The Quantum Pontiff

Off the Queue and Into the Brain

Books recently removed from the queue. “Mathematicians in Love” by Rudy Rucker, “An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets” by Donald Mackenzie, “Financial Calculus : An Introduction to Derivative Pricing” by Martin Baxter and Andrew Rennie. “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos” by Jennet Conant.

  • Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker
    Best described as a cross between a Philip K. Dick novel, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, and A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram, but not nearly as good as the first two. The story of a surfer mathematician who makes profound discoveries on the nature of the universe and computation. Enjoyable, but suffers a bit from a Neil Stephenson ending.

  • An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets by Donald MacKenzie.
    The role of mathematical modeling in modern finance. Well told stories of Black-Scholes-Merton, Long Term Capital Management, and the Capital Asset Pricing models at a nontechnical level (my only wish was that the more technical material buried in the appendices was hashed out in more detail.) The most interesting idea in the book is the notion of “Barnesian” performativity wherein an economic process comes to resemble the economic model used to describe the process. The arguments for or against Barnesian performativity were a bit weak, but it is an interesting idea to ponder. I picked this up because I saw it recommended at Information Processing. Three-toed sloth has some good detailed thoughts.

  • Financial Calculus : An Introduction to Derivative Pricing by Martin Baxter and Andrew Rennie
    A very readable introduction to the martingale approach to asset pricing. I particularly enjoyed the binomial tree model for pricing which led very naturally into the discussion of martingales and then into continuous models and Black-Scholes-Merton. The later half of the book was a bit much for me, without enough background in the subject, but I’m sure a second read will eventually clear this up.

  • 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos by Jennet Conant.
    109 East Palace was the front office for the Manhattan project in Santa Fe, NM and this is the human side of the story of Los Alamos (“the Hill.”) Where Conant is at her strongest is in describing the historical roots of the characters in relation to Santa Fe, and in her strong portrayal of Dorothy McKibbin who was responsible for the 109 East Palace office. I always enjoy learning about Santa Fe and its strange history and people. The last sixty pages or so seem a bit out of place, describing the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. While this is clearly central to Oppenheimer’s own story its unclear how much it really added to the story of 109 East Palace the Conant so nicely portrays in the first two thirds of the book. All in all: a unique angle on an important place and time.


  1. #1 anon
    November 22, 2007

    “off of” — double preposition, not grammatically correct

  2. #2 PK
    November 22, 2007

    Dave, this reminds me: check out Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element by Jeremy Bernstein. I guarantee you’ll love it. It not only describes the weird properties of Plutonium and its applications (one!), it also offers some new insights in the history of fission.

  3. #3 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 22, 2007

    “Plutonium and its applications (one!)”

    Surely there’s another (unclassified) application for Plutonium. If the “one” application is broadly the fissionable properties, that must include not only the supercritical, but also the subcritical, as with RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generators) for spacecraft.

    After all, Uranium makes lovely yellow glazes for pottery.

    Feynman complained to me once that a certain element had NO known uses. I got to work, albeit slowly, and eventually published a paper citing this comment and giving a carefully quantified application of that obscure element (I think it was Scandium, but someone might want to check):

    Jonathan V. Post, “Unusual Spacecraft Materials”, Proceedings of Vision-21 (Space Travel in the Next Millennium), NASA Lewis Research Center, 2-4 April 1990, NASA Conference Publication 10059, 1991, pp.391-403 [includes use of frozen hydrogen in advanced space missions] [see also my frontispiece poem in this volume]

  4. #4 Dave Bacon
    November 22, 2007

    Offending double preposition taken off of the title :)

  5. #5 Airor
    November 30, 2007

    Double prepositions are not grammatically incorrect: “It was taken off of the queue”, “It was taken out of the refrigerator,” and so on. Just like any extremist, grammar nazi’s need to be shot on sight.