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


„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….

Book 232: Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps by Peter Galison


Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps by Peter Galison

Finished reading on 10th October 2017

Rating: 8/10

What is simultaneity? How can clocks be synchronized? Why do we have 60 minutes in an hour instead of 100? These are some of the questions you’d find answers to in this book.

I wanted to read this book just because of the title – first of all it mentions Einstein, and secondly I remembered Poincaré’s name from one or another physics lecture.

This book starts out with the practical need for synchronizing clocks that was first felt at the observatories and on the railroad. In case of railroads it might sound more practical as it makes sense that even small differences in time can cause accidents in case of fast-moving trains. In the case of observatories however it was connected to the need to find your exact location on a map for cartographers etc.

As railroads covered more and more land surface with their grid it also became important and necessary to think of standardizing time. Which brings the book to the topic of what kind of ideas were proposed and how the Greenwich meridian came to be the one acknowledged as the prime meridian.

In addition to practical need and solutions, Galison goes into the idea of simultaneity as a basic idea in physics and philosophy and how it was approached differently.

It all leads us to the special theory of relativity.

Having read several books on relativity and Einstein before, I felt like this book gave me a different insight into special relativity. Maybe it was just because of the comparison with Poincaré’s ideas, or Galison showing it in the context of contemporary ideas of synchronizing clocks.

This book was interesting from the beginning to the end and approached time from a different perspective than what I’ve encountered before. It’s not a difficult book to get through, but it makes you appreciate having standardized time and accurate clocks, and might also make you think about why couldn’t we have decimal time instead?

Book 225: Wrinkles in Time by George Smoot

Wrinkles in Time by George Smoot

Finished reading on August 26th, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Wrinkles in Time is a book about an important discovery in cosmology, the team of scientists behind it, the journey to it a for the most part George Smoot’s part in it all.

The discovery in question is the small anisotropies that were discovered by the COBE team that showed that gravity is sufficient to get the structures we see in the Universe now – such as galaxy clusters etc,from the Big Bang.

I’ve had this book sitting in my bookshelf for several years, and as it often-times happens with books that do that, I had forgotten what it was about, why I had wanted to read it,etc.

Now that I’ve just finished reading it, I’d tell the past me that you should have started reading it a lot sooner.
It’s not just another cosmology book written for the general public – it’s much more personal, specific and very interesting.
There is quite a bit of suspense in this book, and adventure, so at times you might forget that you’re reading about a discovery in cosmology that earned the scientists behind it a Nobel prize in physics.

In this book you can read about how the COBE satellite came into being, what was discovered from its data, and also why did the scientists also have to visit a jungle in Brazil and the South Pole, to get to the knowledge we now have.

Just to mention also – you don’t need to know a lot of mathematics or physics to read and understand all of this book, it explains everything relevant you need to know. Do remember though, that the book was first published in 1993..

Book 223: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

PIMG_3157A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

Rating: 10/10

A great short introduction to some fascinating aspects of astrophysics, quantum mechanics, cosmology and relativity theory that is highly readable, doesn’t get into extraneous details and although it was first published in 1987, it is still accurate.

This has been a book that I’ve picked up and put down after reading a couple of pages several times in life – partly because of not being quite certain about what level of knowledge I should have to read it, and partly because I tend to choose books that have been published more recently over older, although classic books of nonfiction.

So if I’d ever have a chance of inventing a time machine in past to try and find out what I know about this book in present I’d say – the book is certainly easy enough reading if you’ve studied physics in high-school, you don’t need to go in search of an encyclopedia to understand what Hawking is writing about, because he mostly explains everything anyway. Also if you’re afraid that a famous scientist’s writing style might be awfully boring and just terrible – don’t fear, you’ll be through the book in no time and in search of another book written by Hawking.

In general I’d highly recommend it. Even if you’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about astronomy,cosmology and physics, this book is still a great and interesting little book to read.

Book 212: Spooky Action at A Distance by George Musser


Spooky Action at A Distance by George Musser

Published by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2015

Finished reading on May 21st, 2016

Rating: 8/10

Have you ever heard of nonlocality? I’m pretty sure that I should have heard it mentioned in one or another class, but I’ve no recollection of it, so maybe it wasn’t mentioned.

This book is about the concept of nonlocality and what it has to do with quantum mechanics and relativity.

I bought this book since it seemed to be everywhere (I mean as much as a book classified as Space and Time – Philosophy and Relativity could be expected to appear in places).

So as much as I gathered locality, the opposite of nonlocality, means that an object or matter is influenced only by the matter in it’s immediate vicinity, so that (basically) you can try as much as you want but you can’t influence someone to bring you an icecream on a hot day just by thinking about it. So nonlocality – the exact opposite in a way, means that matter can be influenced by something that is quite a distance from it – think of an entangled pair of photons that appear to send/receive information faster than at the speed of light.

The book deals with a rather philosophical side of physics, which is great in a way because it doesn’t require higher mathematics, but it’s also quite a difficult book because it requires the reader to use logic to go from one concept to another without feeling like you’re missing a couple thousand of entangled neurons or so in your brain.

It is fascinating – you get a decent amount of background information on the history of the idea of locality and nonlocality and a bit of relativity and quantum physics. There are also some interesting theories that one might not come across normally – like how tiny black holes might be to blame for the entangled photons faster than light speed information exchange.

I feel like I might have to read it again at a slower pace with more coffee.

If you’re looking for more information about this book before diving into reading it visit the book’s webpage.

Book 201: The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

PIMG_1057The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson

Finished reading on January 31st, 2016

Rating: 8/10

This book is quite small and short and tells of the history of the non-existing planet Vulcan, why some astronomers thought it existed and how it finally disappeared because of Albert Einstein’s General Relativity.

I found the book an easy read, the beginning is rather detailed – you find out more about the astronomer Le Verrier and some of the astronomers who tried to see Vulcan transiting or tried to see it during an eclipse.

You get the idea of why there had to be a planet according to Newtonian gravity, and later you sort of get it also why according to Einstein’s there really is no need for another planet to explain Mercury’s orbit.

It’s great for some light reading.

Book 172: Genius by James Gleick


Genius by James Gleick

Finished reading on May 21st, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Richard Feynman is a name that you might most likely have heard if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory or if you’ve taken a course in particle physics. I can make checks in both 🙂
“Genius” is one of several biographies of Feynman, who seems to me as the best example of a misunderstood genius, despite being highly acclaimed and having gotten a Nobel prize in physics.

I picked this book up quite soon after reading his correspondence, and as I’ve read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” last year, most of it didn’t seem new, but it was still interesting and it gave a better idea of Richard Feynman as a person, and it was the first time I could actually read about his contributions to physics.

The thing that strikes me the most about Feynman, was the way he worked – not reading the new paper in physics fully, but only until he got an idea of the problem and then trying to solve it himself and spending a lot of time on questions that he never published anything about, although many others would have. That’s just curious. The first explains his great grasp of physics, the second is just a mystery to me, as in my imagination you’d try to publish any significant results. Maybe that’s just it though- he probably didn’t see it as significant enough or as not a big enough contribution?

The book did change my opinion of Feynman in some ways, as previously I had seen him as an ingenious joker, and now I’m not so sure, as it all seems quite tragic.

I did like that you do see quite a lot of his contemporary physicists, so you won’t get the idea that he was the only one working on it, but you see it as everyone contributing something – some more, some less, and find out about their relationships, and you see Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger and Freeman Dyson appear in the story – it brings Feynman out of vacuum and gives a broader view of everything.

I feel like there’s no reason for me to actually do a short overview of Feynman’s life, as that’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather I’d just say that if you’ve enjoyed stories about Feynman, this biography might be enjoyable, and if you’re studying physics, it’s also quite motivational. I dare you to start reading this and not want to pick up a physics textbook!

Also, I’d really recommend reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” before this one.

Book 170: Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Richard P. Feynman


Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Richard P. Feynman
Finished reading on May 3rd, 2015
Rating: 9/10

If you’ve ever thought what could a famous scientist possibly communicate about with other people, then this collection of Richard Feynman’s letters is a great one to read, as you can read his correspondence with other scientists, relatives and fans.

I quite liked it – you can see what Feynman’s attitudes were on different subjects, and I’d even say it’s inspirational .

I very much enjoyed the letters he wrote to students, who were asking for advice on what to study, and Feynman’s advice to always study what you’re interested in and do what you love, no matter where it might take you, but possibly still keeping your grades up 🙂

I was thinking of reading this and then continuing straight with Gleick’s “Genius”, but now I feel like I’ve gotten quite a good idea about his life and work, so I might not get to “Genius” quite as soon.

Now I want to read Feynman’s Lectures On Physics instead….

Book 153: Gravity’s Engines by Caleb Scharf

Gravity’s Engines
The Other Side of Black Holes
by Caleb Scharf

Finished reading on October 21st, 2014

Rating: 10/10

It’s quite rare for me to start reading a book with mixed feelings about whether I’m interested in that particular topic and come out excited to find out more not just about the specific topic but everything!

Before you stop reading this review because the book is about black holes, you should know – if you’d read it, you’re very unlikely to regret it.

The book starts with a historical overview of ideas about dark stars that nowadays are generally known as black holes. It’s quite fascinating how scientists came up with the idea although the physical principles they might have used in their theories might not have been totally sound, but it somewhat of matches the modern theory about black holes.

The whole book is about black holes.

You might think that to read this book one should either be a total astronomy geek and into black holes or someone similar, but that’s not the case. It’s not a dictionary description of what a black hole is, but rather Scharf makes black holes seem less utopian and entirely essential for the existence of the Universe as we know it and maybe even for life.

You can read about differently sized black holes – the ones that have masses slightly larger than the mass of our Sun, or super-massive ones containing masses of millions or maybe even billions of stars. And some of the supermassive black holes are active and might make life impossible in their vicinity or maybe even in the whole galaxy where they reside in…

Just me describing it makes it seem as if the book were as dry as a desert… In fact it’s wonderful and makes you want to find out more about the Universe and our Galaxy.

It’s certainly the best non-fiction book I’ve read recently.

“Breaking just one of the crisscrossing strands of cosmic history and energy that connect us to black holes could subvert the entire pathway to life here on our small rocky planet.” Caleb Scharf in “Gravity’s Engines”

Book 148: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman


Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

Finished reading on August 1st, 2014

Rating: 10/10

I got this book on a hot summer’s day, right after which I had to read a whole chapter out loud in a café, as it is really entertaining and quite funny right from the start.

This book is a bunch of stories from the life of Richard Feynman – a well-known physicist, who got a Nobel Prize, and after whom the Feynman diagrams in elementary particle physics get their name.

Although written by a physicist, one might expect all of the stories to have something to do with science, but that’s not so, some have a little bit of science, but mostly they’re just funny and quite unexpected stories (because even I wouldn’t expect a physicist to be that odd and fun at the same time).

However some of the stories do have quite strong points to make about science education, which is rather sad.

In general I’d really recommend reading this book to anyone who isn’t frightened to read popular science books, as some of the things that you can encounter in the book include: the map of a cat, playing bongos, drawing models in the nude and life at Los Alamos and working on the Manhattan project.

It’s a joy to read!