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Saturday, June 29, 2013
Reading List: Time Reborn
- Smolin, Lee.
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013.
Early in his career, the author received some unorthodox career
advice from Richard Feynman. Feynman noted that in physics, as in
all sciences, there were a large number of things that most
professional scientists believed which nobody had been able to
prove or demonstrate experimentally. Feynman's insight was that,
when considering one of these problems as an area to investigate,
there were two ways to approach it. The first was to try to
do what everybody had failed previously to accomplish. This, he
said, was extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed, since it
assumes you're either smarter than everybody who has tried before
or have some unique insight which eluded them. The other path is
to assume that the failure of numerous brilliant people might
indicate that what they were trying to demonstrate was, in
fact, wrong, and that it might be wiser for the ambitious
scientist to search for evidence to the contrary.
Based upon the author's previous work and publications, I picked up
this book expecting a discussion of the
problem of time in quantum gravity.
What I found was something breathtakingly more ambitious. In essence,
the author argues that when it comes to cosmology: the physics of
the universe as a whole, physicists have been doing it wrong
for centuries, and that what he calls the “Newtonian
paradigm” must be replaced with one in which time
is fundamental in order to stop speaking nonsense.
The equations of
especially when formulated in attempts to create a quantum theory of
gravitation, seem to suggest that our perception of time is an
illusion: we live in a timeless
in which our consciousness can be thought of as a cursor moving through
a fixed, deterministic spacetime. In general relativity, the rate of
perceived flow of time depends upon one's state of motion and the
amount of mass-energy in the vicinity of the observer, so it makes no
sense to talk about any kind of global time co-ordinate. Quantum
mechanics, on the other hand, assumes there is a global clock, external
to the system and unaffected by it, which governs the evolution of the
wave function. These views are completely incompatible—hence the
problem of time in quantum gravity.
But the author argues that “timelessness” has its roots much
deeper in the history and intellectual structure of physics. When one
uses Newtonian mechanics to write down a differential equation which
describes the path of a ball thrown upward, one is reducing a process
which would otherwise require enumerating a list of positions and times
to a timeless relationship which is valid over the entire trajectory.
Time appears in the equation simply as a label which causes it to
emit the position at that moment. The equation of motion, and, more
importantly, the laws of motion which allow us to write it down for
this particular case, are entirely timeless: they affect the object
but are not affected by it, and they appear to be specified outside the
This, when you dare to step back and think about it, is distinctly
odd. Where did these laws come from? Well, in Newton's day
and in much of the history of science since, most scientists would say
they were prescribed by a benevolent Creator. (My own view that they
were put into the simulation by the 13 year old superkid who created it
in order to win the Science Fair with the most interesting result,
generating the maximum complexity, is isomorphic to this explanation.)
Now, when you're analysing a system “in a box”, it makes perfect
sense to assume the laws originate from outside and are fixed; after all, we can
compare experiments run in different boxes and convince ourselves that
the same laws obtain regardless of symmetries such as translation,
orientation, or boost. But note that once we try to generalise this
to the entire universe, as we must in cosmology, we run into a philosophical
speed bump of singularity scale. Now we cannot escape the question
of where the laws came from. If they're from inside the universe, then
there must have been some dynamical process which created them. If they're
outside the universe, they must have had to be imposed by some process
which is external to the universe, which makes no sense if you define
the universe as all there is.
Smolin suggests that laws exist within our universe, and that they
evolve in an absolute time, which is primordial. There
the evolution of the universe (and the possibility that universes
give birth to other universes) drives the evolution of the laws of
physics. Perhaps the
probabilistic results we observe
in quantum mechanical processes are not built-in ahead of time
and prescribed by timeless laws outside the universe, but rather a
random choice from the results of previous similar measurements.
This “principle of precedence”, which is remarkably similar
to that of English
perfectly reproduces the results of
most tests of quantum mechanics, but may be testable by precision
experiments where circumstances never before created in the universe
are measured, for example in quantum computing. (I am certain Prof.
Smolin would advocate for my being beheaded were I to point out the
similarity of this hypothesis with
resonance; some years ago I suggested to Dr Sheldrake a protein
crystallisation experiment on the International Space Station
to test this theory; it is real science, but
to this date nobody has done it. Few wish to risk their careers testing
what “everybody knows”.)
This is one those books you'll need to think about after you've read it,
then after some time, re-read to get the most out of it. A collection
expand upon topics discussed in the book.
An hour-long video
discussion of the ideas in the book by the author and the
intellectual path which led him to them is available.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Reading List: Looking Backward: 2162-2012
- Cody, Beth.
Looking Backward: 2162–2012.
Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012.
Julian West was a professor of history at Fielding College, a midwestern
U.S. liberal arts institution, where he shared the assumptions of his
peers: big government was good; individual initiative was suspect; and
the collective outweighed the individual. At the inauguration of a time
capsule on the campus, he found himself immured within it and, after
inhaling a concoction consigned to the future by the chemistry
department, wakes up 150 years later, when the capsule is opened, to
discover himself in a very different world.
The United States, which was the foundation of his reference frame,
have collapsed due to unsustainable debt and entitlement commitments.
North America has fragmented into a variety of territories, including the Free States
of America, which include the present-day states of Oklahoma, Missouri,
Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming,
and North and South Dakota. The rest of the former U.S. has separated into
autonomous jurisdictions with very different approaches to governance. The
Republic of Texas has become entirely Texan, while New Hampshire has chosen
to go it alone, in keeping with their porky-spine tradition. A rump USA,
composed of failed states, continues to pursue the policies which
caused the collapse of their railroad-era, continental-scale empire.
West returns to life in the Free States, which have become a classical
libertarian republic as imagined by
The federal government is
supported only by voluntary contributions, and state and local
governments are constrained by the will of their constituents. West,
disoriented by all of this, is taken under the wing of David Seeton,
a history professor at Fielding in the 22nd century, who welcomes West into
his home and serves a guide to the new world in which West finds himself.
West and Seeton explore this world, so strange to West, and it slowly
dawns on West (amidst flashbacks to his past life), that this might
really be a better way of organising society. There is a great amount of
preaching and didactic conversation here; while it's instructive if you're
really interested in how a libertarian society might work, many
may find it tedious.
Finally, West, who was never really sure his experience of the future
mightn't have been a dream, has a dream experience which forces him to
confront the conflict of his past and future.
This is a book I found both tiresome and enlightening. I would highly
recommend it to anybody who has contemplated a libertarian society but
dismissed it as “That couldn't ever work”. The author is
clear that no solution is perfect, and that any society will reflect
the flaws of the imperfect humans who compose it. The libertarian
society is presented as the “least bad discovered so far”,
with the expectation that free people will eventually discover even
better ways to organise themselves. Reading this book is much like
slogging through Galt's speech in
Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)—it takes
some effort, but it's worth doing so. It is obviously derivative of
Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward
which presented a socialist utopia, but I'd rather live in Cody's future than
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Reading List: Sir, The Private Don't Know!
- Neven, Thomas E.
Sir, The Private Don't Know!
Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013.
The author, a self-described “[l]onghaired surfer dude”
from Florida, wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life
after graduating from high school, but he was certain he didn't
want to go directly to college—he didn't have the money
for it and had no idea what he might study. He had
thought about a military career, but was unimpressed when
a Coast Guard recruiter never got back to him. He arrived
at the Army recruiter's office only to find the
recruiter a no-show. While standing outside the Army
recruiter's office, he was approached by a Marine recruiter,
whose own office was next door. He was receptive to the
highly polished pitch and signed enlistment papers on March
This was just about the lowest ebb in 20th century
U.S. military history. On that very day, North Vietnam
launched the offensive which would, two months later,
result in the fall of Saigon and the humiliating images
of the U.S. embassy being evacuated by helicopter.
Opposition to the war had had reduced public support
for the military to all-time lows, and the image of
veterans as drug-addicted, violence-prone sociopaths
was increasingly reinforced by the media. In this
environment, military recruiters found it increasingly
difficult to meet their quotas (which failure could
torpedo their careers), and were motivated and sometimes
encouraged to bend the rules. Physical fitness,
intelligence, and even criminal records were often
ignored or covered up in order to make quota. This
meant that the recruits arriving for basic training,
even for a supposedly elite force as the Marines,
included misfits, some of whom were “dumb as a bag
Turning this flawed raw material into Marines had become
a matter of tearing down the recruits' individuality
and personality to ground level and the rebuilding it
into a Marine. When the author arrived at Parris Island
a month after graduating from high school, he found
himself fed into the maw of this tree chipper of the
soul. Within minutes he, and his fellow recruits, all
shared the thought, “What have I gotten myself
into?”, as the mental and physical stress mounted
higher and higher. “The DIs [drill instructors]
were gods; they had absolute power and were capricious
and cruel in exercising it.” It was only in retrospect
that the author appreciated that this was not just
hazing or sadism (although there were plenty of those),
but a deliberate part of the process to condition the
recruits to instantly obey any order without questioning
it and submit entirely to authority.
This is a highly personal account of one individual's experience
in Marine basic training. The author served seven
years in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of staff
sergeant. He then went on to college and graduate school, and
later was associate editor of the
Marine Corps Gazette,
the professional journal of the Corps.
The author was one of the last Marines to graduate from the
“old basic training”. Shortly thereafter, a
series of scandals involving mistreatment of recruits at
the hands of drill instructors brought public and Congressional
scrutiny of Marine practices, and there was increasing
criticism among the Marine hierarchy that “Parris Island
was graduating recruits, not Marines.” A great overhaul
of training was begun toward the end of the 1970s and has
continued to the present day, swinging back and forth between
leniency and rigour. Marine basic has never been easy, but today
there is less overt humiliation and make-work and more instruction
and testing of actual war-fighting skills. An epilogue (curiously
set in a monospace typewriter font) describes the evolution of basic
training in the years after the author's own graduation from
Parris Island. For a broader-based perspective on Marine basic
training, see Thomas Ricks's
Making the Corps
This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle
as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Reading List: Moonseed
- Baxter, Stephen.
New York: Harper Voyager, 1998.
Stephen Baxter is one of the preeminent current practitioners of
“hard” science fiction—trying to tell a tale
of wonder while getting the details right, or at least plausible.
In this novel, a complacent Earth plodding along and seeing its
great era of space exploration recede into the past is stunned
when, without any warning, Venus explodes, showering the
Earth with radiation which seems indicative of processes at
grand unification and/or superstring energies. “Venus
ponchos” become not just a fashion accessory but a necessity
for survival, and Venus shelters an essential addition to basements
NASA geologist Henry Meacher, his lunar landing probe having been
cancelled due to budget instability, finds himself in Edinburgh,
Scotland, part of a project to analyse a sample of what may be
lunar bedrock collected from the last Apollo lunar landing
mission decades before. To his horror, he discovers that what
happened to Venus may have been catalysed by something in the Moon
rock, and that it has escaped and begun to propagate in the ancient
volcanic vents around Edinburgh. Realising that this is a potential
end-of-the-world scenario, he tries to awaken the world to the
risk, working through his ex-wife, a NASA astronaut, and argues
the answer to the mystery must be sought where it originated,
on the Moon.
This is grand scale science fiction—although the main narrative
spans only a few years, its consequences stretch decades
thereafter and perhaps to eternity. There are layers and layers
of deep mystery, and ambiguities which may never be resolved. There
are some goofs and quibbles big enough to run a dinosaur-killer
impactor through (I'm talking about “harenodynamics”: you'll
know what I mean when you get there, but there are others), but still
the story works, and I was always eager to pick it back up
and find out what happens next. This is the final volume in Baxter's
trilogy. I found the first two novels,
Titan (December 2012), better overall,
but if you enjoyed them, you'll almost certainly like this book.