Book 253: Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard


Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius by Angeline Stoll Lillard

Finished reading on October 6th, 2019

Rating: 10/10

I have to start this review by admitting that prior to reading this book I might have heard the name Montessori mentioned a couple of times in  some videos on YouTube, but had no idea what it was really about.

So let’s get to the book. This book reviews the scientific work that either supports or refutes or does neither with the Montessori teaching/learning method. In a Montessori class children rarely follow a lecture by the teacher or do work in a workbook, but are rather taught by (as I gather) mostly hands-on materials that are self-correcting or gather information on their own.

The students can choose what and when to concentrate on and there would only be a few occasions when the teacher present would stop a student from doing something (when it’s disturbing other students etc).

The book was very interesting to read as a new parent and as someone who has gone through a traditional education system – I just felt like I would have been really happy working with Montessori materials and choosing when and on what to work with peers.

The scientific work seems to support Montessori learning, at least some skills and at some ages are definitely improved when compared with traditional schooling. But I think one of the most important aspects would still be that students might be happier choosing their work, being able to concentrate on chosen work, and not being graded.

If I’d have the opportunity I’d most likely opt for Montessori schooling for my son. In part because I know how driving curiosity abut the world and how things work can be, and in part because children learning to read early sounds great to me as a bookworm 🙂

As an introduction to what Montessori education is about, it’s great – Lillard talks about some of the materials used in a Montessori classroom, the activities there and learning for mastery rather than grades etc.



Book 252: Exploring the Psychology of Interest by Paul J. Silvia

Exploring the Psychology of Interest by Paul J. Silvia

Finished reading on January 7th, 2018

I happened across this book when, at one moment, I started to ponder the questions “What is interesting?” and “Why is this interesting?”

This book present the various ideas and theories about interest and interests. One of the main ideas in the book is that interest is an emotion; and another that interests are somehow more ingrained lasting attitudes towards some subjects or fields etc.

The first part of the book is about the emotion of interest, which is thought to arise from five characteristics of an object or situation etc:  novelty, challenge, attention demand, exploration intention, and instant enjoyment. Silvia references some studies where for example pictures or shapes of different levels of complexity are shown and subjects get to move on to a next one in a series when they don’t find it interesting anymore. More complex things are perceived as more interesting. While less complex ones are perceived as more enjoyable.

A part of this book deals with what makes a text interesting and whether readers pay more attention to interesting text. There appear to be different levels of engagement with the text that are dependent on whether the reader finds it interesting. An interested reader is more likely to put forth new ideas connected to the text than someone who didn’t find the text interesting. The less interested person would pay more attention to the text and it’s form, while the person who finds the text interesting might miss the form and focus on the ideas and meanings. Both would be able to remember the main ideas in the text, but the more interested person would be more likely to remember the order of the ideas.

Can it then be said that if something is interesting, it will be thought-provoking? I would like to think so.

A part of the book also presents various ideas on vocational interests and ideas about how we might attain them – not much appears to be known about it, but it seems to be easy enough to measure specific kinds of interests to at least try and suggest what kind of work situation might be a good fit for a person or their interests at any rate.

Now coming back to those questions that I was wondering about that led me to this book. Did I find out what and why is interesting? In a way maybe, but I’m not quite sure. So it’s a situation that is enjoyable (or makes you happy I guess?), but there’s uncertainty about whether or not you have all the relevant information about it, and you feel like the information can be obtained and understood.

Although at first I was slightly baffled by even just the notion of interest as an emotion, it does explain why in the case of 9 books out of 10 I want to say and write that “it was interesting”.

So when I feel like a concept cannot be understood, then I won’t find it interesting.

An interesting (here I go…) point was about appraising something as interesting (or scary or anything else) and misattributing it to a cause that might not be the real factor causing the feeling. But you can still think that it was the real cause.

Knowing this, it is easy to understand how a text or object can become fascinating when you find out more about the context (and it explains why I always thought that when I don’t find something interesting, it’s only because I don’t know enough about it, with the obvious exceptions of law, politics and economics which couldn’t possibly be interesting ).

Also we perceive something as interesting when it’s in a conflict of some kind with our ideas for example.

If interest really is an emotion, then I’d choose to be more interested over being happier any day… it’s much more interesting! 🙂

Book 251: Teaching and Learning STEM by R.M. Felder and R. Brent

Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent

Finished reading on January 6th, 2018

This book provides the tools and ideas about how to design and teach courses in higher education and how to teach so that students would gain professional skills in addition to knowledge about specific subjects. The authors have provided a lot of practical advice starting from how to come up with learning objectives that can actually be tested, to ways how to move beyond lecturing and to start implementing active learning methods in a variety of forms and what to do when students resist those methods.

Since I’m right at the receiving and giving end of STEM education, I found this book illuminating from both the teaching and learning aspects.

The first thing that caught my attention was learning objectives. They have to be clear and observable, so that the student would be able to tell what’s expected of them and so that the teacher could find a way to test or observe whether or not the student has fulfilled the objective.

Reading about Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives prompted me to read the objectives of the courses that I’m currently enrolled in or will be taking in the spring, to see how they fit in that scheme of things. Bloom’s taxonomy has six levels of objectives in case of cognitive skills. Starting from the lowest (but still necessary!) there are: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating.

In the case of some of the courses that I’m taking, all the class objectives were about remembering, understanding and applying (which are the three lowest levels), and a few rare examples went beyond that to analyzing, but not to evaluating and creating (the two highest levels); and then there was one, where all types of objectives were represented. The last one baffled me at first, but thinking back on the course and what types of teaching methods were used, it is quite obvious that the lecturers have put a lot of effort into it. And I have an inkling of a doubt that one of the lecturers has possibly read this particular book as well. That makes me feel like a guinea pig, which I don’t particularly appreciate.

This leads me to the teaching methods – flipped classrooms, team-work etc. Now that I’ve read more about them, I see them from a much different point of view – as a student I’m likely to try and expend the least amount of effort to reach a point where I’ve either got an illusion of understanding or when I really understand something, without really distinguishing between the two. Until I won’t actually think about how I’m thinking about it, I might not even doubt that I haven’t really understood something until a test rolls around and it will become quite clear whether or not I have understood it… From the teaching aspect I see that more student centered methods require the student to engage with the subject matter in a more active way, that would lead to better results if it weren’t for the resistance from the students.

I think in the last weeks or maybe a month or so, I’ve been in a way stuck in a metacognition loop – I keep thinking about thinking, and biases etc. I didn’t use to do that, but seeing how important and how helpful it is, I wonder why it isn’t taught or whether it is taught, but I’ve somehow managed to escape it.

That leads to the last part of the book. It’s about teaching professional skills to students. Those might be about how to work in a team, deal with team-mates, how to think creatively or communicate effectively. It demonstrates why those skills have to be taught and how they can be taught intermittently or concurrently with subject matter.

Now it exasperates me to see the differences between various approaches to STEM, where in some courses all that is taught, is the subject matter, which might be a prerequisite for a different course, but doesn’t really teach the subject in a way that would enable anyone to succeed in the latter course because of a lack of THINKING on the students’ part when they/we try to get by with the least amount of effort. But a lot of the time we’re not really taught HOW to think, but just WHAT to think, which doesn’t give the same end result.

I liked the idea of seeing a lecturer who designs a course, teaches it and then tests the students as in a dual role – the gatekeeper – someone whose purpose it is to make sure that those, who have the skills and knowledge pass through the course; and the coach – whose purpose is to make sure that the students gain the necessary skills and knowledge. That person must at the same time do two different and somewhat opposite things – ask that the students know something, and make sure that they do, or at least try to.

The whole book, although at first look, is about teaching and learning STEM, is about teaching and learning anything, and most importantly teaching thinking. Sometimes thinking doesn’t need to be taught, but a lot of times it must be taught. The most tragic thing is, that in a lot of cases students pass courses without knowing how to think about what they’ve learnt. And so have I.

The book is very useful and gives an insight to how students learn when read from cover to cover, but it’s also a great source of ideas and methods to pick and choose and try out in a course.

Book 250: The Scientific Outlook by Bertrand Russell

The Scientific Outlook by Bertrand Russell

Finished reading on January 1st, 2018

The Scientific Outlook was first published in 1931. It presents some of Russell’s views on what would constitute a scientific society and where would applying scientific method in everyday life, government and elsewhere lead the world. To do that, he first introduces some bits about history of science, the nature of scientific method and also shares some ideas on philosophy of science.

I found the beginning quite amusing, as far as the scientific method and philosophy of science are concerned. The latter parts as to what would happen if and when scientific principles were enforced in government etc were interesting in showing the boundary conditions for what would become of the world if we’d try and apply actual logic everywhere.

It’s interesting how parts of Russell’s vision sound obviously dystopian and have been used in science fiction and elsewhere and others sound just slightly more appealing but veer off to horrible consequences anyway. It seems to me that the overall point is that applying scientific principles in every occasion might not be much better than never applying any, though they’re of course both kind of extreme.

I found it interesting how David Foster Wallace’s and Philip K. Dick’s and many others’ works have shown parts of Russell’s outlook.

Some of Russell’s thoughts that I found interesting:

“[…] any defects in the status quo become known only to those who are willing to spend their leisure time otherwise than in amusement; these are of course, a small minority, and from a political point of view they are at most times negligible.”

“The manipulative idealist differs from the man of merely personal ambition by the fact that he desires not only certain things for himself, but a certain kind of society.”

“What would Western Europeans do if deprived of their nightly drug from Hollywood? The moral of this for Western European Governments is that they must keep on good terms with America.”

I think it’s interesting how amusement and entertainment are seen by Russell as a means of disengaging the majority of people from thinking about the world much in the same way as David Foster Wallace shows it in Infinite Jest, and the idea of entertainment as a drug and sports as a diversion from other more violent things become quite obvious.

Russell also mentions chemistry  and drugs as a possible way of to eventually generate emotions without any ill effects, which reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, where such technology exists, and also, the kind of intelligent upper class, and a distinct lower class are shown in pretty much the same way as imagined by Russell. Of course Aldous Huxley shows the kind of scientific dystopian world that Russell describes too.

Book 248: Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Finite and Infinite Games a Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

Finished reading on December 19th, 2017

Rating: 9/10

In “Finite and Infinite Games” James Carse looks at modern life as games that have rules that the player has accepted to obey in hope of either winning the game in case of finite games, where the winner receives a title of some kind; or in attempt to get as many people to play an infinite game to make sure that the game doesn’t end.

In Carse’s vision there’s a big difference between finite and infinite games not just in how one type has to have an end and the other one can’t, but also how finite games are repeatable, infinite ones are not. In finite games the rules cannot change during the game, the player has to choose to play and can’t actually play when they must play. And to play a finite game you have to take up a specific role.

I found the concept disturbing in the sense that for the past couple of days I’ve seen all social engagements in an even more disturbing light, and although I’m not even normally a person who’d follow traditions etc, I find  it even more difficult to deal with them. Considering how Newton’s birthday is coming up, it’s interesting to analyse how some people seem to follow the rules of finite games, and some are not, but for different reasons.

Carse shows how his idea could be applied to see various areas in a different light, starting from finite ones such as earning a degree or winning a war or elections or such, but he also introduces what can be seen as part of an infinite game – culture, art etc that cannot be repeated.

In the case of finite games it is necessary that you’d know who wins. One of the interesting examples of what is won was in Carse’s presentation of (to stick to PG) finding a partner, where the other person becomes your opponent in the finite game, but should you win the game, the prize is the other person. That means that both are playing a game with possibly similar rules, but they’re not part of the same game, because you can’t win and lose at the same game, or can you? The rules of a finite game shouldn’t change, so…

There were some other interesting views that Carse presented such as touching and moving someone – you can’t touch someone without being touched by that person. But in case of moving you have to not move to be able to move someone (which made me think of different frames of reference, but that’s my personal point of origin to think about that). Another was Carse’s idea about the silence of nature and the idea of machines as something that ought to fulfill their purpose and be as little intrusive as possible.

There’s a lot more in the book and it’s quite entertaining.

Now to get to what the book made me think of first was about Rousseau and the idea of a social contract, which sounds the same as Carse’s idea, just in a different coating. I think in Rousseau’s case we seem to have bowed down to society to keep our material goods and hold some status, where we’re invariable tied up in only finite games, while the ideal would be the noble savage, who is only involved in infinite games.

The next connection that blinked in my mind was how one type of game appears superior to the other and it made me wonder whether Nietzsche would have seen infinite games as the only ones that some people should play.

It is truly fascinating to me, especially trying to imagine how would some system be different if it weren’t a finite game, in some cases it’s easy – any education system vs autodidacticism, in other I just couldn’t manage to. But at least trying made me think of if you’d apply Carse’s idea to some notable works of fiction etc and try to see which finite games the characters play and whether they’re involved in an infinite one as well.

The first that came to mind was Goethe’s “Faust”. Could Faust before his meeting with Mephistopheles seen as a person who sees acquiring any and every kind of knowledge as an infinite game as also pleasure in life – he can’t win the game, he has played many of the finite games, but he’s not satisfied with the ultimate infinite game. Now with his deal with Mefisto, his participation in the infinite game stops, and it’s turned into a finite one, where rules are meant to be followed, they cannot be changed, and although Faust might try to sneak past some, he can’t ,and we all know that in some versions eventually Mefisto will be the winner….

The other is the new Star Wars movie. Don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers. There’s the obvious Rebel Alliance v the Galactic Empire finite war game. I feel though that the game wouldn’t ever be over should the Empire win, is it just me or is the Empire really fighting an idea, that can’t be killed unless there’s literally no-one in the Empire left alive? In that case the Empire is playing an infinite game, whilst the rebellion is playing a finite game – there’s a chance for them to win and be declared victors… or not?

I think the takeaway from Carse’s book is that there’s a lot to think about in an infinite game, to even just start out with – are some games more infinite than others? Are infinite games superior to finite ones? What if our evolutionary background were somehow different so that no finite games exist, how would the world look like and society function? When did the idea of games and rules come about in the history of our species? Can some political systems be seen as favoring one type of game over another?

And how can Carse’s idea be applied to the history and development of science and our views of it. Can we see it so that when some people oppose a scientific idea because it’s called a “theory”, then it’s because they see science as a finite game, where there have to be obvious winners and a “theory” is just a contestant while in reality science, like culture is an infinite game, where rules (definitions, models and paradigms etc) are constantly changing, and no-one wins.

If you’ve reached the end of this post, you’ve obviously just won a finite game of reading this. I applaud you!

Book 247: The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer

PIMG_2677The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer

Finished reading on December 17th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

In “The Origin of Our Species” we get an idea of what is known about the evolution of our species, how the ideas about our ancestors have changed and how we even happen to know as much as we do. Stringer goes into quite a lot of detail in introducing the methods for dating fossils, the most important fossil finds and how they relate to us and what kind of story they tell and what we have so far found out by looking at DNA etc.

I found the book fascinating. Although I’ve come across Olduvai Gorge and Lucy etc in a few other books, I feel like this one gave me a better understanding of the timeline and also the timescale without bringing out date by date what happened.

Stringer deals a lot with the topic of where did Homo Sapiens evolve and when did they leave. As far as I remember, I learnt in school that it was Africa, so it was interesting to read about how at around the time when I was born there were still great debates about it. Just goes to show how scientific ideas get adopted in time.

One of the ideas I liked the most that I read about in this book was the cooperative eye hypothesis, which proposes that the reason why the outside layer of our eyeballs – the sclera – is white, has to do with it enabling easier communication and enabling following someone’s gaze and using it for signaling.

The other great topic that runs through the book is how come Homo Sapiens Sapiens is the only human species extant and what were the differences between us and Homo Neanderthalensis. There is the common supposition that our species might have been better adapted to the conditions, but in a lot of cases it’s just not true.

I think I liked this book so much just because it left me in awe at just the fact that at some point human population was quite scarce, and just tens of thousands of years later one animal species has managed to actually leave the planet, while ofcourse statistically the species could have gone extinct as the Neanderthals did.

Here’s an interesting video where Stringer talks about the Neanderthal’s:

Book 246: Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

PIMG_2667Life 3.0: Being Human in the age of Artificial Intelligence by Max Tegmark

Finished reading on December 13th, 2017

Rating: 8/10

The premise of the book is that there are some life forms that get all their information needed for a pleasant enough life from their genetic code – Life 1.0. Then there’s life that has the ability to learn new skills or knowledge and by doing that extend their lifetime to something more than it would be otherwise – Life 2.0. And then there’s the elusive Life 3.0 that would be able to not only learn and gain new knowledge but even construct itself new in a way.

In this book Tegmark presents his view of what Life 3.0 might mean to humankind if the main improvement was Artificial General Intelligence – something that is taken to be able to figure out pretty much everything including the fact that humans might not be coolest life-form to hang around with, and that could given enough time come up with highly advanced technology.

Tegmark showcases some advances in AI such as AlphaGo and others that are consistently pushing the boundary of what we think is impossible for a glorified computer to do.

There are several scenarios as to what might occur depending on what kind of precautions are taken by the people working on creating AI, and possibly later keeping it “chained”.

The scenarios vary from rather optimistic ones to really pessimistic – will the future see a Universe where humanity is governed by AI (whether the humans know it or not), or one where humans have a say in their future beyond creating AI, or maybe real AI won’t ever come about whether it’s by someones choice or our incompetence  – anyway there’re options to choose from for everyone. 🙂

There are a lot of examples from science fiction about AI getting out of our control and taking control, and it was quite interesting to read about them, think about which future would I like, would I ever consider uploading my mind or consider upgrading my biological calculating machine to something a bit fancier and just maybe something that looks less like moldy lumpy gray jello (I haven’t checked, but that’s my brain’s idea of how it looks like)…

I was thinking of what kind of AI I’d like to see in the future – I came up with an AI for which the main purpose is to motivate it’s human. Artificial Motivation it shall be called :). And it’s not going to be a Bot, but rather a Mot, ’cause why not?

There’s some physics and even cosmology in the book, mostly because the author thinks it might be possible for a sufficiently powerful AI to colonize the whole Universe and see AI struggling to keep itself together against the power of dark energy. (And in my imagination, eventually the AI explodes and all the “bits” come out).

Lets get back to the book though – it’s mostly a cautionary tale of what might happen if we don’t keep as close an eye on AI as it might on us.

My main problem with the book though is, that Tegmark’s premise is that given sufficient time and energy after we have created a true Artificial General Intelligence, it would be able to come up with all sorts of technology and solve all questions we might ask in science and we wouldn’t ever need to come up with another original idea again. In some scenarios humankind could live in peace and prosperity, obey our robot overlords and enjoy an eternal vacation if we so choose. Or humankind could be wiped out because the teenage AI won’t like it’s parents…  (I can see how that would be troublesome in an AI school “There’s evolution which brought about humans and other species. And then there’s Random Flukes of nature where mediocre intelligence brings forth the ultimate intelligence”. Ofcourse there wouldn’t be a need for an AI school…)

Intelligence itself is an interesting concept, and artificial kind as well. It is certainly a thought-provoking book.

I still wonder though, whether it will really be AI that we would use to upgrade our human hardware. Couldn’t it be genetics or biotech? I also wonder whether rather simpler kind of AI or lack of it won’t bring about an Idiocracy type future first…

An amusing thought though – imagine there’s the Zookeeper kind of scenario AI, where it keeps amusing itself with cute human videos, hopefully whoever creates that AI will have made it believe that humans are adorable silly creatures.

While reading this book I was also trying to figure out which movie or book AI is my favorite. I do like the AI in Interstellar (because they have a humor setting), but I also like Douglas Adams’ idea of Earth as a supercomputer that was designed by a computer to come up with the ultimate question…

What do you think? Will Life 2.0 get by a little longer without being wholly surpassed by Life 3.0 or

Book 245: The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll


The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll

Finished reading on December 7th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

I couldn’t fall asleep after finishing this book. I wonder whether it’s because of the book itself, because it keeps me thinking and so unable to go to sleep, or possibly the more likely culprit was the coffee I drank a few hours back to make sure that I would get to the end of this book.

The Critical Thinker’s Dictionary presents – as the subtitle claims – biases, fallacies and illusions that you most likely encounter every day. They’re most easily noticed when someone else uses one of them to make an argument for or against something, but one might also come to realize that  it’s not just other people who use them.

In addition to explaining the nature of the fallacies, the possible reasons why we end up against them, Carroll also gives examples of them in case of politics, pseudoscience, medical research, etc.

I found it all quite interesting. And the different biases and fallacies made me think of times when I’ve tried to use one or another and gotten away with it 🙂 in addition to those times when I’ve heard the same used by someone else.

Carroll brings out the most common failures in critical thinking, even though you might not want to hear them. I feel like critical thinking and these fallacies should be taught to everyone, so they’d know when someone is not really making a good argument for something, or when someone’s just trying to voice their opinion that’s not really based on critical thinking or logic.

Actually my first idea, when reading this book, was about how kids on Vulcan probably would all know this by the time they’re done with kindergarten 🙂

So some of my “favourite” concepts from this book, that resonated with me for some reason more than others:

The halo effect – when you believe something to be good based on your previous experience, such as believing that all  products of one company are good, after having tried just one of them. Ever come up against it with reading a book by one author, really liking it and starting to read something else by the same author assuming it would be good as well? And then realizing that it’s not necessarily true. Same goes for people in general – if your first impression of them is good, you’d be more likely to associate positive traits or characteristics with them even though you have no reason to believe such things about them.

The Illusion of control – believing you’re somehow in control of a situation although you’re clearly not. Isn’t that pretty much every time that you’re given many options to choose from or “control” in a situation that you can’t get out of. I wonder whether that might be the reason so many people would take public transportation and listen to music on their headphones? It’s better if you can at least choose what you’re listening rather than having to just hear everything that’s going on around you. Compensating for loss of control of when and where and with whom you’re going… Maybe that’s why I prefer to ride a bicycle to work, because there’s real control over the situation..?

There were of-course many more important concepts in the book. At first my impression of this book was though, that instead of just a helpful guide to fallacies in critical thinking, it could actually be used to the exact opposite effect – you find out what are the most usual fallacies and biases that people fall for and don’t notice and use them in your argument. Sure, it might be just as easy to make good arguments, but if not everyone can tell the difference, then it’s only morally wrong. 🙂

Now the problem is how do I stop myself from pointing out these fallacies and biases when I encounter them?

Book 244: Arduino Projects Book

PIMG_2569Arduino Projects Book,

Projects and text by Scott Fitzgerald and Michael Shiloh

Finished on December 5th, 2017

Rating: 8/10

This book comes with the Arduino Starter Kit and provides the reader with 15 projects to make with the electronic components in the kit that can be controlled with Arduino Uno (what’s that? A microcontroller) .

This kit is a perfect way to get acquainted with different varieties of electronic components, what they can be used for, how they fit into a circuit, how you shouldn’t put them in a circuit etc.

The projects include such things as turning LEDs on and off, using switches to do so, using a piezo (what is that? a piezoelectric sensor that uses the piezoelectric effect for measuring such things as change in acceleration or force etc) to make sounds or listen to knocks, making use of servo and DC motors etc. You can see some short videos of my projects here or at the end of this post.

This kit makes you build circuits and write code and do some other quite cool things as soon as you can start modifying the projects to your taste at the beginning already.

I think the book is fun, and you learn a lot by doing all the projects in it. I did find however that in the case of one project I was hesitant to connect it to my computer and power it up. All because even though I had checked that my circuit looked like in the book, I was still slightly on edge with using an electrolyte capacitor in a circuit for the first time, especially with the book’s warning to make sure that it’s connected correctly as it might otherwise explode! It didn’t explode, and all my circuits worked at the end, didn’t electrocute myself or anything… I did have some things fly away (and/or at me) though in case of the projects that used the DC motor – the motorized pinwheel and the zoetrope.

I mostly did one project per evening – although the circuits aren’t that difficult I found the code slightly tedious and wouldn’t want to write several on one day, but I started to like it more in case of some projects.

Now there are a lot of electronic components in the starter kit that I didn’t get to use just yet, but I guess I’ll figure out how, when and where to use them later 🙂

I do find myself at a slight loss of what to do with Arduino next. Should it be something that moves and beeps and flashes lights? Any opinions?

Book 243: Geek Nation by Angela Saini


Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over The World by Angela Saini

Finished reading on December 3rd, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Could India be considered a Geek Nation? If you’ve watched “3 Idiots”, maybe you already do. In “Geek Nation”, Saini brings out some aspects of Indian culture, history, educational system, etc looking at both sides of the argument for and against considering India a “Geek Nation”.

I’ll start out by writing why You might consider reading it:

  • To understand how few powerful educated people can lay the groundwork for massive change in a country’s literacy rate, adopting new technology in a variety of ways
  • To see why one can’t consider scientific and technological challenges in India and in other countries the same because of a difference in scale

There are more reasons, of course, but lets get to the specifics.

First we need to be on the same page when it comes to the definition of “Geek”. In Saini’s book she sees it so:

“[..] To me, at least, geekiness is all about passion. It’s about choosing science and technology or another intellectual pursuit […] and devoting your life to it. History’s ultimate geeks are the men and women who sacrificed their lives on the altar of science, risking failure to pursue an obsession.” Angela Saini

In Saini’s book the obsession is obvious in several cases, but not always in the pro-technology and science part. Quite a sizable part of the books shows how an unknown sizeed part of India really can’t be seen as “Geek Nation”.

Saini brings out for example the Indian Institutes of Technology, which came about at a time when Jawaharlal Nehru’s government took a straight route to increasing literacy, establishing schools of higher learning, and also educating the rural population using interesting technological solutions for it.

To a western reader – IIT-s are in a way the top engineering schools in India – you’d want to study there either because you’re really into science and engineering, or because you want to have a high-paying job after graduation, or because you want to continue your studies somewhere abroad. Although at first the popularity might seem like a sign of a immersive geek friendly education system in India, as Saini points out – it seems that mostly IIT is attended rather by people who might be slightly lacking in a certain type of passion and in Saini’s words are rather “drones” than “geeks”.

If we look further than the school system, we see that science and technology in India face very different problems due to large population, bureaucracy and influences from religion and tradition.

This book gives a glimpse into what kind of vision Nehru had for India, what some leading entrepreneurs and scientists have in mind and how their hard work is opposed at some level by activists and religious institutions.

It’s definitely worth reading.

Saini goes on to explore for example the Indian Space Program, the search for a cure for tuberculosis, research on bananas that would stay fresh longer, and how thorium might in the future be an important source for energy in India and elsewhere, but we also encounter and anti- GMO activist and researchers working on how the Vedas might have scientific information hidden in their metaphors.

There are definitely two sides to the story- one being the leading, young generation Y working on tech and science that could if implemented improve the lives of millions of people, but then there’s the other, more religious and traditional side, that puts value on small farms, traditional agricultural methods that might leave people without their livelihood due to harsh weather, and crop varieties  that have been traditionally cultivated, but would eventually leave the people to starve because of pests.

It is interesting how Saini brings out the fact that religion is on the rise among the better educated population and how it might be because of their education that there’s a lot of effort hoing into trying to show how ancient texts contain knowledge about science and technology that Western science is discovering only now.

It is a very interestingly crafted book, and it doesn’t give s certain answer as to wether India really already is a Geek Nation or not, but there certainly seems to be activity in both directions- towards a more geek culture with e-governance, but also a more hesitant or even resentful part, that sees technology and science as a force that will split the population up even more than it is right now due to various reasons.