Some lessons

January 15, 2022

I am about to complete Basil Mahon’s The man who changed everything: the life of James Clerk Maxwell. It is a great book, written in a wonderful style. The book is a must-read. In this short post, I want to talk about a few things that might be of relevance to us from the life and work of Maxwell.

(1) Political and financial support for science

From the story of how Cavendish laboratory is built, it is clear that the commitment to building a laboratory such as Cavendish with the mandate to produce top class research and the financial and political support needed to bring it to fruition is as much important as Maxwell’s own contribution. Strangely, Maxwell was apparently, the third choice for the job; and, it seems, he himself was doubtful about accepting the position. But it is clear that when there are sustained efforts, such small uncertainties in decisions get evened out in the long run. I think this is an important lesson for us; given the pushes and pulls of the day, a clear vision and mandate, with all the required economic and political support is needed if we want to excel in science, engineering and technology.

(2) Allowing people to pursue their own thoughts

From the Cavendish story, it is again very clear that leaders who are more committed to the subject than their own work or viewpoint can make a huge difference to the quality of the work. Mahon is very clear that Maxwell was more interested in building a top class laboratory than in building a Maxwell school and the results bear testimony to his approach.

(3) History of science is as important as science itself

Finally, how the ideas come up and are modified and are debated and accepted or rejected is very important for early career students and researchers to know. This not only removes the mystery of how these ideas came us in the first place but also gives confidence to the students to question everything as well as think of solutions for themselves with confidence.

There is much more in the book of Mahon. It is a wonderful read. It is made all the more fascinating for me because of the two connections that Maxwell had with a couple of my other scientific heroes — Faraday and Gibbs. Once again, strongly recommended!

Janet Malcolm’s Forty-one false starts: essays on artists and writers

December 23, 2021

An enjoyable book; not all the articles are of the same quality; but none that you will find not upto the mark. Strongly recommended — just as an exercise in writing style, the book can be very educational!

Lily King’s Writers & Lovers

November 28, 2021

I remember I liked King’s Euphoria. I liked this one too — a lot. I think I bought this one on the recommendation of Maureen Corrigan:

For anyone who’s experienced or is still experiencing the dread feeling of being stuck in the life stage of becoming when it seems that everyone else has already become, Lily King’s latest novel, “Writers & Lovers,” will strike a chord. With wit and what reads like deep insider wisdom, King captures the chronic low-level panic of taking a leap into the artsy unknown and finding yourself adrift, without land in sight.

Even though it is from a long time ago, and even though it is not about leap into the artsy unknown (it was a leap into academic unknown of PhD and finding myself adrift which is not too different from Casey’s experience), Corrigan’s recommendation struck a chord; and the Euphoria experience also made me buy this one. And, I am glad I picked it up. I enjoyed reading this one a lot. As is her wont, Corrigan is very perceptive in the following comments of hers:

But entertaining as these rom-com interludes are, work more than romance lies at the core of “Writers & Lovers.” …”Writers & Lovers” is a funny and compassionate novel about the cost of sticking with the same dream for what may be too long. It doesn’t have the historical reach of King’s last novel, the acclaimed “Euphoria,” about the life of the young Margaret Mead. But it shares with that novel a fascination with female ambition and with how especially difficult it is for a woman to define the worth of her life when the familiar markers of adult achievement are slow to materialize.

I am in complete agreement with the opinions expressed above.

It is a long time since I read a novel and felt the deep satisfaction that comes from the experience. Even though the book is a bit old (published in early 2020), it is never late to strongly recommend this one!! Have fun!!!

Michael Frame’s Geometry of Grief: Reflections on Mathematics, Loss, and Life

November 24, 2021

I am not very sure about this book. It is a short one. There are parts which are great. But, there are also parts that are so-so. Overall, the success of a book for me is also the number of further reading suggestions it leads to. From that point of view, this is a successful book.

Sancharam by S Ramakrishnan

November 3, 2021

This is the first book by S Ramakrishnan that I read — thanks to the recommendation of a friend. Even though the reading started a bit slow, it picked up pace and I completed the novel much earlier than I expected! A good one!!

Song in a weary throat by Pauli Murray

October 20, 2021

I learnt about this book from Ram Guha:

This is the story of an amazing life, and Pauli Murray tells it beautifully. I read a lot of memoirs and autobiographies, and as a (sort of) connoisseur of the genre, I would rank hers as one of the three or four best autobiographies I have read. Pauli writes with love, learning, and compassion. The portraits of her friends, teachers and comrades are wonderfully vivid. The horrors of racism and sexism are narrated unflinchingly, but the tone is one of reproach, not of angry polemic.

With such high praise, of course, I had to locate and read the book; and, I am happy to say that the book did not disappoint me and lives up to the expectation. A remarkable person and a remarkable life told in a wonderful fashion. Strongly recommended.

If you have access to Amazon Prime, My name is Pauli Murray is a good watch too. My recommendation would be to read the book first and then watch the documentary!

Louise Penny’s The madness of crowds

August 30, 2021

As long time readers of this blog know, I am a fan of the Inspector Gamache series. The latest in the series, The madness of crowds, does not disappoint. This is a good, gripping read!

I have seen it argued elsewhere that the villains of James Bond movies evolved with the time and technology — from metallurgists to oil barons to newspaper owners, with changing times, the villainy in James Bond movies also changed. So, I was amused by the fact that the villain in this book is a statistician! Given the times in which we live in, and the ethical implications of some of the technology based on statistics, the book certainly sounds topical; it is also set in a post-COVID world. In spite of some of the dark aspects described in the novel, I still feel that it is an uplifting read. Strongly recommended!

The big sleep by Raymond Chandler

July 12, 2021

A good read!

Right Ho, Jeeves by P G Wodehouse

June 28, 2021

Wodehouse is laugh out loud funny! From the book, I learnt that vacuum cleaners existed in the 1930s. In fact, wikipedia tells me that they existed for more than 50 years by then. I did not know that. More importantly, splitting the atom and its effects seem to have been common knowledge too. On the whole, an enjoyable read and strongly recommended!!

Sara Seager’s The smallest lights in the universe

June 14, 2021

A very nice read — though a bit sad at times. Stongly recommended.

I also remembered a long piece in Dinamani Sudar that I read (ages ago), which argued, by quoting the description of some (Russian) scientist that Bharathiyar’s maragatha pachchai comment about the setting sun is a true phenomenon and not some poetic hyperbole. From reading the book, I understand that green flash of the setting sun is a real thing!! One more proof how great the Mahakavi is, if you ever needed one!