This is an unusual biography of a highly unusual man, the prodigiously gifted mathematician and professional eccentric John Horton Conway—creative scientist, teacher, showman, and cult figure. His third ex-wife told the author, Siobhan Roberts, that he was both “the most interesting person I have ever met” and “the most selfish, childlike person I have ever met,” and that she didn’t think she would marry again because John had “set the bar rather high.”Read more
The short plane ride from Kathmandu to Lukla, through the front range of the Himalayas, is famous not just for scenery but for thrills. The tricky part is landing, at which the pilot gets one shot: Skim over a pass, bank, and drop sharply onto a short runway sloped upward at nearly 10 degrees to bleed off speed. Taking off on the return leg is also a kick, as the plane races downhill to get airborne before the runway drops out from beneath it.Read more
"What is it like,” asks Tim Birkhead, “for an emperor penguin diving in the inky blackness of the Antarctic seas at depths of up to 400 m[eters]?” And what is it like “to feel a sudden urge to eat incessantly, and over a week or so become hugely obese, then fly relentlessly—pulled by some invisible force—in one direction for thousands of miles, as many tiny songbirds do twice each year”?Read more
Many ancient societies knew important mathematical facts, but only one discovered mathematics—which is not a collection of accurate rules of thumb, but a body of knowledge organized deductively, by the radical notion of proof. And Euclid is its prophet.Read more
Damn Yankees is a bathroom book, which I mean in the nicest way: short, generally entertaining, with essays from authors often better known as writers than as sportswriters. Most would engage a nonfan and none presupposes warm feelings for the Yankee imperium.Read more
Humor plays an extraordinary role in everyday life. The traditional Martian observer might marvel at our craving for the incapacitating, nonproductive seizures known as laughter. Many major philosophers have proposed an account of it—an expression of superiority (Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes), the perception of an incongruity (Kant, Schopenhauer), the venting of excess energy (Freud). Each seems to capture some important insight, but not the whole.Read more
Superheroes: The Best of Philosophy and Pop Culture expounds Immanuel Kant’s defense of retribution as a duty intimately related to “respect, honor, and what it means to be a valuable person living a worthwhile life in a community of other moral persons. When,” on the other hand, “Rorschach administers punishment, say by drowning Big Figure in the toilet,” that seems barbaric. “Indeed, drowning a midget in a toilet isn’t aesthetically pleasing; it doesn’t look ‘right.’ ”Read more
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