What We Are Reading Today: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

Updated 31 May 2018

What We Are Reading Today: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

This week, a rare breed of thrill-seekers gathered on a tiny remote Fijian island in the South Pacific.

Among them were some of the most prominent names in big-wave surfing.

The congregation had tracked a purple blob on the swell forecasting models as it pulsed out from a fierce storm in the Southern Ocean, destined to strike a slab of coral reef known as Cloudbreak.

First the images, and then the videos, started to filter out on to social media.

Tiny figures crouched low on their surfboards, dwarfed by and encased in towering caverns of deep blue water.

For one day, the surfers caught some of the biggest waves ever surfed at Cloudbreak.

The scenes were a far cry from when William Finnegan arrived at the island in 1978, following a tip-off from a yacht that had passed by and reported a perfect surf break.

Finnegan was among the first to surf there and spent weeks camped on the nearest island, cut off from civilization and indulging in his obsession.

That obsession is the focus of his brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.”

The book fills the reader with youthful wanderlust, explains the strange intricacies of the cult of surfing and reminds of a time when the world still held some unexplored corners.

What We Are Reading Today: How to Fall Slower Than Gravity

Updated 14 November 2018

What We Are Reading Today: How to Fall Slower Than Gravity

Author: Paul J. Nahin

Paul Nahin is a master at explaining odd phenomena through straightforward mathematics. In this collection of 26 intriguing problems, he explores how mathematical physicists think. Always entertaining, the problems range from ancient catapult conundrums to the puzzling physics of a very peculiar kind of glass called NASTYGLASS— and from dodging trucks to why raindrops fall slower than the rate of gravity. The questions raised may seem impossible to answer at first and may require an unexpected twist in reasoning, but sometimes their solutions are surprisingly simple. Nahin’s goal, however, is always to guide readers— who will need only to have studied advanced high school math and physics— in expanding their mathematical thinking to make sense of the curiosities of the physical world.
The problems are in the first part of the book and the solutions are in the second, so that readers may challenge themselves to solve the questions on their own before looking at the explanations. The problems show how mathematics — including algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and calculus — can be united with physical laws to solve both real and theoretical problems.

Historical anecdotes woven throughout the book bring alive the circumstances and people involved in some amazing discoveries and achievements.
More than a puzzle book, this work will immerse you in the delights of scientific history while honing your math skills.
Paul J. Nahin is the author of many popular math books, including In Praise of Simple Physics, Dr. Euler’s Fabulous Formula, and An Imaginary Tale (all Princeton).