Goodreads: Hydrogen: The Essential Element
Rigden explores key advances in physics by focusing on the hydrogen atom.
In Hydrogen, John Rigden attempts to bring the beauty and elegance of physics to the general reader through a brief survey of some of its greatest puzzles, theories, experiments, and applications. Along the way he introduces his audience to a host of famous names from Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein, imparting a personal element to a discipline too often considered detached and cold. Rigden’s enthusiasm for his subject permeates every page, and even readers who consider themselves allergic to science may find themselves unexpectedly excited at the prospect of a new discovery or baffled by a particularly odd observation.
I find it difficult to say whether Rigden actually succeeds in his goal of introducing physics to the general reader. My sense is that he provides enough information and enough background that the general reader could indeed follow along, at least getting the main points. However, even a little background in physics or chemistry is guaranteed to help, just so that having an assortment of names like the Balmer series, the Bohr model, and the quadrupole moment of the deuteron do not become overwhelming. (Don’t be alarmed if you forget everything from your introductory high school course on classical physics, however–this book focuses on the birth of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Newton will only get you so far.) A few figures illustrate the text, but they seem to be present mainly for those who want them and not because they are indispensable for understanding. If readers find they do not want to look at energy state diagrams, they can continue on reading and still get something from the book.
Perhaps Rigden’s greatest achievement in Hydrogen is not explaining physics to the general public, however, but in providing an illustration of how science works. Depictions of scientists in popular culture show men and women who live in a world of absolutes where everything is neat and pretty and all the numbers always add up. In reality, science is often confused and messy. Rigden’s very subject–the development of wave mechanics, the birth of quantum electrodynamics–shows how scientists were aware for decades of gaps in their knowledge and how gaps still exist in their current models for understanding the world around us. The biographies he inserts show scientists who stumble upon great discoveries by pure luck (though, of course, intelligence is still needed to recognize significant data when one sees it) as well as scientists who worked fruitlessly for years because they relied on wrong assumptions. The hydrogen atom, Rigden likes to remind his readers, reveals amazing secrets about the world, but also cautions us to be humble in our search for knowledge.
Hydrogen is a great book for those interested in learning more about physics and some of its most startling discoveries. Rigden employs an engaging writing style that he couples with some witty observations in order to make his topic come alive. Some of his stories may change the way readers look at physics.
Goodreads: The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
Devlin examines the impact of the arithmetic book of Leonardo of Pisa, commonly known as Fibonacci.
I picked up this book with the mistaken impression that it told the life of Fibonacci and, consequently, found myself disappointed. As Devlin explains, history knows very little about Fibonacci; generally, we know only that his real name was Leonardo of Pisa, that he travelled to Africa while a teen (and learned there the Hindu-Arabic number system), that he wrote quite a few books on mathematics (one of which inspired Europe to adopt the Hindu-Arabic number system), and that he was considered important as a result. Add a few more random details like visits to emperors and what his father did for a living, and you have just about everything. So, of course, I found myself wondering how the author managed to get 158 pages out of it.
Had I read the subtitle more carefully, I might have suspected that the book does not focus on the life of Fibonacci, but on the results of his publications, particularly his Liber abbaci, which taught how to use the Hindu-Arabic number system in everyday situations. That means that Devlin devotes chapters to topics like the sources Fibonacci used to write his book or the books that his book inspired. Other full chapters illustrate in detail the methods Fibonacci used to calculate (notation was different then and explanations of problems we would find simple needed pages of explanations). Not being a historian of mathematics, I found myself rather bored by the lists of book titles, the intricacies of which author wrote which manuscript, and, above all, the multitude of lengthy quotations from Liber abbaci. After the first two or three, I felt like I’d gotten it—it took Fibonacci an insufferably long time to explain stuff.
If you are the type of person interested in the question of whose mathematic manuscript inspired whose, this book will no doubt appeal to you. (If, on the other hand, this concept seems strange to you, consider that students of literature often try to decipher what works inspired various authors—the question really does matter to some people.) I, however, found myself longing for other information—if not biographical details, then maybe some more information on everyday life in medieval Pisa or an explanation of what other mathematic and scientific advances were occurring around that time. Expecting to discover Fibonacci, I was disappointed to discover his absence.
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Goodreads: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas promised to provide an adventure as exciting as it was informative. The city seems mainly to enjoy a reputation now as the land of gondolas; I had had no idea that it used to rule a maritime empire. However, despite the thrilling subject matter, full of highstakes diplomacy and massive bloodshed, the book ultimately proved so dull that I had to struggle to complete it.
Really, I hardly understand. The story started off interestingly enough. The pope was calling for a fourth Crusade and Venice was haggling for a good price to provide ships. The tension between Venice’s monetary interests and the religious zeal of their allies created so many problems that the Crusade seemed finished as soon as it had set off. There they were, camped outside Constantinople in direct defiance of the papacy, hiding from the troops the fact that attacking would mean excommunication for them all. I was hooked. Then more stuff happened and Constantinople kept changing hands throughout the book and Venice kept winning islands and losing islands and making deals and getting shut out of deals and Genoa cropped up every so often to fight a naval battle and none of it really seemed to matter anymore.
I think a few factors contributed to making this book so hard for me to get through. For one, the writing style was really dry and no amount of battles could save it. In fact, the number of battles might ultimately have proved a disadvantage. All of them began to melt together and it seemed like Venice kept fighting the same fights over and over. Crowley does not organize the book in such a way as to help keep these fights distinct. The section headings indicate that he sometimes jumps around in time, first covering a broad range of time in one, then moving backward in the next to focus on the events of a year or two that were nominally covered in the previous section. Half the time I had no idea when or where I was and I found I did not even care enough to check.
The book did show me, however, that Venice has a fascinating history, one understood to be bound up in their collective patriotism and love of money (two loves that are often intertwined). I hope to pick up some more books on Venice in the future to continue learning about this amazing city.
Goodreads: At Home: A Short History of Private Life
“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”
Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has figured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.
Bill Bryson possesses the talent of writing engagingly on any subject. In At Home, he explores the history of a plethora of aspects of everyday life, many of which we take for granted or consider too mundane for our interest. His voice shines through his work, humorous, wry, and utterly fascinated by turns. Bryson clearly wrote At Home as a work of personal interest, inspired by an English parsonage he bought and his own interest in just about any fun fact, but he invites readers to share his enthusiasm and wonderful through a conversational style that treats them friends and colleagues on his journey of discovery.
Bryson organizes At Home by exploring a house room by room, stopping to consider points of curiosity along the way. In the bedroom, he might discuss the history of mattresses and the place of sex in society, while in the bathroom he expounds on the development of modern plumbing. The subjects Bryson chooses occasionally seem arbitrary. For instance, in the chapter on the study, he talks about mice and the other creatures (like bats or dust mites) that may inhabit one’s home—simply because there happen to be mice living in his study. Nonetheless, a reader will hardly complain a subject is random if it is fascinating all the same—and Bryson ensures that it is.
The organization is also sometimes muddled within a chapter, as Bryson jumps from one century to another and then back again, instead of attempting to write his history strictly chronologically, but the point does not detract very much from the enjoyment of the book. The entire work is a conglomeration of facts Bryson thinks are cool, so the order the facts appear in is not of the utmost importance. The claim that Bryson will explore the history of private life by talking about the things in one room at a time helps to give some structure to At Home, but a book of this scope—spanning dozens of topics over hundreds of years—is inevitably going to become scattered.
In additional to historical and technical details, Bryson is intensely interested in the people of history. At Home includes a number of mini biographies, as Bryson introduces each inventor or other historical player at length—either sympathetically, admiringly, or playfully mockingly as he deems fit. (Some people have undoubtedly done strange things with their time and wealth in the past, and Bryson has no problem pointing that out. In the end, however, one can tell he really just thinks these people are fun to discuss.) His treatment of the movers and the shakers of the past as actual people, rather than tools on the path of progress or historical footnotes, truly sets his work apart and helps bring his book to life.
At Home is a marvelously informative and entertaining book. Well-written, carefully researched, and full of fun stories, it is the perfect pick for anyone looking for engaging nonfiction or simply a good, interesting book.
Goodreads: Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile
Fox follows the lives of two of Isabella of Castile’s two daughters—Katherine of Aragon, who would become Henry VIII of England’s first wife, and Juana, popularly known as “the Mad.”
In Sister Queens, Fox presents a sympathetic portrayal of Katherine of Aragon and her sister Juana (popularly known as “la Loca”) as women who bravely attempted to rule their own lives in a man’s world. She states in the preface that her goal in writing the book is to reclaim the images of both, stripping away the labels that have venerated Katherine as a paragon of womanhood betrayed by her husband and marginalized Juana as an eccentric unfit to govern. She proposes that the two can only be properly understood when placed into context as daughters both of Spain and of Isabella. Her depictions of both sisters, however, remain suitably nuanced. Even as Fox argues that Katherine and Juana learned to play the game of politics and to understand that they could occasionally use their gender as an asset, the stories she tells illustrate that they exerted relatively little influence over their destinies. Sister Queens, then, is ultimately a tragedy, the story of two women who possessed the skills needed to act upon the world stage, but were denied the opportunity.
Despite Fox’s argument that historians should place Katherine and Juana in context to understand them, however, the reason for linking the two remains unclear. Fox never convincingly demonstrates that an appreciation of one sister’s personality or skills sheds more light on the character of the other. Rather, one suspects that the book associates the two largely because not enough information on Juana exists to fill a book on its own. Held in isolation for the latter part of her life, Juana fades into the background as Katherine’s dramatic struggle to save her marriage takes center stage.
The desire to create drama in a tale that, properly told, contains enough intrigue and excitement to generate drama for itself is most evident in a writing style that often comes across as overly calculated. The introduction seeks to lure readers into the world of the Renaissance by bombarding them with paragraphs overfull of adjectives and, though the sentences eventually take on a more natural sound, the book remains full of detailed descriptions of clothing and celebrations. Also notable is the cliffhanger ending of each chapter, which occasionally promises more doom and destruction than actually occurs.
Though the writing style ensures that readers remain constantly aware of the authorial presence, the lives of Katharine and Juana prove almost as riveting as if the readers were experiencing their agony and turmoil for themselves. If Fox does not go into as much detail on some topics as some would like (I, for one, would have welcomed more on Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings and the public reaction), she does provide a lot of information those only casually familiar with the Tudors or the Spanish monarchy probably would not have known. Sister Queens is a fascinating look at the lives of two remarkable women.
Goodreads: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Official Summary: At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking, reading to partying; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over brainstorming in teams. Although they are often labeled “quiet,” it is to introverts that we owe many of the great contributions to society–from van Gogh’s sunflowers to the invention of the personal computer.
Passionately argued, impressively researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet shows how dramatically we undervalue introverts, and how much we lose in doing so. Taking the reader on a journey from Dale Carnegie’s birthplace to Harvard Business School, from a Tony Robbins seminar to an evangelical megachurch, Susan Cain charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal in the twentieth century and explores its far-reaching effects. She talks to Asian-American students who feel alienated from the brash, backslapping atmosphere of American schools. She questions the dominant values of American business culture, where forced collaboration can stand in the way of innovation, and where the leadership potential of introverts is often overlooked. And she draws on cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to reveal the surprising differences between extroverts and introverts.
Perhaps most inspiring, she introduces us to successful introverts–from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Finally, she offers invaluable advice on everything from how to better negotiate differences in introvert-extrovert relationships to how to empower an introverted child to when it makes sense to be a “pretend extrovert.”
This extraordinary book has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.
Review: Quiet features a wealth of interesting facts and observations about introversion but presents them to the wrong audience. Cain focuses on and directly addresses introverts who have low self-esteem, often due to lifetime experiences of being told there is something innately wrong with them and their desire for quiet—the type of person who, like Tom on pg. 134, exults that now that he finally understands his own introversion, “I don’t need to feel apologetic or defensive in any way.” Cain clearly knows a lot of this type of introvert, enough to fill her book with examples of them and their worries. She fails to recognize, however, that there are introverts who are already happy with themselves, and her book does not address them. She also fails, until the final section, to take much advantage of the good her book can do by explaining introverts to extroverts. With such a limited audience, the book often takes on a tone of affirmation, which can seem odd or even condescending to those who do not need it.
Cain’s writing in general is not particularly engaging or lively, and the content of her book must be what hold her readers’ attention. The organization is often choppy, as the discussion flits from anecdotes to scientific studies to profiles of introverted historical figures. The short sections, usually lasting only a page or two, can help readers feel as they are moving quickly through the book—but they can also break concentration and contribute to the feeling Cain does not have too much of an attention span herself. The inability of any single topic to feature in more than two consecutive pages also builds the impression the discussion is superficial, even if it is not. Cain often returns to discuss a topic further several pages later.
And the subjects Cain introduces are fascinating. She explores the rise of the extroverted ideal in Western culture, summarizes scientific studies that have looked for the roots of introversion in our bodies, and suggests ways introverts can cope with living in an extroverted world. Theoretically, her goal is reaffirming the values of introversion—which can include having deep conversations, being more observant, the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time, and more. However, she spends a decent number of pages discussing how introverts can improve at pretending to be extroverts, without spending too much time answering a question she raises herself—whether they should.
The conclusion, however, may be the most interesting—or at least most practically useful section—as it addresses how extrovert/introvert “mixed” couples can learn to understand each other better and how extroverted parents can raise introverted children. Cain even takes on the American educational system, arguing that introversion is a learning style, similar to being a visual, aural, or tactile learner, and that forcing introverted students to work in large groups or constantly speak in front of a class is not necessarily the most beneficial route a teacher can take. As schools increase emphasis on group learning, this is a message that should be brought to the attention of more educators.
Quiet may not have a lot of new information for introverts. Most of them probably already know that too much noise can make them tired, that they can give speeches better if they prepare than if forced to talk extemporaneously, that they brainstorm better alone than in public groups where they feel judged. Nonetheless, there is inevitably some value in seeing that there are scientific studies backing up the observations they have already made in their daily lives. The book will certainly be enlightening for many extroverts, particularly as evidence suggests introverts are better at understanding extroversion than extroverts are at understanding introversion.
Still torn on whether to read Quiet? Here are a few more ideas presented in the book:
“Leadership does not only apply in social situations, but also occurs in more solitary situations such as developing new techniques in the arts, creating new philosophies, writing profound books and making scientific breakthroughs” (Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronberg qtd. 78).
“We’re so impressed by the power of online collaboration that we’ve come to overvalue all group work at the expense of solo thought. We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own. Instead we assume that the success of online collaborations will be replicated in the face-to-face world” (89).
“At the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability” (167).
Goodreads: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
Summary: In 1508, Michelangelo began frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the behest of Pope Julius II, despite limited experience in the practice. Over the course of four years, the artist would continue work despite illness, political upheaval, financial difficulties, and familial problems, creating in the process one of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
Review: King brings to life the four years Michelangelo spent frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, highlighting in the process some of the strong personalities who drove the Renaissance. Though the world recognizes the genius of the artist’s work, less well-known perhaps is his reluctance to create it at all—a reluctance stemming in part from his uneasy relationship with the belligerent Pope Julius II. Their frequent clashes, coupled with a developing rivalry with the up-and-coming Raphael, creates a tale so full of drama that the book sometimes almost reads like fiction.
The book works hard to draw readers into its world, familiarizing them with various artistic processes and the customs of the workshops that created some of the finest art of the period. These reminders occasionally become repetitive, but the details provide important grounding for the story and readers will likely appreciate the way in which the author deftly provides them just enough technical information to allow them to understand the overall account. The book thus acts as an excellent introduction to Renaissance Italy—it so clearly desires to help readers fall in love with a world brimming with art and science, but without boring them with an excessive amount of specialized information.
Though the focus of the book remains on the personalities affecting the outcome of the frescoes, I admit I would have loved to see some more specialized details on the ceiling itself. Arguably such information would be more fitting in a book of art criticism, but it seems odd to suggest an artistic rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael and then offer only a few words of interpretation for their various frescoes. Alternatively, the book could have provided more illustrations, thus enabling readers to interpret the works themselves. The entirety of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example, is shown in two pictures; insets of specific scenes would have helped readers more accurately judge the merits of something like the Flood, where the figures are considerably smaller than in other scenes. Other works of art mentioned by King do not receive illustrations at all.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is an ambitious work that attempts to cover a lot of ground—everything from the titular ceiling to Michelangelo’s past to the political upheavals of the day. King manages to create a coherent narrative from it all, spinning in the process a tale sure to enthrall anyone interested in the Renaissance. While readers might find themselves wishing for more details, the book provides a good starting point for anyone hoping to learn about Renaissance Italy.
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Goodreads: Survival in Auschwitz
Summary: Primo Levi, an Italian chemist and Jew, chronicles his year in the Auschwitz concentration camp from February 1944 until January 1945.
Review: First published in Italian as If This Is a Man (Se questo è un uomo), the book focuses less on the horrors of the Holocaust that have, perhaps, become well-known to most schoolchildren and more on the psychological implications of those horrors. The work distinguishes itself further from the multitude of works on the same subject, however, by not solely focusing on the mentality of those who worked the concentration camps, but also on the changing nature of those imprisoned there. As time progresses in the book, Levi’s astute observations of those around him ask an increasingly urgent question: can those who have had everything stripped away from them still be considered men?
The question is provocative. One might expect that a Jew writing about the Holocaust would wish to convey exactly the opposite observation—that these men, women, and children were undeniably human and that the crimes committed against them were thus undeniably outrageous. The conflict evident in Levi’s thoughts about the matter, however, only serves to underscore the nature of the atrocities committed. When a man himself begins to question whether he is still a man, then the attempt to dehumanize a group of people is truly complete.
Despite Levi’s inner turmoil, however, the better part of the human spirit continues to break through the darkness. A particularly moving chapter recounts Levi’s attempts to recall the words of Ulysses to his sailors in Dante’s Divine Comedy—words that encourage them to seek for knowledge and to live as men rather than as beasts (Canto XXVI of the Inferno, if you feel inclined to look it up). His struggle to recapture the lines has an intense significance he cannot define or understand, especially as he insists throughout the narrative that no amount of skill or intelligence can save anyone in the camps–only luck spares some. His inability to articulate the meaning of the poetry suggests that it is not the intellect of men that defines that as such, but rather the limitations of that intellect. The ineffable experience of poetry somehow connects to the senselessness of the camps; the meaning of both proves elusive and Levi can do nothing but struggle through as best he can. He may feel that he has failed, but sometimes nothing seems so human as failure.
Survival in Auschwitz is a haunting book that raises deep questions through deceptively simple prose. Self-reflective, it does not content itself with heaping blame on those who perpetuated the crimes at the concentration camps, but takes a long look at the mind of the author as he was during his time in Auschwitz. What he sees clearly perplexes and sometimes troubles him; he knows he has not descended to the bestial nature of some of the others around him, but also knows that he is never far from falling. Survival for Levi is not so much a fight to live as it is a fight to retain a sense of his own soul and his own dignity when everything around him suggests they no longer exist.
Review: Stanley provides a lot of information in a small space, chronicling Michelangelo’s entire life from his upbringing in the home of a stonecutter’s wife to his death and legacy. She wastes no words, but vividly brings Renaissance Florence to life through the eyes of one its greatest contributors. The focus on Michelangelo’s viewpoints and emotions makes the history Stanley recounts seem fresh and exciting; the artist perhaps had more troubles and passions than many readers realize.
The attention to detail in both the text proves integral to making Stanley’s biography capture the interest of readers. The author does not merely recount the facts of Michelangelo’s life and times, but adds information pertinent to understanding her subject. Thus, readers do not simply learn that Michelangelo painted frescoes, but also what a fresco is—and just how difficult it was to create one. Though readers may have admired Michelangelo’s work before picking up the book, understanding the process behind the artwork may increase their admiration even more.
Readers not familiar with all the pieces Stanley references need not fret, however. Stanley reproduces much of Michelangelo’s artwork in her illustrations, so that readers can form an idea of just how beautiful or unique his pieces were. The glimpses Stanley provides of his genius may very well inspire some of her audience to research his work further.
Stanley does a wonderful job of summarizing the life of one of the world’s greatest artists. She takes a large subject and makes it accessible and interesting for the average reader.
Summary: Walker follows the lives of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti (best known for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and the bronze doors on the Baptistery of San Giovanni, respectively).
Review: Despite Walker’s stated intent to illuminate how the rivalry between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti “changed the art world,” his book offers few interpretations of the events it describes. Rather, it switches between the two men, chronicling the works of art they created, the machines they invented, and the failures they experienced. Other artists such as Donatello and Masaccio also make appearances, so that the book provides an intriguing look at what many consider the birth of the Renaissance in Florence.
Though Walker expertly describes the atmosphere of Florence in the Quattrocento, highlighting the many advances made in art and mechanics, the title of the book proves misleading in more than one way. Not only does Walker fail clearly to make connections between the works of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, but he also seems to spend significantly more time on the accomplishments of Brunelleschi. Perhaps this is understandable since the great project of the day was the building of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the commission for which project Brunelleschi received. While Brunelleschi continued to receive various commissions for Santa Maria del Fiore and thus churned out an impressive array of architectural marvels and machines to meet the challenges he faced, Ghiberti remained occupied with the bronze doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni (as well as a series of other commissions that he consistently failed to complete on time). Even so, I had hoped to learn more about Ghiberti than I was given.
Despite the imbalance of information, however, Walker largely remains impartial while describing the feud between the two artists. His admiration of Brunelleschi is evident, but he takes care to note Brunelleschi’s weaknesses as well as Ghiberti’s strengths. For instance, when describing the first competition in which the two faced each other—the commission for the first set of bronze doors for the Baptistery—Walker acknowledges that art historians argue over the artistic merits of the pieces submitted by each of the two. He also explains, however, that it is clear that Ghiberti exhibited greater technical skill in this particular competition. Thus, Brunelleschi does not get all the glory in this book.
It seems almost impossible not to compare Walker’s book with Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. While both provide lively and engaging accounts of the early Italian Renaissance, Walker includes pertinent material that King does not. Both authors note that Brunelleschi and Ghiberti at one point engaged in a sonnet war to express their hatred of each other. King explains some of the insults exchanged, but Walker actually includes a translation of one of the sonnets. Walker also includes pictures of some of the marvelous artwork he describes, whereas King does not.
The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance is a highly informative as well as interesting look at two extraordinary men and their work. Walker has a clear love for the subject and will hopefully impart to his readers some of the enthusiasm that he feels for beautiful art and clever machines.