marxism-digest V2 #1110

Rahul Mahajan rahul at peaches.ph.utexas.edu
Sun May 26 04:35:56 MDT 1996


Boddhi:

>        Since we were originally talking about the Social Text journal
>article, I was thinking more along the lines of that kind of article.  Youi
>would have to admit that page upon page of scintific writing goes, very
>deservedly, into the dustbin of intellectual history.  As for books, I think
>of Chaos, the "Nanoist" cult books, and a lot of other weird socio-biology,
>archaeology, and scientific waxing that gets panne din Scientific American
>all the time.

I think most of what you're talking about falls safely into the realms of
either bad science or pseudoscience. Most of the garbage about chaos was
not written by scientists, but by idiot reporters who had no idea what they
were doing. Never heard of the "Nanoist" cult books, and can't imagine why
you would link any such thing with science, any more than you would John
Carter of Mars.

Most of everything goes into the dustbin of history, or would if history
had more sense.

>Social scientists are making arguments.  Their
>points simply cannot be held up to the type of scrutiny that science is.  In
>fact, they go farthest wrong when they forget that they are making arguments
>and pretend that they are doing science.

Of course, pretending to do science is the worst thing you can do.
Attempting, in a self-critical way, to do it is altogether different. This
does not mean mindlessly piling up stacks of numbers -- if you get numbers,
there should be some theoretical reasons why you think they're important
and how they can be used.

>        Anyway, you know all this.  My question is whether you can recommend
>any popular books on mathematics, that might (along with other materials)
>help a person get a grip on that field enough to forward his understanding of
>physics, computer programming, and all the fun (applied) stuff.

>p.s. - I'm particularly interested (but completely unprepared for) the
>concept of phase space.

This is a tough question. The only popular books that will really teach you
something are the ones that make you think -- since most people aren't
willing to, there's a definite problem. Most pop math books, unfortunately,
are about bizarre little puzzles. The only ones books I know that would
help with understanding computer science are Godel, Escher, Bach, and The
Emperor's New Mind, by Penrose. Both have lots of other verbiage, and GEB
has all kinds of tedious nonsense about Zen (well, I guess that's right up
your alley). If I recall correctly, the stuff on Turing machines in
Penrose's book is not easily digestible by the informed layman, to say the
least. The math book I had most fun with as a kid was What is Mathematics?
by Richard Courant. It's not really pop -- it's real mathematics, but it
assumes no knowledge and still manages to cover interesting subjects and
give you the flavor of the subject. It might help tangentially in getting a
grip on physics. If you aren't familiar with calculus, that is a must for
understanding physics. There are several popular books on it, but I don't
know the names. Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler is an excellent
book on special relativity that only requires high school algebra. The only
pop book I've seen that mentions phase space is Gleick's, which I find
highly annoying, as I did most of the maundering on chaos that went on many
months ago on the list (excepting Cockshott and Keen, who clearly know
their math). The basic concept is very straightforward, though.

Rahul




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