Sunday, October 02, 2005

Book Reviews

I've finished a couple of books I thought you might like to know about. The first is Pendulum, Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science by Amir Aczel. Although the debate about whether or not the Earth revolved around the Sun (or vice versa) was pretty much resolved in the 18th century (despite protestations from the Church), by the middle of the 19th century it had yet to be conclusively proven, mathmatically or experimentally. Enter Leon Foucault, an extraordinarilly bright and largely self-educated man. Foucault was outside the educational elite, which at that time meant he was not to be taken seriously. In the basement of his mother's Parisian home he hung a pendulum from a nearly frictionless pivot and very carefully set it into motion (via a burning string, so as to avoid the influence of a human push). His pendulum, when begun with a north-south swing, deflects ever so slightly in a clockwise motion (i.e. on the north-to-south swing it moves ever so slightly to the west, while the south-to-north swing moves ever so slightly to the east). Eventually, the accumulated deflections will cause the pendulum to precess through 360-degrees, the speed at which it does so is proportional to the lattitude at which the pendulum swings. [The deflection would later be named after another Frenchman as the Coriolis Effect, which is also responsible for the rotation of hurricanes and other weather systems.] Aczel's book is a pretty easy read, but it helps if you agree with him right off the bat that Foucault was unjustly "shunned" by the academic community. Foucault is the underdog throughout the book, and while it might seem like it makes a good story, I personally would have preferred more insight from the minds of those who likely had good reason (at the time) to doubt him.

The second book I recently finished was Time by Alexander Waugh. This book is a fairly detailed explanation of nearly every aspect of the human perception of time. From the origins and definition of a second (currently, 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the electromagnetic radiation corresponding to a particular quantum change in the superfine energy level of the ground-state of the cesium-133 atom) to millenia, eras, and eternity. Waugh writes with a subtle, clever humor as he winds through history, science, folklore, and philosophy. Always in search of a quotable passage, I rather liked this bit from the final chapter on the end of time, himself quoting William Hazlitt (1778-1830):
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not. This gives us no concern - why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom? ... To die is only to be as we were before we were born; yet no one feels any remorse, or regret, or repugnance, in contemplating this last idea. It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: it seems to have been holiday-time with us then: we were not called to appear upon the stage of life, to wear robes or tatters, to laugh or cry, be hooted or applauded; we had lain perdus all this while, snug, out of harm's way; and had slept out our thousands of centuries without wanting to be waked up; at peace and free from care, in a long nonage, in a sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the finest and softest dust. And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes, and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!

My last post was entitled "Deprived of Oxygen", which I chose after a particularly sad episode of ER. While I don't claim to have the same powers of suggestion as one reader, it was an unlucky omen for a friend of mine. It seems that his cousin and an uncle both suffocated to death at the bottom of a well in St. Louis friday evening. I accept nor feel blame, though my deepest apologies and condolences go out to the families.


At 11:10 AM, Blogger Inanna said...

Oh my. My condolences as well. And the books sound interesting... although I had to stop and re-read it a few times.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Fuzzball said...

So sorry :(

At 9:58 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

Re the first book: I read recently that a poll last year showed that one in five adult Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth. Can that possibly be true, or did they choose people to poll who are living in caves somewhere, or WHAT?

Re the second book, the more you think about time the more confusing it gets. One of the best books I've read about time is a very old one: "Man and Time," by J.B. Priestley. It is highly entertaining and tied my brain in knots. I don't think I could cope with anything more recent.


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