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Reading Time: stretching the boundaries edition

While on a particularly lovely holiday recently, I spent some time reading on a subject matter that I don’t normally read on: information theory. To understand it, I had to learn a little about thermodynamics, advanced maths, science, and a few other titbits I don’t normally get into. And lo, I saw that it was good. So now I’m pursuing some reading beyond my usual scope! And LO it is RAD!

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – by James Gleick

The book that started it all! (For me.) This book was utterly awesome: it covered a detailed history of communication, including some fundamental linguistic concepts that have, I suspect, affected the way I think about how we share ideas. The transition from the history of communication to the history of information theory was so subtle that you only realise later that they’re virtually the same school of theory. The book covers the emergence of the information age, including all the early forerunners that paved the way — some recognised in their own time, others only now as their work comes to fruition and everyone goes “oooh, that’s what they were talking about…”. Then it goes on to discuss ways of looking at and understanding information and looks at where we may be headed — it touches on cryptography and quantum physics and how information may continue to play out, without making any predictions. Gleick’s writing is fantastic: he’s dry and funny, sincere and excited, informative and entertaining. He strikes an excellent note in his explanations: generally I grasped the concepts I was unfamiliar with, but when I didn’t, I felt like it didn’t take much research for it to slot into place.  I strongly recommend this book: if you want a way of making sense of our digital world, the way we communicate, and the way it fits into our stream of culture, then you will love it.

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better by Clive Thompson

I kind of already knew I was going to love this book when I got it. It was on my “buy before we go on holiday” list, and then — voila! — it turned up in my Book Riot Quarterly Box! Kismet! (FWIW: I really liked the Book Riot Quarterly Box — but after the foreign exchange rate and the international shipping, it was way too expensive.) Anyway, Smarter Than You Think is a rebuttal to all the hand-wringing that’s been going on for the last fifteen years as email, text, social media and online life has exploded. You would have heard the fretting: that living part of our lives online is making us dumb, shallow, narcissistic, exploited, mean, ignorant and self-absorbed. Thompson argues: well, actually, no. He calls upon numerous studies and events that indicate, if anything, we’re making massive breakthroughs in thought and complexity, reaching mental heights never seen before. Through a combination of collaboration, outreach, and access to immeasurable data resources, we’re solving issues we’ve never solved. On top of that, technology is allowing us a greater degree of literacy than ever before: literacy in data, statistics and attempts to deceive, as much as any. I spent a great deal of time following M around and excitedly reading him passages of Smarter Than You Think (he loves flying with me). When he pretended to be asleep, I underlined paragraphs and dog-eared pages to read to him when he woke up. Thompson also calls on historic precedent: the grave fears that Socrates expresses about the emergent tool we now know as ‘writing’ are astonishingly similar to those repeated now against texting. The fears about online forums and slacktivism are eerily reminiscent of the fears of coffee houses and slogan-bearing t-shirts. The book doesn’t ignore the negatives of the online culture, but it nonetheless encourages you to look forward with optimism. Really, really great stuff.

Heisenberg Probably Slept Herethe lives, times, and ideas of the great physicists of the 20th century – Richard P. Brennan (Google books link)

This is another bit of kismet: after reading the previous two books and deciding I needed to patch up some gaps in my education, I remembered a book my Dadini and Mumini had passed on. This book has a brief biography and discussion of the fundamental ideas of some of the most influential minds in science from the 20th century. (Not to overlook the need to provide context, the introduction gives a life-and-work of Newton, too.) The book overall offers a brief history and discussion about the major ideas of physics up until fairly recently (the book concludes with a passing mention that the search continues for the Higgs boson particle): starting with Newton’s revelations and ending with the confirmation of the quark particles. For someone like me, whose knowledge of physics started and ended with learning Newton’s 3 laws in high school, this was excellent. Each chapter discusses the life and work of an individual physicist, so you have personal histories interwoven with contributions to science, giving the whole book a depth and humanness that physics texts tend to gloss over (in my limited high school experience). The theoretical physics is smoothly and encouragingly explained: the author mentions at the start that he writes with the non-specialist in mind, and his explanation of the science is clear and well thought-through. This book was fantastic: I feel like it’s fleshed out a lot of gaps in my knowledge of physics and of 20th century history more generally.

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