Plenty to think about

At the Book Group last week we had a range of books with the focus “Controversy” and, as promised, I’m listing them. First up was “Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and the struggle for the soul of science” by David Lindley, a lively look at the development of modern physics from Brownian motion onwards. The slant of this book was the role of personalities and cliques in the development of ideas. In passing we mentioned “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”, written in 1884 by Victorian schoolmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott. It’s an entertaining way to visualise more dimensions than usual, by means of thinking about fewer than usual, but the author had Views and didn’t mind who knew them. We then changed tack to hear about genetics, bioengineering and medical ethics in “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which investigated the origin of the seemingly immortal HeLa cell line, widely used in cancer and other medical research. The first focus of the book was on the circumstances of the life and death of this poor black woman in the American south, whose cancer cells did not die, and the changes in medical ethics since, not to mention the staggering fact that several tonnes of the cells now exist, worldwide. We noted ethics as a potential future topic for discussion.
Then it was maths, with a lively account of “Catastrophe Theory” by Alexander Woodcock and Monte Davis, a popular account of new mathematics developed in the 1970s and 1980 to try to make sense of complex systems, along with Rene Thom’s Structural Stability and morphogenesis” which had especially good pictures. The ideas were successful, but it seems that they were applied a bit too widely, and people stopped taking it seriously. Now it is an area of maths being reevaluated.
And finally we had some geology with “The Highlands Controversy” by David Oldroyd, an account of the beginnings of modern geology in the wilds of Scotland, when the establishment held to cherished ideas in the face of dogged observations from outsiders and amateurs. The book has a lot of detail, including the fact that the Survey mappers were paid by the mile of boundary inked in, and you can see straight away that some areas of complex faulting would have been especially lucrative!
All in all an entertaining evening!

4 thoughts on “Plenty to think about

    • silverfish June 13, 2011 / 10:15 am

      Glad you enjoyed it – and I hope you’ll bring more books about sums to future evenings.

  1. Nebstoneneil June 15, 2011 / 10:39 pm

    Could not get hold of some of the books- highland controversy and catastrophe. Maybe people who recommend books could check their availability before recommending them.

    • silverfish June 19, 2011 / 4:57 pm

      Hi Neil
      I’m sorry that you can’t find the books. When we talked about them we were looking at the catastrophe theory text as an example of something that made a difference back in the 70s, and the speaker brought along his original battered copy, but it is available at Abebooks to buy. The Highlands Controversy is more recent and is available on Amazon. I do appreciate that they are not especially cheap. Have you tried asking the local library if they can borrow them for you?
      Otherwise you’ll just have to come along to the next Book Group meeting (Tuesday 26 July, in the Fleece, Westgate, Otley) and quiz the speakers more. We are talking about science in fiction next time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s