A Few Science Book Reviews (The Great Equations by Crease and Two by Gawande)

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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.

The Great Equations by Robert P. Crease

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

Pythagorean proof

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).

Better by Atul Gawande

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 by Atun Gawande

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!)

Reviewed on October 27, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I am VERY much like you when it comes to math and science – I have no idea how I got through those classes in school. I have, however, discovered that I enjoy reading some science-centered books when they are well written and accessible. I’d recommend anything by Dava Sobel – her writing is beautiful and her topics are fascinating. A Sense of the Mysterious by Alan Lightman is also very good – perfect for a non-science person like me. I’ve reviewed several of Sobel’s books and also Lightman’s book on my blog if you want more details.

    One more thing – the short review format works well! If it makes things easier for you, definitely keep it up.

  • Heather J., I’ve read most of Dava Sobel’s book — I even own some! I enjoyed them too. Thanks for the other recs. I must look them up.

    I’m glad this format works. I actually don’t think it’s any shorter (this post is more than 2000 words!) but it does help to just get them all up at once, especially since they are rather closely related as science books.

    I’m glad I’m not alone in find the subjects challenging!

  • I’ll have to tell Peter about The Great Equations and see if he’s heard of it. (He’s a college math professor.) I’ve heard wonderful things about Gawande and I plan to read them both myself.

    I’m *not* a science person, but I just started reading The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009 yesterday, and I really like it a lot so far. I’m hoping to add a little more of this kind of thing to my reading in the coming year.


  • I think all the worrisome things in Complications didn’t bother me, because I already knew them thanks to my previous experience with doctors. 😉

    As far as my math books…I read The Drunkard’s Walk earlier this year-it’s about statistics, which I really enjoyed college despite feeling the same way as you about calculus. It was a good book-well written, full of real-world examples, and just fascinating! 🙂

    I’ve read quite a few science books this year, and I’ve loved most of them. 😀 But, I did try to read The Trouble With Physics and gave up after reading 70-something pages and realising I understood nothing. So dense, technical science books don’t work that much for me.

    I do love reading pop science books as much as books about the humanities!

  • Wow, that is quite a stunning review of Better. I just added it to my wishlist. It actually sort of sounds like How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, which I loved.

  • I took everything in school, and liked it all (although English, of course, took the top seat). I think what I actually liked was less the subject matter of the individual classes, but the experience of being in school; I love being a student, and I love having my brain stimulated in new and challenging ways. Calculus was very challenging at first, but once I passed a certain point with it, it kind of clicked for me and became fascinating – it was so different from other math, and such a powerful tool. That said, now that I’m out in the world, I tend not to read many books on science. The Dewey Decimal Challenge motivated me to stretch in that regard, which was great!

  • You have been doing some heavy reading. I was a good math and science student, but I never enjoyed the subjects enough to have the desire to read about them for pleasure. I think you’re smarter than I am!

  • Let’s see….science books. My degree was in microbiology, but I am actually much more into the arts/history/social sciences; like you are.

    Aside from Oliver Sacks, who is more current, the few science related (leaning towards microbiology and genetics) books I’ve enjoyed were mostly written quite a while ago. There’s:

    “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson
    “Microbe Hunters” by Paul deKruif (originally written in 1926)
    “The Transforming Principle: Discovering that Genes are made of DNA” by Maclyn McCarty
    “Flu: The story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused it” by Gina Kolata

  • I should read a mathy book. One of my best friends is a totally mathy girl and I find math just inexplicable. I must try this Great Equations book!

  • Lezlie, Gawande is a science writer for the New Yorker and it was incredibly readable, so maybe going for a collection of essays is a great idea for me! Thanks, I’ll have to look in to it.

    Eva, I was planning on returning to reread your science-y reviews to figure out which to do next! I know about your brain crush on Sacks, so that may be the next place. Thanks for the math recommendation. Love the title!

    Marie. I haven’t read the book you mention, but I did love Better! I hope you enjoy it too.

    Claire, you say “I love having my brain stimulated in new and challenging ways” and that is why I decided it was time to revisit these subjects! I’m curious about the world and I want to understand. I’m glad taking Calculus in college helped you love it! I really wanted to love it. And I’ll be forever glad I took it. But, it wasn’t a cure to my apparently closed mind! Must learn more so I appreciate it more.

    Kathy, I think you misunderstood: while the first book (Great Equations) was quite heavy, the Gawande books are incredibly easy to read!! And I did enjoy them without much work!

    Review the book, I hope you enjoy which ever Gawande you read!

    Valerie, I’ve read The Double Helix and I have Watson’s DNA on my shelf!Thanks for the recommendations. I think I may look for Sacks next month.

    Care, thanks for the recommendation! I may have to find that one!

    Jenny, it’s not the best book for finding math “explicable.” but I hope something you read helps you too!

  • I have tried many “introductory” books to math, and no matter how “simple” the author thinks it is, it never is for me! So I sympathize on that. I love science books though, even though I can never fully understand why things are the way they are without understanding the math. In science, I especially like reading the biographies of women who made a huge difference but were ignored or their work blatantly stolen by male colleagues, as was the case with Rosalind Franklin and DNA (wonderful book: Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox).

    Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful reviews!

  • rhapsodyinbooks, I’m so glad I’m not alone! I plan on keeping on trying as well. I LOVED Einstein’s biography by Walter Issaacson — it really helped me understand relativity. I highly recommend it. Maybe I too need to reread it since this equations book seemed to through me off again.

    Thanks for the recommendation! That biography sounds interesting, especially since I already have read Watson’s Double Helix.

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