Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Brilliant Blunder?

This is a long-pending review of Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio, a bestseller I read last year. This book tells some interesting and lively snippets from the lives and work of five scientistic luminaries: Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. It makes an enjoyable read albeit with one hiccup: it (in my opinion) is largely mistitled. These five scientists were all "brilliant" without a doubt. But I am not as sure about the "blunder" component. My review expresses my chagrin over this unifying element of "blunder." So, at the outset, I would like to clarify, while I have reservations about the title and the crux, this is a splendid compilation - extremely well-researched and beautifully written.

A Blissfully Swiss Adventure

Switzerland is a fascinating combination of natural beauty and German engineering. Vast and numerous water bodies and plenty of greenery along with the majestic Swiss Alps make way for the most picturesque and pristine landscapes. Add to that some cable cars, cogwheel trains, and funicular trams to access every summit, high or low, and you have more attractions to check off your list at every destination than you can possibly cover, however long your stay. So, in short, rain or shine, you can't be a bored tourist there. During my short Swiss trip, I camped in Zurich and backpacked around armed with a Swiss Pass, which allows unlimited use of almost all forms of transport, including most trains, buses, and boats.  

To Brittany and Beyond

Six years ago I blogged about my extraordinary experience at the IEEE EMBS summer school in Brittany, France. We were on a tiny tidal island in the Gulf of Morbihan near the Bay of Biscay. This summer I was back there again as a lecturer and had an even more fabulous experience. The school relocated to the Côte d'Armor area, and we were housed in a lovely abbey on a narrow peninsula jutting into the English Channel. Brittany (French: Bretagne, Breton: Breizh) has a rich history. A very long time ago our Neanderthal cousins would roam the place. More recently, it has been home to Celtic populations. The local vernacular Breton (nowadays largely overshadowed by French) is a close relative of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, and other Celtic languages from Great Britain. Parts of Brittany were occupied or destroyed during WWII. In fact my visit to the city of Saint Malo strongly reminded me of a great novel I read based in the then German-occupied Guernsey, an island not far away from the Saint Malo coast. The trip to Saint Malo, which was part of the school program, was on the night of the Fête de la Musique, a music festival that takes place on summer solstice, the longest day of the year. After a fascinating tour of the historic walled part of the city, which was wiped out during WWII and rebuilt later, we roamed around listening to an assortment of local bands playing music from genres ranging from traditional Scottish or Breton to French or English rock. I tried some delectable kouign-amann from a local bakery and dined on buckwheat crepes (both the savory version, known as a galette in Brittany, and a sweet version with salted caramel), a Breton specialty. The school program also arranged for a trip to Dinan, a medieval town nearby, where we walked down to the beautiful banks of the river Rance. Like last time, school menu featured regular seafood extravaganzas with juicy langoustines, mussels, scallops, escargots (sea snails), oysters, and fish. Not a desserts person, I would still find it hard to resist the mouth-watering crumbles and cakes. I also got to taste the far, a flan-like traditional Breton dessert. The fresh fruit plucked from the abbey gardens were otherworldly.