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review 2017-04-25 05:53
Paul Dirac, Peter Goddard (editor)
Paul Dirac: The Man and His Work - Abraham Pais

Note the sub-title: this book consists of four lectures about Dirac, his work and developments from it in physics and mathematics, plus Hawking's laughably ignorant memorial address. (He repeatedly insulted his hosts for delaying for 11 years an event that was, in fact, only one year beyond the minimum requirement of ten years post Dirac's death.)

 

Only the first lecture is really biographical and even that takes time out to discuss Dirac's scientific contributions. From there the book gets progressively more technically challenging, ending with a lecture on the Dirac operator and spinors that in detail is going to be incomprehensible to anyone without an advanced working knowledge of topology. (The gist is that we have no clue what spinors mean, geometrically, in the way we know what vectors and tensors are, for example.)

 

In between, there's good stuff on antimatter from prediction to present day understanding and similarly Dirac's magnetic monopoles then to now.

 

Much of this book will go over the heads of the casual reader and if you want anything more than a cursory biography, you will also need to look elsewhere, but for physicists, it's a worthwhile publication.

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review 2017-04-22 10:51
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.

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review 2017-04-21 11:29
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.

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review 2017-04-11 17:33
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.

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review 2017-03-19 16:48
Einstein: His Life And Universe - Walter Isaacson

This is an incredibly well researched, detailed account of all aspects of Einstein's life, personal, scientific and political that I can highly recommend to anybody interested. I learned heaps I didn't know and had the record set straight on a number of points, mainly regarding Einstein's political views, how they changed over time and his level of support for setting up the Manhattan Project.

 

I read the book with a specific research agenda, which was to independently form an opinion as to whether Einstein was autistic, an idea not first suggested by me and not on the author's mind either. Conclusion: Yep, autisticker than an autistic person with autism.

 

Towards the end there is an account of how Einstein was affected by and responded to McCarthyism. He was opposed, seeing in it the oppression of free speech and free thought characteristic of both Fascism and Communism. The author takes the view that McCarthyism was a passing fad, doomed to fail in the long term because of the greatness of the American Constitution. I found this level of complacency offensive to all the victims of McCarthy, all the people who spoke up in defense of freedoms and all the people who defended the constitution legally.

 

On it's own the constitution is nothing; without those people willing to risk reputation, career, even liberty, would McCarthyism have been a "passing fad"? Given the current political situation, we need such people more than ever. You disappoint me in this, Isaacson. Einstein, who used his world famous name to stand up for moderation, tolerance and freedom of thought and speech, does not.

 

Still, overall an excellent book.

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