Someone publishes a French picture book for very small children where everyone takes their clothes off and jumps in the water at the end. The illustra...moreSomeone publishes a French picture book for very small children where everyone takes their clothes off and jumps in the water at the end. The illustrations are kind of cute. But then - and the author must still be pinching herself to make sure she's not dreaming - some politician decides it's obscene, questions are asked, interviews are given, the press gets involved, and before you know it you have the following cartoon (slightly adapted from a page of the book) appearing in a mainstream newspaper. For people who don't read French, the caption is "Take your clothes off, minister for women's rights!"
Who do you have to bribe to get a PR campaign like that for your book? Well, all I can say is, I wish I knew.(less)
Noticing that I am fond of this genre, people sometimes ask me whether they should believe what they read in pop science books. There is a straightfor...moreNoticing that I am fond of this genre, people sometimes ask me whether they should believe what they read in pop science books. There is a straightforward answer to the question: pick up any old pop science book, leaf through it for half an hour, and you'll soon realize that you need to be rather skeptical.
Violent Universe is another fine example. A tie-in to what was apparently a successful BBC science mini-series screened in 1969 (Damn! Why did I miss it?), it promises to fill you in on all the exciting developments that were then happening in astronomy. They have done a good job, engaging a quality science writer to coordinate things; he's travelled all over the world to talk to top astronomers and look at their experiments. The book is nicely produced, with many striking pictures.
The problem is that what they've set out to do is impossible. Cutting-edge science is by definition science that people aren't really sure about yet, so they're going to get it wrong a fair amount of the time. It is consequently rather surprising to see Calder state near the end of the book that "... to say that we can see 'everything' can no longer be much of an exaggeration. Barring the discovery of completely new forms of energy and matter, our children and even our great-great-grandchildren will have few new windows to open."
Let's use our modern knowledge - only an additional 45 years! - to check his score-card. Over a quarter of the book is about quasars and active galaxies. Clearly something is causing these immense explosions and outpourings of radiation. Calder very briefly considers the hypothesis that it could be black holes, but quotes Fred Hoyle, still a respectable figure in the public eye, who thought that a black hole, if it could exist at all, would extinguish itself within a year; Hoyle speculates that quasars are driven by 'some new kind of physics'. Only a few years later, everyone knew this was wrong, and that matter falling into a black hole would create exactly the kind of violent events that were being observed. At the time, however, only a handful of general relativity experts had realized this.
There is no speculation at all about what caused the Big Bang. Ten years later, Guth, Linde and Vilenkin launched the theory of inflation, which tied together a bunch of hitherto unexplained facts and opened the door to the possibility that the Big Bang had occurred many times. Twenty years after that, dark energy was discovered, and in fact shown to account for 70% of the universe's mass. Here, it is not even mentioned as a possibility. Neither is dark matter, which was starting to look quite likely - Peebles presents interesting data in his 1969 Princeton lectures, which were being given as the BBC program aired. Maybe Calder knew about it and didn't want to include material which looked too much like science-fiction; his most exotic candidate for the 'missing matter' is high-temperature intergalactic hydrogen, quickly ruled out by Peebles on the basis of a simple calculation.
Don't get the idea that this is a bad book. It isn't: it's pleasantly written, and I learned all sorts of interesting things, including details of how long baseline interferometry works and how you collect data from a neutrino telescope. I doubt that other pop science writers would have done better. The problem is, simply, that we never know as much as we think we do. (less)
Today I went to a place called Goodreads, it is a kind of litrary salo which is useful for a girl that wants to improve her mind like I do. S...more
Today I went to a place called Goodreads, it is a kind of litrary salo which is useful for a girl that wants to improve her mind like I do. So I wondered how I would be a social success there it is quite different from New York but luckily I met a gentleman called Mr. Paul Bryant who took an interest in me and wanted to help me improve my mind. Mr. Bryant said it is very very easy you just post a review that is a bit riskay and has an artistic picture at the top. I said I did not know how to do artistic pictures but Mr. Bryant said you just borrow one from another review like from Miss Lisa Jayne who is very very popular. I said isnt that stealing but Mr. Bryant said no it is an act of ommadge and she will be delighted.
Then I said what do I write under the picture and he said you just be yourself and you will see the votes come rolling in, like I said it is very very easy. So I copied out what I wrote in my diary for today and Mr. Bryant gave it to his friend Dr. Rayner to post and they said I would be an Internet celebrity before I knew it. I said that was very very interesting but was there a place on the Internet where they could buy me an emerald bracelet since a girl doesn't want to waste her time. But Mr. Bryant said that unfortunately he was to busy today to go shopping.
I like the Internet very very much but I think I will go back to New York because the gentlemen there know how to treat a lady.(less)
Hardly anyone seems to have read this book, and it has a stupid title and a stupid cover. It seemed reasonable to assume that the content would be stu...moreHardly anyone seems to have read this book, and it has a stupid title and a stupid cover. It seemed reasonable to assume that the content would be stupid too, but in the event I was pleasantly surprised; it turns out to be an elegant little study of how the scientific process works in a practical case. The author, a geologist, seems to know a great deal about meteoritics, and he does a fine job of explaining the tangled story. He is particularly good at finding odd connections: the historical figures who end up with unexpected walk-on parts include Emma Hamilton, Laurence Sterne and the Emperor Heliogabalus, and there are some cute literary and artistic references (Dürer was my favorite).
The book is divided into three sections. In the first one, the author gives a general overview of the subject and a tour of its early history. It is quite astonishing to see how resistant Western scientists were to the idea that stones could fall out of the sky, despite the fact that they plainly did so from time to time. In 1794, for example, many meteorites fell in Siena. They were witnessed by all sorts of people, including members of the Scientific Academy; but the majority explanation, at least at first, was that they must have come from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius the day before, although Vesuvius lay 320 km south of Siena, the stones looked nothing like volcanic ejecta, and everyone agreed that they had come from the north. When you're sure something's not there, it's very hard to see it.
The second section focuses on the extinction of the dinosaurs and the Chicxulub crater. I had read about this several times before, for example in Frankel's The End of the Dinosaurs, but has not understood how complicated it was. Frankel paints a straightforward picture, unambiguously identifying the meteorite as the cause of the end-Cretaceous extinction event and suggesting that the other major extinction events in the geological record were similar. Here, I find that it's rather less clear. There is no strong evidence to show that any other great extinction is meteorite-related, and even Chicxulub is far from a slam-dunk. One carefully conducted series of studies appears to show that the meteorite impact predates the extinction by as much as 300,000 years. It seems entirely possible that the real story involved a combination of causes, most likely including massive volcanic activity and maybe other things too.
In the third section, there's a meteorite story I'd never even seen before. In the Ordovician period, a bit more than 450 million years ago, there's a well-documented part of the fossil record called the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Apparently there are suddenly a lot more different kinds of brachiopods. There's also good evidence of much higher levels of meteorite activity around then. It doesn't seem impossible that there's a causal link here too: maybe regular meteorite impacts kept opening up new ecological niches, shuffling the evolutionary pack faster so that more hands could be played in the same time. A formula which was lethal for dinosaurs choking on volcanic fumes might have been good news for brachiopods in warm, shallow seas. It's an intriguing idea.
In each part, you see that the core message is roughly the same: we don't know as much as we think we do, weigh the evidence carefully, don't trust the currently fashionable explanations too much. It makes a nice change from the absurdly overconfident pronouncements typical of today's popular science books. This is a classy piece of work. (less)
For the last few months, I've been making efforts to improve my minimal German. I started by reading German versions of children's books I was already...moreFor the last few months, I've been making efforts to improve my minimal German. I started by reading German versions of children's books I was already familiar with from other languages. A couple of days ago, I decided I was now good enough to try a book I didn't know. It worked!
It is difficult to know how to evaluate Nero Corleone. My German is at a child's level, so that was how I had to read it. I didn't look up any words, which meant I often had to guess them. But the poetry of the book was easily accessible. Nero, as his name suggests, is a tough, no-nonsense cat with a heart of solid gold. (He will probably be voiced by Robert De Niro when they get around to making the movie). He embodies traditional male Italian values and is proud of them. Male cats want to be him, females want to have his kittens. He accepts all this as his due.
If I'd read this in a language I know better, I suppose I might have been more critical. As it was, I just loved it. Nero, you are the coolest cat I've ever met, and the only reason I didn't cry at the end was that I knew you'd disapprove. My developing German child self gives you the full five stars. You da man.(less)
I recently reviewed Mark Solomon's short book On Computer Simulated Universes, where the author sketches out his version of the idea that our univers...moreI recently reviewed Mark Solomon's short book On Computer Simulated Universes, where the author sketches out his version of the idea that our universe could be a simulation created by some technologically advanced society. He goes on to elaborate the scenario by postulating that simulations can be nested to a great depth, creating what he picturesquely calls a "matryoshkaverse". The ideas are justified by referring to recent advances in quantum computing.
As I said in my review, the logical problem with the idea is that it will only work if a simulation can contain as much, or more, information than the original universe which contains it. Since quantum theory postulates that the universe contains a finite amount of information, that seems, on the face of it, impossible. In his new book, Solomon tries to argue that a simulation can in fact contain more information than the hosting universe. The key passage is the following:
One criticism of the Computer Simulated Universes hypothesis is the assertion that the amount of information contained within a newly created universe cannot be more than the universe that contains it. Regardless of the inherent nature and structure of information, this is not a valid criticism. When discussing the basic theory of evolution and natural selection within the context of animal species here on Earth, there is little difficulty accepting the fact that one particular organism could produce an offspring organism slightly more complex and contain slightly more information than its parent. The conspicuous reason for this is that the offspring organism and its parent organism both share a world that contains a much larger resource of information.
Just like in animal species, the amount of information contained within any newly created universe can contain more information than its direct parent universe. This is true because any universe and its parent universe are both contained within a larger universe within a series of nested universes, or matryoshkaverse. Thus, any particular universe can contain more information than its direct parent universe.
I do not accept this argument at all. If Universe-1 contains Universe-2, which in turn contains Universe-3, the claim that Universe-3 can be larger than Universe-2 by exploiting resources from Universe-1 surely negates the postulate that 3 is contained in 2. If a universe can reach higher up the chain, whatever does "contain" or "simulation" mean? How can a simulation reach outside itself, indeed reach outside the universe containing the machine running it? The analogy with animal species is misleading.
Having just read Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe, I can see that there are some highly regarded scientists who also enjoy this kind of imaginative speculation. Solomon is in good company. But that doesn't make me any more likely to believe it.(less)
"Now," said Evadne Mount in her quiet but implacable way, "I shall ask you all to join me in the library."
"All of us?" asked Gilbert, sardonically lif...more"Now," said Evadne Mount in her quiet but implacable way, "I shall ask you all to join me in the library."
"All of us?" asked Gilbert, sardonically lifting an eyebrow.
"That is what I said, Mr. Adair," replied the renowned amateur sleuth.
"But there is only me," said Gilbert.
"Only I," said Evadne with a hint of impatience. "And frankly, how many of you there are is hardly the question. I would like to observe the proprieties, even if you don't."
"But be reasonable!" entreated Gilbert. "How can we have a mystery with only one suspect?"
"I do not intend to continue this discussion," said Evadne, as she opened the door. "Please accompany me. Or would you rather that I went into more detail about what I got up to with Cora when we used to share that little apartment? I recall that she was rather fond of licking my--"
"You can't say that!" yelped Gilbert. "It would unthematic and out of character!"
"I am merely making a point," replied Evadne. "I no longer work for you, and I will say what I like. Now shall we start?"
Defeated, Gilbert followed her.
"Very well," said Evadne, after they had taken their seats. "Let us review the facts. A murder has been committed here, a murder most foul. The standard Agatha Christie formula, one of the most beloved traditions in English literature, has been cold-bloodedly done to death."
"But--" interrupted Gilbert. Evadne ignored him. "Done to death," she continued. "By you Mr. Adair, as you rightly say, the only suspect. The question is - why?"
"It was more an hommage--" began Gilbert, but again Evadne cut him off. "Let us not waste our time. I think we can both recognize hommage when we see it. To call what you have done hommage insults your own intelligence as much as mine. You have subverted, Mr. Adair, you have used post-modern narrative techniques, you have" -- her eyes narrowed to slits -- "you have referred to Proust. We're talking premeditated murder here." She paused. Gilbert's shoulders slumped in dejection.
"Good," said Evadne after a moment. "And so, once again: why?" She waited for a reply, but none came.
"I considered various alternatives," she said. "Maybe it was just a joke that went wrong, a light-hearted parody that got out of hand." Gilbert looked for a moment as though he wanted to say something, then thought better of it. Evadne smiled mirthlessly. "Quite so. A reasonable explanation, perhaps, for something shorter, less substantial. Here, we have nearly three hundred pages. Rather a lot, I think you'll agree, for a joke. What else?" She took a drag on her cigarette and blew out a reflective jet of smoke.
"At several points, you unsubtly insinuate that Christie is racist, in particular antisemitic. Very clever. A defense that would surely win you the court's sympathy, except that it explains no more than a fraction of the novel. Once again, we come back to the same problem: why is there so much of it? What literary form requires such inordinate length? I kept turning the question over in my mind, and then the Labrador was shot. Do you remember what I said?"
Gilbert looked at her haggardly, his bravado quite gone. "You said, 'Of course'", he replied in a barely audible voice.
"Indeed I did," said Evadne, pausing again before administering the final thrust. "Indeed I did. It suddenly came to me to realize what the only narrative form is which combines excessive, pointless verbiage with a childish pleasure in constructing jeux de mots. You, Mr. Adair, have written this book in order to create a shaggy dog story. What do you say?"
Gilbert stared at her with hate-filled eyes. "You'll never be able to prove it," he whispered.
Evadne shrugged. "That will be for the jury to decide," she said. "And now, Constable, I think it is time for you to take over." (less)
Check, he goes there, check... no, he escapes. Hm. Check, check... no, that doesn't work either. Oh, wait! It's check, queen over there, and now he ca...moreCheck, he goes there, check... no, he escapes. Hm. Check, check... no, that doesn't work either. Oh, wait! It's check, queen over there, and now he can't prevent check, CHECK! Of course.
**spoiler alert** Girl meets boy. Boy puts girl in dull castle and goes off on quests. Girl bored. Girl meets dragon. Girl dumps boy. Girl and dragon...more**spoiler alert** Girl meets boy. Boy puts girl in dull castle and goes off on quests. Girl bored. Girl meets dragon. Girl dumps boy. Girl and dragon live happily ever after. (less)
More or less by accident, we ended up seeing the world premiere of Out of the Water when we were in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. If you like that...moreMore or less by accident, we ended up seeing the world premiere of Out of the Water when we were in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. If you like that style of analysis, I suppose it's technically a feminist retelling of the story of Odysseus and Calypso, transposed into modern America and from Calypso's point of view. Telemachus has also been turned into a girl.
That makes it sound pretentious, clever and academic, which all goes to show how useless it is to think about things in these terms. The play is sexy and funny; Calypso/Polly comes across as a warm, human character, as does Telemachus/Cat. You really want Odysseus/Graham to stay on Ogygia (here, New York), but of course he can't. The tragic ending is very powerful.
If you happen to be Odysseus - many guys are - consider breaking with convention and not leaving the island. And if my brief review doesn't convince you, at least check out Brooke Berman's play. It's terrific.(less)
I knew many individual pieces of the story of how the Higgs particle was discovered, but when I read this book I found that I didn't understand the ov...moreI knew many individual pieces of the story of how the Higgs particle was discovered, but when I read this book I found that I didn't understand the overall picture nearly as well as I'd thought I did. Baggott does a very good job of tying it all together and showing you how a major scientific theory grows from a crazy idea you can't even get published into something that makes front-page news when it's empirically validated. He seems to know the science well - he's written a couple of other books on quantum mechanics - and he's clearly read a lot of background and talked to many of the people involved. There are some excellent anecdotes. The Manhattan project ran out of copper for the powerful electromagnets, and they had to borrow 15,000 tons of silver from the US Treasury; the standard metaphor for how the Higgs field works was the result of a challenge from then-Cabinet Minister William Waldegrave to describe it on one sheet of paper.
It's interesting to see that the plot becomes easier and easier to follow as it progresses; once they've got up to running the actual experiments and crunching the numbers, it all appears very clear, and he gives a convincing explanation of how it was possible to extract an unambiguous signal from such a huge amount of noise. (The raw data contained billions of interaction events; only a few dozen were relevant to demonstrating the existence of the Higgs). But going backwards towards the beginnings, it still seems mysterious to me. Three or four times, there is magic with representations of symmetry groups and renormalization, and somehow a new concept of the physical world emerges. I don't think it's Baggott's fault: I've seen several other people try to explain it in non-mathematical terms, and it doesn't seem to be possible.
The moral is painfully obvious. I need to read more real quantum mechanics. (less)
I was sitting in the bar, staring at the laptop screen and wondering how to start, when the brunette walked in. She made...moreChapter 1: That Pioneer Spirit
I was sitting in the bar, staring at the laptop screen and wondering how to start, when the brunette walked in. She made a bee-line for my table, no hesitation. It looked like trouble, but things were slow. Also, she was curved in all the places you hope a girl will curve, and I approved of that. She had a book in her hand. Without saying anything, she put it down in front of me.
"The Wanton, by Carter Brown," I said, as I picked it up and flicked through the pages. "Published 1959, 157 pages. I guess you want me to review it."
"Could be," she shrugged. It did interesting things to the contents of her blouse.
"So why me?" I asked, as I continued to flick though it. "But first, can I buy you a drink?"
"English breakfast tea," she replied. "With extra hot water on the side. Don't worry, they know how I like it here." She sat down next to me, and I wondered if there was more extra hot water I was getting into. But it seemed too late to back out now.
"You asked, why you," she continued. I couldn't place her accent. It wasn't English, but I didn't think it was Australian either. "Well, we liked the last three jobs you did for us. You seem reliable."
I was enjoying the view down her neckline, but this was going way too fast. "The last three jobs?" I said weakly. The waiter came with the tea, and I motioned for him to give me another scotch. It looked like I was going to need it.
"Biggles, E.C. Cole, Nurse Lugton" she said, as she added milk. "I thought you'd have recognized me by now."
Suddenly the pieces fell into place. "You're Pioneer B--"
She put a finger over my lips. It felt good. "Shh. Amazon may be watching us."
Visiting Pioneer Books again this afternoon (we are still in Australia), I was shown yet another wonderful book I'd never heard of. It turns out that...moreVisiting Pioneer Books again this afternoon (we are still in Australia), I was shown yet another wonderful book I'd never heard of. It turns out that Virginia Woolf wrote a short children's story - according to the book's homepage, it was found in the manuscript of Mrs Dalloway. Julie Vivas, evidently a gifted illustrator, has done the pictures.
It's very recognizably Virginia Woolf, and it's also something that you can easily see an imaginative seven-year-old liking. At least, I'm pretty sure I'd have liked it at that age. But I'm still astonished that I didn't know about it already. Even more incredible, not one of my 1765 friends appears to have read it...(less)
I had never read any Alice Munro, and I find it's difficult to say anything sensible about her. Obviously, the stories are very good. (She just won th...moreI had never read any Alice Munro, and I find it's difficult to say anything sensible about her. Obviously, the stories are very good. (She just won the Nobel Prize. Duh). But what's most impressive is that she doesn't seem to be doing anything in particular. With some writers, it's easy to understand why they're so highly regarded. Take Vladimir Nabokov. I look at his brilliantly constructed sentences, his cleverly ambiguous allusions, his breathtakingly unexpected metaphors, and I sigh: ah, I wish I could do that too. I know perfectly well that I can't; I don't have the necessary technical skills. But Munro isn't showy. She seems to be telling me ordinary stories about ordinary people, written in an ordinary language. They don't require concentration to read. But each one is perfectly balanced, and somehow they end up grabbing me by the heart and forcing me to reflect on universal themes of human nature: how people are unfaithful, how they lie to their loved ones, how they are unable to act at a critical moment and spend the rest of their lives wondering why not, how their memories don't quite match up.
I'm currently reading a lot of science books, so perhaps it's natural that I'm reminded of a story about Einstein and Hubble. Some time in the 30s, Einstein and his wife visited Hubble, the most distinguished astronomer of the time. They were taken to see the hundred-inch telescope, a current miracle of advanced technology.
"What do you do with it?" asked Mrs. Einstein.
"I use it to discover the secrets of the universe," replied Hubble.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Einstein dismissively. "My husband does that on the back of an old envelope."(less)
This undeservedly obscure book came to me through a strange route. First off, it very nearly didn't get written. In 1969, Jim Peebles, a 34 year old P...moreThis undeservedly obscure book came to me through a strange route. First off, it very nearly didn't get written. In 1969, Jim Peebles, a 34 year old Princeton astrophysicist, was giving a graduate course on recent developments in cosmology. Word got around that it was pretty good, and John Archibald Wheeler, the Godfather of US physics, suggested to him that he should write it up as a book. Peebles apologized: he was too busy. Wheeler didn't say anything, but started attending the lectures, ostentatiously taking copious and minutely exact notes. After a couple of sessions, Peebles cracked and said he'd changed his mind.
The book came out two years later. According to accounts I have read elsewhere, it had a huge impact on the field and pushed many brilliant young researchers into observational cosmology. (The most prominent one was George Smoot, who later became famous as the man behind the COBE satellite project). But it was terse, uncompromising and only aimed at the specialist market; it was soon out of print. When I went looking for a copy, I was pleased to find one on Abebooks. I was even more pleased when it arrived. According to the stamp on the inside front cover, it previously belonged to William A. Fowler, 1983 Nobel Laureate in Physics. Eat your hearts out, science geeks!
The book assumes rather more physics than I know, but Peebles's lucid style makes it comprehensible if you're willing to skim the equations and rely on the accompanying explanations of their physical significance; it helped that I had just read Tolman's 1934 classic Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology, which is frequently quoted. Peebles does a fantastic job of conveying the excitement of late 60s cosmology, which was beginning to come together as a real scientific discipline thanks to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation four years earlier. He carefully walks you through the evidence, as far as I can see neither exaggerating it nor playing down its momentous significance. His conclusion is that it is not quite watertight; there are still some puzzling anomalies that need to be explained. Nonetheless, he says that the Big Bang is now as well-supported as any empirical fact in cosmology, including the expansion of the universe. This was a game-changer.
Other chapters cover more topics that were soon going to prove almost as important. Peebles presents the facts that not long afterwards were going to have everyone agreeing that dark matter had to exist, but responsibly stops just short of saying it's certain that something new is out there. He gives an excellent reconstruction of what was known at the time about the Big Bang scenario, in particular focusing on explaining the black-body spectrum of the background radiation and the observed high abundance of helium in the universe. He seems totally in command of his material, suggesting hypotheses and then deftly sketching simple physical models that can be used to investigate them. He is careful about tying theoretical ideas to observable quantities when he can, often describing practical tricks for actually performing the measurements. When he can't link an idea to observations, he gives you a clear warning.
The astonishing thing is that it's possible at all: cosmology, which Kant viewed as a branch of metaphysics, has suddenly grown up to become an empirical science. Peebles never lapses into overt poetry, but manages all the same to let you experience the breathless wonder of the moment. Three hundred years earlier, Newton had made the greatest scientific breakthrough in history, when he realized that the force which caused an apple to drop from a tree was the same force that made the Moon circle the Earth and the Earth circle the Sun. Now we had gone a step further, to understand that the nuclear forces which had just been discovered were the same forces that had shaped the first few minutes of the universe. Many things still remained to be demonstrated with the requisite clarity, but it started to seem that there was only one Law, which operated in exactly the same way here on Earth and at the beginning of time, and that people would soon be able to understand that Law.
Thank you, Jim Peebles, for taking the time to write this book so that people half a century later can still attend your beautiful lectures. I feel privileged. (less)