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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Arachne Rising The Thirteenth Sign Of The Zodiac - James Vogh This almost unknown book, written by the late John Sladek under a pseudonym, is very good, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who is genuinely interested in how science works. Not because it's suddenly convinced me that there's a thirteenth sign of the Zodiac, called Arachne, the Spider, and that people born under it are psychic - I still have serious doubts about that. What's impressive is that it shows you how easy it is to be fooled by well-presented lies. Of course, the idea is preposterous; if you're in any doubt, he explicitly winks at you a few times. I particularly liked the ancient Babylonian calculations of the length of the nodical month (I'd never heard of it before either), which agree with modern values to within a tenth of a second. All due to that famous astronomer, Kidinnu.

But, despite everything, in the face of solemnly presented charts, statistics, anecdotes, historical arguments etc, I discover every now and then, to my horror, that I'm starting to wonder whether there might not be something to it. He's done a good job. So imagine what it's like when you don't know in advance that what you're reading is nonsense. I will be much more careful next time I review a scientific paper, and do my best to maintain a properly skeptical attitude. It's not enough just to note that what I'm reading sounds plausible. Kick it around. Does it actually make sense? I realize I don't think that way often enough. The book is a fine wake-up call.

I'm not sure I can present a decent summary of the argument, which is wonderfully bizarre and has a certain poetic force to it. The ingredients contain at least the following: there is an opposition between the forces of reason, identified with the Sun and Yang, and the forces of mysticism, identified with the Moon and Yin; the Zodiac we know is the "Solar Zodiac"; a lunar month contains 28 days, hence we have 13 lunar months in a year; the Solar Zodiac has 12 signs, but the Lunar Zodiac needs an extra sign; the ancient Druidic religion, forced underground by Christianity, used the Lunar calendar; 28 is a perfect number, and perfect numbers have mystical properties; there are connections between the Moon, Crete, the Minotaur (= geMINI + TAURus, you see), Ariadne, Arachne, spiders, labyrinths and threads; the missing sign of Arachne, the Spider, must be between Taurus and Gemini, to be exact between May 16 and June 13; psychic people are born disproportionally often during that period; and they consist of exactly 5% of the population, a number which he obtains to two decimal places (!) though some delightfully bogus astrological/genetic calculations. Sladek was an imaginative guy.

Oh, and while searching for a picture of the cover I learned that it has been translated into Japanese. How about that?

Damn! Sladek got me! Four years after posting this review, I discover in Neugerbauer's The Exact Sciences in Antiquity that there really WAS a famous Babylonian astronomer called Kidinnu!

How many more Easter eggs are there in his book?