Review: Deadliest Enemy

Review: Deadliest Enemy

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs by Michael T. Osterholm

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a critical point in history. Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose. Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?

If I had read this book in more normal circumstances, I do not know how I would have responded. Perhaps I would have been slightly unnerved, but I think I would have been able to sleep soundly by dismissing most of it as alarmist. In fact, I did just this a few months ago, when I read Bill Bryson’s book on the body, and scoffed at his claim that another 1918-style pandemic was easily possible. Nowadays, however, reading this book is more depressing than anything. Those in the field saw this crisis coming from miles away, but few of us listened. The epidemiological community must feel rather like Cassandras right about now: uttering prophecies that nobody pays any attention to.

(As Osterholm was responsible for most of the ideas in this book, and as it is written from his perspective, I will refer to him as the author in this review.)

This book attempted to be the Silent Spring for infectious diseases. That it did not succeed in doing so is attributable just as much to human nature as to the book itself. Limiting the use of pesticides is fairly easy and relatively painless for most of us. But mobilizing the political will necessary to prepare for health crises in the hypothetical future—preparations that would involve a great deal of money and many institutional changes—is not such an easy sell, especially since we had been lulled into a false sense of security. As is the case with climate change, the dangers seemed so remote and theoretical that for most of us it was difficult to even imagine them.

After witnessing what this new coronavirus has done to our entire way of life in a few short weeks, I was quite disposed to take Osterholm seriously. And I think the entire content of the book—not just the warnings about a potential pandemic—are valuable. Osterholm turns his attention to a wide array of threats: Zika, AIDS, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Malaria, Ebola, MERS. We are vulnerable on many fronts, and we are generally not doing much to prepare.

One example are the many diseases that are transmitted by mosquito bites. As modern transportation has introduced disease-carrying mosquitos into ever-more parts of the world, and global warming expands the geographic range of mosquitos, this will be an increasing concern. (Silent Spring may, ironically, have contributed to this problem.) Another worry is bio-terrorism. Now that we can see how paralyzing even a moderately lethal virus can be, imagine the damage could be inflicted by a genetically-modified virus. And the technology to edit genes is becoming cheaper by the year. We have already experienced bio-terrorism in the US on a relatively small scale with the 2001 anthrax attacks. This is just a taste of what is possible. According to Osterholm, a mere kilogram of the anthrax bacteria could potentially kill more than an atomic bomb. And it would be far cheaper to acquire.

But these are not even the biggest threats. According to Osterholm, we face two virtual certainties: another flu pandemic, and the imminent ineffectiveness of antibiotics.

The latter is quite terrifying to consider. Antibiotics are not easy to discover, and our arsenal is limited. Meanwhile, bacteria constantly evolve in response to environmental pressures, including to the use of antibiotics. It is inevitable that resistance to available antibiotics will increase; and this could have a profound effect on modern medicine. Even routine operations like knee-replacements would be unsafe if we did not have effective antibiotics. Slight injures—a scratch in the garden from a rose-bush—could result in amputations or even deaths. And yet, antibiotics continue to be widely prescribed for ailments they cannot treat, and given indiscriminately to livestock, which only accelerates the impending bacterial resistance.

The other major threat (as we are learning) is a pandemic. Now, Osterholm was not precisely correct in predicting the cause of the next pandemic, since he thought it would be a flu virus (though he does have a good chapter on coronaviruses, and in any case a flu pandemic is still just as possible). But he is certainly correct in identifying our many structural weaknesses. He notes our lack of stockpiles and correctly predicts a shortage in protective gear, face masks, and ventilators in the event of a pandemic. And though medical science has advanced a lot since 1918, in many ways we are even more vulnerable than we were back then, most notably because of our supply chains. Since so many of our medicines and medical equipment—among other things—are produced overseas, shortages are inevitable if trade is disrupted.

Osterholm is quite illuminating in his discussing of pharmaceutical companies and their incentives. As private businesses, they have little to gain by investing in preventative vaccines or in new antibiotics. In the former case, this is because vaccines have to undergo thorough testing and pass FDA approval, requiring millions in investment, only to face the prospect of uncertain demand once the vaccine hits the market. The case of SARS is instructive. After the disease was identified in 2002, companies rushed to make a vaccine; but when SARS receded, interest in the vaccine disappeared and pharmaceutical companies, cutting their losses, stopped work on the vaccine. We still do not have one.

The incentive system is just as ineffective when it comes to antibiotics. Finding new antibiotics is costly; and since there are currently many cheap antibiotics on the market, a new patented antibiotic probably would not turn a large profit. Besides, effective antibiotic stewardship requires that we use them sparingly, thus further limiting profit potential. Drug companies have much more to gain by creating products that would require continuous use, such as for chronic conditions. Letting the free market decide which drugs get developed, therefore, is not the wisest decision. Osterholm advocates the same approach as taken by government in weapons contracts, wherein the government essentially guarantees payment for any product that meets specifications.

Osterholm’s most ambitious idea for government funding is for a new universal flu vaccine. The flu vaccine we are all familiar with is based on old technology, and can only provide protection from a few strains of flu. Scientists essentially must guess what sort of flu will be circulating in a year; and they must do so every year. But Osterholm thinks that there is good reason to believe that a universal flu vaccine is possible, and recommends we devote at least as much money to such a vaccine as we devote to AIDS research. This seems very sensible to me, since the next pandemic will likely enough come from a flu virus.

I am summarizing Osterholm’s book, but I do not think I am doing justice to its emotional power. Now that I am living through the events that Osterholm predicts (in surprising detail), I feel a strange mixture of outrage and fear: outrage that governments did not listen when they had time, and fear that we will repeat the same mistakes when this current crisis is over. I cannot help but be reminded of another situation in which we comfortably ignore the dire warning of scientists: climate change. My biggest hope for the current crisis, then, is that afterwards we will be more willing to heed the warnings of these nerds in lab coats.



View all my reviews

Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

Review: John Maynard Keynes (a Biography)

John Maynard Keynes: 1883-1946: Economist, Philosopher, Statesman by Robert Skidelsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keynes’s paradox, which few could grasp and which many would find unacceptable today if expressed in ordinary language, is that horrendous events may have trivial causes, and easy remedies.

This is an ambitious and impressive biography of one of the most influential men of the last century. Robert Skidelsky was a pure historian before turning his attention to economics; and in this book he attempts to do justice to Keynes’s moment in history as well as his ideas. It does not make for light reading. After trying to read Keynes’s own General Theory and finding many parts of it impenetrable, I hoped that Skidelsky’s book would provide a gentler introduction to Keynes’s ideas. But this this book is not economics for dummies.

The hardest going sections were not, however, the bits devoted to economic theory, but the detailed reports of negotiations and plans undertaken by Keynes in his many official capacities. Here is just an example:

Keynes’s main effort to get the Stablization Fund to put on the clothes of the Clearing Union was his proposal to monetise unitas. The crucial structural difference between the Clearing Bank and the Stabilization Fund set-ups was that in the Keynes Plan member central banks banked with the central banks. Member central banks would subscribe their quotas to the Fund’s account…

And so on. Probably there are a fair number of readers who could follow this sort of writing with interest, but at the moment I am not one of them.

It would be seriously unfair, however, to suggest that the whole of the book is like this. Many parts are quite entertaining. The beginning years are especially so, when Keynes was in Cambridge and then a member of the famed Bloomsbury Group. I was surprised and amused at the open homosexuality of Keynes’s milieu, and the fluidity of his sexual life. Of more lasting interest, of course, is the intellectual climate in which the young economist was growing up. Skidelsky is wonderful when it comes to intellectual history, and he able shows how the circulating theories shaped Keynes’s attitudes for the rest of his life. I would not have guessed, for example, that Keynes was so deeply influenced by G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica.

Skidelsky is also very skilled in his ability to trace the growth of Keynes’s major intellectual theories. He does this by pairing the influence of the historical moment with the inner machinations of Keynes’s mind, showing how the economist used, adapted, and discarded the economic orthodoxy he inherited when faced with the Great Depression. The chapter on the General Theory—Keyne’s most important book—is lucid and will greatly aid my further understanding of macro-economics. Thus, in the most essential task of a Keynes’s biography, Skidelsky undoubtedly succeeded.

Apart from the dryness and density of some sections of the book—mostly concentrated in the last chapters, when Keynes was heavily involved in planning for the post-WWII economy—the book has other flaws. The most notable, for me, was probably a consequence of Skidelsky’s intellectual seriousness. That is, he is so focused on Keynes’s ideas that Keynes himself can be left behind. Strangely, though one learns a great deal about Keynes, one seldom feels that one has “met” him. The economist’s personality remains rather vague and distant.

It would be generous to call this biography a page-turner. But Keynes is perhaps not the ideal subject for a readable biography. As Skidelsky repeatedly notes, Keynes was born into privilege and remained there the rest of his life. He was a thoroughbred member of the Establishment. Thus there is no spectacle of a struggling underdog or of rags to riches. Further, much of Keynes’s influence and activity resided in the intricacies of trade arrangements, exchange rates, currency valuations, and so on. He can come across as a hyper-competent civil servant.

There was another side to Keynes, however, which is quite a bit more attractive. As already mentioned, he was a member of the Bloomsbury Group—friends with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf—and deeply valued all of the arts. He spent a great deal of time and money supporting his painter friends, and was heavily involved in the world of ballet and theater through his wife. In spite of his great practical gifts and his flair for finance, Keynes was not a crass materialist and consistently thought that the good life required more than ready cash.

Politically speaking, Keynes appears to have not been particularly ideological. He could not be readily assimilable into the Right or the Left, and instead preached a “middle way” based largely on competence rather than values. As Skidelsky notes, “Keynes was moved to wrath not so much by a ‘fiery passion for justice and equality’, as by ‘an impatience with how badly society was managed’.” This is not an altogether winsome quality, I think; though it does have a certain appeal—a world of ultra-efficient technocrats resolving problems without partisan bickering.

Indeed, as Skidelsky notes, this was largely the promise of the Keynesian Revolution, which more or less collapsed in the 1970s. In the final section of the book Skidelsky includes an even-handed evaluation of the successes and failures of Keynes’s ideas in practice. Certainly I am not qualfied to judge myself. But I do think that, as we look another depression in the face, we will be thinking an awful lot more about Keynes in the coming months.

View all my reviews

Review: Sons and Lovers

Review: Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My reactions to this book veered from extremely positive to quite negative, so it is difficult to know how to begin. If you have an ear for prose, then Lawrence will seldom completely disappoint. At his best, Lawrence’s prose is lush, caressing, and aching. He evokes a kind of aesthetic tenderness that I have seldom experienced elsewhere—an intimacy between the reader and himself, a vulnerability that is disarming. In his strongest passages Lawrence is as meditative as Proust and as lyrical as Keats.

But this book is, unfortunately, not exclusively composed of Lawrence’s strongest passages. And as it wore on, I felt that Lawrence had exhausted his limited emotional range, and was overplaying his thematic material.

The premise of the book is quite simple: a woman in an unsatisfying marriage pours her emotions into her sons, who then become so dependent on her that they cannot form satisfying relationships for themselves. For me, there is nothing wrong with this (arrestingly Freudian) idea; but I did think that Lawrence beats the reader over the head with it. In general, I think it is unwise for any book to be too exclusively devoted to a theme. It does not leave enough room for levity, for spontaneity, for fresh air to blow through its pages. Sons and Lovers certainly suffers from this defect.

But the book’s faults become apparent only in the second half. I thought the beginning of the novel was quite astonishingly beautiful. Lawrence wrote of the sufferings of a young wife with amazing sympathy. He manages to bring out all the nobility and strength of Mrs. Morel, while avoiding portraying Mr. Morel in an unnecessarily harsh light. The miner is a flawed man in a crushing situation, and his wife is a resolute woman with few options. Their tragedy is as social as it is personal, which gives this section of the novel its great power.

When the focus shifts from Mrs. Morel to her son Paul, then the quality generally declines. Paul is not as interesting or as compelling as his mother; and his problems seem like sexual hang-ups or psychological limitations, rather than anything diagnostic of society at large. Perhaps our own social climate is just not ripe for this novel. Nowadays we are little disposed to care about the inability of a young man to find complete satisfaction in his relationships.

In fairness, there are charming and insightful sections in this second part of the novel as well. I liked Miriam as a character and I thought the dynamic between her and Paul was compelling, if a touch implausible. (On the other hand, I disliked the reconciliation between Clara and her pathetic husband.) Even so, I thought that the writing became noticeably worse as the book went on, as Lawrence inclined more and more to repetition. The characters speak, desire, recoil, hate each other, relapse, and so on. It is tiresome and it begins to wear on the reader, who longs for someone to do something decisive and bring all this emotional dithering to an end.

I am hopeful that Lawrence’s later novels have more of his strengths (his sympathy, his lyricism, his tenderness) and fewer of his weaknesses (his lack of range, his lack of humor). As for this one, I will end where I begin, with a confused shrug.



View all my reviews

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

Review: A Manual of Greek Mathematics

A Manual of Greek Mathematics by Thomas L. Heath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the case of mathematics, it is the Greek contribution which it is most essential to know, for it was the Greeks who first made mathematics a science.


As a supplement to my interest in the history of science, I figured that I ought to take a look into the history of mathematics, since the two are quite intimately related. This naturally led me to the Greeks and to Sir Thomas L. Heath, who remains the most noteworthy translator, divulgator, and commentator in English eighty years after his death. This book is likely the best single volume you can get on the subject, as it covers all of the major mathematicians in some detail while giving a complete overview.

It is also reasonably accessible (“reasonably” being the operative word). Certainly it is no work of popular math in the modern sense; it is not pleasure reading, and Heath assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the reader’s part. A thorough knowledge of algebra and geometry is assumed, and a few words in ancient Greek are not translated. What is more, large sections of the book are essentially extended summaries and explications of Greek treatises, which makes them almost impossible to read without the original text alongside. Personally I would certainly have appreciated more spoon-feeding, as it was quite difficult for me to prevent my eyes from glazing over.

The book is divided primarily by subject-matter and secondarily by chronology. Heath introduces us to notation, fractions, and techniques of calculation, and then on to arithmetic. Geometry, of course, dominates the book, as it was the primarily form of Greek mathematical thought. Heath summarizes the contributions to geometry by Pythagoras and his followers, and the scattered mathematicians we know of in the years between Thales and Euclid. Once Euclid appears, he writes his famous Elements, which encapsulates the entire subject and which rendered many previous works obsolete. After Euclid we come to the divine Archimedes and the great Apollonius, who put the capstone on the tradition. Ptolemy (among others) made great advances in trigonometry, while Diophantus made strides in algebra (as well as inspired Fermat).

Heath’s account of these mathematicians is largely internal, meaning that he is focused on the growth of their ideas rather than anything external to the science. Reading this convinced me—as if further evidence was needed—that I do not have the moral fiber or intellectual temper to appreciate mathematics. Heath writes admiringly of the works of Euclid and Archimedes, finding them not only brilliant but beautiful. While I can normally appreciate the brilliance, the beauty normally escapes me. Ratios, volumes, lines, and equations simply do not make my heart beat.

Indeed, the questions that I find most fascinating are those that are hardly touched upon in this book. Most important, perhaps, is this: What aspect of a culture or a society is conducive to the development of pure mathematics? Though claims of Greek specialness or superiority seem antiqued at best nowadays, it is true that the Greeks made outstanding contributions to science and math; while the Roman contribution to those fields—at least on the theoretical side—is close to nil. The mathematics of Ancient Egypt amount to techniques for practical calculations. Admittedly, as Otto Neugebauer wrote about in his Exact Sciences of Antiquity, the Babylonians had quite advanced mathematics, allowing them to solve complex polynomials; they also had impressive tabulations of the heavenly motions.

Even so, it was the Greeks who created science and math in the modern sense, by focusing on generality. That is, rather than collect data or develop techniques for specific problems, the Greeks were intent on proving theorems that would hold in every case. This also characterizes their philosophy and science: a rigorous search after an absolute truth. This cultural orientation towards the truth in the most general, absolute form seems quite historically special. It arose in one fairly limited area, and lasted for only a few centuries. Most striking is the Greek disdain of the practical—something that runs from Pythagoras, through Plato, to Archimedes.

Of the top of my head, here are some possible factors for this cultural development. The Greek economy was based on slavery, so that citizens often could afford to disdain the practical. What is more, the Greek political model was based on the city-state—a small, close-knit community with limited expansionist aims and thus with limited need for great infrastructure or novel weapons. The relative lack of economic, political, or military pressure perhaps freed intellectuals to pursue wholly theoretical projects, with standards that arose from pure logic rather than necessity. Maybe this seems plausible; but I am sure many other societies fit this description, not just the Greeks. The development of culture is something that we do not fully understand, to say the least.

This has taken me quite far afield. In sum, this book is an excellent place to start—either by itself, or as a companion to the original Greek works—if you are interested in learning something about this astounding intellectual tradition. That the Greeks could get so far using geometry alone—that is, without variables or equations—is a testament to human genius and persistence.



View all my reviews

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book did not conform to my expectations, and this is often a cause of bitterness with me. I opened Winesburg, Ohio thinking that it would be a series of carefully-plotted, intersecting short stories illustrating the reality of small-town life in America. And I was excited for this hypothetical book, since it seemed like a wonderful concept. But Anderson had quite different ideas, and his were far less to my taste.

For one, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio have very little in the way of plot, and so they can hardly weave an intricate tapestry. The effect is not that of a carefully worked-out machine, but if a simple accumulation. What is more, this is hardly a work of realism in any meaningful sense. Anderson is not one for sensory details, nor for social analysis; his world is composed of individual souls residing in a shadowy world. The stories could have taken place just as easily in Winesburg as in Warsaw, since Anderson’s fundamental concern is something much more universal.

The insistent message of these stories is that people are bound up within themselves, their inner passions shut off from the world, and they have little idea how to rectify their situation. Thus, the stories follow a characteristic pattern: The protagonist’s frustrated dreams and desires are narrated, and then a crisis follows in which the character tries, unsuccessfully, to disburden herself of this frustration. This usually takes the form of a frantic encounter with George Willard, the young town reporter. The story ends as soon as the crisis is shown to be unsuccessful.

I have many criticisms of these stories. Anderson is as guilty as any author can be of telling and not showing. His stories consist almost entirely of narration. What is worse, I often found the narration unsuccessful, as Anderson seems allergic to the use of vivid, concrete details. We are never in the moment with a character, never able to watch a scene unfold in our mind’s eye. Someone extremely sympathetic to Anderson’s style may argue that this creatures a distance between the reader and the story which mirrors the emotional distance between Anderson’s characters. In my case, however, the result was often apathy or bemusement.

As an example of his style, consider this passage:

There was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift. Everyone felt it. In the schoolroom she was silent, cold, and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils. Once in a long while something seemed to have come over her and she was happy. All of the children in the schoolroom felt the effect of her happiness. For a time they did not work but sat back in their chairs and looked at her.

This passage is characteristic in its almost total lack of sensory information. Indeed it seems intentionally vague: “in an odd way,” “something came over her,” “felt the effect”—these phrases suggest that Anderson himself was not interested in really picturing to himself how this strange scene could actually play out. It also shows a kind of curious anti-realism when it comes to describing human behavior. As somebody who has worked as a teacher, I can scarcely imagine the reaction of young pupils to a mysteriously happy teacher being to simply look at her. Has Anderson ever been around a child?

Of course, an author is under no obligation to describe people as behaving realistically. Nevertheless, I think that this oddity is symptomatic of one of the paradoxes in these short stories: though they are about the innermost struggles of different individuals, Anderson seems rather uninterested in his characters as individuals. The persons in this book can hardly be called individuals, in fact, but are mere points of tension. They have problems but no personalities, and once their crisis is over they have no further interest. The way that Anderson writes dialogue is particularly infelicitous—unnatural to the point that it must have been intentional, but which nevertheless struck me as jarring. Luckily, there is not much of it.

What perhaps struck me most about these stories is how strongly they reminded me of a lot of contemporary writing. The idea that we are all silently suffering, or that, in Anderson’s own words, “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”—and, most importantly, that emotional expression will fix this problem—this strikes me as a profoundly limited worldview. For my part, I do not think that emotional connection alone is enough to solve any problem, unless it is supplemented by a thoughtful empathy—the ability to see humans in the round and not as simply balls of frustrated passions.

Indeed, as Lionel Trilling argues in his excellent essay on Anderson, the paradox of this philosophy is that it can lead to a world just as cold and brutal as one of repressed desires. And yet, this is an idea that I encounter again and again: that all we need is emotional expression. Expression is easy, however, while understanding is infinitely more difficult.

View all my reviews

Review: The Works of Archimedes

Review: The Works of Archimedes

The Works of Archimedes by Archimedes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In fact, how many theorems in geometry which have seemed at first impracticable are in time successfully worked out!

Many of the most influential and ingenious books ever written possess the strange quality of being simultaneously exhilarating and quite boring. Unless you are among that rare class of people who enjoy a mathematical demonstration more than a symphony, this book will likely possess this odd duality. I admit this is the case for me. Reading this book was a constant exercise in fighting the tendency for my eyes to glaze over. But I am happy to report that it is worth the trouble.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century BCE, somewhat after Euclid, in Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Apart from this, not much else can be said with certainty about the man. But he is the subject of many memorable stories. Everybody knows, for example, the story of his taking a bath and then running through the streets naked, shouting “Eureka!” We also hear of Archimedes using levers to move massive boats, and claiming that he could move the whole earth if he just had a place to stand on. Even his death is the subject of legend. After keeping the invading Romans at bay using ingenious weapons—catapults, cranes, and even mirrors to set ships afire—Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, too preoccupied with a mathematical problem to care for his own well-being.

True or not, good stories tend to accumulate around figures who are worthy of our attention. And Archimedes is certainly worthy. Archimedes did not leave us any extended works, but instead a collection of treatises on several topics. The central concern in these different works—the keystone to Archimedes’s method—is measurement. Archimedes set his brilliant mind to measuring things that many have concerned impossible to reckon. His work, then, is an almost literal demonstration of the human mind’s ability to scan, delimit, and calculate things far outside the scope of our experience.

As a simple example of this, Archimedes established the ratios between the surface areas and volumes of spheres and cylinders—an accomplishment the mathematician was so proud of that he apparently asked for it to be inscribed on his tombstone. Cicero describes coming across this tombstone in a dilapidated state, so perhaps this story is true. Archimedes also set to work on giving an accurate estimation of the value of pi, which he accomplished by inscribing and circumscribing 96-sided polygons around a circle, and calculating their perimeters. If this sounds relatively simple to you, keep in mind that Archimedes was operating without variables or equations, in the wholly-geometrical style of the Greeks.

Archimedes’s works on conoids, spheroids, and spirals show a similar preoccupation with measurement. What all of these figures have in common is, of course, that they are composed of curved lines. How to calculate the areas contained by such figures is not at all obvious. To do so, Archimedes had to invent a procedure that was essentially equivalent to the modern integral calculus. That is, Archimedes used a method of exhaustion, inscribing and circumscribing ever-more figures composed of straight lines, until an arbitrarily small gap remained between his approximations and what he was attempting to measure. To employ such a method in an age before analytic geometry had even been invented is, I think, an accomplishment difficult to fully appreciate. When the calculus was finally invented, about two thousand years later, it was by men who were “standing on the shoulders of giants.” In his time, Archimedes had few shoulders to stand on.

The most literal example of Archimedes’s concern with measurement is his short work, The Sand Reckoner. In this, he attempts to calculate the number of grains of sand that would be needed to fill up the whole universe. We owe to this bizarre little exercise our knowledge of Aristarchus of Samos, the ancient astronomer who argued that the sun is positioned at the center of the universe. Archimedes mentions Aristarchus because a heliocentric universe would have to be considerably bigger than a geocentric one (since there is no parallax observed of the stars); and Archimedes wanted to calculate the biggest universe possible. He arrives at a number is quite literally astronomical. The point of the exercise, however, is not in the specific number arrived at, but in formulating a way of writing very large numbers. (This was not easy in the ancient Greek numeral system.) Thus, we partly owe to Archimedes our concept of orders of magnitude.

Archimedes’s contributions to natural science are just as significant as his work in pure mathematics. Indeed, one can make the case that Archimedes is the originator of our entire approach to the natural sciences; since it was he who most convincingly demonstrated that physical relationships could be described in purely mathematical form. In his work on levers, for example, Archimedes shows how the center of gravity can be found, and how simple principles can explain the mechanical operation of counterbalancing weights. Contrast this with the approach taken by Aristotle in his Physics, who uses wholly qualitative descriptions and categories to give a causal explanation of physical motion. Archimedes, by contrast, pays no attention to cause whatever, but describes the physical relationship in quantitative terms. This is the exact approach taken by Galileo and Newton.

Arguably, the greatest masterpiece in this collection is On Floating Bodies. Here, Archimedes describes a physical relationship that still bears his name: the relationship of density and shape to buoyancy. While everyone knows thpe story of Archimedes and the crown, it is possible that Archimedes’s attention was turned to this problem while working on the design for an enormous ship, the Syracusia, built to be given as a present to Ptolemy III of Egypt. This would explain Book II, which is devoted to finding the resting position of several different parabolas (more or less the shape of a ship’s hull) in a fluid. The mathematical analysis is truly stunning—so very far beyond what any of his contemporaries were capable of that it can seem even eerie in its sophistication. Even today, it would take a skilled physicist to calculate how a given parabola would rest when placed in a fluid. To do so in ancient times was simply extraordinary.

Typical of ancient Greek mathematics, the results in Archimedes’s works are given in such a way that it is difficult to tell how he originally arrived at these conclusions. Surely, he did not follow the steps of the final proof as it is presented. But then how did he do it? This question was answered quite unexpectedly, with the discovery of the Archimedes Palimpsest in the early 1900s. This was a medieval prayer book that contained the remains of two previously unknown works of Archimedes. (Parchment was so expensive that scribes often scraped old books off to write new ones; but the faded impression of the original work is still visible on the manuscript.) One of these works was the Ostomachion, a collection of different shapes that can be recombined to form a square in thousands of different ways (and it was the task of the mathematician to determine how many).

The other was the Method, which is Archimedes’s account of how he made his geometrical discoveries. Apparently, he did so by clever use of weights and balances, imagining how different shapes could be made to balance one another. His method of exhaustion was also a crucial component, since it allowed Archimedes to calculate the areas of irregular shapes. A proper Greek, Archimedes considered mechanical means to be intellectually unsatisfactory, and so re-cast the results obtained using this method into pure geometrical form for his other treatises. If it were not for the serendipitous discovery of this manuscript, and the dedicated work of many scholars, this insight into his method would have been forever lost to history.

As I hope you can see, Archimedes was a genius among geniuses, a thinker of the rarest caliber. His works are exhilarating demonstrations of the power of the human mind. And yet, they are also—let us admit it—not the most exciting things to read, at least for most of us mere mortals. Speaking for myself, I would need a patient expert as a guide if I wanted to understand any of these works in detail. Even then, it would be hard work. Indeed, I have to admit that, on the whole, I find mathematicians to be a strange group. For the life of me I cannot get excited about the ratio of a sphere to a cylinder—something that Archimedes saw as the culmination of his entire life.

Archimedes is the very embodiment of the man absorbed in impractical pursuits—so obsessed with the world of spirals and curves that he could not even avoid a real sword thrust his way. And yet, if subsequent history has shown anything, it is that these apparently impractical, frigid, and abstract pursuits can reveal deep truths about the universe we live in—much deeper than the high-flown speculations of our philosophers. I think this lesson is worth suffering through a little boredom.



View all my reviews

Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

View all my reviews

Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



View all my reviews

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Review: Economics (Great Courses)

Economics by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Economics is one subject that causes me perpetual unease. Everybody cares about the economy, of course, and everybody argues about how it should be structured and managed. Imposing terminology is thrown around, graphs and statistics are wheeled out, and yet the situation always seems quite unclear to me. So I was pleased when Timothy Taylor framed his lectures, not as the gospel truth of economics, but as an introduction to the language of economics. Learning this language is essential if you would like to take part in this endless societal argument.

Considering the restraints of time and of format, I think that Taylor deserves praise for these lectures. In 18 hours, he manages to cover all of the major topics of micro- and macro-economics—supply and demand, price curves, government regulation, fiscal policy, etc.—in an accessible but not overly simplistic style. Further, Taylor is an engaging speaker whose enthusiasm for a potentially dreary subject helps to alleviate the dryness. Someone has got to get excited about interest rates, I suppose.

A major shortcoming of these lectures is that they were recorded in 2005, just before the enormous financial crash. Surely, a new edition is called for. Considering how much time has passed, however, I think that these lectures have held up remarkably well. For the most part, the major disagreements and issues in economics do not seem to have changed very much. Everything is here—healthcare costs, financial crashes, trade wars, deficits—which is probably not a reason to celebrate.

If Taylor can be criticized, I think it should be for inserting too many of his own views into these lectures. Some degree of editorializing is inevitable in any academic course, I think. But Taylor is quite an opinionated guide, and never hesitates to advocate for his pet policies. Admittedly this did make the lectures more interesting at times; but it also undermined Taylor’s insistence that economics is merely a way of thinking rather than a specific doctrine. To the contrary, these lectures contain very specific presumptions about and prescriptions for a successful society (hint: it is all about a free market).

Speaking more generally, it is frustrating for me the degree to which the social sciences inhabit parallel worlds. Not only do anthropology, psychology, and economics study different sorts of phenomena, but they make very different assumptions about human behavior—which often contradict one another. I was acutely aware of this while listening to these lectures, since I was concurrently reading psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which argues that the rational agent model of economic actors is fundamentally flawed. Meanwhile, my brother is reading anthropologist David Graebner’s book about the many different (non-capitalist) ways that economic activity has been carried out throughout time and across space.

Compared to psychology and anthropology, economics can seem worrisomely abstract to me—too content to rest its conclusions on untested assumptions and a priori principles. In these lectures, for example, I would have appreciated more case studies of historical examples in lieu of theoretical explanations. This would have illustrated the concepts’ usefulness far more effectively, I think.

But I am drifting off topic. As a painless introduction to economics, these lectures do an admirable job. It is a fascinating discipline with much to teach us. I am glad to have a break for now, though. A dismal science indeed.



View all my reviews

Review: the Martian Chronicles

Review: the Martian Chronicles

Crónicas marcianas by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am not sure that I am in the best position to judge this short story collection, since the circumstances of my reading it were far from optimal. I downloaded the audio version to pass the time on a long drive, and I decided on the Spanish translation since my co-pilot would have fallen asleep otherwise. I soon discovered that listening to a foreign-language book while navigating mountain roads is not conducive to careful appreciation (or careful driving).

This is much closer to a short-story collection than to a conventional novel, but Bradbury blurred the lines a bit by adding some connecting passages to his stories (originally published separately). It is really only the setting and a vague sense of chronology that connects the separate chapters. And despite his post-facto additions, Bradbury did not achieve full consistency in his Martian world. This is not a problem, however, since I think the inconsistency adds to the stories rather than detracts. The final effect is much like an episodic TV show, which can invent itself anew with each iteration.

Bradbury has become known as a science-fiction writer; and yet these stories may be more accurately described as “anti-science fiction.” He has little interest in the details of technology, cosmology, or space travel, and even less interest in making his stories plausible or realistic. Indeed, Bradbury is not merely uninterested, but positively worried about what the future may bring. For Bradbury, Mars is not the fourth planet from the sun—with its own moons, its unique geology, its practical challenges—but a kind of parallel world where his fears can play out. Much like The Twilight Zone, these stories have one consistent message: “Be careful what you wish for.” Where other people saw the dawning of the space age, Bradbury saw only an extension of human idiocy beyond the clouds.

Arguably, this is quite a conservative message—anti-science, anti-technology, anti-change—but it also resonated with me. I remember being a little kid and contemplating the wonders that the future would bring: flying cars, tourism to the moon, miracle cures. Nowadays, this mood of optimism seems very distant. New technologies, rather than filling us with wonder, are prompting second-thoughts: automation that reduces job opportunities, face-recognition technology that only extends the surveillance state, or the unknown threat of artificial intelligence. And when I think of space travel, rather than imagining the next glorious phase of humanity’s ascent, two buffoons come to mind: Elon Musk (with his SpaceX) and Donald Trump (with his Space Force).

Well, I do not want to get too gloomy in a book review. My point is that Bradbury’s stories may indeed contain a valuable lesson: be careful what you wish for.



View all my reviews