Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number by Mario Livio

Why I read it: An unnerving love of numbers.

Summary: The irrational number Phi (pronounced "fee") has baffled mathematicians for centuries, much like Pi. The author defines it and seeks its historical applications. He works hard to debunk theories of its usage in ancient times in the construction of the pyramids, in Greek architecture, etc. He also discusses its theological ties through time, as science played with the border between cold hard facts and the unknown and supernatural.

My Thoughts: Ha! Where do I begin? I guess with nature, as I'm a naturalist by profession (these days). The concept of the logarithmic spiral is the key to linking the number to nature. To define Phi in basic terms, if you have a straight line cut into two parts, and the ratio of the sum of the quantities of the two parts is equal to the ratio of the larger to the smaller, you have the Golden Ratio:

a + b/a = a/b = Phi

The number attained is approximately 1.6, but like Pi, it goes on forever with no discernible pattern. Hence the determiner "irrational." More on that in a minute.

As for the logarithmic spiral, if you took a Golden Ratio rectangle and drew a line across it at the point where the ratio is defined, you would find that you've created a second, smaller, Golden Ratio rectangle. Do it again with that smaller one, and you've done it again. This process can continue forever, falling into ever smaller rectangles. You've created a spiral that manifests itself in nature repeatedly: in spirally-formed seashells, in the spiral arms of galaxies, even in the way a peregrine falcon dives for its prey. Because of the fact that its eyes are on the side of its head, it cannot dive straightforward. If we were to stand at the top of the falcon's dive and watch it fade farther and farther away, we'd see the Golden Ratio in action.

Here's my contribution to the topic: chimney swifts. If you've ever watched a chimney swift diving for its nest in, yes, a chimney, you've noticed that it does not dive in a straight line either. It has an arc to it, due, again, to the positioning of its eyes on its head, that I'll bet is relative to the Golden Ratio. But the bigger question remains: what were chimney swifts called before chimneys? If they nested in hollowed out dead trees, were they known as snag swifts? Anyway, back to the math.

Livio's book is filled with the history of the number, and the history of speculation about the use of the number in art, architecture, poetry, etc. From this standpoint, it is thoroughly entertaining. He spends a lot of time debunking, as good scientists will do, and I now wonder who's rebutted his debunking. Such is the beauty of the study of any singular topic in history. There's always another opinion.

I read a term in this book I had not encountered before: recreational mathematics. Math for fun. As a high schooler, I hated math, hated it with vigor. Oddly enough, though, when it came time for my SAT's, I scored much higher on my math test than I did my English. Go figure. Well, I did. I looked back at my life. As a toddler, I memorized the serial numbers on the undersides of my Matchbox cars. When baseball cards were discovered, well, I don't even have to go into that. Every player, every stat. My friends and I even developed statistically-based baseball and professional wrestling games that generally fell into the right results: Jim Rice always had more home runs than Spike Owen. Today, I lead our local citizen science efforts, compiling reams of data that I twist and turn every way possible looking for trends, sometimes answers. Ive been a recreational mathematician all my life.

My favorite story in this book, though, had to do with the Pythagoreans. What a wacky bunch. They were so upset when a colleague discovered an irrational number that they built a tomb for him and acted like he was dead. I don't know if the world's professional mathematicians today would react so strongly, but it's amazing to me how passionate they were about math and its consequences. I think, though, that it's a key to life; without that internal fire, is life really worth living?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Man Who Swam the Amazon by Martin Strel and Matthew Mohlke

Why I read it: I was interested to see who would do such a thing and why.

Summary: The title is self-explanatory. Martin Strel swam from the river's source to its mouth, at an amazing pace of fifty to sixty miles per day. The true author of the book, Matthew Mohlke, served as one of his navigators. The book is written in journal form, covering the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforests, the villages and cities and the people that inhabit them. Mohlke also details the physical and mental toll the swim takes on Strel, not to mention the rest of the 22-person crew along in support of is Guinness Book of World Records record setting event.

My Thoughts: There are times I am simply embarrassed to be an American. Why did I never hear of this story? One would think that someone swimming the Amazon from end to end might have made headline news as it was happening. Perhaps it did. I missed it.

But that's not a surprise, really. Americans do not care about world events if a) they happen outside of the Unuted States, and b) they do not involve Americans. Watch our nightly news. We'd rather - apparently - watch a ten-minute story about how a local news team exposed a political appointee who rigged a copier at the State House to register only one of two copies so that he could pocket the profit than learn about floods in China or unrest in an African country. Blissful ignorace of international concerns has pushed us into problems before, and wil do so again (see Pearl Harbor, 9/11...).

Had Martin Strel been American, not Slovenian, I would have known he had pulled off his feat as it happened. It would have been all over the news, and he'd be on the front of a Wheaties box. In some ways, I envy the people of Slovenia who had the chance to follow his exploits as they happened. What a source of national pride it must have been.

But the greater theme of the book, for me, was posterity. What will we leave behind? Strel and Mohlke ask the question. If a slightly fat, slightly old man can swim the Amazon, what can you do? It's made me look deeply at what I've done and what I plan to do. I've worked for nonprofits all my life, fundraising, awareness raising for causes. I've written 34 books, most of which have done all of the above. And I have plenty of projects in the works. But, in the end, will I have truly done my part to improve the world? Will my effort have been a big enough deal?

Not Martin Strel big. What an inspiration. I have some thinking to do.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson

Why I read it: ALready read A Walk in the Woods, and find this Bryson guy kind of funny.

Summary: Bill Bryson grew up in the 1950s and '60s in Des Moines, Iowa, and for him, kidhood was Saturday matinees in palatial movie theaters, the Golden Age of Television (in black and white), figuring out how to skip school and barely slide by grades-wise, learning that adults cannot be trusted in any way, shape or form and wondering at the bewildering antics of his parents. In many ways, a typical American upbringing.

His memoir wraps his boyhood frame in the snuggly blanket of 1950s America: buzzcuts, Sky King, Burns and Allen, state fairs and more. It ends sadly, as all memoirs must; the Des Monies of today is no longer the exciting place of his youth. But the journey is one of joyful remembrance and superhyperbolic tales. He even, in what was also the Golden Age of Comic Books, develops his own hero persona, the Thunderbolt Kid, able to disintegrate the inconsiderate and the downright mean with a single staring glance.

My Thoughts: Right out of the chute: when will the world be ready for a memoir of childhood in the 1970s and 1980s? While much of what Bryson writes about has direct parallels to my childhood - he had a paper route, I had a paper route, his father had a habit of walking around naked at the most inopportune times... - just those twenty years of difference are enough to paint a profoundly different picture.

As a troll in a cartoon I once saw said, "Let me give ya a frinstance." While plenty of what Bryson writes about is deeply funny, and, more importantly, driven by real-life statistics of the era, the one concept that jumps out at me is the notion that there were simply more kids around in that period than ever in American history. Think about it! The millions of baby boomers as pre-pubescent pains-in-the-asses. It must not have been a problem at all to find a kid to do anything in those days: hockey, baseball, hopscotch, whipping rocks at passing cars, whatever struck your fancy.

My generation was the one that followed. My parents are the baby boomers, and while they helped repopulate the country after World War II, their broods were smaller; there were many more families, just fewer kids per. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty to do, but I just can't imagine what the '50s must have been like from that perspective.

Bryson's book is a lesson in aging. It happens to all of us, but so gradually and relatively that we often don't realize what we're missing. I, for one, am writing my memories down now. I want them to be there when I'm older, so that I can tell my son what his great-great-grandmother was like, what Zarex tasted like, and why I turned out to be the person I am.