book review: hidden figures

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race is pretty much what the title implies. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the story of the West Computers, starting from the WW2 days when computers meant people who did math, up to the Apollo 7 mission. It was a story I hadn’t heard before, not like the women of Bletchley Park breaking the Nazi codes in WW2 (though I suppose even the Bletchley story isn’t something I grew up hearing).

The story is interesting and Shetterly tells it well, though it does meander through a few people’s stories, meaning it doesn’t have a person to hang the story on (I imagine the movie version was more focused than the book is). It felt a bit like a lot of anecdotes plus authorial interjections about how meaningful that was.

One thing I wanted a lot more of was what exactly these women did. I wanted to see some math, instead of just taking the author’s word that they were doing very smart things. I kind of got the impression that Shetterly didn’t trust her audience to actually find the math interesting, and that put a bit of an interpretive distance between the text and me. It also felt a bit like a model-minority narrative, but that’s less about the book than about the decision to write this specific book, so whatever. Also, the military-industrial-complex rah rah ing (look how much these scientists had to do with the B-29 that delivered death to millions of people) was something that raised my hackles.

But in all, it was good.

book review: the number devil

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure is an illustrated story about how weird numbers can be. A boy is tormented by a teacher who gives boring math problems in school and then is visited in his dreams by a number devil who introduces him to prime numbers, factorials, number pyramids and a host of other math concepts (but with different names, which would probably get confusing if you were trying to use this as a textbook).

The introductions are not at all in-depth; they mostly focus on how weird it is that numbers can do these things. So it’s probably a lousy textbook. And it’s not really much of a story either. What it is is a kind of children’s Socratic dialogue about numbers. No real explanations are given but intriguing hints about the depths to which you can explore Fibonacci sequences and the like litter the pages. It’s like a field of rabbit holes for someone to get intrigued by and then fall into by getting answers (such as they are) in other books.

book review: logicomix

Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.

The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.

The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.

There were brief appearances by a pile of mathematician/philosophers I’ve read about elsewhere, including Wittgenstein and Godel.

Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.

book review: stories of your life and others

Ted Chiang is amazing. The short stories in Stories of Your Life and Others are practically all amazing in the ways they twist your brain into new ways of seeing. There are stories about the tower of Babel and about mass-producing golems and about angelic manifestations, along with alien languages that don’t work sequentially and mathematics being proven as meaningless. It’s such a fantastic collection I can barely even talk about it, because I’d seriously start recapping the stories to show how cool they are and it’s much better if you’d just read them. If you have any interest in science fiction, you must read this book.

book review: the girl who couldn’t come

For a very long time I avoided sexytimes in books. I wasn’t a stereotypical undersexed housewife so I didn’t need to spend my time on stupid Harlequin romances. (I’m still not and still don’t.) And isn’t writing about sex like doing math about a sunset or something? But Joey Comeau‘s book of sexy short stories, The Girl Who Couldn’t Come, is pretty great and he brought me around to the world of non-degrading/non-stupid sex fiction. (Well, he and Jess Fink.)

These aren’t grand romance stories filled with angst and yearning; they are funny (in that Joey Comeau kind of way) stories filled with sex. He refers to them, well, here’s his description:

This is a book of dirty stories. It is a book where sex is fun and good and people are kind to each other. Also there are ghosts and there is math and there are obsessive compulsive disorders.

These stories are weird and fun and often bewildering, like sex itself.

There’s rough sex (with a trigger warning, which I didn’t know was a thing till reading this book), gay sex, a werewolf and sex with the titular girl who needs to be listening to Johnny Cash’s voice to orgasm. If you are looking for a short collection of smut you can check out a bunch of the stories here.

book review: a madman dreams of turing machines

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin is about two of the 20th century’s geniuses, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. It was an okay book, but unsatisfying. I felt like the book was too focused on a few scenes (one in the Vienna coffee house and the other being under the floorboards at school, both of which happen early) leaving the rest to be word-count padding. The self-consciously literary tone put so much distance between the reader and the subjects that nothing felt consequential. I mean, yes, we see Godel unveil his theorem in Vienna. We spend section after section there in that coffee house, coming at it from different angles, but the writer is so concerned with her descriptions and her own ghostly presence that we’re disconnected from everything. And Turing gets even less, apart from showing how odd and gay he was. Everything felt like specimens under glass, which is fine as far as it goes, but left me kind of cold.