Read These Books and Be Smarter

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With Covid-19 limitations on so many activities, we are doing so much reading there is a threat that we will wear out all the books!

I have four items here that are deep, and intellectually engaging. A scholarly look at literature by one of the great living American authors, two addressing the history of science in Victorian England by two of the leading experts, and an engaging deep dive into the way the human brain comes to grip with mathematics and numbers in general.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley consists of 279 pages with narrow margins and small type providing 13 different views of novels as a phenomenon. This is the best modern dissection of the art I’ve seen. These rich and engaging pages are then followed by almost the same exact number of pages of commentary and (to a lesser extent) synopsis of 100 novels. If you ever want a list of the great novels over time, from which to chose new material to read, this list is excellent, but be warned: It is a fairly uniform sampling, and you know what that means.

An essential guide for writers and readers alike, here is Smiley’s great celebration of the novel. As she embarks on an exhilarating tour through one hundred titles—from classics such as the thousand-year-old Tale of Genji to recent fiction by Zadie Smith and Alice Munro—she explores the power of the form, looking at its history and variety, its cultural impact, and just how it works its magic. She invites us behind the scenes of novel-writing, sharing her own habits and spilling the secrets of her craft, and offering priceless advice to aspiring authors. Every page infects us anew with the passion for reading that is the governing spirit of this gift to book lovers everywhere.

If you don’t know Jane Smiley as an author (and academic) you should. One of my favorite novels of all time is by her: JANE SMILEY: MOO* (That is the Amazon link, but it is been around a long time, so look for a used copy. This version on Amazon is just under one thousand dollars. Must be some kind of mistake!)

A Brain for Numbers: The Biology of the Number Instinct (The MIT Press) by Andreas Nieder* “Nieder explores how the workings of the brain give rise to numerical competence, tracing flair for numbers to dedicated “number neurons” in the brain. Drawing on a range of methods including brain imaging techniques, behavioral experiments, and twin studies, he outlines a new, integrated understanding of the talent for numbers. Along the way, he compares the numerical capabilities of humans and animals, and discusses the benefits animals reap from such a capability. He shows how the neurobiological roots of the brain’s nonverbal quantification capacity are the evolutionary foundation of more elaborate numerical skills. He discusses how number signs and symbols are represented in the brain; calculation capability and the “neuromythology” of mathematical genius; the “start-up tools” for counting and developmental of dyscalculia (a number disorder analogous to the reading disorder dyslexia); and how the brain processes the abstract concept of zero.

This blog,for a while, was called “The X Blog” in celebration of “The X Club,” which was a thing of the Darwin-Huxley ilk. Turns out there is a book about The X Club, and this is it: The X Club: Power and Authority in Victorian Science by Ruth Barton. Those of you who know this blog, and my Facebook community, well know Ruth’s husband. Anyway, do not google “The X Club” in mixed company, but do read the book.

“In 1864, amid headline-grabbing heresy trials, members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science were asked to sign a declaration affirming that science and scripture were in agreement. Many criticized the new test of orthodoxy; nine decided that collaborative action was required. The X Club tells their story.*

These six ambitious professionals and three wealthy amateurs—J. D. Hooker, T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Edward Frankland, George Busk, T. A. Hirst, and Herbert Spencer—wanted to guide the development of science and public opinion on issues where science impinged on daily life, religious belief, and politics. They formed a private dining club, which they named the X Club, to discuss and further their plans. As Ruth Barton shows, they had a clear objective: they wanted to promote “scientific habits of mind,” which they sought to do through lectures, journalism, and science education. They devoted enormous effort to the expansion of science education, with real, but mixed, success.

?For twenty years, the X Club was the most powerful network in Victorian science—the men succeeded each other in the presidency of the Royal Society for a dozen years. Barton’s group biography traces the roots of their success and the lasting effects of their championing of science against those who attempted to limit or control it, along the way shedding light on the social organization of science, the interactions of science and the state, and the places of science and scientific men in elite culture in the Victorian era.”

And, in the spirit of inquiry, consider The Spirit of Inquiry: How one extraordinary society shaped modern science by Susannah Gibson*. “Cambridge is now world-famous as a centre of science, but it wasn’t always so. Before the nineteenth century, the sciences were of little importance in the University of Cambridge. But that began to change in 1819 when two young Cambridge fellows took a geological fieldtrip to the Isle of Wight. Adam Sedgwick and John Stevens Henslow spent their days there exploring, unearthing dazzling fossils, dreaming up elaborate theories about the formation of the earth, and bemoaning the lack of serious science in their ancient university. As they threw themselves into the exciting new science of geology – conjuring millions of years of history from the evidence they found in the island’s rocks – they also began to dream of a new scientific society for Cambridge. This society would bring together like-minded young men who wished to learn of the latest science from overseas, and would encourage original research in Cambridge. It would be, they wrote, a society “to keep alive the spirit of inquiry”.

Their vision was realised when they founded the Cambridge Philosophical Society later that same year. Its founders could not have imagined the impact the Cambridge Philosophical Society would have: it was responsible for the first publication of Charles Darwin’s scientific writings, and hosted some of the most heated debates about evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century; it saw the first announcement of x-ray diffraction by a young Lawrence Bragg – a technique that would revolutionise the physical, chemical and life sciences; it published the first paper by C.T.R. Wilson on his cloud chamber – a device that opened up a previously-unimaginable world of sub-atomic particles. 200 years on from the Society’s foundation, this book reflects on the achievements of Sedgwick, Henslow, their peers, and their successors. Susannah Gibson explains how Cambridge moved from what Sedgwick saw as a “death-like stagnation” (really little more than a provincial training school for Church of England clergy) to being a world-leader in the sciences. And she shows how science, once a peripheral activity undertaken for interest by a small number of wealthy gentlemen, has transformed into an enormously well-funded activity that can affect every aspect of our lives.”

That should cover you for the rest of the month.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
*Please note:
Links to books and other items on this page and elsewhere on Greg Ladens' blog may send you to Amazon, where I am a registered affiliate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, which helps to fund this site.

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3 thoughts on “Read These Books and Be Smarter

  1. Thank you for these suggestions, Greg. I will be ordering The Spirit of Inquiry at a minimum — not least to learn more about Adam Sedgewick. The good professor figures in Irving Stone’s The Origin, in which he takes young Charles Darwin on a three-week geology trip to Wales. When Darwin returns home, he finds a letter offering him a voyage with one Captain Fitzroy. The rest, as they say, is history.

    http://www.chris-winter.com/Erudition/Reviews/Mainstem/Stone_I/Origin.html

  2. If you don’t know Jane Smiley as an author (and academic) you should. One of my favorite novels of all time is by her: JANE SMILEY: MOO* (That is the Amazon link, but it is been around a long time, so look for a used copy. This version on Amazon is just under one thousand dollars. Must be some kind of mistake!)

    It must have been corrected. Tonight, neither edition is priced at anywhere close to a kilobuck. The mass market paperback lists for $9.43. (But I’d look on eBay for it.)

  3. Jimena Canales has a new book that may fit right in with The X Club. It is Bedeviled: A Shadow History of Demons in Science from Princeton University Press. It gets a good review from Jess Keiser.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-shadowy-spirits-that-helped-advance-science/2020/12/23/6995cec8-35b0-11eb-b59c-adb7153d10c2_story.html

    For that matter, Keiser’s own book Nervous Fictions: Literary Form and the Enlightenment Origins of Neuroscience. may also fit in.

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