Author Topic: Nerdy Science Book Thread  (Read 1059 times)

Blue Jam

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Nerdy Science Book Thread
« on: August 21, 2020, 04:50:34 PM »
Read any good sciencey non-fiction lately?

Just started Kat Arney's Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life. Cheery stuff. Nah, it's great and she has a lovely way with words. It's a nice little thesis, summarising the parallels between evolutionary biology and cancer biology. Basically, if you want to be a complex multicellular organism, a little bit o'cancer is the price you must pay.

Great title too!

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #1 on: August 23, 2020, 04:00:29 PM »
It's old, from 1979, but Douglas Hofstadter's “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” is my favourite pop-science book.

The book gets going by riffing on self-referential and self-contradicting sentences like “This sentence is false”, and talks about how Bach's music and Escher's art play similar games with their form and structure.
 He then moves to demonstrating, at length and in a fairly demanding fashion, about how similarly quirky, rule-breaking objects can exist inside rigorously formal systems, like maths, formal logic and, potentially, computer programs.

He does this slowly, with many loose and informal digressions- for example he turns from talking about logic to ruminating at length on Zen Buddhist koans, and other human attempts to reach outside of logic.

Long sections of the book are taken up with vivid Alice-in-Wonderland style comic dialogues that are beguilingly mysterious and whet your appetite for the more straightforward lecture-style sections that follow them. In these looser sections many beautiful poetic juxtapositions are made, e.g. the fact that the last notes Bach composed were the letters of his own name (the German musical notation system has an 'H' in it) sits alongside a glass shattering at its own resonant frequency.

As you get towards the end of the book, the focus starts to shift from “how to create self-referential contradictions inside formal systems” towards a focus on whether such oddities, and the related ability to use analogy and metaphor, are core aspects of intelligence.  Hofstadter talks about his own idiosyncratic work on artificial intelligence, attempting to get computers to solve puzzles which require lateral thinking- e.g.If ABC-> ABD, XYZ->?

It's here that there is a melancholy aspect to the book- as this article on him The Atlantic a few years ago put it, Hofstader's interest in what was distinct about human intelligence distanced him from the  rest of the AI community, who found that more progess could be made without such thinking, in much the same way that experiments with flight progressed once the idea of using birds as a model was abandoned:
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/the-man-who-would-teach-machines-to-think/309529/

But even if his path was not one which computing culture ultimately followed, “Godel, Escher, Bach” will still be read in a hundred years as a unique blend of artistic and scientific culture, an unashamed act of intelligence and will. Some days I think of it as a utopian example- it's the kind of book they'll write after the revolution.

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #2 on: August 23, 2020, 04:58:24 PM »
Read any good sciencey non-fiction lately?

Just started Kat Arney's Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life. Cheery stuff. Nah, it's great and she has a lovely way with words. It's a nice little thesis, summarising the parallels between evolutionary biology and cancer biology. Basically, if you want to be a complex multicellular organism, a little bit o'cancer is the price you must pay.

Great title too!

I'll get on this. The Emperor of all Maladies was the best pop science I've read in a while.

samadriel

  • Afro Gunsou wa Afro!
Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #3 on: August 24, 2020, 11:40:07 AM »
It's old, from 1979, but Douglas Hofstadter's “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” is my favourite pop-science book.

I'll have to give that one a crack.

As I've plugged elsewhere, "Soonish" by Zach and Kelly Wienersmith is an interesting bit of pop-science describing the kind of technologies often spoken about by futurists and scifi authors, how they could possibly work, and the important stumbling blocks currently standing in their way. It's a relatively light read, but it has really enriched my viewing and reading of science fiction ever since; I pause while reading something and think "ooh, they worked out how to make that technology safe", or "gosh, I wonder how they beat <bugbear x> when they were building spaceships". It's a bit of fun.

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #4 on: September 11, 2020, 02:35:03 AM »
Blimey this epigenetics is interesting, isn't it?
Reading Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb's Evolution in Four Dimensions, brilliant stuff, any other reccomendations on this topic?

timebug

  • Father of Serge
Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #5 on: September 12, 2020, 09:49:18 AM »
A post above mentions Douglas Hofstadter's 'Godel,Escher,Bach' book. I have not read that, but I own one of his called 'Metamagical Themas' which is an anagram of 'Mathematical Games' and is filled with reprints of articles he published in Scientific American magazine.
A good little diversion into winding your brain around corners,as he shoots off at weird seeming tangents from his main topic, BUT... always stays 'on track' about the main theme of his discourse. My 'go to' book when I need to let my mind spin out of control for half an hour!

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #6 on: September 13, 2020, 12:16:35 AM »
The only Hofstadter book I've read is "Le Ton beau de Marot". No, it's not in French. It's the title of a very short (about a hundred words) French poem which he prints out and gives to a bunch of French speakers (people who speak it as a second language and real French people) and gets them to translate it into English...... and the results are all totally different. In essence, it's all about how translations of anything can be trusted, and all that malarkey, and whether or not communication with dolphins, aliens and AI's would be possible. It's good, but long. Long!

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #7 on: September 16, 2020, 02:47:47 PM »
Anything by Peter Atkins is good if you fancy a bit of chemistry.

Retinend

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Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #8 on: September 16, 2020, 06:04:00 PM »
The only Hofstadter book I've read is "Le Ton beau de Marot". No, it's not in French. It's the title of a very short (about a hundred words) French poem which he prints out and gives to a bunch of French speakers (people who speak it as a second language and real French people) and gets them to translate it into English...... and the results are all totally different. In essence, it's all about how translations of anything can be trusted, and all that malarkey, and whether or not communication with dolphins, aliens and AI's would be possible. It's good, but long. Long!

Hofstadter is fucking amazing.

"I am a Strange Loop" seems like a totally whacked out theory, but after several years I think it remains the best account of human consciousness I've read. Better even than Daniel Dannett's "Consciousness Explained".

Gödel Escher Bach is one of those books you feel amazingly smart after reading... until someone asks you what it's about. All I know is that it's up there with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in terms of all time classics of the genre.

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #9 on: September 16, 2020, 10:19:03 PM »
The only Hofstadter book I've read is "Le Ton beau de Marot". No, it's not in French. It's the title of a very short (about a hundred words) French poem which he prints out and gives to a bunch of French speakers (people who speak it as a second language and real French people) and gets them to translate it into English...... and the results are all totally different. In essence, it's all about how translations of anything can be trusted, and all that malarkey, and whether or not communication with dolphins, aliens and AI's would be possible. It's good, but long. Long!

I've enjoyed various Hofstadter books (including Le Ton beau de Marot and Metamagical Themas), but I get the impression that he thinks he can write about any subject he's interested in and will say something profound... I remember several years ago, in some Usenet chatroom or other, some linguists being very contemptuous of Le Ton Beau de Marot: "The parts that are good are not original, and...". The chapter on games (which it turns out can be easily solved using game theory) in Metamagical Themas has similar issues.

Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #10 on: September 16, 2020, 11:12:16 PM »
I've enjoyed various Hofstadter books (including Le Ton beau de Marot and Metamagical Themas), but I get the impression that he thinks he can write about any subject he's interested in and will say something profound... I remember several years ago, in some Usenet chatroom or other, some linguists being very contemptuous of Le Ton Beau de Marot: "The parts that are good are not original, and...". The chapter on games (which it turns out can be easily solved using game theory) in Metamagical Themas has similar issues.

A lot of "Le Ton" is very autobiographical and especially details the death of his wife (while he was writing it) and how he had to learn to cope, which is a bit of a downer, obviously, and perhaps "disturbed the flow" a little. An observation....... in this book he constantly refers to teenagers as teen-agers. I always found that strange; don't know why.

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Re: Nerdy Science Book Thread
« Reply #11 on: September 18, 2020, 11:42:03 AM »
The aforementioned I Am A Strange Loop is also very wrapped up in his wife's death... it seems as if his will to have his wife live again in some sense inspired that book's hypothesis that consciousness is not only metaphor-dependent (an earlier hypothesis) but dependent on a .... sort of "mirror-in-a-mirror-like" reflection in the consciousness of others. Fascinating book.

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