Review – One Two Three… Infinity by George Gamow

One Two Three… Infinity by George Gamow was originally published in 1947 and revised in 1961. There have been many advancements in both science and mathematics since, however it remains an engaging introduction to some of the fundamental and fascinating topics in science and mathematics. Being dated is not always such a bad thing: there is a certain excitement about subjects like the existence of other galaxies beyond the Milky Way, that is just taken for granted in popular science writing today. Also, some facts and explanations (e.g. Einstein’s theories and imaginary numbers) are as true today as they were back then.

One glaring omission I noticed was DNA. I don’t know what was revised between the original 1947 version of One Two Three… Infinity and the 1961 edition, but the DNA molecule which had been discovered in the early 1950s, and for which Watson and Crick received a Nobel Prize in 1962, seems like a pretty big oversight. That being said, Gamow speculates on the mechanism and aspects of the molecule responsible for inheritance and the makeup of genes that gives interesting insight into what was known about the subject before the discovery of DNA.

The mathematics chapters had some different ways of explaining some ideas that I had not seen before. One of the satisfying things about reading multiple books by different authors on the same subjects is that you can find explanations that complement or better explain a concept. I’ve seen Cantor’s proof that the Rational Numbers are countable illustrated with a table with numerators on the horizontal and denominators on the vertical axis. Gamow, instead, says: imagine all the fractions with the numerator and denominator that add to 2 (1/1), 3 (1/2, 2/1), 4 (1/3, 2/2, 3/1), etc..

I really enjoyed the chapter on nuclear physics, and it even inspired me to build my own cloud chamber for detecting cosmic rays. There’s also a great section about neutrinos and how they came to be discovered. Another subject that Gamow covers, that I’m always personally fascinated by and that inspired another science demonstration is his chapter on the topology of the Universe.

Every chapter has a gem or two, and Gamow’s style is informal with jokes and humorous illustrations sprinkled about. Although there are contemporary books that may delve more or less deeply into any of the covered topics, One Two Three… Infinity is a classic that (mostly) stands the test of time.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
by Col. Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything

Chris Hadfield is a man of many talents and accomplishments, and now besides husband, father, test pilot, astronaut and guitar player (an incomplete list at best), he can now add writer. He presents his many life lessons (from “sweating the small stuff” to “aiming to be a zero”) in a sincere and humble style. So humble, in fact, that it was a relief of sorts when I got to the section where he defends his assignment as commander of Expedition 35 to the ISS after some emergency surgery made NASA question his fitness to fly. He is never angry or bitter, but he does show his frustration with bureaucracy.

His life lessons are well told and integrated with descriptions of the nuts and bolts of being an astronaut in the space program. You find out about things like what flight rules are and how they can keep you alive, and what a family escort does. Especially enjoyable is the detailed description of his five month mission to the ISS from pre-flight to re-entry to the extended physical recovery required after an extended stay in zero gravity.

The Cartoon History Series
by Larry Gonick

           

These books with many others had (for various circumstances) been in boxes for years, and they were the first I decided to re-read when I pulled them out. They are a wonderful romp through history – scholarly research presented with great style and humor.

Gonick’s humor is sometimes irreverent and snarky, though not in an overtly mean way, and sometimes just silly, like a couple of his pop music jokes:

In CHU III, in his history of Pippin the Short (Charlemagne’s father), you see two almost dead soldiers laying on the ground, one says, “‘Greatest king of the Dark Ages’ Woo-woo!” and the other replies, “Isn’t that like ‘Disco’s greatest hits?'”

In CHU II, in the history of ancient Rome he writes, “In 453 the Vandals sacked Rome committing more acts of the kind now known as vandalism.” and there’s a drawing of a person standing by a broken pump saying, “The pump don’t work.” (Bob Dylan reference, kiddies).

Printed in large size paperbacks, The Cartoon History series is a great argument against the “death of paper books“. Brilliantly illustrated maps like the “Cro-Magnon Conquest of the World”, events like the desolation of Athens after the Persians burnt it down, or fighting in World War I are depicted in spreads that can’t easily be shown on a small screen. If you enjoy comic strips, then these will be right up your alley.

As far as the history itself, Gonick does a great job integrating the people, events and ideas that shaped history, digging in to the origins of ideas such as democracy and capitalism, as well as the lives of philosophers, rulers, scientists, and generals. His approach is pleasantly non dogmatic, this isn’t ‘The Great Men of the Western World’; Asia, Africa, and South America all get their due. He shows how small places, like Potosí in Bolivia (where the Spanish mined silver) and Haiti (which figures prominently in the history of France and their involvement in the Americas) can loom large.