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review 2017-04-29 01:35
Hidden Figures
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures tells the story of the role that women “computers,” particularly female African-American “computers” played in the birth of the aeronautics industry.  This is an important story, a story that should have been better known a long time ago, especially considering how important race and gender were, and still are, in the US.


Biographies tell what people did; the best also tell who people were – their personalities and what they cared about.  1st time author, Ms. Shetterley generally does a good, though dry, job telling a story about Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden.  But at the end I didn’t feel like I know the women themselves. I am currently #65 on the hold list for the movie.  I wonder if I’ll have a better sense for who Dorothy, Mary, Katherine and Christine really are after watching some of the scenes I just read about come to life.

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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 2017-04-24 13:28
Charles Darwin - David C. King

Unfortunately, unlike its series companion about Einstein (by a different author) I can't recommend this book, even to its intended age group.


Most seriously, there are factual errors: Darwin was not the official naturalist aboard the Beagle. That role was taken by the ship's surgeon (as was often the case), who, jealous of Darwin, quit at the first opportunity and sailed home. (Fortunately FitzRoy was able to hire a new surgeon before continuing the voyage.)


Secondly, there are typographical problems that go beyond just the occasional spelling error into missed and repeated parts of sentences.


Thirdly, in a book that has separate, boxed definitions for such concepts as "geology", words like "ecosystem" go by without any explanation at all.


Not good, which is a shame, since Darwin and his science are so enormously important.

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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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