Book Reviews

  • Innumeracy - Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
  • Science - Good, Bad and Bogus
  • Godel, Escher, Bach
  • The Stationary Ark
  • Ouija, The most Dangerous Game
  • Asimov on Numbers
  • Almost Adam






    INNUMERACY -- MATHEMATICAL ILLITERACY AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

    by John Allen Paulos
    Vintage Books, New York, 1990
    180 pp. Paper, $8.95
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    "The weatherman said there's a 50% chance of rain for Saturday and a 50% chance for Sunday. I guess that means a 100% chance for the weekend."
    "I wouldn't visit Europe if I were you; you might get killed by a terrorist."
    If you believe those things, or know anyone who would, you need to read this book. Dr. Paulos gives a very readable and even amusing look at why Americans have trouble dealing with numbers. How many times have you heard: "I'm a people person, not a numbers person."
    "I always hated math."
    "I can't even balance my checkbook." spoken with pride?
    Dr. Paulos explains why innumeracy is nothing to be proud of, and the trouble it can get us into. He discusses percentages, coincidences, probability, and statistics. He gives many excellent examples of how we can be deliberately or accidentally mislead by numbers. He is particularly tough on politicians, poll takers, and the media. The book has an excellent chapter on pseudoscience.
    I highly recommend this book for anyone from 9th grade on up.




    SCIENCE -- GOOD, BAD AND BOGUS

    by Martin Gardner
    Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1989
    412 pp. Paper, $10.95
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    Martin Gardner is the guy who used to write the Mathematical Games column for Scientific American. He's also a renowned skeptic of all things paranormal. In "Science -- Good, Bad and Bogus" Gardner ridicules psychics, parapsychologists, and astrologers alike. Most of the book is a series of reprints of Gardner's articles written between 1950 and 1979. The articles are mostly from the New York Review of Books, and as such they are mostly book reviews.
    Since most of the articles are so old, the book is mostly of historical interest. Many of the individuals and ideas he attacks are no longer relevant in the rapidly-changing new age.
    Therefore I can't recommend that you buy this book -- but I can recommend that you check it out of the library and read a few selected chapters.
    Chapter 8, Magic and Paraphysics, criticises paranormal scientists for not making use of magicians in their experimental designs. Many so-called psychics are ex-stage magicians. Scientists, with no training in magic, are just as likely to be fooled by tricks as anybody else. Gardner points out that chemicals, cells, and rats don't lie and cheat, but people do.
    Chapter 9, The Irrelevance of Conan Doyle, examines the paradox of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Although Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the master of deduction and careful observation, Doyle also believed in spirit mediums. He was also firmly convinced of the existence of gnomes and fairies.
    Chapter 10 is Great Fakes of Science. Did you know that Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics, probably fudged his data? Did you know that one of famed parapsychologist J. B. Rhine's assistants faked experiments on psychic abilities of fertilized eggs?
    Chapter 38 reviews two books on talking apes. About 15 years ago there was a flurry of activity in teaching apes sign language. Amazing results were reported. Gardner, and the 2 books reviewed, express grave doubts about these results. If you have an interest in the intelligence of apes, you should find this chapter interesting.
    All-in-all, I think I like Gardner's game and puzzle books better.




    GODEL, ESCHER, BACH: An Eternal Golden Braid

    by Douglas R. Hofstadter
    Vintage Books, New York, 1979
    777 pp. Paper, $8.95
    Suggested age level: 16 to adult
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    "Godel, Escher, Bach" is Douglas Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize winning book. It's hard to describe what the book is about. "The philosophy of science" comes as close to a simple description as I can come, but the book is much more.
    What about that peculiar title? Hofstadter tries to tie together the works of the mathematician Godel, the artist Escher, and the musician Bach. And it makes a kind of weird sense.
    M. C. Escher is the artist who does those black-and-white lithographs that trick the eye. Perhaps you remember that picture of people walking up and down stairs, but you can't tell which way is up. Another famous one is a picture of two hands, each hand holding a pencil and drawing the other hand.
    J. S. Bach was a master of the fugue, a musical form that capitalizes on playing a theme (melody, counterpoint), then replaying it transposed, upside down, and backwards. The result can be that the music appears to "eat its tail", and also that while it appears to be going up and up, it ends up where it started. Hofstadter points this out as an auditory equivalent of what Escher does with graphics.
    Kurt Godel was a mathematician who proved that we can't know everything for sure. What he actually said was, "All consistent axiomatic formulations of number theory include undecidable propositions." This is know as Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, and its implications are enormous. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that although a mathematical statement may be true, it may not be possible to prove that it is true.
    Hofstadter gives us Russell's Paradox: Define Run-of-the-mill sets as sets which do not contain themselves as members. Define Self-swallowing sets as those that do. Now define a specific Run-of-the-mill set which is the set of all Run-of-the-mill sets. Is it a Run-of-the-mill set or a Self-swallowing set?
    Hofstadter is fascinated with these paradoxes, so he goes on about them for a whole book. It is full of mathematical, artistic, mathematical, and linguistic paradoxes, all presented in a witty, informal style. The book is very worthwhile reading, if only for its insights on the nature of truth and the nature of proof.




    THE STATIONARY ARK

    by Gerald Durell
    Books On Tape, 1976
    7 - 1 hour tapes
    Available at the Bonaire Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library
    Read by Stuart Courtney
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    This is a book about zoos. More specifically, it's a book about the establishment of a new zoo on the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. But it's still more than that - Durrell has a vision of what a zoo should be, in stark contrast to what most zoos are.
    Durrell's concept is that a zoo should fulfill 4 purposes: conservation, education, research, and entertainment. Most zoos, in his estimation, fulfill only the entertainment role. He condemns most zoos for failing in their public duty, and for cruelty to their animals.
    We all know that zoos are (or should be) entertaining, but few of us give much thought to their other functions. The conservation role of zoos, according to Durrell, should be in protecting endangered species, and in breeding programs that will make the zoo an exporter of wild animals to other zoos rather than an importer depleting populations of wild animals.
    Zoos should be sights of education where people can learn about animals and their habits. In research, zoos should be places where the habits of animals are carefully observed and recorded.
    Durrell tells fascinating stories about his animals. My favorite described how a male gorilla was introduced into a cage with 2 females. The description of their amorous behavior is quite amusing.
    I recommend this book for anyone over the age of 11 who is interested in animal conservation. It gives many new insights into zoos and their function.

    Note: Would Durrell approve of the Louisville Zoo? In my opinion he would. Our zoo seems to be dedicated to education and conservation as well as to entertainment.




    OUIJA -- THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME

    by Stoker Hunt
    Harper and Row, New York, 1985
    156 pp. Paper, $11.00
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    This book is like a submarine sandwich -- there's some healthy meat, but you have to go through a lot of baloney.
    Don't be misled; "Ouija -- The Most Dangerous Game" is far better than most new age literature. But it is not a book of science. It has no bibliography and no references. It relies to a great extent on personal interviews. Some of those interviewed are legitimate scientists. Others are self-proclaimed psychics. The author's own beliefs are revealed by his reference to "gifted psychics" and his reporting as fact many outrageous psychic claims.
    The book examines the history of the Ouija board, its reported successes, and its dangers. The successes include Pearl Curran, who supposedly used the board to write poems, plays, and full-length novels. But the chapter on the channeling of Seth was treated as a success for Ouija, when it should have been treated as an example of a public hoax.
    As to the dangers of Ouija, the author gives several accounts of psychotic episodes brought on by use of the board. Many prominent individuals, including psychologists, theologians, and psychics, warn against its use.
    How does Ouija work? Although the author equivocates on the way Ouija works, most rational thinkers conclude that Ouija is an "automatism." This is an automatic, unconscious, muscle movement that seems to communicate with some sort of "inner being," such as Freud's subconscious. According to this theory, the Ouija board and planchette serve as an amplifier of small involuntary muscle motions not in the conscious control of the user.
    Why is it dangerous? Apparently the subconscious, communicating through the Ouija board, will reveal unwanted or embarassing truths about the individuals using the board, and will very often lie. If you take what the board says too seriously, you might get in trouble. The greatest danger, says the author, is in becoming obsessed with using the board or relying on it.
    The subconscious, as revealed through the board, will often identify itself as a deceased person, a spirit, or a demon. But experiments have shown that it can be made to identify itself as a fictional character.
    My conclusion is that the Ouija board may be a valuable tool for investigating the subconscious, but that it could be dangerous if its output is misunderstood.




    ASIMOV ON NUMBERS

    by Isaac Asimov
    Pocket Books, 1977
    ISBN: 0-671-49404-X
    Reviewed by Entropy

    In this book, Asimov makes number concepts such as infinity, pi, factorials, Roman numerals, binary, Fibonacci numbers, primes, Mersenne numbers more easily understandable, even to math novices like me.
    The book is enjoyable to read and interspersed with one-page biographies of important figures in math history such as Archimedes, Mersenne, Gauss and more. I highly reccomend this book to anyone interested in math as well as anyone who thinks he or she ought to be interested in math (but who just can't get the enthusiasm).




    ALMOST ADAM

    by Petru Popescu
    Morrow, New York, 1996
    544 pp. Hard cover, $24.00
    Reviewed by T. G. Cleaver

    Almost Adam is a work of fiction. Yet, I thought it worth reviewing here because of its scientific content. Some may say that the science in this novel is speculative, at best. That may be true -- my background in anthropology is quite weak -- and I invite critiques from those more knowledegable than I.
    That being said, Almost Adam is a gripping novel about the discovery of early hominids living in a remote region of Africa. The author introduces Long Toes, an australopithecine youth who assists a stranded anthropologist. Eventually, the anthropologist is introduced to the tribe of hominids, and shares their lives.
    It seems that Popescu did a lot of research, because at every opportunity he describes in detail australopithecine appearance, tribal life, tools, mores, reasoning capacity, mating practices, and more. Much of this is probably speculation, but Popescu makes it sound reasonable.
    It was a good read, on a par with Jurassic Park. And I feel, rightly or wrongly, that I now have a better understanding of man's ancestors.