So how many books have I read so far this year? Well, I double and triple checked and yes, the total is fifty with the culmination (if you excuse the pun) being Gravity’s Rainbow. Which means I achieved the goal of this site (even though I never signed up for it–don’t you have to get an invitation to join in the first place?) and I’m well on my way to beating this guy (even though the competition is sort of one-sided since he doesn’t know that I exist).
Does God Play Dice? by Ian Stewart. In a relatively straightforward manner, Stewart explains the concepts of chaos theory to the non-mathematician with almost no equations and plenty of illustrations. Like most people, I first heard about chaos theory via popular culture–specifically from one of Michael Crichton’s blubbering characters in Jurassic Park when I was in seventh grade–but had no clue what it really was except that it was apparently a hot and new topic in math. But actually, it isn’t so new.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Henri Poincaré–a mathematician who unfortunately fit the stereotypical absent-minded prof to a “T”–paved the path from abstraction to chaos. Poincaré worked on dynamics, but when he set about trying to find out the stability of the solar system by working on the three-body problem, specifically Hill’s reduced model, consisting of two very large bodies like Neptune and Pluto and a third insignificant particle like a speck of dust, he found that the trajectory of the dust particle was so complicated that there was no way to draw it. In fact, he was “horrified” by the chaos he unearthed–nature is not so neat and pat.
Chaos theory has evolved since then–the gist being that complex behavior can emerge from a few simple elements. This is not to say that nature is completely unpredictable; it only seems that way because we can’t take into account every variable and every condition. We can’t really make the most accurate measurements no matter how hard we try. But Stewart takes pains to explain that chaos theory isn’t some exotic beast that only mathematicians in ivory towers look at. Chaos theory is applied to everything from weather to bed springs and cardiology to epidemiology. Stewart ends with a tantalizing glimpse into the next hot math topic, the so-called “edge of chaos” or complexity theory where we see the emergence of simple behavior from many elements.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I have one question: Were the judges for the 1973 National Book Award on crack when they voted this book the winner? Every two pages, I wanted to scream and hurl the book hard enough that it would crash through the wall and conk the person next door unconscious. What was Pynchon thinking? Or more accurately, he wasn’t thinking at all. If this book was a person, it would be an automaton with all the grey (and white) matter blown away except for the brain stem. On the surface it’s just one big phallic metaphor as obvious as a guy with a tent in his pants. Look deeper and you might as well go insane by gazing into an encyclopedic Pandora’s box. Don’t try this one out unless you’re a masochist who enjoys painful lobotomies over a nice relaxing weekend.
Currently reading: aside from previously mentioned books, a book about the night, a book about Robert Hooke, and a book about books.