This was a fairly quick read, enjoyable as a refresher on modern physics and inspiring as a call to arms for more-- better!-- scientific discovery. I...moreThis was a fairly quick read, enjoyable as a refresher on modern physics and inspiring as a call to arms for more-- better!-- scientific discovery. I do feel as though the tone failed at times to toe the line between being layman-accessible and being fully explanatory. I was occasionally bored by what seemed to me to be over-explanations of simple classical physics, but otherwise occasionally overwhelmed by the complexity of string theory; being a scientist myself, I have a hard time watching details get glossed over. That said, it's hard to know the extent to which this issue was a result of some flaw in Turok's writing or editing, rather than simply the seriously challenging nature of the material. Simplification of string theory or M theory, for example, is no small feat. Moreover, I may not be the target audience for a book like this... I'm no physicist, but I know a little about a lot of scientific fields. I almost feel I should be reading less and less accessible books on these topics to satisfy my curiosity.
One further caveat on my enjoyment of this book: despite the title and the image of a human brain on the cover, there is nothing in here relating to neuroscience at all. That will teach me to judge a book by its cover...(less)
This is an excellent review of recent theoretical and empirical work in the search for consciousness. Some of the biggest names in the philosophy of m...moreThis is an excellent review of recent theoretical and empirical work in the search for consciousness. Some of the biggest names in the philosophy of mind and all areas of human and animal neuroscience come together in this volume to discuss their respective approaches to the "big question." In such a compilation, it's only natural that some essays speak loudly to a given audience while others provide (generally, but not always, fruitful) points of disagreement; in this particular book, some authors even make direct responses to others and the contrast between them serves a higher use than either alone. I was especially piqued by David Papineau's and Adam Zeman's critiques of the entire endeavour, as they provided viewpoints I'd not seen formalized before. By contrast, essays by LeDoux, Rolls, Milner, Heyes, and Dickinson-- those more firmly planted in empirical psychology-- were more like refresher notes on theories I'd already heard and the evidence to support or refute them. That's in no way to suggest they weren't interesting or useful, but I think more cross-talk with philosophy is going to be necessary to answer this ostensibly neuroscientific question. Indeed, several of the empiricist contributors make a special note in their respective pieces of the value of philosophy in solving some of the "tangles" inherent to the quest.
More than anything else, the book was a reminder that it's an exciting time to be in this field, asking these questions. They are in no way solved yet, despite excellent and rigorous work from all angles. My own views on the nature of consciousness only appear quietly between the lines of those presented here, so I leave the experience both invigorated and reassured that any contribution I can make will find a place in the literature.(less)
A short and accessible historical gem that explores, well before its time, points of convergence and divergence between natural and artificial intelli...moreA short and accessible historical gem that explores, well before its time, points of convergence and divergence between natural and artificial intelligence systems. It's particularly interesting as a meter stick of progress between the 1950's and the current day: whereas the computer side of the question is in some ways quaintly outdated, von Neumann's outline of the human nervous system and the functioning of individual neurons remains near the limit of what we understand even today. Not quite exactly at the limit, but certainly not as dreadfully short of it as 1950's computer science is to our current level of technological understanding. Psychologists often point to the youth of our field as if it were an apology for the slow progress-- still waiting for our Newton or our Einstein--, but the contrasts laid out in this book, as a modern reader, question the validity of the excuse. Computer science is younger still than psychology, yet the speed of knowledge acquisition dramatically outpaces that of psychology.
Nevertheless, as von Neumann outlines presciently, the points of divergence may overwhelm the points of convergence, rendering the comparison moot. The essay stands as a reminder of the limits of artificial intelligence when compared to biological intelligence: we may never be able to build real brains from artificial components running current computer architectures. I was especially piqued by his closing remarks that the mathematics of the nervous system may reflect different mathematics than the ones we currently understand. He compares our known mathematics to assembly language and the hypothesized neural mathematics to higher-level programming languages, suggesting that we may simply not have found the right method for interpreting the latter.
I really enjoyed the quick read and recommend it to anyone who works with computers, brains, or-- most especially-- both, as an important historical document.(less)
This books should more accurately be titled "Letters to a very young field biologist," or "Anecdotes from an entomologist that may only be of minimal...moreThis books should more accurately be titled "Letters to a very young field biologist," or "Anecdotes from an entomologist that may only be of minimal interest if you have no interest in bugs."
Thankfully, it was a quick read.
E. O. Wilson is clearly a successful and prolific scientist, but success in biology does not good-general-science-advice make. It's always interesting, to me, to hear about how researchers started their careers. Oftentimes it's encouraging to learn that some favourite minds fell into their fields by sheer chance, by randomly uncovered passion or talents, or by circuitous routes through esoteric areas of knowledge or counterculture. Wilson, on the other hand, wanted to be exactly what he become since childhood and followed a very standard route to get there: beginning as a boy scout and camp counsellor and ending up at Harvard. This is as straightforward an origin story as a scientist gets, and, while admirable, the story of a very precocious passion and intelligence followed linearly through to PhD has little to offer any student who didn't find their passion early on. Most scientists will not set their life trajectory by age 9, and most certainly will not go to an Ivy League school. Most, moreover, will not study biology. Some of us who consider ourselves scientists do not even study the "natural" sciences (gasp!).
I was disappointed, as a young scientist, to find a book of this title written decidedly not for me.(less)
Full disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a s...moreFull disclosure: I have a serious admiration-crush on Commander Hadfield, so I may be biased.
I LOVED THIS BOOK. A non-linear autobiography spun as a sort of motivational handbook to living well, this book uses anecdotes-- the terrifying, the humorous, and the profound-- from an impressive career to illustrate some of the ways in which life as an astronaut can inform, and indeed improve, everyday life on earth. The writing is uncomplicated but never simple, the voice of humble intelligence with experience in communicating complicated ideas efficiently. Hadfield himself comes across as both ordinary and extraordinary, seasoned but wide-eyed, content but as determined as ever to contribute to the society that allowed him to fulfill his lifelong dream of space travel.
The tenets of the philosophy Hadfield espouses are straightforward: (in my own words) work hard, work with passion, work with others, work for others, take pleasure in the little things, be prepared for anything, humble yourself, and learn, always. In these ways, Hadfield has managed to find happiness and maintain it over a lifetime of stress, long hours, travel, and endless learning, and even after his final stint in space was complete and his retirement nigh.
There was a lot to love and enjoy over the course of these pages. Hadfield is a sharp, witty guy, and his memory for, and appreciation of, the little details gives his stories a sort of earnest magic that draws you in. The one thing that I think will stick with me is the notion of seeing life (and careers) laterally, with moments of importance, pride, and value in every single day, instead of as a ladder to climb. The latter, Hadfield argues, will leave one in the position of never being satisfied at any rung below the top one, where no human can remain even if they're one of the lucky few to ever reach it.
I really recommend this book for anyone who wants to feel good about life, science, exploration, and the value of our tax dollars in supporting beautiful minds like this one.(less)
Full disclosure: I only made it 102 pages in before I had to stop. Maybe I've been spoiled by Michael Pollan's phenomenal prose. Maybe business history...moreFull disclosure: I only made it 102 pages in before I had to stop. Maybe I've been spoiled by Michael Pollan's phenomenal prose. Maybe business history writing is just not for me. Or maybe this is a poorly written and edited book.
The writing is mediocre, resorting too often to catchy journalistic phrasing, fluff quotes from interviewees (e.g., "X really drove the industry at the time!" after a paragraph about how X drove the industry), and ultimately meaningless decontextualized numbers where descriptive words would have driven the point home with less ambiguity. The author occasionally makes sloppy errors of continuity (e.g., "Not only did X do Y; he was really important in making Y a thing," followed by entirely no mention of what else X did) and more generally shows a disregard for the reader's ability to follow. You would expect a book like this to follow either a linear timeline or a linear string of characters, in order to tell its complicated story. Moss does neither, but instead hops between characters and bounces forward and backward in time at will. The result is a dry, convoluted web that lends itself poorly to more than a surface appreciation. Toward the end of my attempt at reading, I skipped over a paragraph here and there and found that my capacity to follow the events portrayed was about as good (i.e., not terribly good) as it was when I was reading every word. This is a serious indictment of the quality of the writing, and it's a bit unforgivable in a book so overladen with different faces and voices, spanning several decades and several companies' histories. The requisite cohesion just isn't there.
The cherry on top of my personal NopeCake here was Moss's fairly regular use of "math" to talk about mathematics. "X used his high math to discover Y." His high MATH? Singular math? I mean, never mind that calling statistics "high math" as an alternative to finding a lay-friendly way to explain them is lazy and hand-wavy in the extreme, but "his SINGULAR MATH"!? Nooooooooope.
The real pity here is that I'm extremely interested in the topic. The delivery was just so abhorrent that I couldn't justify continued attempts to learn.(less)
Michael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative story...moreMichael Pollan is swiftly solidifying his position as "somebody I want to know." He's a clever writer, an inquisitive journalist, and a creative storyteller, as well as a shining light of simple food consciousness in an era of either not asking at all or asking far too much.
This book is equal parts natural history, social history, regular history, botanical musing, plant biology, evolutionary theory, and psychology, with a smattering of classical mythology, memoir, neuroscience, and investigative journalism to hold the threads together. Pollan sets out with the aim of tracking four plants along their coevolution with society, tying each to a human desire that shaped it into what it is today: the apple and sweetness, the tulip and beauty, marijuana and intoxication, and potatoes and control. What he ends up writing from this neat little package of a thesis is something much greater than the sum of its parts, a veritable exploration (I use the word a lot but I think it really applies here) of what it means to be human in a determinedly natural world.
One of the ideas he returns to often is that our relationship to the natural world is a balancing of Apollonian (controlled, geometric, structured, artificial) and Dionysian (frenetic, shifting, chaotic, and natural) forces, and I think he really hit the nail on the head with the notion as much as with the conclusion that it's a much more complicated relationship than it first appears. The complexity of the question is due in part to the many human urges (such as morality) that don't fit cleanly in either camp, and in part to the ambiguity of the agent in control within the framework of nature's chaos. It's an impressively thoughtful approach, and the broad reach allowed by a philosophical, as opposed to purely scientific, foundation means the reader gets to learn a little about a lot along the way.
I won't spoil anyone's enjoyment of the book by divulging details of HOW each plant and desire is examined, but I will assure you that the how is not as straightforward and easy as you'd expect. This is becoming a mark of Pollan's writing as much as it always has been a hallmark of great writing: a clear and simple idea considered with breadth and depth in a manner so well-organized that you don't realize how much you're learning until you're done. I cannot wait to read more of his work.(less)
Michael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and market...moreMichael Pollan proves himself once again as a prodigious mind and a bastion of honest journalism in the sea of lies, double-talk, cover-up, and marketing that surround the food industry. This book documents an insightful and often alarming collection of journeys through the food chain, following different pathways of food sources from the starting line to the dinner table. Running the gamut from the highly industrialized, government-subsidized, and deeply impersonal ecological nightmare that brings us processed and fast foods, down to the gritty and very personal realities of a hunter-forager lifestyle, Pollan's exploration is as thorough as it is fair. It's clear that while he has an opinion, he is not writing to push any agenda and is quite willing to have his views changed by what he learns. That he then shares what he's learned and encourages his readers to decide for themselves is a rare openness in what is often a heated and divisive topic.
It's so refreshing to see a writer of non-fiction admitting his ignorance and then striving to solve it, heartening to see someone so evidently concerned with environmental issues nevertheless give a balanced consideration of the real benefits of unsustainable farming (namely, it feeds a lot of people), and contagiously thought-provoking to see such breadth and depth of thought given over to food. It certainly doesn't hurt that Pollan is a great writer, hitting humour and tragedy at all the right moments and letting the facts speak solemnly for themselves when they should, and a phenomenally engaging storyteller.
Rather than hear my thoughts on the various sections of the book (though, spoilers, the part about sustainable polyculture farms blew me away and brought me nostalgically back to an age when I naively believed all farming to be like that), I really encourage anyone interested in Pollan's work to just read it themselves. You won't regret taking the time, and his full treatment will be in any case far more interesting than my summary.
If you're interested in how food happens, but don't want to be emotionally manipulated into an opinion, this is the book for you.(less)
Sort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* informa...moreSort of an elaborated version of Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which I had mistakenly read first, this one didn't add too much *new* information above and beyond what I'd learned from previous reads, whether of his or of someone else's. Nevertheless, I appreciate the full treatment given to the vital but oft-unheeded battlecry: the Western diet is killing us only slightly slower than it can spread its fingers into new hearts and minds and stomachs around the world-- an insidious promise of easy short-term gratification (economic, caloric, and political) without consideration for the enormous long-term havoc being wrought on ecosystems at all levels of analysis. He moreover ties the myriad major American industries together into what might be the greatest unplanned money-making scheme in human history, as measured by breadth, depth, growth and duration, a symbiotic market that fattens itself in perpetuity on the shoulders of its consumers (the world's first real soylent?).
The scope of the issue is really laid bare in this careful and probably, to be honest, conservative criticism of nutritionism, the young quasi-science that is stretching well beyond its current capabilities to influence public food and health policies in alarming ways. A clever mirror against the reductionist tendencies of the budding field, Pollan shifts blame for modern endemics (obesity, diabetes, depression, heart disease...) from one likely factor to the next, to eventually strike upon the broader picture of what culture and evolution have to say about diet as a whole.
Whereas a lazier author could easily have spun this yarn of legitimate concern into a web of alarmist nightmare, Pollan is careful to offer solutions within full reach of the reader. He details with simplicity the thankful fact that what is best for your health is commonly in harmony with what is best for the environment, from soil to chemical waste, and bluntly points out that every consumer of a vital resource cast votes for the future with the every purchasing choice made. He cites the rise of community supported agriculture programs-- a local example of which I am proud to be a part--, the desperation of food processors to maintain a growing veneer of health-consciousness, the growth of organic produce at both public market and private garden scales, and the steadfast persistence of some traditional food cultures in the face of fast food's yawning reach, as some examples that all hope is not yet lost. I, for one, submit as further evidence the popularity of Pollan's incisive and tremendously readable critiques. I'll continue to vote with my stomach and my money, and will do so more simply and intelligently than before thanks to the insights garnered from these books.(less)
It's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fishe...moreIt's difficult to treat this statistical hallmark fairly from a modern perspective, and particularly from the perspective of a social scientist. Fisher's work, while undeniably fundamental to current statistical techniques in psychology, lay firmly in the applied realms of genetics and agriculture. Whereas it is possible to read his treatment of Latin Squares in plots of land, for example, as generalizable to the design of factorial behavioural experiments, holy hell is it tedious: it demands not only a translation of antiquated scientific prose to modern equivalents but also a translation of agricultural terminology to that of participant groups. His approach is, moreover, deeply mathematical. I skipped over much of the final chapter which, near as I could tell, dealt with algebraic proofs of the sufficiency and biases of parameter estimates-- topics that I had a hard time following in more accessible terms in my courses, lacking as I do a strong mathematical background. Having both taken and taught the topics covered in the book, I know that most students in my field have a difficult time with this dry approach to statistics, preferring instead to have the concepts bootstrapped to their research programs. Nowadays, very few experimentalists are statisticians, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, the book certainly has value as an alternative perspective for those already familiar with the techniques. Fisher illustrates the fundamentals of the exact z test, single sample and paired t tests, confidence intervals, factorial tests, chi-square tests, and others. The way he explores them is vastly different from how I learned them, but the comparison was a worthwhile exercise. My existing knowledge allowed me to better understand his approaches to the same concepts, and to expand my understanding of their theoretical foundations. Old tricks, new angles. And a few fun jabs at Neyman and Peason, to boot!
I would not recommend this book to anyone without a strong grasp of the Fisherian tradition of data analysis. Those few of you well-equipped, on the other hand, may find it worth your while.(less)
Rather than profane this marvelling ode to Nature-- pure poetry from the lifestyle it chronicles to the words painstakingly arranged to capture it-- w...moreRather than profane this marvelling ode to Nature-- pure poetry from the lifestyle it chronicles to the words painstakingly arranged to capture it-- with my fumbling praise, I've chosen to simply share some of its most breathtaking phrases, with the promise that this far from exhausts them and the hope that this illustrates how I feel about Walden in general:
"I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I now as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience."
"A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air. It is continually receiving new life and motion from above. It is intermediate in its nature between land and sky."
"I fear that we are such gods or demigods only as fauns and satyrs, the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite, and that, to some extent, our very life is our disgrace."
"The farmer is endeavouring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoe-strings he speculates in herds of cattle. With consummate skill he has set his trap with a hair springe to catch comfort and independence, and then, as he turned away, got his own leg into it."
"We know but few men, a great man coats and breeches."
"So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change. This is the only way, we say; but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from one centre. All change is a miracle to contemplate, but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant."
"There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes."
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at"
"I never dreamed of any enormity greater than I have committed. I never knew, and never shall know, a worse man than myself."
"...a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."
"Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep."
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep."
"Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."
"The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can ear them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically."
"Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost."
"Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through church and state, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and make no mistake."
"At length the sun's rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snow banks, and the sun dispersing the mist smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveller picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off."
"At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable."
"There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate such incredible dulness."
"I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good."
"By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows."
"I had withdrawn so far within the great ocean of solitude, into which the rivers of society empty, that for the most part, so far as my needs were concerned, only the finest sediment was deposited around me."
"You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port. The bullet of your thought must have overcome its lateral and ricochet motion and fallen into its last and steady course before it reaches the ear of the hearer, else it may plough out again through the side of his head."
"What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another."
"The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition of what was worth repeating in the bell, but partly the voice of the wood; the same trivial words and notes sung by a wood-nymph."
"They are the spirits, the low spirits and melancholy forebodings, of fallen souls that once in human shape night-walked the earth and did the deeds of darkness, now expiating their sins with their wailing hymns or threnodies in the scenery of their transgressions."(less)