Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review: The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

Want to read a moving novel in sonnets? Grab a copy of "The Golden Gate", by Vikram Seth.

I am prejudiced against "popular" Indian authors. Past experiences have made me critical towards them, especially if their fiction is popular in the West. I don't know what I was thinking when I picked up "The Golden Gate" by Vikram Seth. I had heard of Vikram Seth, but I had not read anything by him.

The Golden Gate is a story about a few friends, and a few years of their life. The book is written entirely in verse, which took me by surprise. It has been a few years since I read verse. I need not have worried, the Golden Gate is a great way to start reading verse again. It is easy to read, and many passages in it are moving, and thought provoking. The book starts out with a person who should be happy at his success, but he feels lonely. It follows his journey, and tells you about his friends, and their lives. Written during the turbulent period of the Vietnam era, it raises interesting questions about life, ambition, following one's dreams, and what it takes to be happy and at peace.

The locations are all from the San Francisco Bay Area: San Francisco, San Jose, Marin county, and introduce the reader to the joy of living in this wonderful part of the world. It makes the reader appreciate the world we live in, and our friends.

I started out skeptical, and ended up enjoying the book immensely. I was sad when it ended, Vikram had done such a fine job of introducing the characters that they felt like friends.

Get the book, and enter the charming world of Vikram Seth's verse.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

Srinivas Ramanujan was a brilliant Indian mathematician who made seminal contributions to Number Theory and the theory of continued fractions. Robert Kanigel's book, "The Man Who Knew Infinity" is a biography of Ramanujan.

The book talks about Ramanujan's life in quite some detail. Robert has provided a lot of color by traveling to the places involved, and deeply researching Ramanujan's life. The book has photographs of the places and maps of areas, making it easy to identify with the story. The biography is well balanced and impartial. If this was all the book contained, it would already be a worthy read.

What I found most interesting was the associated commentary on Indian society, values and the education system. Ramanujan was ignored by the Indian education system, largely because he refused to conform to its requirements. Ramanujan showed an early brilliance in Mathematics. But the system didn't care for exceptional performance in one field. Due to the inflexibility of the system, the talent of a brilliant mathematician was wasted. Having suffered through the Indian education system, I found the passages revealing. Even back in Ramanujan's day, the system was inflexible and idiotic. Many people recognized the inflexibility of the system, its arbitrary outcome, and the ill effect on genuine talent.

How much part did Indian society and customs play in Ramanujan's downfall? Ramanujan refused to alter his diet in cold, cloudy England. As a result, he got very little vitamin D, and suffered poor health. This is a problem that persists to this day: Indians who firmly adhere to a restricted diet suffer from problems in countries where an Indian diet is unsuitable. Ramanujan's wife was poorly treated by his mother, and this poor treatment led to misunderstanding and stress in Ramanujan's life. Would the outcome have been different if the Indian arranged marriage was not as stifling?

Ramanujan's life is full of questions. It makes me sad at the outcome. But more importantly, it makes me wonder.

Would a Ramanujan be possible today? Could a lower middle class boy with no talent for anything other than Mathematics be recognized as a genius? Could he even reach a point where he could seek collaboration or patronage from Western mathematicians?

It is a very sad tale, though one I think every Indian student should know. Indian students yearn for exposure to foreign education and worldwide recognition. This is one example of a person who got both, and yet he had a sad and lonely life. The outcome could have been so much different. Ramanujan was as good as Euler or a Gauss, according to people who worked with him. And yet his talent was squandered away. An early death, a lonely life full of struggle. And Ramanujan was lucky. Today, he probably would have no hope of success.

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book Review: The Male Brain & The Female Brain

Rather than waste your time with pop-culture books about men and women, how about read books with real science and insight this holiday season?

This is a review of two delightful books called "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain" written by Louann Brizendine. Dr. Brizendine is a professor at UC San Francisco. Both books talk about the peculiarities of each brain from a scientific viewpoint. The books are scientifically accurate, and are accessible to a layperson with no background in neurology.

The books contain a lot of insight about the behavior of both men and women. For example, The Female Brain talks about how women's brain is highly geared towards social connections. It provides many examples to demonstrate this, and talks about the development of a female brain from a newborn to adult and to a mature brain. Along the way, you see the various changes in the brain. A lot of behavior changes accompany the development of the brain. This book made me understand the motivation behind the baffling behavior of friends and relatives.

The Female Brain was the earlier book. Recently, Dr. Brizendine wrote The Male Brain. The second book is as interesting and as revealing as the first. It talks of the development of the male brain through the years. There are many ways in which the adult male brain is different from the teenage male brain. Reading about the male brain allowed me to better understand how I will change as I grow older. It also allowed me to understand male toddlers behavior.

Both books are a quick read, they make cutting-edge scientific research accessible to everyone. This is scientific writing at its best.