He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #22 & #23

“After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive.” — Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008, ed. Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (2012).

“A fertile imagination is better than any drug.” — Ibid.

Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands — review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

Think Ink

Front cover of 50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know by Joanne Baker50 Quantum Physics Ideas You Really Need to Know, Joanne Baker (Quercus 2013)

A very good introduction to a very difficult subject. A very superficial introduction too, because it doesn’t use proper mathematics. If it did, I’d be lost: like most people’s, my maths is far too weak for me to understand quantum physics. Here’s one of the side-quotes that help make this book such an interesting read: “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.”

That’s by the Jewish-Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962). It applies to quantum physics in general. Without the full maths, you’re peering through a frost-covered window into a sweetshop, you’re not inside sampling the wares. But even without the full maths, the concepts and ideas in this book are still difficult and challenging, from the early puzzles thrown up by the ultra-violet catastrophe to the ingenious experiments that have proved particle-wave duality and action at a distance.

But there’s a paradox here.

Continue reading: Think Ink

Poulet’s Propeller

The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers (1986) is one of my favourite books. It’s a fascinating mixture of math, mathecdote and math-joke:

2·618 0333…

The square of φ, the golden ratio, and the only positive number such that √n = n-1. (pg. 45)


Kepler discussed the 6-fold symmetry of snowflakes, and attempted to explain it by considering the close packing of spheres in a hexagonal array. (pg. 69)


This appears to be the first uninteresting number, which of course makes it an especially interesting number, because it is the smallest number to have the property of being uninteresting.

It is therefore also the first number to be simultaneously interesting and uninteresting. (pg. 120)

David Wells, who wrote the Dictionary, “had the rare distinction of being a Cambridge scholar in mathematics and failing his degree”. He must be the mathematical equivalent of the astronomer Patrick Moore: a popularizer responsible for opening many minds and inspiring many careers. He’s also written books on geometry and mathematical puzzles. But not everyone appreciates his efforts. This is a sideswipe in a review of William Hartston’s The Book of Numbers:

Thankfully, this book is more concerned with facts than mathematics. Anyone wanting to learn more about [π] or the Fibonacci sequence should turn to the Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, a volume which none but propeller-heads will find either curious or interesting. (Review in The Independent, 18th December 1997)

Continue reading: Poulet’s Propeller