Reading List: The Science of Interstellar
Saturday, December 13, 2014 22:38
Reading List: A Troublesome Inheritance
Saturday, December 6, 2014 15:23
Reading List: The Martian
Sunday, November 30, 2014 23:48
Reading List: Liberators
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 23:37
Reading List: Undercover Mormon
Sunday, November 23, 2014 15:56
Saturday, December 13, 2014 22:38
- Thorne, Kip.
The Science of Interstellar.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2014.
Christopher Nolan's 2014 film
was eagerly awaited by science fiction enthusiasts who,
having been sorely disappointed so many times by movies
that crossed the line into fantasy by making up entirely
implausible things to move the plot along, hoped that this
effort would live up to its promise of getting the science
(mostly) right and employing scientifically plausible
speculation where our present knowledge is incomplete.
The author of the present book is one of the most eminent
physicists working in the field of general relativity
(Einstein's theory of gravitation) and a pioneer in exploring
the exotic strong field regime of the theory, including
black holes, wormholes, and gravitational radiation.
Prof. Thorne was involved in the project which became
Interstellar from its inception, and worked
closely with the screenwriters, director, and visual effects
team to get the science right. Some of the scenes in the
movie, such as the visual appearance of orbiting a rotating
black hole, have never been rendered accurately before,
and are based upon original work by Thorne in computing light
paths through spacetime in its vicinity which will be published
as professional papers.
Here, the author recounts the often bumpy story of the movie's
genesis and progress over the years from his own, Hollywood-outsider,
perspective, how the development of the story presented him,
as technical advisor (he is credited as an executive producer),
with problem after problem in finding a physically plausible
solution, sometimes requiring him to do new physics. Then,
Thorne provides a popular account of the exotic physics on
which the story is based, including gravitational time dilation,
black holes, wormholes, and speculative extra dimensions and
scenarios stemming from string theory.
Then he “interprets” the events and visual images in
the film, explaining (where possible) how they could be
produced by known, plausible, or speculative physics. Of course,
this isn't always possible—in some cases the needs of
story-telling or the requirement not to completely baffle a
non-specialist with bewilderingly complicated and obscure
images had to take priority over scientific authenticity,
and when this is the case Thorne is forthright in admitting so.
Sections are labelled with icons identifying them as
“truth”: generally accepted by those working in
the field and often with experimental evidence,
“educated guess”: a plausible inference from
accepted physics, but without experimental evidence and
assuming existing laws of physics remain valid in
circumstances under which we've never tested them, and
“speculation”: wild and wooly stuff (for example
quantum gravity or the interior structure of a black hole)
which violates no known law of physics, but for which we have
no complete and consistent theory and no evidence whatsoever.
This is a clearly written and gorgeously illustrated book which,
for those who enjoyed the movie but weren't entirely clear
whence some of the stunning images they saw came, will
explain the science behind them. The cover of the book has a
“SPOILER ALERT” warning potential readers that
the ending and major plot details are given away in the text.
I will refrain from discussing them here so as not to
make this a spoiler in itself. I have not yet seen the movie, and
I expect when I do I will enjoy it more for having read
the book, since I'll know what to look for in some of the
visuals and be less likely to dismiss some of the apparently
outrageous occurrences by knowing that there is a physically
plausible (albeit extremely speculative and improbable) explanation
For the animations and blackboard images mentioned in the text,
the book directs you to a Web site which is so poorly designed
and difficult to navigate it took me ten minutes to find them on
the first visit. Here is a
the index cites page numbers in the print edition which are
useless since the electronic edition does not contain real
page numbers. There are a few typographical errors and
one factual howler:
is not “Saturn's closest moon”, and
was captured in Saturn orbit by a
propulsion burn, not a gravitational slingshot (this does not
affect the movie in any way: it's in background material).
Saturday, December 6, 2014 15:23
- Wade, Nicholas.
A Troublesome Inheritance.
New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
Geographically isolated populations of a species (unable to interbreed
with others of their kind) will be subject to natural selection
based upon their environment. If that environment differs from that
of other members of the species, the isolated population will begin
to diverge genetically, as genetic endowments which favour survival
and more offspring are selected for. If the isolated population is
sufficiently small, the mechanism of
may cause a specific genetic variant to become almost universal
or absent in that population. If this process is repeated for a
sufficiently long time, isolated populations may diverge to such
a degree they can no longer interbreed, and therefore become
None of this is controversial when discussing other species, but
in some circles to suggest that these mechanisms apply to humans
is the deepest heresy. This well-researched book examines the
evidence, much from molecular biology which has become available
only in recent years, for the diversification of the human species
into distinct populations, or “races” if you like,
after its emergence from its birthplace in Africa. In this
book the author argues that human evolution has been
“recent, copious, and regional” and presents the
genetic evidence to support this view.
A few basic facts should be noted at the outset. All humans are
members of a single species, and all can interbreed. Humans, as
a species, have an extremely low genetic diversity compared to
most other animal species: this suggests that our ancestors went
through a genetic “bottleneck” where the population
was reduced to a very small number, causing the variation observed
in other species to be lost through genetic drift. You might
expect different human populations to carry different genes, but
this is not the case—all humans have essentially the same
set of genes. Variation among humans is mostly a result of
individuals carrying different
(variants) of a gene. For example, eye colour in humans is entirely
inherited: a baby's eye colour is determined completely by
the alleles of various genes inherited from the mother and father.
You might think that variation among human populations is then
a question of their carrying different alleles of genes, but that
too is an oversimplification. Human genetic variation is, in most
cases, a matter of the frequency of alleles among the
This means that almost any generalisation about the characteristics of
individual members of human populations with different evolutionary
histories is ungrounded in fact. The variation among individuals
within populations is generally much greater than that of populations
as a whole. Discrimination based upon an individual's genetic heritage
is not just abhorrent morally but scientifically unjustified.
Based upon these now well-established facts, some have argued that
“race does not exist” or is a “social construct”.
While this view may be motivated by a well-intentioned desire to
eliminate discrimination, it is increasingly at variance with
genetic evidence documenting the history of human populations.
Around 200,000 years ago, modern humans emerged in Africa. They spent
more than three quarters of their history in that continent, spreading
to different niches within it and developing a genetic diversity which
today is greater than that of all humans in the rest of the world.
Around 50,000 years before the present, by the genetic evidence,
a small band of hunter-gatherers left Africa for the lands to the
north. Then, some 30,000 years ago the descendants of these bands
who migrated to the east and west largely ceased to interbreed and
separated into what we now call the Caucasian and East Asian populations.
These have remained the main three groups within the human species.
Subsequent migrations and isolations have created other populations such
as Australian and American aborigines, but their differentiation
from the three main races is less distinct. Subsequent migrations,
conquest, and intermarriage have blurred the distinctions between
these groups, but the fact is that almost any child, shown a picture
of a person of European, African, or East Asian ancestry can almost always
effortlessly and correctly identify their area of origin. University
professors, not so much: it takes an intellectual to deny the
evidence of one's own eyes.
As these largely separated populations adapted to their new homes,
selection operated upon their genomes. In the ancestral human
population children lost the ability to digest lactose, the sugar
in milk, after being weaned from their mothers' milk. But in
populations which domesticated cattle and developed dairy
farming, parents who passed on an allele which
would allow their children to drink cow's milk their entire life would have more surviving
offspring and, in a remarkably short time on the evolutionary
scale, lifetime lactose tolerance became the norm in these areas.
Among populations which never raised cattle or used them only
for meat, lifetime lactose tolerance remains rare today.
Humans in Africa originally lived close to the equator and had
dark skin to protect them from the ultraviolet radiation of the
Sun. As human bands occupied northern latitudes in Europe
and Asia, dark skin would prevent them from being able to synthesise
sufficient Vitamin D from the wan, oblique sunlight of northern
winters. These populations were under selection pressure for alleles
of genes which gave them lighter skin, but interestingly Europeans and
East Asians developed completely different genetic means to lighten
their skin. The selection pressure was the same, but evolution
blundered into two distinct pathways to meet the need.
Can genetic heritage affect behaviour? There's evidence it can.
Humans carry a gene called
which breaks down neurotransmitters that affect the transmission
of signals within the brain. Experiments in animals have provided evidence that
under-production of MAO-A increases aggression and humans with lower levels of MAO-A are found to be more likely to commit violent crime. MAO-A production is regulated by a short
sequence of DNA adjacent to the gene: humans may have anywhere
from two to five copies of the promoter; the more you have, the
more the MAO-A, and hence the mellower you're likely to be. Well,
actually, people with three to five copies are indistinguishable,
but those with only two (2R) show higher rates of delinquency.
Among men of African ancestry, 5.5% carry the 2R variant, while
0.1% of Caucasian males and 0.00067% of East Asian men do. Make
of this what you will.
The author argues that just as the introduction of dairy farming
tilted the evolutionary landscape in favour of those bearing the
allele which allowed them to digest milk into adulthood, the
transition of tribal societies to cities, states, and empires
in Asia and Europe exerted a selection pressure upon the population
which favoured behavioural traits suited to living in such
societies. While a tribal society might benefit from producing
a substantial population of aggressive warriors, an empire has
little need of them: its armies are composed of soldiers,
courageous to be sure, who follow orders rather than charging
independently into battle. In such a society, the genetic traits which
are advantageous in a hunter-gatherer or tribal society will be
selected out, as those carrying them will, if not expelled or
put to death for misbehaviour, be unable to raise as large a
family in these settled societies.
Perhaps, what has been happening over the last five millennia
or so is a domestication of the human species.
Precisely as humans have bred animals to live with them
in close proximity, human societies have selected for
humans who are adapted to prosper within them. Those who
conform to the social hierarchy, work hard, come up with
new ideas but don't disrupt the social structure will have
more children and, over time, whatever genetic predispositions
there may be for these characteristics (which we don't know
today) will become increasingly common in the population.
It is intriguing that as humans settled into fixed communities,
their skeletons became less robust. This same process of
gracilisation is seen in domesticated animals compared to
their wild congeners. Certainly there have been as many
human generations since the emergence of these complex societies
as have sufficed to produce major adaptation in animal
species under selective breeding.
Far more speculative and controversial is whether this selection
process has been influenced by the nature of the cultures and societies
which create the selection pressure. East Asian societies
tend to be hierarchical, obedient to authority, and organised
on a large scale. European societies, by contrast, are
fractious, fissiparous, and prone to bottom-up insurgencies.
Is this in part the result of genetic predispositions which have
been selected for over millennnia in societies which work that
It is assumed by many right-thinking people that all that is needed
to bring liberty and prosperity to those regions of the world
which haven't yet benefited from them is to create the proper
institutions, educate the people, and bootstrap the infrastructure,
then stand back and watch them take off. Well, maybe—but the
history of colonialism, the
mission civilisatrice, and
various democracy projects and attempts at nation building
over the last two centuries may suggest it isn't that
simple. The population of the colonial, conquering, or
development-aid-giving power has the benefit of millennia of
domestication and adaptation to living in a settled society
with division of labour. Its adaptations for tribalism have
been largely bred out. Not so in many cases for the people they're there to
“help”. Withdraw the colonial administration or
occupation troops and before long tribalism will re-assert
itself because that's the society for which the people are
Suggesting things like this is anathema in academia or political
discourse. But look at the plain evidence of post-colonial
Africa and more recent attempts of nation-building, and couple
that with the emerging genetic evidence of variation in human
populations and connections to behaviour and you may find yourself
thinking forbidden thoughts. This book is an excellent starting
point to explore these difficult issues, with numerous citations
of recent scientific publications.
Sunday, November 30, 2014 23:48
- Weir, Andy.
New York: Broadway Books,  2014.
Mark Watney was part of the six person crew of
Ares 3 which landed on Mars to carry out
an exploration mission in the vicinity of its landing
The crew made a precision landing at the target where
“presupply” cargo flights had already landed
their habitation module, supplies for their stay on
Mars, rovers and scientific instruments, and the ascent
vehicle they would use to return to the Earth-Mars transit
vehicle waiting for them in orbit. Just six days after
landing, having set up the habitation module and unpacked
the supplies, they are struck by a dust storm of unprecedented
ferocity. With winds up to 175 kilometres per hour, the
Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), already fuelled by propellant made on
Mars by reacting hydrogen brought from Earth with the Martian
atmosphere, was at risk of being blown over, which would destroy
the fragile spacecraft and strand the crew on Mars. NASA
gives the order to abort the mission and evacuate to orbit
in the MAV for an immediate return to Earth.
But the crew first has to get from the habitation module to the
MAV, which means walking across the surface in the midst of the
storm. (You'd find it very hard to walk in a 175 km/h wind on Earth, but
recall that the atmosphere pressure on Mars is only about 1/200
that of Earth at sea level, so the wind doesn't pack anywhere near
the punch.) Still, there was dust and flying debris from equipment
ripped loose from the landers. Five members of the crew made it to
the MAV. Mark Watney didn't.
As the crew made the traverse to the MAV, Watney was struck by
part of an antenna array torn from the habitation, puncturing his
suit and impaling him. He was carried away by the wind, and
the rest of the crew, seeing his vital signs go to zero before
his suit's transmitter failed, followed mission rules to leave him
behind and evacuate in the MAV while they still could.
But Watney wasn't dead. His injury was not fatal, and his blood loss
was sufficient to seal the leak in the suit where the antenna
had pierced it, as the water in the blood boiled off and the residue mostly
sealed the breach. Awakening after the trauma, he made an
immediate assessment of his situation. I'm alive. Cool!
I hurt like heck. Not cool. The habitation module is
intact. Yay! The MAV is gone—I'm alone on
“Dang” is not precisely how Watney put it. This book
contains quite a bit of profanity which I found gratuitous. NASA
astronauts in the modern era just don't swear like sailors, especially
on open air-to-ground links. Sure, I can imagine launching a full
salvo of F-bombs upon discovering I'd been abandoned on Mars,
especially when I'm just talking to myself, but everybody seems to do
it here on all occasions. This is the only reason I'd hesitate to
recommend this book to younger readers who would otherwise be inspired
by the story.
Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth,
since all communications were routed through the MAV, which has
departed. He has all of the resources for a six-person mission,
so he has no immediate survival problems after he gets back to
the habitation and stitches up his wound, but he can work the
math: even if he can find a way to communicate to Earth that he's
still alive, orbital mechanics dictates that it will take around
two years to send a rescue mission. His supplies cannot be stretched
This sets the stage for a gripping story of survival, improvisation,
difficult decisions, necessity versus bureaucratic inertia,
trying to do the right thing in a media fishbowl, and all
done without committing any howlers in technology, orbital
mechanics, or the way people and organisations behave. Sure,
you can quibble about this or that detail, but then people
far in the future may regard a factual account of Apollo 13
as largely legend, given how many things had to go right to
rescue the crew. Things definitely do not go smoothly here: there
is reverse after reverse, and many inscrutable mysteries to be
unscrewed if Watney is to get home.
This is an inspiring tale of pioneering on a new world. People
have already begun to talk about
going to Mars to stay. These
settlers will face stark challenges though, one hopes, not
as dire as Watney, and with the confidence of regular re-supply
missions and new settlers to follow. Perhaps this novel will be
seen, among the first generation born on Mars, as inspiration
that the challenges they face in bringing a barren planet to life
are within the human capacity to solve, especially if their media
library isn't exclusively populated with 70s TV shows and disco.
A Kindle edition is available.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 23:37
- Rawles, James Wesley.
New York: Dutton, 2014.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with
Patriots (December 2008),
then continued with
Survivors (January 2012),
Founders (October 2012),
Expatriates (October 2013),
These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in
that all describe events in the lives of their characters in
roughly the same time period surrounding “the
Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt
crisis and hyperinflation. Taking place at the same time,
you can read these books in any order, but if you haven't
read the earlier novels you'll miss much of the back-story of
the characters who appear here, which informs the parts they
play in this episode.
Here the story cuts back and forth between the United States,
where Megan LaCroix and her sister Malorie live on a farm in West
Virginia with Megan's two boys, and Joshua Kim works in security
at the National Security Agency where Megan is
an analyst. When the Crunch hits, Joshua and the LaCroix sisters
decide to team up to bug out to Joshua's childhood friend's
place in Kentucky, where survival from the urban Golden Horde
may be better assured. They confront the realities of a
collapsing society, where the rule of law is supplanted by
extractive tyrannies, and are forced to over-winter in a
wilderness, living by their wits and modest preparations.
In Western Canada, the immediate impact of the Crunch was less
severe because electrical power, largely hydroelectric,
remained on. At the McGregor Ranch, in inland
British Columbia (a harsh, northern continental climate
nothing like that of Vancouver), the family and those who have
taken refuge with them ride out the initial crisis only to
be confronted with an occupation of Canada by a nominally
United Nations force called UNPROFOR, which is effectively a
French colonial force which, in alliance with effete urban
eastern and francophone Canada, seeks to put down the fractious
westerners and control the resource-rich land they inhabit.
This leads to an asymmetrical war of resistance, aided by the fact
that when earlier faced with draconian gun registration and
prohibition laws imposed by easterners, a large number of
weapons in the west simply vanished, only to reappear when they
were needed most. As was demonstrated in Vietnam and
Algeria, French occupation forces can be tenacious and
brutal, but are ultimately no match for an indigenous insurgency
with the support of the local populace. A series of bold strikes
against UNPROFOR assets eventually turns the tide.
But just when Canada seems ready to follow the U.S. out of the
grip of tyranny, an emboldened China, already on the march
in Africa, makes a move to seize western Canada's abundant
natural resources. Under the cover of a UN resolution, a
massive Chinese force, with armour and air support, occupies
the western provinces. This is an adversary of an entirely
different order than the French, and will require the resistance,
supported by allies from the liberation struggle in the U.S.,
to audacious and heroic exploits, including one of the greatest
acts of monkey-wrenching ever described in a thriller.
As this story has developed over the five novels, the author
has matured into a first-rate thriller novelist. There is still
plenty of information on gear, tactics, intelligence
operations, and security, but the characters are interesting,
well-developed, and the action scenes both plausible and
exciting. In the present book, we encounter many characters we've
met in previous volumes, with their paths crossing
as events unfold. There is no triumphalism or glossing over the
realities of insurgent warfare against a tyrannical occupying
force. There is a great deal of misery and hardship, and
sometimes tragedy can result when you've taken every precaution,
made no mistake, but simply run out of luck.
Taken together, these five novels are an epic saga of survival
in hard and brutal times, painted on a global canvas. Reading
them, you will not only be inspired that you and your loved ones
can survive such a breakdown in the current economic
and social order, but you will also learn a great deal of the
details of how to do so. This is not a survival manual, but
attentive readers will find many things to research further for
their own preparations for an uncertain future. An excellent
place to begin that research is the author's own
survivalblog.com Web site,
whose massive archives you can spend months exploring.
Sunday, November 23, 2014 15:56
- Metzger, Th.
New York: Roadswell Editions, 2013.
The author, whose spiritual journey had earlier led him to dabble
with becoming a Mennonite, goes weekly to an acupuncturist named
Rudy Kilowatt who believes in the power of crystals, attends neo-pagan
fertility rituals in a friend's suburban back yard, had been
oddly fascinated by Mormonism ever since, as a teenager, he attended
Mormon pageant at Hill Cumorah, near his home in upstate New York.
He returned again and again for the spectacle of the pageant,
and based upon his limited knowledge of Mormon doctrine,
found himself admiring how the religion seemed to have it all:
“All religion is either sword and sorcery or science
fiction. The reason Mormonism is growing so fast is that you
guys have both, and don't apologize for either.” He
decides to pursue this Mormon thing further, armouring himself
in white shirt, conservative tie, and black pants, and heading off to the
nearest congregation for the Sunday service.
Approached by missionaries who spot him as a newcomer, he masters
his anxiety (bolstered by the knowledge he has a couple of Xanax
pills in his pocket), gives a false name, and indicates he's
interested in learning more about the faith. Before long he's
attending Sunday school, reading tracts, and spinning into the
Mormon orbit, with increasing suggestions that he might convert.
All of this is described in a detached, ironic manner, in which the
reader (and perhaps the author) can't decide how seriously to take
it all. Metzger carries magic talismans to protect himself against
the fearful “Mormo”, describes his anxiety to his
psychoanalyst, who prescribes the pharmaceutical version of magic
bones. He struggles with paranoia about his deception being found
out and agonises over the consequences. He consults a friend who,
“For a while he was an old-order Quaker, then a Sufi, then
a retro-neo-pagan. Now he's a Unitarian-Universalist professor
The narrative is written in the tediously quaint
journalism” style where it's as much about
the author as the subject. This works poorly here because
the author isn't very interesting. He comes across as so
neurotic and self-absorbed as to make Woody Allen seem like
Clint Eastwood. His “discoveries” about the
content of LDS scripture could have been made just as
easily by reading the original documents on the
LDS Web site, and
his exploration of the history of Joseph Smith and the
early days of Mormonism in New York could have been accomplished
by consulting Wikipedia. His antics, such as burying chicken
bones around the obelisk of Moroni on Hill Cumorah and digging
up earth from the grave of
to spread it in the sacred grove, push irony
past the point of parody—does anybody believe the author
took such things seriously (and if he did, why should anybody
care what he thinks about anything)?
The book does not mock Mormonism, and treats the individuals he
encounters on his journey more or less respectfully (with just
that little [and utterly unjustified] “I'm better than
you” that the hip intellectual has for earnest, clean-cut,
industrious people who are “as white as angel food cake,
and almost as spongy.”) But you'll learn nothing about the
history and doctrine of the religion here that you won't find
elsewhere without all the baggage of the author's tiresome