December 02, 2004

The Botany of Desire

I just finished reading "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World" by Michael Pollan. What an enjoyable book! Pollan's writing is intelligent, witty, and just a pleasure to read.

We correctly have the notion that we effect the plants in our environment. Not doubting that or diminishing our role in our environment, Pollan writes about the effect that plants have humans. The ways they have changed us, just as we have been changing them through selective breeding and most recently through genetic engineering. Reading this book reinforces the notion that humans and plants are connected, not separate from each other in the world. He does this by taking an in-depth view of the interplay between humans and four representative plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. All the while I reading it I felt I was with a kind, smart friend. The book is wonderful and I'm looking forward to reading some of his other work.

Here's a favorite quote from the book: " There is another word for this extremist noticing --this sense of first sight unencumbered by knowingness, by the already-been-theres and seen-thats of the adult mind--and that word, of course, is wonder. Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting--on a process,that is, of subtraction."

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September 02, 2004

The Universal Computer

In his book "The Universal Computer The Road From Leibniz To Turing," cover
Martin Davis presents a history of the development of logic that focus on creating a system in which computation is purely symbolic .

Starting with Leibniz's 'wonderful idea' - a language based on an alphabet whose "elements represented not sounds, but concepts. A language based on such an alphabet should make it possible to determine by symbolic calculation which sentences written in the language were true and what logical relationships existed among them." In his exposition he takes a clear path from Leibniz to Boole to Frege to Cantor to Hilbert to Godel and then to Turing. As a former student of mathematics (in the 60's and 70's, and current teacher of computer science (since the 80's) my appreciation of his exposition was enhanced by my own recollections of the names and events he describes. Furthermore, he gives you the feeling that you're reading something written by an insider - telling us stories and tidbits that we on the outside can enjoy and appreciate. The book is nicely done with extensive notes. Give it a read when you get the chance.

A more detailed review is available at "Read This! The MAA Online book review column" , by Mark Johnson.

Posted by ernie at 03:23 PM

June 15, 2004

Books to Pick Up Again

We're leaving for a two-week trip in a few days and so we've go to return our books to the Library, because they can only be checked out for two weeks. We love our library - The Central Rappahannock Regional Library. It has a great collection and a very good online presence. It has been the recipient of several awards, as well. Still, whenever we take a prolonged trip we try to gather up the books that we've been renewing and renewing for many months and return.

Some that we've had checked out are great cook books, some are used for reference, and some, for one reason or another, we have been taking a very long time to read. So this entry, and maybe some others will list some books, that I'll want to check out again when we return.

The Dream Machine by M.Mitchell Waldrop. A great account of J.C.R. Licklider and his influence on the development of the Internet, and time-shared and personal computing.

Some cookbooks:

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July 14, 2003

A Shortcut Through Time

I found the book "A Shortcut Through Time" By George Johnson, published by Alfred A Knopf, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41193-3 on the recent additions shelf of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

It was the subtitle, "The Path to the Quantum Computer" , that really got me interested. I teach computer science at Mary Washington College and I didn't know the first thing about quantum computing before reading this book. Now I feel like I know something! Johnson's explanations are clear and to the point. They really made sense to me given my back ground in mathematics and the fact that I've been teaching computer science for lots of years. I'd recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science and with the ability to follow a technical discussion in general terms. He does an excellent job of exposition of a subtle and difficult subject. He states in the preface that "science writing involves spinning an illusion." The illusion is that the material came to be understood in a straight forward manner, and so it is easy for the reader to grasp and comprehend. It's not very easy to do that when discussing quantum mechanics and quantum computing, but George Johnson does a very good job at it. Read this book!

"A Quantum Leap in Cryptography" appeared in on July 15, 2003 in Business Week Online.

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