Tag Archives: book review

Near Misses: Paths not Crossed with Richard Bellman

World Scientific Publishing recently had a sale of electronic books, in which I came across and downloaded:

Bellman, Richard (1984). Eye of the Hurricane: An Autobiography,  World Scientific. Web:  https://books.google.com/books?id=6rN7QgAACAAJ; http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/0076

for US$9.90. I had heard that Bellman had a reputation of meeting someone, having a chat, and sending them a manuscript to co-author the next day. In this way he was the applied math complement to Paul Erdös, about whom I wrote:

Gordon, R. (2011). Cosmic Embryo #1: My Erdös Number Is 2i.  http://www.science20.com/cosmic_embryo/cosmic_embryo_1_my_erd%C3%B6s_number_2i

While Bellman doesn’t discuss this story, he did love to travel, and much of the book is about the places he has been, even including in some cases the addresses of hotels he liked. He was indeed prolific: “Over the course of his career he published 619 papers and 39 books. During the last 11 years of his life [1920-1984] he published over 100 papers despite suffering from crippling complications of brain surgery” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_E._Bellman). Whoever added his CV to the end of the autobiography upped it to 620 papers and 40 books. While it was written in 1978, his autobiography seems to have been published after his death in 1984. He doesn’t even mention his medical condition in the book.

What what I found uncanny about his autobiography is how many people he names who I also knew, and one he didn’t name, but undoubtedly knew: my own father, Jack Gordon. I deduce this because both played handball at Brighton Beach near the boardwalk to Coney Island, New York, on one-wall courts. Bellman, born in 1920, was 7 months older than my father, who I recall was winning at handball at age 13, on those courts. Maybe he trounced Bellman. While my father focussed on handball all his life and became a USA national champion (Singer, Stuffy (1994). Gordon honored with Kendler Award. Handball 44(1), 18.), Bellman was an all-round jock, claiming to excel at other sports: tennis, table tennis, track, football, basketball, baseball, swimming. He even did some ballet. I can recall those courts, the boardwalk, the hot summer beach on which one could hard boil an egg, building sand castles, the lines of rocks with oysters perpendicular to the beach, out into the water, and Nathan’s hotdog stand. It was there my mother, then Diana Lazaroff, met my father. This book rang of childhood nostalgia for me. I was raised nearby until age 5, when my parents moved to Chicago about 1948.

But our lives were further intertwined. I postdoced with Stanislaw Ulam; he reviewed Ulam’s “A Collection of Mathematical Problems”, and knew him well. Three more misses: “Nixon announced that two billion dollars would be available for cancer research. The experts in the field were to gather in Warrentown, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, to divide up the pie. I was chairman of a committee on the use of mathematical methods. The other members of the committee were, John Jacques, Fred Grodins, Bob Rosen, Monas Berman, and John Hearon…. At Warrentown, we had a good time deciding how we would spend the money. Alas, it was a typical Nixon trick. He posed for TV cameras and gave away pens, but not a penny ever appeared.” I had postdoced with Bob Rosen at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY/Buffalo, worked under John Hearon at the Mathematical Research Branch at NIH, and knew Monas Berman while there. Natalie and I had a strange encounter with Bellman’s former student John Casti at the Third International Workshop, Open Problems of Computational Molecular Biology, Telluride, Colorado, July 11-25, 1993, albeit after Bellman’s death. Casti, guest of honor, left the conference the first evening, when (not knowing who he was) I said to him “we can explain that” in reference to a remark about embryology by the host. Beyond that, the book is full of names of mathematicians and scientists whose work I knew, a slice in time through that culture, written by someone one generation ahead of me, but overlapping. It was quite a journey, watching Bellman’s parallel life.

It was from a couple of Bellman’s math books that I learned about concepts such as differential-delay equations and invariant embedding. The former helped me understand the 30 year cycle in academic hiring, reported going back to the 1800’s in:

Nyhart, L.K. (1995). Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900. Chicago,  University of Chicago Press.

Let’s say jobs are available for would-be professors. Lots of students decide to go into the open disciplines. By the time they are trained (the delay), the jobs are being snarfed up. So the next generation of students seek other disciplines. And so it goes, with no one doing long-range, 30 or more year planning, to equalize supply and demand. I suppose we could call the oscillating academic job market an emergent phenomenon! I actually hit one of those peaks, at age 33 in 1977, when I applied for 100 jobs, got a couple of interviews, and no offers. Out of luck, with 300 to 500 younger applicants per job opening at that time, I answered a phone call from Winnipeg asking me to recommend someone for a job there with “How about me?”. And so I ended up at the University of Manitoba.

Like Ulam (who is discussed in my blog on Erdös), Bellman was a mathematician first. For instance, he had a moral compunction to work on the H-bomb, but when his math didn’t prove useful to the project, he dropped out, rather than solve the problem with whatever it took. As with Ulam, we would not have seen eye to eye: “There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa” (Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11, http://life.biology.mcmaster.ca/~brian/biomath/careers.theo.biol.html).

I was about to wind up this blog by adding a photo of Bellman, but came across something even better, a movie by his grandson:

Bellman, G.L. (2011). The Bellman Equation [movie].  http://www.bellmanequation.com; http://www.amazon.com/Equation-Goldstein-Betty-Jo-Dreyfuss-Landauer/dp/B00C6WHRM4

So rather than color my blog by the movie, I’ll post this first, and enjoy the movie tonight with Natalie.

Baby Girl or Baby Boy

Today we had the pleasure of enjoying a lunch with Dr. Mark Moore and having a chance to read his wonderful and funny little book. This is basically a funny little cartoon book that lends itself to a frank and open talk about the major plague in our world of gender selection in utero, especially against girls. Nothing is fool proof and I heard the success rate for such techniques was not great, 50:50 becoming 60:40. Dr. Moore said over lunch it was more like 80:20. Those aren’t bad odds. If you are planning your pregnancy it is likely worth the effort.

The book itself is lighthearted. It talks about the things a couple can do to influence the gender of their baby. Now I am the grandmother/step-grandmother to a total of nine lovely boys and one single girl. I love all my grandchildren, boys or girl. You get what you get and you love what you get. I would not give up one single hair on the sweet head of any of my darling boys! But I do have to admit it would have been nice to have a few more granddaughters to balance things. I have to admit that the first thing I thought when the eldest grew big enough to look down on me was ‘Oh good, now I can hope for great-granddaughters!’ Princess dresses and pink frills do give me a wistful sigh before I head off to the boy’s section.

I also have done some counselling of couples and it struck me that this book gives a couple more knowledge and control. When people have more knowledge and control, I think they are more likely to accept what they end up with in all situations but especially in the gender of their baby. Working in a genetics clinic as I did, I was a party to discussions about the ethics of informing couples about the gender of their baby when we knew the result would probably be a flying trip back to old country for the termination of a healthy fetus. I think a book like this will reduce such nonsense. Given all the terrible things that can go wrong, and seeing the agony of couples who can’t conceive, or who are hoping for a specific gender to avoid a terrible sex-linked genetic illness, I must say the mere idea of terminating a healthy normal fetus just because the gender is wrong simply makes me feel ill. So I am all for anything to prevent or reduce that possibility.

I also think that the simple easy way this book is written makes it suitable for explaining this technique (and a few other things) in a clinic to a couple whose first language is not English. It has been my experience that a vehement desire for gender selection is more common in new Canadians from other cultures. I also found that some people mistakenly think that the mother determines the gender and the mother is blamed for not producing the correct desirable gender. This is, of course, incorrect. And I have seen a father take the bad news about the gender being different from expectation with much more grace when he was told it was his own doing and not his wife’s. (I also once saw a mother-in-law cuff her son-in-law not quite gently enough for it to be a joke when the new baby was the fourth child of the same gender and while I did empathize, I did not approve.)

And so we had a very nice lunch and as you would expect, given the way the book, is written, Dr. Moore was a pleasant, kind and amusing fellow in person. And having read his book I can definitely recommend it. Best of all I got to think about my wonderful grandchildren and how very blessed I have been in the grandchild department.

(Ultimately) Alone in the Universe, by Richard (Dick) Gordon

Loeb2015

I was trying to convince Abraham (Avi) Loeb to join me as an editor of Habitability of the Universe before Earth (HUBE), a book I’m planning in the new book series Astrobiology: Exploring Life on Earth and Beyond (World Scientific Publishing, London) with series editors Joseph Seckbach (Israel), Pabulo Henrique Rampelotto (Brazil) and me (Canada & USA). Now, as Natalie and I have long observed, organizing scientists is much like herding cats. Avi turned me down, despite saying he is very drawn to the subject, on the basis that he is writing yet another book (Books by Abraham Loeb) and that he is heading some sort of award giving group (Breakthrough Initiatives Project of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation). Then he sent me his latest book, available only in Kindle format, From the First Star to Milkomeda. (He did not ask me to do this review.) Milkomeda refers to the result of collision of our Milky Way Galaxy with the “nearby” Andromeda Galaxy “within a few billion years”. Whew! Imagine trying to absorb and assimilate migrants from another 100 billion planets.

This is a semi-autobiographical account of a fine mature scientist and academic who has reached the peak in his career. By reading this book you can see how his mind works and sense his high personal and academic standards. You can also sense the intense loneliness that comes with reaching such a place. It’s a weird book giving you a view most people never see, the workings of an imaginative, clever, sharp, yet careful mind. He is a theoretician, par excellence, with substantial immunity from the grant system and the committees who decide who gets viewing time on expensive, communal telescopes. As a theoretical biologist I understand this independence. It allows our ideas to pour forth.

Avi thinks big. His latest work is on the earliest formation of water in our universe, and the possibility that life developed way back when. I have long been annoyed with the many books on the origin of life that presume, without discussion, that life began on Earth. This is one of the last anthropocentrisms, the first being that Earth is the center of the universe. I had an opportunity to knock the idea down a bit when Alexei Sharov and I wrote Life Before Earth. He came at the problem from a biological point of view, extrapolating a measure of organism complexity back in time, and I helped spell out the consequences. Avi calculates the first time the universe had places warm and cool enough to support liquid water. Both calculations allow for life for most of the 13.6 billion years our universe has been around, not just the paltry 4.54 billion years since the formation of our solar system.

When you start Milkomeda, you think you are about to be treated to a proper autobiography, farm boy near Tel Aviv rocketing to theoretical astrophysicist. But the book in short order plunges into the kind of language one expects in grant applications, giving only hints of Avi’s personal life. As all of Avi’s work is new to me, his 500 or so papers not having crossed my computer desktop previously, I saw past the “justifications” in the grant style of writing to fascinating ideas, like stars doing sling shots around pairs of black holes to achieve speeds near the speed of light. What a ride! Now I have to know whether life on planets around such flying stars would have any chance of surviving the trip? If so, we’d have a mechanism that could spread life well beyond the confines of galaxies. Close encounters with black holes are tales worth telling. I really enjoyed this.

Avi has reached that point in scientific life where he gives much thought to mentoring. A substantial portion of Milkomeda is devoted to the cultivation of the minds of young astrophysicists, trying to strike a balance between them towing the line and being obnoxiously creative. Here Avi shows he is one of us unherded cats. Did you ever hear of a labor union of scientists? No such thing. I’m still nominally President of CARRF, the Canadian Association for Responsible Research Funding, whose members have long since dispersed or departed Earth. My cofounders rejected my preferred moniker UNFUN, the Union of Unfunded Scientists. But under the CARRF banner, we produced much peer reviewed and other literature on how to improve/replace the peer review system for grants. Avi has rediscovered many of these ideas, our tiltings at windmills, unaware of our published efforts. So many scientists independently come to these conclusions, but ununionized, nothing happens. The shame of it all is that the taxpayer, who foots most of the bill for scientific discovery, gets far less bang for the buck than should be possible. I so completely agree with him but I found the whole topic maddening to read about, again. He gives ten specific examples in astrophysics of scientists suppressing the research of other scientists they thought were wrong. It is a warning for anyone who practices science by consensus. If you are someone who has looked with curiosity at the inner workings of astrophysics and wondered what being in the field is about, this book will give you keen insights.

Good ole Lord Kelvin predicted the Heat Death of the Universe, back before nuclear energy was discovered, a rather depressing scenario. Avi, while holding his head high in contemplating the universe on the cover of Milkomeda, points out that with the universe expanding, most of the galaxies we see beyond our local cluster will vanish from the sky. Their light will not reach us, because the rate of expansion of the universe exceeds the speed of light. Somehow gravity will keep our small corner of the universe intact, but alone. Well, perhaps: another depressing outcome. But maybe we could hitch a ride around that pair of black holes from the Milky Way and Andromeda as they hurl towards each other, and be out of here. Stay tuned. And buy the book. You still have time.

Mann-made Global Warming: Book Review of Mark Steyn’s “Disgrace to the Profession” 

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The original hockey stick of Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1999 ) with its uncertainty range (light blue). Graph by Klaus Bitterman.

Review by Natalie K Björklund-Gordon BSc PhD

Mark Steyn is a well known and not uncontroversial figure. Among his accomplishments were the defeat of Islamists who were using Canadian anti-hate laws to oppress their critics. In the current brandishing of his vorpal sword, Steyn called the darling of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, Michael E. Mann, a fraud. Mann then decided to try to silence Steyn by suing him. Even though this highly unscientific habit of silencing critics by sending lawyers after them has worked well for Mann in the past, Mann made a very serious mistake taking on Steyn. Mann has thrown Steyn into Steyn’s own Briar Patch. Steyn’s book “A Disgrace to the Profession, The World’s Scientists – in their own words – on Michael E. Mann, his Hockey Stick and their Damage to Science – Volume One” illustrates the magnitude of Mann’s error. Steyn gets to defend himself in this lawsuit that Mann is bringing and, to his misfortune, Mann has given Steyn a great deal of ammunition to fight back with.

I am a scientist. I have a BSc in Biochemistry, a PhD in Human Genetics and have published a number of peer reviewed articles. The public likes to think of us scientists as people who are somehow a cut above the rest. But in fact, scientists are just like any other collection of human beings. There are nice ethical ones and then there are the arrogant, egotistical, narcissistic, sociopaths, and of course, everything in between. Scientists are above average in the amount of training they have had in presenting thoughts and ideas in a coherent fashion and at teaching people how to grasp important concepts. Such abilities are all too easily misused and so science has a stricter than usual set of rules to protect the innocent from us. These rules include peer review, data sharing, publishing your work, vigorous open debate and a lot of rules about tolerance of others’ ideas and protections for dissenters such as tenure. These things exist not because scientists are superior but because the average member of the public cannot easily stand up to our advanced training in the art of persuasion or the authority presumed to be vested in any PhD.

Steyn’s book is a shocking collection of meticulously documented quotes set in context, from the scientific community itself. Supporters of Mann have accused Steyn of misquoting, cherry picking and using only the doddering ramblings of a few senile retirees. They have also accused Steyn of having an unnatural obsession with Mann. This is all simply untrue. Mann sued Steyn first. Steyn is defending himself from a lawsuit and this book is part of preparing that defense. It is what 100 scientists, many of whom are experts in the field of climate science, have to say about Mann’s work. Steyn’s book is remarkably fair and balanced. He includes quotes from those who support and endorse the concepts of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (man-made, not Mann-made) and those who do not. (And no, the science is not settled.) He includes some of the most well respected and reputable members of the climate science field.

Reading this book gets to be a bit mind-numbing in the middle: all these names, with all these honorific letters after the names, in all these prestigious institutions, and in so many journals. I have seldom found so many abbreviations, acronyms, and multisyllabic words in one place. Fortunately Steyn has chosen to collect most of these at the start of each section, so you can safely skim ahead to the stuff written in plain English. Each section is itself a neatly packaged essay. Steyn certainly can write. Even in the thick field of science, where soporific writing is often considered a virtue, he writes entertainingly and well.

I have only one real criticism of Steyn’s book. If you are not familiar with some of the concepts important to the climate science debate, you will need to read carefully and pay close attention (and maybe google a few phrases), because while Steyn does explain everything, his background explanations are sometimes a bit too light. Also he does not always give the background to terms like “climategate” when they first appear, so sometimes you have to wait and this can be frustrating. This is a minor point. I expect most of the innocent bystanders to this highly polarized “war on science” have already retired to their bomb shelters, locked the door, and turned on the ventilation systems to drown out the noise of exploding shells. Most readers will have already delved into it and come to their own conclusions about just who is making war on science and who is fighting for truth. Still if you read only one book on the climate science wars, you need to read this book. In fact, it is my opinion that Steyn on Mann should be included as a mandatory textbook for anyone studying ethics of science or history of science, and wondering how not to be taken in by flimflam artists masquerading as scientists.