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 illustrations and layouts in Boy are fabulous, and Roaring Brook was kind enough to supply us with three spreads (click each to embiggen):
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.
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.
Read the rest
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! I didn’t want my autobio to be overly long or dry. I wanted it to read something like a novel. Unlike an encyclopedia entry, a novel isn’t a list of dates and events. A novel is all about characterization and description and conversation, about action and vignettes. I wanted to structure my autobiography, Nested Scrolls, like that."
In addition to the Tor edition, there's a fine limited edition from PS Publishing.
Nested Scrolls reveals the true life adventures of Rudy Rucker--mathematician, transrealist author, punk rocker, and computer hacker. It begins with a young boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a businessman father who becomes a clergyman, and a mother descended from the philosopher Hegel. His career goals? To explore infinity, popularize the fourth dimension, seek the gnarl, become a beatnik writer, and father a family.
All the while Rudy is reading science fiction and beat poetry, and beginning to write some pretty strange fiction of his own--a blend of Philip K. Dick and hard SF that qualifies him as part of the original circle of writers in the early 1980s that includes Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, John Shirley, and Lewis Shiner, who were the founders of cyberpunk.
At one level, Rucker’s genial and unfettered memoir brings us a first-hand account of how he and his contemporaries ushered in our postmodern world. At another, this is the wry and moving tale of a man making his way from one turbulent century to the next.
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.
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.
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].