If i could think of this book as a meal, then indeed Michael Pollan is a marvelous cook. He writes well, vividly and convincingly.As dense and inform If i could think of this book as a meal, then indeed Michael Pollan is a marvelous cook. He writes well, vividly and convincingly.As dense and informative as it is, the book doesn't make me feel bloated, but nourished :] I can't remember the last time I have discussed a book so many times, with so many different people. Chapter 17 on the ethics of eating animals is just mind-blowing and alone can make this book a worthwhile read.i can't resist talking about it before anything else.
I've tried to become a vegetarian a couple of times and have always eventually lapsed back into eating meat. The main reason I would ever become a vegetarian is environmental, the huge amount of energy expended in producing and preserving meat. I've always found the ethics of eating meat hard to defend on the moral basis. And it's fascinating to see a person do it convincingly like Pollan. Pollan starst with Peter Singer's argument against eating meat. A wonderfully simple but powerful idea: "if possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?". Leaving aside the problematic question of how we define animal "intelligence", there is no debate as to whether animals can suffer. And if we have extended equal rights to women, minorities, homosexuals, should we and why don't we extend these rights to other species? ouch. most people, like me, when faced with this question and thinking about it seriously, either look away or become vegetarians. it is difficult to reconcile our instincts to eat meat and the moral implications of it. but Pollan shows us that those are not the only two alternatives.
He argues that while animals rightists have always stressed the suffering of animals due to our meat eating habits (although we have rather slim evidence of exactly what goes on in the brain of a pig about to go to heaven, (or hell?)), they have also failed to acknowledge that humans are capable of giving animals a decent and happy life. and "happy" in this case means the ability to do what they would naturally do, either pigs rooting around in the dirt, or cows wandering on pastures. "to think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to miscontrue that whole relationship-to project a human idea or power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species."
as he points out, domestication is an evolutionary development. domesticated animals have a much higher chance of surviving than in the wild, compare dogs and wolves for example. they therefore evolve to serve human benefits, winning our favor, in order to be provided with shelter and protection. they probably don't like being killed very much, but if that gives them a longer life and a much better chance to spread their genes to the next generation, they would much rather be with us than be in nature. "predation is not a matter of morality or of politics, it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. from the point of view of the individual prey animal predation is a horror, but from the point of view of the group-and of its gene pool-it is indispensable." That is exactly the point that most animals rightists miss. they concern only with individuals, but nature doesn't work that way, no matter how cruel that might sound. nature is about maximizing the survival of the whole species. our morals were developed to help us function as a healthy, cooperative society, but it is rather irrelevant to what should happen in nature.
Pollan charges that this very embraced and apparently self-righteous "ideology" is a product of an urban society which has lost touch with nature. A friend of mine told me that he took his children to a slaughterhouse to see how pigs are killed because he believes that if we want to eat meat, we should be able to face the morality involved in it. that, i think, is a respectable viewpoint. the children were slightly disturbed but it didn't stop them eating meat. this father is probably an exception in our society. most of us probably have never raised a cow and seen a cow. our meat comes from nice little packages that never remind us of that it comes from something that used to have a brain and can suffer. when i asked my NZ friends why people no longer eat animal organs, like we do in Vietnam, they stared at me with disturbed looks. but really, when you think about it, offal is very nutritious, and there's little reason why we can accept eating meat, but not kidney, heart, or brain. i suspect the reason is the viscera brings home to us the fact that what we are eating used to be quite similar to us, which means, having eyes, lungs, heart. and we are so scared to face that reality that we get rid of it altogether.
the second reason is that once the meat production process is out of sight, we have lost the traditional rituals justifying the act of killing and governing the slaughter of animals. the disappearance of these old practices gives way to the brutalization of animals to the extent that the animals become so sick that we have pretty much run out of anti-biotics.
but that is not the same as to say that we can eat meat carefree without any moral consideration. given the fact that our food chain has become increasingly industrialized and heavily dependent on fossil fuels, we do have a moral obligation to care about the health of nature, i.e, the condition of the soil, the health of the animals we eat, the impact of animal farming on the environment. I can't agree more with him that while we don't need or arguably shouldn't give up our meat consumption, we should at least make sure that the way we eat is sustainable and the animals we eat are treated decently. the way that animals are treated in most farms is quite despicable. and i bet that if we had a chance to look at it, most would quite happily choose to be vegetarian. giving animals a humane treatment does not only give us a clear conscience but really serves our benefits as well. who would not want to eat a healthy chicken instead of a disease-ridden one? recently, when a documentary about the treatment of pigs in battery farms in NZ was broadcast on TV, the public displayed outrage at what they saw and have pushed quite vigorously for legislation prohibiting cruel treatment of farm animals see here. i don't know of progress elsewhere. i like the idea that once the public know about what's happening to what they eat, they can make a difference.
most of the rest of the book deals with corn and how our (meaning American) food chain has been reduced to a monoculture of soy and corn. they are present in something like 75% of the processed food products on the market. 40% of the calories a Mexican eats comes from food. if you think that's quite astonishing, then apparently American have overtaken Mexicans to be kings of walking corns. corn became the winner in the competition to be human's favorite crop because of its capacity to store a lot more calories than other species. the invention of fertilizers (interestingly made widely available by the surplus ammonium nitrate after the war) made growing corn so incredibly efficient that corn gradually replaced all other crops. and in the 1950s, feeding cattle on feedlots was cheaper than on grass, enabling the farmers to build massive chicken factories. livestock farmers went out of business because they couldn't compete with giant factories. fertilizer was a mixed blessing because the soil fertility shifted from reliance on the sun and a careful rotation of crops, to fossil fuels. we might like to think that fertilizers make agriculture a lot more efficient, but in fact, we expend twice as much energy to produce corn than when we relied on nature. and that's not to mention the huge cost of environmental pollution.
when corn got cheaper and cheaper, the Nixon government stepped in to subsidize it, encouraging growing even more corn of lower nutritional quality and sparking the beginning of agribusiness. the excess corn finds its way into most processed energy-dense foods and feeding livestock. getting rid of this huge amount of excess energy contributes to obesity and an impoverished food culture. it makes good economic sense to dump excess corn on cattle, but biologically, they evolved to eat grass, and being forced to eat something they are not supposed to eat has caused grave problems. in a shit hole with piles of waste, polluted air and water and no space to even wiggle their tails, the only way these cows can survive is to swallow humongous amounts of anti-biotics.
that sounds quite depressing, but the organic industry doesn't really hold a torch toward a moral utopia as we would hope. Pollan points out that the organic industry has diverged exponentially from its original ideals in the 1960s, and is now not so much better than the establishment. they consume a huge amount of energy to transport their products across the country, most "free range" farms mean that the chicken has a palm-sized window to look at the sun 5 minutes a day. real organic farmers have a hard time to get their products on the market because of government regulations. to me it seems like America's unsustainable food consumption is perpetuated by a cycle of ignorance and government intervention. so much for laissez-faire capitalism.
growing so much corn might seem to make good economic sense. we must admit that it's quite remarkable that this is the first time in human history, we can produce food so cheaply and so abundantly. but this is the thing that has always not sat right with me about economics. that it hides all the expensive external costs involved in the process: environmental degradation, costs to the government in terms of subsidies, a huge consumption of fossil fuels, public health and malnourishment. so in fact, eating cheap corn is very expensive.
so the key question is WHY is America doing all these things that defy logic? to summarize the whole story in one word, I'd say efficiency. feeding corn to livestock is so much cheaper and easier than grass (don't have to wait for grass to grow). and it supports a legion of other industries: the chemical and biotech industries, the food industry, the oil industry, pharma, agribusiness. If we keep in mind that hunter-gathers didn't become agriculturists out of choice, but because they depleted the animals they were hunting, it makes me worry what will happen to us when we deplete our soil and degrade our environment so the same disastrous extent. the food price riots in 2007/8 give us a glance at how depressing such a world would be.
but this book isn't just depressing, it's enlightening and inspiring. it shows us that there ARE alternatives to the status quo: eat local, subscribe to a farm you know, and as he says in "In defense of food", then simply "eat food, not too much, mostly plants". I find Michael Pollan a remarkable writer, very humble and articulate. I can't recommend this book too highly. ...more
When I picked up this book, I thought I'd be totally traumatized by it (who doesn't know a many-body problem turns you into a many-problem body? raiseWhen I picked up this book, I thought I'd be totally traumatized by it (who doesn't know a many-body problem turns you into a many-problem body? raise your hands) oh but who could have thought that such a topic can be written in such an intuitive and interesting and funny way like Mattuck's? A nice introduction into Feynman diagram method with lots of clear and witty explanations, funny how he always desperately tries to convince you how awesome Feynman diagrams are by constantly saying things like "oh I know this looks stupid and takes too much effort compared to old methods, but it's actually very cool".
I'm not going to inflict any of that stuff on you but at least, I'm tempted to show you how entertaining a physics book can be: "on second thought, when we realize that it has taken us three pages to do by diagrams what we did directly in lines, there appears to be little cause for celebration. We seem to have built an elephant cannon to shoot a horse-fly. if this commonplace textbook result is regarded as the end product of the elaborate vacuum amplitude approach, we might justifiably conclude that a rocket launcher has been built to fire a spitball. second quantization may sound as useful as a pair of trousers with five legs. Prof Schrieffer has called the spectral density function the policeman who tells you when you are doing something wrong in a calculation with propagators. a glance at the literature reveals almost more policemen than propagators, so it is worth while at least learning to recognize the uniform." ...more
This book isn't too bad but I don't think I retain much. the feline analogy and cosmological evolution are cute ideas, and the black hole stuff is fascinating. but much of it is extremely speculative and cryptic rambling. Or maybe I just get more cynical of theoretical physics day by day. That's fine, and at least Lee Smolin acknowledges that it is speculative, but at least don't be so incredibly optimistic when you don't have a single suggestion for an experiment that can verify or falsify your theory.
Quantum mechanics and general relativity are both excellent theories, but when they combine, the infinities explode in your face. Quantum gravity has got physicists banging their heads into the wall for the last 50 years and his overt optimism slightly bugs me. Quantum physicists (including string theorists) adore their theory so much they're willing to mutilate general relativity one way or another to pursue their cause, general relativists hold GR so sacrosanct that they can curve quantum mechanics to fit their theory (sorry for the pun). Somewhere in the middle is lattice theorists who annoy both camps. So basically, nobody really knows exactly how to solve this conundrum.
I'm not hugely a fan of a theory that can't be tested. Stuff like Hawking radiation or gravitational wave might be extremely hard to detect, but at least physicists have built the acoustic equivalent of Hawking radiation (http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/...) and (arguably) figured out how to detect grav. waves. This guy has no similar suggestions of that sort, except for the deviations of photon paths across large distances. Hm...
He seems to have held favorable views of string theory at that time, on which he has changed his mind. Last month was the 25th year anniversary of the resurrection of string theory, and you can notice the lack of celebration in the string community. He does admit in chapter 11 that nobody even knows what string theory really IS or what its basic principles are, there are hundreds of consistent versions of it and "what we have is a long list of examples of solutions to the theory; what we do not yet have is the theory they are solutions of". The major problem with string theory is that it's so loose that whatever experiment data you come out with, some string theorist can claim he predicted it.
But Lee Smolin certainly taught me something very honorable about a theoretical physics career. That when you reach the forefront, you have to accept to take hazy paths that no one's taken and can be deemed ridiculous or obscure and perhaps risk wasting your entire career pursuing something wrong. And you will collaborate, compete, argue, disagree, be proven wrong, admit you're wrong, but that's an unavoidable part of progress, to put down the post "don't go there" on the wrong paths so some giant can find the right way to get there some day.
in the spirit of chaos, JG writes this strangely attractive book in an unpredictably aperiodically chaotic fashion, I never understand the messy strucin the spirit of chaos, JG writes this strangely attractive book in an unpredictably aperiodically chaotic fashion, I never understand the messy structure of this book. sometimes he follows through the development of an idea very thoroughly, sometimes he randomly introduces something and then moves on to another guy who seems to be totally unrelated to the previous guy. There's not enough math for my liking and too much rambling about the scientists rather than what they actually did. Although I still like this one a lot, I think I've read better books on chaos theory.
Chaos theory started with Poincare's investigation into the three-body problem when he realized that no exact formula exists beyond Newton's differential equations for making predictions of the three body problem. Not much was taken up from there till the 1970s, when the computer revolutionized this new field of mathematics, allowing mathematicians to do complex iterative calculations and do experiments. chaotic dynamics started to emerge everywhere, in fluid mechanics, population biology, climatology, theoretical physics, astronomy and even economics. Non-linearity can no longer be ignored. This might well be another revolution in science, like quantum mechanics and relativity half a century earlier.
It's difficult to summarize this book, but some remarkable and thought-provoking statements to take away: "An almost-intransitive system displays one sort of average behavior for a very long time, fluctuating within certain bounds. Then, for no reason whatsoever, it shifts into a different sort of behavior, still fluctuating but producing a different average. [In climate models:], to explain large changes in climate, they look for external causes-changes in the earth's orbit around the sun, for example. Yet it takes no great imagination for a climatologist to see that almost-intransitivity might well explain why the earth's climate has drifted in and out of long Ice Ages at mysterious, irregular intervals. The Ice Ages may simply be a byproduct of chaos."
"The phenomenon of chaos struck me as an operational way to define free will, in a way that allowed you to reconcile free will with determinism. The system is deterministic, but you can't say what it's going to do next. The spontaneous emergence of self-organization ought to be part of physics. (quote Doyne Farmer)"
Any object can be tiled by a fractal shape. "Fractal shapes, though properly viewed as the outcome of a deterministic process, had a second, equally valid existence as the limit of a random process.Nature must be playing its own version of the chaos game. The Mandelbrot set obeys an extraordinarily precise scheme leaving nothing to chance whatsoever. I strongly suspect that the day somebody actually figures out how the brain is organized they will discover to their amazement that there is a coding scheme for building the brain which is of extraordinary precision. The idea of randomness in biology is just reflex. (Quote John Hubbard)
"Many other scientists began to apply the formalisms of chaos to research in artificial intelligence. The dynamics of systems wandering between basins of attraction appealed to those looking for a way to model symbols and memories. Their fractal structure offered the kind of infinitely self-referential quality that seems so central to the mind's ability to bloom with ideas, decisions, emotions, and all the other artifacts of consciousness. With or without chaos, serious cognitive scientists can no longer model the mind as a static structure. They recognize a hierarchy of scales, from neuron upward, providing an opportunity for the interplay of microscale and macroscale so characteristic of fluid turbulence and other dynamical systems."
and his brilliant joke "Theorists conduct experiments with their brains. Experimenters have to use their hands, too. Theorists are thinkers, experimenters are craftsmen. the theorist needs no accomplice. The experimenter has to muster graduate students, cajole machinists, flatter lab assistants. The theorist operates in a pristine place free of noise, of vibration and dirt. The experimenter develops an intimacy with matter as a sculptor does with clay, battling it, shaping it and engaging it. The theorist invents his companions, as a naive Romeo imagined his ideal Juliet. The experimenter's lovers sweat, complain and fart." ...more
Absolutely love how books with titles like "elementary/basic bla bla bla" or "introduction to bla bla" often turn out to be so freaking hard that theyAbsolutely love how books with titles like "elementary/basic bla bla bla" or "introduction to bla bla" often turn out to be so freaking hard that they are depressing, they make me feel very intelligent indeed. But this one is exceptionally well-written, although painful as most physics/math books. clears a lot of confusion due to my lack of class attendance in quantum. better than most other texts i'm reading on group theory and applications in physics. ...more
One day, a group of friends of mine and I somehow randomly came up with this random question: how universal are numbers and mathematics? Why is it thaOne day, a group of friends of mine and I somehow randomly came up with this random question: how universal are numbers and mathematics? Why is it that all cultures seem to have some concept of numbers? So we came up with this game, we would agree not to use any number for a day to find out how hard it was. And holy crap, it is ten thousands times harder than we could ever imagine, not only because we were a bunch of physicists, but even simplest things like: what time is it? where’s your house? became unbearably difficult to express. So we tried to figure out a way to express our ideas using other concepts. For example, if you want to say it’s 10 a.m, you say the sun is at that or that position. Or you want to say your house is 15 min away, you say follow this road, turn right at this tree, stop at that white house with a cactus in the garden. If you have 10 sheep, maybe you can name all of them, and when one is missing, you can go: hah! Bob has gone missing today. But having 100 sheep will really cause you a headache. We gave up after a few hours. So i was thinking about this problem for a very long time. How universal are numbers? Do we have an innate sense of numbers? How would life be without them? would it even be possible? I never knew if anyone had come up with the same question but i randomly found this book, which i thought would be very interesting. And it is. (to be cont.)...more
usually, physics/ math textbooks give me giant yawns, but this one is definitely exceptional, I enjoyed reading it a lot. thank god Bernard Schutz skiusually, physics/ math textbooks give me giant yawns, but this one is definitely exceptional, I enjoyed reading it a lot. thank god Bernard Schutz skips all that torturous index gymnastics of differential geometry and jumps straight into special and general relativity (where half of the quantities in diff geom happily die and leave us in peace). his introduction to tensor calculus is very helpful. lots of clear explanations, for example why mutual length contraction or time dilation is not a contradiction at all (this one has ALWAYS got me), or how Einstein followed his particular line of reasoning find analogy of Newton's gravity- no preferred coordinate system- local conservation of energy- special relativity in the locally inertial frame to develop the field equation. gets a bit more technical when it comes to black holes and neutron stars, but bearable. fascinating book!...more
very interesting presentation of the problem of biogenesis. turns out to be a lot trickier than I thought. Did proteins come before DNA or the other wvery interesting presentation of the problem of biogenesis. turns out to be a lot trickier than I thought. Did proteins come before DNA or the other way? How did the first amino acids form and link to make proteins, a pretty statistically difficult process? But anyway, the main point here is Paul Davies always goes too far. From cosmic Darwinism to the meaning of life. Except for the religious, why the hell should biogenesis have anything to do with the meaning of life? Why does extraterrestrial intelligence alter our philosophy and meaning? It might be a scientific shock that some day we find out the origin of life came from a comet from outer space, but would it be an emotional shock? I might be not smart enough, but totally can't see the link. ...more
My problem with this kind of book is that you can't really learn much from it. Either, you work in the field, know all the math and physics behind it,My problem with this kind of book is that you can't really learn much from it. Either, you work in the field, know all the math and physics behind it, then it's useless to read this book. Or you don't work in the field, and you try to understand the over-simplified version he tries to explain, but it still doesn't make sense. e.g: If you compress an object, its gravity is enhanced, and if you stretch it, gravity is reduced. if you could keep stretching the object without breaking it, you could in principle reduce gravity to the point of completely neutralizing it, or even making it repulsive. The repulsive gravity of vacuum tension is more than sufficient to overcome the attractive pull of its mass. or: if false vacuum is surrounded by true vacuum, the tension inside is not balanced by any force outside and causes the false vacuum chunk to shrink because gravitational repulsion is purely internal. I thought I was reading ancient Greek. But no, this book is full of "explanations" of this kind. I could pretend that I understand what the words are saying, but no, frankly I totally don't understand his theory. Give me some time to learn general relativity, and possibly many more years to learn inflation theory from its math, and it might make sense. And I also disagree with his logic that "if the theory of inflation is supported by the data in the observable part of the universe, shouldn't we also believe its conclusions about the parts we cannot observe?". I mean isn't that ludicrous? Inflation theory is not set in stone yet, there are still many problems with explaining large scale structure and dark matter. This is guesswork, extending it to the unobservable is merely too far-fetched, too speculative, and pointless. If it is unobservable, that means it's not going to have any causal link to us, so why even bother? ...more