For those that read this blog regularly, it is probably no surprise that I prefer art, literature, history, and social sciences to mathematics and science.
Before this month began, I hadn’t read any books in the Dewey Decimal 500s category or the 600s category (for the Dewey Decimal Reading Challenge) in all of 2009. I also hadn’t read a single book that could possibly count for the 2009 Science Book Challenge. While I don’t want challenges to always dictate what I read next, I did feel the urge to read something science related: I want to be a balanced reader.
I ended up reading a few books in the past few weeks (and I’m in the middle of another), and to my surprise, I enjoyed most of the books I picked up. Some I loved, others were a struggle to read, but I remain glad I did so. Science books, like the architecture and history and politics books I’ve read in the past months, can be fascinating.
If you’d like, you can skip to the review you’re interested in by using these shortcuts:
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m getting burned out from writing long reviews, so I may take to writing shorter reviews in the future. This post is still incredibly long but since they’ve been sitting and waiting to be posted, I thought I’d merge them together a little bit. It breaks my heart that I’m not telling you every single good and bad aspect about the books I’m reading, but I hope what I do share is enough to help you decide whether or not you’d like to read the book.
Mathematics classes were always my school nightmare, and while I don’t recall why it was so painful in elementary school, I do recall that my math “experience” only got worse, despite the fact that I got good grades. To overcome my strong feelings against math, I even took Calculus in college simply because I figured it was something I should do in my quest to be a well-rounded, intelligent individual. That “cure” to hating math failed utterly (I got by, thanks to a nice young man in my class that tutored me, but I don’t recall a single thing and I only remember hating it). I decided this month that it was time to face my worst nightmare once again.
Enter The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg by Robert P. Crease. I’d hoped that The Great Equations would help me understand the importance of math in the world and the ways math relates to science and daily life. I hoped that it would help me see the whys behind studying math, just like those optional extra credit posters (the ones that explain the practical uses to our subject) that no one did in my high school pre-Calculus class.
In some respects, The Great Equations did help. I have a greater appreciation about why we have math. I see that mathematics is a way of explaining how the world works. The world follows patterns, and just as 1 + 1 = 2, the equations of science, from E=mc2 to Maxwell’s equations and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (which I won’t write out!) are a logical way of explaining the world.
My favorite chapter, hands down, was the first chapter, which was about the Pythagorean theorem:
a2 + b2 = c2
This equation, which helps determine the length of the sides of a right-angled triangle, makes sense to me because I studied it in school, so the information about how it works, how it was “discovered,” and why we need it was seriously fascinating. When I put the book down one time, I curled up with a homemade quilt to watch a movie and I started looking at the triangles on it in a new light: it was kind of fascinating to see the world around me in terms of math! I’d never done that before.
The chapter on Newton’s laws and the chapter on Euler’s equations were almost approachable for me, but once Maxwell, Einstein, Schrödinger, and Heisenberg showed up, I felt completely lost. I sincerely wish the other chapters were as clear as the Pythagorean theorem chapter, but alas, because they were “new” equations and concepts to me, I couldn’t relate to them.
I also liked the interludes between chapters, as they focused on issues with science and math reaching the nonscientific public. Since that is me, I wished the whole book were as approachable as those interludes were.
In other respects, though, I’m still as hopelessly confused as ever! I should have realized this book was not for the non-mathematical when I read this in the introduction:
The experience of learning [mathematics] transforms the way we experience the world, which fill us – naturally, if sometimes only momentarily – with wonder. (page 14)
I laughed out loud at the thought of mathematics filling me with wonder, but I had hope. Maybe this book would do just that!
Unfortunately, Crease hadn’t written a book for those like me who didn’t find mathematics wonderful. He was writing for the mathematician. Primarily, this is a book with the history of mathematical thought in each of ten chapters of development, revolving around the ten most significant equations. Therefore, Crease focused on the history of the mathematics and science in a way that required an understanding of mathematics and science.
For example, at one point, while talking about E=mc2, he says “it follows a simple yet powerful logic…that is relatively easy to understand” (page 165). He then proceeds to talk about the equation in a way that I don’t understand: and this is something I did understand after reading a biography of Einstein last year! Ironically, Crease addresses the difficulty of talking about scientific subjects with nonscientists in one of the interludes.
Talking about science to outsiders is like talking about a city to noninhabitants; what you say depends on the interest of your audience. If they intend to become inhabitants, you give them one kind of talk…If your listeners are just tourists with no intention to become inhabitants, on the other hand, you can focus on the public attractions, not go into too much detail, and safely condense a lot. (page 210)
Crease’s book talks to scientists or want-to-be scientists. Despite the fact that he referred to this project as a book “about science accessible to nonscientists” (page 271), it was not. As a nonscientist, as one simply interested in a “tourist” look of science and mathematics, I found The Great Equations painful (my brain hurt) and challenging to read. I’m glad I read it, simply because I’m still hoping to gain a better appreciation for mathematics’ relation to the world, but it was not accessible at all for me.
Math and science (or maybe just physics) is confusing to me. That’s the bottom line. I still hate math. I’m not cured yet!
Has anyone read a super basic book about math and science that explains some of the most relevant ways the world works? I didn’t think I needed a “for dummies” book, but after this one (which I thought would be so easily accessible), I think I might!
For the Dewey Decimal Reading Challenge (500s).
Medicine demands perfection. When a life is on the line, the things a doctor does make a difference in results. If something goes wrong, a person has to deal with the consequences. In Better, surgeon Atul Gawande explores what “better” medicine might look like, what it might require, and how physicians can get there. The three sections discuss diligence, ingenuity, and what it means to do right. I listened to the audiobook, and I was surprised by how engaged I was in his anecdotes and the facts he provided about medicine. I am convinced that being a “successful” doctor is truly an art.
As I listened to the “Diligence” section, I was amazed (and disgusted) by the discussion of something as simple as washing hands – and how doctors struggle to remember to do so! The discussion of polio vaccination was fascinating, and I felt sick to my stomach when I listened to the chapter on casualties of war, and not because it was disgusting: it was just heart-wrenching. War causalities in the current war in Iraq are 10% of those who have been wounded; in previous wars (including the Persian Gulf War) it had not dipped below 25% of wounded. This is thanks in part to the increased diligence of doctors.
The “Doing Right” section seemed much more complicated. As Gawande discussed the cost of health care and the battles with insurance, I started to see the other side of the argument – I’d only seen the consumer/patient side before (and always been frustrated). It seems doctors are just as frustrated with health care insurance! The chapter on ethics, which focused on the doctors who help administer the death penalty, was likewise complicated. Gawande himself seemed to struggle to put in to words what he thought about doctors helping in such a situation: it goes against the medical ethics code, and yet without physician involvement, such executions are physically cruel. I finished that chapter with a very strong aversion to the death penalty, something I’d never seriously been decided about before.
Finally, in the “Ingenuity” section, I found myself literally in tears as I learned what doctors in rural India do to succeed against the odds. In a 500-bed hospital that serves 2.3 million people, only nine surgeons service patients every day. When a patient needs a life-saving and rather basic surgery, the true question is whether or not there is a spot for them. The surgeons are able to do any surgery, and when a child came in with hydroencephalus and there were no resources, the doctors used whatever they could find to meet the needs. The boy lived.
The discussion about U.S. doctors that are striving to be better was likewise fascinating, but the India stories really touched my heart. If I had extra resources myself, I’d send them to a rural hospital in a third-world country.
I admit I hadn’t previously thought about what makes a doctor successful, and I loved Gawande’s plea for doctors to consider it themselves.
For the Dewey Decimal Reading Challenge (600s).
Complications was written when Gawande was still a resident in surgery, before he wrote Better. In some respects it was more detailed and “fleshed-out” than the second volume, which I listened to before reading this. Complications had more examples of real people, and it was more centered on the American health care system. But I unfortunately did not enjoy it nearly as much, and if I had read it before Better, I probably would not have sought out the other book.
I think some of the things I mention above as bonuses were what made it negative in my book. I am clearly a pessimist in my way of looking at the world, so reading about all the things that go wrong for doctors and surgeons was a bit horrifying to me. For example, I would have panicked before going in for my laparoscopic surgery last year if I’d realized the (slight) chance that I would have major complications. Realizing the fact that doctors are learning on the job makes me a bit more hesitant to seek medical help.
As a pessimist, then, I better appreciated Gawande’s second book best, for it focused on ways doctors are attempting to make the world (not just the U.S. system) better, and the ways in which doctors attempt to improve their craft.
In Complications, Gawande focuses his patient stories under the categories of fallability, mystery, uncertainty. Sometimes the doctors messed up, sometimes the doctors couldn’t (and still don’t) understand a case, and other times doctors were simply “unsure” about a diagnosis – and doing something wrong could be disastrous and even fatal. The stories were fascinating, and although I was grossed out by the gore and frank discussion of surgery (I guess I’m just easily made queasy), I found I could not put it down: I wanted to know how the cases would resolve.
Gawande’s point is that being a doctor is incredibly hard. While other occupations are allowed some lee-way, medical professionals are expected to solve patient cases without error. It’s horrifying (to me) to read about the times that the errors crop up. That said, I think it’s important to know where doctors are coming from. Further, while I don’t stand by Gawande’s surgeon bias toward surgery (I believe one should do whatever is possible to avoid having to be cut open), I found his attitudes and explanations informative and yes, even somewhat refreshing. Here is a doctor who admits, “Yes, we all make mistakes.”
Although I am immensely glad I read Complications, the bottom line for me was that Better was truly better: it gave me hope in the medical professionals around me. Eva really enjoyed Complications, though, so maybe its subject matter (explaining all the problems that arise) just wasn’t for me.
For the 2009 Science Book Challenge. (While all three of these would count for that challenge, I am in the middle of another science book, and I hope to get a third one read as well: it’s about time!)
Which aspects of science do you struggle most with? Which parts of science fascinate you?
Are you an art/history/social science person like me, or a science lover, or a completely well-rounded individual who loves everything? (If you’re the later, you are my hero!)