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Posts Tagged ‘Dr. Richard P. Feynman’

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy And Its Consequences” (1988©) — book review
Today’s book review is for: “Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy And Its Consequences“, written by John Allen Paulos.  The book is an overview of what the author believes are some of the symptoms (and solutions) of “innumeracy” (the math equivalent of illiteracy) in America.  Paulos is a Professor of maths at Temple University (or was at the time of the publication).  He is a bit of a math prodigy (at the very least precocious) and is kind of a cross between Richard Feynman, Malcolm Gladwell and Levitt & Dubner.  Feynman – as a teacher – in converting technical (math) concepts into relatable images, Gladwell in writing for “the general public” consumption, and Levitt & Dubner (of “Freakonomics” fame) in both of the above plus quirky examples to illustrate his point.
This book is a quick (fast read) and short (135 pages) overview of some main concepts in math and how they are poorly taught / translated / communicated to the general public and, hence, the general distaste for maths during school and its avoidance post-formal education whenever possible.
Paulos’ proposition is that because maths are poorly taught, the general public grows up with a fear (and avoidance) of math for the rest of lives.  One of his proposals is to take retired advanced math users (mathematicians, engineers, scientists) and have them teach in schools because the current maths teachers aren’t very good (for a number of reasons) – pun intended.
The author also reviews math concepts: scale (big and little), fractions, ratios, statistics, probabilities and pseudo-sciences.  This overview / review is the strength of the book as it reminded me of many of the areas of math I’ve long since forgotten (for lack of use).
So, is this book any good?  Does it make you feel numerate or innumerate?  Does it help with the issue raised (innumeracy)?  Yes.  Both.  And, no, or at least I don’t think so.  Once I could get past the author’s ego / superiority complex, I actually quite enjoyed the book.  It is a fast read and he does use his examples in a clear and sometimes humorous fashion.  The text made me feel numerate.  The work through examples innumerate.  A few of the paragraphs had to be re-read to make sure I followed the explanations for why he was doing a particular calculation.  For example, how many days is a million seconds?  The author says eleven-ish.  So, then how long is a billion seconds?  Again, thirty something years.  Now, the author actually worked out the numbers and provided the answers.  The problem?  Well, for me, the answer is 11(-ish) thousand days.  I would never arbitrarily convert days to years.  Not that I couldn’t; just that I wouldn’t.  Why would I, unless specifically asked?  And, for most purposes, I would have ball-parked it (1,000 days is almost 3 years, times 11 is “about” 33 years).  It would not be entirely accurate, but even then, the author didn’t state he was accounting for leap years in his own calculations.  His point was we “all” know how much a second is.  What we don’t know (have a feeling for) is how big a number is a billion (or a million).  My point is I’m not sure if my reaction means I’m personally numerate or innumerate.  And, finally, simply pointing out a problem isn’t the same as offering a viable solution.  I don’t think placing retired math users in schools is a workable solution.  Teaching (across all of the non-adult years) is an art as much as it is a skill.  Yes, you must be grounded in the material, but you must also be enthusiastic (about the subject and teaching) and relatable.  I’m not convinced there is a vast pool of retired engineers and scientists just dying to teach grammar, middle and high school students (and each group has different requirements).
Final recommendation:  Strong to highly recommended.  As an overview of maths topics for the general public, I think this is a very valuable book.  It is brief and has interesting examples.  It is probably too simple for folks with college level math skills.  It is probably too difficult for the truly innumerate.  But, I think there is a wide, flat(ish) bell shaped curve of folks out there (probably 2 standard deviations on either side of the mean) who would gain from reading this book.  Those below the mean because the writing and examples are clear and can be followed along with.  Those above the curve, because the book will remind you how much you’ve forgotten since leaving school.  I just wish the author had been a bit less patronizing of us non-math prodigies.
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The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think.  When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant.  When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain.  And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt.  We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt.  Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty – some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.
  —  Dr. Richard P. Feynman
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To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time  …  it needs a lot of concentration  …  if you have a job administrating anything, you don’t have the time.  So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible.  I’m actively irresponsible.  I tell everyone I don’t do anything.  If anyone asks me to be on a committee  …  ‘no’ I tell them: I’m irresponsible.
  —  Richard Feynman
Quoted by: Cal Newport
In his on-line article:  “Is Email Making Professors Stupid
Appearing on the site: The Chronicle of Higher Education, located at: www.chronicle.com
[LOL!!!  It worked for me, too!  —  KMAB]
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Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter.  Explore the world.  Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.
   ―  Richard Feynman
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Dubbed “Prospero’s Precepts”, these eleven rules culled from some of history’s greatest minds can serve as a general-purpose guideline for critical thinking in all matters of doubt:
1.   All beliefs in whatever realm are theories at some level.  (Stephen Schneider)
2.   Do not condemn the judgment of another because it differs from your own.  You may both be wrong.  (Dandemis)
3.   Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.  (Francis Bacon)
4.   Never fall in love with your hypothesis.  (Peter Medawar)
5.   It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.  Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts.  (Arthur Conan Doyle)
6.   A theory should not attempt to explain all the facts, because some of the facts are wrong.  (Francis Crick)
7.   The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that is most interesting.  (Richard Feynman)
8.   To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.  (Charles Darwin)
9.   It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.  It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.  (Mark Twain)
10.  Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.  (Thomas Jefferson)
11.  All truth passes through three stages.  First, it is ridiculed, second, it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident.  (Arthur Schopenhauer)
  —   Peter Surrock
From his book: “AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question
[Found at a site I like to visit every now and then:   http://www.brainpickings.org/
The specific post was found at:  http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/04/01/aka-shakespeare/
Well worth a visit…   —  KMAB]
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Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.
  —  Richard P. Feynman
Quoted by James Gleick, in his book: “Genius
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On This Day In:
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Book Review:
Last night I completed the book: “Genius – The Life and Science of Richard Feynman“, (1992©) written by James Gleick.  As I had already read four of Dr. Feynman’s anecdotal books, most of the main content was already known to me.  What was “new” and interesting was the placing of Dr. Feynman’s work in context with the rest of the world (in general) and physics (in particular).  This is not a particularly “scientific” book.  There are no formulas and what nuclear physics which is discussed is not explained in any great detail.  Lots of things – quarks, spin, muans, top, tensor, scalar, photons, etc – are named, but very little is “explained”.  Probably because to do so would require math skills which so much of the general reading public lacks (myself included).  Or it could just be that the words naming things don’t translate into other words which explain them clearly.  I feel the latter is just as likely as the former.
Essentially, Feynman made his name by working on the creation of the “bomb” (the Manhattan Project), while he was in his early twenties.  He received his Nobel Prize (for physics) in 1965 and then achieved “popular” fame when he was on the commission to review the Challenger Shuttle disaster in the 1980’s.  There, he famously demonstrated how / why the “O-rings” failed by taking a piece of a ring and placing it in ice water during one of the televised sessions.  He then pressed on the chilled rubber and when it failed to return to “normal” shape, he explained this was the cause for the subsequent catastrophic failure (“explosion”) of the shuttle.
The good Dr. is “humanized” by repeatedly reporting on his sexual escapades and his other personal peccadilloes.  One is left with the impression that although brilliant, he was not necessarily a good / nice person.  Having said that, my experience is that focused and driven individuals rarely are – good or nice.  They rarely have the time or feel the need to make the effort to be “normal” in everyday society.
Anyone interested in seeing Dr. Feynman can look him up on YouTube and his world famous “red book” series are still widely available as references for Physics.  I’m told (actually I’ve read) you can practically hear the joy of science in Dr. Feynman’s lecture notes.  You can also find the books on-line for free, if you care to download them.
Final Recommendation:  Gleick is a very good writer and this is a fascinating (if deep) book.  If you are looking to try to understand the role of Physics in the 20th century, this is an excellent primer.  It is also an interesting biography of a true scientific iconoclast.  As mentioned, it is not for the faint of heart, but I’d say anyone with a deep (loving) curiosity of the world would get something out of this book.  Highly recommended.  And, of course, a good number of quotes will follow in the coming days…
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On This Day In:
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