Book Review: Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension
Matt Parker
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014)

Physicist Stanislaw Ulam was bored. Stuck in the middle of an interminable lecture, he started doodling on a piece of graph paper. Starting with “1” and going outwards, he made a spiral pattern of all the positive integers. Then, he marked off all the prime numbers in the spiral. Something odd popped out. Prime numbers weren’t distributed randomly, as one might think. They tended to lie in clusters along diagonal lines. It turns out that this is NOT random, but why it is so is still a puzzle.

Self-described “stand-up mathematician” Matt Parker has turned his videos at Numberphile into book form (and added a few more fascinating topics). Like those videos, the book covers the entire world of mathematics. From counting in different base systems to packing coins into squares to untangling knots to the many different types of numbers, it’s all presented in a delightful and easy-to-follow manner.

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It was March, 1954. The US economy was in recession, with no real end in sight. Edward R. Murrow had broadcast a scathing indictment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, but McCarthy was still on the rise. The US tested its first hydrogen bomb. Shooting had stopped in Korea, but there was yet no official end to the war. And the war in Indochina was reaching a crisis phase, as Viet Minh and French troops faced off at Dien Bein Phu.

At a press conference on March 17, President Eisenhower was grilled on these and other topics. In a comment on one of the questions, he said:

What are we talking about? It is, I think, there is too much hysteria. You know, the world is suffering from a multiplicity of fears. We fear the men in the Kremlin, we fear what they will do to our friends around them; we are fearing what unwise investigators will do to us here at home as they try to combat subversion or bribery or deceit within. We fear depression, we fear the loss of jobs. All of these, with their impact on the human mind makes us act almost hysterically, and you find hysterical reactions.

We have got to look at each of those in its proper perspective, to understand what the whole sum total means. And remember this: the reason they are feared and bad is because there is a little element of truth in each, a little element of danger in each. That means that finally there is left a little residue that you can meet only by faith, a faith in the destiny of America; and that is what I believe is the answer.

His speechwriters liked the “multiplicity of fears” line, so they turned that passage into a full speech, which was broadcast on April 5. It was paternalistic, in typical Eisenhower style, but if you want to calm a nervous nation you could do worse than speak like a kindly father-figure.

For example, we are concerned about the men in the Kremlin. We are concerned about the Atomic Age. We are concerned about the loss of our international friends in exposed areas of the world–the loss of them to the Communist dictatorship. We are worried about Communist penetration of our own country, and we are worried about the possibility of depression, and the loss of jobs among us here at home.

Now, the greater any of these apprehensions, the greater is the need that we look at them clearly, face to face, without fear, like honest, straightforward Americans, so we do not develop the jitters or any other kind of panic, that we do not fall prey to hysterical thinking.

He came round to the threat of Communism to America:

Now the next thing that we fear, or concerning which we are apprehensive, is this idea of Communist infiltration into our own country, into our Government, into our schools, into our unions, into any of our facilities, any of our industries, wherever they may be, and wherever those Communists could damage us. Now, it would be completely false to minimize the dangers of this penetration. It does exist. We know some of them are here. Yet, let me give you now some of the counterbalancing factors.

First of all, this fear has been greatly exaggerated as to numbers. In our country today, there are possibly some 25 thousand doctrinal Communists. The FBI knows pretty well where they are. But the headlines of the newspapers would sometimes have you think that every other person you meet is a Communist. Actually, 25 thousand out of 160 million people means about one out of six thousand. But they are dangerous.

You can pretty much replace “Communist” with “terrorist”, and it will work today.

When you get right down to it, terrorists are pretty low on the list of Things That Kill People. Malaria, motor vehicle accidents, and even falls kill more people than terrorists. Yet we don’t panic over those. Terrorists only gain the headlines because of the suddenness of the the attack, and the large numbers of casualties in a very short time. Yes, it’s a tragedy to those who lose loved ones. But is it worth going insane over?

Donald Trump wants to shut down mosques. Some are calling Islam an “existential threat” to America, as if it could somehow completely obliterate the country. Others want to slam the door on all refugees. Jeb Bush wants to declare war. But who do you declare war on? Terrorism is a tactic, not an “enemy”. And even if you declare war on ISIS (or ISIL, or whatever they are calling themselves today), how do you know when you’ve won? Chest-thumping and saber-rattling looks good in the media, but this isn’t that kind of conflict. There’s no well-defined enemy that wears the same uniform and has a leader who you can force into surrender (and can order his troops to lay down their arms, and have that order obeyed).

Far better to treat this as a matter for law enforcement. Consider attacks as a crime – which they are – and proceed accordingly. Collect evidence, arrest and prosecute those involved, take steps to prevent such crimes in the future. You won’t ever get rid of it completely, but you can reduce it to the point where it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t worth doing.

Look, when your house is infested with cockroaches, you clean the place up, seal off the little cracks that they move through (without closing off all the windows and doors that let air – and you – move about), and drop insecticide in key spots. You don’t blow up the house…..


Transcript of March 17 Press Conference:

Text of April 5 Speech:

A Trip to New Orleans – Part 4

Of course, there are other reasons to visit New Orleans than museums and Halloween. Food, drink, and music, for example.

I didn’t visit any jazz clubs. In a way, it’s not really necessary. At least in the French Quarter, street musicians are allowed to play without licenses/permits as long as they don’t interfere with traffic – either vehicular or pedestrian. And more than a few of the bars and restaurants there have live music anyway.
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A Trip to New Orleans – Part 3

If you have any interest at all in anything that can possibly be related to military history, then you want to go to the National World War 2 Museum. It’s huge (with tons of exhibits and artifacts), it’s new (using all the latest in interactive display techniques and exhibit design), and it’s conveniently located near the Superdome, interstate highways, and one of the trolley lines. It’s very highly rated by the travel sites. Mostly, I suspect, because WW2 is in that historical “sweet spot” of being far back enough that there are very few people around with any first-hand experience of the era, but not so far back that there *aren’t* ant of those people, the era isn’t completely alien to us, and there are still a buttload of artifacts around.
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A Trip to New Orleans – Part 2

As I mentioned, my intent in going to New Orleans was to experience Halloween in the land of Mardi Gras and “Laissez les bons temps rouler”. Whenever one travels a significant distance, for either business or pleasure, it behooves one to inspect the weather prognostication for one’s destination. Things didn’t look good for me. The morning of my departure, the forecast was for rain all weekend. I brought my umbrella with me, of course. Friday before Halloween, the local newscasters were noting that a large number of planned Trick-or-Treat activities had been moved up to that night, since heavy rains were predicted for Saturday night.

It started raining around 5 pm. By dusk, the rain was heavy and blowing. After Game 4 of the World Series ended, I resolved to at least take a stroll along Bourbon Street to see what was what.

I saw a lot of people in costume who looked decidedly uncomfortable as they hurried along their way to wherever they were going. Not much partying in sight. And then I stepped in an ankle-deep puddle. I had already had to change clothes after venturing out for dinner; this was too much. I went back to my hotel and called it a night.

Fortunately, there’s enough to see and do in the Big Easy so that if one of your planned activities gets washed out, you can still have fun.
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A Trip to New Orleans – Part 1

Having been advised at work that I really should start using more vacation days (they don’t carry over from year to year, and not using them messes up the accounting), I looked over the calendar to see when would be a good time to use some of them. I noted that this year (2015), Halloween fell on a Saturday. “So,” I said to myself. “Where would be a cool place to spend Halloween? Especially when you can take the Monday after it off, too, and because the next day after that is Election Day and your office is closed, so you won’t have to leave first thing Sunday morning?”

A few moments of pondering, and the answer came to me. “New Orleans! They do a great Halloween! Home of Mardi Gras, parades, costumes, and Bourbon Street! It will be a blast!”

But before I can get to New Orleans, I must get to New Orleans…
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