Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Solid strands of knowledge

Image Hosted by

The Strand Bookstore in New York City on 12th street, close to NYU, is a book lover's paradise. Multiple copies of used and new books grace the shelves together (like they do in Powell's bookstore in Portland). Almost all of them are discounted. I love their collection described as "18 miles of books"; in my eyes the description evokes a never ending magic carpet full of novelties.

The store is inhabited by hungry creatures with scruffy beards, colorful attire, thick glasses, exotic skirts and a generally zombie-sh look in their eyes. It is hard not to get infected. Last Sunday I could finally visit the place and acquired a handsome set of volumes. I had to force myself out but plan to visit again as soon as possible. My acquisitions include the following:

* A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies- William Nordhaus (reviewed by Freeman Dyson)
* Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief- Lewis Wolpert
* The Cambridge Quintet: A Work of Scientific Speculation- John L. Casti
* Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery Through World Philosophy- Christopher Phillips
* The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism- Ron Susskind
* The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Terror and Beauty of Science- Richard Holmes
* Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung- Arthur I. Miller

The penultimate volume looks fascinating and has gathered a highly appreciative review in The Times. The last book especially was a revelation. I don't know how they managed to price a newly published book at less than half the price.

Ron Susskind's book is a riveting read that draws together the stories of disparate individuals; when I first checked out the hardback from the library I could not put it down for the entire night. As the synopsis says,
The Way of the World simultaneously follows an ensemble of characters in America and abroad who are turning fear and frustration into a desperate—and often daring—brand of human salvation. They include a striving, twenty-four-year-old Pakistani émigré, a fearless UN refugee commissioner, an Afghan teenager, a lawyer fighting for a Muslim man incarcerated in Guantanamo, a state department official desperately working to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorist hands, a Holocaust survivor’s son, and Benazir Bhutto, who discovers, days before her death, how she’s been abandoned by the United States at her moment of greatest need. They are all testing American values at a time of peril, and discovering solutions—human solutions—to so much that has gone wrong. For anyone hoping to exercise truly informed consent and begin the process of restoring the values and hope—along with the moral clarity and earned optimism—at the heart of the American tradition, The Way of the World is a must-read
I am planning to combine Wolpert's book with Robert Wright's recent "The Evolution of God" which talks about a similar theme. Christopher Phillips had entertained and informed many years back with "Socrates Cafe" and this work seems to further explore his travels and encounters. Nordhaus who is at Yale is one of the preeminent environmental economists in the world and considered a leading authority on economic solutions to climate change. The problem has now passed on from the hands of the scientists to those of the economists.

Labels: ,

Monday, July 27, 2009

Can a religious person head the National Institutes of Health?

Francis Collins is an unusual scientist. A physical chemist and doctor who rose to prominence as the leader of the Human Genome Project, he has recently been appointed by President Barack Obama as head of the NIH, the largest biomedical funding and research organization in the country. Collins is unusual because along with this undoubtedly distinguished scientific credentials he brings another kind of background to the job; that of a pious, church-going Christian. A few years ago Collins published a book that argued for a scientific basis for belief in God, and not just a theological one. Needless to say, his views have caused concern among a number of atheist scientists and secular scientists in general...

...more on Desipundit

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Lindau: The teachings of the savants

Marie Curie once said that "Science is about things, and not people". While this statement is true and profound, the fruits of science are unmistakably linked to their human origins, postmodernist relativism notwithstanding. The scientists who make discoveries are human beings, and they shoulder their share of foibles and successes, petty rivalries and forthcoming generosity, despair and triumph. Their life displays cycles that any young researcher will go through in his or her future career...



Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lindau: Who is the joke going to be on?

When the controversial and talented physicist Edward Teller was doing a PhD. with the great Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig, the question asked at the end of every group meeting that focused on a complex sequence of problems was "Wo ist der Witz?", supposed to be translated as "What is the point"? but more correctly translated as "What is the joke?". The joke part of it consisted of turning a wry eye at the world, donning the hat of the court jester who laughs even as the fire that he predicted would engulf the world rages on. The question about global warming that we ask is also "Wo ist der Witz"? and we only hope that the joke is not upon us and we can actually still get the last laugh. Whether we might was the topic of discussion of a panel on global warming on the final day of the 59th Meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau...


Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Big day

I think I at least partly know now what August 15, 1947 must have felt like.

Lindau: From fullerenes to global education



When I visit my favourite restaurant for lunch or dinner, I usually order a legitimate food item from the main course. But once in a while, just to indulge, I order a sample platter of appetizers. The appetizers don't always provide the deep satisfaction that I get from eating a proper, expensive food item. But they provide me with a different kind of unique satisfaction; they give me a glimpse of what's new, what's possible. They provide a view of the diversity that can emerge in a plate of bite-sized chunks. And through their frequent novelty, they give me hope that there are new possibilities on the horizon. These appetizers constitute occasional but necessary fodder. Sir Harold Kroto's talk was one of the most satisfying platter of appetizers I have sampled, and I had not even ordered it...


Labels: , , , , , ,

Lindau: The way dinner should be


When you first meet Aaron Ciechanover, he appears to have the distracted air of a man who feels slightly inconvenienced to be in whatever situation has been apparently imposed on him. But this preoccupied demeanor belies a mind which is ready to hold forth on a disparate variety of topics with infinite verve and enthusiasm and which is not reluctant to be politically incorrect, provocative and utterly honest. And it hides a broad smile which is very readily revealed at the mention of a favourite incident or fact.

If there is one word to describe the Israeli doctor, biochemist and Nobel Laureate it's passion, and this passion is pronounced no matter what the topic of discussion; from protein degradation to languages and traveling, from politics to history. Whether we were talking about protein structure or Israel-Palestine relations, Ciechanover's thoughts were always opinionated, honest, cogent, provocative and without a dull shade in them. This is the kind of stimulating person that you always want as a dinner companion...


Labels: , ,