Category Archives: Books

Book – Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

Many consider the best two modern examples of  ‘dystopia’  literature to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (written in 1931). For a time, Orwell’s explicitly brutal vision dominated as its warnings were echoed in several political regimes. However, Huxley’s may ultimately prove to be the more accurate (and frightening). One of the best analyses of these two differing visions of the future is in the foreword to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The title is a sardonic usage of an expression from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This new world, six centuries into the future from its writing, is anything but beautiful (as ‘brave’ meant in Shakespeare’s time).

Stability and predictability are the main goals in this world. It’s a future of zero population growth, unquestioned homogeneity, engineered lives from birth to death, a mindless, enthusiastic embrace of technology, and a drug-dependant, brain-washed, consumer society. There is no longing for freedom because people truly believe they are happy. It is enslavement by pleasure rather than by fear. The family is absolutely and entirely abolished in favor of the state. Romance and emotional bonds are seen as obscenities. Even death is not feared as lives are seen only as drops in an endless societal soup.

This work was not received well by contemporaries for various reasons, not the least of which was its disturbing message — that in the end, it isn’t any external government we need to fear most — it’s our own weakness.

Book – I am a Strange Loop

by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter is a Professor of Cognitive Science (thinking) and the son of a Nobel-winning nuclear physicist. An earlier book won him the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Although famous for thoughts in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Hofstadter is actually skeptical about AI and considers the modern world far too enamored of computers in general.

This book is intended to flesh out the concept of human consciousness as a kind of ‘strange loop’ or self-referencing feedback loop. This construct is related to ideas in fractal geometry (particularly self-similarity at different hierarchical levels), molecular biology (particularly protein synthesis), cybernetics (particularly recursion) and is demonstrated in the more mathematically rigorous Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. These theorems point to the inherent and ultimate limitations of arithmetic computability. Purely symbolic representations can never be complete (and thus dies traditional AI).

However, this is not a math text book. It is rather more personal and biological. This book is richly laden with stories of himself and others and how they think. He gradually moves from machine to mind to soul, increasing in mystery and non-computability along the way. AI researchers may find this book discouraging. Philosophers may find it encouraging. The surprising and even shocking idea that pieces of one’s soul can outlive the body (in the minds of others) may appeal to spiritualists. Everyone will find this book intriguing, thoughtful, and even funny.

Book – Serendipity

Accidental Discoveries in Science
by Royston M. Roberts

This is a difficult book to describe. It is, for the most part, a compendium of serendipitous discoveries made in science over the centuries. In that sense, it’s a resource. The author writes in multiple layers of technical depth, making the stories compelling and meaningful for everyone from layman to expert. Using the storytelling approach works well. This is definitely not a dry text book. The reader often almost feels the presence of author in the same room. The author was an award-winning chemist, but he was first and foremost a teacher. His generosity began with doctoral and masters candidates under his charge, then university texts, then to the lay public, and ultimately he wrote a children’s book with his daughter.

Serendipity was an important, even revered concept to him. The recent resurgence of this mid-eighteenth century word was noted in that ‘serendipity’ was absent from the 1939 and 1959 editions of a well-known dictionary, but appeared after 1974.

Not much of the book is spent in abstraction or philosophy. It is rather left up to the reader to further explore serendipity. The author states, “I hope that this book will be a stimulus for you…” Perhaps a true understanding of serendipity is serendipitous.

Book – Beyond AI

Creating the Conscience of the Machine
by J. Storrs Hall

Written from a perspective shaped by decades of thought in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and molecular nanotechnology (one of the most promising and speculative areas of robotics), this work is an observer’s handbook to the near future of AI.

The author does a good job of being an objective observer. This is not a ‘gee whiz’ futurist pep talk. Nor is it a formal tome which obfuscates AI in a sea of over analyzed mathematics and algorithms. Nor is it a fearful, Luddite rant against technology. The author freely admits to the failures of the traditional rigid rules and goal seeking approaches that were trumpeted by AI researchers in the past. However, it is made abundantly clear that AI is here now and will become ever more pervasive in society. He points out the evolutionary nature of our own intelligence, with the hope that AI can use natural intelligence as a basis and guide. The difficult task of bringing the often tribal camps of psychology, philosophy, and computer science together is tackled with enthusiasm and success.

Who should read this book? Anyone who wants a thoughtful look at the coming convergence of natural and artificial intelligence.

Book – My Stroke of Insight

A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey
by Jill Bolte Taylor

A must-read for every stroke survivor. Recovering from a stroke is such a bizarre experience, many survivors think they are the first and only ones to ever walk that path. However, in this book they will find a clear and complete description of that journey. And thus not feel so alone. This is not like the more common clinical view of a ship-in-a-bottle. Rather, it’s like being on that ship’s deck.

Several key issues are covered. They include: the basic anatomy of the brain and various types of strokes, the concept of left versus right brain, the importance of neuroplasticity, the importance of patience, love and understanding (always good things, but vital in stroke recovery and not available to many unfortunates), and the danger of just accepting current dogma. There is also a good deal of metaphysics – an interesting, personal, and courageous addition.

However, it’s the first-person account that makes this a compelling and necessary read. Only an experienced brain anatomist could accurately explain the neurology. Only a stroke survivor could tell the story ‘from the inside out’. Only an intelligent and compassionate author could put it in words for others to learn from. The author is all of these. One word of caution: reading this account can be an intense and emotional experience. Public places should be avoided until you’re finished the book. This is not a shallow plug, but an actual lesson learned through cruel experience.

Book – First Principles

The Crazy Business of Doing Serious Science
by Howard Burton

The story of the founding of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The book opens with a quote from the brilliant and beloved physicist Richard Feynman: “Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
What follows is a tale of sheer joy.

Amidst an unlikely assemblage of events, in an even more unlikely place and time, driven by an even more unlikely handful of people, a seed was planted. The events were at the intersection of several lives, economic and academic forces. The place was the quiet little town of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. The time was the final days of the dot com bubble in early 2000. The people were… well… read the book.

This is an intriguing, humorous, personal and touching story, not a boring list of famous names being dropped (which it could easily have been). Be prepared to laugh out loud when you read it. Burton is self-deprecating and honest. One gets the impression that his reasons for writing this book were purely cathartic, to use an ancient Greek reference (as the author often does).

That seed is now growing into a horrifying weed, or a spectacularly beautiful flower, depending on where you sit in academia. It’s not just new science. It’s a new way of doing science. It’s not science treated like a dairy cow by a farmer. It’s science on a pedestal, glinting in the sunlight like Athena.

Book – Was Einstein Right?

Putting General Relativity
to the Test
by Clifford M. Will

Will is that rarest of creatures – a physics professor who can communicate compellingly. He takes us on a journey through the attempts to verify/disprove/modify Einstein’s theory over the last century.
In addition, the greater historical perspective of Newton’s laws is referred to often. This provides not only a sweeping view of the evolution of gravitational theory, but also of the nature and power of science in general.

Although not a biography of Einstein, this book indeed captures the essence of that unique life and genius. The experiments and observations involving relativity provide for a fascinating ride. Bending of astronomical light, the orbit of Mercury, frame dragging, and gravitational waves are explored in depth. The astonishing technological advances made during the 1960s are a focus.

Will’s conclusion is that not only is Einstein’s theory ‘right’ (so far) (an obligatory caveat to any scientific theory), but also how amazing it is that a theory conceived purely in abstract thought withstands such relentless experimental testing.

Book – The Brain That Changes Itself

Stories of Personal Triumph from the
Frontiers of Brain Science
by Norman Doidge

What if the human brain, instead of
being ‘hard wired’ from early childhood,
was actually capable of change — even improvement?
This fascinating idea is explored through a series of accounts of both patients’ struggles and scientists’ work. The concept is called neuroplasticity.

The patients’ problems range from balance to perception to stroke recovery to basic learning. Their stories tell of improvements bordering on resurrection. The reader is brought along on their personal journeys, these patients treated almost like characters in a novel. Modern neurology is both described and challenged, as Dr. Doidge is a researcher, pychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Possible causation and process are discussed, in addition to clinical study. The importance of imagination and ‘mental exercise’ are covered. However, it is far more than a cold, logical review of neurology. This is an emotional and passionate tale, an urgent quest for knowledge that could improve, redeem, and even save lives. One doesn’t need to be a medical doctor or scientist to appreciate it, but only a human being.

Written as a compelling mixture of neurology, mystery, and personal triumph, this book will change the way you think – literally.

Book – The Symbiotic Universe

Life and the Cosmos in Unity
by George Greenstein

Greenstein explores the improbable fitness of the universe to life. Coincidences ranging from the dimensionality, emptiness and uniformity of space to the ridiculously unlikely sub-atomic nature of matter are covered. The thesis is that Darwinism is a door that swings both ways – not only is life maximized in fitness to the environment, but the environment too is made fit for (and possibly by) life.

The heart of this argument is the Anthropic Principle, which simply states that the environment is fit for life. The weak form of this principle applies to a given niche where life is flourishing. That life enjoys, and may even be aware of, the fortunate circumstances it finds itself in. But, since there are almost infinite places in time and space, it is not surprising that one or two prove hospitable to life, and that although that life may be happy about its good fortune, it might not even be aware that its niche was exceedingly rare. The strong Anthropic Principle, however, applies to all places in time and space. It states that the entire universe is extremely fit for life. This is demonstrated by several examples such as stellar fusion and the properties of water. In this case, something created the universe to be fit for life. Rejecting theism, Greenstein puts forth the possibility that there is a symbiosis at work here – between the universe and the observer who creates it (argued using quantum physics). A mind-bending proposal to say the least.

To his credit, Greenstein ends with the admission that should it prove that this universe is but one instance of infinite disconnected realities, the strong Anthropic Principle would vanish, because this entire universe could then be considered as only one niche hospitable to life.

A good read, presented as a proper theory with evidence to support it and possible observations predicted by it.

Book – River Out of Eden

A Darwinian View of Life
by Richard Dawkins

Dawkins presents a dispassionate and mechanistic explanation of Darwinism. As always, he can come across as derisive and arrogant, or charming and intelligent, depending on the reader’s predilection. He uses the metaphor of a river to show how DNA flows through geological time, with individual organisms being only the temporary vessels of that DNA at any point. The real force driving evolution is the maximization of DNA replication. Purposeful design is an illusion. In fact, he argues, even biologists are at times altogether too hung up in organisms, their physical structure and purpose. The staggering time scale of life on earth needs to be grasped if one is to avoid the mistakes of anthropomorphising and deifying. Propagation of DNA over this vast time line is sufficient to explain the entire process of evolution.

He ends with another metaphor which he calls a ‘replication bomb’, similar to a stellar supernova. By listing ten thresholds that life will achieve during evolution, he paints a picture of biological history beginning with simple chemical self-copying and eventually achieving space travel. It would have been interesting if he had taken this metaphor a bit further, but that would involve speculation and philosophy, two things that Dawkins prefers to avoid.

Compelling, well-written and argued using hard science, thought experiments, and empirical examples, this volume serves as a good handbook for those who would take the Darwinian side of a debate on origins.