Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
The early 20th century was by no means an orderly, calm period in the world of theoretical physics. New discoveries in relativity and quantum mechanics were casting increasing doubt on classical physics. Scientists were learning that some phenomena, taking place at the unseeable atomic level, seemed not to be deterministic and predictable, but probabilistic and not so predictable.
Uncertainty provides an informative overview of the major players during this era, and explores the disarray that a changing state of knowledge brought to the physics community, with some more conservative figures, such as Einstein, advocating caution and their own belief that the universe could not truly be so disorderly, and younger physicists, such as Heisenberg, rejecting scientific orthodoxy and searching for the answers in more radical ideas. While I'm sure there are better books about physics and better biographies of famous scientists, this one does capture the division that quantum mechanics brought about among most the brilliant, legendary physicists, and their all-too human arguments as they struggled to make sense of its paradigm-shaking implications. The author also notes the background of political and social unrest taking place in Europe in the 1920s and 30s, raising the question of how much this drama may have been a part of the soul of the scientific drama.
An interesting book.
Self-organization -- it's a profoundly self-evident quality of nature, but one that so far has eluded much deep understanding in science. Strogatz makes it easy to see why: nature, from atoms up to cells up to societies, is made up of many non-linear components working together, and non-linear systems, with their feedback loops, impulses, and fractal components, are fiendishly difficult to get one's head around, nothing like the idealized systems we encounter in Freshman Physics. Yet, their non-linearity is the key to... well, maybe everything?
Sync explores the synchronization phenomena inherent in many complex systems, the way they coordinate their actions with respect to time, building order out of seeming noise. From fireflies to circadian rhythms to swinging pendulums to brain neurons to orbiting bodies to Higgs boson fields, there's an eerie tendency in nature for things to fall in step.
Despite being free of equations, it's a book that delves into some pretty dense territory, and might not be well suited to audiobook form. In most chapters, I found that a moment of daydreaming or distraction would have me rewinding to get back on track with the lecture. Strogatz spends a lot of time explaining abstract models, which held my interest as an engineer (the runners-on-a-track metaphor actually mirrored a traffic simulation I’d developed, which had sync issues of its own), but might appeal less to other readers. There are also some rather esoteric topics in physics, which I didn’t understand very well. I kinda wish he'd put those chapters towards the end, because I almost quit listening after one frustrating section dealing with spiral waves, which luckily turned out to be followed by a much more interesting and accessible overview of Chaos Theory. I also liked the chapters that explore networks and their characteristics (think of the connections between film actors, exemplified by the party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”).
If you're hoping for some grand unifying theory of synchronization, you won't find it here, just an examination of some different systems in which sync is present and praise for the work of several different researchers. I wouldn’t have minded more resonance between the separate parts (as it were), but I was curious about the topic and the book was worth my time. It’s always cool to learn about a field in which many key developments have happened within my own lifetime. Strogatz convinced me that the qualities that make self-organizing systems difficult to model with traditional mathematics might be the same qualities that are most important to understand. As a software developer, I found it exciting to think about how computers will be used to further exploration of the universe’s emergent interconnectedness, and how discoveries might feed back into how we think about software design. We might even find out something profound.
A better title for this book might be "How Humans Misunderstand Randomness". If you want to feel nervous about an upcoming performance review at work or day in court, Mlodinow can help you do so. Here, he shows how non-intuitive statistics and probability can be, and how people biased by their natural desire to attribute definite causes to events tend to discount the winds of chance. Consider how "brilliant" CEOs are often hired for enormous salaries, then fired a few years later when the company doesn't make the profits expected. But how much control does a typical CEO really have over all the factors that determine a company's near-term success? And consider how obvious the "clues" to Japan's WWII attack on Pearl Harbor looked in hindsight, but how they actually wouldn't have jumped out to analysts among all the other "noise" in the intelligence network. (These themes might be familiar to those who've read Nassim Taleb's book on unpredictability, The Black Swan.)
On the other hand, when we *do* think about randomness, we often have incorrect expectations about its properties. Gamblers don't always realize that it's not unlikely for a roulette wheel to favor a certain color over many spins, even when the roulette wheel is behaving correctly. Or, think about some of the mistakes the legal system has made. An example is the couple in 1960s Los Angeles who were convicted of an attack on the basis of witness testimony that reported two people with similar appearances and a similar car. The prosecution cited the one-in-a-million odds that the criminals could be anyone else. Yet, they made a few critical mistakes: the variables weren't independent and Los Angeles is a city of multiple millions: the real odds were closer to two-in-three. Yikes.
The Drunkard's Walk includes, along the way, a compelling history of the science of chance, covering figures such as Pascal, Bayes, Laplace, Brown (of Brownian Motion fame), and Einstein. Though I've studied probability and statistics before, as part of my college coursework, I find them to be fun subjects, and enjoyed the refresher (if not so much the reminders that our legal system is flawed). A bit of a nerdy book, but perfectly engaging.