[Audiobook] Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Audiobook, Unabridged). Westminster, MD: Books on Tape, 2003. ISBN 0-7366-9320-3.
What an astonishing achievement! Toward the end of the 1990s, Bill Bryson, a successful humorist and travel writer, found himself on a flight across the Pacific and, looking down on the ocean, suddenly realised that he didn't know how it came to be, how it affected the clouds above it, what lived in its depths, or hardly anything else about the world and universe he inhabited, despite having lived in an epoch in which science made unprecedented progress in understanding these and many other things. Shortly thereafter, he embarked upon a three year quest of reading popular science books and histories of science, meeting with their authors and with scientists in numerous fields all around the globe, and trying to sort it all out into a coherent whole.

The result is this stunning book, which neatly packages the essentials of human knowledge about the workings of the universe, along with how we came to know all of these things and the stories of the often fascinating characters who figured it all out, into one lucid, engaging, and frequently funny package. Unlike many popular works, Bryson takes pains to identify what we don't know, of which there is a great deal, not just in glamourous fields like particle physics but in stuffy endeavours such as plant taxonomy. People who find themselves in Bryson's position at the outset—entirely ignorant of science—can, by reading this single work, end up knowing more about more things than even most working scientists who specialise in one narrow field. The scope is encyclopedic: from quantum mechanics and particles to galaxies and cosmology, with chemistry, the origin of life, molecular biology, evolution, genetics, cell biology, paleontology and paleoanthropology, geology, meteorology, and much, much more, all delightfully told, with only rare errors, and with each put into historical context. I like to think of myself as reasonably well informed about science, but as I listened to this audiobook over a period of several weeks on my daily walks, I found that every day, in the 45 to 60 minutes I listened, there was at least one and often several fascinating things of which I was completely unaware.

This audiobook is distributed in three parts, totalling 17 hours and 48 minutes. The book is read by British narrator Richard Matthews, who imparts an animated and light tone appropriate to the text. He does, however mispronounce the names of several scientists, for example physicists Robert Dicke (whose last name he pronounces “Dick”, as opposed to the correct “Dickey”) and Richard Feynman (“Fane-man” instead of “Fine-man”), and when he attempts to pronounce French names or phrases, his accent is fully as affreux as my own, but these are minor quibbles which hardly detract from an overall magnificent job. If you'd prefer to read the book, it's available in paperback now, and there's an illustrated edition, which I haven't seen. I would probably never have considered this book, figuring I already knew it all, had I not read Hugh Hewitt's encomium to it and excerpts therefrom he included (parts 1, 2, 3).

November 2007 Permalink

Gray, Theodore. Theo Gray's Mad Science. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2009. ISBN 978-1-57912-791-6.
Regular visitors here will recall that from time to time I enjoy mocking the fanatically risk-averse “safetyland” culture which has gripped the Western world over the last several decades. Pendulums do, however, have a way of swinging back, and there are a few signs that sanity (or, more accurately, entertaining insanity) may be starting to make a comeback. We've seen The Dangerous Book for Boys and the book I dubbed The Dangerous Book for Adults, but—Jeez Louise—look at what we have here! This is really the The Shudderingly Hazardous Book for Crazy People.

A total of fifty-four experiments (all summarised on the book's Web site) range from heating a hot tub with quicklime and water, exploding bubbles filled with a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, making your own iron from magnetite sand with thermite, turning a Snickers bar into rocket fuel, and salting popcorn by bubbling chlorine gas through a pot of molten sodium (it ends badly).

The book is subtitled “Experiments You Can Do at Home—But Probably Shouldn't”, and for many of them that's excellent advice, but they're still a great deal of fun to experience vicariously. I definitely want to try the ice cream recipe which makes a complete batch in thirty seconds flat with the aid of liquid nitrogen. The book is beautifully illustrated and gives the properties of the substances involved in the experiments. Readers should be aware that as the author prominently notes at the outset, the descriptions of many of the riskier experiments do not provide all the information you'd need to perform them safely—you shouldn't even consider trying them yourself unless you're familiar with the materials involved and experienced in the precautions required when working with them.

August 2009 Permalink

Munroe, Randall. What If? New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-27299-6.
As a child, the author would constantly ask his parents odd questions. They indulged and encouraged him, setting him on a lifetime path of curiosity, using the mathematics and physics he learned in the course of obtaining a degree in physics and working in robotics at NASA to answer whatever popped into his head. After creating the tremendously successful Web comic, readers began to ask him the kinds of questions he'd mused about himself. He began a feature on “What If?” to explore answers to these questions. This book is a collection of these questions, some previously published on-line (where you can continue to read them at the previous link), and some only published here. The answers to questions are interspersed with “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”, some of which are reminiscent of my own Titanium Cranium mailbox. The book abounds with the author's delightful illustrations. Here is a sample of the questions dealt with. I've linked the first to the online article to give you a taste of what's in store for you in the book.

  • Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
  • What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
  • In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?
  • How high can a human throw something?
  • If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?
  • How much Force power can Yoda output?
  • How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

Main belt asteroid 4942 Munroe is named after the author.

While the hardcover edition is expensive for material most of which can be read on the Web for free, the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

November 2015 Permalink

Munroe, Randall. Thing Explainer. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2015. ISBN 978-0-544-66825-6.
What a great idea! The person who wrote this book explains not simple things like red world sky cars, tiny water bags we are made of, and the shared space house, with only the ten hundred words people use most.

There are many pictures with words explaining each thing. The idea came from the Up Goer Five picture he drew earlier.

Up Goer Five

Drawing by Randall Munroe / xkcd used under right to share but not to sell (CC BY-NC 2.5).
(The words in the above picture are drawn. In the book they are set in sharp letters.)

Many other things are explained here. You will learn about things in the house like food-heating radio boxes and boxes that clean food holders; living things like trees, bags of stuff inside you, and the tree of life; the Sun, Earth, sky, and other worlds; and even machines for burning cities and boats that go under the seas to throw them at other people. This is not just a great use of words, but something you can learn much from.

There is art in explaining things in the most used ten hundred words, and this book is a fine work of that art.

Read this book, then try explaining such things yourself. You can use this write checker to see how you did.

Can you explain why time slows down when you go fast? Or why things jump around when you look at them very close-up? This book will make you want to try it. Enjoy!

The same writer also created What If? (2015-11)

Here, I have only written with the same ten hundred most used words as in the book.

March 2016 Permalink

Preston, Richard. Panic in Level 4. New York: Random House, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8129-7560-4.
The New Yorker is one of the few remaining markets for long-form reportage of specialised topics directed at an intelligent general audience, and Richard Preston is one of the preeminent practitioners of that craft working today. This book collects six essays originally published in that magazine along with a new introduction as long as some of the chapters which describes the title incident in which the author found himself standing space-suit to protein coat of a potentially unknown hæmorrhagic fever virus in a U.S. Army hot lab. He also provides tips on his style of in-depth, close and personal journalism (which he likens to “climb[ing] into the soup”), which aspiring writers may find enlightening.

In subsequent chapters we encounter the Chudnovsky brothers, émigré number theorists from the Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union), who built a supercomputer in their New York apartment from mail-order components to search for structure in the digits of π, and later used their mathematical prowess and computing resources to digitally “stitch” together and thereby make a backup copy of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries; the mercurial Craig Venter in the midst of the genome war in the 1990s; arborists and entomologists tracing the destruction of the great hemlock forests of the eastern U.S. by invasive parasites; and heroic medical personnel treating the victims of an Ebola outbreak in unspeakable conditions in Africa.

The last, and most disturbing chapter (don't read it if you're planning to go to sleep soon or, for that matter, sleep well anytime in the next few days) describes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare genetic disease caused by a single nucleotide mutation in the HPRT1 gene located on the X chromosome. Those affected (almost all males, since females have two X chromosomes and will exhibit symptoms only if both contain the mutation) exhibit behaviour which, phenomenologically, can be equally well described by possession by a demon which compels them at random times to self-destructive behaviour as by biochemistry and brain function. Sufferers chew their lips and tongues, often destroying them entirely, and find their hands seemingly acting with a will of their own to attack their faces, either with fingers or any tool at hand. They often bite off flesh from their hands or entire fingers, sometimes seemingly in an attempt to stop them from inflicting further damage. Patients with the syndrome can appear normal, fully engaged with the world and other individuals, and intelligent, and yet when “possessed”, capable of callous cruelty, both physical and emotional, toward those close to them.

When you get beyond the symptoms and the tragic yet engaging stories of those afflicted with the disease with whom the author became friends, there is much to ponder in what all of this means for free will and human identity. We are talking about what amounts to a single typo in a genetic blueprint of three billion letters which causes the most profound consequences imaginable for the individual who carries it and perceives it as an evil demon living within their mind. How many other aspects of what we think of as our identity, whether for good or ill, are actually expressions of our genetic programming? To what extent is this true of our species as a whole? What will we make of ourselves once we have the ability to manipulate our genome at will? Sweet dreams….

Apart from the two chapters on the Chudnovskys, which have some cross references, you can read the chapters in any order.

July 2011 Permalink

Sheldrake, Rupert. Science Set Free. New York: Random House, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7704-3672-8.
In this book, the author argues that science, as it is practiced today, has become prisoner to a collection of dogmas which constrain what should be free inquiry into the phenomena it investigates. These dogmas are not the principal theories of modern science such as the standard models of particle physics and cosmology, quantum mechanics, general relativity, or evolution (scientists work on a broad front to falsify these theories, knowing that any evidence to the contrary will win a ticket to Stockholm), but rather higher-level beliefs, often with remarkably little experimental foundation, which few people are working to test. It isn't so much that questioning these dogmas will result in excommunication from science, but rather that few working scientists ever think seriously about whether they might be wrong.

Suppose an astrophysicist in the 1960s started raving that everything we could see through our telescopes or had experimented with in our laboratories made up less than 5% of the mass of the universe, and the balance was around 27% invisible matter whose composition we knew nothing about at all and that the balance was invisible energy which was causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, defying the universal attraction of gravity. Now, this theorist might not be dragged off in a straitjacket, but he would probably find it very difficult to publish his papers in respectable journals and, if he espoused these notions before obtaining tenure, might find them career-limiting. And yet, this is precisely what most present-day cosmologists consider the “standard model”, and it has been supported by experiments to a high degree of precision.

But even this revolution in our view of the universe and our place within it (95% of everything in the universe is unobserved and unknown!) does not challenge the most fundamental dogmas, ten of which are discussed in this book.

1. Is nature mechanical?

Are there self-organising principles of systems which explain the appearance of order and complexity from simpler systems? Do these same principles apply at levels ranging from formation of superclusters of galaxies to the origin of life and its evolution into ever more complex beings? Is the universe better modelled as a mechanism or an organism?

2. Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?

Conservation of energy is taken almost as an axiom in physics but is now rarely tested. And what about that dark energy? Most cosmologists now believe that it increases without bound as the universe expands. Where does it come from? If we could somehow convert it to useful energy what does this do to the conservation of energy?

3. Are the laws of nature fixed?

If these laws be fixed, where did they come from? Why do the “fundamental constants” have the values they do? Are they, in fact, constants? These constants have varied in published handbooks over the last 50 years by amounts far greater than the error bars published in those handbooks—why? Are the laws simply habits established by the universe as it is tested? Is this why novel experiments produce results all over the map at the start and then settle down on a stable value as they are repeated? Why do crystallographers find it so difficult to initially crystallise a new compound but then find it increasingly easy thereafter?

4. Is matter unconscious?

If you are conscious, and you believe your brain to be purely a material system, then how can matter be unconscious? Is there something apart from the brain in which consciousness is embodied? If so, what is it? If the matter of your brain is conscious, what other matter could be conscious? The Sun is much larger than your brain and pulses with electromagnetic signals. Is it conscious? What does the Sun think about?

5. Is nature purposeless?

Is it plausible that the universe is the product of randomness devoid of purpose? How did a glowing plasma of subatomic particles organise itself into galaxies, solar systems, planets, life, and eventually scientists who would ask how it all came to be? Why does complexity appear to inexorably increase in systems through which energy flows? Why do patterns assert themselves in nature and persist even in the presence of disruptions? Are there limits to reductionism? Is more different?

6. Is all biological inheritance material?

The softer the science, the harder the dogma. Many physical scientists may take the previous questions as legitimate, albeit eccentric, questions amenable to research, but to question part of the dogma of biology is to whack the wasp nest with the mashie niblick. Our astounding success in sequencing the genomes of numerous organisms and understanding how these genomes are translated (including gene regulation) into the proteins which are assembled into those organisms has been enlightening but has explained much less than many enthusiasts expected. Is there something more going on? Is that “junk DNA” really junk, or is it significant? Is genetic transfer between parents and offspring the only means of information transfer?

7. Are memories stored as material traces?

Try to find a neuroscientist who takes seriously the idea that memories are not encoded somehow in the connections and weights of synapses within the brain. And yet, for half a century, every attempt to determine precisely how and where memories are stored has failed. Could there be something more going on? Recent experiments have indicated that Carolina Sphinx moths (Manduca sexta) remember aversions which they have learned as caterpillars, despite their nervous system being mostly dissolved and reconstituted during metamorphosis. How does this work?

8. Are minds confined to brains?

Somewhere between 70 and 97% of people surveyed in Europe and North America report having experienced the sense of being stared at or of having another person they were staring at from behind react to their stare. In experimental tests, involving tens of thousands of trials, some performed over closed circuit television without a direct visual link, 55% of people could detect when they were being stared at, while 50% would be expected by chance. Although the effect size was small, with the number of trials the result was highly significant.

9. Are psychic phenomena illusory?

More than a century of psychical research has produced ever-better controlled experiments which have converged upon results whose significance, while small, is greater than that which has caused clinical drug trials to have approved or rejected pharmaceuticals. Should we reject this evidence because we can't figure out the mechanism by which it works?

10. Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?

We are the descendants of billions of generations of organisms who survived and reproduced before the advent of doctors. Evidently, we have been well-equipped by the ruthless process of evolution to heal ourselves, at least until we've reproduced and raised our offspring. Understanding of the causes of communicable diseases, public health measures, hygiene in hospitals, and surgical and pharmaceutical interventions have dramatically lengthened our lifespans and increased the years in which we are healthy and active. But does this explain everything? Since 2009 in the United States, response to placebos has been increasing: why? Why do we spend more and more on interventions for the gravely ill and little or nothing on research into complementary therapies which have been shown, in the few formal clinical tests performed, to reduce the incidence of these diseases?

This is a challenging book which asks many more questions than the few I've summarised above and provides extensive information, including citations to original sources, on research which challenges these dogmas. The author is not advocating abolishing our current enterprise of scientific investigation. Instead, he suggests, we might allocate a small fraction of the budget (say, between 1% and 5%) to look at wild-card alternatives. Allowing these to be chosen by the public from a list of proposals through a mechanism like crowd-funding Web sites would raise the public profile of science and engage the public (who are, after all, footing the bill) in the endeavour. (Note that “mainstream” research projects, for example extending the mission of a spacecraft, would be welcome to compete.)

May 2014 Permalink

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador, [1997] 1998. ISBN 978-0-312-20407-5.
There are many things to mock in the writings of “postmodern”, “deconstructionist”, and “critical” intellectuals, but one of the most entertaining for readers with a basic knowledge of science and mathematics is the propensity of many of these “scholars” to sprinkle their texts with words and concepts from mathematics and the physical sciences, all used entirely out of context and in total ignorance of their precise technical definitions, and without the slightest persuasive argument that there is any connection, even at a metaphorical level, between the mis-quoted science and the topic being discussed. This book, written by two physicists, collects some of the most egregious examples of such obscurantist writing by authors (all French—who would have guessed?) considered eminent in their fields. From Jacques Lacan's hilariously muddled attempts to apply topology and mathematical logic to psychoanalysis to Luce Irigaray's invoking fluid mechanics to argue that science is a male social construct, the passages quoted here at length are a laugh riot for those willing to momentarily put aside the consequences of their being taken seriously by many in the squishier parts of academia. Let me quote just one to give you a flavour—this passage is by Paul Virilio:

When depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-establishes appearances; then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn't actually light, a subliminary, para-optical light of which sunlight is only one phase or reflection. This light occurs in a duration measured in instantaneous time exposure rather than the historical and chronological passage of time. The time of this instant without duration is “exposure time”, be it over- or underexposure. Its photographic and cinematographic technologies already predicted the existence and the time of a continuum stripped of all physical dimensions, in which the quantum of energetic action and the punctum of cinematic observation have suddenly become the last vestiges of a vanished morphological reality. Transferred into the eternal present of a relativity whose topological and teleological thickness and depth belong to this final measuring instrument, this speed of light possesses one direction, which is both its size and dimension and which propagates itself at the same speed in all radial directions that measure the universe. (pp. 174–175)

This paragraph, which recalls those bright college days punctuated by deferred exhalations accompanied by “Great weed, man!”, was a single 193 word sentence in the original French; the authors deem it “the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have ever encountered.”

The authors survey several topics in science and mathematics which are particularly attractive to these cargo cult confidence men and women, and, dare I say, deconstruct their babblings. In all, I found the authors' treatment of the postmodernists remarkably gentle. While they do not hesitate to ridicule their gross errors and misappropriation of scientific concepts, they carefully avoid drawing the (obvious) conclusion that such ignorant nonsense invalidates the entire arguments being made. I suspect this is due to the authors, both of whom identify themselves as men of the Left, being sympathetic to the conclusions of those they mock. They're kind of stuck, forced to identify and scorn the irrational misuse of concepts from the hard sciences, while declining to examine the absurdity of the rest of the argument, which the chart from Explaining Postmodernism (May 2007) so brilliantly explains.

Alan Sokal is the perpetrator of the famous hoax which took in the editors of Social Text with his paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which appears in full here, along with comments on construction of the parody and remarks on the motivation behind it.

This book was originally published in French under the title Impostures intellectuelles. This English edition contains some material added to address critical comments on the French edition, and includes the original French language text of passages whose translation might be challenged as unfaithful to whatever the heck the original was trying to say.

June 2011 Permalink