000 (and yet, he has it for 1024 in computer science) particularly for money (he does get the more colloquial G), L for luminosity or angular momemntum, m for meter (how can anyone miss the meter?) or mass, N for Newton, O for Orthonormal group, P for power, q for electric charge or Q for question (!), R for resistance, S for Siemens or s for strange quark, T for Tritium or Tesla or Tertiary (and yet he has K for Cretaceous!) or t for top quark - formerly known as truth, U for internal energy or potential energy or the up quark, v for velocity, W for work, x for Planet X or even The X files (as he certainly includes other proper nouns), y for the Bessel function, Z for the Z vector boson. It should NOT be this easy for me to brainstorm missing items from any "Dictionary". Apart from that, serious complaint** (and the fact that he clear knows no mathematics and thinks that 'e is the base of the natural logarith' and 'e is Euler's constant' are two distinct definitions), I did enjoy reading the book, and recommend it for your washroom.

9. Like I give a frock: Fashion Forecasts and Meaningless Misguidance by Michi Girl (Michi is the pen-name imaginary friend of Chloe Quigley and Daniel Pollock). Illustrated by Kat Macleod. This was a highly enjoyable, beautifully illustrated book, with no more intellectual pretention than Go Fug Yourself, but as wickedly funny. If the lovely layered, collaged, multimedia illustrations weren't reason enough, the questionaire regardining whether it is acceptable to wear fishnets to work, or definitions like "fashion vermin: noun. a once-cute animal that has become far too popular for its own good" ("Oh, deer, there are currently over 1.5 million web pages that feature a reference to a deer brooch"), and the petition to put an end to badly dressed pets make it worth its price.

Next up will be:
10. Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte, because some of us are obsessed with text and images as a means of conveying information - we may be scientists but our bookshelves are stuffed with the folios of da Vinci and the complete works of Blake. (See, not only Reynardin finds Type (the bookstore) dangerous.)

{Series so far: books read, more books read, books read, books read continues, more books read, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII,XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII XXIV, XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII, XXIX, XXX, XXXI}

*To my knowledge, no relation.
** Now before any of you say, "But, you're a scientist!" consider this:
1) most of these definitions I learned in High School
2) tell me honestly that you have not seen a single one of these before? Surely, if nothing else, you've seen the phrase 'Q & A' or 'm' for meter (or metre if you're British).
3) My Dictionary of Physics cost about $10 and is readily available in any University booksore. Likewise, my Dictionary of Earth Science.
4) Last, but not least, consider, wikipedia, where, with 10 minutes effort one could fill in dozens of missing definitions.


Eccentric Scholar said...

Thanks for your critique of my dictionary of one-letter words. No doubt, the collection could be twice as long. That's the problem with printed materials -- they become frozen in time and outdated almost immediately. The dictionary of one-letter words was a virtual document for years and years, and I was able to update it as I found new references. Once HarperCollins bought the rights, I lost the right to continue tinkering. So the book you read isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It is an artifact of one man's personal obsession with one-letter words. It's an experiment -- the first of its kind. Though I wish the book could be perfect, and I wish I had collected all the additional one-letter words you mentioned, like all books it's simply a human relic. What pleases me about your critique is your passion for one-letter words. You wanted more of them to share the limelight. Indeed, you wanted the dictionary of one-letter words (as opposed to the title of my book, One-Letter Words: A Dictionary). I wish I could have consulted with you before my book went into print.

minouette said...

O! That's the thing about the internet; one never knows who's there. Thank you for taking my little review in the spirit of critique. If I had suspected the author would read it, I would have been gentler in tone. In fact, I don't entirely expect anyone to read my book reviews, and consider them a record of my own thoughts (which may be read).

I do like your 'a' versus 'the' dictionary distinction.