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Science Books

April 19, 2007

Why Beauty Is Truth: The Story of Symmetry
Ian Stewart (2007)
ISBN: 046508236X

This is yet another contribution to the math-really-isn't-dull canon of popular science books, except in this case author Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice?, really delivers on that premise. As a professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick, Stewart begins by explaining that behind all of the grand theories of physics - such as relativity theory, quantum mechanics and string theory - lays the concept of symmetry. But even before delving into the fascinating nuances of symmetry, Stewart introduces us to its many colorful and eccentric progenitors, who get themselves into all manner of mischief. Among these vibrant personalities is the rogue, gambler and indisputable Italian genius Girolamo Cardano, and the passionate and revolutionary mathematician Evariste Galois, whose life ended swiftly after coming out second best in a duel over a woman. Cardano was said to have stolen the modern method of solving cubic equations, and then took the liberty of publishing them in a seminal text on algebra. And while Galois wasn't out wooing women and picking fights he was changing the entire face of mathematics, no less. Whoever said mathematics was the sole realm of anally retentive isolates obviously hadn't met this line up of rogues, reprobates and romantics. Moving on to symmetry itself is no less astonishing in Stewart's capable hands. Stewart examines the mysterious numerology of real mathematics, where some numbers have weird and irregular properties linked to symmetry. Stewart also shows how the very existence of "Lie groups," discovered by Wilhelm Killing, with 14, 52, 78, 133, and 248 dimensions continues to remain a conundrum. Later stages of Why Beauty Is Truth include Stewart's musings on what might be beyond superstrings, which may one day enlighten us as to the origins of the universe itself.

The Great Pyramid: Ancient Egypt Revisited (Hardcover)
John Romer (2007)
ISBN: 0521871662

Whether it's how their giant stones were transported, what their geographic layout signifies, how perfect their architecture, or whether an alien race built them, Egypt's pyramids are synonymous with mystery. But now John Romer, who has worked as an archaeologist in Egypt for over 40-years, presents us with some new insights into the great pyramids of Giza. Romer acknowledges that architectural marvels such as the Great Pyramid of Giza are certainly difficult to reconcile today, given that they were honed from Bronze Age technology. Romer says that such pyramids would have taken a national workforce of 21,000 workers, and would have taken at least 14 years to build. As we have all been told at one time or another, Egyptologists explain that this massive workforce was likely recruited through the kidnapping and enslavement of able bodied folk from nearby villages. It is then believed that this backward-thinking labor force was directed on how to build the pyramids by a modest number of qualified noblemen. But according to Romer, this picture of a Giza building site is pure fantasy (enormous Hollywood sets, greased-up slaves, and the cracking of whips come to mind). Romer argues that pyramid workers were not only willing, intelligent and resourceful participants, but that they worked from a single blueprint. Romer describes this blueprint as a "hidden logic" that has somehow either eluded or been denied by other scholars, and of which only Romer has knowledge. Romer's claims may or may not be far fetched, but his writing is thoroughly engaging, albeit a little technical on occasion.

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