Monthly Archives: August 2009

Book – Was Einstein Right?

Putting General Relativity
to the Test
by Clifford M. Will

Will is that rarest of creatures – a physics professor who can communicate compellingly. He takes us on a journey through the attempts to verify/disprove/modify Einstein’s theory over the last century.
In addition, the greater historical perspective of Newton’s laws is referred to often. This provides not only a sweeping view of the evolution of gravitational theory, but also of the nature and power of science in general.

Although not a biography of Einstein, this book indeed captures the essence of that unique life and genius. The experiments and observations involving relativity provide for a fascinating ride. Bending of astronomical light, the orbit of Mercury, frame dragging, and gravitational waves are explored in depth. The astonishing technological advances made during the 1960s are a focus.

Will’s conclusion is that not only is Einstein’s theory ‘right’ (so far) (an obligatory caveat to any scientific theory), but also how amazing it is that a theory conceived purely in abstract thought withstands such relentless experimental testing.

Norbert Wiener 1894 – 1964

Norbert Wiener was born in 1894 in the Missouri town of Columbia (hometown of the University of Missouri). He was one of the most enigmatic and brilliant American mathematicians of the twentieth century.
A true child prodigy, he achieved a BA degree at 14 and a PhD at 18 (Harvard). He described mathematics as a source of physical pain, the only relief for which was the pursuit and discovery of solutions to problems. He was also adamant that the initial conditions of a problem always be laid out fully and properly. He famously warned that “What most experimenters take for granted before they begin their experiments is infinitely more interesting than any results to which their experiments lead.”

Although he made contributions to several fields, mainly in pure and applied mathematics and molecular physics, he is best known as the founder of the field of cybernetics, which seeks to formalize control mechanisms. In fact, the term itself was invented by Wiener as no suitable term then existed for the study of feedback and control systems in machines and biology. The prefix ‘cyber’ has been used popularly to refer to artificially created reality. However, the origin of the term, as intended by Wiener, was the Greek word for ‘steersman’, the same root as for ‘governor’.

An engaging author, charming yet fiercely independent and even confrontational at times, he was greatly respected as demonstrated by the naming of several prizes and institutes after him.

Book – The Brain That Changes Itself

Stories of Personal Triumph from the
Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge

What if the human brain, instead of
being ‘hard wired’ from early childhood,
was actually capable of change — even improvement?
This fascinating idea is explored through a series of accounts of both patients’ struggles and scientists’ work. The concept is called neuroplasticity.

The patients’ problems range from balance to perception to stroke recovery to basic learning. Their stories tell of improvements bordering on resurrection. The reader is brought along on their personal journeys, these patients treated almost like characters in a novel. Modern neurology is both described and challenged, as Dr. Doidge is a researcher, pychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Possible causation and process are discussed, in addition to clinical study. The importance of imagination and ‘mental exercise’ are covered. However, it is far more than a cold, logical review of neurology. This is an emotional and passionate tale, an urgent quest for knowledge that could improve, redeem, and even save lives. One doesn’t need to be a medical doctor or scientist to appreciate it, but only a human being.

Written as a compelling mixture of neurology, mystery, and personal triumph, this book will change the way you think – literally.