Archive for Neal Stephenson

Nature snapshots

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by xi'an

In this 6 June issue of Nature, which I read on my way to O’Bayes, an editorial on the scary move by the WHO to incorporate traditional Chinese medicine remedies in its classification as this includes drugs made from protected and endangered species and as such remedies have not been evidence tested. A news brief on India abandoning the requirement for PhD students to get a paper published prior to been awarded the degree, presumably much to the sorrow of predatory publishers. A delay to Plan S (a European project to make all funded research freely available) reported to 21 January 2021. A review of the latest and yet unpublished book by Neal Stephenson, Fall. Which I obviously ordered immediately! A paper in the British Journal of Anasthesia published along with an independent assessment of the same study (methods and results). Some letters protesting the “public’s phobia” induced by the series Chernobyl. Which recoups an email from one of my colleagues on the same complaining theme, since “only 20 deaths” can be attributed to the disaster with certainty! A revisit of the “cold fusion” with no evidence of the claimed phenomenon that led to a scientific outcry in 1989.

seveneves [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by xi'an

As the latest Neal Stephenson’s novel, I was waiting most eagerly to receive Seveneves (or SevenEves ). Now I have read it, I am a bit disappointed by the book. It is a terrific concept, full of ideas and concepts, linking our current society and its limitations with what a society exiled in space could become, and with a great style as well, but as far as the story itself goes I have trouble buying it! In short, there is too much technology and not enough psychology, too many details and not enough of a grand scheme… This certainly is far from being the best book of the author. When compared with Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, Anathem, or Reamde for instance. Even the fairly long and meandering Baroque Cycle comes on top of this space opera à la Arthur Clarke (if only for the cables linking Earth and space stations at 36,000 kilometres…).

 The basis of Seveneves is a catastrophic explosion of our Moon that leads to the obliteration of live on Earth within a range of two years. The only way out is to send a small number of people to a space station with enough genetic material to preserve the diversity of the Human species. Two-third of the book is about the frantic scramble to make this possible. Then Earth is bombarded by pieces of the Moon, while the inhabitants of the expanded space station try to get organised and to get more energy from iced asteroids to get out of the way, while badly fighting for power. This leads the crowd of survivors to eventually reduce to seven women, hence the seven Eves. Then, a five thousand year hiatus, and the last part of the book deals with the new Human society, hanging up in a gigantic sphere of space modules around the regenerated Earth, where we follow a team of seven (!) characters whose goal is not exactly crystal clear.

While most books by Stephenson manage to produce a good plot on top of fantastic ideas, with some characters developed with enough depth to be really compelling, this one is missing at the plot level and even more at the character level, maybe because we know most characters are supposed to die very early in the story. But they do look like caricatures, frankly! And behave like kids astray on a desert island. Unless I missed the deeper message… The construction of the spatial mega-station is detailed in such details that it hurts!, but some logistic details on how to produce food or energy are clearly missing. And missing is also the feat of reconstituting an entire Human species out of seven women, even with a huge bank of human DNAs. The description of the station five thousand years later is even more excruciatingly precise. At a stage where I have mostly lost interest in the story, especially to find very little differences in the way the new and the old societies operate. And to avoid spoilers, gur er-nccnevgvba bs gur gjb tebhcf bs crbcyr jub erznvarq ba Rnegu, rvgure uvqqra va n qrrc pnir be ng gur obggbz bs gur qrrcrfg gerapu, vf pbzcyrgryl vzcynhfvoyr, sbe ubj gurl pbhyq unir fheivirq bire gubhfnaqf bs lrnef jvgu ab npprff gb erfbheprf rkprcg jung gurl unq cnpxrq ng gur ortvaavat… It took me some effort and then some during several sleepless nights to get over this long book and I remain perplexed at the result, given the past masterpieces of the author.


Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by xi'an

Being a great fan of Neal Stephenson (as shown by the previous review of Anathem), I was waiting for an opportunity to buy his latest REAMDE [no typo in the title there!], opportunity that I found in Providence during my short foray to the University bookstore. Having read the whole 1000+ pages of the book during my trip to India, I came back rather disapointed, even though I acknowledge it considerably helped alleviating the boredom of long train rides and short flights, and keeping the stress under control during the numerous delays that punctuated my visit. Because of its thriller nature.

In short, REAMDE is like a domino cascade: pulling out a first event/domino induces a cataclysmic event, due to an accumulating sequence of less and less likely coincidences. While it requires a strong dose of suspension of disbelief, as most thrillers do, it also creates the condition for addictive reading, once you are familiar and comfortable with the gallery of characters. However, once the book is over, you cannot but wonder why you got caught in this most unbelievable and rather predictable story.

Without providing too many spoilers (and no more than the reviews quoted on the book covers), REAMDE involves [among many other things] Iowan non-nonsense farmers, a reformed marijuana importer turned into a video game mogul, US computer geeks (with the appropriate amount of Unix code and Linux lore), Erythrean refugees, gun-crazy survivalist Idohans, Vancouver and Seattle locals, Russian gangsters, Chinese computer hackers, Cambridge history professors, a War of Warcraft replica, Taiwanese fishermen, MI6 spies, random generators, more CIA spies, Hungarian computer super-hackers, more Chinese tea peddlers, former Russian commandos, Philippines sex-tourists, Welsh and Canadian djihadists, and lots and lots of weapons… Not mentioning a fairly comprehensive description of the contents of Walmarts. This makes for a wee indigestible ratatouille and for a rather incomprehensible conclusion about the point of the book. Having picked djihadist as villeins turns about everyone else into a good guy, even though they all are trigger-happy and very little concerned about legality and justice. There may of course be a second level of reading to the book, namely that the debauch of weaponry and the insistence on how easy it is to get them from Walmart could be taken as a (too?) subtle criticism of the insane gun policy in America, as well as a criticism of the failed war in Afghanistan, compensating for the said failure by a fantasy revenge of the Americans (and Russians) on (Afghan and non-Afghan) talibans intent on entering the US to duplicate 09/11. Given the cleverness of Stephenson, this is not completely out of the picture, but I doubt most readers will follow this route! (This review by Cory Doctorow shows why.)

Once again, this is not such a terrible book and I enjoyed it at some level. (At least, I finished it unlike American Gods!) The part about the computer game is both enjoyable and central to the plot (no further spoilers!), even though the author tries too hard to convince us this is not World of Warcraft. I actually found many common features, based on the limited knowledge gained from watching my son play the game, and thought the idea of centering the plot on the game fairly clever, if somehow unrealistic. The second part of the book lost a bit of its appeal with the endless RV drive in BC and the even more endless pursuit/mini-war in the woods. And I could have done (once again!) without the very final “happy [well, not that happy!] ending”. Thus, read REAMDE at your own risk!

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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Abraham De Moivre

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2012 by xi'an

During my week in Roma, I read David Bellhouse’s book on Abraham De Moivre (at night and in the local transportations and even in Via del Corso waiting for my daughter!)… This is a very scholarly piece of work, with many references to original documents, and it may not completely appeal to the general audience: The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson is covering the same period and the rise of the “scientific man” (or Natural Philosopher) in a much more novelised manner, while centering on Newton as its main character and on the earlier Newton-Leibniz dispute, rather than the later Newton-(De Moivre)-Bernoulli dispute. (De Moivre does not appear in the books, at least under his name.)

Bellhouse’s book should however fascinate most academics in that, beside going with the uttermost detail into De Moivre’s contributions to probability, it uncovers the way (mathematical) research was done in the 17th and 18th century England: De Moivre never got an academic position (although he applied for several ones, incl. in Cambridge), in part because he was an emigrated French huguenot (after the revocation of the Édit de Nantes by Louis XIV), and he got a living by tutoring gentry and aristocracy sons in mathematics and accounting. He also was a consultant on annuities. His interactions with other mathematicians of the time was done through coffee-houses, the newly founded Royal Society, and letters. De Moivre published most of his work in the Philosophical Transactions and in self-edited books that he financed by subscriptions. (As a Frenchman, I personally[and so did Jacob Bernoulli!] found puzzling the fact that De Moivre never wrote anything in french but assimilated very quickly into English society.)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is the way English (incl. De Moivre) and Continental mathematicians fought and bickered on the priority of discoveries. Because their papers were rarely and slowly published, and even more slowly distributed throughout Western Europe, they had to rely on private letters for those priority claims. De Moivre’s main achievement is his book, The Doctrine of Chances, which contains among clever binomial derivations on various chance games an occurrence of the central limit theorem for binomial experiments. And the use of generating functions. De Moivre had a suprisingly long life since he died at 87 in London, still giving private lessons as old as 72. Besides being seen as a leading English mathematician, he eventually got recognised by the French Académie Royale des Sciences, if as a foreign member, a few months prior to his death (as well as by the Berlin Academy of Sciences). There is also a small section in the book on the connections between De Moivre and Thomas Bayes (pp. 200-203), although very little is known of their personal interactions. Bayes was close to one of De Moivre’s former students, Phillip Stanhope, and he worked on several of De Moivre’s papers to get entry to the Royal Society. Some open question is whether or not Bayes was ever tutored by De Moivre, although there is no material proof he did. The book also mentions Bayes’ theorem in connection with an comment on The Doctrine of Chances by Hartley (p.191), as if De Moivre had an hand in it or at least a knowledge of it, but this seems unlikely…

In conclusion, this is a highly pleasant and easily readable book on the career of a major mathematician and of one of the founding fathers of probability theory. David Bellhouse is to be congratulated on the scholarship exhibited by this book and on the painstaking pursuit of all historical documents related with De Moivre’s life.


Posted in Books, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2010 by xi'an

One colleague of mine in Dauphine gave me Anathem to read a few weeks ago. I had seen it in a bookstore once and planned to read it, so this was a perfect opportunity. I read through it slowly at first and then with more and more eagerness as the story built on, spending a fair chunk of the past evenings (and Metro rides) into finishing it. Anathem is a wonderful book, especially for mathematicians, and while it could still qualify as a science-fiction book, it blurs the frontiers between the genres of science-fiction, speculative fiction, documentary writings and epistemology… Just imagine any other sci’fi’ book being reviewed in Nature! Still, the book was awarded the 2009 Locus SF Award. So it has true sci’fi’ characteristics, including Clarke-ian bouts of space opera with a Rama-like vessel popping out of nowhere. But this is not the main feature that makes Anathem so unique and fascinating.

“The Adrakhonic theorem, which stated that the square of a right triangle hypotenuse was equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides…” (p. 128)

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