I read a lot. It’s probably my biggest hobby. I like to mix nonfiction and fiction, and I include work-related things that aren’t directly tied to my current teaching or research. This first post on my reading falls into the last category.

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Physics-y stuff

The theme I’ve been riding recently is things that aren’t taught to physicists but maybe should be. These are actual physics topics or physics-tangent topics that I know next to nothing about and didn’t really even hear about until recently. (I also have a list of non-physics things that I think physicists tend to lack, but that’s a rant for another day.) I am a rank novice in the topics below, so please forgive any errors. I’ll post more on these if I gain any shareable insights.

Geometric Algebra for Physicists by Chris Doran and Anthony Lasenby (Cambridge, 2003)

Geometric Algebra comes from W. K. Clifford’s work in the late 1890’s to build up higher dimensional objects from products of vectors without throwing away information. This book is an overview aimed at applications to physics, particularly electrodynamics and relativistic quantum mechanics.

So, here’s what bugs me about all of this. All of this stuff is old news to mathematicians. It just hasn’t trickled down from the ethereal heights of pure rational thought to us ground dwellers on the material plane. I bailed on the pure math classes as an undergrad, so I can only blame myself that I can’t parse the jargon and writing style of math literature, but I wish there were more accessible resources for learning higher math. This book is a small crack in the wall to help me think about these things.

Dynamics: Theory and Application of Kane’s Method by Carlos M. Roithmayr and Dewey H. Hodges

I stumbled across “Kane’s Method” while reading through the docs for the python sympy package’s physics module. (Here is the implementation of Kane’s Method.) I’d never heard of this before, but I asked a former student who had just finished engineering school and he gave me a funny look like I had asked him if the sky was blue. Here’s a trick that the engineers know that passed by the physics community. (It’s not even in Wikipedia, if you can believe that!)

Kane’s Method is a way of solving classical mechanics problems for complex systems. It is used for similar problems to what we in physics use Lagrangian mechanics for, but instead of being based on energy it is based on forces. The improvement of Kane over standard Newtonian mechanics is that you can use generalized coordinates and constraints. It’s also useful for numerical work because the final equations are first order and robust to linearization over short time steps.

Anyway, this sounded cool, so I picked up a textbook to try to learn it. I’m struggling with the notation at the moment (the book works in terms of components in specific frames rather than more abstract vectors), but the ideas themselves seem straightforward. I’ll report back soon!

Non-physics non-fiction

I’m a big fan of history, so that’s the majority of my nonfiction reading.

Grant by Ron Chernow

A modern biography of Ulysses S. Grant going beyond the U.S. Civil War to his post-war military career and presidency. The Civil War is a favorite of mine, but I’ll admit my grasp of history ends at Lincoln’s assassination. Reading about the Reconstruction, in particularly the atrocities during the Andrew Johnson administration were eye-opening for me. As bad as our current politics are, at least people are not being murdered en masse because of their political party, for example in New Orleans in 1866, but also throughout the South. I knew about the original Ku Klux Klan, but didn’t realize that their hatred went beyond former slaves to anyone who opposed the restoration of slavery. This period is a stain upon the U.S. second only to slavery itself.

Growing up in Tennessee we were taught that the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was unjust, famously as recounted in John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage regarding Kansas Sen. Edmund G. Ross who cast the deciding vote for acquittal. Upon reading Chernow’s recounting of the incident, it may have been unjust in that no actual crime was committed, but I can see why many were desperate to remove him from power beyond partisan animosity.

I also knew nothing about Grant’s presidency except that it somehow landed him on the $50 bill. He was remarkably progressive and sought to revive Lincoln’s legacy not just in honor to the man himself but because he felt it was morally the right thing to do. Grant’s poor reputation afterwards comes from the various corruption scandals that rocked his administration (he was truly a political naïf, easily manipulated), but his constant fight against racism of all stripes (not just against African Americans but also Native Americans and Jews) belong to a later century. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent collection of essays We Were Eight Years in Power takes its title from a quote of Frederick Douglass about the Grant administration. Coates’ chose the title to emphasize how much was lost during Jim Crowe, ironically knowing that most people would assume it was about the Obama administration.

Fiction

I’m a fan of science fiction and fantasy. (Yes, how stereotypical. I don’t care.) Two of the first books I read in this category were Lord of the Rings and Dune, back when I was in middle school, so it was a long time before I could stop comparing everything to those high bars. For a long time I avoided sci-fi and fantasy, preferring classics, but I credit my grad school mates with bringing me back to genre fiction.

Here’s what’s on my screen now:

Toll the Hounds, Book 8 of The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Stephen Erickson

This is my third time reading through this series, despite the constant teasing by my wife that I’ve been reading the same book for more than 5 years. (I promise I read other things, too!) Erickson is a master of the long game, and by long, I mean foreshadowing that spans 10 books and tales that reach back longer than the history of humanity. World-building is as much a trope as anything in the fantasy literature, but few have mastered it like Erickson and his collaborator Ian Esselmont. The backstory here feels lived in, much as Tolkien’s did, but the gods and immortals here are active characters. I’m amazed at the intricacy of the tales in the series and the way that they interlock, but more than just being a word puzzle, these books are character driven, like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but with a larger cast and longer span. The evil that Erickson paints is palpable and frightening in how it is built organically from the cultures and characters he creates. But more overwhelming is the soft counter melody of compassion that runs through and peaks out at unexpected moments.

The only way to fully appreciation MBotF is on a re-read; once you know where things are going, reading these characters brings new depth. It’s a tough read – readers are challenged to keep track of lots of characters and places and exposition is used sparingly or in unlikely hints – but well worth the effort.

This particular volume is the only one (I think) with a distinct narrator: the most glorious Kruppe, corpulent thief and weaver of tales, who begins the series as comic belief and ends as something much more.