Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Paul Davies’ The demon in the machine

July 3, 2020

The book The demon in the machine by Paul Davies won the Physics World book of the year in 2019; after listening to the podcast, I decided to give it a try. I am glad I did. This is one of the best books of popular science that I have read and enjoyed in the recent past. Before I go on rambling in the rest of this post, strongly recommended. Do buy it and read it.

Thermodynamics has always been a fascinating subject. During my undergraduate years, a couple of us spent lots of time trying to read some of the thermodynamic classics in the original (and translations into English when it was not in English). It did not help us score well in the examination. But, it did keep the interest in the subject alive.

During my Masters, when the instructor talked about Shannon and his information entropy I was intrigued; but at that point I could not understand the nuances; I kept wondering how the manner in which we decide to represent information can have any entropy; I did ask him for some explanations; he did supply some; but I was not scientifically mature enough to follow the arguments. This was also the time when I read some popular pieces about Maxwell’s demon in the Hindu science page.

When I was completing my Masters and embarking on the second, I came across Schroedinger’s What is life. It is one of the books that influenced me a lot. I did not carry much from the book about life. But, the idea that molecules and solids are qualitatively the same is the one big idea that I carried from the book. The second one was the dictum that “Living matter evades decay to equilbrium”, of course!!

But, with all the nanotechnology hoopla, I still never made the connection to What is life and the treatment of molecules by Schroedinger. Somewhere, I once read that nanotechnology is useful as a study to understand the fundamentals of materials phenomena and is useful in applications in medicine and military where the costs are not a concern; I took it to heart. I should have paid more attention and should have connected to molecules as precursors to solids.

I also did not do much of follow-up reading on What is life. Even though I did keep in touch with thermodynamics, Maxwell’s demon and Szilard’s engines remained just some esoteric topics in thermodynamics for me.

Here is a book which brings together all these ideas — life, information, Maxwell’s demon, and nanotechnology with quantum mechanics, for a good measure, thrown in and out of this mix comes the remarkable ideas, speculations and concepts about life and information flows. There are interesting molecular machines and the remarkable ways in which they work the second law to their advantage.

There is also the fascinating fact that life’s machines work well in a narrow range and achieve quite a bit of efficiency compared to mechanical engines that we build which achieve higher and higher efficiencies only when operated at higher and higher temperature differences. I have heard from a colleague that this aspect of biological systems used to excite Professor C V Seshadri and I understood the technical details of this process by reading this book.

So, if you are looking for a good science-y read, here is a book which will not fail you! In fact, reading the book made me put together a more serious reading list with lots of papers and articles — from Scientific American to Physical Review and I am looking forward to reading all of them!

Once again, strongly recommended. Have fun!!

Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest

July 3, 2020

Thanks to BBC4’s A good read hosted by Harriett Gilbert, I have been discovering some nice books, and Raymond Briggs’ graphic book about his parents is one such. Nice book and very enjoyable; funny and moving! Strongly recommended.

Chi Su Chellappa’s Koodusalai

June 27, 2020

A short story collection edited by Perumal Murugan. Several nice stories and a very satisfying read!

Hephzibah Jesudasan’s Puththam Veedu 

June 14, 2020

This is a wonderful novel. It is about 150 pages and I enjoyed every page, every sentence, and every letter of it.

Even though it seems to have been published in early 1960s, I did not know of this novel till now — which is a pity. There are many classics that I have not yet read in Tamil; but to not even know of a classic is a shame. Anyway, I am glad that I finally learnt about it and read it — I located this book thanks to a book of Sundara Ramasamy where he made a reference to the circumstances in which the novel got published.

Kalachuvadu is doing a great service by keeping these books in circulation.

If you read Tamil, here is a strong recommendation for you!! If you don’t, there is an English translation by the author herself which is available in Kindle here; I do not know about the translation — especially, the way the dialect is brought to life in English. But given the author is a Professor of English, and she herself translated, it should be a wonderful read too!!!

Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic stories for Punjabi widows

May 29, 2020

Three years ago, this book got published and got some very good reviews (here is one for example). I have been meaning to read it ever since and finally got a chance now. I enjoyed reading it. It is a romantic novel; there is a bit of mystery; and, of course, there is plenty of erotica. Overall, a pleasant and gripping read. Recommended (only if you do not mind reading erotica).

Eknath Awad’s Strike a blow to change the world

May 26, 2020

I learnt about the book from this article of Ram Guha. It had been in my To-Read list ever since. I finally managed to read the book. It is a very good read — moving at many places, luminous in its positivity and a searing, honest account of the struggles of a disadvantaged individual against the system. One can feel the voice, sincerity and honesty of Awad in the translation of Jerry Pinto; I assume reading it in the original Marathi would be much more impactful. My only complaint about the book is the lack of index; may be that would be fixed in the next edition. In any case, a good read and strongly recommended.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal

May 30, 2015

In Mahabharata, in Yakha Prashna episode, to the question as to the most surprising thing, Yudhisthtra answers that it is people living as though they are immortal even when they see death everyday. And, there is a Thamizh poem from Thirumoolar which also echoes the same sentiment: “The entire village — got together and wept loud; stopped using the name and referred to “dead body”, took the body to the burial ground and  burnt it there; took a dip in the water and forgot it”.

Atul Gawande’s meditation on being mortal is equally profound and deeply philosophical and at the core an attempt to address some questions of medical ethics. It asks hard questions about the way modern medicine is being practised — specifically, whether we can prolong life without worrying about the quality of life or without paying heed to the wishes of patients themselves. For a book that discusses death and pain on almost every page, it is a surprisingly affirmative and positive book. With his wonderful prose and great writing, Gawande joins Sacks and Ramachandran as one among the must-read medical writers and Being Mortal is a must-read book. Strongly recommended.