Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fractions should be scrapped!!

In a country already lagging behind most nations in the world in terms of mathematical skills of high school students, we now have University of Pennsylvania professor Dennis DeTurck proclaiming: “Down with fractions! They are obsolete.”

His inspiration is that, “Mathematicians are always questioning the axioms. Everybody knows that questioning those often results in the most substantial gains in terms of progress”, and so he has dared to question the axiom of teaching fractions. While it is true that questioning is often the seed of change, it is also true that questions asked just for the sake of questioning are plain idiotic. And when DeTurck adds, “The study of fractions should be delayed until it can be understood, perhaps after a student learns calculus”, this begins to sound like (a) either an April fool’s joke or (b) DeTurck urgently needs to visit his doctor.

I don’t know about Professor DeTurck, but I learnt fractions at the same time I was learning the difference between genders, while I learnt calculus around the time I had my first crush. To my mind, it is pretty clear what should come first. Pennsylvania State professor George Andrews agrees with me, “Arithmetic is the basic skill. If children do not know arithmetic, they can't go on to algebra, which leads to calculus. From there you go on to other things”.

However, I disagree with Dr. Andrews when he adds that, “DeTurck's ideas will unfortunately gain traction because of the misguided belief that math education can somehow be made easy. Math is hard. The idea that somehow we're going to make math just fun is just a dream.” Is Math really that hard? Is it really no fun at all?

Personally, I think that people/kids who find Math hard are the one who come to it as observers. You can't become competent at Math by observing someone else doing it, you have to get your hands dirty and participate in it yourself. When I was a child there was a period when I was doing poorly in the subject and was under the impression that it was because Math is hard, and I just didn't have the chops for it. The real reason I was doing poorly was -- I never opened my Math book at home and even the assigned homework  I did at the last minute, sometimes while going to school in the bus. Fortunately I was rescued from this state of affairs by a tutor, who showed me that the people who get Math are the people who sit down and do it.

Languages can be absorbed, history can be memorized, Math, on the other hand, is something that you have to do. You learn Math the same way you learn how to ride a bicycle. From there on, you go on to learn how to drive a car and then a plane. Only, when you are cruising, can you look around and observe and enjoy the view. But, of course, the ride itself is always fun.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston - Book Review

Science discovers… God, or does it? It's a tagline calculated to make you reach for the new science fiction novel, Blasphemy, by Douglas Preston. But does the book live up to its bold announcement?

Set in the Arizona desert, the novel takes you inside the world’s biggest collider, where a group of scientists are wrestling with a machine that won’t behave as expected, and being completely tight-lipped about it. They are joined by ex-spy Wyman Ford who has been sent by Washington to find their secret, even as they desperately try to learn the collider’s.

The timing of this book couldn’t have been better, coming as it does in the wake of the ‘The God Delusion’ and just four months before the most powerful collider in the world, known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider ), starts operating. So does the book foreshadow events that might actually happen at the LHC? Does it maintain the lofty standards of ‘The God Delusion’, while telling a ripping story?

If you are looking for thoughtful literature here, you are going to be disappointed as the book picks up a formulaic potboiler tone on page one itself. The proceedings begin with the author informing us that Ken Dolby, chief architect of the collider, ‘thought of the machine as a woman, and in his more imaginative moments he had even imagined what she looked like—tall and slender, with a muscular back, black as the desert night, beaded with sweat. Isabella. He had shared these feelings with no one—no point in attracting ridicule’. Yet Preston has no qualms in sharing these feelings with us – why spare the poor reader? A few sentences later, Hazelius, a central character in the book expounds, “It’s 1492. We’re at the bow of the Santa Maria, gazing at the sea horizon, moments before the coastline of the New World comes into view. Today is the day we sail over that unknown horizon and land upon the shores of our very own New World”. Hazelius’ dialogues in the rest of the book are equally grating in their pseudo-intellectuality.

At this point I was strongly tempted to close the book, but curiosity to see how the story would develop kept me going.

As weak as the characterization of the scientists is, they do manage some scientific talking and have believable prejudices. Preston has a nodding acquaintance with his science and his scientists, but unfortunately he is intimate with neither. He does a somewhat better job in his portrayal of the religious half of the establishment, chiefly the half-crazed priest Eddie. Some of the Indian characters are also likable. The mob scene in the second half, involving Bia, the Indian cop and Eddie, the priest, draws the reader into the chaotic night on the Mesa road, as fervent religion sets out to confront blasphemy. It is one of the few powerful scenes in the book.

Blasphemy is a page-turner and will keep you hanging in there. If that is all you want, with a side order of science fries and philosophic cola, read the book.

However if awe-inspiring and well-written science fiction is what you are craving, give the book a miss.

Frankly, one doesn’t need help from Isabella (the collider in the book) to see the light. Christian Huygens declared three centuries ago, “The world is my country and Science is my religion.” If you are still in doubt, read ‘The God Delusion’ instead.

Not only does the book fail to impress with its ‘religious message’, avid readers of Science Fiction will find its philosophical arguments stale as well. Once the collider talks (yes, it is a talking collider, and that is all it does) about finding a way to avoid the heat death of the universe. Preston does not seem to know, that this problem has already been solved by cosmic AC, formerly Multivac, in ‘The Last Question’.

The plot of the book is fresh, certainly I know of no other story that uses a collider to find such a truth – but perhaps Preston's greatest failing is that he is not courageous enough to stick to his big idea. His failure to do so destroys the authenticity of his characters. How you ask yourself, as the book draws to a close, could a gang of ultra-brilliant scientists working on a billion-dollar machine, be so incredibly incompetent that they are completely clueless as to what is going on in the machine. In face of their mind-blowing stupidity, it becomes rather easy to overlook, that one of the characters should have been in a mental hospital all along, instead of being the star in a science fiction novel. And I am not talking about Eddie, the priest, neither.

Even with all the improbable setup excused (the collider running with only 12 people, virtually no scientific discovery etc), Blasphemy is an unconvincing and flat story.

After closing the book, I wished Michael Crichton had written it. At least then, if somebody wanted to die, they would have a choice between being swallowed by a mini black hole (which happily failed to radiate away) or being sucked into a warped extra dimension, instead of tamely driving off a cliff while shooting themselves.


Sunday, January 6, 2008

Opening Post

Gin a fancy meet a fancy
Flyin' through the air.
Gin a fancy hit a fancy,
Will it rain? And where?

The original passage is,

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

The full poem is here. It is a poem that seems destined to be reworded and re-sung. Evidently, James Maxwell was quite fond of the poem, rewording it to

Gin a body meet a body
Flyin' through the air.
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? And where?

You can infer that this was the work of a scientist. Indeed, Maxwell is better known as the father of electromagnetism and for the equations named after him. The rigors of science however do not seem to have kept him from dabbling in poetry. Though at times he lectures himself,

Of the Philosophic Spirit
Richly may my son inherit;
As for Poetry, inter it
With the myths of other days.
Cut the thing entirely, lest yon
College Don should put the question,
"Why not stick to what you're best on?
Mathematics always pays."

You can read all of Maxwell's Poems here.

Maxwell was not the only one enthralled by Burns' lines. The protagonist of the novel: The Catcher in the Rye, James Holden, famously mishears a child singing "If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye", instead of "If a body meet a body, coming through the rye." Later, in one of the most memorable passages of the book, he says that he would like to become "the catcher in the rye" when he grows up, standing at the edge of a cliff to gaurd over children joyously playing in a sun-drenched field of rye perched on the cliff.

Related Books

Selected Poems (Robert Burns)
The Catcher in the Rye
Biography of Maxwell