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The neurosurgeon who saw heaven

In Esquire, you can read a deeply researched and very well-written profile of Dr. Eben Alexander, a former neurosurgeon whom you probably know best as the guy with the best-selling book about a near-death experience that's gotten major traction with both the Fox News crowd (because it features a sciency secular guy denouncing secularism) and the touchy-feely Chicken Soup for the Soul crowd (for obvious reasons). Now, Luke Dittrich takes you though Alexander's biography and his experience from a very different perspective — one that ties Alexander more to the ongoing problem of fabulists in the memoir genre than to god. (Note: Some people seem to be hitting a $1.99 paywall on this story. I didn't and I'm not sure why. Trying to figure that out.) Maggie 35

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős -- great kids' book


The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős is a beautifully written, beautifully illustrated kids' biography of Paul Erdős, the fantastically prolific itinerant mathematician who published more papers than any other mathematician in history.

Boy is written by Deborah Heiligman, with illustrations by LeUyen Pham, and the pair really worked to weave numbers and mathematics through the text, with lively, fun illustrations of a young Erdős learning about negative numbers, becoming obsessed with prime numbers and leading his high-school chums on a mathematical tour of Budapest. They also go to great lengths to capture the upside and downside of Erdős's legendary eccentricity -- his inability to fend for himself and his helplessness when it came to everyday tasks like cooking and doing laundry; his amazing generosity and brilliance and empathy in his working and personal life.

Ultimately, this is a book that celebrates the idea of following your weird, wooing the muse of the odd, and playing to your strengths rather than agonizing over your weaknesses. It's an inspiring and sweet tale of one of humanity's greatest mathematicians, and a parable about the magic of passion and obsession.

My daughter, who is five, demanded that I read it to her three times in a row, over three bedtimes, which is always a vote of confidence.

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos

The illustrations and layouts in Boy are fabulous, and Roaring Brook was kind enough to supply us with three spreads (click each to embiggen):

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Feynman graphic-novel biography out in paperback today

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman, a stupendous biography of Richard Feynman in graphic novel form that went to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, is out in paperback as of today! Here's my original review from 2011:

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman is an affectionate and inspiring comic biography of the legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman. I've reviewed Ottaviani before (I really liked T-Minus, a history of the Apollo program, as well as his Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists) and I expected great things from Feynman. I wasn't disappointed.

Feynman is primarily concerned with its subject's life -- his personal relationships, his career triumphs, his mistakes and misgivings. From his work on the Trinity project to the Feynman lectures to his Nobel for his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, Feynman paints a picture of a caring, driven, intelligent, wildly creative scientist who didn't always think through his actions and sometimes made himself pretty miserable as a result. But the Feynman in this book is resilient and upbeat, and figures out how to bounce back from the worst of life.

Feynman's technical achievements are mighty, but very few people understand them (Feynman claimed that he didn't understand them). But the way he conducted his life was often an inspiration. The authors even manage to wring sweetness from his tragic romance with his first wife, Arline, who contracted terminal tuberculosis before they married, meaning that their marriage was conducted without any intimate physical contact lest he catch her sickness -- but for all that, they clearly loved each other enormously and made one another's lives better.

Feynman is notorious for his irreverent outlook and his willingness to look foolish while he learned new things, an extremely admirable ability I often wish I possessed in greater measure. The bongo-playing, doodling, pranking Feynman who tried to get out of accepting his Nobel prize and drove Freeman Dyson across the country, staying in flophouses and looking for excitement leaps off the page here.

The authors pass lightly over some of Feynman's more problematic shortcomings, such as his inconsistent sexist attitude towards women. They show us Feynman gallantly mentoring his sister in physics while all the authority figures in their lives insisted that this wasn't a fit subject for girls; they show us Feynman working on physics problems five nights a week at a local strip-bar; but they don't dip into his embarrassing writings on convincing women to have sex with him, in which he comes across as a sexist pig. He was surely a product of his times, and he was surely imperfect, and that explains his attitude, but it doesn't excuse it.

But this isn't a whitewash. Imperfect and warty, Feynman is still an inspiration.

The authors don't shy away from technical subjects entirely, either. They make a really good run at depicting Feynman's supposedly lay-oriented lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics. To be honest, I've never really been able to wrap my head around QED, and, having read Feynman, I'm still pretty fuzzy on the subject -- but I feel like I'm a little closer to getting it.

Like all great biography, Feynman is an enticement to read more of his works. I haven't read The Feynman Lectures (an introductory physics course that Feynman wrote and delivered late in his career -- an unheard-of undertaking for a physicist of his stature) in years, but I'm going to start listening to the audio of his lectures. And I'll be shoving Feynman at everyone I can get to read it.

Feynman

Margie Profet: a controversial scientist who went missing

Margie Profet did not have a Ph.D. In fact, she didn't even have a bachelor's degree in evolutionary biology, the field that most of her work revolved around. But she won a McArthur Genius grant and presented some really interesting theories on the body's defenses against cancer and poisonous substances that might turn out to be correct. And then she disappeared.

Nobody has seen or heard from Margie Profet since at least 2004 or 2005, writes Mike Martin at Psychology Today. His piece is an interesting biography of a woman who was incredibly intelligent, and who also likely suffered from some serious symptoms of mental illness for years. Only her closest family and friends seem to have been aware of what was going on in Profet's personal world. Over the course of the late 90s and early 2000s, Profet shut them, and everyone else, out of her life so successfully that nobody is really sure when she vanished.

This is one of those long reads that will take you a little while to get through, but it's worth checking out. Even aside from the mysterious disappearance, I found Martin's explanation of Margie Profet's contribution to science really fascinating. Profet presented several, interconnected theories suggesting that allergies, morning sickness, and menstruation all evolved as means of blocking or removing poisonous, cancer-causing, and disease-causing substances from the body.

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Steve Jobs, the Inhumane Humanist

The current print issue of Reason has a wonderful, thoughtful piece by Mike Godwin about the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. I know it's hard to imagine there's anything new to say about this hyper-covered book about a hyper-covered popular figure, but: Godwin shows that yes, there is. Xeni

Rudy Rucker's autobiography: Nested Scrolls

Rudy Rucker sez, “So I decided that I’d better write my autobiography before it was too late. What with death and senility closing in!

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Steve Jobs bio out early for downloads; "60 Minutes" devotes entire episode to book

As every blog and news site everywhere has already reported (including Boing Boing), the definitive biography of the late Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, is out today.

Actually, it's out today in paper, but was released yesterday for download via Amazon and iTunes. I'm willing to bet it breaks some sort of download sales record.

Last night's edition of the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes was devoted entirely, 100%, to stories on Jobs and his products.

As Mike Godwin noted on Twitter, Steve Kroft asks during the segment how Jobs, "who dropped LSD and marijuana," goes off to India and returns to become a businessman. LOL @ "dropping marijuana." The show sure does know their demo. At least they didn't say he smoked acid.

Snarking aside, the 60 Minutes pieces are worth watching. Here's part 1, here's part 2, and here's 3 (!), on iPad apps for autism. In other news this week, Obama says we're bringing troops home from Iraq, and Qaddafi's dead.

Related: Dan Lyons, former Fake Steve Jobs, on the backlash.

The Steve Jobs biography.

Walter Isaacson's definitive biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is out Monday.

All week long, excerpts have been leaking out, with little snippets of the late Apple CEO's reported thoughts on alternative medicine, Android, Bill Gates, being strategically mean to people, Obama, what apps Obama's staffers had on their iPads, cancer, teachers' unions and labor rights, Issey Miyake turtlenecks, the adoptive parents he loved and rebelled against, and the biological parents who gave him up for adoption (whom he is said to have referred to as "sperm and egg donors").

The first real review, by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, is out today.

You can read all 630 pages of the book for yourself soon. [Amazon].