July 14, 2024

Archives for February 2004

Must-Read Books: Readers' Choices

Last week, I asked readers to name five must-read books on science and technology. The results are below. I included nominations from my comments section, from the comments over at Crooked Timber, and from any other blogs I spotted. This represents the consensus of about thirty people.

The most-mentioned book was Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach, which received eight votes. Interestingly, GEB was the only book that received negative votes (urging me not to include it). One of the negative voters called it a “show-off book”.

The results:

Rank Book Author Votes
1 Goedel, Escher, Bach Hofstadter 8
2 Guns, Germs, and Steel Diamond 6
3 (tie) On the Origin of Species Darwin 5
3 (tie) The Character of Physical Law Feynman 5
5 (tie) A Brief History of Time Hawking 4
5 (tie) What is Mathematics? Courant, Robbins 4
5 (tie) The Selfish Gene Dawkins 4
8 (tie) QED Feynman 3
8 (tie) The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Tufte 3
8 (tie) The Double Helix Watson, Crick 3

Six books received two votes: Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Medawar’s The Limits of Science, Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and Schneier’s Beyond Fear. Eighty-five books received a single mention.

As in the university presidents’ survey, the respondents to my query showed a notable lack of consensus.

I’ll post my list tomorrow.

California Court: DeCSS Not a Trade Secret

A California state appeals court has ruled in DVD-CCA v. Bunner, holding that the DeCSS program is not a trade secret, so a lower court was wrong to order Andrew Bunner not to post the program on his website.

DeCSS, you may recall, is a program that decrypts data from DVDs. It’s posted at hundreds or thousands of places on the net. Since the program was already widespread before Bunner posted it, DVD-CCA had no argument that Bunner’s posting posed any additional danger. The court also noted that Bunner played no role in the initial disclosure and spread of DeCSS.

This is a sensible ruling. The only surprise is that it took the California courts so long to reach this conclusion.

(I should note that the court left open the possibility that DVD-CCA could present more evidence to prove the trade secret status of DeCSS; but it’s hard to imagine what evidence could exist that they haven’t already presented.)

Jason Shultz has a collection of quotes from the opinion.

Paris Hilton: Auteur

Some day a great book will be written, dissecting the current copyright mania. And the page-three example, showing just how ridiculous things got, will be this: a legal dispute over whether Paris Hilton can claim authorship of the infamous video.

[Link credit: James Grimmelmann at LawMeme.]

U.S. Fed Trojan-Horse Technology to Soviet Spies

The U.S. fed booby-trapped technology to Soviet economic spies in the 1980’s, according to a new book by former Air Force secretary Thomas C. Reed. This was reported in a front-page story by David E. Hoffman, in today’s Washington Post. Reed says that the CIA, on discovering secret Soviet purchases of sensitive U.S. technology, decided to poison the well by feeding the Soviet technology collectors booby-trapped versions of U.S. products.

The effort was successful, according to Reed, with the biggest impact being an enormous gas pipeline explosion, caused by time-triggered code hidden in the pipeline control software. This confirms a story told by William Safire several weeks ago.

Great Books vs. Must-Read Books

Dan Simon has an interesting reaction to my post on must-read books in science and technology. I can’t do Dan’s post justice with a single quote, but here’s a sample:

[T]he Great Books of science–and they do exist: viz., Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia–simply don’t occupy the same place in the scientific world that the Great Books hold in the humanities and related disciplines. No half-decent undergraduate curriculum, for example, would allow its literature students to escape deep familiarity with Hamlet, its philosophy majors to avoid studying The Republic, its classicists to skimp on the Odyssey, its divinity students not to delve deeply into the Bible, or its budding political scientists to pass on The Prince.

But few geometers feel any need to familiarize themselves with geometry as Euclid explained it; nor do physicists feel incomplete without understanding Newton’s original notation for his laws of motion. And I would much sooner encourage students to master a few basic college texts in math, sciences and engineering than push them to grapple with the same concepts by studying the original works that introduced them. The originals, after all, each represented one farsighted individual’s brilliant-but-still-hazy insight, which has since been clarified and extended far beyond that first attempt at elucidation.

In formulating my own must-read list, I found myself identifying the most important ideas in science, and then asking which books best convey those ideas. An example: evolution is one of the great ideas in science; but which book should we recommend to students? Darwin’s Origin of Species was a tremendous achievement and remains interesting today. But with the benefit of more than a century of further work and discussion, today’s scientists understand the mechanisms and implications of evolution much better than Darwin did. We just can’t justify withholding the best ideas from our hypothetical student, and so Darwin gets bumped off the list. Origin of Species is still a Great Book, but it’s no longer a must-read book.