Thursday, 28 January 2016

James D. Stein - Four Way Interview

James D. Stein writes: I was lucky; I had educated parents who stressed the value of education.  I obtained a solid general education at New Trier High School and Yale University, and I was fortunate to have Professor William Bade as my thesis advisor at the University of California at Berkeley – without his tolerance, I might never have finished, because I would disappear for weeks at a time playing duplicate bridge.  I taught briefly at UCLA and then went to California State University, Long Beach – where I met my wife Linda.  I retired from CSULB a couple of years ago, but because there was still some gas left in the tank, I teach one course a semester at El Camino Community College, located about ten minutes from my home in Redondo Beach.  I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have a career teaching a subject that I love, to have the freedom to investigate problems I thought were interesting, and to have had the opportunity to share my appreciation for math and science by writing books about these subjects.  

His latest book is the collection of mathematical crime stories, L. A. Math.

Why Math?

I’d always been fascinated by numbers, but I can still remember the first time I really got interested in math in the sense that mathematicians think about it.  It was an autumn day, and I was about seven years old, and I wanted to toss a football (American) around with my father.  My father, who kept rigorous accounts on a large yellow sheet that looked sort of like a spreadsheet (this was in 1948), said, “I just need to figure out where I made my error.  I’m off by 36 cents, and since it’s divisible by 9, it means that I probably switched the places of two digits.”  While I was waiting for him, I looked at some examples.  For instance, if you should have written 62 and you wrote 26 instead, the difference is 62 – 26 =36, which is divisible by 9.  I checked several examples and it always worked.  Of course, at age seven, I wasn’t going to come up with the idea of a mathematical proof, but it did occur to me that if this was ALWAYS true, maybe there was some way to do it without checking all the possible cases.  And that’s part of the beauty of math; you can establish truth by logical argument rather than tedious checking.

Why This Book?

I’d taught Math for Liberal Arts students maybe ten times, taking different approaches – but although the good students would always do well enough to get an A in the course, they were basically just cramming.  Just like I did in history courses.  And, not surprisingly, shortly thereafter they remembered nothing – just like I remembered nothing about my history courses.  It occurred to me that there was nothing memorable for them about learning mathematical ideas and procedures – just like there was nothing memorable for me in learning about kings and battles.  So it occurred to me to try to put the ideas in a context that they might remember.  An intriguing story is memorable – everyone remembers a good story.  

I tried to write stories that were enjoyable and incorporated some mathematical ideas as part of the story.  If someone who doesn’t really ‘get’ math reads the book and remembers a few of the ideas that go along with the stories, I’m ahead of the game – because, sadly, students who aren’t interested in math just don’t remember mathematical ideas as math courses are currently taught. 

At any rate, writing it was an extremely interesting experience.  I’d written a number of what are called trade books – books about math and science for interested and intelligent readers, but I’d never written fiction.  And to a certain extent, I didn’t really write fiction – almost all the characters are amalgams of people I’ve known and a lot of the situations actually happened.  So much of it was more like recounting anecdotes than actually writing fiction.

What’s Next?

I have a project that I’m trying to get started involving general education.  I call it ‘Introduction to Everything’.  To paraphrase a remark made by Richard Feynman to CalTech students in 1961, if, in some cataclysm, all of the knowledge of humanity were to be destroyed, and only one book passed on to the next generation of creatures, what book would contain the most information about humanity in the fewest words? It would be a book summarizing the ten most important developments in each of the most important areas of natural science, social science, the humanities and history, ranked in order of importance by a panel of experts who have devoted their lives to the study of these subjects.  I think such a book would be tremendously valuable, and everyone – well, almost everyone – would want to read it.  Top Ten lists are fascinating to almost everyone.  Wouldn’t you want to read it?  I know I would.  Along with a description of exactly what each development represents, you’d have a one-volume summary which would be the equivalent of a good basic education in practically everything.  

Scientists are always complaining that the general public doesn’t know the important ideas of science.  That’s partly our fault – the scientific community hasn’t said, “These are the important developments.”  If you take an introductory course in science, instead of being fascinating, it’s pretty boring – because we don’t hit the high points.  How can we, when we haven’t even decided what the high points are?  So let’s decide what they are – in history and the humanities as well – and make this knowledge available to everyone.

What’s Exciting You at the Moment?

I think we live in fascinating times.  Our ability to communicate more quickly and effectively has never been higher, and this accelerates scientific and technological progress.  I’m basically an optimist, and I believe that a lot of the problems we face as a species will disappear once we can assure a good quality of life for everyone.  Every day I look forward to reading about exciting new developments in science and technology.  

I also look forward to seeing whether Fed can win his 18th Grand Slam, whether Rafa will regain his game during the clay court season, and whether Novak Djokovich can maintain the unbelievably high standard of play that has characterized his game for the past several years. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

L.A. Math by James D. Stein ****

It has always seemed that it would be a great idea to write fiction which managed to painlessly get across ideas in science or mathematics, but usually the outcome of attempting to do this is something distinctly worthy that lacks any entertainment or effectiveness as a narrative. 

In L.A. Math, James Stein has managed the closest approximation to getting it just right I've yet to see. The stories work as detective tales, but the denouement relies not on sophisticated detection but on mathematical deduction. The style is quite old-fashioned - I'd liken it to a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and the classic American crime writer Ellery Queen - but I don't see this as a bad thing. The storylines might not be soul-searching literary fiction, but they are entertaining and engaging tales. The main character, Freddy Carmichael (we're already getting that Wodehouse vibe) is a detective, but struggles with solving cases where maths features strongly. Luckily, though, his slob of a landlord and housemate, Pete Lennox, has an incisive mathematical mind and helps Freddy out when he's at a loss.

Admittedly no one is going to read this book and become a maths star, but there's always a pleasure in having a chance to think through the mathematical puzzle and take on the detective. 

In this respect, I thought the first story was disappointing, as it's not possible to conclusively come to the same result as the detective. It's one of those 'eliminate combinations' logic problems; we are trying to work out who a dubious contact is meeting. We are first told 'If he doesn't meet Hazlitt, he is meeting Burns', but later told this is 'totally wrong'. Our detective assumes that this statement being totally wrong means that the suspect is meeting neither Hazlitt nor Burns. But all that's required for the statement to be totally wrong is that if the suspect doesn't meet Hazlitt he doesn't meet Burns either. It still leaves open the possibilities that the suspect does meet only Hazlitt or he does meet both of them. This might seem like nit-picking, but the whole point of an exercise like this is that it has to work to get the point across.

However, that is a one-off and the rest of the crime puzzles provide both entertainment and the chance to learn a few maths tricks, and in each case there's an appendix to dig into the topic in a little more depth, if you're that kind of a person. (I admit it. I'm that kind of a person.) Fun for any crime-fiction lover who fancies a spot of mathematical adventuring, or vice versa.

Review by Brian Clegg

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The End of Average - Todd Rose with Ogi Ogas *****

Averages are very convenient when used correctly, but even when dealing with statistics they can be misleading (when Bill Gates walks into a room of people who have no savings, on average they're all millionaires) - and it gets even worse when we deal with jobs and education. As Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas make clear, hardly anyone is an average person. Whether someone is trying to devise an aircraft cockpit for the 'average' pilot, define the average kind of person to fit a job, or apply education suited to the average student, it all goes horribly wrong.

If I'm honest, there isn't a huge amount of explicit science in the book (nor is it the kind of self-help book suggested by the subtitle 'how to succeed in a world that values sameness'), but scientific thinking underlies the analysis of how averaging people falls down, whether it's looking at brain performance or personality typing. What Rose and Ogas argue powerfully is that the way we run business and education is based on a fundamentally flawed concept that you can do the right thing for everyone by applying an averaged approach. This dates back to the likes of Galton, who believed that individuals had inherent capabilities and should be ranked and statistically managed accordingly.

Along the way, the authors demolish such concepts I have seen time and again as: selecting for jobs on having a degree; performance management systems that require a fixed distribution of high performers, average people and below average people; companies based around organisation charts rather than individuals; and education that simply doesn't work for many students. I was particularly delighted to see the way that they pull apart the ridiculous approach of personality profiling with devastating statistics that show that the way we behave is hugely dependent on the combination of individual personality and context - hardly anyone is an introvert or judgemental or argumentative (or whatever you like) in every circumstance.

The authors admit that the averaging approach was useful in pulling up a 19th century population that had few educational and job opportunities, but now, especially when we have the kind of systems and information we have, they argue that we should be moving beyond simple one-dimensional concepts like IQ and SAT scores and exam results and using multidimensional approaches that take in far more, and which enable us to build employment and education around the individual, rather than the system's idea of an average worker or student. Of course, there is more work involved that with the old averaging, but Rose and Ogas point out this benefits both the workers and the companies (or the educators and the educated). And they show that it is possible to take this approach even in apparently low wage, impersonal, cookie-cutter jobs like workers in a supermarket or manufacturing plant.

There are a few issues. There's an out-and-out error where they claim the word 'statistics' comes from 'static values' (it actually comes from 'state', as in country). And even the authors occasionally slip back into the old norms of success when, for instance, they refer to 'Competency-based credentialing [is that really a word?] is being tried out - successfully - at leading universities.' Surely the concept of a 'leading university ' just reflects the old norms of what constitutes success in education? And I think the practical applications of these ideas will generally be a lot harder than they seem to think - they have great examples of where a low-level worker is given the chance to make a change that benefits the company, for instance, but not of what do when someone makes a change that makes things go horribly wrong. Similarly they point out that individual treatment also risks dangers like nepotism - but not how to deal with it. However, that doesn't in any way counter the essential nature of their argument. Individuals work and learn and do everything better if treated as... individuals.

I really hope that those involved in business and education (and many other areas of public life) can get on top of this concept, as it could both transform the working experience of the majority and make all our lives better. I remember being horrified when consulting for a large company where pay rises were forced into a mathematical distribution - you had to have so many winners and so many losers, all based around an average performance. This kind of thing is becoming less common, but most businesses and education still has the rigid picture of averages and ranking that the authors demonstrate so lucidly is wrong and disastrous for human satisfaction. 

In reality, I suspect the changes won't come too widely in my lifetime. But I'd love to be pleasantly surprised. And I hope plenty of business people and academics read and learn from this book.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Measures of Genius - Alan Durden ***

There are broadly three ways to write a popular science book. The author can focus on one particular area of science, on the life and work of a key scientist, or use some linking mechanism to pull together a range of topics. This last approach can be very successful, and is tempting to authors and loved by publishers, which implies that they sell well - but it is the most difficult approach to take.

To compare the good and bad sides of such 'linked topic' books, it's only necessary to take a look at titles covering the periodic table. The less successful ones just work through the elements, or a subset of them, in some kind of pattern based on the table itself. But that results in a very mechanical approach, little more than textbook lite. The alternative, typified by The Disappearing Spoon, is to use the broad theme of the chemical elements, but to let the narrative structure carry the reader through, resulting in a far more successful presentation.

Measures of Genius is a linked topic book, pulling together short scientific biographies of historical figures with scientific units named after them. Following an introductory chapter on the nature and development of measurement, we get 14 chapters each on a scientist (in the case of Fahrenheit and Celsius, two for the price of one) who inspired a unit, from very familiar names like Isaac Newton and James Watt to those whose units are better known than the individuals, typified by Ohm, Ampere and Coulomb. However, Alan Durden does not limit himself to the specific scientist's work, where necessary pulling in other names. So, for instance, in Ampere's chapter, Young, Huygens, Arago, Fresnel and Oersted all pop up.

Although the book has a linking theme, it's an arbitrary one, as the selection of scientists to provide unit names has sometimes been decidedly odd. My biggest concern was why we should care about this group of individuals. Durden provides us with plenty of facts about their lives and work, but doesn't build much of a narrative. When covering the well-known figures, the content was solid without adding a lot to the many other scientific biographies on these subjects, staying safely at the uncontroversial end of the spectrum. So, for instance, Newton's sexuality was skirted around, and though his interests in alchemy and biblical research were mentioned, there was little opportunity to understand why they were so important to him. Similarly, Tesla's chapter gives no feel for the fascinating conflict between his genius at electrical engineering and his sometimes shaky grasp of physics, leading to his dismissal of relativity and misapprehension about the nature of electromagnetic radiation.

It was great, however, to find out more about the lesser-known figures. These were inevitably more interesting because there has been so little written about them, though in most case it seems that one of the reasons that they don't feature more widely is that they were rather dull people. There are plenty of facts here, and I think the book would be extremely useful as a way to get some background on the contributions these individuals made to science and technology, but I would have liked a little more flair along the way.

Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Science: antiquity and its legacy - Philippa Lang ***

There is a lot of nonsense talked about Ancient Greek 'science', so it was genuinely interesting to get a clearer picture of who came up with in the capable hands of ex-classics professor Philippa Lang. Although written in an academic style, the book is approachable and fills in a lot of detail I've not come across elsewhere on the contradictory contributions of different Greek philosophers, organised by topics that vary from the origins of the universe to their decidedly fuzzy ideas about women. (Despite the received wisdom that some of the Greek philosophers were married, you get the impression they'd seen women from a distance, but certainly never got as far as a date.)

 Rather less successful is the 'legacy' part of the book - the attempt to lay the ideas about nature from antiquity alongside modern ones in order to compare and contrast. There are two problems here. One is the tendency (despite regularly emphasising the very different approaches then and now) that pointing out similarities that are nothing more than inevitable coincidence will imply more significance than is deserved, fodder for the 'wonders of ancient wisdom' brigade.

 The other, and worse, problem is that the modern science presented here is sometimes a little adrift from modern scientific content. So, for instance, we have the Big Bang placed 15 billion years ago, the many worlds hypothesis confused with the multiverse concept, and a rather hazy conception of dark matter and dark energy in one chapter alone. A co-author might have been recommended to make the comparisons less ineffective.

 At its worst, the science part is downright confusing, even occasionally when talking about the ancients, e.g. In saying 'As a matter of fact, heavier objects do usually fall faster than lighter ones in atmosphere, because a heavier object is usually a larger object, which means that there is a larger area to be affected by air resistance.' This just doesn't make sense, as being larger will tend to slow down an object rather than speed it up (try dropping a sheet of paper opened flat at the same time as a piece scrunched in a ball).

 Luckily for the reader, though, the tendency to bring in details of modern science fades out after the first couple of chapters (unless you count the likes of Darwin as modern), and the text settles down to a more accurate portrayal. I'm not sure this is a book for every popular science fan, but for anyone looking to get a better grounding of why 'science' in antiquity was both more and less than we tend to think of it, Science: antiquity and its legacy is recommended reading.

Review by Brian Clegg

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Kat Arney - Four Way Interview

Kat Arney has a degree in natural sciences and PhD in developmental genetics from Cambridge University. She joined Cancer Research UK in 2004, after spending a few years as a laboratory researcher and realising that life in the lab was not for her. Part of the Science Communications team, she translates science-speak into plain English, so that everyone can understand the charity’s work. Kat loves communicating about science, including writing for the charity’s award-winning blog and talking to supporters, and regularly comments in the media on the latest discoveries.

Outside the office, Kat co-presents the highly successful Naked Scientists BBC Radio show, presents and produces her own monthly Naked Genetics podcast, and has fronted several BBC Radio 4 science documentaries. As a science writer, her work has featured in the New Scientist, Mosaic, BBC Online, the Guardian Online and more. Her first book, Herding Hemingway's Cats: understanding how our genes work was published in January 2016 by Bloomsbury Sigma.

Why science?

Ever since I was tiny I've been fascinated with how the world works. It started off with an interest in nature and science in general, graduated to a home chemistry set, then eventually to a degree, PhD and embryonic career in developmental genetics (if you'll excuse the pun). Things didn't work out for me in the lab as I'm very clumsy and have a woefully short attention span, but I've always loved writing and telling stories, so moving into science communication has been a dream career. In terms of my own subject and field, I'm just blown away by the fact that a few strings of molecules – DNA – can direct the growth of something as complex and wonderful as a baby entirely from chemical interactions. The more we know about how our genes work and how the molecules inside our cells organise themselves and interact together, we're starting to get glimpses of understanding how it all fits together. It's an incredibly exciting time to be reporting back to the public from the frontiers of genetics.

Why this book?

I got the idea at a conference about gene regulation – how genes are turned on and off – at the Royal Society in London. One of the researchers, Bob Hill from Edinburgh, was talking about the six-toed cats that roam Ernest Hemingway's estate on the Florida Keys. While you might expect that the extra toe is the result of a fault in a gene, it's not. It's a mistake in a control switch miles away (biologically speaking) from the gene it affects. This really got me thinking about how we talk about genes in the media. We hear that they 'make' our eyes brown or our hair curl, make us fat or give us cancer, but most people have no idea how they actually work. So I set out to write a book explaining a he latest ideas in genetics and molecular biology, as well as a bit of history, told through the medium of stories, first-person interviews, quite a lot of jokes and a bit of swearing. People have been saying very nice things about it, so it seems to have worked.

What’s next?

I'm going to be busy doing a lot of talks around the UK and hopefully further afield as well as cracking on with an idea for my second book and all the regular radio and writing stuff I do. There are lots of exciting plans in the pipeline, so I'm hoping that 2016 will be a year full of adventure!

What’s exciting you at the moment?

I'm increasingly intrigued by why and how we believe things about the world around us – how we understand and interpret the stories that help us make sense of the universe and our place in it. There's an idea that science provides us with absolute, immutable fact, yet although I think it's the most reliable way of measuring and marking out the world compared to any other it's still flawed. Scientific research provides us with evidence-based stories, but we urgently need to communicate it effectively and build belief in the process and outputs of science. We're seeing more and more nonsense, pseudoscience and conspiracy thinking permeating our culture thanks to the internet – not just in science and medicine but also in technology, politics and more – so I've been thinking a lot lately about why and how people come to believe and spread these things, and how best to combat them.

Herding Hemingway's Cats - Kat Arney ****

It's a book about cats, then? No, it isn't - but the author Ernest Hemingway gets a mention because at Key West he had a penchant for cats with a genetic variation that gave them an extra toe. (Apparently this is a myth, as Hemingway didn't have cats in Key West, but it's a good story.) Ah, I've got it - the title is a pun. The author's called Kat and the title says Cats. It's a joke. Nope. Okay, it's an attempt to duplicate the success of the rather similarly titled "In Search of Schrödinger's Cat"? That certainly might be the reasoning behind the title, but it's actually about the bizarre complexity of molecular biology, the weird and wonderful mechanisms that make use of DNA and RNA to develop living organisms and to keep them healthy.

 That 'bizarre complexity' part is no exaggeration. The real fascination of this book - and it truly is fascinating - lies in the Byzantine convolutions employed by living systems at the sub-cellular level. Kat Arney beautifully documents what is surely the ultimate counter to any suggestion that living organisms were designed, as they never seem to take a single, simple step to achieve something where seven complex back and forth interactions could achieve the same result. As a non-biologist I had previously been amazed by the sophistication of the molecular machinery in complex cells, but I had no idea just how messy and disorganised the whole interaction between DNA and RNA to produce proteins, switch genes on and off, splice bits of molecule here and there and generally get something remarkable out of apparent chaos is. Heath Robinson had nothing on biology - it's amazing that anything living survives.

 Arney presents the information in an extremely chatty and informal style. It works well that much of the book is based around a series of interviews with leading scientists in the field, as it gives a chance for personalities to emerge in what is inevitably a description-heavy topic. In fact, if anything, the writing style was just a touch too informal for me - I suspect many will really enjoy Arney's pithy asides, but sometimes, comments like 'you may wish to ponder this tale the next time you're in close proximity to a penis. I know I will.' struck me as trying just a little bit too hard.

 The biggest problem here, which is not entirely helped by the format, is that in the end, amazing and fascinating though the mechanisms involved in manipulating DNA and RNA are, in the end we get page after page of descriptions of how molecules behave, and even the core fascination of the complexity, and the interesting people, can't always stop this feeling distinctly repetitive. The way the presentation is based on various interviews doesn't help here, because it means what is already a random and confusing story is not presented in a logical order based on the science, so the chance of getting blinded by the science is increased. I'd also pick up Arney on her own comment 'It's just as true in science as it is elsewhere in life that a picture is worth a thousand words' - so why aren't there any? There is not a single illustration in the book, and some of the things she describes cry out for a good diagram. If you aren't a biologist, it's easy to struggle to visualise what is being described.

 Nonetheless, this a great addition to the rapidly growing field of books giving us an insight into just how complex biology is at the molecular level, and I feel privileged to have indirectly met these interesting people via Arney's interviews. While the material itself can get a touch samey, that goes with the territory - and otherwise it's a great piece of popular science.

Review by Brian Clegg