Thursday, June 21, 2012

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown - Book Review

I have been seeing Dan Brown's books stacked up in every book shop over the years. I had always feared reading his books as they were typically bulky. This had scared me from trying any of his books as I was not sure whether I could completely read them in a short span. As it turned out, I wanted to take a break from my scheduled reading of other popular science and math books. I was searching for some nice fiction book to read as a break. Some of the forums in the Internet had rated Dan Brown's books very highly which urged me into reading his famous fiction, "Angels and Demons". The surprising fact is that I could read this book completely in just 5 days though it had over 600 pages.

This novel is about the epic quest of a Harvard professor expert in symbols, Robert Langdon, to solve some of the mysteries surrounding the Vatican city. A terror group called Illuminati, which is believed to be extinct 400 years back, wreaks havoc in the Vatican city by smuggling a secret mass destructive weapon called anti-matter from a Swiss laboratory (CERN). This group also smuggles some of the top cardinals of the Vatican city on the day when a new Pope is supposed to be elected. Robert Langdon along with a CERN scientist, Vittoria Vetra, are taken to Vatican city to solve the mysteries around the Illuminati terror group.

The best thing about this novel is that it is very fast paced and the language is quite simple. Dan Brown has the art of writing so lucidly that even those who do not have a strong English background can easily breeze through the pages. The suspense inherent in the happenings at Vatican city are maintained and keeps the reader interested in the story till the very end. The thorough research carried out by Dan Brown in the Vatican city and Rome are quite evident through the credibility he injects into the novel. I am amazed by the amount of details of each incident in which Brown definitely excels. Another aspect of the novel which impressed me was the middle path taken by Brown between science and religion.

Brown also has a love for sarcasm and humor, which comes out at many places such as those involving the BBC reporters. I watched the English movie based on this novel after I finished reading it. The movie could hardly do any justice to the novel and some of the key incidents in the novel were neglected in the movie. However, I loved the artwork in the movie more than the screenplay. Dan Brown indeed is one of the brilliant fiction writers of the recent times. This novel is just a justification of this fact. Modern Indian writers like Chetan Bhagat, who churn out heap of junk novels, have plenty to learn from the writing of Dan Brown. I even reckon that Kamal Hassan borrowed generously from this novel while writing screenplay for his movie, 'Dasavatharam'.

There are places in the novel where some of the facts mentioned are a bit melodramatic and scarcely believable. I suspect Brown has taken creative liberty in using famous names such as Galileo into controversial incidents. This might have been done in order to make the novel more accessible. Another aspect of this novel which bothered me was that it is mentioned that the incidents in the novel happen in about 6 hours. The detailed conversation of the characters and the slightly slow paced search for the anti-matter leads you scarcely believe that all these incidents could have ever happened in 6 hours. Apart from such minor logical shortcomings, this novel is a rapid page turner and a worthy scientific thriller. I strongly recommend this novel to be a part of your bookshelf.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel - Book Review

What can one say about a man who defied all odds to become one of the best mathematicians of the world having done rigorous research for less than 5 years? That too, when you come know that such a man originated from India (in early twentieth century) which was then enslaved by the British, the achievement becomes even more special. He had to survive the period in England in the extreme conditions of the first world war, his own ill-health notwithstanding. The man, Ramanujan, is really a genius of extra-ordinary brilliance. His biography "The Man Who Knew Infinity - A Life of the Genius Ramanujan" by Robert Kanigel is about a small town guy, Ramanujan, from an authentic Brahmin Iyengar family of Tamilnadu who turns the world over through his intuitive contributions in number theory (primes and partitions, in particular).

This book is an inspiring tale of the conviction of Ramanujan who wanted to show the world his works and earn a well deserved recognition from the very best mathematicians. This book describes how his mother and friends in India along with his collaborator in Trinity college at Cambridge, Prof. Hardy, helped him achieve his ambition but at the expense of the genius himself. This book is a treasure for the aspiring researchers in the world. Although Indians can appreciate and relate the life of Ramanujan much better than others, this book is a homage to a great mathematician who belonged to the elite mathematical community of the world. Ramanujan is a pride of India but it is indeed a pity that he could not live long enough to see his notebooks reach millions of mathematicians and his contributions getting realized as key tools in later scientific inventions.

The book starts with his early life in south Indian town called Kumbakonam where Ramanujan was educated. A tripos exam guide by Carr filled with mathematical formulas inspired Ramanujan into exploring mathematics while neglecting his other subjects in the college. This created a situation wherein earning a basic degree, which is the bare minimum expected of every student in that era, proved elusive as he used to fail in subjects other than mathematics. His requests for funding towards his research were initially rejected in India as he did not earn even a basic degree. Having married at an early age, he was forced to take up a job in port trust while still carrying out his passion for mathematics at leisure.

Ramanujan knew that his works were something special and wanted recognition for his work which he did not get in India under British Raj. He was forced to write to three eminent mathematicians in England. While two of them discarded his request and replied in negative, Hardy and his student Littlewood  could see the real potential of Ramanujan's work. The major part of the book is the effort they took to bring Ramanujan to Cambridge and how they were able to add rigor in otherwise intuitively stunning discoveries of Ramanujan. Ramanujan did not have proper mathematical training on proving different conjectures he had developed. Hardy extracted the best out of Ramanujan apart from playing a key role in making him one of the Fellows of Royal Society (FRS).

Ramanujan used to prepare food for himself as he was a strict vegetarian. Over time, Ramanujan unfortunately contracted tuberculosis which along with his dislike for English food, irregular eating habits, and English weather worsened his health. He could still write some major papers with Hardy even when he was admitted to sanatorium. The ongoing first world war made the sea journey unsafe and prevented Ramanujan to reach India for better care. Ramanujan however returned to India once the world war ended, but the damage to his physical and mental health had become irreversible by then. Kanigel presents this moving tale of a real genius who could not be saved by a nation who still prides in his incredible mathematical proofs.

Kanigel gives various instances of his life when Ramanujan, who even offered a part of Royal Society fellowship to help the needy students, could have been saved by others. His mother could have sent his wife Janaki to take care of him in England as requested by him. Hardy could have cared more about his health and monitored it over time apart from pushing him to deliver his best mathematical contributions. Even after returning to India after first world war, Ramanujan's mother and wife could have created a more pleasant atmosphere instead of fighting over petty things. Ramanujan's belief in astrology through which he predicted that he would not survive more than 35 years also might have played a role in his demise.

It is almost a century since Ramanujan left us. India has been an independent nation over the past 65 years. The basic question which is still left unanswered, why independent India could not foster more such Ramanujans. The question can be answered partly by trying to understand the attitude of present day students. Students nowadays like to go out of India just for the sake of getting higher reputation instead of the actual love and desire to contribute to science and mathematics. This attitude, I feel points in turn to the failure of our basic primary and secondary school education in guiding students. The inclination of students to basic mathematics and basic sciences after school education is still viewed as inferior in India.

The attitude of the majority of established Indian academicians, who treat those researchers from abroad and India differently, is evident even now. Students going to any arbitrary university abroad just to earn a foreign degree are made to think they are 'Ramanujans' in the making. But they do not realize the fact that Ramanujan grew up in British Raj and he was forced to go abroad to get recognition. We have a lot of opportunities for research even in India nowadays. On the contrary, most of the present Indian students do not have strong inclination towards fundamental research and want to go to any arbitrary university abroad just driven by the social constraints. Lack of motivation and adequate funding in independent India towards research might also be a certain contributing factor. This again begs us to answer a few key questions. What is the benefit of India getting independence when we still feel inferior to those educated abroad? Should India have been made to develop into a nation with more intellectual self pride over the past 65 years? No one can answer these questions in the affirmative to even a certain extent by citing any example.

After liberalization, many foreign companies have been allowed to setup their manufacturing centers in India. Every Indian is aware that the IT industry also contributes more to the welfare of the other nations than India. Indian students, who are inherently bright, are lured by the amount of money they can earn in these multi-national companies and are even forced by the changing Indian societal norms. Even the Indian managers of the so called MNCs merely act as brokers who tap the talent of the Indian students towards doing menial jobs. This is their primary job which benefits foreign economy more than that of India. Students are misguided and shown wrong path more in independent India than prior to independence when we could get at least one Ramanujan. These are some of the reasons I feel why India is unable to nurture intuitive scientific and mathematical thinking in the students and which have certainly played a key role to the decline in high quality research of modern India.

Most of the people in Brahmin community, who were close to Ramanujan, neglected Ramanujan's funeral as he had crossed the ocean and did not take bath afterwards in Rameswaram. The descendants of the same Brahmin community have developed into somewhat of a slave race contributing more to the companies originating in countries other than India. Even now, Brahmin community often feels it a criminal offense to work in either companies not owned by a foreigner or those who do not serve people of other nations. Indians who serve other Indians are looked down as somewhat inferior than those who live abroad. In short, we lack self pride which has intruded into the whole society. With such a social setting at present, Ramanujan's life is a real motivating factor for every Indian student who wants to pursue his own interests in basic science and mathematics. This book is a must read treasure for anyone who wants to develop a motivation towards a high quality dedicated research and contribute to the pride of India.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson - Book Review

The title of this book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", makes it seem to be a history book. I was never able to guess correctly that it is a popular science book until I stumbled upon the reviews of this book at Amazon. The first question that arose in my mind was how can one give a historical scientific account of everything in the universe in 600 odd pages. That too when the author of this book, Bill Bryson, is more of a travel book writer than a scientist or researcher in any specific area of science. I was a bit skeptical whether he would be able to do justice for science in such an ambitious effort. I had no option but to read the entire book to figure out the truth.

As title of the book promises, Bryson covers the history of nearly every significant scientific breakthrough in the world. This book is more of a celebration of the efforts of the great scientists who invested their life in their quest to explore the truths hidden behind nature. After completing the book, I am amazed by the amount of research Bryson would have carried out to produce a masterpiece like this. As Bryson himself admits, he was put off by the rote learning prevalent in almost all of the schools which discourages students from questioning different aspects of life. Bryson makes sure that there is not even a single equation in the whole book and explains every concept intuitively.  Ironically, he does not include history of mathematicians in this book.

The best thing about this book is that Bryson gives credit where it is due. Even those scientists who have been ignored by popular textbooks over the years feature in this book. As with the case of the discovery of helical DNA structure,  Rosalind Franklin was not given her due in the discovery. The male dominant society during that time led her towards hiding most of her research findings. This was exploited by others such as Crick and Watson. Unfortunately, she was not able to share the Nobel prize with others due to her untimely death. Other interesting facts include the competition by paleontologists for claims over the discovery of dinosaur fossils. The politics played by envious and cunning Richard Owen who troubled sincere efforts of Gideon Mantell through sheer bureaucracy can never be found in any standard text book.

Bryson spends quite a lot of the book pages on geology - study of earth. His narration of the stunning history behind the Yellowstone national park in the US exposes one how volcanic eruptions can even create vast plateaus. Most of the visitors to the park are still unaware that they are standing on a big plateau having seismic dangers. Even the Deccan plateau in India is supposedly formed as a result of volcanic eruption millions of years back. Bryson's treatment of the classification of earth's layers as we dig deep from its surface provide scientific evidence for such volcanic eruptions. Bryson also explains why banging of a meteor on the earth's surface lead to the radical change in earth's atmosphere and thereby causing the extinction of the Dinosaurs.

I was amazed by the sufferings undertaken by the scientists in their ventures to unearth the world's mysteries. Bryson gives a thorough account on the emergence of Homo Sapiens from their ancestors such as Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, and Neandertals. These chapters of the book are similar to that of the Carl Sagan's classic, "The Dragons of Eden". The contradictory theories of the emergence of human beings through fossil studies make one feel how much more truths are still lying hidden behind this planet. Bryson also rues how the different acts of human beings are responsible directly or indirectly behind the extinction of different species and the spoiling of earth's atmosphere.

The main purpose of this book is to encourage rational thinking by introducing the readers to delve into the lives of great scientists. The areas covered is very vast comprising of physics, chemistry, ecology, geology, zoology, botany, etc. All these areas are treated with the core objective of understanding the world we live. Each scientific concept has been presented in such a way that even a person with meager scientific exposure can appreciate and enjoy this book. The important observation is that Bryson succeeds in his daring effort to popularize science to a great extent. Bryson has the incredible art of capturing the attention of the readers second only to another great science writer - Simon Singh.

This book is filled with too much significant information that it was hard to remember everything once I completed it. I felt a sense of deep satisfaction, though. I feel one should read this book many a times for gaining the complete treasure of knowledge. This book is a must read for all of us to have an intuitive understanding of almost every aspect of science. I, in fact, regret not being exposed to such a great book in my school days. On the contrary, it is always better late than never. I am very happy that I got a chance to read this book at least now. I hope almost every reader of this book will feel the same.

I would recommend "A Short History of Nearly Everything" very strongly to any student who is either interested or disinterested in science. Interested students would get motivated more, disinterested ones would start developing interest towards science. That is the magic behind this book and Bill Bryson deserves to be credited for churning out such a wonderful masterpiece. This book is a must read for people of all ages who want to make themselves more skeptical and rational. I would rate this book one of the pinnacles of popular science writing, which certainly has to be relished.