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Books Read in 2016

Friday 06 January 2017

This is a topical note, and the composition of such a document is a very risky undertaking for someone as absent minded and easily distracted as I. I therefore start with a date. This note describes the state of my reading on the date shown immediately beneath the heading, and records books I've read since January 1 2016.

Books read so far

Eugenia Cheng Cakes, Custard + Category Theory

Cheng is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics in the University of Sheffield. Her specialism is Category Theory

She tries to illustrate mathematical ideas with references to cookery, and the book includes numerous recipes that might be attractive to those unconcerned about their cholesterol count.

I found the book easy reading and quite entertaining, but I'm not sure whether it would convey much to anyone puzzled by the Maths referred to. My own brief exposure to Category Theory took place more than 40 years ago, and what I read in the book was insufficent to remind me precisley what a category is, though a brief reference to an old text sufficed to do so.

At no point does Cheng mention functors by name. Although she mentions both mappings within categories, and mappings from one category to another, she does not distinguish them, nor does she define homomorphism or isomorphism.

Robert Galbraith The Silkworm

Robert Galbraith is the pen name used by J K Rowling when writing thrillers recounting the adventures of private investigator Cormoran Strike.

It is the first of her books I have read, and I enjoyed it, though there are quite a lot of characters and I sometimes had to pause to think carefully who was who.

The murder which Strike eventually solved was implausibly but deligthfully gruesome; the perpetrator removed the victim's bowels and fed them to her dog. Analysis of the dog's stools, retrieved by Strike's lady assistant Robin, revealed the presence of the victim's DNA.

Benjamin Franklin Greek Science

I first read this many years ago, the price on the cover is predecimal, 7/6d

I found the story of Greek Science rather sad because the Greeks seemed on the brink of a great breakthrough, but never quite managed it. Embryo scientific investigations were smothered by metaphysics and theology.

Farrington thought the Greeks were frustrated by a contempt for technology, an attitude he attributed to their reliance on slave labour. but I don't think that can be the whole story.

The breakthrough to modern science was stimulated by linked investigations into Astronomy and Mechanics. It was only through dynamics that astronomical events could be linked to terrestrial. Greek and medeival mechanics was largely confined to statics. Development of anything more than a rudimentary dynamics required the accurate measurement of time. It was also helpful to have an efficient system of arithmetic and some algebra.

Greek Mathematics was heavily biased towards geometry. Failure to evolve algebra or an efficient system of arithmetic cannot be blamed on the institution of slavery, since the slave owning societies of India and China did develop arithmetic and alogebra. Their scientific progress was impeded by a weakness in geometry. It was only when algebra and geometry were developed together, and linked by Descartes in co-ordinate geometry, and supported by the use of the pendulum to measure time, that dynamics could become a science, and the development of modern science could go ahead.

Franklin supports his argument with references to Marx and Engels, and I suspect his account may have been distorted by some Marxist prejudices, but the book was still interesting.

Peter May The Black House

Yet another of the boks I've been inspired to read by the online book club on CIX, this is a muder mystery set on the Isle of Lewis.

The Black House is not just a simple account of puzzle solving, like the stories of Conan Doyle and Agathe Christie; it is much more than that.

The central character was Finlay Macleod, a detective Inspector in the Edinburgh police force, who was sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that was closely similar to one that had recently occurred in Edinburgh. Finlay was selected both because he had been in charge of the investigation of that murder, and because he was a Gaelic speaking native of Lewis, and had grown up in the very same village where the murder had taken place

Returning to Lewis after an absence of 18 years, Macleod found himself interviewing people he used to know, and a second puzzle came grdually to dwarf the muder mystery: what had happened on the guga gathering on the rock Isle of An Sgier in his last year on the island. The guga are gannet chicks taken from thir nests on the rock face and preserved in salt. see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHwu5-GXwvM .

Eventually it turned out that the murder was just the penultimate move in a horror that had begun when Fin was still a child but had entirely forgotten in the trauma of an accident nearly fatal to himself, and fatal to the man who had abused him as a child. Finally, after the death of the murderer, Fin discovered he had a teenage son.

I found the book compulsive reading, and I had to try hard to resist the tempation to buy the sequel, fearing that if I did the tomato seedlings would perish before I got round to planting them out. The seedlings won, so I may succumb to the temptation at the next opportunity

Sue Monk Kidd The Secret Life of Bees

Told in the first person, this is the story of precociously intelligent 14 year old Lily, and her escape from a cruel and insensitive father. Lily always refers to her father as 'T-Ray', never by any affectionate terms like 'daddy'.

"I had asked God repeatedly to do something about T-Ray. He'd gone to church for forty years and was only getting worse. It seemed like this should tell God something."

Lily's mother died when Lily was about three years old. Lily vaguely remembers an incident with a gun, and fears that she may have been responsible. Since her mother's death Lily has been looked after by Rosaleen, a black woman selected by T-Ray from the workers on his peach farm.

The main story began with Rosaleen, accompanied by Lily, going to register to vote. On the way Rosaleen was involved in an altercation with two white men who disapproved of blacks voting. Rosaleen and Lily were both arrested. Lily was grudgingly bailed out by T-Ray, but Rosaleen was beaten up while in prison and taken to hospital, whence Lily helped her escape by distracting a rather dim police guard.

Lily was intrigued by an address written on the back of a picture that had been her mother's, and decided to take them both there. Rosaleen seemed happy for Lily to take the lead.

The destination turned out to be a bee farm kept by three black ladies, sisters named after the months May, June, and August.

The rest of the book tells of like on the bee farm, and the strange religious cult centred on a ship's figurehead in the form of the virgin Mary. It gradually emerged that many years ago Lily's mother had stayed at the bee farm taking refuge from T-Ray. Mysteries were finally solved, and T-Ray was persuaded to let Lily stay with the bees.

The book seemed to lose momentum towards the end. I found it all perfectly readable, but the second half was less exciting than the first.

R.P.C. and A.T. Hanson The Bible Without Illusions

Another book long unread, this was published in 1989 and was written by two brothers, both clergymen and retired professors of Theology, and one of them a former Bishop.

The authors describe how the Bible was put together over a period of several centuries as church leaders slected from avaliable writings. The various 'books' are often not writen by the authors after whom they are named, and some books are composites, mixing writings by several authors.

This book would be instructive reading for biblical fundamentalits, but I suspect that few of them are likely to read it.

Sir Arthur Eddington The Philosophy of Physical Science

This book had lain on my bookshelves unread for several decades.

Published in 1939, it was based on the Tarner Lectures Eddington gave at Cambridge in 1938.

Eddington was concerned about the apparent gap between physical theory, and the observations on which it is based, so the aspect of philosophy that interested him most was the theory of knowledge.

Eddington did not clearly distinguish two gaps. There is a logical gap between our perceptions, and the beliefs about the everyday objects and events of the material world based on them, such beliefs as that the sun is shining or the doorbell is ringing. There is also a gap between observations of everyday physical objects, and scientific theories about unobservables such as atoms or electrons.

Eddington proposed to bridge the gap (he seems to have assumed there was only one) by saying that knowledge is about abstract structure. We have no way of comparing your perception of a banana milk shake with mine, but so far as temperature is concerned both of us say that our perceptions of the milkshake resemble those of a bottle of beer fresh from the fridge, and so far as sweetness is concenered we both class the milkshake with a cup of hot chocolate, so we agree about those similarities.

Eddington's writing produced quite a stir at the time because he said that the fudamental laws of Phyics are 'subjective', and claimed he could deduce certain physical constants from logical considerations without appealing to experiment. In particular, he claimed to have proved that the total number of protons and electrons in the entire universe must be precisely 2*136*2256 . He said that the total is an artefact of theory. Comparing the number of particles in the universe with the number of coins in a bag he said we could count the coins, but we could not even in principle count the particles because any two electrons, or any two protons are indetical, so if we tried to count there would be no way of checking that we hadn't counted some particles several times. There is, of course a way of estimating the number of particles in any chunk of matter, because we can assign masses to particles, and can find the mass of our chunk of matter by weighing. Division will then give us an approximate number of particles. That procedure appears similar to the bankers shortcut of weighing coins instead of counting them. However, the two cases are very different. With the coins, weighing is just a quicker way of obtaining a number we could have obtained by counting. On the other hand the particles could not be counted even in principle so their apparent number has no significance independent of the theory.

E. E. Kellett A Short History of Religions

This is one of the books I inherited from father. First published in 1933 its introductory chapter meanders along in the leisurely way that books did in those days, spending about 20 pages considerig the question 'What is Religion?'. These days we rarely delay saying what we have to say until we've decided what we are talking about!!

I found his meandering prose hard to follow. There were so many digressions I often lost track of the main argument and sometimes fell asleep while reading, so the following remarks apply just to the parts of the book that held my attention.

Once I'd struggled through the introduction I found the presentation brisker so I did pick up quite a lot.

About half the material concerned Christianity, and I picked up some engagingly unedifying stories about the quarrels between the numerous Christian sects

Treatment of some of the non-Christian religions was quite perfunctory, but what it did say was interesting.

Kellett traced religion to ancient superstitions, and magic, and to attempts to apppease or control spirits. He thought that many games originated in magical practices, indeed he thought that was true of all games except those deliberately invented. Ball games he traced to attempts to control the weather.That was quite new to me.

E. T. Bell Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science

This is yet another book that has lain unread on my bookhelves for many years. I got it when the College Library removed it from stock.The librarian in power at the time seemed to be averse to anything intellectually challenging.

It is rather a strange book. Presented as a popular survey of mathematics and its applications in science its treatment is informal, but some of the material would be hard to understand for anyone who had no prior knowledge. Although it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know, it did remind me of some things I'd begun to forget, so I'm glad I read it.

Carl Lofmark What is the Bible?

Published by the Rationalist Press Association in 1990 this book makes a strong case for not regarding the Bible as either an authority, or as a source of inspiration or enlightenment. I found it completely convincing.

People in my generation were taught 'scripture' at school, and we read passages of the bible together, and were then provided a commentary by the teacher. I now realise that the passages we read were not representative. They were selected to prevent our spotting the many contradictions in the biblican accounts of supposed events, and we usually avoided the stories of genocide and sexual depravity supposedly ordered by God.

Links to accounts of my reading in previous years

may be found in the Box Room

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