Thursday, 19 May 2016

Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ***

With a name that will always be associated with the concept of 'flow', Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi was a likely choice for a book giving a scientific view of creativity. The way this has been achieved is primarily to identify a large number of people that Csiksgentmihalyi considered highly creative and to ask them if they will be interviewed. There are a number of problems with this approach - would Einstein have said yes, for instance? But there is no doubt that the popular psychologist is able to winkle out a few interesting thoughts on the matter.

We are first introduced the the creative process, through a little bit about the nature of creativity, the creativity personality, how they go about the creative act and the inevitable link in with the concept of 'flow'. Perhaps the most interesting thing in this section is the suggestion that creativity can never be solely about the creative individual. Csiksgentmihalyi tells us that we need three components: an existing domain - an area of knowledge that that the creative individual knows, the act by the individual, which often involves coming at some aspect of the domain in a novel way, and the field, which are the creative person's peers. Csiksgentmihalyi's argument is that without the field's recognition, the creativity isn't 'real'. So, for instance, he suggests that Bach's work only became creative once it was recognised as great after a couple of centuries of being dismissed.

The next part of the book takes us through the creative lives of his interviewees. I find this kind of thing somewhat tedious to read, as it doesn't really add much to the discussion. We then move on to 'domains of creativity', looking for differences and similarities between, for instance, the 'domain of the word' and 'the domain of life'. This, frankly, was also fairly hard work with little concrete scientific analysis provided.

A final section, protestingly (as Csiksgentmihalyi doesn't want this to be a self-improvement book particularly) adds ways to enhance personal creativity. Although what's here isn't bad, it tries hard to ignore most of the work that has been done on enhancing creativity, so skirts around the kind of techniques espoused by the likes of de Bono and Osborn without really acknowledging them, which is a shame and makes it relatively weak in practical terms.

The book is worth reading for the first 150 pages, which make up the section on what creativity is and how it works. These are genuinely fascinating. But the rest of the book lacks the same level of scientific focus or interesting content, so sags by comparison.

Bizarrely not on Kindle
Review by Brian Clegg

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On Creativity - David Bohm ***

Physicist David Bohm was an unusual character. This American physicist spent much of working life in the UK. A collaborator on the Manhattan Project, Bohm is best known for his alternative approach to quantum theory which did away with conventional ideas of locality and that gave him the opportunity to bring both physics and the nature of thought into the same framework. Bohm's more original ideas were largely dismissed, but have had some resurgence of interest in the last few years.

In his classic book On Creativity, originally written several decades ago, but with some more recent material added, Bohm provides a series of long essays on topics from the nature of creativity and the relationship of science and art, to 'the art of perceiving movement' and 'art, dialogue and the implicit order.'

I found the first two essays quite interesting, particularly in Bohm's insights into the relationship of science and art, but the later essays seemed over-heavy with philosophical concepts that more got in the way of understanding than giving any great clarity, and the concluding interview has the typical shallowness of an attempt to interview a scientist with questioning from an arts background.

If you want to see how the mind of someone with genuinely wide-ranging curiosity and impressive ability to cross cultural and scientific boundaries operated, this book is well worth a go, though expect parts of it to be extremely hard work to read. If you want a clear exposition of the nature of creativity, beyond the basics in the first few pages, it is probably best to look elsewhere.

Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Power Paradox - Dacher Keltner ***

I used to read quite a lot of business books years ago, and (not knowing any better) I thought they were pretty good. But then I got into reading popular science. When I then went back to business books, I found that they were tissue-thin. The majority were really little more than a magazine article with a few key points, expanded with lots of padding to make a book. Generally speaking, you can't get away with this in popular science books. But I'm afraid that Dacher Keltner's The Power Paradox does exactly the same thing. What we have here is a magazine article that makes a handful of genuinely interesting points... but nowhere near enough to be a satisfying book.

In essence, Keltner makes four key points:
  1. The traditional Machiavellian idea of power being something that is taken by force and maintained by manipulation belong in the past or in fiction (think House of Cards) - now it's all about acting in ways that improve the lives of others in our social networks.
  2. We get and keep power by thinking of others.
  3. People who gain power often (usually?) become selfish and thoughtless of others.
  4. People who are powerless lead unpleasant lives.
As mentioned above, this quite interesting stuff, but it is hard to make a whole meaty book out of it. Keltner does throw in some studies (in fact, he very frequently mentions the word 'science' as if naming it alone is enough to make what he says more scientific and less fluff), though often the studies seem fairly insubstantial and we get no idea of important matters like sample size etc. A lot of this feels like 'Didn't we know that already?' stuff - things like the revelation that it really is true that power corrupts. 

Perhaps the only really striking piece of information, as evidence for point 3. above, is that Keltner tells us that the wealthy are more likely to shoplift than the poor. This really does seem unlikely enough to be interesting, but there is no real analysis of the evidence nor is there a chance to get in-depth enough to see what's really going on. The odd thing here is, one of the first papers I came across on the subject when I tried to back the assertion up was a 2015 US one from the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, which states 'Economic need appears to be related to shoplifting. People who shoplifted are more apt to have a lower family income, to be unemployed, and to believe that the economic need causes shoplifting. Not all jobless, economically insecure, or poor people shoplift, of course, and conversely, not all people who shoplift are poor.' This seems in direct opposition to Keltner's hypothesis. (And both seemed based on strangely dated data.)

Back on Keltner's key points, I had two real problems. One was that I find it hard to be totally convinced by his first point that power is now all touchy-feely, rather than iron-fisty (excuse the Buffyesque adjectives). When I look at the CEOs of big corporations, or politician millionaires (the US presidential race is currently on, merrily spending bazillions of dollars), I don't see people who got their power by being nice everyone. Quite the reverse. And while I can see the argument that there is also a smaller scale, different kind of power that is all about serving others, that then seems to eat into point 4, in the sense that this point mostly equates powerlessness with poverty, yet points 1 and 2 seems to suggest that you can be both powerful and poor.

The second issue is that I'm not convinced Keltner really addresses the 'power paradox' at the heart of the book - that you get powerful by thinking of others, and then start being really selfish. If that's the case, then what's the answer? Do we try to prevent anyone being powerful? Can you act to prevent people without being powerful, and hence nasty, yourself? Do we remind powerful people to be nice to others or we'll take away their toys? But how can we, if they're powerful? (I know this is why it's a paradox, but there is little point making the observations he makes without identifying a potential way out.)

I'm really not sure after reading the book where this is all going. And that would be fine if this had been the article it should have been. But I'm afraid it just hasn't got enough going for it to make a great book.

Review by Brian Clegg

Monday, 9 May 2016

David Sumpter - Four Way Interview

David Sumpter is professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. Originally from London, he completed his doctorate in Mathematics at Manchester, and held academic research positions at both Oxford and Cambridge before heading to Sweden.

An incomplete list of the applied maths research projects on which David has worked include pigeons flying in pairs over Oxford; the traffic of Cuban leaf-cutter ants; fish swimming between coral in the Great Barrier Reef; and dancing honey bees from Sydney. In his spare time, he exploits his mathematical expertise in training a successful under-nines football team, Uppsala IF 2005. David is a Liverpool supporter with a lifelong affection for Dunfermline Athletic. You can follow David on Twitter - @soccermatics David's 2016 book is Soccermatics: mathematical adventures in the beautiful game.

Why maths?

Mathematicians often answer this question by saying maths is everywhere. I agree that maths can be found in everything, but saying that maths is ‘everywhere' can make it sound like some sort of mysterious force. When writing this book, my aim was to show that maths likes to get dirty. Maths isn’t just something abstract, but it is a set of tools for working things out and gaining insights. I want to put maths to work. In Soccermatics I show that maths can be applied to all aspects of football, from the randomness of goals, to passing networks, shot statistics, crowd movements and betting. The book takes my own experience as a researcher and applying it to football to get new answers in to the game.

Why this book?

I really enjoy watching football, playing football and training kids to play football. So when I got a chance to write a book combining my hobby and the research I do, I was thrilled. What can be better than analysing football data and communicating about that research to fanatical football fans? Nothing. When I started my research, I found that there was so much maths in football. All the symmetries, the structure and the strategy. These can all be analysed using the tools I had previously used to model biology. The book is takes the latest research in maths, stats and data visualisation and showing how it can be used in football. 

That said, the book is not just football. I squeeze in slime moulds, hunting lionesses, fish schools, bird flocks, ants, clapping undergraduates, wise and not so wise crowds, and cancerous tumours. The point is that maths can be used to give us the edge in understanding all sorts of different parts of the world.

What’s next?

I’m certainly not finished with football. It is so much fun. Football has fed back in to my ‘serious’ scientific research. And I am hoping to find out lots more things about the game.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

After I finished writing the book, I started thinking about whether the research I have done could have an impact on football clubs. I began a Twitter account doing mathematical analysis of games. In February, I was invited to the OptaPro forum to talk about what I had found out. I presented work from one of the chapters of the book about how to create tactical maps. This was a really interesting experience, to talk to football analysts and see how they saw mathematics contribution to their sport. The analysts were very open to new ideas and I hope to work more closely with football teams in the future. I am not signed by any club yet, but if a Premier League side would like to offer me a 3-year contract, I could be tempted…

Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Cosmic Web - J. Richard Gott ****

This is a book about the large-scale structure of the universe. It’s a subject Richard Gott is particularly well qualified to talk about, having been associated with it since the 1970s. When he was still a graduate student he did pioneering work on the gravitational clumping of galaxies into galaxy clusters. Initially it was believed that this clumping tendency would repeat itself in an ever-ascending hierarchy, with stars clumping into galaxies, galaxies into clusters, clusters into superclusters and so on up to the very largest scales. In time, however, both observational and theoretical work led to a much more complex picture – the ‘cosmic web’ of the book’s title.

Topologically, the universe resembles a giant sea sponge. Unlike the hierarchical model, the high density concentrations of matter (corresponding to the body of the sponge) are not isolated clumps, but a single intricately connected structure. At the same time, the low density ‘voids’ running through it are likewise continuously connected – in contrast to the holes in a Swiss cheese, which was another early model that had to be discarded. Gott was among the first people to recognize the sponge-like structure of the universe – in part because, as a precocious high-school student back in the 1960s, he had done a science fair project on topological models of exactly that kind.

There’s no question that Gott is one of the world’s leading experts in this subject – but is he the best person to write a popular science book about it? I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’. I really enjoyed his writing style, which is as lucid and unadorned as I’ve ever come across in an academic author. The theory never gets too difficult, either – mainly classical dynamics and statistics, with no relativistic or quantum complications. Nevertheless, Gott is not one of those writers who pretends you can have mathematics-free physics. There are no actual equations (except in the small print at the end of the book), but there are plenty of graphs, Greek letters and powers-of-ten numbers. This is not a book for people who are scared of such things.

At one point, Gott recounts an amusing anecdote he heard from the great Russian physicist Yakov Zeldovich, highlighting the benefits of using the median rather than the mean as a statistical measure. Yet he tells it to the reader exactly the way Zeldovich told it to him – without explaining how the mean and median are defined, or what they are used for. If those things are second nature to you, then you’ll appreciate the anecdote… and you’ll probably enjoy the whole book, too. If not, then you may find it heavy going.

This is the sort of book I would have loved when I was an undergraduate, or possibly even as a mind-stretching read in high school. It’s a young audience of future scientists who will probably get the most out of it today – not just for the picture it paints of how the universe is made, but for its unique inside view of four decades of cutting-edge research.

Review by Andrew May

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Soccermatics - David Sumpter ****

I need to be honest up front - my first reaction on seeing this book was 'Let someone else review it.' I have zero interest in football, and don't understand why anyone cares about such a dull activity. But then it struck me that what better test could a book have than being tried out by someone without an interest in the theme, and I'm glad I stuck with it, because I really enjoyed it despite myself.

This is because David Sumpter may be using soccer as a hook for mathematical explorations, but the book is far more about the maths than the anything-but-beautiful game. So, for instance, the first chapter begins with the distribution of football results during a season, but quickly expands from that to explore the Poisson distribution and its much wider applications. If it weren't for the deeply irritating introduction, which is sickeningly enthusiastic about football, and a tendency to tell us far too much about players, pundits, teams and managers that mean nothing to me, I would have given the book five stars.

Even the football-oriented parts can be engaging to the non-fan. I don't care if Manchester City is better than Liverpool and I have no idea who Messi is, but when Sumpter abstracts from overpaid individuals and team loyalties, there is some distinctly interesting stuff about, for instance, patterns of flow on the pitch or the way a Mexican wave travels around a stadium. And there was certainly amusement to see that one of the football 'experts' Sumpter criticises predicted that Leicester would be relegated from the premier league in 2015/16, when, just before the book was published, they ended up as champions.

I also found Sumpter's last section really engaging. Here, he spends some time on an experiment to see if the effective use of data and mathematical models can make betting on football games more of a science than an art. Sumpter stresses that gambling is potentially dangerous and that the bookies make sure they come out on top overall - but he demonstrates that with the right mathematical approach you can possible beat the system by a few percentage points. There's almost a feel of the TV series Hustle about this attempt to take on the bookies and beat them at their own statistical game - and Sumpter puts his money where his mouth is, staking the advance for this book (at least, a part of his advance, or he was ripped off by his publisher).

Did reading Soccermatics turn me into a football fan? Absolutely not. I can see the point of enjoying a kick around, but I can't understand why anyone finds football or footballers interesting. However, Sumpter's book has persuaded me that there is a lot more to running a football team than herding musclebound athletes - that, in principle at least (it's not obvious how much teams actually apply these methods) mathematical models can improve team tactics and result in better performance - and that mathematical modelling can be just as interesting when applied to the football pitch as it is when used to analyse the movements of a flock of birds or a shoal of fish.

There may have been a few small sections I had to skip over,  when I felt that Sumpter was getting too carried away with his obvious love of the game, but mostly, as the subtitle hints, I enjoyed my mathematical adventures in the 'beautiful' game.


Author interview
Review by Brian Clegg