Sunday, November 30, 2008

Musicophilia + Flatland

A couple of book reviews...

1. "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks

In this book, British neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about the way our
brains respond to music.  The word "musicophilia" refers to the
propensity of humans towards music.  The author argues that this feeling
for music is central to every culture, and goes back to the beginnings
of the species.

Topics covered include:
* earworms (those tunes you can't get out of your head)
* musical hallucinations
* synesthesia (e.g. seeing specific colours when hearing notes)
* amusia (the inability to recognise musical tones or rhythms)
* absolute pitch
* savants

The essays or "tales" revolve around case studies, drawn from patients
with various forms of brain disorders, conditions and trauma, such as
amnesia, strokes, dementia, partial lobotomies, autism, Tourette's and
William's syndromes.  These cases provide clues to how both damaged and
healthy brains respond to music.

The therapeutic and other benefits of music are also discussed.  Music
can not only enhance or improve the listener's mood, it can also
"awaken" consciousness.  Sacks wrote an earlier book, "Awakenings"
about cases where patients were brought back from "frozen" states,
and this book inspired a movie of the same name.

One amusing anecdote tells how musical rhythm actually aids peoples' co-
ordination, say when they're drunk: they can dance quite well when the
music is thumping, but when the music stops, they stumble around or fall

There are also many anecdotes about famous people and music: composers
(e.g. Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Mahler and Wagner), authors (Twain, Proust,
Nabakov), and philosophers (St Augustine, Freud, Nietzsche).

Overall, this was a fascinating collection of essays.  The style, using
lots of case studies and anecdotes, makes it very readable.  There is
some jargon, but it is only used when necessary.  Many of the cases are
quite touching.  A great read for people interested in music.

2. "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" by Edwin A. Abbott

This short novel describes an imaginary two-dimensional world, Flatland,
populated by beings that are actually geometrical objects (lines,
triangles, squares and other polygons).

In part one our narrator, "A. Square", describes the history, customs,
and workings of Flatland.  For example, triangles are the lowest class
of males, and provides the soldiers and workmen.  Equilateral triangles
(those having sides of equal length) form the "middle" class. Only these
can improve the status of their descendants: their offspring will gain a
side to become a square.  Squares comprise the "professional men and
gentlemen" of Flatland.  Each successive generation of males having
sides of equal length gains an additional side, until eventually the
"perfect" state of a circle is achieved.

In part two our narrator encounters a stranger, a Sphere, and is
introduced to the Third Dimension.  This is where the real story
happens.  At first the Square finds it difficult to accept what the
Sphere is trying to tell him about "Spaceland".  But eventually, through
a series of demonstrations and arguments, the Square accepts the
existence of the Third Dimension.  When he returns to Flatland, he wants
to tell everyone about what he has discovered.  But there's a problem:
any discussion of the Third Dimension has been outlawed and is
punishable by death, so he must proceed with caution.

There are metaphysical elements in the novel, such as when the Square
extrapolates what he's learnt about moving from two to three dimensions,
and speculates about a fourth and higher dimensions.

Note that the use of the word "romance" in the title is used to denote a
fantasy rather than a love story.  The novel reflects and responds to
the Victorian times in which it was written.  Feminists will deplore the
status of women in Flatland.

An enjoyable read, particularly for people with an interest in
mathematical concepts.  But anyone with a basic grasp of geometry should
be able to follow the story.  It may make you better understand what you
think you already know.