Monday, July 13, 2015

Book review: “Eureka” by Chad Orzel.

Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist
By Chad Orzel
Basic Books (December 9, 2014)

It’s a good book, really. The problem isn’t the book, the problem is me.

Chad Orzel’s new book “Eureka” lays out how the scientific enterprise reflects in every-day activities. In four parts, “Look, Think, Test, Tell,” Chad connects examples from sports, cooking, collecting, crossword puzzles, mystery novels, and more, to the methodology used in scientific discovery. Along the way, he covers a lot of ground in astrophysics, cosmology, geology, and atomic physics. And the extinction of the dinosaurs.

It’s a well-written book, with relevant but not excessive references and footnotes; the scientific explanations are accurate yet non-technical; the anecdotes from the history of science and contemporary academia are nicely woven together with the books theme, that every one of us has an “inner scientist” who is waiting to be discovered.

To my big relief in this recent book Chad doesn’t talk to his dog. Because I’m really not a dog person. I’m the kind of person who feeds the neighbor’s cat. Sometimes. I’m also the kind of person who likes baking, running, house music, and doesn’t watch TV. I order frozen food and get it delivered to the door. Chad cooks, believes baking is black magic, plays basketball, likes rock music, and his writing draws a lot on contemporary US TV shows or movies. He might be a good science popularizer, but his sports popularization is miserable. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that somebody could read his book who, like me, doesn’t know anything about baseball, or bridge, or basketball, and therefore much of his explanations are entirely lost on me.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that made me feel so distinctly that I’m not the intended audience. Of course the whole idea of “Eureka” is totally backwards for me. You don’t have to convince me I’m capable of scientific reasoning. I have even proved capable of convincing others I’m capable of scientific reasoning. Sometimes. But I do not have the slightest idea why somebody would want to spend hours trying to throw a ball into a basket, or, even more bizarre, watch other people trying to throw balls into baskets. So some stretches of the book stretched indeed. Which is why it’s taken me so long to get through with it, since I had an advance proof more than a year ago.

Besides this, I have a general issue with the well-meant message that we were born to think scientifically, as I elaborated on in this recent post. Chad’s argument is that every one of us brings the curiosity and skills to be a scientist, and that we use many of these skills intuitively. I agree on this. Sometimes. I wish though that he had spent a few more words pointing out that being a scientist is a profession after all, and one that requires adequate education for a reason. While we do some things right intuitively, intuition can also mislead us. I understand that Chad addresses an existing cultural misconception, which is that science is only for a gifted few rather than a general way to understand the world. However, I’d rather not swap this misconception for another misconception, which is that scientific understanding comes with little guidance and effort.

In summary, it’s a great book to give to someone who is interested in sports but not in science, to help them discover their inner scientist. Chad does an excellent job pointing out how much scientific thought there is in daily life, and he gets across a lot of physics along with that. He tells the reader that approaching problems scientifically is not just helpful for researchers, but for every one to understand the world. Sometimes. Now somebody please explain me the infield fly rule.


  1. "house music"

    As in "acid house" or as in Hausmusik? :-)

  2. The Infield Fly Rule (which you really didn't want to know, but it's a chance to comment on something I sort of know about) (disclaimer: I haven't read the rule book on it, but heard it explained by sports announcers - who don't always know what they are taking about):

    First you have to know what a "force-out" is. No, first you have to know what bases are. There are four: first through third, and home. When you put a ball in play (by hitting it with a bat after it is thrown by a pitcher) and it is not caught by a member of the opposing team (fielder) before it hits the ground, then you must reach first base before that base is touched by an opposing player who has the ball, or else you are "forced out". If there was a batter on first base when you hit the ball, that batter must reach second base before that base is touched (as long as it is the base which is touched first; touching first base first "removes the force" at second base). Similarly, if there are players of your team on both first and second base when you hit the ball, the one on second base must reach third base before it is touched by a fielder (as long as the ball is not caught in the air and no other force out has occurred before this).

    There can be multiple force-outs in the same play if they are done in the right order. The most common is the "double-play" in which there is a runner on first base and the batter hits a ball which bounces on the ground before a fielder catches it, and the fielder throws it to another fielder who is touching second base (before the runner from first base arrives), and that fielder throws it to another fielder who is touching first base, before the batter arrives.

    However, if a player of the batting team is on a base when the ball is hit and leaves that base but the the ball is caught in the air, the player must return to his or her starting base and touch it before that base is touched by a fielder who has the ball, or else the player is "out" also. (The batter is also out when the ball he or she hit is caught in the air.)

    You also need to know that the batting team gets three and only three "outs" before their "inning" or round of batting is over.

    So there is a paradox, for example, if there are less than two outs and there are base-runners on first and second base and the batter hits a "pop-up" (ball that goes mostly straight up in the air, giving plenty of time for fielders to position themselves before one of them catches it). If the base-runners stay on their bases, the fielder can let the ball hit the ground, then throw it to a fielder touching third base who then throws it to a fielder touching second base, "forcing-out" the two base-runners for a double play. However, if they leave their bases to run to third and second base, the fielder catches the ball and throws it to a fielder touching either second or first base and gets a double-play that way.

    Baseball authorities decided long ago to remove this dilemma by the Infield Fly Rule, which says that in such cases the batter is out automatically whether the ball is caught in the air or not, but the play is over when this rule is invoked (by the umpire, or head referee) and the runners can neither advance nor be called out.

    (I can also explain the card game known as bridge, but it would take a little longer. No?)

    In general, sports combine the physical requirement of exercise, such as running from one base to another in baseball, with specific skills which can be developed over time, such as catching and throwing balls, and with tactics and strategies based on the rules, all driven by the evolutionary drive to compete. I see some attraction in most of them, except for golf, which seems faintly ridiculous to me, but a lot of people love it.

  3. " “Look, Think, Test, Tell" TEST. 45 years of theory remain theoretical (quantum gravitation, SUSY, dark matter). There's a roach in the raisin pudding. "baking is black magic" Maillard reaction. NaHCO3 pH-buffers Kitchen Bouquet when searing meat into pyrazines. Basketball, hockey, soccer - pray for fistfights. Science is only for a gifted few Use only requires training. Creation is different. Actress Hedy Lamarr invented frequency-hopping spread-spectrum secure communication. Grant funding wants product, settles for reputation, disdains discovery. She launched her film career by forgetting to dress.
    Cf. second quantization.

  4. Phillip: EDM in general, I'm not a fan of acid in particular. Today I heroically self-corrected a "relieve" into "relief" before you could tell me to do so ;) Best, Sabine

  5. I think the reason people play sports is captured in the title of the book: Eureka! I mean, I prefer to work on art pieces and study maths myself, but I've also always been athletic and the joy is really the same regardless. In High School I was reasonably good at the pole-vault (placed at State), and in my Marine Corps years I was a competitive power lifter and I would suggest that athletic events are addictive for the same reason as intellectual events are: those rare moments when you find the "zone!"

    When I'm studying some train of abstract reasoning, it is quite easy to get into that zone where time disappears. I'll read through the whole argument, maybe two or three times, and then I'll work through it with pencil and paper and invariably I'll see it all the way through, I'll understand it to a high degree, and those "eureka" moments are quite sublime and addictive. The same is true with sports. You can pole-vault a thousand times and every one of them is mediocre but then, on the thousand plus one occasion, everything just clicks and you just soar; you become unconstrained, greater than your mediocre self, and those "eureka" moments are quite sublime and addictive. Now I just practice yoga which is really all about finding those moments and making them the everyday!

    I was never a big fan of the Grateful Dead until the summer of 88' when I went to see a couple of Dead and Dylan shows at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin. I dropped 10 hits of LSD and everything suddenly made perfect sense: "Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile . . ." You might try the same the next time you listen to some "acid house;" after all, it's called "acid house" for a reason, Ha, Ha, Ha . . . Although I wouldn't recommend 10 hits, maybe just a half or one . . .

  6. "But I do not have the slightest idea why somebody would want to spend hours trying to throw a ball into a basket..."

    I think the point is to try to throw a ball into a basket against opposition. There is a combination of physical skills and of tactics and guile involved. It is a competitive performance things.

  7. I know I'm only digging myself a deeper hole, but "batter" refers back to the previous "When you put a ball in play (by hitting it with a bat after it is thrown by a pitcher)...". That is, the batter is the one who hits the pitched ball with a bat (a sort of wooden club).

    It would have been a better explanation had I thought to find some online videos which illustrated the various definitions: pitching, batting, base-running, etc. Oh well.

    Anyway, as arbitrary and meaningless as such activities can seem, they do sometimes provide unusual insights. Such as the time I was the pitcher (one who throws the ball towards the batter, aiming for a theoretical rectangle called the "strike zone" through which the batter can swing his or her bat effectively) for the Engineering Team in the General Electric Stream Turbine Softball League.

    The batter made a strong swing of the bat and hit the at its center of mass directly back towards me (about 40 feet away - sorry for the English units). It was coming at me so fast that I saw it not as a ball, but as a short rod, of the diameter of the ball but over a foot long, coming directly at my navel. Could this have been a quantum effect, combining the uncertainty of the ball's position with the uncertainties of various retinal nerve transmissions? Probably not, but that is what I saw. I had no time for any conscious thoughts except for a vague feeling that it was going to hurt, but as I watched the ball/rod fly toward me, I noticed something slowly entering my field of view at waist level from the left. It was the tip of my baseball glove, being impelled there by my left arm, with no conscious intent and indeed a sense of surprise that it was happening. The glove arrived about six inches in front of my navel just as the ball did (coalescing or collapsing into a sphere instead of a rod). The ball hit the webbing of the glove between my left thumb and forefinger with very load slap, and then a second softer slap as its momentum carried the ball and glove into my stomach, but without doing any injury, which it otherwise would have done.

    Since then I have been strongly aware that a lot more goes on in our brains and nervous systems than that which we consciously direct.

  8. "Phillip: EDM in general, I'm not a fan of acid in particular."

    OK. In Der Teil und das Ganze, Heisenberg mentions that he enjoys Hausmusik. :-)

  9. Caution: such books if successful may increase the number of crackpots/charlatans exponentially, especially in hep-th physics.

    Public's interest in science is a good thing as long as the irrelevant people restrain themselves from expressing uneducated opinions on things they don't understand.

    Same goes for science communicators and professional scientists who are trying to defame competing research fields in order to promote their own pet theories; opinions are valid only if they are backed by (referenced) concrete theoretical argumentation.

  10. Baseball's foundation is simple: only the defense handles the ball. The ball is a good thing for the offense in other games. The remainder is parameterization, so guys can chew tobacco, spit, and scratch themselves with dignity. Contrast APS meetings with ACS meetings (wherein the goal is to be hung over on the second day).

  11. Giotis councils:
    "Caution: such books if successful may increase the number of crackpots/charlatans exponentially, especially in hep-th physics. Public's interest in science is a good thing as long as the irrelevant people restrain themselves from expressing uneducated opinions on things they don't understand."

    Expressions in arrogance similar to this much more common now than in the past though it was ever there.
    Anyway, I'd bother picking up on it ordinarily, but am doing here because it just might be interesting for people, because there are plausible and probable connections with the 'crisis' in discovery, that I know is something the blogger and her crew return to on a regular basis.

    In the past between-generations comparing was a much less common theme. It was much more within-generation comparing...mainly because...well...that's the normal focus. We compare ourselves, and are compared with by others, our peers. Who cares about the forebears. They're history, their so-last-millennium. Their deceased!

    But now it's different because unlike almost every generation in science since that bloke Quasimodo discovered moons around Jupiter with a Dutchman's telescope, then upset the pope and I can't remember the rest. Something about saving the Welsh from the Mexicans at the battle of Waterloo I think. It's different now and we have to know our shit about history, because unlike earlier generations, there's NO PROGRESS. Not that any earlier generation would legitimize.

    So it's not worth doing the within-generation thing. No one stands out particularly any more than the next person. That's how it is.

    The connection with Giotisis is rather dislocated sense of what the 'public' are and what they own as opposed to the importane of himself and others similar as junior or whatever you call it: the individual with a plausible, hoped for, potential, yet though to make a mark; in terms of who the fuck owns the scientific hope, and who is the custodian. I think the public own the scientific hope. The public has the authority, should things continue as they are, to unceremoniously throw the lot of you out. And it may well come to that.

    The connetion of everything to his comments is that as we all know, it is the grouping who feel non-secured and their station tenuous that most fool themselves down the road of elite envisioning and compensation strategies involving belitting notions of the common genius that heaves and rings out from the common man and woman the public


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