Very readable collection of excerpts from modern scientific works, broken out into four sections covering 'What Scientists Study', 'Who Scientists Are', 'What Scientists Think' and 'What Scientists Delight In'. As well as learning quite a bit, I found some of the descriptions of scientific phenomena to be incredibly elegant and beautiful. A great read.

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Dates 25 September 2012 – 10 October 2012
Time spent reading 14 hours, 10 minutes
Highlights 38
Comments 7
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We disagreed only over whether or not to include anything from my own books. I won, and we didn't.

Paradoxically, the weaker gravity is (provided that it isn't actually zero), the grander and more complex can be its consequences.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Absolutely fascinating section on what the universe would be like if the force of gravity was a little stronger or weaker than it is.

My idea of society is that while we are born equal, meaning that we have a right to equal opportunity, all have not the same capacity.

My genes have indeed determined what I am, but only in the sense that, given the succession of environments and experiences that were mine, a carrier of a different set of genes might have become unlike myself.

Evolution is no more than the perpetuation of error. It means that progress can emerge from decay.

The higher animals are not larger than the lower because they are more complicated. They are more complicated because they are larger.

Why are Looking-glass Images Right-Left Reversed?

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Fascinating chapter. Can't work out whether the text is being deliberately obfuscational (if I can be so bold as to make up a word!) or whether this is a genuine scientific puzzle. I suspect the former.

why does each of us feel like a single subjective unit?—is one of those questions that seems too obvious to ask until you take the trouble to think about it, and then the more you think, the more profound and tantalizing it becomes.

Phobias of physical things, of social scrutiny, and of leaving home respond to different kinds of drugs, suggesting that they are computed by different brain circuits.

We ought to be afraid of guns, driving fast, driving without a seatbelt, lighter fluid, and hair dryers near bathtubs, not of snakes and spiders.

Would a bomb work and what sort of a thing would it be, how much material would it need, what kind of energies would it release; would it ignite the atmosphere in nuclear reactions and end us all

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

An amazing fact of the first man-made nuclear detonation is that the scientists weren't sure if they were starting a runaway reaction. Try it anyway, eh?

I wish I had the voice of Homer To sing of rectal carcinoma, Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact, Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

In all territories of thought which science or philosophy can lay claim to, including those upon which literature has also a proper claim, no one who has something original or important to say will willingly run the risk of being misunderstood; people who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

wherever we were individually born and whatever our ‘race', we are all Africans.

I have devoted my life to slime molds.

'Nothing in the world feels like sintered tungsten.'

I had never given much thought to what I might be when I was ‘grown up'—growing up was hardly imaginable—but now I knew: I wanted to be a chemist.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

This whole section written by Oliver Sacks is just so lovely.

We named the place we live in the world long ago, from the Indo-European root wiros, which meant man.

By far the best way to profit from seminars that interest you is to sit in the front row.

Not an experimentalist, and only an average mathematician, Einstein's supreme gift was his unprecedented, unparalleled imagination, guided by a kind of scientifically disciplined aesthetic.

If you make a wildly counter-intuitive assumption and follow it through to its conclusion, you can—if you are a genius like Einstein—arrive at a wholly new kind of ‘obvious'.

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It's just the best we have.

It is odd, but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.

One measure of this anthology's success will emerge later if it entices readers to seek out the original books

the brilliantly inventive computer scientist Stephen Wolfram has written a gigantic book, A New Kind of Science on this kind of emergence

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

This has some pretty shocking reviews on Amazon:

do not forget that the tail is most of the animal if it goes on for ever

Fruitful intellectual activity of the cleverest people draws its strength from the common knowledge which all of us share.

The number of mathematical proofs that succeed by pushing everything difficult out to infinity, and watching it vanish altogether, is itself almost infinite.

Turing ate an apple that he had injected with cyanide, having been arrested for homosexual activities in private (that's what Britain was like as late as 1954).

Presumably the child-brain is something like a note-book as one buys it from the stationers. Rather little mechanism, and lots of blank sheets.

on the Earth's surface a triangle can contain three right angles

Earth's even smaller timewarp is measurable; it manifests itself by the fact that clocks tick very slightly faster at higher altitudes—on a mountain top, say—than at sea level.

Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?

The discovery by Pythagoras, that vibrating strings, under equal tension, sound together harmoniously if their lengths are in simple numerical ratios, established for the first time a profound connection between the intelligible and the beautiful.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Harks back to another book that I read earlier in the year. Lots more detail on this can be found there:

The proof is by reductio ad absurdum, and reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician's finest weapons.

Andrew Doran Andrew Doran

Although we studied proofs at school and went through more than our fair share of them in maths lessons they always daunted me and I couldn't fathom how anyone could have the creativity and insight to come up with one from scratch. I'm not sure whether they were taught poorly or whether I didn't have the mental maturity to really understand them. Probably a bit of both. It would have been fantastic if some of our mathematics teachers and professors had taken us through techniques of writing proofs such as the one mentioned here, e.g. you can say that your hypothesis is true and then prove something that violates the hypothesis, meaning that it is actually false. If we had been given these tools in the toolbox things would have been much easier.

It is almost a cliché of filmmaking to let the audience realize suddenly that the actor's face they have been watching has been seen in a mirror; the surprise would be spoiled if people had two eyes on the same side of the face like flounders, and always on the same side.

what is both wonderful and terrifying is that there is absolutely no reason that nature at its deepest level must have anything to do with mathematics.