"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

Web scienceontap.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 28, 2009

"Green" Books

Here the "Top 10 Green Books of 2008" (with synopses) as selected by the Mother Nature Network.


Friday, February 27, 2009

For Math Junkies

For a Friday video offering, this zoom-in of the marvelous Mandelbrot Set to a "6th level mini-set" with Jonathan Coulton's "Mandelbrot Set" musical accompaniment:

(and if you know of a video or graphic link on the Web that might be interesting, inspiring, or educational for science/nature folks please send it along to me via email for possible use as a Friday post)

(there are many other zooms of the Set available on YouTube)


Below, strictly for math aficionados, are the lyrics to the Jonathan Coulton music:

"Pathological monsters! cried the terrified mathematician
Every one of them is a splinter in my eye
I hate the Peano Space and the Koch Curve
I fear the Cantor Ternary Set And the Sierpinski Gasket makes me want to cry
And a million miles away a butterfly flapped its wings
On a cold November day a man named Benoit Mandelbrot was born

His disdain for pure mathematics and his unique geometrical insights
Left him well equipped to face those demons down
He saw that infinite complexity could be described by simple rules
He used his giant brain to turn the game around
And he looked below the storm and saw a vision in his head
A bulbous pointy form
He picked his pencil up and he wrote his secret down

Take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z's should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set

Mandelbrot Set you're a Rorschach Test on fire
You're a day-glo pterodactyl
You're a heart-shaped box of springs and wire
You're one badass f**king fractal
And you're just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way

Mandelbrot's in heaven, at least he will be when he's dead
Right now he's still alive and teaching math at Yale
He gave us order out of chaos, he gave us hope where there was none
And his geometry succeeds where others fail
If you ever lose your way, a butterfly will flap its wings
From a million miles away, a little miracle will come to take you home

Just take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z's should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set
Mandelbrot Set you're a Rorschach Test on fire
You're a day-glo pterodactyl
You're a heart-shaped box of springs and wire
You're one badass f**king fractal
And you're just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way
And you're just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way
Go on change the world in a tiny way
Come on change the world in a tiny way "


Thursday, February 26, 2009


Inexplicable Powers of Mind...

"Extraordinary Knowing" by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer

This book was published in 2007, though the author, clinical psychologist and UC Berkeley Professor Elizabeth Mayer died in 2005 shortly after its completion (her obituary

Let me say at the outset, I liked this book. A lot of scientific-minded folks may not care for it, but... I liked it.
Those of us who frequent flea markets and garage sales do so in part because we enjoy sorting through rubble looking for the occasional gem amongst the riff-raff. I've always viewed scientific "fringe" writings in a similar manner. I enjoy perusing fringe science, even if much of it is unpersuasive and dismissable, because from time to time there is a gem, or at least, as in this instance, a worthy read.

This book has endorsement blurbs from certain advocates of the paranormal which may put off some readers. However, it also has a foreward from one of the great physicists and thinkers of our time, Freeman Dyson, who cautiously confesses he finds Mayer's story "convincing" and offers his own open-minded view of parapsychology later in the book. This is a book about intuitive or anomalous "knowing" --- knowing things without understanding how we know them. In a second foreward, psychologist Carol Gilligan writes that this is a book about "knowing through connectedness" or knowing in the way "children know;"
what some would simply call 'gut instinct.'

Elizabeth's story begins in California when a special harp belonging to her young daughter is stolen after a concert and no amount of publicity or searching, brings it back (she relates the story in a YouTube video here). Months later a friend tells her that if she really wants the instrument back she should be willing to try anything... including using a dowser!
...For those who are still reading, and to cut to the chase, a dowser (and complete stranger to Mayer) 2000 miles away in Arkansas remotely locates the harp for Elizabeth. And for her 'this changed everything" in her life; changed her work, her research, and her "sense of how the world adds up." Mayer began collecting stories/anecdotes from her medical colleagues of odd, inexplicable experiences of 'knowing' things at a distance or ahead of time, and found herself inundated with examples, as they related instances often never revealed to anyone else before. Depending on your openness to such anecdotes, you will either find many of these intriguing... or dismissable as unempirical.

The book goes on to quickly recount the "strange history of paranormal research" chiefly from the late 1800's (including the Society for Psychical Research" and William James, who is liberally quoted through the volume) through the work of Joseph Rhine at Duke University in the 1930's; on analysis Mayer finds Rhine's work to be much better than his harshest critics made it out to be.

Next comes a chapter on the work (in part for the CIA) of Puthoff and Targ at the Stanford Research Institute largely on so-called "remote-viewing," which is easily as controversial as the studies carried out by Rhine. "Ganzfield" studies, in which a "sender" attempts to mentally send a picture or image to a "receiver" in another room, are one type of highlighted study. Others who show up in the book are Dean Radin, Ray Hyman, and Cornell's Daryl Bem, for those familiar with these names, and Freud rears his head repeatedly as well, as befitting the author's background in psychoanalysis.

Mayer ends up arguing that just as in "Gestalt psychology" where certain illusions are based on the inability of a viewer to focus simultaneously on both the background and foreground of a picture, thus forcing a focus on one or the other, so too many scientists are incapable of viewing "anomalous" experiences objectively in their normal rational mode, and thus too quickly dismiss phenomena that are dissonant with the empirical career world they inhabit.

Another chapter reviews some of the experimental research on the effects of prayer on patients, a topic about which much has been written in the last couple decades, and the last chapter is the now almost obligatory one all such books must have on "quantum uncertainty," relating how this concept from physics, and the related concept of "nonlocality," may apply in the cognitive world. Here, a 4-part mind/matter, conscious/unconscious model of dynamic interaction is hypothesized to try to account for some of the paranormal research findings (and also account for why such findings are often difficult to achieve or replicate). Prior to this chapter the notion of "entrainment," wherein people are shown to have synchronous physiological responses to a given stimulus, is also mentioned as a possible explanation (or at least analogy) for some paranormal effects.

At the end, despite her trepidation of 'New Age fads' and human 'credulity,' scientist Mayer is left shaken by what she finds on her "journey" through examples that are difficult to make sense of, yet real enough, she believes, to need serious investigation. It is unfortunate she passed away (from illness) before getting to pursue these areas further.

Personally, I believe there exist multiple ways of "knowing" of which the scientific method is one way. And from that perspective this volume is worth a read; others who view science as the only proper way of knowing may find the volume lacking. In the end, Mayer's book is a call to remain open to possibilities that we can't comprehend with our current operating logic; to neither dismiss nor ignore such mysteries of life, but look them square in the eye, and acknowledge their presence, without pre-judgment or bias.
.. and that, afterall, is part of the scientific method.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Science As Faith

Another NY Times essay today...
This essay by physicist/author Paul Davies, published in the NY Times over a year ago, created quite a stir at the time and drew reaction from several other scientists, pro and con.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Epigenome

Epigenetics is one of the hottest topics in biology these days. Mapping the human genome, as grand an accomplishment as it was, barely scratches the surface of understanding how genes actually operate in our lives. The rest of the story, now being deciphered, comes from the epigenome. Recent NY Times piece on the subject from Nicholas Wade here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

On Being Human

Book blurb: "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique" by Michael Gazzaniga

On the one hand I find neuroscience fascinating, on the other hand I find it quite 'iffy'... The prospect for the human mind being able to study itself and reach thorough and accurate conclusions is quite problematic, both philosophically and methodologically. Still, there is great fun in trying, or in reading about those who do.

Michael Gazzaniga is one of the leading neuroscientists in the country and anything he writes is worth a look. His latest offering, "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique," is an especially wide-ranging overview of the current state of knowledge in neuroscience. It's often said that the human brain, moreso than outer space or the ocean depths, is truly the 'last frontier' for science. This book appears to try and chart a course across that frontier for the layperson.

A NY Times review of the book is here.
And a more critical online review from Salon here.

An interview from American Scientist magazine with Gazzaniga here.

NPR program featuring Gazzaniga here.

and more here on the Edge website:


Finally, his Amazon-listed books here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Today, for all of you with the winter sniffles, just a simple essay from scientist/writer Chet Raymo:


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Couple of New Offerings

New books about Albert Einstein, or his theories, seem to be never-ending... and... never dull. University of Chicago astrophysicist, Evalyn Gates, has a new volume out, "
Einstein's Telescope: The Hunt for Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe," delving into the fascinating and barely imaginable topics of dark matter and dark energy that appear to make up most of the Universe despite are inability to sense them. This book should probably come with a disc of Twilight Zone theme music included.

And to bring you back to Earth, Meg Olmert's new volume "Made For Each Other: the Biology of the Human-Animal Bond," focuses on the neurochemical basis (largely oxytocin) underlying the connection we feel to our animal companions. She tries to afix a scientific cloak on a subject that is sometimes viewed as merely sentimental or anthropomorphic. A review here.

I haven't read either of the above books yet; just passing them along as interesting-looking selections.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Video, Anyone?

We live in a very visual world and there are lots of wonderful science/nature videos and photographic websites present on the Web. I'm toying with the notion of further expanding "Science On Tap" to include some of these offerings in addition to the usual focus on the written word, and using Fridays as the day to post them here.

If you know of a visual or video site that may be inspiring, motivating, or educational for science folks in some way, please send a link along to me via email --- if I like it enough it may eventually show up on a Friday post.

I'll start things off with this classic (and fuzzy) 1981 British interview with brilliant physicist Richard Feynman:


Thursday, February 19, 2009

"The Age of Entanglement"

Don't know when I'll find time to sit down myself and read the 400+ pages of "The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn" by Louisa Gilder (here and here), but feel like I shouldn't delay any longer citing it on this blog.

The book (8+ years in the writing) has been receiving generally excellent reviews around the bookworld; especially excellent for a first-time author; especially for a first-time author tackling a difficult subject (quantum theory); and ESPECIALLY for a young (20-something) first-time author, tackling a difficult subject and trying to make it interesting, lively, and comprehensible for a lay audience. All of which she seems to accomplish, turning what is often treated as strictly a technical or scientific story into very much a human story through the creative use of a conversational mode. If you've shied away from the quantum theory book genre before, this might be the volume to entice you in.

Washington Post review of the book is here.

And an interview with Louisa Gilder here (in text form).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blog Carnivals

For those who frequent blog carnivals I ought to promote a few I recently contributed to:

The 49th "Carnival of Mathematics" is available here.

A general "Book Review Blog Carnival" is here.

64th edition of "Encephalon" (neuroscience carnival) here.

Finally, the 94th "I And The Bird" Carnival, including a review from S.O.T., is here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Writer Blurb -- Natalie Angier

Might as well continue the theme of fine female science writers today by linking to this archive of the essays of Natalie Angier that have appeared in the NY Times. Whereas K.C. Cole tends to focus on physics, cosmology, and the physical sciences, Angier most often writes on the life sciences... and like Cole, rarely disappoints! You can almost select anything at random from this archive and be assured of a treat...

And 3 of her books are:

"The Canon"
"Woman: An Intimate Geography"
"The Beauty of the Beastly"

Monday, February 16, 2009

Author Blurb -- K.C. Cole

K.C. Cole is an award-winning science writer and essayist. Her volume "Mind Over Matter: Conversations With The Cosmos" is one of my favorite books of science essays. These are 90+ concise, trenchant, varied essays that don't waste words nor the reader's time, and can yield meaning for the non-scientist and scientist alike. Widely-read mathematician Keith Devlin once called her essay "Murmurs," which is included in the volume, "the best popular science essay ever" (read it HERE). That would be a tall order, and there are several essays in the book that I like even better, but it is a telling endorsement of her work.
"Mind Over Matter" was published over 5 years ago and I probably won't bother giving it a full review here... but if I did, it would easily make my "A" list.

Some of K.C.'s other books are:

"The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty"
"First You Build a Cloud: And Other Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life"
"The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything"


Sunday, February 15, 2009

Quirky "Quirkology"

Psychology That Is More Fun Than It Ought Ever Be....

Is it my imagination or do the British really have the world's best sense of humor? British psychology professor Dr. Richard Wiseman has turned doing quirky off-the-wall studies into a full-time career, with jocular results.
I likely won't find time to fully review his offering, "Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things" (depending which edition you come across the subtitle may differ), so I'll simply say it is a VERY entertaining volume overall (some chapters certainly moreso than others, but overall a fun, interesting read). It relates studies he has conducted over the last 20 years which have "been hidden away in obscure academic journals," at least until the publication of this book in 2007. In his own words, some of these studies "use mainstream methods to investigate unusual topics" while "others use unusual methods to investigate mainstream topics." A brief Web review is here.

Much of the book is even available online courtesy of google books here.
How could a book with an entire chapter on searching for the world's funniest joke not be an entertaining read! Some may find the volume shallow as a scientific offering, but I suspect Wiseman might argue that what is lacking is not so much depth, as pretentiousness.

Wiseman also runs a website covering some of the same interesting material, as well as ongoing interactive experiments.
And Quirkology and Dr. Wiseman have a presence on YouTube here.
Possibly the most fun and highly-viewed of their short YouTube videos is this piece of hocus-pocus (...prepare to be baffled).

If you're feeling a bit bored with things lately, this book could be the perfect pick-me-upper.



Saturday, February 14, 2009

"In Praise of Science Books"

Year-old essay
HERE on the pertinence of science books.


Friday, February 13, 2009

In Further Celebration of Darwin

In this week of Darwin commemoration,
HERE an archive of essays from the late Stephen Jay Gould, and other writers on evolution topics. Nice compendium; worth a look and some readin'.

....To find more posts from the blogosphere celebrating Charles Darwin this week visit here:



Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Honor of Darwin...

The Watson-Crick Paper:

As most know, in honor of the bicentennial celebration of Charles Darwin's birth (today!) many science-related websites are doing posts specifically related to the great father of 'evolution.' I figured I'd take a slightly different tack here...
To this day, one of the best, most succinctly-written (1 page!) examples of science ever published is still the original Watson-Crick paper from "Nature" over 50 years ago, hypothesizing a double-helix model for the DNA molecule as the carrier of genetic information. It was this paper that finally put Darwin's theory on a solid molecular footing, and spurred so much of the work in genetics and evolutionary theory that was to follow. In a sense, this single page of text from Watson and Crick, is pregnant with all the volumes that Darwin authored a century earlier. It is not only an amazing piece of science and thought, but also, an amazing piece of writing.
View it at the following 2 webpages, the first giving annotations at the very end, and the second interspersing annotations through the body of the text:



On a lighter note, you may wish to visit the website of the author of "The Darwin Awards" series of humor books, which recount the escapades of individuals who have thinned themselves from the herd as it were (natural selection at work)! Or the entire series can be viewed at Amazon here.

....And, oh yeah, lastly, HAPPY BIRTHDAY Charley!... ya done real good!!


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain"

Elucidating The Mind-Body Connection... 'We Are Built To Move'

I've long thought that movement and touch are essentials to the health and well-being of living things ("You are built to move," writes the author), and I'm also much interested in the whole 'mind-body connection' arena. So it was natural that a book entitled "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" would catch my eye. The volume is written by Dr. John J. Ratey who has focused in the past on ADHD and other psychiatric issues, and in this volume contends that "exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize brain function." There are a great many mind-body books on the market these days, ranging from questionable fluff to cutting edge science. This volume definitely falls toward the latter end of that range and is a worthy read. Its take-home message is no different than a lot of other volumes, but it does so with the backing of more brain science and research than many books.

In the Introduction Ratey writes, "...we no longer hunt and gather, and that's a problem. The sedentary character of modern life is a disruption of our nature..." And much later this: "...our genes are coded for this activity, and our brains are meant to direct it. Take that activity away, and you're disrupting a delicate biological balance that has been fine-tuned over half a million years." Ratey's book is a strong push to remain active, for the benefit of brain chemistry (and its ensuing effects).

Chapter 1 focuses on the experience of Naperville School District 203 in Illinois, giving 19,000 students PE classes that centered on fitness and lifestyle (i.e. exercise/movement), NOT sports, and the resultant benefits, including reduced obesity statistics.
Throughout the book Dr. Ratey discusses elements of brain chemistry, that are augmented by exercise including serotonin, dopamine, other neurotransmitters, and a key neurotrophin known as BDNF, among others.
Subsequent chapters focus on "stress," "anxiety," "depression," "ADHD," and "addiction," using many individual anecdotal examples, as well as laboratory research to indicate that exercise is often as effective (and safer) than pharmaceuticals for treating these conditions. Moreover, Ratey notes that exercise "adjusts" an entire series of brain chemicals, whereas drugs often only act upon a single brain chemical. And like certain drugs, exercise itself can be addictive, but Ratey shrugs, "don't worry about it," because the risk of that occurring is so small relative to the benefits gained; moreover exercise is more likely to counteract other stresses that often feed addictive behavior.

For female readers chapter 8 covers the positive impact of exercise on PMS, menopause, and post-partum problems, and the value of exercise even during pregnancy. Toward the end of the chapter Ratey writes (surprisingly to me) that, "It's well established that more women suffer from Alzheimer's disease than men, even when the statistics are adjusted for the fact that women live longer." Still, Alzheimer's and mental sharpness more generally, are definite concerns for both genders in this time of increased longevity, and regular exercise is an important protective element against the progression of age, if we hope to live, not just longer, but better.

Ratey summarizes the positive effects of aerobic exercise (essentially, movement that increases heart rate) as, 1) strengthening the cardiovascular system, 2) regulating "fuel," 3) reducing obesity, 4) decreasing stress, 5) elevating mood, 6) boosting the immune system, 7) fortifying bones, 8) boosting motivation, and finally, 9) fostering neuroplasticity. Best of all exercise is free, flexible, and readily available throughout our lives. Almost as an afterthought he mentions the value as well of 'mental exercise' and of 'eating light and eating right' for overall health. Also, research is less clear how valuable NON-aerobic activity is --- strength training, resistance training, balance work, yoga, tai chi, etc. certainly all bestow benefits, but likely not as many as aerobic work specifically for brain activity/chemistry.

Many other books probably make the same basic points and recommendations that Ratey does here; I'm just not sure how many of those books make them as solidly as Ratey does.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Classic American Nature Writing

Some classic nature writing, freely available online at Google books, from early 20th century American writer John Burroughs --- HERE.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Sir David

Author, naturalist, filmographer, etc. etc. Sir David Attenborough in an interview (excerpts) with the BBC prior to release of his latest documentary work, in honor of the bicentennial of Darwin's birth, "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life." :

And compendium of Attenborough's books here.


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Book Blurb -- "My Stroke of Insight"

Many know about Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's experience suffering a stroke from a video of her that went viral on the Web last year. As a neuroscientist herself, her self-analysis of her own condition, even as she was experiencing the stroke, is indeed 'insightful.' Taylor's talk is remarkable and inspirational, while moving to the very edges of science. If somehow you've missed it, give a watch

Her book, "My Stroke of Insight" details more fully the experience outlined in that video and her recovery, and is widely available. A review of it here.

Further, she runs another interesting website expanding on the material and lessons of the book here:



Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Blog Meme

I've never tried starting a blog meme before, but here goes....

A science book lovers' meme:

Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.
Post your list, and forward the meme to a half-dozen-or-so other science-oriented bloggers of your choosing.

I'll start the ball rolling with this sundry list (in no particular order):

1. Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
2. How Mathematicians Think by William Byers
3. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
4. The Night Is Large by Martin Gardner
5. Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo
6. Paradigms Lost by John L. Casti

And I'm tagging these blogs:

Living the Scientific Life
Clancy On Science and Nature
Uncertain Principles
Greg Laden's Blog
Bootstrap Analysis
Oh For the Love of Science

'Commenters' can send in your own mini-lists if you wish...


Author Blurb -- Clifford Pickover

Dr. Clifford Pickover, prolific writer, inventor, thinker/scientist, and ultimate geek's geek (and some would say 'visionary') has written over three dozen books mostly pertaining to mathematics, though often touching upon other aspects of science, computers, and creativity, as well. Amazon listing of his output is here.

His internet homepage is here. And he twitters at: http://twitter.com/pickover

Interesting interview with him here.

Biographical info here and here.

If you like math at all, especially recreational math and number theory, you'll love reading Clifford Pickover.


Friday, February 6, 2009

"Worried Sick" Podcast

Here, a podcast of an interview from the "People's Pharmacy" radio show with rheumatologist (and iconoclast) Dr. Nortin Hadler. Within the medical establishment Hadler is a gadfly, highly critical of many of the routine uses of medicine in America today. Always seeking common-sense, truth-in-advertising, and an end to medical hyperbole, Hadler isn't afraid to expose sacred cows or find major faults in his own profession, as he discusses what really is or is not valuable among common medical practices. His latest book "Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America" is definitely on my to-be-read list.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Author Blurb -- Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman has that rare ability to make interesting, even topics or information which might not at first glance, seem interesting. Her exquisite writing has often been called 'poetic' or 'lyrical' even though her usual topics are in the realm of science or natural history (she does publish works of poetry as well). Her own sense of wonder oozes through each subject she tackles. I've especially enjoyed her books, "An Alchemy of Mind" and "A Natural History of the Senses" but all her works contain passages that delight and enchant. Her most recent best-selling nonfiction volume is "The Zookeeper's Wife."

Her personal webpage is here: http://dianeackerman.com/

And here, an online interview with her.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Lewis Carroll In Numberland"

I'll frequently use space here to link to reviews of books I am not likely to read myself, but think worth bringing to readers' attention. Today a LINK to a NY Times review of "Lewis Carroll In Numberland" by British mathematician Robin Wilson.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009


The Savant Mind At Work....

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet's first book, "Born On A Blue Day" was an international best-seller as an engaging autobiographical overview of his fascinating life and talents. His new book, "Embracing The Wide Sky" is a more scientific look at the way his mind works, and provocatively covers a range of cognitive issues.
Tammet's perspective is utterly unique, as an articulate, thoughtful savant who can introspectively analyze his own mind workings. The book actually includes a lot of references to more standard journal literature as well, but Tammet never blindingly accepts the conclusions of academic researchers when his own intuitive understanding of how the brain operates runs counter to the party-line of academics. Plenty of outside-the-box thinking here on subjects where outside-the-box thinking is welcome, and sometimes difficult to come by.

Although he doesn't go into great depth in any given area, Tammet touches upon a smorgasbord of cognitive subjects including brain plasticity and re-wiring, intelligence testing, memory, language acquisition and processing, number instinct, perception, and creativity. And interestingly, he believes many of the talents of savants are not as special as they appear, in some cases even being accessible to non-savants. He winces at the notion of savant skills as almost machine-like aberrations in the human family. Tammet sees humanity as more of a continuous broad-spectrum of abilities and talents, with savant skills as rare, but not abnormal outliers.

The mathematical capabilities of autistic savants are often among the most difficult parts of their repertoire to understand or explain. These may include lightening-fast calculation or other feats of computation. And oftentimes, as in Daniel Tammet's case, their description of numbers as having color and texture or shape is likewise difficult to grasp. Tammet is famous for reciting pi accurately to over 22,000 digits from memory, a virtually inconceivable accomplishment, that is aided by his sense of pi as not just a number, but a landscape so-to-speak.

Interestingly in this new offering Tammet hypothesizes that his math prowess stems from "abnormal cross-communication" between areas of the brain that govern math skill and those that govern language (and specifically syntactic rules), which normally are separate. He points out that the two areas (left parietal lobe and left frontal lobe) lay physically next to each other in the brain, and that his "numerical abilities are rapid, intuitive, and largely unconscious" very much like the way most people produce and process language. Further, he notes that along with his mathematical talents he has already learned a dozen languages, and very easily picks up new languages to a conversational level. By his own admission he is a lover of words and language, as well as numbers.

Savantism is one of those topics which is so inherently captivating (and rare) that almost anything written on it is automatically fascinating, and several researchers have dealt with it previously. Still, there is something even more entrancing when you have the savant himself calmly, analytically peering into his own mind and communicating what he finds. I don't know if any parts of Tammet's books are ghostwritten or if Tammet composes all the words himself, but if the latter than he can add communicating and educating to his many talents. One hopes to hear much more from him as his life progresses further.

BTW, Daniel Tammet has his own website here:



Monday, February 2, 2009


Math and the Human Mind....

Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and cosmologist working with the Hubble Space Telescope, whose popular writings have focused mainly on mathematics; not entirely surprising given the degree to which math underlies his main vocation. His latest work could have simply been entitled "A Brief History of Mathematical Thought," but that's already been done a few dozen times so "Is God a Mathematician?" (the actual title) definitely makes for a catchier come-on. The book is an introduction to some of the basic ideas and human figures that have occupied the mathematical landscape over several centuries.

Livio starts off in chapter one with the sheer "mystery" of mathematics --- and the longstanding debate arising from the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics: is mathematics a fundamental Platonist quality of the Universe (the very "language of God" according to some), or is it nothing more than another abstract language generated by the human mind and having no material reality outside of human mental activity? Is math real and immutable in all places, or is it possible that a different advanced civilization in some other Universe (or galaxy) might evolve a totally different mathematics from that which we Earthlings know and use? Livio offers both sides of the argument without tipping his own hat in chapter one.

Chapters 2-7 take us through some of the historical development of mathematics starting with the Greeks, with especial emphasis on Archimedes, and then moving on through Descartes, Newton, various geometers and statisticians, and set theorists and logicians (Boole, Frege, Russell). He covers enough history here to be instructive and interesting, without being too pedantic. Chapter 8 returns to the theme of mathematics' unreasonable effectiveness in its applications, and ends by emphasizing that math not only is used to accurately describe much within the physical world, but also to make predictions about it (predicting, as one example, the existence of the W+, W-, and Z bosons well before physicists actually observed their reality). DNA, knot theory, GPS systems, and string theory are among the diverse subjects that make appearances in this chapter.

The final chapter returns to the question of whether mathematics exists in the physical universe or only within the human mind, and again the author teases a bit by offering totally divergent views from equally reputable, scholarly mathematicians. If the reality of mathematics is not something you have ever pondered, or if you don't comprehend how anyone could even doubt the reality of mathematics, the first and last chapters of this book will be especially worth reading. Math is often presented (for good reason) as the "queen" of the sciences, and most of us complete our education never exposed to the notion of math as but a tenuous abstraction.
So would math exist if human beings did not invent it? In the end Livio, plows a middle path, arguing (no doubt rightly) that the question is in part only a semantic conundrum; a false either-or dichotomy. In Livio's view mathematics is both, in some respects, 'invented' by humans and, in other respects, 'discovered.' As one simple example, he says, "Prime numbers as a concept were an invention, but all the theorems about prime numbers were discoveries." Indeed the question of mathematics being invented or discovered, while fun and interesting to debate, seems a bit of a philosophical straw man to spend so much time on from a pragmatic 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' standpoint... and mathematics ain't broke; indeed it works unreasonably and consistently well (although Livio also indicates that even its unreasonable effectiveness is a tad more ambiguous than one might casually assume). For all its practicality, math's philosophical underpinnings will probably be forever debated.

In any event, none of this answers the question of the book's title, "Is God a Mathematician?," and I dare say none of it was really intended to, but simply to provoke some thoughts and questions that may relate.
If you have already read a lot about the history/progression of mathematical thought, this book may not add much to your knowledge, but if it's an area you've not much dabbled in, this volume is probably a good place to start, or to refresh your knowledge if it's been awhile. It does not require a strong math background to absorb the material presented, although some familiarity with both math and philosophy is helpful.

A couple of Mario Livio's earlier books were, "The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number," and "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved: How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry."


Sunday, February 1, 2009


An Homage To Birds....

I've long enjoyed Jonathan Rosen's essays in various places, and am a bird-lover, so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to his work "The Life of the Skies" when I first heard it was due to be published. Thankfully, he didn't disappoint. This book won't meet everyone's desire, but for my taste it is the best, and most unconventional, bird-related volume out in awhile, with its rich overview of the pastime of birding; not strictly the science, nor sport, nor even art or history of birding (there are other books that do that), but the sheer spirit and joy of birding!

Early on in the volume, Rosen notes that birds are almost the ONLY wild animals most people encounter anymore on a regular basis throughout their lives; we have so exterminated, or removed from our environs, all the others; and unfortunately birds themselves are declining rapidly as well. Birds are in a sense our single remaining thread to a world long gone. It is a sad thought, and the lingering thought that cloaks the entire remainder of the book with poignancy.

The book is liberally sprinkled with interesting historical facts, stories, lyrical writing, and unpredictable jumps from subject to subject (if you're looking for a straightforward, scientific history of American birding, this book isn't for you). A wide range of figures appear with wonderful narrative as well (Audubon, Thoreau, Whitman, Burroughs, Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Robert Frost, E.O. Wilson, among others); even Jewish mysticism arises recurringly out of the wonderful prose.

One of the most heated debates in birding the last few years has been over the possible existence (or extinction) of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one of the grandest birds ever to inhabit North American forests of the south. Rosen looked (unsuccessfully) for the bird in Louisiana following a credible claim for its appearance back in 1999, and the book starts off by name-dropping this "ghost bird," which then returns time and time again throughout the volume, almost as a mascot for the gloom... and hope... of which the volume so often hints.

The chapters of this book are so varied and sometimes disjointed that they can almost be read non-sequentially. So too, different readers will vary widely in which chapters they most enjoy. Chapter 10 is especially entertaining, tackling the age-old question of whether one can be a birder and still be manly (my phrasing, not Rosen's, and I won't give his answer here). His chapters on birding in Israel are also oddly entertaining and especially so his treatment of the middle eastern 'bird of paradox,' the Hoopoe. But everyone will have their own favorite chapters; it's difficult to choose.

There are pages or passages, as in any 300-page volume, that don't seem to carry their weight as well, but I admire Rosen for even daring to put forth such eclectic, wide-ranging flights of fancy (there is history, poetry, science, theology, meditation, humor, stream-of-consciousness, and oh yeah, birds, here). I would have enjoyed reading more about modern birding, about Roger Tory Peterson and even Pete Dunne, and many of the current activities of birding, but that just doesn't appear to be Rosen's intention here.

Publishers Weekly once wrote of Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, "This book of wonder is one of the truly beautiful books of this or any season... which, on any page, offers a passage one can scarcely wait to share with a friend. It is a triumph." I would say pretty much the same for Rosen's offering.
If you're a bird or nature lover I heartily recommend this book. But maybe more importantly, IF you're NOT a bird or nature lover (but enjoy good writing)... read THIS book... and, become one.