Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Book Review)

Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert EinsteinSubtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hmmm… well I think this book should have been called:
” The SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE of Albert Einstein (with a tiny bit of context about his life)”

This is a book by a physicist, for physicists. (I am in no way a physicist.) To his credit, the author makes clear in the introduction that the purpose of the book is to cover Einstein’s work, and he even highlights in the contents the (very few) sections in the book which deal with Einstein’s life rather than work.

Despite knowing that, I made an attempt to read through the book hoping to stretch my brain on the topic of physics. Pretty much every page has at least a couple of formulas, which I skipped straight over, and much of the content is discussing either the details of the most recent formula or how it was arrived at and inspired by others. For a layperson, these parts are sometimes very interesting and sometimes unintelligible. The start and end of the chapters usually provided some (scientific) background on the papers and periods of Einstein’s career, and these served to form an interesting history of physics over the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I did learn a lot of things. I learnt about the old, mistaken concept of an aether. I read the material about special relativity slow enough to grasp most of it and to be able to explain it to others in laymen’s terms. As for general relativity, I understood very little except that Einstein managed to solve the age old riddle of what caused gravity and predicted a few other related phenomena, such as the bending of light around the sun, which were later confirmed to great fanfare. I saw how Einstein worked mostly alone, especially in his early years, having very little knowledge of what else was going on in the world of physics, even re-discovering some phenomena by his own derivation because he wasn’t widely read. I was looking forward to reading about his involvement in the development of the atom bomb, but came to learn that all he did was write a letter urging the US to get to work on it. I saw how theoretical physics is so, so, so coupled with complex mathematics; Einstein in fact teamed up with gifted mathematicians in order to solve some of his biggest challenges. Most surprisingly for me, I learnt that, aside from relativity, Einstein made massive contributions to quantum physics, and that he spent a large part of his career on that issue and on trying to unify it with relativity. And finally, I learnt that, without his make-up on, Charlie Chaplin looks like this.

I struggled my way through to the half way point trying to read every page, but had grown very tired by that point, so I made a resolution to only read pages with no formulae on them and I sped through the rest quite quickly without feeling like I was missing much.

tl;dr – If you’re a physicist, you’ll probably love this book. If you’re not, you probably won’t, but you might learn some interesting stuff by reading it.

View all my reviews

Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan et al. (Book Review)

Tribal Leadership:
Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
by Dave Logan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, the story goes that our CEO, Jost Stollmann, asked Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder & co-CEO of Atlassian and one of Tyro’s board members, something along the lines of…

“If you had to recommend just one book to your leadership team, what would you choose?”

And Mike recommended: Tribal Leadership. I think I can see why.

What’s the book about?

The book is about the results of ten years of research by the authors and how they found that people in organisations form tribes; that each tribe has a prevailing culture; that the cultures can be roughly grouped into five different levels; that the culture of the tribe can be an indicator of organisational success; and that the culture of individuals and of tribes can be “upgraded” through the levels using actions they describe, undertaken by tribal leaders. (Note that it’s not about leaders trying to create tribes in order to succeed – the tribes are a natural phenomenon, and the benefit comes through recognising them and influencing them. It does talk about building and enhancing networks within tribes.)

The book is well-written (i.e. not boring), contains lots of case studies and interviews, has excellent summaries at the end of each chapter (no highlighting necessary!), and it doesn’t just focus on what to do to become “great” – it also covers basket case cultures and how to start progressing people out of there.

What did I like about the book?

The number one thing I like about this book, as a leadership book, is that it pretty quickly gets a thoughtful reader looking not merely at their own actions and what they can do to improve, but also at how the people around them in the organisation are acting and interacting. You start to think about how to improve the company by influencing the culture, not just about how to improve your own output and your team’s output by doing a few things differently.

The main premise of the book is pretty simple to understand and start putting into practise: people’s culture can be detected by the language they use, and also affected by the language those around them use. So, people in Stage 3 tribes (where most corporate cultures are at) are all about personal accomplishment and they’ll say a lot of things that basically translate to “I’m great”. In contrast, people at Stage 4 are all about forming and maintaining good working partnerships with people around them, and their language will come out as “We’re great”.

As soon as I started reading all this, I could see how problems which I’d observed at work were caused by the behaviours detailed in the book. I also started to see problems I hadn’t noticed before, or areas that were about to be problems, based simply on how people were talking to each other or about each other. I recognised in myself some things I’d been doing which were contributing to holding the culture back from where it could be.

The book has many examples of great companies to aspire to, and not just the ones you’re used to reading about. Yes, there’s analysis of raging startup successes like Zappos, but there’s also a lot of time spent describing a hospital that focuses on creating excellent customer experiences.

The book has great advice, much of which is easy to start following, and it changed the way I behave, even as I was reading it.

Should you read it?

If you’re in any kind of leadership position, in any kind of organisation, I highly recommend this book. Maybe it won’t change your world, and you may not have all the influence you would need in order to affect the whole organisation. At the very least it should help you to start seeing the culture around you for what it is, and start to move it forward from the position you’re in.

Buy it on Amazon

View all my reviews

Book Recommendations from Sydney Technology Leaders

Last week I went to the Sydney Technology Leaders’ Meetup, which we hosted in the Tyro Fintech Hub. There was a trio of great talks, and a panel discussion with the speakers at the end.

When asked what they do to help train new leaders, one of the speakers mentioned “throwing a bunch of books at them”. So I took the opportunity to ask the speakers, if they could only recommend one or two books to a new leader, what would each of them recommend. Continue reading

Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges (Book Review)

Alan Turing: The EnigmaAlan Turing: The Enigma: The Book That Inspired the Film “The Imitation Game”
by Andrew Hodges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be: “indulgent”.

The author has obviously spent a lot of time researching many facets of Alan Turing’s life and work. (It seems he even interviewed many people who knew him.) However, he doesn’t appear to have spent much time deciding what not to put in the book. Consequently, it’s very long, and by a third of the way through it, when I was still reading about Turing’s uncomfortable years at boarding school, I seriously considered giving it up.

I didn’t give up, though, and I was glad in the end.

The middle sections of the book, explaining first Alan’s pioneering work as a young mathemetician, then his contribution to cracking the Enigma system, and then his diversion into the design and operation of early computers, were a really interesting read. The author went into quite a lot of mathematical and technical detail in parts which, as a software engineer, I quite enjoyed.

It was very interesting for me to realise that his major achievement was really in his mathematical endeavours rather than in computing. He didn’t do a whole bunch of amazing hardware stuff alone, unlike the film tried to suggest, and the team that eventually built the first working general purpose computer did it in competition with the group Turing was working with, though that project’s lack of progress was not of his making. However, his contribution to mathematics, by proving that there were uncomputable problems, was extremely significant at the time, and Hodges does a good job of setting the scene and describing how Turing’s discovery came about.

During the narrative of these later parts of his life, many of the episodes and observations from Turing’s early life are linked into the story, showing how his upbringing contributed to, and sometimes adversely affected, his pursuits. However, the same links could probably have been drawn with far less detail spent documenting his childhood.

The documentation about his eventual demise leads into some nice, reflective wrapping up about his whole life. This too, though, is probably more long-winded than it needed to be.

All in all, I learnt a lot about the man, about his achievements, about the war, and a few things about maths and computing. I would have preferred it to be a whole lot shorter, though.

PS – I read this book because the movie had come out and I wanted to read the book first. The movie is so far from what is documented as reality in this book that having read the real story actually ruined the movie for me. If you want to both watch and aread, I suggest you watch the movie first, understanding it strays very far from the truth, then read the book afterwards to get the true story.

Alan Turing: The EnigmaBuy it on Amazon

View all my reviews