Stephen Wolfram: Idea Makers

Túto knihu som prečítala už dávno, ale potom som na ňu nejako zabudla a natrafila som na ňu až pri upratovaní v čítačke. 

Mohla by byť dobrá. Ale nie je. 

Ja som veľkou fanynkou pána Wolframa. wolframalpha používame so študentami veľmi často (dnes sme hľadali najväčšie známe prvočísla), páčilo sa mi, ako spolu so synom pomáhali pri tvorbe filmu Arrival, aj jeho prístup k dátam. Chystala som sa aj na jeho knihu A New Kind of Science (open access). Takže do Idea Makers som sa pustila s veľkou chuťou. 

Prečítala som si o niekoľkých zaujímavých ľuďoch z Wolframovho pohľadu. To by samo o sebe mohlo byť veľmi fajn, lebo kombinácia niečoho intímneho zasadená do širšieho kontextu dokáže byť veľmi silná (teraz mám napríklad v takomto duchu rozčítané Raising Elijah, kde sa prelína osobný, lyricky písaný, príbeh s verejným/náučným/aktivistickým textom). Ale tu sa to nepodarilo. Wolframove ego preráža skoro v každej biografii. Ešte aj u tých, s ktorými sa nestretol osobne, si neodpustil poznámky typu “keď dokázali to, čo dokázali bez wolframalpha, predstavte si, čo ešte by objavili, keby mali takýto nástroj k dispozícii”. 

Takže nie. Alebo ak predsa, tak len so silným filtrom. 

Wonder women

Wonder Women od Sam Maggs 

Táto kniha je skôr pre Kiku, keď raz začne poriadne čítať po anglicky, ale ja som si ju celkom s radosťou preletela. Sú to kid-friendly krátke životopisy 25 žien (plus spomína zhruba 25 ďalších), ktoré boli vedkyne, lekárky, špiónky, vynálezkyne a cestovateľky. Zaujímavé na tom je, že som z nich poznala len dve a Marie Skłodowska Curie, Rosalind Franklin alebo Jocelyn Bell Burnell sa na hlavný zoznam ani dostali. Výborné je aj to, že aj keď biele európanky alebo američanky prevažujú, slušné zastúpanie majú aj iné farby pleti a iné krajiny. 

Annie Smith Peck: A woman who has done good work in the scholastic world doesn’t like to be called a good woman scholar. Call her a good scholar and let it go at that… I have climbed 1,500 feet higher than any man in the United States. Don’t call me a woman mountain climber.

Jedna téma sa v knihe objavuje opakovane – ženy, ktorých objavy boli pripísané mužom:

But since Lise was exiled from Germany, Otto published their findings and Lise’s theory in the journal Nature – without giving Lise credit… Then in 1944, despite Lise having coined the term nuclear fission in her own Nature article in 1939, Otto won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery… Although his 1946 Nobel lecture did mention Lise five times, most people assumed she was merely Otto’s junior assistant, a misconception that he seems to have done nothing to correct.  

Je výborné, že aj takéto knihy vychádzajú. Representation matters. 

The Gene, An Intimate History

Od tohto pána som pred dvoma rokmi čítala “životopis” rakoviny – knižku Emperor of all maladies. Natoľko sa mi páčila, že keď som zistila, že napísal ďlašiu knihu, tak som ju tiež kúpila. A nesklamal. Táto kniha je o génoch, o tom, čo si ľudia o nich kedysi mysleli, čo a ako sa o nich dodnes zistilo, filozofovanie o tom, prečo je to jeden z najnebezpečnejších a zároveň najúžasnejších objavov a nakuknutie do možnej budúcnosti. 

Pár úryvkov na zamyslenie a na namotanie sa:

Consider the genesis of a single-celled embryo produced by the fertilization of an egg by a sperm. The genetic material of this embryo comes from two sources: paternal genes (from sperm) and maternal genes (from eggs). But the cellular material of the embryo comes exclusively from the egg; the sperm is no more than a glorified delivery vehicle for male DNA—a genome equipped with a hyperactive tail. Aside from proteins, ribosomes, nutrients, and membranes, the egg also supplies the embryo with specialized structures called mitochondria. These mitochondria are the energy-producing factories of the cell; they are so anatomically discrete and so specialized in their function that cell biologists call them “organelles”—i.e., mini-organs resident within cells. Mitochondria, recall, carry a small, independent genome that resides within the mitochondrion itself—not in the cell’s nucleus, where the twenty-three pairs of chromosomes (and the 21,000-odd human genes) can be found. The exclusively female origin of all the mitochondria in an embryo has an important consequence. All humans—male or female—must have inherited their mitochondria from their mothers, who inherited their mitochondria from their mothers, and so forth, in an unbroken line of female ancestry stretching indefinitely into the past. (A woman also carries the mitochondrial genomes of all her future descendants in her cells; ironically, if there is such a thing as a “homunculus,” then it is exclusively female in origin—technically, a “femunculus”?) Now imagine an ancient tribe of two hundred women, each of whom bears one child. If the child happens to be a daughter, the woman dutifully passes her mitochondria to the next generation, and, through her daughter’s daughter, to a third generation. But if she has only a son and no daughter, the woman’s mitochondrial lineage wanders into a genetic blind alley and becomes extinct (since sperm do not pass their mitochondria to the embryo, sons cannot pass their mitochondrial genomes to their children). Over the course of the tribe’s evolution, tens of thousands of such mitochondrial lineages will land on lineal dead ends by chance, and be snuffed out. And here is the crux: if the founding population of a species is small enough, and if enough time has passed, the number of surviving maternal lineages will keep shrinking, and shrinking further, until only a few are left. If half of the two hundred women in our tribe have sons, and only sons, then one hundred mitochondrial lineages will dash against the glass pane of male-only heredity and vanish in the next generation. Another half will dead-end into male children in the second generation, and so forth. By the end of several generations, all the descendants of the tribe, male or female, might track their mitochondrial ancestry to just a few women. For modern humans, that number has reached one: each of us can trace our mitochondrial lineage to a single human female who existed in Africa about two hundred thousand years ago. She is the common mother of our species. We do not know what she looked like, although her closest modern-day relatives are women of the San tribe from Botswana or Namibia. I find the idea of such a founding mother endlessly mesmerizing. In human genetics, she is known by a beautiful name — Mitochondrial Eve.

… the largest “negative eugenics” project in human history was not the systemic extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany or Austria in the 1930s. That ghastly distinction falls on India and China, where more than 10 million female children are missing from adulthood because of infanticide, abortion, and neglect of female children.

McKusick’s belief in this paradigm – the focus on disability rather than abnormalcy – was actualized in the treatment of patients in his clinic. Patients with dwarfism, for instance, were treated by an interdisciplinary team of genetic counselors, neurologists, orthopedic surgeons, nurses, and psychiatrists trained to focus on specific disabilities of persons with short stature. Surgical interventions were reserved to correct specific deformities as they arose. The goal was not to restore “normalcy” – but vitality, joy, and function. […] And here too “fitness” could not be judged in absolutes. Rather the lack of fitness – illness in colloquial terms – was defined by the relative mismatch between an organism and environment.

Svetlo, ktoré nevidíme

All the light we cannot see, napísal Anthony Doerr

Francúzsko, II. svetová vojna, slepé dievča, ktoré ušlo s otcom z Paríža, nemecký chlapec, ktorý vie opravovať rádiá… a úžasne napísaný príbeh. Ono je to vpodstate obrázková kniha, aj keď v nej žiadne obrázky nakreslené nie sú (ale nájdu sa vzorce!). Akoby svet popísaný pre Marie-Laure, ktorá oslepla, keď mala šesť rokov. Dve rozkúskované predčasne ukončené detstvá, ktoré sa prelínajú a na konci do seba zapadnú ako skladačka. A nie, nie je to love story, je to príbeh o tom, ako sa ľudia snažia byť dobrí aj vo svete, ktorý nedáva zmysel.  

He thinks of the old broken miners he’d see in Zollverein, sitting in chairs or on crates, not moving for hours, waiting to die. To men like that, time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it. Fighting for it. Working so hard not to spill one single drop.

What is blindness? Where there should be a wall, her hands find nothing. Where there should be nothing, a table leg gouges her shin. Cars growl in the streets; leaves whisper in the sky; blood rustles through her inner ears.

Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.

Veľmi sa mi páčila.


Včera pri rozjímaní o nebezpečných ženách mi došlo, že som vlastne toto leto čítala jednu feminist-friedly fantasy ságu od poľského autora Andrzeja Sapkowského:

Ciri (obrázok

Ciri (obrázok odtiaľto)

Zaklínač III. – Krev elfu
Zaklínač IV. – Čas opovržení
Zaklínač V. – Křest ohněm
Zaklínač VI. – Věž vlaštovky
Zaklínač VII. – Paní jezera

Áno, naozaj to začína treťou knihou. Prvé dve sú knihy poviedok o Geraltovi, ktoré ku samotnej ságe netreba. A celkom sa teším, ako sa k nim na vianoce alebo niekedy budúci rok vrátim. Ale po dočítaní piatej/siedmej knihy som už mala pocit, že si potrebujem zase chvíľu čítať niečo iné (lebo toho bolo veľa v krátkom čase, nie že by som toho mala plné zuby).

Ale postavy sú veľmi “ľudské” (aj keď samozrejme nie všetci sú ľudia). Robia chyby a niektorí sa z nich aj poučia. Vyvíjajú sa, nechýba im zmysel pre humor… naozaj dobré čítanie, ktoré by bolo takmer dokonalé, keby tam bolo menej násilia a brutality.

Checklist manifesto

checklistAtul Gawande: Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (moja knižka dokonca s autogramom autora)

Tak takto. To, že som divná sme vedeli. Ale že až natoľko, že budem čítať knihu o kontrolných(?) zoznamoch(!)… to neviem, či sme vedeli. A hmm… celkom sa mi to páčilo(?!).

Ono ale povedzme si rovno: nejako veľa času tejto knihe venovať netreba (jedno nedeľné popoludnie)… predsalen, koľko sa dá napísať o zoznamoch? Ale pointa je, že Gawande vás dokáže presvedčiť, ako veľmi môžu byť zoznamy užitočné. Nie preto, že by na nich boli veci, ktoré nevieme, ale preto, že robíme komplexné veci a zabúdame. Pre pilotov sú napríklad takéto zoznamy užitočné pred odletom, pre chirurgov pred operáciou (na príprave tohto operačného sa Gawande podieľal):

Checklist distilled down to 19 steps, 7 before anesthesia, 7 after anesthesia, and 5 after the procedure/operation… Checklist was then tested using limited WHO budget with baseline collected beforehand at 4 major developing world and 4 developed world hospitals. In implementation, they were careful not to force usage… Major complications for surgical patients fell by 36 percent after introduction, deaths fell by 47 percent.

Zúčastnení sa z checklistu nedozvedeli nové veci, ale menej sa zabúdalo a vyjasnili sa nejasnosti. Veľmi fascinujúce, ako môže mať takáto “nemedicínska” intervencia, taký veľký dopad. Odvtedy tento zoznam prijalo aj niekoľko krajín do svojich zdravotníckych smerníc.

Človeka samozrejme napadne, kde inde by sa dali takéto zoznamy použiť a ja som sa hneď nechala aj inšpirovať a začala vyrábať checklist na niečo, v čom sa opakovane mýlim v práci. Nemám síce zozbierané exaktné “before” dáta, ale aspoň pocitovo vyskúšam, či bude nejaký rozdiel.

Od tohto pána, ktorého som stretla aj osobne, som ešte kedysi dávnejšie čítala aj knihu Better a tá bola tiež celkom zaujímavá.

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins, 2009, 470 pages, amazon

I never doubted evolution so you might ask why would I read a book like this. For the same reason why I read Darwin’s Origin of Species or plan to read Schrodinger’s What is Life? Life, it’s origin and development, consciousness, these all fascinate me. And plus, I like the way Dawkins writes (the other book I read by him is The Selfish Gene – highly recommended, too). Yes, he is sarcastic, especially towards those who do not accept evolution, but that’s the frustration of someone who’ve spent a lot of time trying to reason and give arguments only to be met with a brick wall of ignorance of people not willing to look at them.

That’s actually the big problem of this book. For people like me, who don’t need to be persuaded, it’s simply a fascinating reading with a lot of humor and “tentacles” to follow (Dawkins is know for his numerous tangent stories). But I venture a guess that not many people who don’t believe in evolution would open this book. Though they should, because as Dawkins says:

Evolution is a fact. Beyond reasonable doubt, beyond serious doubt, beyond sane, informed, intelligent doubt, beyond doubt evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is at least as strong as the evidence for the Holocaust, even allowing for eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips…continue the list as long as desired…It didn’t have to be true, but it is. We know this because a rising flood of evidence supports it. Evolution is a fact, and this book will demonstrate it. No reputable scientist disputes it, and no unbiased reader will close the book doubting it.

And he gives plenty of arguments, not limited to fossils. He goes though geology, domestification, breeding, experiment’s that have been done (e.g. the 20-year E. Coli evolution experiment – go look at it, it’s worth it. Really. I’ll wait.), DNA, “messy” design and lot of other things. Great reading.

PS If you want to do your own evolution experiment, try Dawkins’ blind watchmaker applet.
PS2 20-year old but still good lecture for kids Ultraviolet Garden by Richard Dawkins, which includes such gems as Douglas Adams reading from his book and an orchid pounding up on a bee (little after minute 10).

Beyond The Blue Event Horizon

By Frederik Pohl, 2000, 336 pages, amazon

This book is the second one in the (sci-fi) Heechee saga (preceded by Gateway). Even though it is quite self-contained and can be read separately, I would not recommend doing that. In fact, I would not recommend the book at all, read the Gateway instead.

Why? Not quite sure, it just doesn’t feel right, as it often happens with the sequels to very good books. It reads easily, so it might be good for some light entertainment, but if you’re looking for some good science fiction, this is not it. The best part of the book is the epilogue wraps it up:

The evidence was sure. It was not the sort of evidence that only Heechee could read. If any of their experiments did attain civilization and science, they would see it too. The anisotropic nature of the 3K cosmic background radiation, showing an inexplicable “drift”. (Human beings had learned to read that, if not to understand it.) The physical theory that suggested such fundamental numbers as made the life possible in the first place could be changed. (Human being had learned to understand that, but not to be sure it was true.) The subtle clues from distant galaxies that showed their rate of expansion was slowing down, had already for some of them begun to reverse. This was the point of human capability of observation – yet; but only perhaps by a matter of years or decades.

When it became clear to Heechee not only that the universe might be destroyed in order to rebuild it – but that Someone was actually doing it – they were appalled…


By Jennifer Block, 2007, 336 pages, amazon

The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care

This book is not an easy reading. It brings tears and fear. Not of childbirth, but of US hospitals. Belongs to the same category as the movie The Business of Being Born. Why is it so scary? Because it tells stories of women who had perfect uncomplicated pregnancies and ended up pushed into unwanted Cesarian sections. Of women who wanted VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Cesarian) with their second (or later) babies and were not allowed to have them. Of midwives who should be taking care of majority of pregnancies, leaving the complicated cases to obstetricians, but instead they are being prosecuted in some states.

These are not just some stories collected during family reunion, Mrs Block is a journalist who has done her reaserch well. Yes, the book is one-sided and biased, but presents facts, cites resources and gives opinions of obstetricians. Her basic concern is  that

What’s best for women is best for babies. And what’s best for women and babies is minimally invasive births that are physically, emotionally, and socially supported. This is not the experience that most women have. In the age of evidence-based medicine, women need to know that standard American maternity care is not primarily driven by their health and well-being or by the health and well-being of their babies. Care is constrained and determined by liability and financial concerns, by a provider’s licensing regulations and malpractice insurer. The evidence often has nothing to do with it.

And continues on:

… less than 2% of American women received “optimal maternity care” that consists of these six basic aspects, all of which are well supported by the best evidence-based medicine:
1. Labor begins spontaneously
2. Women have freedom of movement during labor.
3. Interventions are medically justified rather than routine.
4. Women have continuous emotional and physical support.
5. Pushing occurs in any position but flat-on-back.
6. Mother and baby are not separated.
In other words, 98% of women received sub-optimal care.

Is this asking for too much? Isn’t it interesting that childbirth is the only hospital event (I intentionaly don’t write procedure) for which the women (I intentionally don’t write patients) bring their own lists of things (birth plans) that they do not want to have done to them? Scary!

Useless Arithmetic

By Orrin H. Pilkey & Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, 2006, 221 pages, amazon

Or why environmental scientists can’t predict the future?

The answer given by the authors is simple. Because the scientists are trying to find exact answers to quantitative questions using models in which many parameters and interactions are still unknown. They demonstrate this using various examples from fishing industry, sea-level rising, weather prediction to very interesting one about  nuclear waste depository. They also suggest a remedy – ask qualitative questions and adapt the models on the go.

I heard about this book in one of our regular Friday Applied Math Colloquium talks. The speaker criticised it a lot (that’s what made me read it actually). Now I understand why. The book contains no mathematical models (except for the very brief appendix), but slowly describes them and points out their weaknesses. So far so good, makes reader aware that not everyting can be modelled and even when modelling things that can be, one should be extremely careful about the assumptions and reliability of the answers.

However, the undertone of the book (which was also so offensive to our colloquium speaker) is that you can’t model anything. I doubt this is what the authors had in mind, but it can be felt. Another drawback of the book is that it is extremely “slow” and you have the feeling that you are reading the same argument over and over again.

Would I recommend it? Maybe just skim over it in the library (and read the passage on Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage). The best words you’ll find in the book, don’t even come from the authors, but from C. S. Lewis:

We all want progress, but progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken the wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road. And in that case the man who turns back the soonest is the most progressive man.

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