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Reading in 2008

Thursday 1st January 2008

As well as choosing books to satisfy my curiosity about one thing or another, I'm trying to work through some of the books I inherited from father.

I read fewer books than I should usually do in a year. That is because I've been busy both revising the Philosophy notes and trying to teach myself HTML, Cascading Style Sheets and Javascript, so I spent a lot of time poring over my own material, and plodding through tutorials on various web sites, and some of my book reading has consisted of dipping into various library books on HTML, which it doesn't seem worth listing here. I finished the following books:

Paul S. Addison, Fractals and Chaos

I found this in the local Library, and have have found it very helpful in sorting out several matters I'd found puzzling when reading the popular articles which were previously my only source of indormation on the subject.

Remarks about fractional dimensions used to strike me as particularly odd. I've now realised that those numbers are specially defined fractal dimensions, quite distinct from the ordinary cartesian dimension, which still applies. Knowing how to calculate them in some simple cases is a great help in getting a grip on them.

John Bennet,The London Confederates

was written by someone whom I know from School. John was a year senior to me at the Grammar School. He still lives in Leicester and we meet from time to time.

The book describes the activities of representatives of the Confederate States and their sympathisers in London during the American Civil War. I'm reading it the first chapter quite slowly because I was intrigued by the descriptions of London life in the 1860's and I kept pausing to refer to the map of London as it was in 1860. Much of the Lodon familiar to us today was there at that time, but much was not. St. Pancras and Vicoria railway Stations had not been built; neither had the Victoria Embankment.

Rudy Rucker Infinity and the Mind

I first read this book about eight years ago but found re-reading it useful revision. Infinite numbers seem to have proliferated amazingly since I originally came across them in my late teens. Rucker combines a number of interesting observations about infinite sets and the foundations of Mathematics, with obscure references to a mystical vision that all reality in One. He seems to have been influenced by several interviews with Gödel who had a quasi Platonic view of Mathematics as describing a world of timeless entities somehow existing beyond the phenomenal world of physical objects and sensory experience, and incapable of being adequately described by any formal system.

Rucker wanted to establish that no formal system or machine can fully capture the potential of human thought, citing in his support Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and also various of the semantic paradoxes.

Ian Stewart Does God play Dice?

an outline of the theory of chaotic systems and fractals. The title is an allusion to Einstein's comment on quantum theory, that he couldn't believe God plays dice with the world. I've owned a copy for many years and when I took it from my bookshelf I thought I was going to re-read it, but once I started I realised I had never read it before. It was more superfical and less Mathematical than Paul Addison's book, mentioned above, but still provided some additional information.

Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution

published in 1998, another of those humorous science fiction stories at which Vidal excels. It's the first novel I've read for many months. I spotted it in a charity shop which I'd actually entered in search of a metal teapot suitable for use at U3A Science Group meetings.

Vidal imagins that, when the Smithsonian closes to visitors, the human dummies used in the historical exhibits come to life. Set in the Spring of 1939, the story concentrates on the the dummies representing ex-presidents and their wives, and their interactions with each other and with a precocious young lad who somehow takes up residence in the Smithsonian. To say more might spoil the story for those who haven't read the book.

Bert Mendelson, Introduction to Topology

is a texbook that was used for an Open University course I tutored in 1972-3. I decided to re-read it to revive my topology. At one time I used to try to read Maths books a chapter or more at a time, which made for exhaustion and confusion. Now I read from three to six pages per day and find that quite relaxing.

E. M. Patterson, Topology

published in 1959 is both older and a good deal shorter than Mendelson's book, but contains a different selection of material. I may well have owned it without reading it for more than half my life, so to have got through it at last feels quite an achievement, though I did just skim through the last dozen pages, and have only the haziest idea about the process for calculating the Euler characteristic of a space from the Betti numbers of the homology groups.

Geofrey Brooks, Hitler's Nuclear Weapons

Brooks argues that Germany might have developed an atomic bomb had not the attempt to develop one been sabotaged by Werner Heisenberg.

The thesis is that Nazi Germany had two largely independent nuclear reasearch programmes, one of which, run by the Post Office, has been largely dismissed by historians because it was kept secret even from Speer, the minister in charge of munitions. The other programme, which most commentators have assumed to be the only one, was the programme that Heisenberg sabotaged by sowing doubts about the possibility of moderating the chain reaction in a reactor.

Both programmes seem to have been directed at using a nuclear reactor to produce radioactive materials with the intention that they be dropped over cities to kill their populations and thus intimidate Germany's opponents into ending the war. American cities might have been the chosen targets, because America was far enough from Germany for there to be little danger of radiation spreading from there to Germany, as might have been the case had English cities been the target.

Brooks holds that the Post Office project actually had a working reactor, and that some material it produced was on the way to Japan by submarine U234 when Germany surrended. The submarine surrendered to the Americans a fortnight later. Brooks thought that the discovery of that radioactive material on board may have helped to persuade the Americans to use atomic bombs against Japan hoping to end the war quickly before the Japanese had a chance to use any nuclear weapon themselves.

However the argument is highly speculative, with too much use of the 'there can be no other explanation' gambit so much favoured by the conspiracy theorist and the millennarian theologian.

I formed the impression that Brooks' scientific background was weak. While the presentation of the scientific background looked broadly correct as far as it went, it read as if Brooks was paraphrasing material he'd read in popular science books, so that there were errors that someone familiar with the material would have spotted at once, like 'proton' instead of 'photon', the claim that Uranium is the densest of the naturally occurring elements(p200), giving the critical mass of a sphere is U235 as 14 kg instead of about 50 kg (p201), (more than 200kg for the mixture of U235 and U238 used in the first atom bombs) and miscalculating (p170) the mass of a specified volume of uranium (12 kg instead of about 5.5 kg for a cube of side 2.6 inches. That he confused himself by converting what must originally have been a metric measurement into imperial measure is another sign of scientific weakness)

What appears to be an important step in his argument reads like gibberish. Referring to the storage of lead boxes supposedly cotaining 'irradiated uranium' in steel tubes that had been specially installed on board the submarine U234 he wrote (p183):

"One of these six steel tubes received the uranium. If the ultimate intention had been to extract plutonium from the irradiated uranium, the tube would have been flooded so as to permit the radiocavity level to decrease and to reduce the heat emissions. That would have reduced the danger to the crew of the submarine"

There is some interesting information about science under the Nazis. They rejected both relativity and quantum theory as 'Jewish science' and held that 'Aryan Science' should be formulated within the Classical Physics of the nineteenth century, thus giving credence to the third line of Hilaire Belloc's verses about the Nazi ideal of the Superman:

Behold, my child, the Nordic Man,

And be as like him as you can.

His legs are long, his mind is slow,

His hair is lank and made of tow.

R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals

I re-read this, having first read it about 50 years ago, butI now realise that I then missed some of the subtleties of the argument. Ethics is a very difficult subject. It is hard to say anything about it that is not either nonsense, trivial, or silly, but Hare's treatment was an exception. He tended to be rather long winded, anticipating objections that it wouldn't occur to me to raise, but I excuse him because he wrote as an Oxford don in the heyday of the so called 'linguistic philosophy'when people subjected to a minute examination every way that anyone might use the key words of the subject under discussion.

Robert Mills Space, Time and Quanta

Having read this last year, I re-read the sections on relativity and, finding I had forgotten some of the details, I wrote notes summarising the main steps in the argument.

R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason

I've had this for about 20 years and am not sure whether I'd read it before or not. The turgid complexity of the introduction almost put me off reading the rest, but once I'd stuggled through that I found his analysis extremely acute. He built on the work of his previous two books on Ethics to develop a very plausible explanation of the place of reason in moral thinking. It will inspire the revision of the Ethics chapter of my Philosophy notes.

Hare concentrated on two problems central to ethics: how to apply rational argument to questions of morality even though there are no moral truths, and the apparent conflict between wanting to subject our moral principles to rational scrutiny, and yet at the same time wanting to hold fast to apparently fundamental principles even when that appears inexpedient.

Hare approached those problems by insisting on a distinction between two levels of moral discourse. What he calls the intuitive level in which we assess particular problems in the light of accepted principles, and the critical level at which we review the principles themselves.

He argues that that distinction also makes it possible to avoid the two strongest objections to Utilitarianism, that it makes moral decisions impractically complicated, and that it might sometimes sanction injustice by sacrificing a few in the interest of many. Hare advocated using utilitarian criteria to assess general moral rules, but not to making decisions in individual cases.

Links to accounts of my reading in previous years

may be found in the Box Room (see the link at the top of the page)

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