November 12, 2012

Review time

Book SculptureTime to review some of my newly finished reading:

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks: A good old action-packed Culture novel. Snarky ships with humorous names, people with odd biologies, decamillennia-spanning intrigue, and the etiquette of transcending the universe.

It is not among the top ones (it is hard to beat Use of Weapons, and I have a very soft spot for The Player of Games), but a solid read. I especially enjoyed the various strange hobbies and art projects going on: whether sand-sculpting (including quality control of individual grains), the most overwrought party/orgy since the flying party in Douglas Adam's Life, the Universe and Everything), doing alchemy in virtual chemistries, or indeed, the titular piece of music.

Activating epileptic tree mode (some spoilers ahead): I think the events of the novel were actually something akin to the Hydrogen Sonata. On the surface the plot is driven by the secret of the Book of Truth, which itself is a bit like the Sonata: an academic experiment of little importance in itself, but given far greater importance by the people caught up in it. The doing is important, while the end result does not matter much. However, there are also signs that there might be more going on. What is Zoologist really doing, and why did it disappear? Why did QiRia's memory behave like it did, and why did he choose to do what he did? Why did the ship help the Ronte like it did, making a tragic confrontation unavoidable? Aren't Pyan and the Marshall subtly influencing - perhaps without noting - their principals? An obvious interpretation of this paranoid line of thought is that the whole thing is a bigger Sonata, orchestrated from outside. Perhaps it makes sense from the Sublime. In one sense this is obviously true: the events form a novel in our universe, where their pattern make sense to the author and the readers. Again, it is the reading rather than getting to the end that is enjoyable and important.

I got inspired by the novel to make my own atrociously pointless and piece of music. It is going to be a doozy. Just one hint: the ultrahyperbolic wave equation.

The Optics of Life by Sönke Johnsen: I like reading introductory books on random subjects. This one is a great introduction to light from the perspective of a biologist.

It covers a lot of the practical details like the plethora of confusing units and what to do about them. It discusses many of the pitfalls that dot the field, like the subtle problem that light spectra are histograms and hence does not behave quite like they should when you shift between wavelength and frequency (it is not enough to just recalculate the wavelengths into frequencies or vice versa, since the bin size and hence the height of the curve will be changed non-linearly).

What I enjoyed was that I learned new things on every page, despite being (I thought) somewhat well read in physics and not too ignorant of biology. There were plenty of little 'aha!'-moments where an everyday phenomenon got its explanation (why does wet objects often look dark? why does saturation of pigments change when they get thicker? how does the light spectrum really change as twilight sets in? why do we not see beams travelling past us in scattering media, if every scatterer supposedly radiates waves isotropically?) And conversely, there are many intriguing open problems: why are there so few bioluminescent freshwater species? Why are there no visual pigments that peak in the deep red, and why do some deep-sea fishes go for red bioluminescence? What is up with the visual world of mantis shrimp?

The book is full of strange biological solutions, like how moth eyes use nipple arrays to control effective refractive index and hence reduce reflection or the tricky arrangements of photoreceptors in insect eyes to get polarisation sensitivity. Not to mention hilarious asides, such as the problems of getting truly light-pollution free measurements when the Coast Guard thinks your darkened boat is smuggling drugs.

Even if you are never going to do biological optics, this is very worth reading.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi: The sequel to The Quantum Thief. Not quite up to its predecessor's perfect pacing, but still filled with a dense lattice of fresh and intriguing ideas for a post-human world.

It feels very much like the author has been quietly listening in to some of our FHI office discussions, figuring out how to turn our research issues into plot points, asides or just background decorations. It gives a bit more information about the solar system of the setting, filling in just enough background details to help make out the overall back-story but still leaving plenty of voids for the imagination to fill. I am less convinced about the physical or computational feasibility of some of the goings-on than in the previous novel, but I think one can easily get a firm suspension of disbelief when one considers that this is a solar system a lifetime or two beyond the singularity. Our ancestors would likely have laughed at the idea that mere coal could become super-strong carbon fibre: maybe there are sneaky ways of getting that much bandwidth too.

If there was anything problematic about it, it was the ending. Just like the previous novel it ends in a grand rush with world-changing events happening over just a few pages. In this case there is also a pretty major and character-changing revelation that better be scrutinized or handled well in the sequel. Rajaniemi certainly doesn't make his job easier for himself.

The quantum boxing method was a real "why didn't I think of it?!" moment for me, given my past paper on AI boxing. It seems quite doable (assuming you have AI and quantum computers), although if *every* evolution of the AI manages to set certain registers into the same states it might be able to write a classical message to a side channel. However, I am not sure this can actually be done: worth doing a bit of proving about. I love when novels produce research topics *and* are page-turners!

Posted by Anders3 at November 12, 2012 09:25 PM