Just some of Andy's recent reading for fun, so you'll note there isn't a particular pattern other than my latest reads are nearer the top. (Most of these books are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell's, and the University of Washington Bookstore, among others.)


Two articles regarding different aspects of science in the Islamic world, both freely available online. I just found it interesting that the print versions of the two came across my desk about the same time...
"Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement", Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, Physics Today, August 2007.
Hoodbhoy is a Pakistani physics professor in Islamabad who is concerned about the current state of scientific research (and support for it) in modern Islamic countries, in contrast to such a glorious history of science in the Islamic world. While this article of his in Physics Today doesn't offer concrete suggestions for solutions, he tries to identify and quantify specific problems that must be addressed in modern science in Islamic countries.
"Rediscovering Arabic Science", Richard Covington, Saudi Aramco World, May/June 2007.
This issue of Saudi Aramco World (a fabulous cultural magazine about the Arab and Muslim world produced by the oil company) carries the theme of historical Islamic science and explores some of that above-mentioned glorious history. Three articles by Richard Covington in this issue follow the subject. The one linked above is a scientific history overview. Another (linked from it) interviews the owner of an Islamic science historical museum in Frankfurt, and the third (also linked from the first) describes the use of the astrolabe, which has a long history in the Islamic world. That last article briefly points out the collection of Arabic astrolabes at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy (a fantastic museum next door to the Uffizi - I've been there myself!) and online discussions of them on the museum's webpages, e.g. here, here, and here. Warning, the wonderful websites of both this museum as well as Saudi Aramco World will suck you in forever.



Imagined Worlds, by Freeman Dyson. This was a really quick and easy read, just some ramblings of Dyson's about the progress of humanity and predictions for the future. A bit of a hodge-podge but interesting and fun: he describes the way to deflect a collision coursed asteroid or comet (a "near earth object" or NEO) -- not with a nuclear bomb which imparts a lot of energy but little momentum. Instead he suggests a "mass driver" attached to the object's surface, spitting out a steady stream of material mined from the body so that the equal-and-opposite reaction gradually pushes the body in the desired direction over say a 50 year timespan. (However, I noticed that NASA's 2006 NEO study found the nuclear bomb option for NEO deflection much more effective and feasible. I haven't compared Dyson's little back-of-the-napkin analysis in this book with the analyses in the NASA study; that might be interesting.) Anyway, he also discusses his concern for our society's shift in recent decades toward short-term rather than long-term planning, in economics, government, everything. I definitely agree with that concern, but I felt he neglected an important point in that topic. The past several decades have seen especially rapid changes in the technologies (and reduced cost) of communication, travel, construction, and so on, which have all allowed much faster turn-around time on business and government tasks. I think it's natural that people get used to those faster turn-arounds and expect things to work on shorter timescales. In any case I enjoyed the book and will likely read others by him in the future.



Measuring the World, by Daniel Kehlmann. This was really fun; I found this novel in the New York Times Book Review and had to check it out. It's historical fiction, although strongly biographical, about German scientists Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss around 1800. You'd think that might be dry reading, but it's a hilarious comparison of two totally different, famous personalities with over-inflated egos, which by the end of the story find they have some common ground. Who knows how accurate this depiction of von Humboldt's and Gauss' personalities are, or the day-to-day details of the plot are, but a number of the events in the book were factual. But there's this great witticism sprinkled throughout, even slapstick. For example, von Humboldt was accompanied on his South American explorations by botanist Aimé Bonpland, who in this story became the classic sidekick who caught the butt of everything -- "Amazing, Bonpland! Electrified eels in a natural pond! Go fetch me a specimen! [Bzzzzzt!]" Readers looking for factual biographies or scientific information may not find what they were looking for in this novel, but it's a greatly entertaining story about two wacky guys.



The Path to Tranquility, by the Dalai Lama. This book is merely a collection of daily quotations (365 of them to cover one year) by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader-in-exile. But I thought it was also a simple and helpful introduction to his philosophies and views, as well as those of Tibetan Buddhism. I swear it's not because of the title that I'm saying this, but I found his quotations and views very calming and inspiring, making the book relaxing to read a few pages at a time in spare moments. I didn't agree with all of his views -- in my very limited understanding from this book, Tibetan Buddhism seems to have some very regimental qualities to it (especially regarding sex and personal relationships). But I very much like most of what he says, especially regarding the value of patience, compassion for others, and an analytical approach to Tibetan Buddhism that says you don't have accept everything all or nothing, but rather take with you those things that are useful to you.



The Scorpion's Gate, by Richard Clarke. The author Richard Clarke spent over 30 years in the White House, State Department, and Pentagon working in intelligence and counterterrorism, and was an advisor to Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush Sr & Jr in these fields. In a recent NPR interview, he discussed his recurring frustration that colleagues often wouldn't read the vital counterterrorism reports his offices produced because they were long and dry. He figured that if he expanded his hobby of writing to create political thriller novels based on current, real-world scenarios, then maybe folks would pay a little closer attention to the concerns he was trying to raise in the analysis reports. So while the particular characters and events in this novel are fictitious, the scenarios and issues portrayed in the story are described in the preface as very plausible and relevant. I thought this real-world connection made the story fascinating to read, although this means it has more characters and more organizations to keep track of than one might find in other novels of this genre. On the flip side of the same token, however, I think Clarke's strength is more in his familiarity with the real-world material than in his writing skill. For example two characters have an affair but the dialog and material are so lame that it would have been best to leave it out entirely. Still it was a fun read as long as I kept to my expectations that it was more about taking in Clarke's points about the Middle East rather than his skills in plot mechanics and character development.



The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography, by Simon Singh. From ciphers of the ancient Arabs through modern computerized public key encryption, this history of codes is a series of captivating stories about individual people who were part of this history. Singh's writing is somewhat technical at times, perhaps on the level of a Scientific American article, but the stories about the people involved are greatly entertaining and well-told. Singh has two other popular books that I haven't read yet but I've heard are equally exciting, Fermat's Enigma and The Big Bang.



:: Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet, by Steve Squyres. Steve Squyres is the P.I. (principal investigator) of the Mars Exploration Rovers mission (the Spirit and Opportunity rovers currently still running up there), and an astro professor at Cornell. In completely nontechnical language and with more gusto and matter-of-factness than I've seen in any similar book, Squyres describes the crazy string of hectic work and endless tribulations that the team managed to solve to get both rovers successfully running on Mars. The book's actually hard to put down - he crafted it almost like an action thriller, so each chapter describes how members of the team just managed to solve some problem, and then there's a cliffhanger like "and then THIS broke!". But what I also found interesting in the book was learning just how one goes about organizing a billion dollar project to develop robots that run on another planet. Amazing. The book does drag just a little bit near the end when spending more time describing details of some the geology issues they were exploring, but the book is well worth the read for anyone.



Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, by George Dyson. Egads, these guys were crazy! But what a gas this project must have been to work on. From the late forties to the late fifties, a number of famous physicists were recruited to work on a classified project to develop a spacecraft whose means of propulsion would be a series of small, well-timed atomic bombs exploding behind it. (A heavy plate on the back of the spacecraft would protect the ship from the bombs' radiation and offer an inertial mass to push along.) Physicist Freeman Dyson, the author's father, was one of the famous scientists who worked on this project. These ships were to be so big and powerful that they could be building-sized, and launch whole construction sites with bulldozers and everything from the Earth's surface all the way to Mars! However, the project gradually fizzled after continuing funding problems and the faster availability of Werner Von Braun's chemical rockets when the space race began. Ironically, in the era that all this work was done, there was little concern about all the radioactive fallout that might be a problem from launching spacecraft from Earth's surface this way. In any case, the story of this project is closely linked with that of the ongoing development of thermonuclear bombs (H-bombs) over the decades, which makes this book a fascinating history of both topics.



What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained, by Robert L. Wolke. Great fun while providing explanations accurate enough to not annoy my scientist self (as many other such books do). I'm not sure I understand the "Einstein" reference in the title, but Wolke provides fantastic popular-level scientific lowdowns on questions relating to the kitchen. How's a microwave oven work? What's going on when you brown food in your saute pan? What are fatty acids? And so on.



Death: The High Cost of Living, by Neil Gaiman. This is one of those "graphic novels", ie a comic book that in spite of being illustrated like a Spiderman serial has a serious story with deeper subject matter than saving Mary Jane from the monster. Neil Gaiman has a number of such books to his name, as well as more traditional novels, all of which mix mythology with existentialist philosophy and modern family issues. In this story, Death returns to Earth once per century to refamiliarize herself with the lives and concerns of humans whom she "serves", and in the process this time saves a troubled teen from suicide. Very clever story as well as nice work by the illustrators.



The Jasons: the Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner. Okay, the title's a bit melodramatic, but this book was really fantastic. Finkbeiner is both a meticulous journalist-style researcher as well as a greatly entertaining writer. She has a firm grasp of the physics issues she writes about (in spite of not being a scientist herself) as well as the many silly quirks of that community. I'd heard of this DoD advisement group called The Jasons before, but didn't realize it had evolved (with some pain and effort) well past the postwar nuclear physicists group to include virtually every other DoD-applicable field in science and technology -- biology, oceanography, computer science, you name it. Speaking of oceanography, I was surprised to learn when reading this book that some big-name researchers in my own field are/were Jasons -- Walter Munk? Carl Wunsch? I had no idea! (The book only names members who are willing to be public about their involvement in this group.) In addition to intriguing stories about a number of Jason's members, some past projects, and the history of the group, there are also philosophical discussions about the justifications researchers use for choosing to work or not work on DoD science problems. This book was so interesting and well-written that I'll surely look into Finkbeiner's other books.



Open Secret, by Stella Rimington. In contrast to her novel mentioned below, this one is her autobiography, focusing on the hurdles of sexism she overcame on the 30 year path from her first job in MI5 to being the first female Director-General of the whole agency. Overall I liked the book, but I found it a bit of a mix: On the hand there were somewhat boring and lengthy management discussions about changing MI5's bureaucratic culture from one of complete secrecy and bigotry to its currently more transparent and diversified form with government oversight. In fact, this experience is the background for her current post-retirement consulting work in helping business corporations make similar bureaucratic changes. On the other hand there were fun and crazy stories, such as borrowing money from a Soviet defector on a first meeting so she could race across town to her daughter with the babysitter at the hospital. (After which the guy ultimately didn't defect.) There's some very brief history, where we learn MI5 is Military Intelligence section 5, which focuses on the domestic half of national security in the UK, like counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism; in comparison, MI6 focuses on national security abroad, like foreign intelligence. There's trivia such as the fact that the leader of MI6 is incorrectly called "M" in the James Bond movies. M is actually somebody else; the leader of MI6 is C and the leader of MI5 is K (initials of the founders of the agencies), so Rimington ultimately was K. Particularly interesting was her story of going to Russia to meet with her ex-Soviet counterparts after the end of the cold war. And the description of her wartime childhood in London during bombing raids gave a chill: we saw the 2005 movie The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe while I was reading this book, and the opening London bombing sequence in that movie could have been right out of Rimington's first few chapters.



The Wreck of the Sv. Nikolai, editted by Kenneth N. Owens. This is a short but fascinating dual account of the 1808 wreck of the Russian American Company ship Sv. Nikolai in present-day Washington State. The Nikolai sailed from New Arkhangel (now Sitka), Alaska to scout out the American west coast -- at the time Alaska was occupied by Russia, which was interested in expanding their trading business in that part of the globe. After the Nikolai ran aground, the crew first fought the Native Americans of the region, then later joined them as slaves when unable to survive on their own. The Russian survivors were ransomed two years later to return home and tell their story. This book contains a translation of memoirs by the leader of the Russian survivors, a transcription of a Native (Quileute) oral history of the event, and a long introduction giving historical background. A pretty neat one- or two-evening read for Northwest history buffs.



At Risk, by Stella Rimington. Another espionage / counter-terrorism thriller by a real-life intelligence expert. Rimington was the first female director of Britain's MI5 intelligence agency, with a 30 year career in the field, and after retiring she started writing thriller novels. So there are some parallels to the Richard Clarke novel (at left). Unlike the Hollywood movies, the main character here does not chase down the terrorist cell across the country single-handedly, but rather with the help of three national agencies, the local police force, the police forces of three other countries, and an international intelligence network. Clues come in at a snail's pace and wrong turns and near misses abound. This book spent much more time on character development than Clarke's, and while she doesn't state in an introduction that she's trying to make a point with the book like Clarke, the plot is clearly based on modern day terrorism issues. The novel is definitely for a British audience however -- apparently "it's brass bloody monkeys in here!" means "it's cold"?! There's a lot of that in this book. Still, I liked it and will look for her other novels.



Einstein on Race and Racism, by Fred Jerome & Rodger Taylor. Plenty has been published about Einstein's pacifist work during his life in the US. But what is much less known, and little published or reported by the mainstream media of the 20th century, is Einstein's extensive work in civil rights for African Americans and his ties with the Black community in Princeton. He was friends and co-activist with actor/singer Paul Robeson, wrote with W.E.B. du Bois, spoke out publically against segregation, lynching, and discrimination, and socialized with friends on Whitherspoon Street (Princeton's Black community near Einstein's house). In reading this book, I thought the first chapter or two made it sound like Einstein in fact didn't do much after all for the Black community, but the material increases with ensuing chapters and I realized this reflected the chronological shift from the peak of his science career over in Germany to the later years in the U.S. when he had more time to spend on activism. Authors Jerome and Taylor meticulously footnoted and referenced every statement and quotation in this book, and the appendix includes documents pulled from archives and that are unpublished elsewhere or difficult to find. Yet for all its academic referencing, the book is a very readable and fascinating account of this additional aspect of Einstein's life.



The Music of the Primes: Searching to Solve the Greatest Mystery in Mathematics, by Marcus du Sautoy. Marcus du Sautoy is a math professor at Oxford who researches number theory. So he has a close familiarity with the topic of this popular description of the history and people involved in the attempt to prove/disprove the Riemann Hypothesis. There are wonderfully entertaining stories about famous mathematicians and their quirky senses of humor in here (with plenty from the author!). I liked this book very much, but I think it would be probably best enjoyed by people already a little bit familiar with some higher mathematics - while du Sautoy spends all sorts of time defining the imaginary number i and a geometric interpretation of the zeros of a function, he rattles off plenty of other material that would make no sense to someone who doesn't know what complex analysis is. But those are minor bits here and there - not the main focus of the book which is fun stories about people.



From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon, by Jules Verne. I'd heard about this classic for years, known as the book where Verne writes an incredibly prescient description of how a spacecraft might be engineered to go to the Moon. His calculation of escape velocities and so on were very accurate for the time (especially considering it was a fiction novel), and he considered needs such as air filtration and a shock absorber system to mitigate the launch acceleration. However, what I didn't realize before reading this book, and hadn't heard about it, was that more than an early "hard" science fiction novel, it was a hilarious political satire of the post-Civil-War U.S. In the story, the Unionist Gun Club of the main characters was not satisfied with the end of the Civil War because it meant the end of designing ever-larger combat gunnery, hence the project to build a huge gun to shoot a spaceship to the Moon! The Gun Club meets in a huge hall on chairs made of rifles, and its president stands at front behind an enormous steel table whose legs are canon barrels. There are plenty barbs at American culture of the time, and in fact I discovered more such barbs in the original French version (Verne was French) that were removed from the English translation that I found on the free Gutenberg.org website.



Unvanquished: A U.S. - U.N. Saga, by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. This second autobiography of the previous U.N. Secretary General is pretty bitter (as implied already by the title), but still fascinating to read for the same reasons as his first one below. Unlike that first bio, this one regards his term as Secretary General. One of the many things he discusses about his effective "ouster" by the Clinton administration is his great dislike for Madeleine Albright. A brief and interesting counterpoint to that particular discussion can be found in Albright's own article in Foreign Policy Magazine in 2003:
"Think Again: The United Nations", Madeleine K. Albright, Foreign Policy Magazine, September/October 2003.



Egypt's Road to Jerusalem: Memoirs of a Diplomat, by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. This autobiography by the previous U.N. Secretary General takes place before his time as Secretary General, back during his work on the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, mediated by President Carter in the 1970's. But he also describes many other events going on during the same period, including for example a freaky meeting with the infamous Idi Amin. Boutros-Ghali is a fine writer who kept me captivated in his memoirs, via his discussions of his personal views and his windows into the lives of many other world leaders. Of his two autobiographies I'm aware of (this one and the above one), I found this one easier to read as it was less bitter.