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! 🙂

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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 249: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Finished reading on December 27th, 2017

Having spent the Holidays with the Incandenza family at Enfield Tennis Academy and with Marathe and Steeply in the desert and with Don Gately in the hospital talking to a wraith, I’d like to start out with the most pressing question in my mind: Why did I ever think I needed to read it?

That is one of those questions, like many that the plot of the book brings to mind, that are probably mathematically unsolvable.

When it is mentioned what the book is about, it seems that mostly a combination of such words and phrases as pursuit of happiness, entertainment and tennis might be represented.

But it should also be mentioned that there is a lot of violence against humans and animals, substance abuse on many levels, but also profound ideas about the human condition.

In Infinite Jest, there’s a huge cast of characters, who for most part are somehow interlinked, although you can’t see it at first. There appear to be three main themes that are intertwined and set the tone for the book – there’s tennis and other sports, there’s entertainment and there’s addiction. They’re not mutually exclusive and actually they’re all various forms of each other.

One of the important places where the book takes place is the Enfield Tennis Academy, where we find out about the lives of the Incandenza family: Hal, Mario, Orin and Avril “the Moms” and “Himself”. And then there are the other students and members of staff at the academy.

Another important setting is a Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, where we meet such characters as Don Gately and a veiled Joelle.

And then we have a rather random seeming desert where we find out about Marathe and Steeply, what the Great Concavity is and how they’re searching for a tape of the ultimate Entertainment, that makes anyone who watches is forget about all else and eventually die a pleasurable death in front of a screen.

It was a difficult book to read for various reasons – first the plethora of characters you have to be able to distinguish, the page-long paragraphs that just don’t seem to end and the fact that it’s not following a linear timeline – some things happen before or after or during and you’d be fortunate to realize that most of it is in the future, some in the past, but all of it is mixed up.

The second and for me more disturbing one was the violence and substance abuse, there were so many times when I just wanted to stop and quit reading it or just skip pages or do anything to escape another scene of someone dying etc.

However, now that I have spent over 50 hours with the book in close proximity, this much has changed:
* I feel like after Infinite Jest I can read anything, I feel it’s highly unlikely that there’d be anything more difficult in the world of books (that’s unlikely, but that’s my impression at this moment).
*I’ve been numbed to scenes describing people in various puddles of body fluids or emitting or ingesting fluids or solids or doing things to escape reality using chemistry.
*I wonder about when did the idea of entertainment even come about, and why is it so “important”.

Ofcourse if you need to know more about the plot and the characters, I’m sure any search-engine will lead you somewhere. As for this post, this is what the book made me think about:

The most pervasive idea for me was the one about entertainment. Doing something to spend your time, ideally something, that is fun, doesn’t require much effort and is attainable. So watching tv or any kind of videos would be an example of it. But it seemed to me that drugs and alcohol were presented as another option, as was watching sports. The main goal for all of those seems to be for someone to be happier or to have more fun. Can’t be exactly sure that it would be though. It seemed to me that the key was that entertainment is seen as a short-cut to happiness or oblivion or maybe not feeling, if we’d set goals or standards low. At one level the person engaging in any type of entertainment is either totally focused on it to the exclusion of everything, or is not focused on anything.

Is that possible?
I don’t know.

Another idea I picked up from the book was that of choosing. Why should we have options to choose from without the education about how and what and why to choose. In the case of entertainment, it might be easy in some case to say what is a “good” or a “bad” choice, but how do you choose between “good” and “better” or “bad” and “worse”?
I was especially troubled by that idea, because as a bookworm, my preference is of-course “reading books” – good vs. “watching TV” – bad.
But I remember a time when it wasn’t like that, and I’d spend days or even weeks watching TV as a kid; the only time I’d choose to do something else, like read a book, was when my brothers had control of the remote control, or when I thought nothing good was on TV, or when I was sent away somewhere where access to TV wasn’t guaranteed. But I cannot pinpoint the time when I started to prefer reading. I know it must have been at around when I was maybe 11-12. But was that because of something I learned at school or at home or was it just a random transition. Maybe in half of the parallel universes I’m a TV-addict and follow celebrity gossip. It sounds too horrifying to even think of it. I’m sure there’re other options.

I started listening to Daniel Kahnemann’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” when I need to take a break from Infinite Jest. And Kahnemann made me think of how my first impressions and ideas about Don Gately and some other characters introduced with the connection to drugs or alcohol right off the bat and the history of their decisions versus the Incandenzas and the students at Enfield Tennis Academy were a definite example of how I saw the first characteristics of the people more strongly, to the exclusion of others; as I got further into the book, my impressions started to even out to a degree where I could see them on the same level and have less of my judgement interfere. I thought it a really neat way how Kahnemann’s book changed my view of Infinite Jest while reading it.

I’m going to think some more about Infinite Jest, but to finish up, there has to be a rating. So…
I can’t say it’s 10/10 because I feel that would signify a slight Stockholm syndrome and my happy emotion of being done with it. It can’t be 5/10 because I did appreciate the difficulties of reading it (I thought that’s the thing to distinguish it from being “entertaining”), and I did find the characters fascinating even though some were obviously out of my comfort-zone. I know I wouldn’t want to reread a book that I’ve given 7/10 or less before So..

Rating: 8/10

Because I think I could and might at some point read it again.

A thought on the actual reading part though – I think it’s really only possible to read it in huge chunks not in tiny little portions. I found it very difficult to get back to the story even for about 20 pages or so from each time I got back to reading it and I had the overwhelming desire to put it down and stop. But there was also the opposite effect – when I had reached the set goal of however many pages I wanted to read on a particular day, I always read further than that.

Some of my favourite quotes from Infinite Jest:

“[…] but like for instance where do you look with your eyes when you tell somebody you like them and mean what you say? You can’t look right at them, because then what if their eyes look at you as your eyes look at them and you lock eyes as you’re saying it, and then there’d be some awful like voltage or energy there, hanging between you.”

“But he’d also gotten a personal prickly chill all over from his own thinking. He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was unendurable – with was the thought of all the instants lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.”

“There’s something elementally horrific about waking before dawn.”

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

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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?

Playing with my #arduino starter kit crystal ball project #electronics #diy

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Book 243: Geek Nation by Angela Saini

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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.

 

Book 242: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow

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The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey  from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos by Leonard Mlodinow

Finished reading on November 30th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

When I started out reading this book, I thought “Wow, I really should read more books about evolution.”

Then I continued reading for a few chapters.

Then I suddenly found myself thinking :”This is cool. How come I’ve never read much about the history of chemistry?”

And then finally I got all the way to the end with the thought, that it’s mostly still about the history of physics :).

It’s a great book. I found it really fascinating and informative in a way that made me mention something I had just read in this book in random conversations.

Mlodinow goes from the evolution of our species to how come you can read this post on a thing that would have been seen as magical just a hundred years ago. I have to say though, that I expected something slightly different, but I really shouldn’t have.

Although Mlodinow talks about several discoveries in chemistry and changes in society and people’s thinking, then most of it is about physics, and quite a lot of it is about modern physics to be precise.

In a way the book gives small glimpses of what science was like and about at different times, and it all comes together in a “quantum physics is the coolest” kind of way in the end.

I would want to say that I’d recommend this to anyone. But then I thought of if a scientist from a different field were to write a book like this, would there be so much physics? Maybe there’d be more geology and genetics and biology or medicine, and astronomy? I think so, but the book is still awesome!

Book 241: The Only Woman in the Room by Eileen Pollack

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„The Only Woman in the Room. Why Science Is Still A Boys’ Club“ by Eileen Pollack

Finished reading on November 15th, 2017

Rating: 10/10

I find it difficult to focus my thoughts on this book, because it made me relive a large part of my life. At first look even I had the thought, that why should it be relevant to me? The author studied physics at Yale in 1980s, surely it can’t be the same experience in a different country, ca 30 years later?

In this book you can get a glimpse of all the small things that add up to why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. In some ways Pollack gives the impression that it’s STEM itself and science culture that keep women away, but in others you can see that it’s more of a general environment and society and even pop culture that contributes to the problem. And everyone has biases one way or another whether they’re in a STEM field or not.

I feel like a lot of things I had thought about were present in the book, and I could see my thoughts reflected in either the author’s or in one of the interviewed persons’ answers.

Do women need to be encouraged more in STEM fields? Or maybe do women in general require more encouragement? I can think back on many occasions when I was encouraged to continue on with something even though I hadn’t done particularly well on a test. And then I think how I had actively sought the encouragement on those occasions and hadn’t on others (and wasn’t encouraged then). So I feel that the answer is „yes“. But why?

At one time I was certain, that physics is the most difficult subject to study, and worth studying even for that sole reason. I still feel that way. And I also think that (possibly) everyone can learn it as long as they’re interested in it. Which leads to the question, why do so many quit STEM when they’re not getting the top grades? Maybe that’s why there aren’t as many women in STEM? If you don’t have the highest grades in science, you wouldn’t even consider studying it? Isn’t it just giving up too early? I remember one occasion when someone told me to not give up so soon. ONE occasion.

And then I remember all the times when I’ve hear someone say „I give up“, when I know that just a little more effort would get the person to the goal. How about teaching everyone not to give up?

An interesting thing that was mentioned in the books, is how many physics (and possibly other science) students feel the need to be a „well-rounded person“. One might be just interested in science, but they have to make an effort to have something to talk about with non-science majors. I feel like the whole list of „fiction books I’ve read“ on this site attests to that, because it’s unlikely that a humanities major would meet me half-way and read about astrophysics or general relativity for fun. Why is that? You can be considered a well-educated person if you’ve read James Joyce, but haven’t heard of Robert J. Oppenheimer?

It’s interesting how many times Pollack mentions falling in love with a teacher, TA etc. Someone older and smarter who shares your interest in a STEM field and appreciates a smart woman sounds like the ideal….

But then we get to all the small things – feeling isolated in a group where you’re in a minority. The general feeling of not belonging. Being the only person who’s not wearing black, gray or dark blue in a class. Abstract art that obviously is of nude women on a department’s walls (that’s from my life). Inappropriate jokes and examples by lecturers in class…

I did like the book for several reasons – I could relate to the author and the book made me realize a few things that I hadn’t seen or understood before:

The first thing was how it disturbs me whenever I hear a name of a scientist in a lecture in relation to a law or effect that the scientist discovered, and how there’s rarely ever any mention on who the scientist was. It’s fine in case of Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, but otherwise it bothers me. I discovered how it bothered me because several scientists are mentioned in Pollacks books, and I liked how I could put the names together with a few facts I knew about them already or that Pollack provided. To me it makes physics more interesting to know who were behind the discoveries and definitions and it makes it easier to remember the science too 🙂

The second thing was that I feel I generated a sort of imaginary bubble around me for at least a while during my studies, where all I cared about and read about was physics, because I didn’t have any time for anything else, nor any interest either. Which seems to be an important part of studying a STEM subject.

I feel like this book should be read by everyone, not just women in STEM, who might have had the same experience. It should be read by primary school and kindergarten teachers, by anyone who in their work or life encounters children or young adults. All for the sake that the students wouldn’t be getting ideas about how some area of study is more appropriate for one gender than another one.


On a different note: this book reminded me of Wil Wheaton’s book „Just A Geek“, in a slightly odd way. In „Just A Geek“ Wheaton acknowledges his need to prove to everyone that he hadn’t made a bad or wrong decision in his youth. I felt like in some way Pollack was doing the same.


I’m still thinking about the topics discussed in the book. And I still wonder, whether maybe it’s rather a question of shouldn’t men be encouraged more to study humanities and social sciences? And with that approach you immediately hit the fact that traditionally those lead to less well paid jobs….