Archive for logicomix

prime suspects [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by xi'an

I was contacted by Princeton University Press to comment on the comic book/graphic novel Prime Suspects (The Anatomy of Integers and Permutations), by Andrew Granville (mathematician) & Jennifer Granville (writer), and Robert Lewis (illustrator), and they sent me the book. I am not a big fan of graphic book entries to mathematical even less than to statistical notions (Logicomix being sort of an exception for its historical perspective and nice drawing style) and this book did nothing to change my perspective on the subject. First, the plot is mostly a pretense at introducing number theory concepts and I found it hard to follow it for more than a few pages. The [noires maths] story is that “forensic maths” detectives are looking at murders that connects prime integers and permutations… The ensuing NCIS-style investigation gives the authors the opportunity to skim through the whole cenacle of number theorists, plus a few other mathematicians, who appear as more or less central characters. Even illusory ones like Nicolas Bourbaki. And Alexander Grothendieck as a recluse and clairvoyant hermit [who in real life did not live in a Pyrénées cavern!!!]. Second, I [and nor is Andrew who was in my office when the book arrived!] am not particularly enjoying the drawings or the page composition or the colours of this graphic novel, especially because I find the characters drawn quite inconsistently from one strip to the next, to the point of being unrecognisable, and, if it matters, hardly resembling their real-world equivalent (as seen in the portrait of Persi Diaconis). To be completely honest, the drawings look both ugly and very conventional to me, in that I do not find much of a characteristic style to them. To contemplate what Jacques TardiFrançois Schuiten or José Muñoz could have achieved with the same material… (Or even Edmond Baudoin, who drew the strips for the graphic novels he coauthored with Cédric Villani.) The graphic novel (with a prime 181 pages) is postfaced with explanations about the true persons behind the characters, from Carl Friedriech Gauß to Terry Tao, and of course on the mathematical theory for the analogies between the prime and cycles frequencies behind the story. Which I find much more interesting and readable, obviously. (With a surprise appearance of Kingman’s coalescent!) But also somewhat self-defeating in that so much has to be explained on the side for the links between the story, the characters and the background heavily loaded with “obscure references” to make sense to more than a few mathematician readers. Who may prove to be the core readership of this book.

There is also a bit of a Gödel-Escher-and-Bach flavour in that a piece by Robert Schneider called Réverie in Prime Time Signature is included, while an Escher’s infinite stairway appears in one page, not far from what looks like Milano Vittorio Emmanuelle gallery (On the side, I am puzzled by the footnote on p.208 that “I should clarify that selecting a random permutation and a random prime, as described, can be done easily, quickly, and correctly”. This may be connected to the fact that the description of Bach’s algorithm provided therein is incomplete.)

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about Chance!]

logicomix redux

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2019 by xi'an

I had not made the link until the last speaker of the 50 years of Dauphine commemoration was introduced that he was one of the authors of Logicomix. He spoke of the mathematical modeling of neurons and brain activity, rather than comics, but at a very low level that he called cartoonesque. It is a rare event that cartoon characters can be met in the flesh!

the universe in zero words

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2012 by xi'an

The universe in zero words: The story of mathematics as told through equations is a book with a very nice cover: in case you cannot see the details on the picture, what looks like stars on a bright night sky are actually equations discussed in the book (plus actual stars!)…

The universe in zero words is written by Dana Mackenzie (check his website!) and published by Princeton University Press. (I received it in the mail from John Wiley for review, prior to its publication on May 16, nice!) It reads well and quick: I took it with me in the métro one morning and was half-way through it the same evening, as the universe in zero words remains on the light side, esp. for readers with a high-school training in math. The book strongly reminded me (at times) of my high school years and of my fascination for Cardano’s formula and the non-Euclidean geometries. I was also reminded of studying quaternions for a short while as an undergraduate by the (arguably superfluous) chapter on Hamilton. So a pleasant if unsurprising read, with a writing style that is not always at its best, esp. after reading Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society“, and a book unlikely to bring major epiphanies to the mathematically inclined. If well-documented, free of typos, and engaging into some mathematical details (accepting to go against the folk rule that “For every equation you put in, you will lose half of your audience.” already mentioned in Diaconis and Graham’s book). With alas a fundamental omission: no trace is found therein of Bayes’ formula! (The very opposite of Bryson’s introduction, who could have arguably stayed away from it.) The closest connection with statistics is the final chapter on the Black-Scholes equation, which does not say much about probability…. It is of course the major difficulty with the exercise of picking 24 equations out of the history of maths and physics that some major and influential equations had to be set aside… Maybe the error was in covering (or trying to cover) formulas from physics as well as from maths. Now, rather paradoxically (?) I learned more from the physics chapters: for instance, the chapters on Maxwell’s, Einstein’s, and Dirac’s formulae are very well done. The chapter on the fundamental theorem of calculus is also appreciable.

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Seeing Further, &tc.

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by xi'an

I can tell you at once that my favourite fellow of the Royal Society was the Reverend Thomas Bayes, from Turnbridge Wells in Kent, who lived from about 1701 to 1761. He was by all accounts a hopeless preacher, but a brilliant mathematician.” B. Bryson, Seeing Further, page 2.

After begging for a copy with Harper and Collins (!), I eventually managed to get hold of Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society“. Now, a word of warning: Bill Bryson is the editor of the book, meaning he wrote the very first chapter, plus a paragraph of introduction to the 21 next chapters. If, like me, you are a fan of Bryson’s hilarious style and stories (and have been for the past twenty years, starting with “Mother Tongue” about the English language), you will find this distinction rather unfortunate, esp. because it is not particularly well-advertised… But, after opening the book, you should not remain cross very long, and this for two reasons: the first one is that Bayes’s theorem appears on the very first page (written by Bryson, mind you!), with enough greek letters to make sure we are talking of our Bayes rule! This reason is completed by the above sentence which is in fact the very first in the book! Bryson took for sure a strong liking to Reverent Bayes to pick him as the epitome of a FRS! And he further avoids using this suspicious picture of the Reverent that plagues so many of our sites and talks… Bryson includes instead a letter from Thomas Bayes dated 1763, which must mean it was sent by Richard Price towards the publication of “An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances” in the Philosophical Transactions, as Bayes had been dead by two years at that time.

What about my second reason? Well, the authors selected by Bryson to write this eulogy of the Royal Society are mostly scientific writers like Richard Dawkins and James Gleick, scientists like Martin Rees and many others, and even a cyberpunk writer like Neal Stephenson, a selection that should not come as a surprise given his monumental Baroque Cycle about Isaac Newton and friends. Now, Neal Stephenson gets to the next level of awesome by writing a chapter on the philosophical concepts of Leibniz, FRS, the monads, and the fact that it was not making sense until quantum mechanics was introduced (drawing inspiration from a recent book by Christia Mercer). Now, the chapters of the book are quite uneven, some are about points not much related to the Royal Society, or bringing little light upon it. But overall the feeling that perspires the book is one of tremendous achievement by this conglomerate of men (and then women after 1945!) who started a Society about useful knowledge in 1660…

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