Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Three brief book reviews

In the spirit of Peter Woit's latest post, I also wanted to offer up three miniature book reviews.

The New Science of Strong Materials: Or Why You Don't Fall Through the Floor by J. E. Gordon.  This book is a fine, accessible (minimal math) introduction to materials science by one of the people who created the field as a distinct discipline.  The first edition came out in 1968, so it is a bit of an historical journey.  For example, the author describes how just recently people were able to achieve the first transmission electron microscopy images that directly showed dislocations.  The only way they could do it was to image a material that was actually a crystal of Pt-containing organic complexes - the Pt has high electron density for imaging, and the organic ligands keep the Pt spatially separated by a large enough distance (a few nm) to resolve in the equipment of the day.  Quite a difference from the present state of the art.  Gordon wrote in an engaging style with a dry UK wit, and clearly had a genuine fondness for wood as an amazing, versatile composite material.  Should be required reading for undergrad mechanical and civil engineers who need to get a real physical picture for stress, strain, and ways to mitigate crack propagation.  A fun read.

How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler by Ryan North.
I won't spoil the amusing conceit that's used as a frame for this remarkable, fun collection of bite-sized bits of knowledge.   Suffice it to say that, in the event of a global collapse of civilization, this will be a handy tome to have on hand, should you need to recreate, say, agriculture or printing or distillation or the steam engine.  The recurring theme is, there are many societal and technological advancements that the human race seemed to be curiously slow to figure out (like, many tens of thousands of years slower than could have been done).  Just the kind of fun you would expect from the person who brought us Dinosaur Comics.  It does have a bit of a Randall Munroe What If vibe, but it's distinctive.

Math with Bad Drawings: Illuminating the Ideas That Shape Our Reality by Ben Orlin.
This was also very enjoyable.  Parts of it made me think that "Condensed Matter with Bad Drawings" would be a great approach, except that now it would seem hopelessly derivative.  The book takes a free-wheeling path through math in our lives, with large, healthy doses (perhaps a bit lengthy) of statistics (lies and damn lies - what different statistical quantities are telling and not telling you) and economics.  It's well done, and I particularly liked the beginning sections that explain what math really looks and feels like to a mathematician; that really resonated, and I wish I could convey even half as well that aspect of how physicists look at and think about the world around us.

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