Those whose hearts beat a little faster at the sight of an equation have cause to celebrate today, because, on this day in 1675 Gottfried Leibnitz first wrote the squiggle that has become universally adopted as the integral sign in calculus. It seems he wrote it first in an unpublished manuscript, but, over time, that mark beat out competing notation for that important function, so what students learn in Calc. 101 is what Gottfried came up with. The matter of who invented the calculus, Newton or Leibnitz, has been the stuff of some considerable discussion. The two did exchange a lot of letters about it, so the question of who did what when may never be ironed out fully, but apportioning the credit by precise fractions in probably pointless. Lift a cup to Leibnitz in recognition of his priceless doodle.
Michael Dirda is the book critic of the Washington Post. Tha author of several books about, well, books, and authors and writing and things, Dirda has a smooth prose style, which distracts you from the very considerable difference between his level of erudtion and yours. But, I digress. The reason I’m bringing this up here and now is that I found something by him in praise of Martin Gardner. His story is pretty much the same as mine, and we both got hooked on the same Mg book: Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, but he makes the case for getting hold of, and reading, some of the numerous works this man has penned, and does it much better than I can. If you don’t believe me, and why should you, believe Michael Dirda:
The crafty creator of mathematical puzzles, Martin Gardner, will celebrate his 95th birthday tomorrow. For many years, he ran a column in Scientific American magazine on recreational mathematics, but he retired from that post some years ago. Retiring and quitting are different things, and Gardner most definitely did not quit. He’s the author or editor of over 70 books, and publishers know that he is “box office” in that almost anything with his name on it will enjoy healthy sales. His undergraduate training was in philosophy, and he never considered himself a very good mathematician, but he wrestled with the ideas behind the puzzles he selected for publication in his SA column and in the numerous collections which appeared under his editorship. So, once he had the ideas clearly stated in his own mind, he could write about them for other people with insight and force.
Gardner was a fierce defender of science against nutsos, pseudos and fadists of all kinds. He had his facts in order and could punch, hard. I read Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science almost in one sitting. But he also has a whimsical side, as shown by his Annotated Alice in Wonderland, The Annotated Wizard of Oz and others. But, his mathematical puzzle collections form the bulk of his oeuvre, and are the basis of his reputation as an effective popularizer of difficult concepts. So, let’s hoist a cold one for Mr. G on his 95th. He’s still works, every day on his old style typewriter and still publishes. He’s an American original.
In the beginning was the Kindle, and then, there were Kindle follow-ons. Amazon jump started the dormant e-book market with the launch of this product family, and for a while was king of the mountain. As we’ve reported in these lines, a number of other outfits think they can do the e-book thing better, since they think the Kindle is dorky piece of gear. These guys are headed for chapter 11, since it’s not about the gear. Amazon charged ahead because they had the reader, the inventory, an aggressive discount policy on digital versions of the books they sell, which are easy to get, wirelessly. Barnes and Noble sells a lot of books too, and they went after Amazon big time. Next week, B&N will launch their version of an ebook reader, and some leaked photos of the gadget, along with some specifications and description, have popped up in different places. We are going with the story on WIRED’s news site. B&N will allow users to share books, while Amazon does not, giving the new guys an extra advantage.
PS: I should have mentioned that the new item is called the “Nook”, for “N Book” maybe?
October is the month of Halloween, and this Halloween is the latest one in the long reign of magic and mysticism in popular entertainment. You know, spells and potions and strange animals and wizards and witches and the rest of the cast. Zombies, too. Don’t forget the zombies. And Vampires. These last two are really big right now. It’s timely that our Library should host an exhibit on the inflluence of magical ideas on medicine and the care of the sick in the pre-scientific era. Certain animals and minerals were thought to have healing powers. Herbalism was important and is undergoing a revival today. The exhibit makes use of some books from our Rare Book collection to illustrate these points. Alchemy was a major element in traditional medicine. Pursuing the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone consumed the lives and fortunes of countless persons, each one betting on success where others had failed. Still, alchemy’s legacy to modern science was considerable, in the form of equipment, techniques and new materials produced, as Dr. Edward Randall stressed in his welcoming address to UTMB’s new medical students of 1897, calling on them to show the same diligence and perseverance in study: “As time went on the alchemists in their efforts to create gold found in their crucibles many substances and compounds before unknown, which were destined to work much good for the healing of the nations”.
Visit the Library and enjoy the exhibit. Think how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
PS: Newton and Boyle were both alchemists, adepts even. So were many other workers in the hazy and undefined period before and just around the advent of the Scientific Revolution. This shouldn’t surprise anybody, really. Looked at from their point of view, alchemy had a lot going for it, and “science” was something they had never heard of. They were “natural philosophers”. The clear divisions of our era didn’t exist then. When the economist John Maynard Keynes bought a big passel of Newton’s papers from Sotheby’s auction house and began to edit them, both he and other researchers were astonished to find so much of Newton’s work devoted to alchemy. And to Biblical numerology too. He had some idea about the proportions of Solomon’s temple, as given in the scriptural account, being the key to understanding many other things. There was a lot of shock and head-shaking about what a waste it all had been, and how Newton could have discovered a whole lot more, had he not wasted his time on this stuff. But, he wasn’t wasting his time, or at least he didn’t think so. He thought he was hot on the trail of something really big. That was then, and this is now.
This morning’s New York Times has a front page, above the fold, article on the growing use of e-books in public libraries. The slant is on this part of the library community, which doesn’t get much attention from us, since we are more focused on scholarly publication in the Sci-Tech-Med arena. And a lot of the hoopla about new e-book readers and networking technology used on them has concentrated on individual users and their buying habits. So, we may have missed the developments in this other segment of the library world. The Times piece is a good catch-up. There is of course some concern among publishers who don’t like the idea of people borrowing at no cost books they would otherwise pay for. But, that was the original objection to the whole idea of public libraries in the first place.
Sergey Brin is one of Google’s co-founders. In a New York Times Op/Ed piece, he defended the Google book settlement, what I have been referring to in these lines as The Deal. Naturally, he thinks the Deal is just great and everybody should think so too, even those scowling meanies at the Department of Justice, who keep bringing up these little, purely theoretical objections about monopoly and anti-trust and all. The parties are going back to the negotiating table in response to a large passel of criticisms and objections, hundreds of them, to see what they can do. It seems that nobody wants a trial, everybody wants an agreement, but just not this agreement. I’m not a Google-basher, but I do become more sceptical about an outfit as it grows, so while Brin’s OP was a very good piece of special pleading, I prefer to link to a story on The Resource Shelf which gives users both the Op/ed and some useful comments of the “yes, but” sort.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is now 30 years old. According to the Hippy maxim, you’re not supposed to trust anybody older than that. But, I guess that changes, as do most things. A group of doughty fans braved the lousy British weather to celebrate, and to greet the man entrusted with composing a sequel to Donald Adams’ cult classic. Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl and other books, has written a follow-up, in the same loopy vein, called And Another Thing. Naturally, he’s hoping for success and so are all the Adamsites who have been unable to mainline craziness since the author of the original Guide went to the great Improbability Machine in the sky. And as NASA guided the probe that hit the moon to see if the resulting lifted debris might contain evidence of water, they played the whale’s solliloquy from the movie. The poor whale is conjured up at impossible odds by the Improbability Gizmo, and as he rejoices in his whaleness, he ponders Identity, Cause, Finallity, all the while dropping toward the surface of planet Whatzit. Splat! Well, that’s where we all wind up.
Our building was without AC or even ventilation for several days. The explanation given was that storm damage from hurricane IKE had compromised the primary and backup equipment. About half the chill water capacity was lost, and what was left was routed to the hospitals. So from Wednesday through this morning, most of the other campus buildings were extremely uncomfortable, and a lot of people simply couldn’t get to their workstations because these are located in areas that require artificial venting. Temporary, portable (in the sense they can be moved, on flatbed trailers towed by big trucks or other prime movers) cooling units have been set up and we are gradually getting the interior temperature and humidity back to a reasonable point. We thank our readers for understanding.
It sounds sort of Russian, doesn’t it? But it’s a nonce word, I think they call them, and it’s a blended form, describing a new combination of book and video. Today’s New York Times has an article on this mini-trend. The publishers Simon and Schuster are launching four vooks, and other publishers, and authors, are fiddling with the idea. In the case of a fitness vook, the reader can call up demonstrations of the various excercises. Prof. Robert Darnton of the Harvard Libraries and himself a scholar of French popular songs, has embedded, I guess is the right word, performances of some of them in his work on the subject. It’s all very intriguing in a speculative sort of way. Some authors and critics are skittish about the idea. Blending two different media formats has usually meant bad news for one of them, but that was then and this is now. I have to say that I would have appreciated a little real time demonstration at various times over the years when I was wrestling with something I wasn’t getting…junior algebra for one thing. And in the case of music or art, the case is easy to see. So, I’m all for it. It won’t work everyplace and people should fight the temptation to stick graphics into a text just because they can. There is probably a market for something like this, a big one, and that market will sort itself out fairly quickly. In the meantime read/watch your vook.