Recently, I've been twitching for a more rigorous intellectual challenge for the science and engineering side of me, which has led to me researching the millennium problems, designing scientific experiments, and adding books like Eight Amazing Engineering Stories to my reading list. In other words, I was rather looking forward to this as an interesting and in-depth look at a selection of technologies and the stories of how they came to be. Unfortunately, it turns out that what I consider in-depth is a little different from what people writing a companion book for a series of YouTube videos considers in-depth; so yes, I have to admit that I found this book a little disappointing, and am glad that it only took me a couple of days to read, but that does not mean you should stop reading this review, or even that you shouldn't read the book. Let me explain.
This is probably the edgiest post I will ever write, because I want to talk today about edge cases. Like some of the concepts I described in my post on narrative physics, this is another instance of me taking an idea from a "hard" field (science, engineering, math) and applying it to a "soft" field (political science, philosophy, literature), and this time that concept is edge cases. If you're not familiar, an edge case is an engineering term used in testing to express failure modes. For a product to be deemed effective/safe/useful, it has to be rigorously tested, and not just under "normal" conditions; it has to be exposed to the most extreme and unusual conditions that the engineers can possibly imagine it might ever conceivably experience, and tested in that environment, too. Those extreme and unusual conditions are known as edge cases, and it is very common for a product to require redesign after it has met its nominal operating conditions because it fails to account for edge cases. If only that concept were applied outside of engineering.
As a society this days, I think we're a bit conceited. Surrounded by and immersed in this matrix we have created, we are distanced from the systems with which we regularly interact, and inured or ignorant of the complexity beyond so many of the things that we take for granted. This is not only applicable to physical things and technologies - it applies equally well to social structures, institutions, governments, administrative systems, and so forth - but it is easiest to understand and perceive in the context of technologies. I definitely suffer from this conceit, wherein I start to think that I understand enough about so many different things that I should be able to reverse engineer or recreate just about any system I might encounter, at least on a theoretical level. Whenever I start to think that way, I give myself what I've taken to calling "The Pen Conceit Lecture."
A while back now we posted about 5G technology as part of our efforts to develop educational content here on the site. This post about quantum computing technology and some of the ways in which we can anticipate it being implemented is in the same vein; quantum computing has been increasingly touted as another sort of “miracle” technology about which we hear a great deal of hype, but without a lot of insight into the details. This post will hopefully rectify that a little.
Today, we’re going to talk about math. No, don’t stop reading: for one thing, I only said that we’re going to talk about math, not that we’re going to do math, and for another, the whole point of this post is to talk about why it’s important not to allow our own perceptions of our abilities to interfere with our actual capabilities. This post in some ways is a follow-on to my post about the importance of reading, and really both of them could be lumped under the topic of education, but I’m not trying to propose a restructuring of the education system here. Reading and writing, to me, is about conveying information, and math is just another way of doing that. However it is done, mathematically or through words, it’s important that as many of us as possible understand both how to create and consume that information.