Sunday, October 11, 2015

This was a slightly sad book; Erwin has become part of popular culture with the cat (which gets barely a mention in here).
Obviously anyone who has a lifetime of work in a complex field that few people can honestly hope to understand or offer comment on, is going to be hard to do justice to. The biographer does a good job of linking Erwin's personal, spiritual and professional lives which prevents the book becoming too dry, but it's not an easy read whne the equations come out. I couldn't follow the eigenvector formulae and didn't try to , as it's far too complex for me. I was happy to see the development of ideas and the relationships with Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, Albert Einstein etc and the way ES explored the field he was interested in, drew together the thoughts of collaborators, and presented these new ideas in ways that cemented understanding. He was, as well as a clever thinker, a clear explainer, which is at least as important.
In his personal life, he had some unusual relationships that were reported honestly  but which were a little uncomfortable, but in the context of the 1920s and 30s perhaps made sense. His marriage and his children and lovers made for some complexity in his life, and all this against the backdrop of the rise of Nazism in Austria and Germany mean one shouldn't be too quick to judge. The letter he wrote to excuse himself for attitudes and behaviour early in 1939(?) was a complication that made it difficult for him to work or indeed to escape cleanly from Europe - and his own rejection of work in the US because of prohibition is with hindsight a poor one. He could have been with Einstein at Princeton but instead lived out the war in Ireland - not that that was a disaster, but it could have been different.

The book was dense and readable, for a serious biography of a theoretical physicist. It took me a while, but I enjoyed it.The thought part refers to his interest in Vedantic (?) Eastern philosophy and his ideas around self and spirituality that seem to have gone alongside his ideas on casuality. He doesn't seem to have been a crackpot, just someone for whom normal religion didn't fit, but the Eastern ideas on self and consciousness had a bit more - refer to 'The Tao of Physics' for more on this. I've read and enjoyed a few books along these lines so tend to appreciate these ideas where I might have otherwise rejected them -the idea that the universe and our perceptions of it are not as straightforward as science might suggest is appealing, and the ideas around quantum physics and uncertainty link into this quite well.

It felt like a grown up task, to read this, and yet it was a 'good' book to read. The last chapter felt like a reconciliation between Erwin and Anny, whether it was or not, I think the biographer felt sympathy. As did I.

Whoops, thought this would be a bit different - Lord Ashcroft is a fine person, and has helped us recover the lost medals stolen from Waiouru if I remember correctly, so good for him. He spends his money collecting and preserving medals and telling the stories attached to them, and this book is one of a series. It lists the recipients, in chronological order, and the circumstances around their award. It's naturally sad as many of the people commemorated died as part of the action for which they medal was awarded - but not all, so there were some who were alive to comment. The tales of derring do are fine, although they become a bit samey as the service history is listed - only a few truly stand out. The writing is good enough, if a bit 'boys own' and breathless, I think it's just that any war history becomes a bit overwhelming after enough examples are listed.

Yeah, I must stop reading these collections of newspaper columns collected together and published as books. They are dull, unconnected, annoying for being out of context with the times. And really exist purely to cash in on the Top Gear thing. Given that I have several of Clarkson's and haven't finished one because it got boring, this is the same. It'd be different if they were actual books, but these spliced together things are crap. Sorry.

A few ebooks - actually audiobooks - to add to the list - the first three in the Alvin Maker cycle by good old Orson Scott Card. On loan from the library, played through Overdrive on the iphone, through the car bluetooth connection. Yay tech. It works pretty well except for a week where I got my settings confused and it tried to play music instead, so I just listened to the phone speaker in the cupholder. Somehow I got the settings right again accidentally so we're all good again.

The books needed a good edit - they're preachy, with long sections on slavery, religion, the colonialism of the US, the natural link of the Red man to nature...this I think ends iup a 6 book cycle but I wonder whether it might have been brought down a bit. Orson talked at the end of book 12 and explained how it grew, so at least he understands...
Good tales; I always liked the books (I read Prentice Alvin or possibly Journeyman years ago) and they've been good company in the car. The magic is fun ,with the hexes and knacks, and the language of frontier America is trying for a Mark Twain but obviously doesn't quite have the gravitas or humour. Perhaps that's why it doesn't quite get there - the preachiness isn't as plain entertaining as some good ol' tale tellin - although he plays with language it can be self conscious - harder to spot in an audio book in some ways, more natural in others. The alternating narrators for different story threads is good, keeps it clear who is the central character, but there are times I want it to huirry the hell up as i only have so many minutes a day I can listen, and when he goes off on another rant I know it'll be ages before I find out what happens next. At least I do care.

Now here's another maths book. Mr Aczel wrote 'Fermat's Last Theorem' so he knows his stuff. This is mainly a recap of we known stories, but there is some new material (mostly on Bourbaki and Grothendieck

This was good, worth a re-read some time, lots of interestiing tales. Given that I know about Galois and Bernouilli and Fibonacci, thier treatment seemed a bit light compared with some, but then there were others who were very well covered. Overall a knowledgeable work well told.

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