This is my attempt to share my reading experiences with others, with the hope it may help someone. I plan to put these out every three months., and this is my Summer list. I usually write short notes after reading a book, primarily for my own benefit, but I am sharing them as well. Hope they help someone.
On Intelligence (*****)
Jeff Hawkins & Sandra Blakeslee
I read this book a little late – 15 years to be precise, which is a lifetime when it comes to a dynamic field like Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience. Therefore, while reading this book, I had to constantly try to go back to 2005 and understand the arguments based on what we knew and believed then. What makes this book remarkable is the author’s view that the only wany to understand intelligence is by studying the only example of it that we know of, our own brain. This may seem obvious to many people, but a large number of Computer Scientists believe that while our brain can provide some clues, it is not essential to understand it in order to create intelligent behavior, just as airplanes are not modeled after birds. The recent commercial successes of neural network based AI systems that are ubiquitous is also another example where the main focus is to get some tasks done rather than asking the question are these systems really intelligent.
The author tried to approach the problem from the brain’s perspective. However, unlike conventional neuroscience, where the focus is mostly empirical, the book tries to create a central theory of the neural organization we see in the newer part of the brain, the neocortex. That is, he tries to find the most fundamental component structure that can then be used to explain all the wide variety of tasks that we can do. So, his basic hypothesis is that the brain is not composed of many specialized parts, but rather it is a huge collection of very similar components, and their organization and interconnection is what accomplishes this magic. He then speculates about what types of circuits can have these properties and tries to find support for these speculations from neurological research.
It is a very compelling set of arguments and reminded me of the classic of Cybernetics from Ross Ashby – The Design for a Brain. In spite of the age of this book, it remains fresh, thought provoking, and relevant. Since writing this book, Jeff Hawkins created a research organization to push his research forward and refined his theories. In spite of some successes, there are many who consider his work a little too speculative. To me, an outsider, I am glad that there is someone who can take the risk of being speculative. Without a big dose of that, it is unlikely we will crack the problem of intelligence, the mind, and consciousness.
This book came to me at a strangely perfect time. For the last few months in my paintings I have been trying to capture the complex relationship between humans and animal world. That is what this haunting novel is all about. I was captured by the thriller element of this story, and was transfixed by the raw emotions of the book. I also almost fell in love with the collection of imperfect characters. However, none of them seemed real to me. They all seemed manufactured just to tell this story. I wish I could like it more.
Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures (*****)
Kandel, Eric R.
Scientific books that talk about art are rare, and the few that I have come across generally deal with certain simple forms of visual art. This was one of the very rare exception, and unsurprisingly it comes from Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize winning scientist known for his groundbreaking research in the neuroscience of learning and memory. What makes this book unique is that it lays out a neuroscientific basis for why people enjoy not only figurative art, but the appeal of abstract art. The author takes us step by stem from the appreciation of classical western art all the way to American Expressionism, action painting, pop art, and even more abstract color field paintings of Rothko and the light installations of Flavin.
To pull this off, it is not enough to know your science, but the author must have a deep understanding and appreciation of contemporary art. Who else is better suited for this than Eric Kandel. I was first introduced to his astonishing span of knowledge when I read The Age of Insight. He is one of those rare people who can effortlessly traverse between the worlds of art and science. He is probably the best realization of the dream that E.O. Wilson expressed in many of his books – of someday bridging the gap between humanities and science by bringing the proven methods of science into the world of humanities.
A short but profoundly illuminating read.
Third Thoughts (****)
A wonderful set of essays and lectures by this giant of modern theoretical physics. Though intended for the general audience, some of them may be a little tough to appreciate unless you are already familiar with some of the underlying concepts.
The Woman in the Dunes (***)
I wish the book lived up to the expectation that it generated when I first read the synopsis. The metaphor of someone trapped inside a bowl of moving sand, relentlessly shifting, and defying all attempts to stop it from drowning everything in its path, is so powerful and poignant. Yet, the novel failed to take it where i expected it to go
Gravity's Rainbow (****)
We all have a few books in our to-read list that gets perennially postponed by their sheer size. I had more than a few, and I kept delaying them till I reached an age where it got difficult to convince myself that I’ll pick them up later. During the last few years I have been pushing myself to add two or three of these books in my yearly reading list. So far they never disappointed me, and after finishing them I realized that the effort of going through a thousand plus pages is small compared to the joy of reading them. One such book was Gravity’s Rainbow.
When I finally decided to read it, I searched Amazon for the book title and was surprised to see that for this one novel, there are dozens of companion books. Some are Interpretations, some are analysis of the text, and at least half a dozen are reading companion and helpers. This gave me a slight pause, whether it is wise to read a novel that needs volumes of explanations. After finishing the book, I was glad that I read it at this point in my life. I am older now, and had the chance to read about many things from science to philosophy, and from history to anthropology. In spite of all that, I could probably pick up on only 60% of the references. Without my training in science and mathematics, I would have missed most of it, and that explains the need for all these explanatory companion books.
That was a lengthy preamble. How do it say something about this lengthy book in a few words. The book felt like an enormous painting, painted on a canvas as big as the sky. I could only see through the buildings, lamp posts, and trees, and could only get a glimpse of small isolated portions. Each portion was detailed and exquisite, but I am not sure of the whole painting. These little pieces are fascinating in their details, expressiveness, creativity, and unexpectedness. All the thousands of references scattered throughout the book are inventive, but how much of that was necessary and how much was a showcase of the authors diverse knowledge? Was he showing off? Were all the digressions really necessary? What if it was a much shorter book?
I will certainly remember the book for its uniqueness and the brutal portrayal of the time during World War II. I will also remember it for all the amazing analogies. But I can’t say that it changed me fundamentally, which to me is the signature of a great book.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey (*****)
Macfarlane, Robert *
Just finished the book, and my mind is still in trance. Still trying to place it in the right box. Is it poetry or prose? Is it a travelogue in space or time? Is it about our past or about humanity’s future? Is it about nature or about or species? Is it about our glory or our abysmal shame? Is it a book of science or philosophy?
On the surface it tells us about the authors journey as he tries to explore what lies beneath. He travels to deep caves, treacherous mountains, inside glaciers, and vaults to store our nuclear waste. But the thread that connects it is his deep understanding of our planet and our species. It is not an angry book about environmentalism, but carries a deeper message about our role in shaping and destroying our planet.
One thing I am sure about -- you will not be the same person after reading this book.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (***)
Perez, Caroline Criado
This is certainly an important book due to the relevancy of its subject matter, but it could have also been a great book if it didn’t try so hard to make a point. My criticism of this book is not because I disagree with her, but because I think it is a subject of utmost importance, and therefore it should have been dealt with greater care and less activist anger. The subject of gender-based data bias is extremely important, and should be exposed and discussed at all levels. However, the author fell into many partisan traps that resulted in picking bad examples or confusing the general issue of female discrimination (which is obviously true) with data gaps, which is the subject of the book.
For example, there is a section on use of certain smoke producing cooking stoves in India and Bangladesh. I grew up in a household where coal and biofuel stoves were used to cook our meals. Twice a day our tiny living quarters would get filled with dense smoke. This affected all of us, but definitely more my mother who had to breathe in this dangerous smoke without exception, while me and my father could have escaped it at times. Therefore, there is no doubt that my mother was the greater victim. But this is not due to a data gap. No one attempted to collect data on the dangers of such exposure and then callously ignored it. This was the only fuel that was available through ages, and as we moved from relatively open kitchens in the villages to claustrophobic city apartments, the problem became more acute. The problem here is that women had the role of cooking, and that caused a disproportionate exposure. Of course there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, but it is not a problem of data bias. Her argument becomes more relevant when world agencies tried to combat this issue, and perhaps failed to look at the data correctly.
She complained about why medical and drug research does not look at sex differences as often as they should. To make a case, she picks examples where the differences are serious, but does not mention the fact that our systems are mostly similar. As far as we know, there is far more similarity than dissimilarity in the bodies of men and women. In any scientific research, one has to simplify the problem first, and ignore smaller variables. Without this no scientific progress can be made. Therefore, if we tried to understand the human biological system without initially ignoring differences between sex, race, size etc., we would never discover how things work or discover most of the drugs we use today. Once that is achieved, we can then start going one level deeper and explore the more subtle differences. If all drug research must do gender differentiated trials then one can also make an equally strong argument that they should test for race variations (in US, it would be black vs Caucasians vs Hispanic) as well. Suddenly the test pool would grow six times larger, increasing the time of development and cost. Of course all of this should be done, once there is a strong suspicion that there may be significant differences, but I don’t think it makes sense to demand that it should be the default. That is not to say that we are not guilty of not doing enough. Many earlier studies didn’t even pay attention to this topic, and that has to change, and this book may push us further in that direction.
In my own experience, for example, I worked in an orthopedic research lab that designed knee and hip replacement prosthetics. I remember the extreme shortage of cadaver body parts that were essential for this research. If there was a strict requirement that we must design these prosthetics for men and women separately, or for different racial groups, each design would have taken many times longer, and perhaps made it fiscally impossible. Therefore we knowingly made a simplifying assumption that if it works for one group, it would also work for another. A couple of years after one of our knee design was commercialized, we heard from the manufacturer that our knees were failing at a higher rate in Japan. After some investigation we realized it was caused by the extreme bending angle of the knee when Japanese people use a squatting toilet. Eventually a knee was designed that can withstand such angle of flexion. This is typically how such things progress. It starts with a simplifying assumption, and as we discover differences, those issues are addressed. Of course a company would not spend money if they don’t see a lucrative market, but that is a different issue, and women in western economies are equally powerful buying group when it comes to medical needs.
She cites an example of an artificial heart where the first design was a little too big to be used by women. There was a two year wait before a smaller heart could be designed. Ask any engineer about making any type of machine, and they would confirm it is often far more difficult to miniaturize something, especially mechanical devices. Therefore, it is a matter of simple engineering that the larger version could be designed sooner than the smaller version. Seeing gender bias in this is a little too farfetched, and reduces the credibility of the rest of the valid arguments.
As another example of being too eager to prove her point, she tells the story of a female mathematician who used her crochet skills to build visual representations of hyperbolic surfaces. This is a great story, but it has no mathematical consequence. Most modern mathematical objects have no visual representation, and that in no way prevents mathematicians from working with these things. The same is true for hyperbolic planes. Great use of this mathematical concept was used in mathematics and physics (including Einstein’s theory of relativity) without any need to physically build a model. It is great that someone thought of creating them, but as the author tries to claim that this was a great discovery is simply not true. It is a teaching tool and curiosity at best, and a great one for that. By picking such bad examples she is reducing the seriousness of hugely important problem.
I wanted to like the book more than I could. I would go to an activist to get inspired and to get passionate about a cause, but to know and learn about something I'd rather go to a specialist.
On Human Nature (*****)
Wilson, Edward O.
Reading this book today, 42 years after its original publication, the ideas does not sound as surprising, though it still remains an intensely though provoking and important book. There are many more people now who agree with this point of view, and an even larger number who have accepted this perspective. But I can only imagine the uproar it must have created in the seventies, when the academic world was totally convinced that there is no such thing as human nature, and that all of it is a product of culture, and therefore relative and changeable.
Isn't it absurdly wrong to believe that while all other animals have instinctive behaviors that are product of millions of years of evolution, that human beings are somehow immune to our evolutionary past, and we can just erase that into a blank slate. And yet, that was the bedrock of the belief system in the 70s and 80s, and it was blasphemous to say that perhaps there are things in our mind that were created by the living conditions of the ice age, and while culture can fight them, they cannot be ignored. Today the growing body of scientific evidence makes such a claim impossible to support, but old thoughts die hard, especially when it is propped up by personal ideologies.
There are probably better books on this subject today, that gains strength from a larger body of scientific evidence. In spite of its speculative nature, this book will remain a classic, and illustrate the depth of thinking of Wilson, and his ability to see science and humanities as a single continuum.
No Name in the Street (*****)
I will never be able to feel what it feels like to be black in America, but I can try to understand it. This book helped me more than anything else I have read recently towards than understanding. James Baldwin, with his linguistic and critical precision, paints a terrifying picture of the black experience.
This long essay covers a period between his childhood in 1930's New York to his experience and involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 60's. It is a perfect mix of profound analysis and poignant emotional reaction to a world full of injustice and brutality. He successfully connects the European's exploitation of it colonies throughout the world, and its practice of slavery in the Americas. No white person can ignore the fact that his privileged position in history and society was only possible because of this systematic exploitation.
I was born in India right after the country gained its independence after centuries of colonial rule. Therefore, I hadn't seen the direct effects of living under colonial masters, but I have experienced the long shadow of such systems. However, effects of colonialism is far easier to erase. The color of my skin did not discriminate me as I was growing up. That is not true for America, where, even today, the color of one's skin changes almost every aspect of one's life, experience, and potential for success.
I would strongly recommend that anyone living in America should read this book -- especially now, when racism is again getting justified and legitimized by a large segment of the population.
The Festival of Insignificance (****)
Is it a great novel? Probably not, but I was delighted by the lightheartedness of his style. He weaves in and out of really serious topics, yet maintaining a tone that is irreverent, funny, and trying not to be taken too seriously. It is this unique tone and style I found so attractive in this short novel. It is certainly not Kundera at his best, but still this is the most essential Kundera, and captures very well what makes his place so special and unique.
Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome (****)
It is probably not the best scientist memoir I have read in terms of literary quality or philosophical depth, but it is one of the most honest description of a scientist’s life. It is this honesty that makes this a remarkable read, and the memory of it will stay with me for a very long time. Modern day science can be ruthlessly competitive, especially in the experimental domain. Venki Ramakrishnan describes his race to discover the structure and functionality of one of the most surprising molecular machine we know – the ribosome, that eventually got him the Nobel prize in Chemistry. He describes the excitement of this race, the fierce competition, and the occasional generosity that peeked through the rivalry and pettiness among scientists. Unlike many such books, he never tries to glorify the scientists as people singularly motivated by their quest, but rather as fallible human beings who are curious, but are also attracted by the lure of fame and success, and even a prize. He is acutely aware that all scientific breakthroughs happen when the time is right, and if one person does not do it then someone else will soon crack the same problem. He is also honest enough to admit that prizes are somewhat subjective, and for any award there are many others who are equally deserving, but gets ignored. Of course everyone says similar magnanimous things after winning a prize, but there is something genuine in his conviction that makes one believe that he really means it. It is so refreshing to hear a Nobel laureate say that he is not sage after all. It is all too common to see people expressing profound opinions on subjects they know very little about after they receive the Nobel prize.
In my life I was fortunate enough to know a few such incredibly successful scientists, with major prizes under their belt, including the Nobel prize. Most of them are incredible human beings – fiercely intelligent and well versed in a wide array of things. Two things that I found was common among all of them – they are exceptionally curious people, and they are all human beings like you and me, with the same human frailties. Venki Ramakrishnan seems to be like the rest of them, except he seems to be aware of his ordinariness.
Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time (***)
The neuroscience part of the book is informative, explaining how our brain perceives time. The physics part is less impressive. I could not avoid remembering Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time, which deals with the physics and philosophy of time, and is incredibly poetic.
Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (***)
There are two groups of physical laws that can describe the universe we live in. The world we can see with our eyes, or with simple devices such as microscopes are adequately described by what is known as classical physics. But as things get much smaller, at the scale of atoms or subatomic particles, we need Quantum Mechanics. It describes a world that is weird and completely counterintuitive, yet we have no other science that can predict the world with greater precision.
Until recently we believed that the world of the living, starting from bacteria to animals like us, were too large to be in the quantum domain. This book describes new findings that suggest that after all quantum laws may play a critical role in the process of life, and may even be essential to fully understand what makes life possible. This opens up incredibly interesting possibilities that may eventually become one of the greatest discoveries of our time, if it proves to be true.
The problem is, not everyone is convinced by these claims, and some of the suggestions in the book are very speculative. In fact the authors themselves are honest enough to admit the tentative and speculative nature of many of their claims. As an outsider and a non-expert in the field of biology or quantum mechanics, it is impossible for me to decide how much I should believe in these claims. Therefore, I was hoping that the authors would discuss the counter arguments provided by other experts and let the readers decide which evidence and argument seem more plausible. But the book mostly provides the arguments from one perspective, and leave us guessing what the non-believers might have to say.
It is a beautifully written book, and the authors are particularly good at picking effective analogies. In fact describing complex quantum mechanical theories without mathematics can only be done through such means. However, this is a slippery slope, and a bad analogy can be misleading. For example when the authors use the analogy of the stability of a ship in dry dock, as opposed to in water, they try to explain it in terms of random movement of water molecules. However, I think there is a much simpler classical explanation in terms of center of gravity and center of buoyancy , and how once in water the center of buoyancy moves above the center of gravity and stabilizes the ship.
Overall, it is a fascinating book, and if true, would be mind-blowing, but it didn’t provide a balanced view that could help me decide what to believe.