I heard Roger Penrose back in February on “Science Friday”, which is the Friday mainstay of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”. The interview was rather short, but the name of his most recent book stuck in my mind. A few days later, I was killing some time at the Mall of America’s Barnes and Noble and saw his book sitting there on the table. I picked it up (all 1136 pages) and read the jacket copy.
Now, I tend to support brick and mortar bookstores because I value their ubiquity and browsability. I think it is a wonderful luxury of this day and age to be able to travel a very short distance, walk in and purchase a book whenever the mood strikes me. (Much better than waiting for a monk to transcribe the book from an original) I also love the ability to review the books before I purchase them…read a few pages, a few chapters, whatever I need to do in order to gauge the value of the book and compare to its purchase price. These reasons mean I am usually willing to pay a slight premium in order to keep my favorite bookstores around.
This book, however, was $40. Not a showstopper, but when I had nothing to go on besides a 10 minute radio interview which only touched lightly on the book (along with only enough time for a cursory examination of the title) I was a bit leery of an impulse buy. (It also didn’t help that I found the book at Barnes & Noble…my least favorite bookstore) I knew I should look into this book a bit more before committing to such a purchase. I put it back on the shelf and made a mental note to check into it when I got home.
After I got home, I did a little more reading on the book. The more I read, the more interested I became. Penrose spent 8 years creating the work. Positive reviews all over the place from both laymen and experts. I also found a full website devoted to errata and problem solutions from the book, a sure sign of a quality technical work. I checked Amazon for its price - $26 bucks. That price, combined with Super Saver Shipping, made it a done deal. I thought I could wait patiently until it arrived.
Of course, I spent the next week and a half tracking the shipment as it moved around the country. I got really excited last Friday, since it seemed it would arrive at work just in time for the weekend. Sadly, it didn’t arrive until Saturday, which considering we don’t receive mail at work on Saturday, meant that I didn’t get it until this afternoon’s delivery.
One of the reviews I read compared the book to two independent study courses: one on the intersection of geometric and algebraic mathematics, the second on the history (and future) of physics. Reading the prologue and foreword, I have a feeling the reviewer was right, at least when one considers the amount of effort it will take to consume and understand the book. The first portion of the book is devoted to teaching you the mathematics you’ll need to understand the remainder of the book…maybe I’ll finally understand vectors and matrices! As the author writes in his introductory text, “It is always the case, with mathematics, that a little direct experience of thinking things over on your own can provide a much deeper understanding than merely reading about them.”