Thursday, July 12, 2007

Another book on my reading list for the summer


Five Questions for Walter Isaacson What kind of scientific education did you have to give yourself to be able to understand and explain Einstein's ideas?

Isaacson: I've always loved science, and I had a group of great physicists--such as Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss, and Murray Gell-Mann--who tutored me, helped me learn the physics, and checked various versions of my book. I also learned the tensor calculus underlying general relativity, but tried to avoid spending too much time on it in the book. I wanted to capture the imaginative beauty of Einstein's scientific leaps, but I hope folks who want to delve more deeply into the science will read Einstein books by such scientists as Abraham Pais, Jeremy Bernstein, Brian Greene, and others. That Einstein was a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office when he revolutionized our understanding of the physical world has often been treated as ironic or even absurd. But you argue that in many ways his time there fostered his discoveries. Could you explain?

Isaacson: I think he was lucky to be at the patent office rather than serving as an acolyte in the academy trying to please senior professors and teach the conventional wisdom. As a patent examiner, he got to visualize the physical realities underlying scientific concepts. He had a boss who told him to question every premise and assumption. And as Peter Galison shows in Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps, many of the patent applications involved synchronizing clocks using signals that traveled at the speed of light. So with his office-mate Michele Besso as a sounding board, he was primed to make the leap to special relativity. That time in the patent office makes him sound far more like a practical scientist and tinkerer than the usual image of the wild-haired professor, and more like your previous biographical subject, the multitalented but eminently earthly Benjamin Franklin. Did you see connections between them?

Isaacson: I like writing about creativity, and that's what Franklin and Einstein shared. They also had great curiosity and imagination. But Franklin was a more practical man who was not very theoretical, and Einstein was the opposite in that regard. Of the many legends that have accumulated around Einstein, what did you find to be least true? Most true?

Isaacson: The least true legend is that he failed math as a schoolboy. He was actually great in math, because he could visualize equations. He knew they were nature's brushstrokes for painting her wonders. For example, he could look at Maxwell's equations and marvel at what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave, and he could look at Max Planck's equations about radiation and realize that Planck's constant meant that light was a particle as well as a wave. The most true legend is how rebellious and defiant of authority he was. You see it in his politics, his personal life, and his science. At Time and CNN and the Aspen Institute, you've worked with many of the leading thinkers and leaders of the day. Now that you've had the chance to get to know Einstein so well, did he remind you of anyone from our day who shares at least some of his remarkable qualities?

Isaacson: There are many creative scientists, most notably Stephen Hawking, who wrote the essay on Einstein as "Person of the Century" when I was editor of Time. In the world of technology, Steve Jobs has the same creative imagination and ability to think differently that distinguished Einstein, and Bill Gates has the same intellectual intensity. I wish I knew politicians who had the creativity and human instincts of Einstein, or for that matter the wise feel for our common values of Benjamin Franklin.


Sunday, June 3, 2007

Treasured Violins' Daily Diet

From the NY Times (June 3, 2007)

CREMONA, Italy — A violin, it turns out, needs to be played, just as a car needs to be driven and a human body shooed off the couch. In this city that produced the best violins ever made, that job belongs to Andrea Mosconi. He is 75, and for the past 30 years, six days a week, he has finger-fed 300-year-old violins, worth millions, a diet of Bach, Tchaikovsky and Bartok.

Every morning, Mr. Mosconi, the city’s official musical conservationist, stands before pristine, multilocked glass cases and faces three violins by the Amatis (one of the first makers of the modern violin, from the mid-16th century), two by the Guarneris and four instruments — three violins and a cello — by Stradivari. Mr. Mosconi has no favorite: The very question is a mild affront.


To see a video feature of the article: here

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Voice for the Outcasts

Water, a 2006 film written and directed by Deepa Mehta, is a touching story about lives of Hindu widows who are outcasts by their society shackled by religion and tradition.

The story, set in 1938 in a small "holy" town by the river, tells poignant tales of women whose lives were forever imprisoned by an old religious tradition: when one's husband dies, one lives out the rest of her life, half-dead.

In colonial India around 1938, child marriages were prevalent in society. Many children married men old enough to be their fathers, if not grandfathers. Some of these children ended up as widows before they knew what marriage meant, or, ironically, before they met their husbands.

All widows were (and are still in parts of India) confined to Ashrams, sanctuary homes for widows. Whether they were children, girls, women, or seniors, these women lived on the fringe of society. They were forbidden to eat most kinds of food. They wore only white, with their locks of hair shaved off. They lived below poverty. As "untouchables", they had to bare the rest of their lives in seclusion and self-exile, in order to find supposedly self-liberation, the highest spiritual state for Hinduism.

However, such religious laws could not chain the human heart, its longings to live, to love, and to be free.

The protagonist, a little girl named Chuyia, married and widowed by the age of eight, attempted to escape but didn't know where to go. She learned and witnessed her restricted life as a widow through lives of other widows who lived day-by-day as shadowy ghosts dreaming of the world outside. She befriended a beautiful young widow who became an outcast at nine years old, who was forced to work as a prostitute to support living expenses of other widows, and who in the end could only escape her terrible circumstances in death. She also witnessed another widow's strong faith, that all things had reason and hope.

It was a story of stories.
Stories which explored the human heart, will, and soul.
It was a story of hidden anguish and despair.
It was a story of love.
It was a story of lost lives and dreams.
It was a story to speak up for ones who had no voice.
It was a story against traditional beliefs.
It was a story about freedom and hope.
It was a story about the unbreakable human spirit.
A magnificent triumph!

Old Regrets, says Charlie Brown

Monday, April 16, 2007

Never let her go...

First published in 2005, "Never Let Me Go" (by Kazuo Ishiguro) was nominated for Britain's Man Booker Prize. I just read it. Actually, I read the last 160 pages of the book in "one sitting" -- what a poignant tale of love, redemption, morality, and free will. Ultimately, the story asks us what it means to be human.

Some critics commented that the story is a modern-day Kafka (or Borges). Perhaps. I don't want to spoil the plot, which is tightly crafted and suspenseful. However, I will comment on the narrative, which is a powerful tool to explore the human psyche. (The narrative style is a signature of Kazuo Ishiguro's works).

The story is told as a narrative memoir by the main character, Kathy H. She reflected on her past and struggled to make sense of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. From her "personal narrative", the reader experiences what her life was like. Although not every thought or feeling was made explicit, her seemingly simple narrative carried the reader to somewhere deeper to explore what are found in us all. Sign of a great read? You bet.

[Yes I still have more to say.]

Two things revolved around the story, which readers couldn't run away from:

Her narrative centered around a "secret", shared by all of her closest friends. The "secret" ran her life and that of her friends in ways they could not change. Some critics catagorized her "secret" as science fiction, which (I think) isn't really the author's intent. Her "secret" makes her story "futuristic", but that alone is hardly "science fiction".

Another aspect was what gave the book its title "Never Let Me Go". It was a song which Kathy liked very much. Everyone else involved in her story had a slightly different viewpoint of the song and its meaning. I thought it is sort of a metaphor for art. Artists create. Audiences interpret, each in his own way.

I can't wait to read the book again.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Theory On Trial: Science Behind Piero's Painting

The Flagellation c. 1455
by Piero della Francesca
Oil and tempera on panel, 59 x 82 cm
Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino


Can an artistic piece of work be interpreted using mathematical methods? Is it valid to make assumptions that a Renaissance painter (who is also a mathmatician) used geometric rules to guide his artisitic creation?

An article from this week's Nature reported a science historian's discoveries, uncovering mysteries surrounding a Renaissance masterpiece - The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca (c. 1455). Its most puzzling feature falls on the identification of the three men standing on the right (see above).

David King, a historian of scientific instruments (Frankfurt, Germany), proposed his interpretation of Piero's painting. It revealed elements of mathematics and how they shaped Piero's vision for his art.

How did King's discovery begin?

Originally, King was interested in a particular 15th Century Astrolobe - instrument used by astronomers to tell timeline and alignment of planets. (see below). It was a gift from Johannes Regiomontanus to Cardinal Ioannis Bessarion, dated around the time Piero painted The Flagellation. A learned Greek scholar, Cardinal Bessarion was Regiomontanus' mentor. The gift to his teacher was made before Regiomontanus left Vienna for Rome.

What intrigued David King was the "spacing pattern" of the inscription on the bottom - letters were unevenly distributed. King decided to study it further. It roughly translates to: "Under the protection of Bessarion, I arise in Rome in 1462 as a work of Johannes explaining the rotation of the universe." More, a rather surprising detail came out of King's readings: the Cardinal Bessarion had been proposed to be the bearded man in The Flagellation.

King and Holzschuh, then, enlarged the inscription to align letters to figures in the painting (see vertical lines drawn over the painting below). Decoding the inscriptions meant solving "identities" for each figure. For example, "IO from IOANNIS". These deductions helped King propose multiple identities for each figure in the "flagellation scene", contrary to conventional belief.

But what about the three men? King proposed the following:
Bearded man: Bessarion
Youth: Regiomontanus
Man on the right: multiple identities that include Giovanni Bacci (a possible sponsor)

King argued that multiple identities ensured that the painting could be interpreted in different ways, thus paying tribute to its original title "They came together in one" (Convenerunt in unum).

Where did the math come into play? -- in the "gloden ratio", said King.
" (A:B) = [(A+B):A] " King hypothesized that Piero used it to precisely workout "viewer perspectives" for the painting. If true, Piero was ahead of his time.

Is King's theory fact or fiction?
Many critics and art historians disagree with King's theory, though he has supporters, too. Evidence King needs to prove his theory may never be found, said Architect James Bradburne (Florence, Italy). King needs to show direct evidence that calculations were made for sketching the draft of the painting and that alignments were recorded according to the Astrolobe for Cardinal Bessarion.

It is gratifying to me that artists used mathematical (or, scientific) theories to inspire and guide their art. What is artistic creation, if it is not built on improvements discovered by men to reveal humanity? Artists of today might want to think back on masterworks created during the Renaissance period, when knowledge from diverse areas intermingled, leading to a creative product. For example, studying Human Anatomy led to technical advancements in painting and sculpture, under Humanism influence.

I think modern-day educational directions are deficient in teaching people to combine knowledge from various seeminly unrelated fields. Most professional fields have schematized steps to teach a person a specific set of skills. BUT, is that all one needs? Aren't we taught to think "outside of the box"?

News Feature:
Nature 446, 488-492 (29 March 2007) | doi:10.1038/446488a; Published online 28 March 2007

For a "real" lecture, go to:

Sunday, March 25, 2007