Book reviews

I love books. Here I give my opinion on some of the books I read. I mostly read nonfiction. 

I'm always looking for book recommendations - if you have any comment or suggestion, please get in touch with me. These blurbs are an invitation to discuss the content of the books.

Signs of life, by Ricard Solé and Brian Goodwin

Published: 2000 — Reviewed: Jun 2022

I read "Signs of life: How complexity pervades biology" about 2 years ago, and I was very fascinated by it. (I should add that Ricard Solé is a colleague, and I dare say, friend of mine).

I was very impressed by the breadth of phenomena the book aims to explain --from cities to ants, including brains and the circadian rhythm--, and by its daring and transdisciplinary approach. But the idea I liked the most is that of Life at the Edge of Chaos: that many processes in life, at many scales, are at criticality (hence at the edge of chaos). This includes the mutation rate of viruses, 'cause if they mutate too slowly, they won't explore the landscape of possibilities fast enough, but if they mutate too fast, they won't be able to communicate a fantastic discovery to their fellow viruses because the system will be too disordered. It also includes the frequency of heart --human hearts with a single frequency are unhealthy, whereas those with too many frequencies (arrhythmia) too (apologies for the oversimplified portrait of the situation). It also applies to the distribution of canopy trees in the jungle... In words: the long range correlations of the Ising model at criticality can be seen as optimising many perspectives, that is, as resolving many competitions. In fact, I believe that the idea of Life at the Edge of Chaos can be applied to one's own life --too much order is harmful, and so is too much disorder :)

By Ricard Solé I also read Redes complejas (Complex networks), Vidas sintéticas (Synthetic lives) and La lógica de los monstruos (The logic of the monsters) --unfortunately I don't know if they are translated.

Books by Dawkins

— Reviewed: Jun 2022

Some years ago I got obsessed with books by Richard Dawkins. It all started with The Selfish Gene, which impressed me very much. Later came The Extended Phenotype, whose message has stayed with me ever since, as well as The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable - also very moving. Later on I was of course very impacted by The God Delusion.

If I had to recommend one or two, I would choose The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype.

He writes masterfully. Sometimes I'm almost afraid of this talent of his, as I feel he could convince me of anything :)

The only aspect that I don't enjoy in some of his writings is a tinge of arrogance. But noone is perfect. The books are wonderful - there are wonderful ideas to be learnt from them!


Published: 2008 — Reviewed: Jun 2022

This graphic novel is a great first exposition to the struggles in the foundations of mathematics at the turn of the 20th century. I always recommend it to all students and friends. It's so much fun! I wish there were such graphic novels on many different topics - I would read them all :)

My favourite scene is when Gödel meets Russell and tells him "I've studied your Principia Mathematica and it's all good, except for the fact that you haven't proven the most basic assumption". "And what should that be?" asks Russell. "That truth is provable". Unfortunately, this scence is a construct (Papadimitriou told me it's not historically accurate when I met him in Berkeley around 2014).

I only have one criticism, and that concerns the role of women. I don't know if it's a criticism of the book or of the time the book portraits, but their role is very disencouraging.

Gödel's Proof, by Nagel & Newman

Published: 1958 — Reviewed: Jun 2022

This little book provides a very accessible account of Gödel's proof. It explains the ideas of completeness and consistency, presents Gödel's result as a tension between the two, and hints at the conclusion that it follows from Gödel's result that the brain is more powerful than a computer. I believe the latter conclusion is premature (some of my views are expressed here).

Be it as it may, this little book has been very influential, as both Hofstadter's account of Gödel's result in Gödel Escher Bach, and Penrose's in The Emperor's New Mind are based on Nagel & Newman's, and Hofstadter and Penrose were the main popularizers of Gödel's result in the 80's, as I see it. In particular, both present the result as a tension between completeness and consistency (which is fair enough), and endorse the conclusion that the brain is more powerful than a computer.

As I see it, this book has been so influential because Gödel's results were fairly inaccessible (and written in German, I believe), and this text happened to provide one of the first popular accounts. This book grew out of a Scientific American article.

It is in any case very much worth reading. (I read it about 12 years ago, so I'm recollecting my impressions from then).

On the brink of paradox, by Agustín Rayo

Published: 2014 — Reviewed: May 2022

In the Summer semester of 2022 I am giving an interdisciplinary course on Paradoxes where we follow (several chapters) of this book. We use the book as a platform to discuss in class.

The book is at that place inbetween mathematics and philosophy that I love. It is also very accessible, as it is meant to be a first exposure to topics on infinities, various paradoxes, time travel, computability, Gödel's Theorem, and so on. A more advanced version of several of these topics -on the philosophical side- may be found in "Beyond the limits of thoughts", by Graham Priest.

The book is very "friendly", very clearly written, and a great entry text to paradoxes for anyone with a minimal background on math.

PS: In Chapter 4, on time travel, I would have loved to have found a discussion on the movie 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai...

PPS: In the Winter semester of 2022/23 I will give another interdisciplinary course on Mathematics & Computation, where we will follow Avi Wigderson's book---another recent great discovery :)

Introductions to Metaphysics

— Reviewed: May 2022

To learn some basics of metaphysics---in particular, about the very mysterious and persistent problem of universals---I followed the path from the left to the right of this picture. The "very short introduction" is often a good way to start from scratch, and then follow suggested recommendations from there. That's what I did, and I feel that all three books are excellent.

In contrast to physics textbooks, in philosophy, even in basic introductions, it matters a lot who is explaining it, as the authors may disagree on several aspects of the various accounts---their challenges or strengths---, or even in the classification of approaches toward a goal. So it is enriching to read at least two texts.

The three books are extremely clear. The very short introduction is just a very brief appetiser, meant to make the reader (or me) realise that I'm unclear about everything (what is a table? what is a circle? how does time pass? what is a cause?). Even more, that I'm unclear about very important things. The second book is austere in its words, clear in the messages, and gentle in the transitions. The third book is not so austere, very readable, and very helpful after the second book.

I find it all really fascinating. And at the same time puzzling that we (people in general, but particularly academics) are so shielded from such important matters. And that people have been thinking about these things for millennia, and that we use predicate agreement in every sentence we utter, and that yet we are not aware of the problem of universals, let alone be knowledgeable about its accounts and their challenges.

At a more proximate level, I was amazed and elated to discover that the tension between universality & undecidability appears, under a certain disguise, as an aspect of at least the realists' account of the problem of universals. I think that investigating universality & undecidability from the interdisciplinary perspective we are trying to take can be beneficial not only for physics and computation, but who knows, perhaps we'll be able to say something new about this very old and fascinating problem. Some of these thoughts will be collected in an upcoming paper presenting a conceptual framework for universality.

Zealot, by Resa Azlan & The first muslim, by Lesley Hazleton

Published: 2013 — Reviewed: Sep 2021

These are (unauthorised, of course) biographies of Jesus of Nazareth and the prophet Muhammad. Both are must-reads if one wishes to understand anything about "the order of things" in this world. Both are very entertaining and easy to read, too.

Regarding the biographies themselves: very little is known about Jesus' life, while plenty is known about Muhammad's life. What little is known about Jesus' life, though, suffices to give evidence that many of the myths are historically false. On the other hand, Muhammad had his first revelation aged 40, and had many victories at the battlefield afterwards. What I found particularly appalling of Muhammad's life is the role of women in his life and society.

Overall I find religion a fascinating topic, for various reasons. One is that I understand how it could have offered solutions a few centuries ago, but I hardly understand how it can offer solutions or explanations now, given all the wonderful knowledge and evidence we have. In particular, I would like to understand the extent to which science corrodes religion (with its content and methodology), and if a (consistent) coexistence is possible. Two, because of the huge influence of these stories - we see signs of them all over the place. And three, because religion has been used as a form of oppression throughout time and space.

(Lesley Hazleton has a follow-up book, called "After the prophet", about the Shia - Sunni split. Very recommendable too).

Stoner, by John Williams

Published: 1965 — Reviewed: Apr 2021

I never liked the saying that 'every rule has an exception', but if my implicit rule of reporting about nonfiction books needs to be broken by a piece of fiction, this must be 'Stoner' by John Williams.

This novel is unbelievable. The characters are of such depth... I remember some of the characters as if I had met them, and draw "lessons for life" from them.

Periodically there appear newspaper's articles with "discoverers" of this novel. They are as astounded by its quality as by its lack of fame. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

I am a strange loop, Douglas Hofstadter

Published: 2007 — Reviewed: Apr 2021

Very inspiring and profound. It explains the main thesis of GEB in a much more central and clear way: that the self or 'I' arises from a strange loop of causal levels in our brain.

If you were fascinated by GEB but didn't fully understand its main message, you will enjoy 'I am a strange loop'.

Gödel, Escher, Bach - an Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

Published: 1979 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

As for many, my fascination for undecidability started with GEB. In my opinion, this book is both deep and truly interdisciplinary (apart from really fascinating). The main thesis of the book is that Gödel's proof, Escher's paintings and Bach's music share a common structure - a strange loop or tangled hierarchy - and that this structure is the key to understanding consciousness or the emergence of an 'I'. While I feel that the first part of the thesis is usually appreciated, my impression is that the second has gone largely unnoticed. As a matter of fact, Hofstadter complains in the preface to the 20th anniversary edition that his thesis for consciousness has not been taken seriously in academic circles - and he subsequently wrote the much clearer "I am a strange loop" (2007) stressing this point. I believe that this is due to the presentation of the book - while truly fascinating, this message about consciousness is buried somewhere in the 700+ pages.

As a side remark, I have a very high opinion of Pulitzer Prize Winners for General Nonfiction - both GEB and "Guns, germs and steel" (by Jared Diamond) won it.

A new kind of science, by Stephen Wolfram

Published: 2002 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book is something quite unique - I've never encountered anything like it. On the one hand, it presents a remarkable range of numerical experiments with cellular automata and variations thereof, with which it investigates phenomena in biology, fundamental physics, perception, the foundations of mathematics... On the other hand, it barely cites previous work (e.g. Turing's), it does not formulate a single theorem, and most importantly, the claims on the importance of his discoveries are so grandiose that they become preposterous and simply unreadable. It's such a pity.

In the book, Wolfram proposes the "Principle of Computational Equivalence", which is very similar to the principle of "Universality everywhere" that I tried to explain in the fqxi essay "Universality everywhere implies undecidability everywhere" and in several talks.

The Second World War, by Winston Churchill

Published: 1959 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book is unbelievable. I guess it's in my top 5 or 10 of all times.

The book is remarkable for at least three reasons: 1) it is superbly written - Churchill was famous for his oratory and writing skills -, 2) the story of World War II supersedes any imaginable fiction - the world became, very tragically, a war theatre -, and 3) a version of the story is written by a major player - Churchill reproduces many of his telegrams with Roosevelt, explains his impressions of Petain, De Gaulle, Stalin, Truman, his opinions of Chamberlain...

There are two notable omissions in the book. First, the Holocaust, or any reference to that immense tragedy. Second, the fact that the battle of the Atlantic (against the U-boots) was won largely because they cracked the Nazi encryption systems with Engima - and this information was classified when the book was published.

The book - roughly 1000 pages - is an abridgement by Denis Kelly of the original 6 volumes written by Churchill - entitled The Gathering Storm (1919 - May 1940), Their Finest Hour (1940), The Grand Alliance (1941), The Hinge of Fate (1942 - July 1943), Closing the Ring (July 1943 - June 1944) and Triumph and Tragedy (June 1944 - July 1945).

Did you know that Churchill won the Nobel Prize in Literature?

The atoms of language, by Mark C. Baker

Published: 2001 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

It's a good book. It presents the parameters & principles theory of language clearly. The analogy with chemistry (that the parameters in grammar are like the atoms in chemistry) is good, but a little too repetitive for my taste. Very accessible and recommendable.

Unification grammars, by Nissim Francez and Shuly Wintner

Published: 2012 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book is amazing. Super insightful and clearly written. It's a textbook, not a popular science book. It presents a formalism to describe grammars of formal languages (easy) and natural languages (hard), and then shows how to map them to a so-called unification grammar. My best discovery in a long time.

Writing and script - A very short introduction, by Andrew Robinson

Published: 2009 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

An excellent example of what a "very short introduction" should be, in my opinion. Super interesting and insightful, where one learns both concepts and examples of scripts. Great fun. Highly recommendable.

Linguistics - A very short introduction, by P. H. Matthews

Published: 2003 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

I didn't enjoy this book very much. I found that many of the explanations were either shallow or obvious. I also found the examples somewhat parochial.

Languages - A very short introduction, by Stephen R. Anderson

Published: 2012 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book is centred around the question "How many languages are there in the world?" I found the question somewhat artificial - it seems obvious to me that it is difficult to define the boundaries of a language, i.e. to define what one language is. The book dwells on the analogy between languages and species in biology, which is useful and insightful. Overall it's a good book.

Logic - A very short introduction, by Graham Priest

Published: 2000 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book is stunning! It's truly remarkable how Priest explains really basic concepts in logic and immediately applies them to very old philosophical problems: the Cosmological Argument (logically ambiguous), the Ontological Argument (it has a void subject), the Argument of Design (false), Fatalism... It even talks about self-reference and Gödel! For me this is a masterpiece of a "very short introduction"!

Kant and the platypus - Essays on language and cognition, by Umberto Eco

Published: 1997 — Reviewed: Mar 2021

This book "touched my heart".

When Marco Polo got to present-day Indonesia, he saw a rhino for the first time. He called it a unicorn, because it had a single horn. But it was so dirty, earthly, non-perfect... so different from the idealised unicorn he had imagined. Why did he call it a unicorn nonetheless? This is one of the questions that semiotics studies. One can similarly imagine what Kant (or Peirce) would have thought if they had seen a platypus.

Wonderful, really deep, and accessible book. It is such a pleasure to read Eco.