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I was given A Sixth Sense while on a work visit to Schlumberger's research centre in Cambridge. It is a biography of Henri-Georges Doll, the brother-in-law of the two Schlumberger brothers who founded the company, and the key technical and scientific mind behind the company's development of well-logging techniques upon which its success is, in part, based. It must be said, I went into it with fairly low expectations, reasoning that any history a major global company gives you as a freebie is going to have more than a little of the hagiography about it.

I was pleasantly surprised. As far as I can tell it is an honest attempt at a biography, since adopted by the company, rather than something commissioned by them. That said, it is clear, especially in the later chapters, that the necessity to keep on the right side of the Schlumberger family in order to access records means that some aspects of company politics have had to be alluded to in passing, rather than examined in detail. Pierre Schlumberger's time as the head of the company was presumably troubled, but this is visible only as a few passing references to a difficult personality and then his sudden removal from control. Doll himself suddenly ceases to have active control of the Ridgefield Research centre that he founded, and moves to Manhattan to become chairman of the board but, it would appear, is a chairman in name rather than actual fact. He commented ruefully that decisions were made and apparently signed off by him without his even being aware of them. The politics behind this demotion dressed as promotion are not discussed.

Where the book is excellent though is in discussing Doll's early years of technical innovation, as he seeks develop the use of electrical resistivity to help locate oil-bearing layers in exploratory bore holes. As well as being a discussion of scientific discovery, this is an interesting look at the conduct of science in a commercial setting, where the need to be profitable (or at least solvent) has a strong bearing on the direction and pursuit of research. All this plays out against the backdrop of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, including an ill-fated collaboration with Russia (which ultimately ends when the head of Schlumberger's Russian branch is arrested, his fate at the hands of the regime only finally revealed decades later) and the company's flight to America and participation in the American war effort.

It is a flawed book, but its flaws are those of historians constrained by their sources and the wishes of the living, not of writers for hire for a global corporation. As gifts in corporate goodie bags go, this was pretty classy.
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Full disclosure. Marc Read and I are old friends. Our children, when not in rooms at opposite ends of the house, refusing to speak to each other, are good friends, so, you know...

New Stars for Old is a series of vignettes fictionalising the lives of famous astronomers. The vignettes range over a number of forms including letters and diaries, as well as subject matter, sometimes focusing on a single moment from an astronomer's life, while at other times they take in the grand sweep of events. Similarly sometimes the astronomer is at the heart of the story and at others the focus is on someone, real or fictional who was drawn into their orbit. At the end of each chapter Marc provides a short section outlining the history behind the story.

Marc writes well, the vignettes are easy to read and none outstay their welcome. However, I was beginning to chafe a bit about half way through. In spite of the different takes on the basic premise it was all a bit samey, but the book picked up a lot as it moved into the late medieval and early modern periods. I suspect this has a lot to do with the amount of historical evidence Marc had access too. Suddenly the characters seemed a lot more individual and interesting and the stories had more to say, I was particularly taken by Kepler and Bellarmine, but Tycho Brahe is also vividly drawn over several chapters. When the book finally stopped at Newton, I was disappointed it wasn't going to carry on into the Englightenment.

New Stars for Old is good book, definitely worth getting if you have an interest in the history of science or astronomy. It's at its best when fictionalising people and events for which a reasonable historical record exists, but its pacey and well-written enough that even the patchier sections pass by easily.
purplecat: Hand Drawn picture of a Toy Cat (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] kargicq recommended this book to me as a good introduction to the history of science and, since it was on Dad's bookshelves, I helped myself. It covers, essentially, the history of European science from Copernicus to the Chemical Revolution which, crucially, defines the period in which "scientific method" emerged and was refined.

Some random ramblings under the cut, not assisted by the fact I seem to have lost the actual book itself )

Anyway, if you are seriously interested in the history of science this is an excellent text book, if a little too large to read comfortably in bed!
purplecat: (books)
The Code Book by Simon Singh is a tour through the history of codemaking and codebreaking, with the odd digression into Tudor politics and the translation of ancient languages. As such it pretty much does what it says on the tin. I've always been interested in cryptography and was happily entertained by it. I could follow all the descriptions of cryptographic techniques but I'm not sure how easy that would have been for someone without any relevant background. In several places I skipped over bits of explanations I was familiar with, e.g. what is a prime number, so clearly the book was making an attempt to be clear to readers with less of a maths background. It certainly contained plenty of examples which are often key to following mathematical stuff.

I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I hadn't had a pre-existing interest in cryptography. I was fascinated by the thought, for instance, that frequency analysis isn't at all an obvious technique and, in fact, simple alphabetical substitution ciphers were sufficient for hundreds of years. I've been using basic frequency analysis to crack code problems since I was in my early teens, if not earlier and had always unthinkingly considered it totally obvious. I was also particularly interested in the use of, essentially, code-breaking techniques to decipher both Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B and in the history of modern cryptographic protocols for key exchange and public-private key encryption. Of course the history of modern cryptography is very closely tied up with the history of the computer which again probably increased my interest in the topic. The book was very readable but I did occasionally feel it perhaps lacked the spark that would grab a casual reader who had never really thought about cryptography before. However if you are at all interested in the subject then this comes highly recommended.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/24035.html.
purplecat: (books)
The Code Book by Simon Singh is a tour through the history of codemaking and codebreaking, with the odd digression into Tudor politics and the translation of ancient languages. As such it pretty much does what it says on the tin. I've always been interested in cryptography and was happily entertained by it. I could follow all the descriptions of cryptographic techniques but I'm not sure how easy that would have been for someone without any relevant background. In several places I skipped over bits of explanations I was familiar with, e.g. what is a prime number, so clearly the book was making an attempt to be clear to readers with less of a maths background. It certainly contained plenty of examples which are often key to following mathematical stuff.

I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I hadn't had a pre-existing interest in cryptography. I was fascinated by the thought, for instance, that frequency analysis isn't at all an obvious technique and, in fact, simple alphabetical substitution ciphers were sufficient for hundreds of years. I've been using basic frequency analysis to crack code problems since I was in my early teens, if not earlier and had always unthinkingly considered it totally obvious. I was also particularly interested in the use of, essentially, code-breaking techniques to decipher both Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B and in the history of modern cryptographic protocols for key exchange and public-private key encryption. Of course the history of modern cryptography is very closely tied up with the history of the computer which again probably increased my interest in the topic. The book was very readable but I did occasionally feel it perhaps lacked the spark that would grab a casual reader who had never really thought about cryptography before. However if you are at all interested in the subject then this comes highly recommended.
purplecat: (books)
[personal profile] ladyofastolat recommended Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I think this was when I was talking about The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow. They are very similar books in lots of ways. They are both group biographies of the scientists and technologists of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. I think Age of Wonder is definitely the stronger of the two.

More under the Cut )

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/8432.html.
purplecat: (books)
[personal profile] ladyofastolat recommended Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I think this was when I was talking about The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow. They are very similar books in lots of ways. They are both group biographies of the scientists and technologists of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain. I think Age of Wonder is definitely the stronger of the two.

More under the Cut )
purplecat: (books)
I stole rescued Man and Nature in the Renaissance by Allen G. Debus from my father's bookshelves a few months ago, once again prompted by an interest in the history of science. The book is primarily interested in the development of the chemical and biological sciences during the renaissance as opposed to the physical sciences, partly I suspect because the work in these areas is less a part of the scientific folk mythology of the period.

I was very struck by the stress the book placed on the fact that many of the advances, e.g. Descartes' work in Geometry and Optics were made by people who nevertheless also believed stuff that was wrong (e.g. Descartes did not admit of the possibility of a vacuum, so his cosmology is exciting and interesting). Debus likes to frame this as a belief in alchemy and/or magic. I'm not quite sure what point he's trying to make there. I mean scientists believe wrong stuff all the time, even in this day and age. We have much clearer methodologies for sorting out the incorrect from the correct beliefs, but that doesn't stop us making incorrect hypotheses, developing incorrect theses and world models or just being plain mystified about forces like gravity. So, I wasn't really all that surprised, in an age where scientific method was in its infancy, to find a much less clear line between the correct and incorrect. That may have been the point, but the use of the words magic and alchemy suggested to me that Debus was trying to draw a different distinction that was deeper than just being right about stuff and being wrong about stuff.

I also found the book fascinating when it touched on the debates among the philosophers of the time over scientific method itself. In particular that for many renaissance philosophers mathematical models and empirical models were seen as opposing rather than complimentary. In general, in modern science, we seek to have a mathematical description of the world that is backed up by empirical evidence, whereas Debus presents opposing schools of thought that believed that either all was exhaustively empirical and that you must catalogue and observe everything before, maybe, hypothesising a model or that progress should proceed by reason and deduction, unhampered by observation. Galileo therefore emerges as something of a hero towards the end of the book as he marries observation and mathematics into the beginnings of something recognisable as scientific method.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/3695.html.
purplecat: (books)
I stole rescued Man and Nature in the Renaissance by Allen G. Debus from my father's bookshelves a few months ago, once again prompted by an interest in the history of science. The book is primarily interested in the development of the chemical and biological sciences during the renaissance as opposed to the physical sciences, partly I suspect because the work in these areas is less a part of the scientific folk mythology of the period.

I was very struck by the stress the book placed on the fact that many of the advances, e.g. Descartes' work in Geometry and Optics were made by people who nevertheless also believed stuff that was wrong (e.g. Descartes did not admit of the possibility of a vacuum, so his cosmology is exciting and interesting). Debus likes to frame this as a belief in alchemy and/or magic. I'm not quite sure what point he's trying to make there. I mean scientists believe wrong stuff all the time, even in this day and age. We have much clearer methodologies for sorting out the incorrect from the correct beliefs, but that doesn't stop us making incorrect hypotheses, developing incorrect theses and world models or just being plain mystified about forces like gravity. So, I wasn't really all that surprised, in an age where scientific method was in its infancy, to find a much less clear line between the correct and incorrect. That may have been the point, but the use of the words magic and alchemy suggested to me that Debus was trying to draw a different distinction that was deeper than just being right about stuff and being wrong about stuff.

I also found the book fascinating when it touched on the debates among the philosophers of the time over scientific method itself. In particular that for many renaissance philosophers mathematical models and empirical models were seen as opposing rather than complimentary. In general, in modern science, we seek to have a mathematical description of the world that is backed up by empirical evidence, whereas Debus presents opposing schools of thought that believed that either all was exhaustively empirical and that you must catalogue and observe everything before, maybe, hypothesising a model or that progress should proceed by reason and deduction, unhampered by observation. Galileo therefore emerges as something of a hero towards the end of the book as he marries observation and mathematics into the beginnings of something recognisable as scientific method.

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