Archive for Books

Marginalia

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on August 12, 2020 by telescoper

While this morning’s repeat exams were going on I was leafing through an old second-hand text book, one of many I have acquired over the years looking for nice problems and worked examples. The good thing about old books is that solutions to the problems are usually not available on the internet, unlike modern ones. The book concerned this morning is a classic: Statics by Horace Lamb, which you can still get via Cambridge University Press. I have the first edition, published in 1912.

Looking through I was somewhat alarmed to see what had been pencilled in some of the margins:

Of course anyone who has been to India knows that the swastika isn’t necessarily a Nazi symbol: you find it all over the place in the Indian sub-continent, where it is used as a symbol for good luck. I remember being given a very nice conference bag in Pune many years ago with a swastika on it. I didn’t use it back home, of course.

The first owner of the copy of Statics that I have was acquired in 1913 by a J.H.C (or G) Lindesay of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. I know because he/she inscribed their name in the front. That doesn’t look to me like an Indian name, but I think it’s a fair bet that the book passed through many hands before reaching me and that one of the past owners was Indian. I haven’t tried any of the problems marked with the swastika, but perhaps they are difficult – hence the `good luck’ symbol? I notice though that the symbol at the bottom of the page has a chirality different from the others. Is this significant, I wonder?

All of which irrelevance reminded me of an discussion I’ve had with a number of people about whether they like to scribble in the margins of their books, or whether they believe this practice to be a form of sacrilege.

I’ll put my cards on the table  straightaway. I like to annotate my books – especially the technical ones – and some of them have extensive commentaries written in them. I also like to mark up poems that I read; that helps me greatly to understand the structure. I don’t have a problem with scribbling in margins because I think that’s what margins are for. Why else would they be there?

This is a famous example – a page from Newton’s Principia, annotated by Leibniz:

dsc00469

Some of my friends and fellow academics, however, regard such actions as scandalous and seem to think books should be venerated in their pristine state.  Others probably find little use for printed books given the plethora of digitial resources now available online or via Kindles etc so this is not an issue..

I’m interested to see what the divergence of opinions is in with regard to the practice of writing in books, so here’s a poll for you to express your opinion:

Marginal Notes – Are You For Or Against?

Posted in Books, History with tags , , , , on November 19, 2014 by telescoper

At the weekend I was listening to a programme on Radio 3 part of which was about the rise of the foreign language phrasebook over the last three or four centuries. It was a fascinating discussion, not least because it reminded me of an old Victorian English-Hindi phrasebook I found in a bookship in Pune (India). The book was intended for the use of well-to-do British ladies  and the phrases presumably chosen to reflect their likely needs as they travelled about India. I opened the book at random and found a translation of “Doctor, please help me. I am suffering from severe constipation”. In my experience as a Westerner travelling in India, constipation was the least of my worries…

Anyway, the real point of posting about this is that some of the old phrasebooks which were used to illustrate the programme had been heavily annotated by their owners. That reminded me of an discussion I’ve had with a number of people about whether they like to scribble in the margins of their books, or whether they believe this practice to be a form of sacrilege.

I’ll put my cards on the table  straightaway. I like to annotate my books – especially the technical ones – and some of them have extensive commentaries written in them. I also like to mark up poems that I read; that helps me greatly to understand the structure. I don’t have a problem with scribbling in margins because I think that’s what margins are for.Why else would they be there?

This is a famous example – a page from Newton’s Principia, annotated by Leibniz:

dsc00469

Some of my fellow academics, however, regard such actions as scandalous and seem to think books should be venerated in their pristine state.  Others probably find little use for printed books given the plethora of digitial resources now available online or via Kindles etc so this is not an issue..

I’m interested to see what the divergence of opinions is in with regard to the practice of writing in books, so here’s a poll for you to express your opinion:

Nice work if you can get it..

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , , on September 19, 2008 by telescoper

I’ve just discovered that my review of Steven Weinberg’s new book “Cosmology” has been published today in the American journal Science. ( I think the link will only work if you or your institution has a subscription to the magazine.) It’s quite a nice job getting to review books like this, not because you get paid a lot (in fact, usually you don’t get paid at all), but because you get a free copy of the book and there is a clear incentive to read it. Reviews themselves are quite easy to do, as they’re usually only around a thousand words so don’t take more than an hour or so to rattle off.

The case of this particular book is quite unusual, thought, because Science usually only includes reviews of popular-level books, and this one is very technical. However, because Weinberg is such an eminent and well known physicist and this work is a long-awaited update of his classic Gravitation and Cosmology (published in 1972), it makes an interest subject for a review even if it is probably impossible for a non-specialist to actually read and understand all of it. It’s definitely not for the mathematically faint-hearted. In the review I stayed off the mathematical details and tried to explain how this book exemplifies the changes that have taken place in cosmology over the past thirty or forty years. Anyway, as you will see if you read the review, I liked the updated book a lot but I think it’s definitely for connoisseurs rather than absolute beginners.

Among the Literati

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on September 16, 2008 by telescoper
Front Cover

Front Cover

I couldn’t resist including the following which is taken from the Times Literary Supplement (March 28, 2008, No. 5478). I get the TLS mainly for the crossword, and was chuffed when they actually published a review of my book From Cosmos to Chaos, published by Oxford University Press in 2006, and which was also reviewed in Nature and Physics World.

Between you and me the book developed out of a number of bits and pieces about probability theory I had written over quite a long time but never published. I cobbled them together in a rush and the book is a bit of a mess, really. Had I had more time it might have been more coherent. Perhaps. And it didn’t help that OUP didn’t allow me to correct the proofs, so there are lots of typographical errors. Anyway, reviewers have been very generous, particular Jim Bennett (Director of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford) who wrote the review from which I have taken the following excerpt. And in case you think I edited out the bad bits, that’s not true. He actually reviewed four books in one article and I’ve just taken the bit about mine.

We can turn from inclusiveness and caution to the refreshingly opinionated writing of Peter Coles in From Cosmos to Chaos. This is really a book about probability theory and its application to different branches of science, but Coles is a Professor of Astrophysics, and cosmology is one of the most evident strengths of his book. Here again we learn much besides about our author: he supports Newcastle United, follows cricket and is keen on gambling. His is the only book of these four that has any formal mathematics to speak of, and we are encouraged not to give up at the first hurdle. He also uses illustrations from card games and seems oblivious to the fact that his fascination with contract bridge is just as likely as his affection for mathematical formulae to put readers off.

Coles’s preferred methodology in probability theory is Bayesian, based on an assignment of probabilities, understood as degrees of reasonable belief, to possible outcomes, rather than deriving them from frequency-based statistics.

This preference is carried throughout From Cosmos to Chaos and its epistemological implications are readily embraced. The “standard model” in particle physics, for example, is not absolutely right, but is currently the best bet among the alternatives. The Big Bang is not certain but the best available model given the present array of observational data. A “Theory of Everything” will not, pace Stephen Hawking, reveal the Mind of God – that is “silly” – it will be the most economical description of the universe and a good way of saving paper. The concept of entropy has a “subjective” aspect, not in the sense that anyone can use it as they choose, but because it arises from “the way we manage our knowledge about nature rather than (being) about nature itself’. Here there is a genuine engagement between the scientist, the historian and the philosopher of science.

Is it his approach based on the assignment of reasonable belief that has liberated Coles to express such clear preferences and opinions on all manner of theories? He is good on the difficulties and inadequacies in quantum mechanics, and charming in telling us that, having been warned beforehand that the subject would be confusing, he studied it for three years before realizing “what was the correct way to be confused about it”. He is amazed that the Copenhagen interpretation (where an act of measurement compels a realization of one or other physical states that existed previously only within a distribution of probabilities) could have been embraced seriously by so many highly intelligent people; but he has even less time for the multiverse, and contends that “in the gap left by the failure to find a sensible way to understand quantum reality there has grown a pathological industry of pseudo scientific gobbledegook”.

Coles suggests that the probabilistic descriptions given by quantum mechanics may simply arise from its incompleteness and he sees potential in a Bayesian approach, where quantum states are understood as states of knowledge rather than states of reality. He is pessimistic about the value of string theory: its apparent unconcern for predictable outcomes sets it outside scientific practice, while its plethora of possible accounts of our universe, known as the “string landscape”, would be better called the “string scrap-yard”.

Coles’s mathematics is not always easy to follow, but it seems to occupy its proper place, with the voice of the physicist helping us to position and appreciate it even without full understanding. In the chapter on the Big Bang, for example, the general reader may not understand all of the technical accounts, but she will get a real sense of what cosmology is and the kinds of claims it makes. These are not dogmatic but offered with a kind of realistic integrity and concluded by a series of “open questions” – fundamental but not yet answered. In the last chapter, probabilistic reasoning is applied to questions closer to everyday life, such as medical statistics and expert witnessing, and in a final – seemingly incongruous but enjoyable – addendum Coles addresses the breakdown of trust between scientists and the public. This does not arise from his subject and seems to be there just because the author – characteristically, one feels – had things he wanted to say. While bemoaning decline in the distribution of science understanding, he also berates the baleful effect of the scientific zealot, insisting that the scientific approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. Coles urges scientists to engage honestly with the public and educationalists not to dumb down the school curriculum.