When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I de...more When a book has had this much word of mouth, I tend to react by not wanting to read it, at least until the hubbub has died down, but I this case I decided to give it a shot and am very, very glad I did.
Andy Weir’s novel is a rollercoaster ride of an adventure story, the pacing utterly breathtaking from the beginning when the crew of the third manned Mars mission are forced to abandon astronaut Mark Watney during a rushed evacuation, leaving him for dead. The trials Watney faces to survive - initially without any contact from Earth or his crewmates, and assuming they think he is dead - make this utterly gripping but what really carries the book is that, in Mark Watney, Weir has written simply one of the the most engaging characters I have ever read. And he has to be, as 90% of the book is carried by his personal log. Watney is inventive, witty, profane and profoundly human - possibly more upbeat than is realistic for someone abandoned 225 million kilometres from home, but the book is all about striving and surviving against impossible odds, so we can forgive it that.
Weir writes well enough to genuinely make us fear for Watney’s survival as each subsequent mishap occurs, despite that fact we intellectually know he couldn't be cruel enough to write this and have his hero fail (could he?), and the other characters are all drawn excellently within their roles. While (perhaps) I cried out on occasion when some other disaster befell our stranded protagonist, these were certainly not overdone and the solutions by which he progresses always brilliantly inventive yet never stretched credulity by being superhuman, or even by being something on smart, motivated bloke (one of the sort of calibre you’d think would be required to be a Mars explorer) could come up with. I cheered for Mark Watney, and smiled and shook with fear and, regularly, laughed out loud.
All in all, if you haven’t read The Martian yet you really should. (less)
Glancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their ratin...moreGlancing at the reviews for Brian Greene's overview of how we view the stuff of which our universe is made, it seems that some people base their rating and opinion on how much they agree with the science, or how credible they find it. While I have read a fair few popular science books – especially in the areas of physics and cosmology, areas I find utterly fascinating and about which I am perplexed that anyone can not be astounded and beguiled – I have to assume that I am reading a fair explanation of facts and theories. That is not to say that I assume the author is more knowledgeable than me simply because he has more letters after his name, but because he grounds his claims with background and the weight of evidence that is needed for a scientific hypothesis to become a generally accepted theory. Also, I have taken the effort to educate myself in these areas so have enough grounding myself to be able to appreciate the arguments.
That said, for much of this book I'm unsure how much background would be needed to understand the explanations. Greene writes with a clarity and readability which is all too rare in any field, and is particularly welcome in discussing such big ideas. As in Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design, Greene completely dispenses with calculations but, unlike Hawking, he also tries to keep the use of metaphor to a minimum. It cannot, of course, be dispensed with – metaphors are an extraordinarily powerful descriptive tool, especially in a field that can only properly be explained and understood using specialist mathematics – but for the most part Greene simply gives an overview of each field in historical context, and explains WHY it is important, what it explains and why it works.
He starts – as modern physics in so many fields must – with Isaac Newton, and particularly Newton's Bucket. If you hang a bucket of water on a rope and twist the rope, as the rope unwinds, spinning the bucket, at first the water remains stationary until the friction of the bucket's movement makes the water begin to spin. When it does, the surface becomes increasingly concave, moved outward by what why now call centripetal (or centrifugal) force. But what, asked Newton, is the water moving away from, or toward? What is it moving in relation to? He decided that it moved in relation to the fixed fabric of the cosmos, the stuff in which the matter (that he recognised as being the thing on which gravity works) sits. Recognising that he had no way of testing this medium by experiment, Newton took this is an immutable absolute and left it at that. Greene keeps returning to the bucket and its implications throughout the book, to superb explanatory effect.
I won't go further into the details (read the book!), but simply say that thanks to Professor Greene I now understand areas of cosmology and physics where I had previously had to simply give in to brain cramp and accept as being true. I understand why the speed of light (actually, the speed of any electromagnetic radiation) is approx 300, 000 km/sec faster than you, no matter how fast you are travelling. I understand a whole lot more about General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and why they make sense and are such powerful tools in describing our universe. I understand that Inflationary Theory is not merely a tweak of Big Bang theory to enable it to fit observed facts, but a whole new way of looking at the growth of the universe that actually explains much more about the fundamental physics.
I'm not claiming a thorough understanding of these subjects (and in some, like Brane Theory, I still found myself rather lost; a re-read may be in order), but I feel that The Fabric of the Cosmos has deepened my comprehension of and appreciation for the wonders of our universe. And for the wonders of the human mind to work out these things. In around three hundred years we have developed this system, science, as a means of examining the world around us in a way which is comprehensible to anyone who is willing to put in the work. All books on science now seem to feel the need to restate this about science; it is NOT knowledge passed down from on high by men in white coats using deliberately obfuscatory language for reasons of either professional pride or conspiracy. Science is a method that enables us to understand more and more about the world, to revel in the joy of knowing how the rainbow is formed as well as in its simple beauty. No idea in science is sacrosanct, no theory is holy. To achieve the status of acceptance of say, General Relativity or Evolution by Natural Selection, a theory has to be tested – that is, it has to survive again and again and again the onslaught of people systematically trying to prove it wrong. When a weakness is found the theory must be re-examined. Sometimes the fault will cause the foundations of the theory to crumble, and it will be discarded; it has still served a purpose, to show how promising such an approach is. Sometimes finding the errors will strengthen a theory and teach us more – Edwin Hubble's original calculations of distant galaxies seemed to show the universe to be about 1.5 billion years old, despite lots of other evidence at the time insisting it was at least 3 billion years old (as we now know, this was still almost five times too conservative). Everything else about Hubble's observation and theory made sense, there was simply an error in calculating the distance of the super novae he was using to get the figures, a correction which itself taught us much about the universe.
And this is incredibly important to realise because, while many theories, however much work they take, partly make sense on an intuitive level you get to Quantum and Brane theory and they simply cannot – in fact they seem, by intuition and everyday experience, utterly ridiculous (the great physicist Nils Bor said something along the lines of “if you think you understand Quantum Theory, you don't understand Quantum Theory”) but they are undoubtedly right. One important way a theory is tested is to use it to make predictions in the physical world and Quantum Theory has been called far and away the most successful predictive theory in science. It is, like every successful theory, one that accurately describes the way our universe works, with the limits of perception and understanding we have, which is why theories are modified or discarded when new information comes along. Which is why General Relativity replaced Newton's Laws of Gravitation as the best description we have for how gravity works – although NASA still use Newton's calculations most of the time, for the same reason you don't need to understand Gaussian Quadratic Maths to balance your chequebook.
Greene's book, the first I've read by him, shows why it is worth reading a range of books on the same (or closely connected) areas of science. While in The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinov managed to convey a sense of wonder and discovery on a par with Carl Sagan's writings (a plaudit I don't throw around lightly!), Greene has given us a book that manages a clarity and depth of explanation while being a thoroughly entertaining read. At schools, perhaps instead of training our children into narrowly defined roles, science classes should just be introducing them to the works of Greene and Hawking, Sagan and Tyson (Neil deGrasse, not Mike) and Krauss to show them how huge and wonderful and beautiful the universe is, and how much joy and fulfilment can be achieved through our efforts to understand it.(less)
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomenon he calls 'thin slicing'; the human ability to winnow out, in fractions of a second, salient facts f...moreIn Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explores the phenomenon he calls 'thin slicing'; the human ability to winnow out, in fractions of a second, salient facts from a mass of information and make a decision based on them. Something most of us do all the time without giving it much conscious thought – reading the facial expressions and body language of the people with whom we interact, walking down a busy street (or a quiet street late at night), our subconscious minds processing hundreds or even thousands of bits of information, deciding which few are important and making a judgement based on them.
Gladwell illustrates his thesis using several extended examples. The first is relatively straight forward. In 1983 California's Getty museum was offered a 2500 year old Greek statue, a kouros, for $10 million. All the tests said it was genuine but several art experts, at first glance and without being able to say precisely why, knew it was a fake. He also tells the stories of how an ugly chair conquered the offices of the world, how we are all effected by racial conditioning, how Chicago's Cook County hospital improved diagnosis of heart attacks by removing a physician's knowledge from the process, how a commander using WWII technology defeated the combined might of the the US armed forces in the largest ever war game, and more.
The author uses two main studies to demonstrate how this process of instant assessment works. John Gottman's 'love lab', where he gets couples to talk about a subject tangentially connected with their relationship and videos the exchange to bring out the non-verbal cues, and Paul Ekman, who is an expert of facial micro-expressions that last microseconds and over which we have no control (this latter also being the model for the excellent TV show Lie To Me with Tim Roth). Gladwell builds his argument convincingly and refers back to his examples frequently for both illustration and dramatic effect. Each example he uses shows a different facet of the Blink effect but also, and this is vital, how it can go wrong in certain circumstances.
While it is quick, this subconscious ability does require a moment to work, and can be short circuited by rushing or by an overload of adrenaline. Another case study chillingly shows what can happen when our subconscious is not given the opportunity to work properly. In 1999 an unarmed, innocent man, Amadou Diallo, was shot 41 times in the entryway of his own New York apartment building, by four policemen. He shows how a lack of experience, over-hasty action and perhaps even the over-confidence of numbers allowed these policemen to fall back on crude stereotypes and allow an initial poor assessment to lead them down a tragic course of events.
While Gladwell lauds the benefits of both listening to this subconscious supercomputer and developing the skills, in backing up the studies he constantly refers to the fact that this understanding has often been achieved by the exact opposite type of mentation – deliberate, analytical evaluation of evidence. This, along with the examples given, should show the reader that there are appropriate and inappropriate areas for this sort of thinking, although I can imagine some of the readership taking away only the face-value lesson of relying on first instincts and gut feelings. I would have liked to see a chapter on the abuse of these impressions, which is after all how con artists and frauds such as psychics operate. This could have been perhaps added into the chapter on Warren G. Harding, who was elected as US president because he was tall, handsome, masculine, dignified – and is considered by historians to be one of the worst presidents in US history. I want to take nothing away from this excellent book, however. It is superbly written, making excellent use of pacing and the storylines of the examples he uses to give the book structure. Malcolm Gladwell has a great style, authoritative and engaging, and he packs a great deal of both information and analysis into what is a quick, easy and enjoyable read.(less)