A quick reading recommendation

I’ve been reading The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. It’s the best science book I’ve read in a long while.

Part of it is a pop-science discussion of particle physics and cosmology, as they’re now understood. It may seem strange that the tiniest things and the biggest thing are such natural companion subjects. That is what seems to make sense, though. I’ve fallen out of touch with a lot of particle physics since my undergraduate days and it’s wonderful to have it discussed well. This sort of pop physics is for me a pleasant comfort read.

The other part of the book is more memoir, and discussion of the culture of science. This is all discomfort reading. It’s an important discomfort.

I discuss sometimes how mathematics is, pretensions aside, a culturally-determined thing. Usually this is in the context of how, for example, that we have questions about “perfect numbers” is plausibly an idiosyncrasy. I don’t talk much about the culture of working mathematicians. In large part this is because I’m not a working mathematician, and don’t have close contact with working mathematicians. And then even if I did — well, I’m a tall, skinny white guy. I could step into most any college’s mathematics or physics department, sit down in a seminar, and be accepted as belonging there. People will assume that if I say anything, it’s worth listening to.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a Black Jewish agender woman, does not get similar consideration. This despite her much greater merit. And, like, I was aware that women have it harder than men. And Black people have it harder than white people. And that being open about any but heterosexual cisgender inclinations is making one’s own life harder. What I hadn’t paid attention to was how much harder, and how relentlessly harder. Most every chapter, including the comfortable easy ones talking about families of quarks and all, is several needed slaps to my complacent face.

Her focus is on science, particularly physics. It’s not as though mathematics is innocent of driving women out or ignoring them when it can’t. Or of treating Black people with similar hostility. Much of what’s wrong is passively accepting patterns of not thinking about whether mathematics is open to everyone who wants in. Prescod-Weinstein offers many thoughts and many difficult thoughts. They are worth listening to.

The Thermodynamics of Life

Peter Mander of the Carnot Cycle blog, which is primarily about thermodynamics, has a neat bit about constructing a mathematical model for how the body works. This model doesn’t look anything like a real body, as it’s concerned with basically the flow of heat, and how respiration fires the work our bodies need to do to live. Modeling at this sort of detail brings to mind an old joke told of mathematicians — that, challenged to design a maximally efficient dairy farm, the mathematician begins with “assume a spherical cow” — but great insights can come from models that look too simple to work.

It also, sad to say, includes a bit of Bright Young Science-Minded Lad (in this case, the author’s partner of the time) reasoning his way through what traumatized people might think, in a way that’s surely well-intended but also has to be described as “surely well-intended”, so, know that the tags up top of the article aren’t misleading.