Archive for The Baroque Cycle

space opera by John Scalzi [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2019 by xi'an

John Scalzi, author of the memorable Old Man’s War, has started a trilogy of which I only became aware recently (or more precisely became re-aware!), which has the perk of making two of the three books already published and hence available without a one or two year break. And having the book win the 2018 Locus Award in the meanwhile. This new series is yet again a space opera with space travel made possible by a fairly unclear Flow that even the mathematicians in the story have trouble understanding. And The Flow is used by guilds to carry goods and people to planets that are too hostile an environment for the “local” inhabitants to survive on their own. The whole setup is both homely and old-fashioned: the different guilds are associated with families, despite being centuries old, and the empire of 48 planets is still governed by the same dominant family, who also controls a fairly bland religion. Although the later managed to become the de facto religion.

“I’m a Flow physicist.  It’s high-order math. You don’t have to go out into the field for that.”

This does not sound much exciting, even for space operas, but things are starting to deteriorate when the novels start. Or more exactly, as hinted by the title, the Empire is about to collapse! (No spoiler, since this is the title!!!) However, the story-telling gets a wee bit lazy from that (early) point. In that it fixates on a very few characters [among millions of billions of inhabitants of this universe] who set the cogs spinning one way then the other then the earlier way… Dialogues are witty and often funny, those few characters are mostly well-drawn, albeit too one-dimensional, and cataclysmic events seem to be held at bay by the cleverness of one single person, double-crossing the bad guys. Mostly. While the second volume (unusually) sounds better and sees more action, more surprises, and an improvement in the plot itself, and while this makes for a pleasant travel read (I forgot The Collapsing Empire in a plane from B’ham!), I am surprised at the book winning the 2018 Locus Award indeed. It definitely lacks the scope and ambiguity of the two Ancillary novels. The convoluted philosophical construct and math background of Anathem. The historical background of Cryptonomicon and of the Baroque Cycle. Or the singularity of the Hyperion universe. (But I was also unimpressed by the Three-Body Problem! And by Scalzi’s Hugo Award Redshirts!) The third volume is not yet out.

As a French aside, a former king turned AI is called Tomas Chenevert, on a space-ship called Auvergne, with an attempt at coming from a French speaking planet, Ponthieu, except that is should have been spelled Thomas Chênevert (green oak!). Incidentally, Ponthieu is a county in the Norman marches, north of Rouen, that is now part of Picardy, although I do not think this has anything to do with the current novel!

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.

Diamond age

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by xi'an

Here is the one before last of my vacation reads! As obvious from several earlier posts, I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson’s books. e.g. Snow Crash is one of my preferred cyberpunk books (along with Neuromancer), and I consider Stephenson’s approach to the genre deeper and more scientific than Gibson‘s. So when in Lancaster I picked the Diamond Age, I was quite excited to have discovered an overlooked volume of his’! The more because the story was partly taking place in Shanghai. Alas, I am rather disappointed by the result. Indeed, the book does not read well: the “suspension of disbelief” does not operate.

The Diamond Age brims with (too many???) brilliant techno-societal ideas, colourful characters, literary references, and exciting settings, but the plot dries out much too quickly. The universe Stephenson depicts is a mix of cyberpunk centred on nanotechnologies and of steampunk with Victorian codes and attitudes. (In a sense, the Diamond Age is Dickens mixed with Gibson and van Gulik.) One of the great ideas in the Diamond Age is the “primer” that educates the central character, Nell, who has been neglected by her alcoholic mother. It is a quite compelling concept, the one of an interactive book backed by an AI and by real actors that turn Nell into a real scientist (the part about Turing machines is quite good) and cryptographer, as well as teach Chinese orphans (although it does not work so well in the latter case because of the lack of real actors).  The fact that the level of the story remains one of a fairy tale while Nell is growing up and maturing is a bit of a disappointment. What really put me off, though, half the book read, is the appearance of the Dreamers, an “unnecessary and monstrously tacky underwater sex cult” that doomed my “suspension of disbelief” for the rest of the book… (The criticisms are mostly positive, though.)

Anathem

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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