Krishner reminds me of my much-detested lab reports that contain about 10 pages of first-rate data and graphs that look like entangled spaghetti and 1...moreKrishner reminds me of my much-detested lab reports that contain about 10 pages of first-rate data and graphs that look like entangled spaghetti and 10 lines of extremely theoretically rigorous analysis. And like human beings who love to think they’re the center of the universe, Krishner loves to think he’s the center of this book. One way or another, he’d wander off track and start rambling about himself or his group. I don’t care how you got there, i don’t care you went to observatory A to see B in group C working on project D at university E and then you presented it in conference F before G,H,I and your PhD student K improved it. I really don’t care, just tell me exactly how you did it, what result you got, interpret it and explain the theories for me. But he doesn’t do it, damn. He loves talking about all the trivialities and then forgets what he was talking about before so he starts repeating it again and again in an incomprehensible chronological order. I flicked through the last 50 pages, not seeing any data and already bored out of my skull, I gave up. At least, now I’ve learnt how I feel towards my teachers who mark my lab reports. Genuine sympathy. (less)
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...more 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. (less)
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 tha...moreOne 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.)(less)
in the spirit of chaos, JG writes this strangely attractive book in an unpredictably aperiodically chaotic fashion, I never understand the messy struc...morein 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." (less)
I remember vividly how fascinated I was by this book two years ago, I mean this whole exciting combination of quantum mechanics, relativity, inflation...moreI remember vividly how fascinated I was by this book two years ago, I mean this whole exciting combination of quantum mechanics, relativity, inflationary cosmology and string theory fed to an innocent second year primitive, what do you expect? I reread it recently and didn't find it quite as amazing as the first time. Brian Greene is a very good writer, his description of the bucket experiment, the EPR paradox and the slicing of spacetime is fascinating to read. In fact, if you read the notes at the end of the chapter, that's the best non-technical description of EPR that I ever found, although rather wordy. Everything's well and good until my brain shuts off at page 300 when he started talking about inflation theory. And the rest on string theory, yawn...(less)
If you are interested in cosmology (like me), then this is the book for you. fascinating and approachable to anyone who knows some basic physics. I l...more If you are interested in cosmology (like me), then this is the book for you. fascinating and approachable to anyone who knows some basic physics. I like Kaku's random stories of physicists and his style of writing. Parallel Worlds is a science book that reads like a work of literature. Also highly recommend Michio Kaku's Visions and Hyperspace.(less)
Generally good. However, conciseness quickly becomes its shortcoming because some parts are not so clearly and comprehensively explained. The physical...moreGenerally good. However, conciseness quickly becomes its shortcoming because some parts are not so clearly and comprehensively explained. The physical interpretation is also lacking. I find it frustrating the book doesn't have an answer guide. (less)
jesus christ, why did I give this book 4 stars last year? i guess i didn't understand it very well back then, but every time i reread it i seem to be...morejesus christ, why did I give this book 4 stars last year? i guess i didn't understand it very well back then, but every time i reread it i seem to be more amazed by Feynman and his intuition. I recently realized that I've wasted 3 years getting a physics degree instead of picking up these books. that is a rather depressing thought :) few quantum mechanics books don't start with the Schrodinger equation. and I always wonder where the hell this equation comes from. feynman follows a different path (of course). he spends about 10 lectures performing the long song and dance routine of probability amplitude wavefunction before he starts mentioning Schrodinger. this time I spent a lot of time on the chapter on Josephson junction and it just wows me. I love how Feynman never gets too bogged down with the math, whenever he presents an equation, he finds ways to explain the physical meaning of it and you just go: "yes of course! the equation MUST look that way!". and even mundane things like the double slit experiment, he has something terribly interesting to say. every physics major should read this book. (less)