Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eureka Man

Book Review : Eureka Man
Author : Alan W. Hirshfeld
My Rating : 2 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Eureka Man: The Life and Legacy of Archimedes".

I visited Nehru Science Center as I high school student. I still remember my astonishment after seeing the "Archimedes Screw" to get water up from a low point. The simple ingenuity made me wonder, how could he think of that trick ? That was but one small achievement for the genius mind of Archimedes, who is considered along with Newton and Gauss as the greatest mathematicians ever.

But he was much more than a mathematician. Among many other things, he was a physicist,  the greatest engineer of antiquity, an inventor and also a defense strategist for his native country Syracuse. His siege engines against the Roman army made him a legend for centuries. Galileo called him a super-human, Newton used his geometric diagrams to draw geeky graffiti, and countless other geniuses were awe-struck by the achievements of one man's mind.

So, when I saw a book on him, I had to pick it up and read. Unfortunately I was sorely disappointed.

The book has 2 parts. First part, talks quite dryly about the life of Archimedes and some of his achievements. Of course, the Eureka incident is mentioned, along with his work on levers, value of pi etc. His war engines and historical context also get a decent coverage. Little else is covered. Neither parabola, nor the spiral gets any mention. There are some nice pictures and photographs. The explanations here are OK, but what's missing is the passion.

A much bigger second half talks about the discovery of the Palimpsest - the copy from antiquity of Archimedes' original book. As interesting as the story is, it's way too much detail for me. For someone who is interested in the story of historical documents, this may be fun. Just maybe, as although it is informative, it's hardly gripping. I was bored.

It's a short book and it simply fails to respectfully treat the greatest polymath we have known. It's a shame.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is it all about Euro ?

Today the market broke many key levels (including the "devil's number") and is "officially" in the correction mode, at least according to CNBC.  Every journalist is saying the reason to be the trouble with Euro - which not so long ago was touted as the new reserve currency of the world. And once in a while, you would hear the mention of the cute acronym PIIGS. But is it really just about the ClubMed countries ? How about ...

1. UK and US having similar debt burdens ?
2. A very real possibility that China may crash ? How many empty cities can you build to pump up the economy ? The commodity prices (see copper and oil for example) have gone down - and it's not because of Europe, but concerns about China.
3. Most states in US are effectively bankrupt, and personal debt levels still very high.
4. The entire multi-trillion dollar web of interlinked derivatives still needs a lot of unwinding.

All this points to deflation and almost no growth prospects, which means P/E ratios for US equities are still very high. That's the reason IMHO for the on-going crash. Of course you will not hear this on CNBC - which can only tell you to buy on the dip so that their real masters can make you the bagholders.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anand retains the crown !

Today, Vishwanathan Anand won the 12th and final game of the match against Bulgarian Topalov, to retain the crown. This was an incredible match and deserved the dramatic finish it had today.

It didn't start that well for Anand. He first had trouble reaching the venue in Sophia, Bulgaria as the volcano eruption in Iceland had stopped all the flights. Then he lost the very first game due to a blunder. He bounced back immediately by winning the next game and equalizing the match. That was followed by very high level complicated chess by both the players - undoubtedly the 2 best players in the world today.

The match was tied before today's game. Anand won it as black. Today, he was definitely helped by Topalov, who committed a crucial blunder. But it wasn't all easy after that and Anand had to play precisely.

Overall, both players played terrific chess. The result is fair, as Anand definitely played better both technically and psychologically. His match strategy was generally better than his opponent. Even today, he avoided a draw in an equal position and kept on playing, applying pressure. This battle of nerves was over just 10 moves later, when Topalov self destructed himself. Then a desperate attempt to save the game simply did not work against the calm genius of Anand.

It's been 20 years since Anand has been at the top of the chess world. It's a phenomenal achievement. In the first half, he was second only to the greatest player in the history of chess - Kasparov. After Kasparov peaked and retired, Anand has been the overall best player. Kramnik and Topalov have had their peaks, but Anand's the only one to have the continuity.

The revolution he has caused in Indian chess is no less remarkable. He did it on his own, without any help from Indian Government, against the mighty coordinated schools of Soviet and Eastern European players, in spite of the dirty politics at the top of the chess world. And still, he is the same humble player with easy manners – which has won him fans all over the chess playing world. Just because of the inspiration provided by him, India now has a growing base of talented chess players. This game does not require strong physique and ton of money, like most other sports. It's all in the brain, of which there is no shortage in India. So one day, it's quite possible that India becomes the dominant country in chess. If that happens, Anand deserves the lion's share of the credit.

If you want to play over the games of this match, you can do so at

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mendeleyev's Dream

Book Review : Mendeleyev's Dream
Author : Paul Strathern
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

The complete title of the book is "Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements", and frankly it's a bit misleading. This is neither a biography of Mendeleyev (that's how author chooses to spell his name) nor is it any introduction to the periodic table. It's a history of Chemistry that begins of course with Greek philosophers, takes interesting detours and ends abruptly without really talking about the periodic table.

As a book on history of Chemistry, it's quite fun to read. In a relatively short book, the author manages to cover many famous scientists, their life stories, their achievements and their impact. Most of it is touching and captivating. The personalities cover a wide range of spectrum. From many famous scientists like Lavoisier, Cavendish to not so well known (at least to a layman) Paracelsus and Scheele. The anecdotes about them range from weird to tragic. The zigzag development of theory covers "Earth, Fire, Air, Water", alchemy, phlogiston to near modern chemistry. This is a very broad scope.

In addition there is a lot of trivia packed into this book, and I mean a lot. I tremendously enjoyed these additional tidbits of knowledge thrown at me.

For good or bad - (and IMHO more bad than good) - there is a lot of opinionated commentary thrown in. I cringed many times while reading the book. Some views get dismissed as religious hocus-pocus, while some are branded as "the biggest blunder in human thought" ! These are admittedly shallow comments. It's akin to dismissing ancient thinkers as stupid, because they thought the universe was earth centric. Without proper understanding of the prevailing social context, available tools for scientific experiments etc. it's simply wrong to make these judgments.

Another drawback is the lengthy detour about scientific revolution. I would have preferred a shorter discussion and more attention to actual periodic table, which was the topic suggested by the book's title !

Overall, this is a very fun book to read. It's also a very good book for high-school students who are really interested in Chemistry and want some historical context.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pleasanton Murals

I pass this mural in Pleasanton every day on my way to work. There are always cars parked in front of it. On a Sunday morning, I got a chance to take a few photos of the complete drawing - just at the same time, when someone else was also taking a photo :-)

Look closely ..

The mural without the 3-D illusion effects is nice on its own ..


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