Jewish science

gimbel1Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics At The Intersection Of Politics And Religion
Steven Gimbel, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
This review originally appeared in COSMOS Magazine.

We might not like to admit it, but scientific discovery doesn’t occur in a vacuum.

Cultural factors can muddy the waters or move things along – as was the case for Copernicus and Newton, who were both inspired and stymied by their respective churches. And the Nazis waged a campaign against ‘Jewish science’, with Einstein being public enemy number one in this regard.

But was there really anything Jewish about Einstein and his work? Steven Gimbel explores how religion, politics and philosophy might have influenced Einstein’s theory of relativity – and (perhaps more importantly) how the now-famous theory affected those fields in turn.

There are conflicting answers to the religion question with Einstein, a cultural but not a practising Jew (a distinction well explained in the book for those unfamiliar with it). The politics may be better known, but Gimbel sensitively handles the confronting stories of the lives and scientific careers destroyed by the Nazis.

Physics is far from being dry science, but throughout history has been a crucial tool used to determine humanity’s place in the universe. Whether there is such a thing as objective truth, and whether we can ever know it, are quandaries informed heavily by physics.

Gimbel’s explanations of physics are clear enough for non-experts to understand, to the extent that I found the philosophy more challenging material. For anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, this book is well worth reading to its delightful conclusion.

Out-there physics

physics-on-the-fringePhysics on the Fringe: Smoke rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
Margaret Wertheim, Walker, 2011
This review was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

In her latest book, Margaret Wertheim gives air time to a group that’s usually studiously ignored – outsider physicists. These days commonly referred to as cranks, these men (and, rarely, women) are determined to prove mainstream physics wrong and convince the world of their unique theory of everything – if only we would listen.

Wertheim’s writing is engaging and informative as she runs through the stories of outsider physicists, both recent and historical. Her focus is Jim Carter, a former abalone diver and now trailer park owner with minimal university training who has spent 50 years developing his own model of reality. Carter’s unusual life history and engagement with experimental, as well as theoretical, science make for entertaining reading.

But these stories aren’t merely to amuse. Wertheim uses them as a prism through which to examine some uncomfortable questions. Particularly in a field that has become staggeringly complex and mystifying, who has the right to engage with science, and how? And who, indeed, has the right to answer these questions? The subjects of Wertheim’s book may be well outside the hegemony, but they raise questions worth pondering, and in the process they offer some fascinating insights into human curiosity and imagination.

DIY physics: a conversation with Margaret Wertheim

This Q & A was originally published in COSMOS Magazine.

Margaret Wertheim studied physics and mathematics before turning to science writing, is the author of three books, and has written articles for COSMOSThe New York Times and The Guardian.

We talked about her latest book, Physics on the Fringe, and her hugely successful science engagement project, Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef.  Continue reading

Nerdiness, in song and dance

Keira Daley and Mark Chamberlain in Ladynerd. Credit:

Keira Daley and Mark Chamberlain in Ladynerd. Credit:

This review was originally published on COSMOS Online.

For the uninitiated, the opening number of Keira Daley’s Ladynerd neatly defined nerdiness as an enthusiasm for one’s obsessions that often comes at the expense of fashion sense.

Even if you missed the opening number, the mention in the first five minutes of the Venn diagram of nerdiness and negativity, with self-loathing as the intersection, just might give away that this is no ordinary comedy show.

Daley’s definition of nerdiness is broad; it includes science, Shakespeare, video games, tech, pop culture and grammar. But as the name suggests, the focus of the show is the often-disregarded female nerd. To do this, Daley uses song (with back-up and keyboardist Mark Chamberlain), mile-a-minute one-liners and physical comedy to take the audience back in time to meet some famous and not-so-famous lady nerds.

She starts with the easy stuff: Marie Curie’s scientific romance and collaboration with Pierre (and ‘Cornelius’, apparently the name of the large pile of dirt she sifted through to isolate radium).

Nerdy types short of a pick-up line might like to remember and reuse the puns about magnetism – a common interest the Curies bonded over (sorry) – or “Remember my name, you’ll be citing it later!” if you want to get really academic.

Then it gets a little more obscure, with a Chicago-esque ode to Bette Nesmith Graham.

A high-school dropout who ended up a working single mother after World War II, Nesmith Graham invented Liquid Paper to hide her poor typing skills.

And Florence Nightingale might be known for her compassionate nursing, lamp in hand, but her contributions to statistics and hygiene make her the “Chuck Norris of lady nerds”, Daley declares.

A definite highlight was the sketch about Hedy Lamarr, a Hollywood actor who was more than a pretty face. She escaped Austria and her controlling first husband, who was doing business with the Nazis, and developed the concept of frequency hopping, the predecessor of wifi. Disappointingly, the concept wasn’t picked up for the war effort, because (in Daley’s words) “Whenever I choose to be clever, no one pays attention”.

The adage of ‘It’s funny because it’s true’ definitely holds here, with women still fighting to be taken seriously in tech, ‘hard’ sciences and even in geek subculture (if they’re not in a Slave Leia costume, anyway). But Daley’s unflinching enthusiasm, stage presence, impeccable timing and prodigious singing talent are great tools for punching through stereotypes – and for getting some good belly laughs for nerds everywhere, proud or self-loathing.

Brring brrring!

amsterdambikeWe were in Amsterdam last month and we mostly got around like this:

It was pretty awesome, even if we didn’t get to try out a bakfiets because it was too expensive to rent. The bike tracks in Amsterdam weren’t perfect (they did disappear every so often), and riding with kids is always a bit fiddly. But yes, pretty much awesome. I have never ridden a bike without a helmet and the only times I felt unsafe were when I accidentally rode down the bike lanes the wrong way because we drive (and ride) on the opposite side of the road in Australia.

Sydney is always going to be a harder place to ride because of the hills and absurdly narrow streets, but we can do so much better. After reading At War With the Motorist for a while, you really get a sense of how much better.

With all these thoughts in my mind, it was great to see this short documentary about how the Dutch actually got it together:

For once, the “won’t someone think of the children” argument used for good! Here in Sydney, two things hold me back from cycling: the hills and having kids to cart around. There are just some places where the roads aren’t safe to ride with children, but the footpaths are two busy. My commute to work features roads like this. The cycleways in the city are lovely but they’re only part of the picture — most people have to get there first. Maybe we’ll get there after NSW Labor gets its act together. Or something.