About Jonathan Shock

I'm a lecturer at the University of Cape Town in the department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics. I teach mathematics both at undergraduate and at honours levels and my research interests lie in the intersection of applied mathematics and many other areas of science, from biology and neuroscience to fundamental particle physics and psychology.

So simple a beginning – How four physical principles shape our living world, by Raghuveer Parthasarathy – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

 

When a review on the back of a book says “Hands down the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.” my skeptical antennae go into action. This was either going to be absolutely brilliant, or sorely disappointing. Thankfully it is absolutely the former. Parthasarathy takes the reader on an insightful and intuitive journey through the world of biophysics, letting us see how physical laws lead to the wonder of biology at all scales of the organism (and beyond, though he only hints at this). I have read a fair number of books about genetics, but this gave without a doubt the most in-depth view as to what is really going on at the molecular level, about how randomness plays a crucial role, at the level of proteins moving around, at the level of lipid bilayers coallescing, and at the level of gene expression.…

By | June 5th, 2024|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

The Einsteinian Revolution – The Historical Roots of his Breakthroughs, by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

I started this book fearing that it would be just another tale of Einstein’s brilliance, the singular and incredible leaps in imagination that he took as a lowly patent clerk and of the enormous impact of his work. However, the book offered much more, proving far more intriguing. There are countless books out there (many of them very good) that detail his life and his works, but that see him very much as an isolated person, overturning the centuries old ideas of science and philosophy with paradigm shift after paradigm shift. This book paints a different picture in an incredibly compelling manner.

The book is really about the nature of science as Einstein found it, of the ideas and results that were already putting pressures on classical physics, and this is paralleled with the Copernican revolution, where the epicyclic models were grinding to a halt under their own complexity, and it took for someone to reimagine the results in a different light to see a much simpler and more elegant truth.…

By | May 13th, 2024|Book reviews, Reviews|0 Comments

The Beauty of Falling: A Life in Pursuit of Gravity by Claudia de Rham – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

I’ve read many many books popularising aspects of theoretical physics. I’ve also read many autobiographies, talking about what it is like to be a theoretical physicist. However, this book combines the two more beautifully than I have read in any other. On the one hand, the book takes the reader on a journey through our understanding of gravity, from Newton to Einstein, to theories of cosmology, the cosmological constant problem and on to the gravitational wave experiments which have been revolutionising our view of the universe over the last few years, and finally to the theory that Claudia de Rham has helped to pioneer over the last two decades. The exploration of Massive Gravity is reserved for the final two chapters. Yet, this complex topic is presented in a remarkably clear manner, both showing the theoretical hurdles that had to be overcome, while also looking at a range of experiments which may shed light on its veracity.…

By | March 29th, 2024|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment

Datascience for Neuroimaging: An Introduction, by Ariel Rokem and Tal Yarkoni – A review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

I initially presumed that this book would begin with a relatively advanced level of coding knowledge before delving into neuroimaging. However, its broader scope makes it a far better and more thorough resource. In fact, coding discussions start only after the first 50 pages. The initial 50 pages provide a superb introduction to the prerequisites for Python coding. Two particularly notable areas, unusual for books of this type, are the in-depth introductions to version control (Git) and computational environments and containers (Conda and Docker). Such topics are often omitted from introductory coding books, leading to significant challenges for students with some coding experience. For example, many students end up reinstalling Linux due to not setting up a virtual environment, indicative of the widespread lack of awareness among those with intermediate coding knowledge. Moreover, in-depth discussion of version control is rare in books focusing on specific applied data science topics.…

By | March 3rd, 2024|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment

When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, by David M. Peña-Guzmán – A review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

The links between dreams, consciousness and memory are absolutely fascinating. I had imagined that the insight that we could get into animal dreaming was limited to dogs running in their sleep and waking themselves up by banging, violently into a wall. However, there is so much more research on this topic than I was aware of. The signals that octopuses can provide to us as to their thoughts through their colouration, shape and texture is incredibly rich, and an entire narrative can seemingly be read off from these visual clues while they sleep. David clearly has some serious frustration with researchers who don’t want to make the leap to the conclusion that this is really dreaming in the way that we know it, but could simply be the animal running through stereotyped behaviour simulations, in an unconscious way.…

By | December 13th, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews, Uncategorized|2 Comments

Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will, by Kevin Mitchell – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

There is much to like about this book. Kevin’s discussions on evolution and neuroscience are detailed, clear, and insightful. His writing in general flows nicely and much of the book is definitely a useful text. However, for me, this does not include the sections which actually talk about free will.

The problems start early on in the book, on page 21 where he says (bold font mine throughout):

Meaning became the driving force behind the choice of action by the organism. That choice is real: the fundamental indeterminacy in the universe means the future is not written. The low-level forces of physics by themselves do not determine the next state of a complex system. In most instances, even the details of the patterns of neural activity do not actually matter and are filtered out in transmission.

By | November 16th, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews|4 Comments

“You are not expected to understand this”: How 26 lines of code changed the world, edited by Tori Bosch – a review.

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

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From Princeton University Press

What a wonderful book! This book, made up of 26 chapters, is a look into the world of computer code, but more than that, about the interrelationship between people and code, from the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Each chapter is written by a different author, or pair of authors, and covers a massively wide range of subjects, from the first coders and programs, to the errors in code which have caused disaster, to the short lines of code which have had massive effects on society.

One thing to note is that people who are so often marginalised in modern computer science are given their voice and their rightful place. This includes the characters who are covered (including Jean Sammet, who I knew nothing about but who developed one of the most important and widely used programming languages to this day) to the LGBTQ+ community in Iran and how they used Telegram to get around the Revolutionary Guards.…

By | May 1st, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews|2 Comments

The Self-Assembling Brain, by Peter Hiesinger – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

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From Princeton University Press

Science so often lives in silos, or perhaps more accurately silos of Babel. We sit in our offices, ignoring a great deal of what is happening down the corridor from us, let alone in the building next door or the one on the other side of the campus.  A lot of this is down to inertia, and the academic culture of mistrust. But a great deal of the problem is down to the technical languages that, over the years, we become fluent in, and as we do so we shut out those other scientists who may actually be talking about something very similar, just in a complementary language.

The self-assembling brain is a book unlike any other that I’ve read, in that it is very explicitly trying to deal with this problem. The topic is that of the creation of the physical structures in the brain during, particularly, development.…

By | April 9th, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews|2 Comments

Patterns, Predictions and Actions: Foundations of Machine Learning, by Hardt and Recht – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

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From Princeton University Press

I’ve just taught a course on mathematics for data science. Sadly it was only ten hours long, so there was only so much that I could cover. However, I feel that was taught was sufficient to get my students to the point that they would feel both comfortable with, and highly motivated to read Patterns, Predictions and Actions.

The balance between theory, application and narrative in the book is, I think, just right, making it a genuinely pleasurable book to read cover to cover, or to dip into a given topic to find the mathematical details (or at least what you need to get started). As with any foundational book, each topic could be covered in massively more detail, but that would simply make it a book, different from the authors’ intentions. The jump between the ideas and mathematical principle of Support Vector Machines, as given on one page, the optimisation methods of linear programming, and the practical aspect of coding up of such an algorithm are missing, but given the aims of the book, this doesn’t feel like a loss.…

By | January 29th, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment

The Story of Proof: Logic and the History of Mathematics, by John Stillwell – a review

NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

The last book of Stillwell’s that I reviewed was Reverse Mathematics which was utterly fascinating, and truly mind-bending. I was very much looking forward to another of his books, and this one did not disappoint. It is a much less alternative perspective on mathematics than the previous, but no less beautifully written or compelling.

I teach pure mathematics to first year undergraduates (amongst others), and so often find that the very concept of a mathematical proof is something that is so hard to grasp. What is sufficient to concretely prove something? What can be assumed? What sort of proof is appropriate within a given context? High school maths generally sets students up very badly in this realm.

Stillwell’s book on the Story of Proof is perhaps a little beyond what could be grasped easily by most first year students, though very keen ones, with patience could certainly make their way through it, and would benefit enormously from doing so.…

By | January 29th, 2023|Book reviews, Reviews|1 Comment