Friday, September 16, 2016

Summer reading - fiction

This has been a whirlwind of a summer! Lots of developments at professional front (wrapping my postdoc and starting my new faculty job!) and personal front (moving to my new home and setting it up) dissolved days into strings of hours that passed in a blur of activity. Looking back at the past couple of months, I find it incredible how much can be done each time the Earth completes a single spin on its axis!

One of the things that made this transition doubly amazing is that I re-'kindled' my romance with books (pun intended!). I guess it almost comes with the territory of packing and unpacking books into neat stacks, mulling over the color of new bookcases, fussing over bookends and creasing out tired-looking book dividers out of brown boxes. So it is only natural that I resume my blogging in this year sharing the titles (with my ratings and brief reviews of them) which provided me cozy corners amidst their pages when none existed outside.

1. The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3/5
Review: Part of the Inspector Alan Grant Series. Okay for patient readers, as all the action is strictly cerebral.

2. The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Detective fiction
Rating: 1.5/5
Review: Frequently hailed as one of the greatest american detective writings but hugely overrated in my opinion. The protagonist Samuel Spade conjures information out of 'thick' air and leaves you feeling like a fool.

3. The Kindness of Neighbors - Matthew Iden
Genre: Thriller/suspense
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: Short and crisp. Worth a quick read.

4. Behind Closed Doors - B. A. Paris
Genre: Modern thriller
Rating: 3/5
Review: Debut novel of the author. Fluid prose, well written. Not in the same league as Paula Hawkin's The Girl on the Train though.

5. After Anna - Alex lake
Genre: Modern thriller
Rating: 2.5/5
Review: Suffers a bit from Hannibal Lecter complex. But overall an okay time-pass read which does not require too much attention.

6. Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Terry Patchett
Genre: Satire/Humor
Rating: 4/5
Review: Antichrist has arrived and has been kind of .. misplaced! Angels, fallen and otherwise, take it upon themselves to locate him and try to avert the apocalypse as they have got too attached to the imperfect ways of humans. Oh my god good (especially Mr. Crawly!). Do yourself a favor and please go and read it now. Note to self: read it again asap.

7. The Codex - Douglas Preston
Genre: Thriller/Treasure hunt
Rating: 3/5
Review: Good. If you like lost manuscripts, ancient tombs and trails, survival tales sort of things, this is for you.

8. Murder with Peacocks - Donna Andrews
Review. You got it. Forgettable!

9-15. Joe Dillard series (Books 1-7) - Scott Pratt
Genre: Legal thrillers
Rating: 3/5
Review: Ranges from average to some flashes of interesting twists. Definitely for fans of Grisham (I am not one of them).

16. The Professor - Robert Bailey
Genre: Legal thriller
Rating: 3/5
Review: Thoroughly american writing, enjoyable in parts. Passable.

17. Between Black and White - Robert Bailey
Genre: Legal Thriller
Rating: 2/5
Review: Continuation of characters from The Professor. Could have been an engaging story but writing is a let-down. Merely passable.

P.S. I wanted to try out legal thrillers once and I think I have had my fill with them for some years with 9-17.

18. Breakthrough - Michael C. Grumley
Genre: Scientific thriller
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: First book of a 3-part series. Involves conversations with intelligent dolphins, nuclear submarines, aliens, and apocalyptic undercurrents in shifting ice of Antartica. Engaging read.

19. Pines - Blake Crouch
Genre; Post-apocalyptic thriller
Rating: 2.5/5
Review: First book of wayward pines trilogy. Gave me a major divergent deja-vu. Will rather go for the TV series (if at all).

20. Diamond Dust - Anita Desai
Genre: Fiction (short stories)
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: Amazing as always, Anita Desai tells tales about flawed people in her flawless prose.

21. Sweetness at the bottom of the pie - Alan Bradley
Genre: Young adult detective fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Review: First book of series about the 11-year old charming and precocious Flavia De Luce, who goes about unraveling mysteries armed with her chemistry set and unbridled energy. Highly recommended especially for young girls. I am definitely going back for a second helping of this pie.

Currently reading:

1. Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman
2. One more thing - B. J. Novak

Monday, March 14, 2016

Happy Pi Day!

Don't rush to your nearest bakery -- not yet any way!

We are talking about the beautifully enigmatic and irrational number aka pi. Why today? -- given the precision provided by the digits on our calendars, 3.14.16 is the closest you can get to this ever elusive number hermit! So in the spirit of full disclosure it is actually a 'rounded' pi day like the one shown on the right (yum!).  For a more appropriate homage, I enclose the one I spotted at the Stata Center@MIT* below!

Well, as it turns the geeking out with this day does not stop yet. It also happens to be birthday of the most famous physicist ever -- yes it is 137th birthday of Albert Einstein which makes this extra special! In addition, 137 has its own hall of fame in physics ---due to fine structure constant, which is recognized as one of the fundamental constants of nature, and which is very close to 1/137!

As you can see alpha seems to be having its own little party with other constants (including pi), such as e = charge of an electron, \hbar = h/(2 pi) = (reduced) Planck's constant, c = speed of light in vacuum and \epsilon_{0} = permittivity of the free space. One of the reasons which carves \alpha firmly on the throne of geeks (and greeks!**), is that it sets the natural coupling strength of matter (electron) with radiation (photon) in Quantum Electrodynamics***.

Now you maybe wondering why did nature choose something as unexpected as 1/137 in its manifestation -- if you have any clues, you just might be able to solve one of the longest standing puzzles in Physics!

* It may just be a coincidence but MIT also hands out its decision for admissions today.
**being the first greek letter and all..
***The effective electric charge of the electron actually varies slightly with energy so the constant changes a bit depending on the energy scale at which you perform your experiment. So \alpha is not really a 'constant' as such, but hey it is pretty close and makes QED work so well, so we will let it be!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

When science creates ripples!

Image courtesy: Caltech
Today LIGO team unveiled what is potentially one of the greatest results in modern physics  -- first detection of gravitational waves, also called GW150914*, created when two black holes collided a good 1.3 billion years ago**! Count the number of wow-inducing words in that one sentence alone -- it (usually) does not get better than this.

It is a really big moment for both MIT and Caltech, two of the leading members of LIGO team. Being at MIT, I can almost sense the contagious enthusiasm in air. Rainer Weiss, an MIT professor, traces back the LIGO journey in this Q&A. In his email to the MIT community this morning, president L. Rafael Reif sums it up most aptly: "The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic."

Cockeyed optimism of scientists, as John Preskill from Caltech puts it, was essential for the success of this complex, ambitious and beautiful experiment. And now there is even more reason to continue with this die-hard optimism regarding the future*** of this effort. Kip Thorne, one of the original instigators of LIGO, stated in the live webcast that Advanced LIGO is operating at only one-third of its ultimate sensitivity, so when this interferometric window into the universe is fully opened -- we should have access to 27 times mores volume of the universe and see many such events in its eventful history!

First Higgs and now gravitational waves -- woohoo science!

*Indexing the date of September 14, 2015 when LIGO detectors at Hanford and Livingston recorded the coincidence event signifying a GW signature.
** The technical details can be found in this paper by the collaboration that appeared on the Physical Review Letters website today.
*** There are plans to build a third LIGO-like gravitational wave detector in India, which should be operational by 2020.