Archive for the ‘books’ Category

The shooting method for ordinary differential equations

November 25, 2022

A book which has been sitting on a shelf in my office for some years without getting much attention is ‘Classical Methods in Ordinary Differential Equations’ by Hastings and McLeod. Recently I read the first two chapters of the book and I found the material both very pleasant to read and enlightening. A central theme of those chapters is the shooting method. I have previously used the method more than once in my own research. I used it together with Juan Velázquez to investigate the existence of self-similar solutions of the Einstein-Vlasov system as discussed here. I used it together with Pia Brechmann to prove the existence of unbounded oscillatory solutions of the Selkov system for glycolysis as discussed here. This method is associated with the idea of a certain type of numerical experiment. Suppose we consider a first order ODE with initial datum x(0)=\alpha. Suppose that for some value \alpha_1 the solution tends to +\infty for t\to\infty and for another value \alpha_2>\alpha_1 the solution tends to -\infty. Then we might expect that in between there is a value \alpha^* for which the solution is bounded. We could try to home in on the value of \alpha^* by a bisection method. What I am interested in here is a corresponding analytical procedure which sometimes provides existence theorems.

In the book the procedure is explained in topological terms. We consider a connected parameter space and a property P. Let A be the subset where P does not hold. If we can show that A=A_1\cup A_2 where A_1 and A_2 are non-empty and open and A=A_1\cap A_2=\emptyset then A is disconnected and so cannot be the whole of the parameter space. Hence there is at least one point in the complement of A and there property P holds. The most common case is where the parameter space is an interval in the real numbers. For some authors this is the only case where the term ‘shooting method’ is used. In the book it is used in a more general sense, which might be called multi-parameter shooting. The book discusses a number of cases where this type of method can be used to get an existence theorem. The first example is to show that x'=-x^3+\sin t has a periodic solution. In fact this is related to the Brouwer fixed point theorem specialised to dimension one (which of course is elementary to prove). The next example is to show that x'=x^3+\sin t has a periodic solution. After that this is generalised to the case where \sin t is replaced by an arbitrary bounded continuous function on [0,\infty) and we look for a bounded solution. The next example is a kind of forced pendulum equation x''+\sin x=f(t) and the aim is to find a solution which is at the origin at two given times. In the second chapter a wide variety of examples is presented, including those just mentioned, and used to illustrate a number of general points. The key point in a given application is to find a good choice for the subsets. There is also a discussion of two-parameter shooting and its relation to the topology of the plane. This has a very different flavour from the arguments I am familiar with. It is related to Wazewski’s theorem (which I never looked at before) and the Conley index. The latter is a subject which has crossed my path a few times in various guises but where I never really developed a warm relationship. I did spend some time looking at Conley’s book. I found it nicely written but so intense as to require more commitment than I was prepared to make at that time. Perhaps the book of Hastings and McLeod can provide me with an easier way to move in that direction.

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The autobiography of Andrew Carnegie

November 4, 2022

The last post made some statements about Andrew Carnegie, with my main source of information about him being his autobiography, which was published posthumously. I just finished reading that book for the second time and here I want to mention some further things about him which I find interesting. Carnegie’s life after he arrived in the US is an exemplary rags to riches story corresponding to the American dream. His first job in a factory was for one dollar and 25 cents a week, working long hours. He writes that his first week’s earnings made him happier than any of the millions he made later, for they meant that he was contributing to the subsistence of his family. He was thirteen years old. After this he moved to a job which was even harder but it already brought him two dollars a week and after that his income rose steadily. He became a messenger boy and used this to start to build up a network of contacts. He was always ready to grab any opportunity that came along and to make any efforts which he thought might help him to improve his situation in life. He made himself useful in the office and managed to get a position as a telegraph operator. With the contacts he made there he was able to move to a job as clerk and telegraph operator to an important railway employee, Thomas Scott. At this time a serious incident took place. Carnegie had the duty of fetching the pay for the employees working under Scott. Once he was bringing it, travelling by train. It was quite a new thing at that time and he travelled on the engine because he found it exciting. While he was not paying attention the packet containing the pay, which he had under his jacket, fell out of the train. Some time later he noticed the loss. It could have meant losing his job and suddenly having huge debts. He was able to persuade his companions to drive the train back and eventually saw the packet lying on the bank of a river. If it had rolled a little further it would have ended in the river and been lost. In fact it stopped soon enough, he found it and the disaster was averted. The fact that Carnegie was so successful in his life no doubt had a lot to do with luck, with this being a notable example. What would have happened if the packet had landed in the river? It would have been a big setback for him but I think he would soon have overcome it. He certainly had luck but I think that played much less of a role in his success than his character.

A big step forward in Carnegie’s career involved taking a big risk. His boss was responsible for organizing the railway traffic in a big network. In particular, if there was some problem such as an accident (and these were not so rare) he was the one who had to sort it out and get the trains running again. For this purpose he prepared telegraph messages and Carnegie sent them out. In this way he learned how Scott carried out these tasks. One morning many trains were standing still due to previous problems. The situation was such that they could have started running again and this would have been beneficial for the company. Scott was not in the office. He decided to take the decisions needed to start up traffic again and send them out in Scott’s name. Of course he had no authority to do that. When Scott came back Carnegie was very apprehensive but immediately said what he had done. Scott looked through the documentation of the measures taken and then simply returned to his desk without a word. Carnegie’s explanation for this behaviour was as follows. Scott could not praise him for what he had done since he had broken all the rules. On the other hand he could not scold him since he had done everything right. So he just said nothing. Now Carnegie could relax concerning the consequences of that incident but he almost decided to never do such a thing again. Then he heard from an acquaintance how Scott had talked to someone else about the matter and this allowed him to judge the impression his daring action had made on Scott. After that he had no hesitation about carrying out such actions. Since Scott liked coming in late he had plenty of opportunities for that. Eventually this put Carnegie in the position to take over the job of his boss and thus take a big step to a higher level of status and pay.

Carnegie later got involved in the production of iron and things constructed out of it, such as rails and bridges. He got an advantage over his competitors by employing a chemist. The iron ore from some mines was unpopular and correspondingly relatively cheap. There had been problems with smelting it. A chemical analysis revealed the source of the problem – that ore contained too much iron for the smelting process to work well. The solution was to modify the process (with the help of scientific considerations) and then it was possible to buy the high quality ore at a cheap price while others continued to buy low quality ore at a high price. Previously nobody really knew what they were buying. Carnegie believed in the value of real knowledge. Carnegie did not like the stock exchange and emphasized that except for once at the beginning of his career he never speculated. It was always his policy to buy and sell things on the basis of their real value. Carnegie was no friend of unions and often fought them hard. On the other hand he was, or claimed to be, a friend of the working man. His idea was not to give people money just like that but to give them the opportunity to improve their own situation. In later years he gave a huge amount of money, about 300 million dollars in total for various causes. He gave money for libraries (more than two hundred), for scientific research, for church organs and of course for the Carnegie Hall. These were all things which he believed would do people good.

Carnegie was committed to the goal of world peace. He had a lot of influence with powerful politicians and it seems that in at least one case he used it to prevent the US becoming involved in a war. He got into contact with Kaiser Wilhelm II. It turned out that both of them were admirers of Robert the Bruce. He had great hopes for the Kaiser as someone who could help to bring peace and he must have been bitterly disappointed in 1914 when things went a very different way. Then he transferred his hopes to President Wilson. At that point his autobiography breaks off. Here I have only been able to present a few selected things from a fascinating book which I thoroughly recommend. I find Carnegie an admirable character.

Andrew Carnegie and me

October 10, 2022

At the moment I am rereading the autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. For me he is a leading example of a ‘good capitalist’. I see some parallels between my early life and that of Carnegie and I have been thinking about similarities and differences. We were both born in Scotland to parents who were not rich. His father was a weaver. At some stage advances in technology meant that his form of industry was no longer viable. The family had difficulty earning their living and decided to emigrate to America. While still in Scotland Carnegie’s mother started a business to supplement the income of her husband.

My father was a farmer. When he began the size of the farm (70 acres) was sufficient. (I recently noticed the coincidence that the father of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, also had a farm of 70 acres.) Later there was a trend where the size of farms increased and the machinery used to work them became more advanced. In order to do this the farmers, who were mostly not rich, had to borrow money to buy more land and better machines. The banks were eager to lend them that money. Of course this meant a certain risk but many of the people concerned were prepared to take that risk. My father, on the other hand, never borrowed any money in his life and so he missed taking part in this development. This meant that under the new conditions the farm was too small (and in fact some of it was not very good land – it was too wet) to support our family (my parents, my grandmother and myself) very easily. My mother did everything she could to supplement the income of my father. In particular she took in bed and breakfast guests during the summer. I should point out that we were not poor. We did not lack anything essential, living in part from our own produce such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, potatoes and meat. My grandmother kept a pig and hens. The school I attended, Kirkwall Grammar School, was the school for all children in the area – there was no alternative. The parents of many of the other children I went to school with were better off financially than my parents. As a sign of this, I mention an exchange between our school and one in Canada. Many of the other pupils took part in that. My parents could not afford to finance it for me. At a time when many people were getting their first colour TV we still had a very old black and white device where with time ‘black’ and ‘white’ were becoming ever more similar. I did not feel disadvantaged but I just mention these things to avoid anyone claiming that I grew up in particularly fortunate economic circumstances.

Both Carnegie and I benefitted from the good educational system in Scotland. School was already free and compulsory in his time. My university education was mostly financed by the state, although I did win a couple of bursaries in competitions which helped to make my life more comfortable. In my time parents had to pay a part of the expenses for their childrens’ university education, depending on their incomes. My parents did not have to pay anything. Some of the people I studied with should have got a contribution from their parents but did not get as much as they should have. Thus I actually had an advantage compared to them. Carnegie’s father was involved in politics and had quite a few connections. My parents had nothing like that. It might be thought that since my parents did not have very much money or connections and since there were very few books in our house I started life with some major disadvantages. I would never make this complaint since I know that my parents gave me some things which were much more important than that and which helped me to build a good life. I grew up in a family where I felt secure. My parents taught me to behave in certain ways, not by command but by their example. They taught me the qualities of honesty, reliability, hard work and humility. Carnegie received the same gifts from his parents.

Let me now come back to the question of books. As a child I was hungry for them. We had a good school library which included some unusual things which I suppose not all parents would have been happy about if they had known the library as well as I did. For instance there was a copy of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. What was important for my future was that there were current and back issues of Scientific American and New Scientist. There was also a public library from which I benefitted a lot. Apparently this was the first public library in Scotland, founded in 1683. In the beginning it was by subscription. It became free due to a gift of money from Andrew Carnegie in 1889. He spent a huge amount of time and effort in supporting public libraries in many places. In 1903 Carnegie also gave the money to construct a building for the library and that is the building it was still in when I was using it. He visited Kirkwall to open the library in 1909. Thus it can be said that I personally received a gift of huge value from Carnegie, the privilege of using that library. His activity in this area was his way of returning the gift which he received as a young boy when someone in Pittsburgh opened his private library to working boys.

Trip to Scotland with some obstacles

August 21, 2022

Recently Eva and I travelled to Scotland. It was an organized tourist trip although I was also able to meet my sister and some other family for dinner on one evening. We flew from Frankfurt to Edinburgh via Brussels. We had heard a lot about chaos at airports in the recent past and were pleasantly surprised when everything went smoothly in Frankfurt. This did not last long. Our flight to Brussels was late and we had to run as fast as we could and jump the queue for immigration to just get to the gate in time for boarding. Our luggage was not so successful as we were. When we arrived in Edinburgh we waited a long time for our luggage to come and it did not. There was no information on the display and the information office was closed. There were no airport employees visible. Eventually we had no choice but to leave the baggage area and file a lost baggage claim. During the trip we were moving from one hotel to another and it was not possible to leave more than one forwarding address. We had to make several calls about this matter in the days that followed and often got the information that the person we were calling was not responsible and that we should call another number. The people I talked to often had strong Indian accents and I suppose that they were all sitting in call centres in India. We arrived in Edinburgh on a Sunday and in the end we got a message the following Saturday that our luggage would be delivered to our hotel in Aberdeen that day at a certain time. This was later revised to say that it would arrive on the Sunday between 00.02 and 02.22. It did arrive and was received by the hotel. Of course we had to buy various things during the week to replace those sitting in our suitcases. This whole business cost us a lot of time and nerves. On the way back we had to cross the EU border in Brussels.The only problem was that there was nobody there, only a written message that it was not possible to call anyone. In the end, fearing that we would miss our flight I spoke to a security guard who was buying a sandwich. He was very helpful. He made several phone calls. Then he took us through a security gate and passed us on to an immigration official who checked our passports. Again we just managed to reach the gate in time. In fact the flight was late so that we would have had a bit more time. The flight was almost empty. In Frankfurt there was a message that the luggage would arrive in thirty minutes. Then thirty suddenly changed to eight and the luggage came even faster than that. Thus positive surprises are also possible.

What conclusions do I draw from this? Firstly, I do not believe that we had specially bad luck but rather that this is the usual state of affairs at the moment. (The luggage of several other members of our group, arriving from different airports with different airlines, also took many days to arrive, in one case even a day longer than ours.) We also experienced a number of other things while in Scotland, such as lifts or coffee machines in hotels which were not working and had been waiting for months to be repaired. Many hotels in Scotland, especially in rural areas, have closed, at least for the season and maybe for ever. For these reasons we had to stay in some cases at hotels much further away from the points we wanted to visit than planned and there were long drives. The situation with logistics is dire. We were not organizing the trip alone. The organization was being done by a company which has many years of experience organizing trips of this kind in Scotland and all over the world. We know from previous experience that this company is very good. Thus things are very difficult even for the experts. If things do not change quickly this type of tourism is threatened. In future I will think very carefully about flying anywhere. This has nothing to do with the frequently discussed environmental issues but simply with the doubt that I will arrive successfully with my luggage and without an excessive amount of stress. If I do fly anywhere then I will be prepared to pay a higher price to get a direct flight. This is then the analogue of my present practise with train trips where I try to minimize the number of connections which have to be reached since the trains cannot be expected to be on time. It seems that these days the most reasonable thing is to expect that everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Travelling has become an adventure again. Will this change soon? I do not expect it will.

We arrived in Edinburgh in the midst of the Festival. The streets were full of people and the atmosphere good. On the evening of the second day we went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The spectacle was impressive as was the way the arrival and departure of the mass of spectators was coordinated. The weather was dry and not too cold and so we were in luck. We heard that at the corresponding performance one week later it rained the whole time. Since almost all the spectators are sitting out in the open the weather makes a big difference. After leaving Edinburgh we crossed into Fife over the old road bridge which was only open for buses due to repairs. We briefly visited St. Andrews where I had not been before and then continued to Pitlochry where we spent a couple of nights. While there we had an excursion to visit the house of Walter Scott. I am not an admirer of Scott. One time years ago I felt the duty to read at least something by him and I read ‘Heart of Midlothian’. It did not leave a lasting impression on me. The main thing I remember about Scott is how the father in ‘To the Lighthouse’ often talks about his novels. From Pitlochry we drove to Braemar and then down Deeside to Aberdeen. We also made an extra little excursion to Dunnottar Castle. I had never been there before although it is so close to Aberdeen where I lived for seven years. The excursions I made from there were generally to the north or to the west. In Aberdeen we had a guided tour from a local which was quite entertaining.We then went into the Machar Bar (a place where I spent many hours as a student), ate stovies (which I had forgotten about for many years) and drank whisky. The guide recited some Burns and we did some singing. Together with him I sang ‘The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen’. Up to that time we had almost only warm weather and sun (apart from a little coastal fog). After that we crossed over to the west coast. A rear view mirror of our bus was destroyed by another passing bus and this lead to some delays. In the end we took the most direct route from Inverness to Gairloch where our next hotel was. Perhaps we actually profited from the accident since the landscape on that route was spectacular. After the stress with our luggage I felt a great relaxation in Gairloch. The impression it made on me was of somewhere which is really far away and isolated from my usual everyday world. From our hotel room we could see Gannets fishing in the bay and in the night I heard Ringed Plovers calling on the beach. This is nature in the form I appreciate it most. The next day we crossed to Skye. It was rather foggy but what else can be expected from Skye? Our next hotel was in Tyndrum. From there we made a day trip to Iona via Oban and Mull. The general impression of the participants (and it was also my impression) was that the day was too hectic in order to enjoy it properly. For reasons already indicated the hotel was too far away and as a consequence the time was too short. I did not really get a feeling about what it might have been like for St. Columba to arrive on Iona and do what he did there. Another religious figure I would like to know more about after this trip is John Knox. Knowing very little about him I had the feeling that he was a bigot and an extremist. Now I wonder if he might not be responsible for some of most positive aspects of Scottish culture, aspects which I have profited from in my life. We spent our last night in Stirling, where we visited the castle.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

May 30, 2022

The novel ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark has been on my bookshelf at home for many years. I bought it and read it when I was a student. I suppose I did so because I heard friends of mine who were studying English (including Ali Smith – see here for my relations with her) praising it. I do not know how much I liked it at the time. Now, for reasons not worth relating here, I took it off the shelf and opened it. I started reading a little and then could not stop until I had finished it. I had the strange impression that I liked the book much better and laughed a lot more than than the first time. Is this true or is it just my memory failing with increasing age? Now I am considering the possibility that among all novels by Scottish writers it is the one I like the best. What are other possible contenders for this role? The one which occurs to me is ‘Lanark’ by Alasdair Gray. I read it with admiration as a student. In a way Gray is to Glasgow as Joyce is to Dublin although I would not think of regarding Gray as being on the same level as Joyce. I once met Gray personally. The Aberdeen University Creative Writing Group invited him and Jim Kelman (who years later won the Booker Prize) to Aberdeen to give a reading. They came on the train from Glasgow and presumably consumed alcohol continuously during the whole journey. At any rate they were both very drunk when they arrived, whereby Gray appeared a bit less intoxicated than Kelman. I had no particular interest in Kelman; Gray was the one who interested me. I cannot remember much about our conversation, except that he pronounced ‘Proust’ incorrectly. I am not sure if that was ignorance or provocation. It was probably the latter. I have not read Lanark again since then and I think my copy did not survive my moves since then. I do not know what my impression would be if I started reading Lanark again but my intuition tells me that it would not captivate me like Miss Jean Brodie. This is because of the way I have changed over the past almost forty years.

As the title suggests the novel ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is dominated by one character. She is strong and fascinating but it is wise to be cautious of having too much admiration for her. This is made clear at the latest by her professed admiration for Mussolini. (The novel is set in the years leading up to the Second World War.) She is a teacher at a private school, her pupils being girls of under the age of twelve. A group of these girls from one year come together to form ‘the Brodie set’. They are brought together not by any similarities between them but by their bond to Jean Brodie. This also keeps them together for the rest of their time at school. She is regarded by most of the teachers at the conventional school as too progressive and the headmistress is keen to find a reason to get rid of her. Eventually she succeeds in doing so. I cannot see Jean Brodie as a model for a teacher. She hatches out schemes to allow her pupils to avoid the work they should be doing and to listen to the stories she tells them. She has very definite ideas, for instance as to the relative importance of subjects: art first, philosophy second, science third. My ordering would be: science first, art second, philosophy third. The book is often very funny but I think there is also a lot in it which is very serious. Apart from the content, the use of language is very impressive. I enjoyed trying to imagine what it means for a jersey to be ‘a dark forbidding green’. There is even a little mathematics, although that is a subject which Jean Brodie has little liking for. Concerning the conflict of Miss Brodie with the Kerr sisters we read, ‘Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together, she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides’. For me this is one of those few books which is able to bring some movement into my usual routine. I watched a documentary about Muriel Spark herself, which is also very interesting. Maybe I will soon read another of her novels. ‘Aiding and Abetting’ has also found its way from my distant past onto my bookshelf but I am not sure it will be the next one I read.

Advances in the treatment of lung cancer

May 1, 2022

I enjoy going to meetings of the Mainzer Medizinische Gesellschaft [Mainz Medical Society] but they have have been in digital form for a long time now due to the pandemic. Recently I attended one of these (digital) events on the subject of the development of the treatment of lung cancer. There was a talk by Roland Buhl about general aspects of the treatment of lung cancer and one by Eric Roessner on surgery in lung cancer. Before going further I want to say something about my own relation to cancer. When I was a schoolchild my mother got cancer. In Orkney, where we lived, there was no specialist care available and for that reason my mother spent a lot of time in the nearest larger hospital, Foresterhill in Aberdeen. During my first year as a student in Aberdeen there was an extended period where I visited my mother in hospital once a week. I was not intellectually engaged in this issue and I do not even know what type of cancer my mother had. I seem to remember that at one point her spleen was removed, which suggests to me that it was a cancer of the immune system, lymphoma or leukemia. After some months my mother had reached the point where no useful further therapy was possible. She returned to Orkney and died a few months later. I must admit that at that time I was also not very emotionally involved and that I was not a big help to my mother in those troubled times for her. While I was a student I was friends with two other students, Lynn Drever and Sheila Noble. At one time I frequently heard them talking about a book called the ‘The Women’s Room’ by Marilyn French. I was curious to find out more but they did not seem keen to talk about the book. After the end of my studies I read the book myself. It is a feminist book and I think a good and interesting one. The reason I mention Marilyn French here is another good and interesting book she wrote. It is called ‘A Season in Hell’, which is a translation of the Rimbaud title ‘Une saison en enfer’. In the book she gives a vivid inside view of her own fight with a cancer of the oesophagus. After very aggressive treatments she was eventually cured of her cancer but the side effects had caused extensive damage to her body (collapse of the spine, kidney failure etc.). Parallel to the story of her own illness she portrays that of a friend who had lung cancer and died from it quite quickly. This book gave me essential insights into what cancer means, objectively and subjectively, and what lung cancer means. My own most intensive contact with cancer was in 2013 when my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer. I do not want to give any details here except the essential fact that she was cured by an operation and that the disease has shown no signs of returning. Motivated by this history I recently did something which I would probably otherwise not have done, namely to have a coloscopy. I believe that this is really a valuable examination for identifying and preventing colon cancer and that it was my responsibility to do it, although I was anxious about how it would be. In fact I found the examination and the preparations for it less unpleasant than I expected and it was nice to have a positive result. It is also nice to know that according to present recommendations I only need to repeat the examination ten years from now. A few years ago in the month of November my then secretary got a persistent cough. After some time she went to the doctor and was very soon diagnosed with lung cancer. She only survived until February. I attended a small meeting organised by her family in her memory and there I learned some more details of the way her disease progressed.

Now let me come back to the lectures. The first important message is nothing new: most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking. Incidentally, the secretary I mentioned above smoked a lot when she was young but gave up smoking very many years ago. The message is: if you smoke then from the point of view of lung cancer it is good to stop. However it may not be enough. In the first lecture it was emphasized that the first step these days when treating lung cancer is to do a genetic analysis to look for particular mutations since this can help to decide what treatments have a chance of success. In the case of the secretary the doctors did look for mutations but unfortunately she belonged to the majority where there were no mutations which would have been favourable for her prognosis under a suitable treatment. In the most favourable cases there are possibilities available such as targeted therapies (e.g. kinase inhibitors) and immunotherapies. These lectures are intended to be kept understandable for a general audience and accordingly the speaker did not provide many details. This means that since I have spent time on these things in the past I did not learn very much from that lecture. The contents of the second lecture, on surgical techniques, were quite unfamiliar to me. The main theme was minimally invasive surgery which is used in about 30% of operations for lung cancer in Germany. It is rather restricted to specialized centres due to the special expertise and sophisticated technical equipment required. It was explained how a small potential tumour in the lung can be examined and removed. In general the tumour will be found by imaging techniques and the big problem in a operation is to find it physically. We saw a film where an anaesthetised patient is lying on an operating table while the huge arms of a mobile imaging device do a kind of dance around them. The whole thing looks very futuristic. After this dance the device knows where the tumour is. It then computes the path to be taken by a needle to reach the tumour from outside. A laser projects a red point on the skin where the needle is to be inserted. The surgeon puts the point of the needle there and then rotates it until another red point coincides with the other end. This fixes the correct direction and he can then insert the needle. At the end of the needle there is a microsurgical device which can be steered from a computer. Of course there is also a camera which provides a picture of the situation on the computer screen. The movements of the surgeon’s hands are translated into movements of the device at the end of the needle. These are scaled but also subject to noise filtering. In other words, if the surgeon’s hands shake the computer will filter it out. There is also a further refinement of this where a robot arm connected to the imagining device automatically inserts the needle in the right way. The result of all this technology is that, for instance, a single small metastasis in the lung can be removed very effectively. One of the most interesting things the surgeon said concerned the effects of the pandemic. One effect has been that people have been more reluctant to go to the doctor and that it has taken longer than it otherwise would have for lung cancer patients to go into hospital. The concrete effect of this on the work of the surgeon is that he sees that the tumours he has to treat are on average in a more advanced state than they were than before the pandemic. Putting this together with other facts leads to the following stark conclusion which it is worth to state clearly, even if it is sufficiently well known to anyone who is wiling to listen. The reluctance of people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has led to a considerable increase in the number of people dying of cancer.

The age of innocence

February 20, 2022

In a previous post I talked about my search for authors to read who are new to me. Now, following one suggestion there, I have read ‘The age of innocence’ by Edith Wharton. I did appreciate the book a lot. What are the reasons? The ‘psychological subtlety’ I mentioned in my previous post is also very much present in the novel. The society portrayed in the book is that of a small group of rich and elitist people in the New York of the late nineteenth century. In that group people tend to avoid talking about the things which are really important to them. This means that they have to be good at communicating without words. The novel is very successful in presenting the resulting non-verbal communication. Another aspect of the book I appreciate is the use of language. There are often phrases for which I felt the necessity to pause and savour them. The book is also rich in humour and irony.

What are the main themes of the novel? One is a certain society. We see a small number of people who are very rich, know each other well and are very resistent to letting anyone else into their circle. In some ways it is similar to the aristocracy in Europe at that time except that it lacks the long historical tradition and the codification of its rules. It consists mainly of people without special talents or great intelligence. In this society people are known because they are known and because certain other people in the same circle accept them. It reminds me a bit of the ‘celebrities’ of the present day who have similar characteristics including in many cases a lack of any obvious talent other than self-presentation. The main difference is that there are more chances to enter the circle of the celebrities. The two main characters in the book, Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, are exceptions to the general rule. The Countess Olenska, as she is usually referred to in the book, comes from the small society described there but married a Polish count. She left him due to his bad treatment of her and came back to New York. What this treatment was is never really specified. In fact, it is not only the characters in the book who do not say openly what they mean. The author also presents many things in a way which is more suggestive than specific. The case of what really happened between the Countess Olenska and her husband is a good example but there are many more. In a way I found it a little frustrating to feel that I was waiting for information which never came. On the other hand I find that this allusive style has its own attraction. For me the Countess Olenska, who often ignores the strict rules of the society she is living in and is clearly highly intelligent and thoughtful, is the most attractive character in the novel. Newland Archer is the central character in the book in the sense that the story is told from his point of view, although in the third person. In his own way he questions the standards of the society around him. He often has impulses to act in a positive way but seems incapable of following them. He marries May Welland, a cousin of the Countess Olenska, who is the ideal partner for him in terms of her social standing and physical appearance. May is extremely conventional and not very intelligent. Her husband soon sees her as stupid, although in the end she has enough cunning to trick him and, in a sense, triumph over her clever cousin. There is a great deal of erotic tension between Archer and the Countess but, in the abstract and not only the literal sense, the orgasm never comes. May is treated cruelly in the text. Although it happens without any further comment the fact that she is given a painting of sheep as a present is a good example.

The two main characters are very different but in a way they mirror each other. I wonder to what extent the Countess Olenska is an image of the author and to what extent Newland Archer might be a better one. For me the most interesting aspect of the novel is what it has to say about love. I found the ending, whose content I will not reveal here, striking.

After I finished this post I remembered a question which I had asked myself and forgotten. This concerns the question of the relation of Marcel Proust, an author I much admire, to Edith Wharton. After all they did live in the same place at the same time. A short search led me to the following interesting answer.

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Looking for a good read

January 9, 2022

In the recent past my reading has mostly been limited to mathematics and other scientific subjects. I have harldly found time to read literature. I have also tended to read only authors I already knew I liked. A few weeks ago I was in a second hand book shop and tried to do something against these tendencies. One of the things I did was to buy a book called ’50 Great Short Stories’ edited by Milton Crane. My motivation was less a desire to read short stories than to get to know authors I might like to read more of. Of course it was clear to me that reading a short story by an author may not give a very useful impression of what a novel by that author might be like. I was disappointed to find that there were few of the short stories in the book I liked very much. Those I did not appreciate much included ones by a number of authors who have written books I like very much, for instance E. M. Forster, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. I long time ago I was keen on Aldous Huxley and read most of his books. This collection contains a short story by him ‘The Gioconda Smile’, which I am sure I had read before. I was not very enthusiastic about it this time but at least I did find it good. In the end there were only two stories in the collection which were by authors I had not previously read and which I liked enough so as to want to read more. The first is ‘The Other Two’ by Edith Wharton and I found the psychological subtlety of the writing attractive. I read a little about the author, who I found out has often been compared with Henry James. My superficial reading on this subject indicates to me that Wharton might have some of those qualities of James which I like while lacking some of those I dislike. Thus I am now motivated to read more of Wharton. The other story which made a very positive impression on me was ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Flannery O’Connor. I find it difficult to pin down what it was that I liked so much about it. In fact I think both aspects of the form and content were involved. I think a part of it was the impression of reading ‘something very different’. Here again I want to read more.

The other book I bought on that day was a collection of writings of Jean Paul, ‘Die wunderbare Gesellschaft in der Neujahrsnacht’. Unfortunately I found it completely inaccessible for me and I only read a small part of it.

Uğur Şahin, Özlem Türeci and The Vaccine

October 4, 2021

 

I have just read the book ‘The Vaccine’ by Joe Miller, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci. More precisely, I read the German version which is called ‘Projekt Lightspeed’ but I am assuming that the contents are not too different. The quality of the language in the version I read is high and I conclude from this that it is likely that both the quality of the language in the original and the quality of the translation are high. Miller is a journalist while Şahin and Türeci are the main protagonists of the story told in the book. It is the story of how the husband and wife team of researchers developed the BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19, a story which I found more gripping than fictional thrillers. The geographical centre of the story is Mainz. Şahin and Türeci live there and the headquarters of BioNTech, the company they founded, is also there. In fact when I moved to Mainz in 2013 I lived just a couple of hundred metres from what is now the area occupied by the BioNTech. Since I was interested in biotechnology the building was interesting for me. My first encounter with Şahin was a public lecture he gave about cancer immunotherapy in February 2015 and which I wrote about here. I heard him again in a keynote talk he gave at a conference at EMBL about cancer immunotherapy in February 2017. I was interested to hear his talk but it seems that it did not catch my attention since I did not mention it in the account I wrote of that meeting. One of the last lectures I attended live before the pandemic made such things impossible was at the university medical centre here in Mainz on 13th February 2020. Şahin was the chairman. The speaker was Melanie Brinkmann and the subject the persistence of herpes viruses in the host. I did not detect any trace of the theme COVID-19 in the meeting that day except for the fact that the speaker complained that she was getting asked so many questions on that subject on a daily basis. Later on she attained some public prominence in Germany in the discussion of measures against the pandemic. The book is less about the science of the subject than about the human story involved. I have no doubt that the scientific content is correct but it is not very deep. That is not the main subject of the book.

I now come to the story itself. Şahin and Türeci are both Germans whose parents came to Germany from Turkey. They studied medicine and they met during the practical part of their studies. They were both affected by seeing patients dying of cancer while medicine was helpless to prevent it. They decided they wanted to change the situation and have pursued that goal with remarkable consistency since then. They later came to the University of Mainz. They founded a biotechnology company called Ganymed producing monoclonal antibodies which was eventually sold for several hundred million Euros. They then went on to found BioNTech with the aim of using mRNA technology for cancer immunotherapy. An important role was played by money provided by the Strüngmann brothers. They had become billionaires through their company Hexal which sold generic drugs. They were relatively independent of the usual mechanisms of the financial markets and this was a big advantage for BioNTech. (A side remark: I learned from the book that the capital NT in the middle of the company name stands for ‘new technology’.) In early January 2020 Şahin foresaw the importance of COVID-19 and immediately began a project to apply the mRNA technology of BioNTech to develop a vaccine. The book is the story of many of the obstacles which he and Türeci had to overcome to attain this goal. In the US the vaccine is associated with the name Pfizer and it is important to mention at this point what the role of Pfizer was, namely to provide money and logistics. The main ideas came from Şahin and Türeci. Of course no important scientific development is due to one or two people alone and there are many contributions. In this case a central contribution came from Katalin Karikó.

How does the BioNTech vaccine work? The central idea of an mRNA vaccine is as follows. The aim is to introduce certain proteins into the body which are similar to ones found in the virus. The immune response to these proteins will then also act against the virus. What is actually injected is mRNA and that is then translated into the desired proteins by the cellular machinery. To start with the sequences of relevant proteins must be identified and corresponding mRNA molecules produced in vitro based on a DNA template. The RNA does not only contain the code for the protein but also extra elements which influence the way in which it behaves or is treated within a cell. In addition it is coated with some lipids which protect it from degradation by certain enzymes and help it to enter cells. Karikó played a central role in the development of this lipid technology. After the RNA has been injected it has to get into cells. A good target cell type are the dendritic cells which take up material from their surroundings by macropinocytosis. They then produce proteins based on the RNA template, cut them up into small peptides and display these on their surface. They also move to the lymph nodes. There they can present the antigens to T cells, which get activated. For T cells to get activated a second signal is also necessary and it is fortunate that mRNA can provide such a signal – in the language of vaccines it shows a natural adjuvant activity. In many more popular accounts of the role of the immune system in the vaccination against COVID-19 antibodies are the central subject. In fact according to the book many vaccine developers are somewhat fixated on antibodies and underestimate the role of T cells. There Şahin had to do a lot of convincing. It is nevertheless the case that antibodies are very important in this story and there is one point which I do not understand. Antibodies are produced by B cells and in order to do so they must be activated by the antigen. For this to happen the antigen must be visible outside the cells. So how do proteins produced in dendritic cells get exported so that B cells can see them?

I admire Şahin and Türeci very much. This has two aspects. The first is their amazing achievement in producing the vaccine against COVID-19 in record time. However there is also another aspect which I find very important. It is related to what I have learned about these two people from the book and from other sources. It has to do with a human quality which I find very important and which I believe is not appreciated as it should be in our society. This is humility. In their work Şahin and Türeci have been extremely ambitious but it seems to me that in their private life they have remained humble and this makes them an example to be followed.

 

Lisa Eckhart and her novel Omama

October 2, 2020

Lisa Eckhart is a young Austrian known for a type of comedy which is called Kabarett in German-speaking countries. Characteristic features of this form of entertainment are black humour and political content. In her stage performances she likes to break taboos and flout political correctness. I first happened to see her on TV and I was immediately interested by her performance. Since then I saw her on stage in Mainz, shortly before COVID-19 made going to the theatre impossible for some time. I had also previously seen another Austrian proponent of the same type of performance who I appreciate a lot, Josef Hader, on stage in Mainz. Recently Eckhart published her first novel, ‘Omama’, and I now read it. In her stage performances there are some obstacles to understanding. The first is that her humour relies essentially on ambiguity. The second is that the whole thing goes very fast. The third is that she likes to mix in quite a lot of Austrian dialect. I thought that if there is some similarity between the contents of the novel and that of the performances it might help me to understand more. After all, a novel can be read at the speed the reader desires and it is possible to take time to investigate anything which is unclear. Recently there has been some public controversy in Germany around Eckhart. She has been accused of antisemitism, which I do not believe is justified. In August she was supposed to give a reading from her novel at a literature festival in Hamburg. Her invitation was withdrawn because the organisers were afraid that her appearance there might lead to violent protests by left-wing groups which the police would not be able to control. I find the fact that such a thing can happen a disgrace. What happened to free speech? Later the organisers renewed the invitation in a modified form but this time Eckhart refused, which I can understand. On Wednesday evening I went to read the last few pages of the book but before I got properly started I was called by my wife, who was watching TV. When I came into the living room I understood why she had called me since Lisa Eckhart was on the screen. She was participating in a program on the channel ARTE on the subject of decadence. The word decadence was one which had not gone through my mind for many years but it interested me a long time ago. At that time I read ‘A Rebours’ by Huysmans, ‘Le Soleil des Morts’ by Mauclair and, of course, ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’. Looking back it is hard to imagine how different my world was then, a fact that has less to do with a change in the world than with a change in myself. In any case, when I think about it, it is clear that we are now living in a period of decadence.

Let me finally come to the novel itself. It struck me as a curate’s egg. Parts of it are very good. There are passages where I appreciate the humour and I find the author’s use of language impressive. On a more global level I do not find the text attractive. It is the story of the narrator’s grandmother. (Here is a marginal note for the mathematical reader. Walter Rudin, known for his analysis textbooks, was born in Austria. In  a biographical text about him I read that one of his grandmothers was referred to as ‘Omama’.) The expressions are often very crude, with a large dose of excrement and other unpleasant aspects of the human body, and many elements of the story seem to me pointless. There is no single character in the novel who I find attractive. This is in contrast to the novel of Banine which I previously wrote about, where I find the narrator attractive. That novel also contains plenty of crude expressions but there are more than enough positive things to make up for it. I would like to emphasize that just because I find a novel unpleasant to read it does not mean I judge it negatively. A book which I found very unpleasant was ‘Alexis ou le traite du vain combat’ by Marguerite  Yourcenar but in that case my conclusion was that it could only be so unpleasant because it was so well written. I do not have the same feeling about Omama. As to the insight which I hoped I might get for Eckhart’s stage performances I have not seen it yet, but maybe I will notice a benefit the next time I experience a stage performance by her.