Keith Douglas' Web Page

About me Find out who I am and what I do.
My resumé A copy of my resumé and other documentation about my education and work experience for employers and the curious.
Reviews, theses, articles, presentations A collection of papers from my work, categorized and annotated.
Current research projects What I am currently working on, including some non-research material.
Interesting people People professionally "connected" to me in some way.
Interesting organizations Organizations I am "connected" to. (Some rather loosely.)
Intellectual/professional influences Influences on my work, including an organization chart. Here you can also buy many good books on philosophy and other subjects via amazon.com. I have included brief reviews of hundreds of books.
Professional resources Research sources, amazon.com associates programs, etc.
What is the philosophy of computing? A brief introduction to my primary professional interest.
My intellectual heroes A partial list of important people. Limited to the dead.
My educational philosophy As a sometime teacher I've developed one. Includes book resources.

Book Influences - Biography

Title
Author
Purchase / Enjoy Cover
Comment
Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers Toole, ed. A collection of letters and letter extracts of a pioneering amateur (female) mathematician. Ada, countess Lovelace is remembered for her friendship with and intellectual contributions on behalf of Charles Babbage. This collection is marred by two flaws: one, the mathematics itself is cut from many of the letters; two, the editor unfortunately buys into all kinds of quantum mechanics misinterpretations.
Alan Turing: The Enigma Hodges A sensitive, caring, deeply researched biography of, if one had to name just one, the single person who won WWII. It is also the same for the same person who also invented computing as a field, and contributed to artificial intelligence, chemical biology, theoretical engineering and a few other fields. Unfortunately, social customs of the 1950s were not up for such a figure who was also unabashedly homosexual. Outspoken about what mattered to him and indifferent about the rest, Turing was outspoken about his sexuality, too. And eventually this got him, tragically, into trouble. The last chapters deal with this unfortunate, ultimately life-ending, event. At the time of the writing of this review, 2011, Turing's memory has largely been exonerated, and next year will hopefully complete the circle. Nevertheless, because in a way an injustice once like this is an injustice forever, Hodges' wonderful biography stands as a memorial and testament to one of humanity's great benefactors forever. Note: This book comes in sort of two editions, but the basic difference is an extended introduction written a little later; Hodges has continued to work on this subject and maintains an excellent website on Turing's life and work.
A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitrii Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table Gordin Amazingly, this book only discusses the periodic table (and periodicity) for a portion (about a fifth, at most) of its length. This is with good reason, as we learn about all of Mendeleev's other activities, such as: investigation of the gas laws, metrology, meteorology, socioeconomic reform, organizing scientific societies, writing textbooks and combatting Spiritualists.
Beyond Black Bear Lake: Life at the Edge of Wilderness LaBastille An ecologist, wilderness lover and dog fan describes part of her life and loves. I bought this because the woman sounded superficially like my friend Raven according to the description on the cover. I was more right than I could imagine. If sisters are those who have many things in common, Raven and LaBastille are sisters (even if the latter would more likely chronologically be Raven's mother) ...
Cogito, Ergo Sum: The Life of René Descartes Watson A breezy, popular biography of Descartes which does not spend too much time on what he actually did intellectually. This is a shame, but it also makes for a much easier read than otherwise. Nevertheless all the important work is brought up, including some spurious pseudo-Descartes stuff (a ballet, of all things). Watson steers clear of the hagiography that has surrounded Descartes for centuries and also sarcastically (more or less) dismisses his extreme critics. The only weakness is an insistence that Descartes somehow stayed Catholic. (A Catholic who at best received communion once as an adult? Who never seemed to attend church, even? As if.) To be fair, however, Watson is disdainful of what he calls the Saint René Descartes crowd.
Confucius: His Life and Thought Kaizuka This is a brief (approx. 180 pages) biography of the most influential of all Chinese philosophers. Includes much material on the sociocultural context of the time which makes for understanding some of his activities. The author is properly skeptical of some of the traditional accounts, but a decent picture of Confucius's life comes through.
Einstein: The Life and Times Clark Einstein needs no introduction, but a monumental biography is still welcome.
Galileo Watcher of the Skies Wootton The Indigo Girls are right: Galileo, king of night vision (alas, one who would go blind!), king of insight. This is a recent (2010 - so for the 400th anniversary of his world renowned Starry Messenger) biography of this giant of the founding of science. Flawed, arrogant at times, but brilliant and one who looked out for his friends - Galileo is herein described in detail, to the extent that we can. Much, alas, is known to be lost. Wootton defends the semicontroversial point that Galileo was not a Christian (he effectively never mentions Jesus, wrote a book on the naturalistic explanation of miracles (!!) and much else), but does not dwell on this fact. The notion of "what is the case" - fact - in fact (groan!) is a central part of this gripping and in a way very sad story. Not only was Galileo to go blind, he also was threatened with torture and imprisonment. For those who say he brought it up on himself: balderdash. I may think that view of yours is inane (and it is!) but do I threaten your life to say so? No idea is so dangerous, so subversive, so harmful, that it would entail wrecking a person (literally) for defending it. Moreover, the history the defender of torture is appealing to is simply wrong. Read Wootton's book to find out more.
Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation Fern Fern's "last memoires" with the creator of Star Trek has been called a hagiography (and worse!) by some of its critics. I have yet to evaluate the claims seriously, but do know that regardless, this book had a tremendous influence on me. (See my "about me" page for just the beginning.) The book is also lyrical and moving, every time I read it. Birds might be able to guess why, if they were to read it too.
Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science Casimir This autobiography of a noted Dutch (!) physicist who knew or met the greats of the early 20th century (Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Ehrenfest, Heisenberg, Pauli, Dirac, etc.) is interesting but becomes more discussion of science and technology than his personal role in them. I suspect this is because Casimir was employed for many years in industry and subsequently was not abreast of various developments. Of course, the pace of discoveries in physics slowed down c. 1940 or so anyway. My only complaint is a quibble: we do not fully understand the author's motivation for his pursuit of science after reading it. He discusses several ways one can understand this (and also several complaints about science and technology) but does not announce any firm conclusions. This is a shame, for one of the goals stated in the book (as part of a particular series on the theme) is to increase public awareness of such things.
Leibniz: An Intellectual Autobiography Antognazza This is a monumental (~600 pages) biography of one of the most brilliant people ever to live. Unfortunately, Leibniz was also amongst the most "usefully" indecisive people (birdy, for those who know my terminology) ever as well. Many of us know his contributions to philosophy and mathematics; others might know he dabbled (and even was trained in) law and did things in physics too. But his literal life's work (approximately) was a work of history, which he never really completed. He somehow was convinced one had to start at the formation of the Earth in order to trace the family of a noble house. Regardless of these and other mishaps, the genius and (as a jacket reviewer says) humanity shines through. I also learned that Leibniz advocated many social reforms (what we'd now call socialized medicine, etc.) though with little effect, alas. On the other hand, he was a bit more belligerent than perhaps was necessary towards the somewhat menancing court of Louis XIV of France. An engaging style (including some puns!) makes this a fascinating read all in all.
Life of Bertrand Russell Clark Another genius, another biography. For some reason, my favourite part of this book is the discussion of Russell's relationship to Ottoline.
Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel Dawson Gödel's brilliance and psychological problems are braided together in this sym apathetic and knowledgeable biography. The world needs more Herren Warum. (And Frauen Warum, too!)
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius Monk Wittgenstein was the first philosopher I studied formally at university and I've found his work both exasperating and (selectively) useful ever since. This biography is sensitive and humane, as well as philosophically informed (if cursory) and captures what seems to be a very haunted, driven individual, someone who desperately wanted human contact and yet found humans exasperating. I cannot find Wittgenstein's desperate attempts to be religious congenial, but I do understand the drive to be creative, as he put it, when one is only partially good at it. Monk's portrait of this important 20th centuriy philosopher can be summed up in the words of someone who Wittgenstein had trouble appreciating, but I think, after reading this good biography, that he would have understood this much: "He was a man. Take him for all in all, we shall not see his like again."
Madame Curie: A Biography Curie (translated by Sheean) A touching and scholarly biography of one of the most brilliant minds of all time by her daughter. A few typos and (what I take to be) translation mistakes do mar this edition. Nevertheless, it is is a monumental and lovely work.
Men Against War Gillett Not available at amazon.com This is a small book, containing brief biographies of some important pacifists. Included are Asoka, Gandhi, Smuts, Bright, Tolstoy, Penn, Hammarskjöld and Ceresole.

Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton
Westfall This is one detailed, well documented biography of a remarkable scientist, an obnoxious and lonely person. 880+ pages makes for about 10 pages for every year of Newton's life, though very little is known about his childhood. One thing about it that I did not know which is discussed briefly was how he played with the girls, making them "props" for their dolls. (Apparently he was a good "mechanick", etc. in the 17th century jargon.) It seems, also, that all the bit about Newton's secret alchemy isn't true - yes, he was an (al)chemist, but it wasn't terribly secret. What was secret was his heterodox religious views. An Arian at Trinity - many have commented on the irony, but it is very striking in the whole picture of things. My only complaint is that I would have liked a little bit more about why the mathematics Newton did was innovative. This is not totally left out, so this is a very minor criticism of a very good book. A note about the mathematical history, too: darn that Johann Bernouilli - he seems to have been a key player in egging folks on in that bitter and useless dispute about the calculus. I should go back to compare what the biography of Leibniz (above) says about such things ...
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher Campbell-Kelly This is an edited edition of Charles Babbages' own autobiographical work.
Spinoza: A Life Nadler A monumental biography of one of the greatest philosophers of all time. Nadler has compiled and analyzed a massive amount of historical data to better situate Spinoza's life into the history of Europe, of Judaism and of human thought. I learned from this that Spinoza was also apparently highly interested in theatre and drawing (none of which survive), in addition to his philosophy and lens grinding.
The Electric Life of Michael Faraday Hirshfeld This is a small (~190 pages) biography of one of those geniuses we don't hear enough about. So much of what we take for granted technologically comes out of his work in basic science. The lessons from this couldn't be more clear, and we slip closer and closer to a technology only science and technology policy. We also learn of Faraday's support by other geniuses - Davy and Maxwell. After all, it is not every bookbinder's apprentice who discovers important new compounds, revolutionizes electrochemistry, invents a new fundamental concept in physics (the field), conducts hundreds of meticulously documented experiments, gives lectures to the public on his work, remains an affable and likable sort, and labours for better environmental standards? (The latter may be new even to those who already appreciate Faraday's genius.)
The Life of David Hume Mossner A 600 odd page biography (at least as far as the main text goes) of Scotland's most famous philosopher. Hard to read at parts due to slogging back and forth in the temporal sequence as well as a writing style that somehow did not agree with me made this something of a challenge. However, it is a welcome biography and complements the ones I already had on "rationalists". I learned many things, such as Hume, like Leibniz before him, worked as a diplomat; the mysterious "Douglas" family crest I got from my mother with the saying "Jamais Arriere" is not as surprising as it may seem. (There was much francophilia in some circles in Scotland in the 18th century.) Warning: this reproduction does not keep the darkness of the type constant, another irritation, one I hope OUP can correct.
The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell Mahon You are reading this note in part because of Maxwell's genius. This 19th century genius had a short but fruitful life; a life cut short by cancer. Nevertheless he made many contributions to physics, and secondarily to mathematics, physiology, poetry and psychology (he did work on colour perception). In this biography you will also learn that Maxwell had an interesting experimental assistant (his wife) and also that Stokes' theorem is misnamed. Alas the one weakness is that we are not treated to the full, beautiful, modern statement of Maxwell's equations ...
Turing Hodges A brief biography of Turing and critical discussion of his work for the Great Philosophers series. (Hodges will also explain to you why Turing counts as a philosopher.)

 

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