February 2006

Randall, Lisa. Warped Passages. New York: Ecco, 2005. ISBN 0-06-053108-8.
The author is one of most prominent theoretical physicists working today, known primarily for her work on multi-dimensional “braneworld” models for particle physics and gravitation. With Raman Sundrum, she created the Randall-Sundrum models, the papers describing which are among the most highly cited in contemporary physics. In this book, aimed at a popular audience, she explores the revolution in theoretical physics which extra dimensional models have sparked since 1999, finally uniting string theorists, model builders, and experimenters in the expectation of finding signatures of new physics when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) comes on stream at CERN in 2007.

The excitement among physicists is palpable: there is now reason to believe that the unification of all the forces of physics, including gravity, may not lie forever out of reach at the Planck energy, but somewhere in the TeV range—which will be accessible at the LHC. This book attempts to communicate that excitement to the intelligent layman and, sadly, falls somewhat short of the mark. The problem, in a nutshell, is that while the author is a formidable physicist, she is not, at least at this point in her career, a particularly talented populariser of science. In this book she has undertaken an extremely ambitious task, since laying the groundwork for braneworld models requires recapitulating most of twentieth century physics, including special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, particle physics and the standard model, and the rudiments of string theory. All of this results in a 500 page volume where we don't really get to the new stuff until about page 300. Now, this problem is generic to physics popularisations, but many others have handled it much better; Randall seems compelled to invent an off-the-wall analogy for every single technical item she describes, even when the description itself would be crystal clear to a reader encountering the material for the first time. You almost start to cringe—after every paragraph or two about actual physics, you know there's one coming about water sprinklers, ducks on a pond, bureaucrats shuffling paper, artists mixing paint, drivers and speed traps, and a host of others. There are also far too few illustrations in the chapters describing relativity and quantum mechanics; Isaac Asimov used to consider it a matter of pride to explain things in words rather than using a diagram, but Randall is (as yet) neither the wordsmith nor the explainer that Asimov was, but then who is?

There is a lot to like here, and I know of no other popular source which so clearly explains what may be discovered when the LHC fires up next year. Readers familiar with modern physics might check this book out of the library or borrow a copy from a friend and start reading at chapter 15, or maybe chapter 12 if you aren't up on the hierarchy problem in the standard model. This is a book which could have greatly benefited from a co-author with experience in science popularisation: Randall's technical writing (for example, her chapter in the Wheeler 90th birthday festschrift) is a model of clarity and concision; perhaps with more experience she'll get a better handle on communicating to a general audience.

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Warraq, Ibn [pseud.] ed. Leaving Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. ISBN 1-59102-068-9.
Multiculturalists and ardent secularists may contend “all organised religions are the same”, but among all major world religions only Islam prescribes the death penalty for apostasy, which makes these accounts by former Muslims of the reasons for and experience of their abandoning Islam more than just stories of religious doubt. (There is some dispute as to whether the Koran requires death for apostates, or only threatens punishment in the afterlife. Some prominent Islamic authorities, however, interpret surat II:217 and IX:11,12 as requiring death for apostates. Numerous aḥadīth are unambiguous on the point, for example Bukhārī book 84, number 57 quotes Mohammed saying, “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him”, which doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation, nor do authoritative manuals of Islamic law such as Reliance of the Traveller, which prescribes (o8.1) “When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostasizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed”. The first hundred pages of Leaving Islam explore the theory and practice of Islamic apostasy in both ancient and modern times.)

The balance of the book are personal accounts by apostates, both those born into Islam and converts who came to regret their embrace of what Salman Rushdie has called “that least huggable of faiths”. These testaments range from the tragic (chapter 15), to the philosophical (chapter 29), and ironically humorous (chapter 37). One common thread which runs through the stories of many apostates is that while they were taught as children to “read” the Koran, what this actually meant was learning enough Arabic script and pronunciation to be able to recite the Arabic text but without having any idea what it meant. (Very few of the contributors to this book speak Arabic as their mother tongue, and it is claimed [p. 400] that even native Arabic speakers can barely understand the classical Arabic of the Koran, but I don't know the extent to which this is true. But in any case, only about 15% of Muslims are Arabic mother tongue speakers.) In many of the narratives, disaffection with Islam either began, or was strongly reinforced, when they read the Koran in translation and discovered that the “real Islam” they had imagined as idealistic and benign was, on the evidence of what is regarded as the word of God, nothing of the sort. It is interesting that, unlike the Roman Catholic church before the Reformation, which attempted to prevent non-clergy from reading the Bible for themselves, Islam encourages believers to study the Koran and Ḥadīth, both in the original Arabic and translation (see for example this official Saudi site). It is ironic that just such study of scripture seems to encourage apostasy, but perhaps this is the case only for those already so predisposed.

Eighty pages of appendices include quotations from the Koran and Ḥadīth illustrating the darker side of Islam and a bibliography of books and list of Web sites critical of Islam. The editor is author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (February 2002), editor of What the Koran Really Says (April 2003), and founder of the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society.

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Gurstelle, William. Adventures from the Technology Underground. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2006. ISBN 1-4000-5082-0.
This thoroughly delightful book invites the reader into a subculture of adults who devote their free time, disposable income, and considerable brainpower to defying Mr. Wizard's sage injunction, “Don't try this yourself at home”. The author begins with a handy litmus test to decide whether you're a candidate for the Technology Underground. If you think flying cars are a silly gag from The Jetsons, you don't make the cut. If, on the other hand, you not only think flying cars are perfectly reasonable but can barely comprehend why there isn't already one, ideally with orbital capability, in your own garage right now—it's the bleepin' twenty-first century, fervent snakes—then you “get it” and will have no difficulty understanding what motivates folks to build high powered rockets, giant Tesla coils, flamethrowers, hypersonic rail guns, hundred foot long pumpkin-firing cannons, and trebuchets (if you really want to make your car fly, it's just the ticket, but the operative word is “fly”, not “land”). In a world where basement tinkering and “that looks about right” amateur engineering has been largely supplanted by virtual and vicarious experiences mediated by computers, there remains the visceral attraction of heavy metal, high voltage, volatile chemicals, high velocities, and things that go bang, whoosh, zap, splat, and occasionally kaboom.

A technical section explains the theory and operation of the principal engine of entertainment in each chapter. The author does not shrink from using equations where useful to clarify design trade-offs; flying car fans aren't going to be intimidated by the occasional resonant transformer equation! The principles of operation of the various machines are illustrated by line drawings, but there isn't a single photo in the book, which is a real shame. Three story tall diesel-powered centrifugal pumpkin hurling machines, a four story 130 kW Tesla coil, and a calliope with a voice consisting of seventeen pulsejets are something one would like to see as well as read about, however artfully described.

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Mullane, Mike. Riding Rockets. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7682-5.
Mike Mullane joined NASA in 1978, one of the first group of astronauts recruited specifically for the space shuttle program. An Air Force veteran of 134 combat missions in Vietnam as back-seater in the RF-4C reconnaissance version of the Phantom fighter (imperfect eyesight disqualified him from pilot training), he joined NASA as a mission specialist and eventually flew on three shuttle missions: STS-41D in 1984, STS-27 in 1988, and STS-36 in 1990, the latter two classified Department of Defense missions for which he was twice awarded the National Intelligence Medal of Achievement. (Receipt of this medal was, at the time, itself a secret, but was declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The work for which the medals were awarded remains secret to this day.)

As a mission specialist, Mullane never maneuvered the shuttle in space nor landed it on Earth, nor did he perform a spacewalk, mark any significant “first” in space exploration or establish any records apart from being part of the crew of STS-36 which flew the highest inclination (62) orbit of any human spaceflight so far. What he has done here is write one of the most enlightening, enthralling, and brutally honest astronaut memoirs ever published, far and away the best describing the shuttle era. All of the realities of NASA in the 1980s which were airbrushed out by Public Affairs Officers with the complicity of an astronaut corps who knew that to speak to an outsider about what was really going on would mean they'd never get another flight assignment are dealt with head-on: the dysfunctional, intimidation- and uncertainty-based management culture, the gap between what astronauts knew about the danger and unreliability of the shuttle and what NASA was telling Congress and public, the conflict between battle-hardened military astronauts and perpetual student post-docs recruited as scientist-astronauts, the shameless toadying to politicians, and the perennial over-promising of shuttle capabilities and consequent corner-cutting and workforce exhaustion. (Those of a libertarian bent might wish they could warp back in time, shake the author by the shoulders, and remind him, “Hey dude, you're working for a government agency!”)

The realities of flying a space shuttle mission are described without any of the sugar-coating or veiled references common in other astronaut accounts, and always with a sense of humour. The deep-seated dread of strapping into an experimental vehicle with four million pounds of explosive fuel and no crew escape system is discussed candidly, along with the fact that, while universally shared by astronauts, it was, of course, never hinted to outsiders, even passengers on the shuttle who were told it was a kind of very fast, high-flying airliner. Even if the shuttle doesn't kill you, there's still the toilet to deal with, and any curiosity you've had about that particular apparatus will not outlast your finishing this book (the on-orbit gross-out prank on p. 179 may be too much even for “South Park”). Barfing in space and the curious and little-discussed effects of microgravity on the male and female anatomy which may someday contribute mightily to the popularity of orbital tourism are discussed in graphic detail. A glossary of NASA jargon and acronyms is included but there is no index, which would be a valuable addition.

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Kelleher, Colm A. and George Knapp. Hunt for the Skinwalker. New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 1-4165-0521-0.
Memo to file: if you're one of those high-strung people prone to be rattled by the occasional bulletproof wolf, flying refrigerator, disappearing/reappearing interdimensional gateway, lumbering giant humanoid, dog-incinerating luminous orb, teleporting bull, and bloodlessly eviscerated cow, don't buy a ranch, even if it's a terrific bargain, whose very mention makes American Indians in the neighbourhood go “woo-woo” and slowly back away from you. That's what Terry Sherman (“Tom Gorman” in this book) and family did in 1994, walking into, if you believe their story, a seething nexus of the paranormal so weird and intense that Chris Carter could have saved a fortune by turning the “X-Files” into a reality show about their life. The Shermans found that living with things which don't just go bump in the night but also slaughter their prize livestock and working dogs so disturbing they jumped at the opportunity to unload the place in 1996, when the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), a private foundation investigating the paranormal funded by real estate tycoon and inflatable space station entrepreneur Robert Bigelow offered to buy them out in order to establish a systematic on-site investigation of the phenomena. (The NIDS Web site does not appear to have been updated since late 2004; I don't know if the organisation is still in existence or active.)

This book, co-authored by the biochemist who headed the field team investigating the phenomena and the television news reporter who covered the story, describes events on the ranch both before and during the scientific investigation. As is usual in such accounts, all the really weird stuff happened before the scientists arrived on the scene with their cameras, night vision scopes, radiation meters, spectrometers, magnetometers (why is always magnetometers, anyway?) and set up shop in their “command and control centre” (a.k.a. trailer—summoning to mind the VW bus “mobile command post” in The Lone Gunmen). Afterward, there was only the rare nocturnal light, mind-controlling black-on-black flying object, and transdimensional tunnel sighting (is an orange pulsating luminous orb which disgorges fierce four hundred pound monsters a “jackal lantern”?), none, of course, captured on film or video, nor registered on any other instrument.

This observation and investigation serves as the launch pad for eighty pages of speculation about causes, natural and supernatural, including the military, shape-shifting Navajo witches, extraterrestrials, invaders from other dimensions, hallucination-inducing shamanism, bigfoot, and a muddled epilogue which illustrates why biochemists and television newsmen should seek the advice of a physicist before writing about speculative concepts in modern physics. The conclusion is, unsurprisingly: “inconclusive.”

Suppose, for a moment, that all of this stuff really did happen, more or less as described. (Granted, that is a pretty big hypothetical, but then the family who first experienced the weirdness never seems to have sought publicity or profit from their experiences, and this book is the first commercial exploitation of the events, coming more than ten years after they began.) What could possibly be going on? Allow me to humbly suggest that the tongue-in-cheek hypothesis advanced in my 1997 paper Flying Saucers Explained, combined with some kind of recurring “branestorm” opening and closing interdimensional gates in the vicinity, might explain many of the otherwise enigmatic, seemingly unrelated, and nonsensical phenomena reported in this and other paranormal “hot spots”.

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