Saturday, February 21, 2009

BBC Big Read

I was reminded of this when Profgrrrrl recently posted her version of a top 100 book list from an old meme. I blogged my annotated list back in July of last year. She credited the BBC, but her list and mine came from the National Endowment of the Arts. The NEA selected books for the NEA Big Read, a national community reading program, so these are books they consider both important and suitable for a city-wide reading project. In contrast, the BBC list resulted from voting by listeners following their Big Read series in 2003, which makes comparing the lists rather interesting.

I'm going to use the same rules I followed for the other list:
1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you have started but haven’t finished.
3) Place an asterisk * by those you intend to read/finish someday.
4) put a trailing "++" after the books you LOVE.
5) Put a dagger † where you've seen the movie but not read the book.

Like Swans on Tea (who added #5 for the other list), in many cases I've seen the movie (usually an old b/w version that is really faithful to the book) enough times to be as literate about it as those who read the book.

The BBC Top 100 can be found here, if you want your own "clean" list. If you follow the side links, you can see their full list, which goes all the way to number 200. My annotated list is below the fold.

I see my earlier guess, that I've read a lot more of these, was wrong. I'm still around a quarter of them. (I was fooled by the top half of the list, with all of the Potter books. There are quite a few in the second 50 that I have never even heard of.)

1. † The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. † Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams +
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee ++
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. † The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller ++
12. † Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. † Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. † Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. † Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. † Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. † The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck +
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll ++
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. † Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. † Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. *† The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. † The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. * Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. † A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. † Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. † Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. * Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. † The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

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Dr. Crazy nails it ...

I really love teaching undergraduates hard stuff.

That is what I love about my job.

There are some really challenging subjects in the physics course I teach, ones that challenged me when I first encountered them. Ideas that blend math and science, often math they have not learned yet, or are also encountering for the first time. Its great to see students "get it", especially when it seems like the entire class gets it.

The entertaining part is that my students may never know that the really sweet explanation I gave them of a trick for remembering a particularly nasty equation (the Biot-Savart Law, for any physicists reading this) was something I figured out for the very first time this semester! It probably came across to them as a detail that was just as practiced as something I have explained the same way every one of the dozens of times I have taught this course, if I did it well.

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Book Titles

There is nothing quite like a good title. That was proved by "Baboon book makes award shortlist" in the BBC news feed today. The book in question, "Baboon Metaphysics", appears even more irresistible than the news story.

So I can't resist making an early nomination for next year: "Bunnies Made of Cheese: Quantum Physics for Dogs" by Chad Orzel, due out in the fall, although the latest draft table of contents suggests that the final title will lack that potentially Diagram Prize-winning first clause. But I suppose that is par for the course in a field where textbook titles are as creative as "Physics".

But who knows, just "Quantum Physics for Dogs" might be enough, and should certainly be enough to get Chad on the Colbert Show to get a bump for his book sales.

For a sample of Chad's work, check out slides from a recent talk drawn from the book, or the many blog entries on the general subject of explaining physics to his dog, Emmy, some of which were the genesis for the book.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday ...

to Abraham Lincoln (200) and ... my paternal grandmother. As an immigrant, she was always quite impressed that the United States had a national holiday on her birthday.

Now, of course, two holidays (Lincoln's birthday and Washington's birthday) have been combined into President's Day to free up a holiday for MLK in January.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

How you can tell that ...

... retired NASCAR drivers aren't exactly rocket scientists.

After blaming a full moon for the crazy events in tonight's Shootout at Daytona (which proved to be a really good race), Darrell Waltrip said "I sure hope there isn't a full moon next Sunday!" (for the Daytona 500).

(Howling laughter is heard through the Pion household.)

No, you don't have to worry about that, Darrell. In fact, I'd say there is a pretty good chance that there will be a half-moon that day.

Just as I am pretty sure that there will be lots of comments this Sunday (during qualifying) evincing surprise that the second lap of a qualifying run is faster than the first lap ... on a track where the drag-limited top speed of a "restrictor plate" race ensures that the cars take more than two laps to reach maximum speed.

When your car approaches its top speed asymptotically, you have to be a really bad driver to keep from going faster on that second lap.

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Female Mathematicians during WW II

Check out this 8 minute trailer for an up-coming movie "Top Secret Rosies", where "Math may be the most secret weapon of all". (Hat tip to Sherman Dorn.)

I'd take a bit of an exception to the claim in the intro that this is an untold story, since there wasn't a single thing in it that I didn't already know from histories of the projects those women worked on (or the history taught in conjunction with learning "numerical analysis"), but it is great that it has been assembled into a coherent story with a central focus on the role of mathematicians, mostly female, in winning World War II.

I hope that people who see this movie do not interpret the presence of electromechanical "adding" machines as an indication of mindless labor. That was not the case then, any more than the essential skill of entering the correct numbers into a calculator or computer program is simply clerical labor today. It still takes a person who knows what they are doing to put the right numbers in the machine and verify that the numbers that come out are not wrong.

What people today don't realize is that digital computers with the capability of doing sophisticated engineering (or physics) calculations were too expensive for a small or mid-size company until relatively recently, and you didn't have time (and could not afford the risk) to explain the task to a low-paid clerk. Your engineering license hung on those numbers being right, just as lives depended on whether a 155mm Howitzer shell landed on the enemy rather than your own troops during WW II. This was a job for experts.

One place my dad worked had a "programmable" desktop calculator, where the key sequences could be stored on a magnetic card in much the way that a program is written on a TI-83. This was in the late 1960s, when that device cost thousands of dollars, and it was operated by the engineers. A company he joined in 1969 had an in-house computer for payroll and billing, but only a few engineering tasks were done on it. Everything else was done with an electromechanical calculator like you see in this movie clip, plus lots of log and trig tables. One of the engineers bought one of the first HP-35 calculators (at a price that would be several thousand dollars today), explaining that it saved the cost of the books of log tables that he wore out every year. Highly efficient algorithms for computation were really important when you were doing it essentially by hand.

Even before the war, many women worked as mathematicians or computers who applied mathematics to engineering or physics problems. Many engineers and physicists also did this work. That is what Feynman and Teller and others did at Los Alamos, working side by side with women like the ones in this movie. Although one woman mentioned her background with business calculations on an adding machine, the complexity of the work often required someone who knew what was being done, someone who could spot a computational error because s/he knew the math or physics behind the correct answer.

[Perhaps it was inevitable that histories in the 1950s would put the focus on the men (much in the way Feynman put the focus on himself) and that female mathematicians would be expected to go back to "women's work" after the war. What is disturbing is the degree to which young women still have to fight stereotypes imposed by their fellow students. One great thing at our CC is that we have a number of highly capable women teaching mathematics, and they have served as role models for young women who never realized they could have a technical career.]

The mathematical problem being solved by the women mentioned in this clip was the solution of sophisticated equations for the flight of a bomb or shell, such as the shell fired by a 6" gun or 16" cannon. Models of the many forces acting on an object, most never even mentioned in an intro physics textbook, were used to predict where the object would land if released at some specific angle, velocity, and altitude. The models were verified against experiments done with the actual, specific ballistic projectile, and then used to construct extensive tables that filled in all the gaps between the experimental results they had available. Gunners could reverse the process, looking up the firing angle needed to get a particular shell to land at a particular distance away for given cross winds, etc.

The ENIAC, actually the second electronic computer built rather than the first as stated in the film clip, was built to replace the labor of a room full of people working with calculators. Naturally, the people (women mathematicians) who had organized the work on the hand calculations were tapped to do the same for the new machine. This was not an uncommon occupation. One of the first computer programmers I knew was a woman who wrote code used for accelerator design in the 1950s. She was old enough to have done war work, but I don't know if she did.

But she (like the women featured in this movie) would not be the only person who might have done hugely significant work during WW II without anyone knowing what they did. Until the classification rules were lifted in the mid 1990s, all I knew was that my thesis advisor had "given orders to Admirals" during WW II. It turns out that he worked at Bletchley Park, breaking German codes, and knew John von Neumann, among others. Another person I knew had been in the plane that followed the Enola Gay to Hiroshima, taking pictures of the effects of the bomb. I didn't know that until I read his obituary.

Side note:
The first electronic computer ever built, Colossus, was so secret that its mere existence was classified as part of the "Ultra" code breaking work done at Bletchley Park in the UK. It was only after the classification of that project expired that it became known that the ENIAC was not the first programmable computer.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Physics Teaching and Retention ...

I'm posting this as basically an open thread, triggered by this comment on Dean Dad's blog.

I'll quote the comment below the fold:

My fiance teaches physics full-time at the local CC. He's very concerned about maintaining standards, so students transferring to study engineering at the local mammoth midwestern u (MMU) can hold their own in the cattle pens they call classes there. I teach at MMU, and I know what he does is effective. A student we've both had in common told me that when MMU eng. classes are tough, my fiance's former students get together and use the methods they learned from him to figure out how to understand the difficult topics.

Here's the dilemma he's in right now: how to deal with mixed messages from CC administration emphasizing 1. the importance of student retention (hint hint) 2. bringing this CC to back above average for its size in terms of student math performance. On the whole this CC has a very good reputation in science and eng. prep. Still, I hear from my fiance (a LOT) about his frustration with what he perceives as instructors lowering their standards. It's hard to know how to read this. But if you get a student in your calculus based physics course who doesn't remember how to do derivatives 1 month after taking calc, what's going on? Also, if the physics instructor at a satellite campus of this CC regularly has an A- average in his classes (my fiance's is more like C, and that's in step with chem/bio/otherscience instructors there), how do you respond? This calculus student isn't an isolated case.

There's a lot going on here, but even without identifying all the causes for it, it's important to know. To what extent are standards already shaky here? What are the true priorities?

This CC isn't in immediate trouble, but like everyone else, is looking at major economizing. They're also in the position of getting much less funding from the state than MMU, but charge about 1/2 the tuition MMU does.

Yes, there is a lot here, and some of it has been touched on in past articles that might be filed under "teaching" or "education". Here I will quickly single out two of them for possible future discussion in more detail.
  1. Increasing retention (of students) by lowering standards: I am fairly direct when dealing with this. By direct, I mean I have publicly asked the Provost and President what they want. Do they want me to pass students who cannot do the work at the level needed to succeed in engineering school, thereby increasing my "success" rate at the expense of students who will fail after they transfer? Their answer is an emphatic "No" because we measure learning by success after transfer in our internal re-accreditation studies.
  2. Not remembering material from a previous class (retention of knowledge): Some of this is to be expected. Fighting it is also something that I actively (and I mean REALLY actively) push. I alluded to this issue in my John Updike article, and so intend to blog about it 'soon'. Our math department is taking it on as well.

By the way, like your husband, I revel in the stories my former students tell about kicking butt at Big Dog U. Their stories are a big part of how I sell item 2 to my current students.

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