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Book Review: Power, Sex, Suicide

Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of LifePower, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane

My Rating★★★★☆

The subtitle of the book says “Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life” and the author tries very hard to match up to that high claim. The book promises to show us why mitochondria are the clandestine rulers of our world – the masters of power, sex, and suicide. In the end It does not quiet explain the meaning of life in the traditional terms but does put forward a very strong argument that life as we know it today owes a lot to those little symbiotes that inhabit every single cell in us. Yes, mitochondria has moulded and given direction to life on earth – from the first eukaryotic cell to the complex animals and finally to us. Without the mitochondria in us, we wouldn’t be here to be any the wiser.

Written in a lucid and conversational style, the book makes for very easy reading and even the hard concepts are put across in simple and sometimes quite entertaining style. The strength of the book is in how well planned and tied together it feels. The author knows which questions to ask when so as to lead us to the overall picture and he also knows how to deftly lead us on wrong routes so that when the real theory is revealed it has the whiff of truth to it and the pleasure of solving a detective puzzle.

Keeping with the ambition of the subtitle, the book grapples with some of the toughest questions known to evolutionary science – How did life originate on earth? How did organisms generate energy then? What conditions prevailed to make it possible? Can it be replicated in other parts of the universe? What was the nature of these first experiments in life? How did they evolve? How and when did life evolve beyond the bacterial stage? What was the crucial event that helped the first eukaryotic cell to evolve? Why were eukaryotes able to evolve into large and complex organisms in a fraction of the time that life existed on earth while bacteria remained stuck in an evolutionary rut? Why are bacteria immortals and eukaryotes mortal? How did sex originate for the first time among eukaryotes and why? Why are there two sexes in most known species, unicellular or multicellular? Why did eukaryotic cell come together to form colonies and eventually multicellular organisms? Why has evolution tended towards size and complexity ever since? Why did apoptosis or cell death evolve in multicellular organisms? How is the lifespan of organisms decided? Why do we age? Why do we die? Is there a way to extend our lifespans? Can we ever be truly immortal? Can the whole process be replicated in other parts of the universe? Can there be intelligent aliens?

Such are the wide variety of audacious questions asked and almost answered in this book and the astonishing thing for me was that it was not some five thousand pages longer with this sort of blindingly vast scope. And the answer to all these questions? As you might have guessed, it indeed is “Mitochondria”. How elegant that such a simple answer can be provided for such a variety of fundamental questions. One is almost tended to rekindle hope for the famous 42 now.

I had a full summary of the book prepared for this review which answered one by one all those questions I listed above, but now, as I am about to post it, I realize that I would be subtracting from the gradual suspense of the book that makes it such a joy to read by doing so. Instead, I would only like to point out a few of my issues with the book:

The author claims that the event of the fusion of the methanogens and the proteobacterium that gave rise to the first eukaryote is a very rare event and hence will not be replicated anywhere else in the universe, thus consigning most parts of the universe to a bacterial slime. The reason he advances for this is based on the fact that all eukaryotes derive from the same ancestor and this means that the the fusion that created this common ancestor happened only once in our entire evolutionary history. This is taken as proof concrete that the event of this eukaryotic creation/fusion is so statistically impossible that it has happened only once in the whole billions-of-years old history of the earth and that too only because it coincided with the oxygen enrichment of earth’s atmosphere at that time. This line of reasoning is then extended to argue that since this event is so rare and dependent on a number of steps one following the other, each of which are equally rare, the chances of complex life evolving anywhere else in the universe is next to zero.

This is a patently wrong argument in my view. The reason why the first eukaryotes were so successful was because they were able to/forced to move into the upper reaches of the ocean since all the competition was in the depths and their new chimeric nature allowed them to survive there. Since this was a blue ocean of no competition, they were able to exploit an entire new world of resources and grew and grew and grew and took it over. It was a literal gold rush for them. Now, imagine that in another billion years, another similar chimera was formed. The first chimera had a huge advantage that they were living in a vegetarian world where no one ate any other living being. But this new chimera, if it rises above to the oxygen rich world, which is now dominated by the carnivorous old chimeras and their monstrous descendants, would find a hostile world hard to survive in and will most probably also find itself someone’s easy dinner. The chances for any new chimera to survive is almost nil in this new dog-eat dog world. So on earth the first variety dominated and culled any new competition and this is the reason why another eukaryote never evolved. It is not because the event itself is statistically so unlikely. It is because the survival of such a chimera is statistically unlikely in a world already populated by other such eukaryotes capable of competing more effectively with a new eukaryote.

But, (and this is strangely overlooked by the author though it is firmly fixed in Darwinian principles) the fact that it did not happen a second time on earth in billions of years does not preclude the possibility that in another world where organisms are still primitive enough to be competing to eat external resources and not each other, a new chimera could evolve and move to uninhabited vastnesses where they would then use their eukaryotic nature to found another kingdom of life. It is entirely possible. So here is reassuring all alien buffs dejected by this book that universe has more to offer than mere bacterial slime on its menu.

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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature

Civilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of NatureCivilizations : Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

My Rating★★★★☆

The eloquent historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto has clearly meant this book to be a counter-proposal to the geographic determinism espoused by scholars such as Jared Diamond. And for the most part he does an admirable job of convincing the reader that ‘civilization’, as defined by him, is a truly random and almost inevitable accretion wherever human societies develop. Even though he agrees that geography has always been a vital factor in any civilization’s progress, thus providing ammunition for the “geography is destiny’ cry of the determinists, he also quickly pulls that argument down.

In Armesto’s vision, the geography a civilization finds itself in, or the latitude to be more accurate, is not a determining factor in its history, but a limiting factor in their growth. It is something to be overcome, a basic tenet of the ‘civilizing impulse’ that Armesto believes is a part of all of mankind – the desire to modify the environment as much as possible. To show that geography can be transcended thus, he takes us on a long tour that encompasses all the major geographic niches that the earth has to offer – spanning the frigid snow-lands, the arid deserts, the sultry tropics, the gloomy marshes, the cloudy highlands, the loamy riversides, the stormy coastal areas and the lonely islands – and shows magnificent examples of stunning civilizational attempts that flourished and faded on those vastly different habitats in every latitude of the world. The current predominance of certain civilizations is less than a few centuries old, and could just be a freak of history; after all quite a few civilizations that were less strategically placed geographically have had longer reigns in the past. Armesto makes a compelling case and argues that a lot of things go into the cauldron that spawns civilization and to limit the explanation to any single ingredient is clearly an over simplification.

But then, Armesto too is a historian and like all historians, unfortunately, he cannot avoid trying to construct a story that can explain the present from the past. Why write a history book if it has no thesis to offer on how things got this way? So Armesto proposes his own counter-thesis: Though he struggles throughout the book to avoid any kind of determinism, he goes on to admit in his concluding argument that “geography, in the broadest sense, the palpable realities of the planet, the exigencies of nature, the soils and seeds, the winds and waves has shaped the world presented in these pages.”

He says that even though civilizations might have grown out of their environments of origin, they have been borne by the wind. This forms his principal argument of the book, and it takes shape only at the very end, catching the reader by surprise, after lulling him into the belief that civilizations are a chaotic emergent phenomena of complex human interactions. I would have liked him to stop there and I really don’t buy his causation arguments that make up the last 100 odd pages of the book. But, they are still compelling and thought-provoking and deserves to be presented too.

The crux of Armesto’s final argument then is that instead of the 10,000 BC that Diamond takes to be the point of divergence that led to the current state of the world, Armesto chooses 1490 AD (or the 1490s) as the diverging year that scripted the story of modern colonizations and formed our present. Armesto claims that the unique location of the ‘Western Civilization”, which he prefers to call the “Atlantic Civilization” along with their extremely fine timing to choose their moment for civilizational expansion was what contributed to their world domination – a case of luck and industry going hand in hand. The Europeans, he argues, were always backward in terms of technology, especially sea-faring tech, in comparison to China, India and even the Ottomans,.While they had trade across the Mediterranean (inherited from the Romans), the Atlantic was largely an unexplored territory even while the Indian Ocean had established itself as the preeminent, busiest and most profitable trade route in history. This was due to the fact that the civilizations that rimmed the Indian Ocean enjoyed the Monsoon winds which helped in promoting trade and making travel safe, fast and orderly, with its cyclic nature and seasonal reversal – aiding ships to and fro in their travels.

The unidirectional and turbulent winds of the Atlantic were much harder to decode, especially by sailors anxious about how they would ever make it back if they hitched a ride on these winds that never returned. Armesto claims that the Indian Ocean was so busy and so rewarding that it used up all the available resources (ships) in its own internal trade and the rich nations there had no reason to risk the treacherous voyage to the Atlantic and to Western Europe. The Western Europeans on the other hand, wanted to be in on the high-return trade of the Indian Ocean and was willing to take risks, and over time they decoded the cipher that is the Trade Winds of the Atlantic and eventually learned how to link the two wind systems (trade winds and the monsoon) when Vasco da Gama finally reached Calicut. Armesto says:

That may be the simple reason why Vasco da Gama appeared in Calicut, before an Indian or Arab or Chinese or Indonesian merchant “discovered” Europe by sea, despite the superior equipment and longer tradition enjoyed by the seafarers of the East. It was not because of any superiority on the Europeans part but, on the contrary, because of the urgings of a kind of inferiority: laggards have to catch up. In pursuit of the kind of advice Lazarillo de Tormes got from his mother, “the relatively poor reach out to the relatively rich in the hope that something will rub off”

This along with Columbus linking Europe to the New World set in motion the period in which Atlantic took over as the oceanic center of trade, catapulting all the countries on its rim (Armesto calls them the Rimlands) first into financial security, then trade dominance, then imperial eminence and finally into a common civilizational bowl. This western civilization coalesced into a single gel and then set about trying to remake the rest of the world in its image, borne by the new-found winds, and fueled by missionary zeal; infecting the coastal regions first and gradually encroaching inwards. The consequence was the creation of a single Atlantic civilization which spanned both shores of the ocean. In the seventeenth century, this inchoate civilization came to embrace North as well as Central and South America, and Africa as well as Europe, steadily seeping into the rest of the world as well.

That then is Armesto’s thesis, except for the concluding chapter which sketches a possible future in which the power base shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, thus altering everything again. This is not as believable since the world we know today is not shaped by marine trade as much as the world of the East India Companies.

This scholarly and poetic work tries to give us the history of civilization by giving us glimpses of the images that were the high-watermarks of each of the great civilizations that has graced this world. It is evocative of the splendor of these ancient wonders, even while being more descriptive than narrative. The sheer ease with which Armesto manages to make us feel that we are traveling with a Marco Polo or an Ibn Batutta of our own, enjoying the rise and fall of Rome, pondering the mysterious disappearances of the central American cultures, navigating the glory of Venice in its prime and shuddering at the all-conquering Ottomans bearing down on us – all these experiences ensures that the laborious and careful reading that a book like this demands is entirely worth the effort. Armesto’s masterpiece leaves you with a sense that you have witnessed history in all its nebulousness and that there is no history, no single narrative that can ever be told. It can only be glimpsed and appreciated, never understood.

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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Bleakness Can Be Inspiring

Bleakness can be inspiring:
A bloated river, a ruined city,
Pictures in an old history text-book;
A metropolis blinded by fog,
  Deafened by apologetic airline announcements;
A manual projection camera displayed,
Outside a renovated theater, taking the leap;
Scores of employees in funeral attires,
Walking back from their own graves.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2012 in Creative, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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Philosophy Bites

Philosophy BitesPhilosophy Bites by David Edmonds

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

This book mostly consists of philosophers raising some interesting questions and then failing miserably to answer them. It really is a hodgepodge of concepts where they stick their feet into every interesting philosophical pond available but hardly spends the time required to really test the waters or to gauge the depths. So while the book was not very valuable from the perspective of finding good answers, it was still a good exercise in framing a lot of new (to me) questions or reframing some old ones, and that is after all the essence of all philosophy. Once we have answers to any question, or have the proper way to ask it, then it crosses over from philosophy to science.

So just for getting one thinking in these wide variety if questions, the book was fascinating and worth the time in reading and probably it is also worthwhile putting down here the major questions and also a few attempted answers.

The first question to be addressed was whether the “yuck” reaction ie whether moral or physical disgust should be a yardstick for policy measures or for any informed judgment. The answer was a unilateral No and I will cover this further in my review here.

Another question to be taken up was on whether Relativity should be the foundation of all morality. This Relativism would be any theory which encapsulates the idea that there are individual differences in morality (for which there may be a cultural explanation) and that there are no absolute truths about any moral judgements that we make. Is it all just a matter of taste? The Relativist would answer that it indeed is, he would say that ‘you’ve got your truth and I’ve got mine’ – end of story. But the trouble is, it’s not the end of the story because we’re each seeking to impose a policy on the other.

To illustrate this take an example where I want people to purge al streets of the menace of street dogs and you want them not to, then just at the level of desire we’ve got a disagreement and you could be expected to act to prevent this dog-culling and I act to promote it. We’ve got policies that are in conflict and we might come to blows, as people do. Suppose you say ‘Dog Culling No!’ and I say ‘Dog Culling Yes!’, and in comes Rosy The Relativist, and she says ‘Hey you two, why don’t you just realize that stray dogs are good for you and bad for him and that’s the end of it?’ The question I want to ask is, ‘How does this help?’ Whatever led you to oppose the culling or wish to tolerate the stray dogs is presumably still there; whatever led me to promote it is still there. The idea that we’re not in conflict just starts to look farcical. And the conflict has not been resolved by Rosy – it hasn’t even been helped.

The question of how to treat animals too is explored. How do we regulate cruelty to them and decide where to draw the moral lines? The answer that Peter Singer puts forth is two fold, any creature that is capable of making plans fo the future should be treated with that respect for its own ambitions and any creature capable of suffering should be given the consideration of alleviating any needless suffering. Singer brings up the example of factory farming where we confine animals in conditions that for their entire lives make them miserable. We have to ask: what do we get out of this? Well, we produce food a little more cheaply. But we are not starving, and we can afford to pay a little more for our food. I don’t think there’s much doubt that that’s not something that can be justified if we give equal consideration to the sufferings of the hens and the pigs.

Then the discussion turns to the question of Human Enhancement for excelling in sports and other competitive fields. the thrust of the argument is that if we enhance human performance artificially sports will lose its meaning, we watch it for the human element, to see people overcoming the odds of their bodies to do impossible things. If they are no longer ‘impossible’ and inconceivable, then why watch them?

The next part was about friendship and I could not make out any real questions in this discussion except a back and forth about how can we justify the morality of giving special treatment to our friends over strangers. Are some friends more equal than others? The answer is that the social morals of treating all the same is about equality but friendship is about individuality.

Is cosmopolitanism really that important and how far should toleration just for the sake of toleration go? Can we allow practices we consider morally depraved just because they are part of the cultural tradition of a community? The only anser seems to be that if these practices are imposed on people who are not in a position to make an informed choice for themselves, children, for instance, you might want to be paternalistic and protect them from it for their own good. Adults making informed choices would be a different case. But ultimately it should be about giving the people in that community the education and the informed choices so that they can rise above the blinding customs and then make a decision for themselves, without having them imposed on them from a Big Brother who knows better.

The question was again picked up in the section about Multiculturalism and how Tolerance should not be the word we should be using. To tolerate something is different from real acceptance of the culture. The problem with ‘tolerance’ is what it sounds like – suffering someone’s existence rather than dealing with them violently.

The tricky nature of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice is also explored. That’s when one person is telling another person something and the hearer, owing to some prejudice, deflates the level of credibility they give to the speaker. A good example that we might relate to to understand this abstract concept is the end of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where we find the defendant being charged with rape just because none of the white jurors believe the word of a ‘negro’, then the injustice matters deeply, and indeed in that case the consequences prove fatal.

Who can try and define the nature of Infinity? The mathematicians define it thus: if you can pair off a sub-collection of any given collection with the whole collection, that means you’re talking about an infinite collection of objects.

Scientific realism is to believe that everything that science postulates is really here and is real, even if our sense organs can never perceive it. The conclusion seemed to be that we should be skeptics about some areas of science which has a history of producing wildly wrong theories (such as astronomy?) and realistic about the sciences with a better track record (chemistry?). But with such a short history, do we have enough data to really decide?

This was followed by a very abstract discussion on time and how we treat it so differently from spatial measures. I have nothing worthwhile to comment on this really. Then came the section on the nature of the relationship between the mind and the body as Tim Crane tried to explore it. Most of the discussion was centered on Vedantic philosophy and the Upanishads and is much too detailed and in any case the question is more important!

Tim Williamson then tries to explain how to classify Vagueness and boundary conditions. When do you start and stop being a teenager? When does a heap of sand stop being a ‘heap’ if you remove one grain at a time? At what hour, or minute, or second, does one become middle-aged? Basically it is an exploration of the famous Sorites paradoxes.

The discussion from here on centers on Art and how to define and classify them. Apparently, the fine arts as we now know them today, was the invention of one man – a French thinker called the Abbé Batteaux. The real question though is when does any object get classified as Art? If it is beautiful? Beautiful to whom? Is institutionalization inevitable in a field like the Arts?

Alain de Botton makes an appearance to talk about aesthetics and architecture. His main argument is that form and functionality are important but aesthetics is as important since that too one of the fundamental function so architecture. To explain the real function of a building, Botton invokes John Ruskin – it should encompass both sheltering and also what John Ruskin calls ‘speaking’, when he says buildings shouldn’t just shelter us, they should speak to us. They should speak to us of all the things that we think are most important and that we need to be reminded of on a daily basis. So the idea is that buildings should be the repositories of certain values, ideas, suggestions, and that they should reflect these back to us, so as to inspire us. I was strongly reminded of the speech made by Arkady Bogdanov during the meteor shower episode in that fantastic book Red Mars, and this was the only reason I felt that I agreed with Ruskin on this one.

From art we move to wine and about how to truly appreciate it. And then takes a radical shift into the possible motivations for watching a tragedy.

The discussion was about resolving the paradox of Aristotle when he says Tragedy gives pleasure through pain. This paradox of tragedy is dissolved in effect by saying Aristotle was wrong. The tragic poet’s task is not really to generate in the audience a peculiar species of pleasure. What he should have said, and arguably what he really means, is that a tragic poet aims at giving us a certain kind of insight.

From here on, the discussions are about God and Atheism and so all the really bored ones can get off the bus now.

Don Cupitt says that he has given up on the ideas of a pre-existent self, world, and God, quite apart from human belief, human commitment, and human descriptions. God doesn’t exist apart from our faith in him is his belief now. John Cottingham exploring the Meaning of Life itself says that God is not necessary and neither is religion. Spirituality and spiritual practices independent of both can still give us the calm and peace that we seek. Stephen Law then delves in the famous Problem of Evil: If we begin with the thought that God is all-powerful, all-good, and indeed all-knowing, the question, then, is why does evil exist? or why does evil exist in quite the quantities that it does? There are two different problems here. The first is called the logical problem of evil. Some people argue that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of any suffering or evil whatsoever. The other problem of evil is this. If you believe in an all-powerful, all-good God, why is there quite so much suffering and evil in the world? Surely an all-powerful, all-good God would have the ability to produce a world with far less suffering, and, if He’s all-good, then He would surely want the world to contain far less suffering. Why, then, is there quite so much suffering? So, on the evidential problem of evil, it’s the quantity of evil that’s really the issue, whereas on the logical problem it’s the existence of any evil or any suffering at all that’s deemed the problem. The quantity of suffering is evidence that there is no God.

Keith Ward proposes that a return to eastern Idealism might solve the problem of this definition of God. But, then comes A.C. Grayling who says no to all conceptions of God in his first statement but never raises a finger against any idea that the Judaeo-Christian personal God in his talks. But he is surely a Radical Atheist, rejecting the idea that there are gods or supernatural agencies of any kind in the world. It is even a rejection of the idea that there might have been supernatural agencies at some earlier point in the universe’s history, which is the deist position. He calls himself a naturalist, but the only hole I could detect in his argument was if he was confronted with the numerous ideas of God that never ascribes anything ‘supernatural’ to the concept.

The entire book was in an interview format and most of the times the answers are more evasive than conclusive in any way. But since these are supposed to be the leading philosophers in their respective fields, we can at least take heart that they know as little as we do?

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Posted by on March 23, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek

The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of RealityThe 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Now this is how an honest-to-goodness popular science book ought to be like. The book basically tracks the same story as A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss and even has Lawrence as a character every now and then. Because i was familiar with the story and its ending, this time around I could concentrate on the telling of the story more than the actual events themselves and I was struck by the high contrast of how Richard Panek handles the material and how Krauss had presented it in his book.

Krauss comes at it with a vehemence and a rejoicing attitude as if science has finally solved the big problems with the confirmation of the ‘dunkel stuff’ and from the extension of the flatness of the universe to how it was possible for it to have come from nothing. Throughout the book, the language is forceful and the story is convincing. The scientists know what they are doing and they are finally getting things right was the sonorous message. ‘No doubts entertained’ was Krauss’s attitude and the percentages and the fractions were thrown at us as if there was no contention on those measurements whatsoever. I was convinced and I accepted them. After all, they were coming from a respected scientist who was part of these very breakthroughs. So with a few reservations about how Krauss had not really closed the door with the book, I had concluded my review.

The 4% Universe4% science… 96% stories.

Panek on the other hand has shown me the human version of what happened behind the scenes. Those astronomers and observers who found the standard candles and made the measurements, those theorists who made the elegant theories and the physicists who ran the accelerators in patient search of extreme particles, they were not really all that, exactly. They were mostly guessing and fumbling and playing scattergun. They had no idea whether Type Ia supernovae would really be standard candles, they had no clue why lambda should be non zero or for that matter, what dark matter or dark energy really is.

These uncertainties of the scientific procedure too should be captured when science is written or commented upon and Panek has done that in wonderful fashion. At times his obsession with detail and the pages and pages of detail about the letters exchanged and the worries of each group member of the High-z team and the SCP team does get tedious when the reader already knows the outcome of this famous spat and Panek doesn’t quite manage to achieve the suspense that he tries so hard to build up. But what the detail does provide is an insight into the insecurities and the many mistakes of these Nobel laureates and exposes how almost everything they thought of the universe was wrong and that the Nobel they got was mostly for proving themselves and almost everyone else so completely wrong.

Let There Be Dark

That said, anyone who approaches the book to get answers to the big questions will quickly realize that the book is not about providing answers but about how circuitous the route to finding answers can be. The first half of the book details the work of astronomers discovering in steps, starting from Galileo, that there is more to the universe than what meets the eye. The astronomers progress to seeing the planets, the moon, then the stars and then even the galaxy and then, horror of horrors, other galaxies and clusters of galaxies. The theorists could not keep pace with the speed at which discovery was progressing, lockstep with technology and the theorists lagged far behind, still in the armchair with Newton and Einstein. Meanwhile, the astronomers were going ahead and finding out weirder and weirder things about the universe – they found that the Big Bang was real and had proof in the form of CMBR, they found that the universe is expanding, then that the expansion is accelerating. Then they found that the galaxies rotate too and that the rotation does not slow down towards the edges. The only way they could explain this was to posit a huge amount of ‘dark matter’ on the edges, stabilizing the rotation, only to be derided for reincarnating the discredited ‘ether’ of old days. But, evidence gathered and soon it was accepted. Weird thing, that. It was accepted purely because it solved problems, not because anyone could explain why it was there or what it was doing there, a trend that was soon going to dominate cosmology.

The next step was to come from the laggard theorists. Out of nowhere came the breakthrough idea of an ‘Inflationary universe‘ – now this solved even more problems and also made acceptable a few arbitrary assumptions that the cosmologists had made about the universe such as homogeneity and isotropy. Who could resist that? It was soon standard truth. Now that universe was inflationary and the current state of the universe was satisfactorily explained, the question was how will it end, what is its future? The answer was to find out if the universe was ‘flat’. The mathematics seemed to indicate that it indeed was. But for this, with the existing dark matter and matter put together, there still had to be much more energy (many orders of magnitude) than what the universe we can measure contains. Dark Energy was born, at least on paper. So there we have it, the universe we know, perhaps the universe we can ever know (baryonic matter) is just 4.56% (?) of the real thing.

They had to accept now that there might be less to the universe than what meets the eye. Of course, the theorists and the physicists are still devising new theories to explain away or to prove these unseen problems and millions are spent every month in remote corners with hopes of detecting these elusive stuff, the stuff of the universe.

The best response then, from scientists as well as from those of us trying to make sense of all this, should be humility and a willingness to entertain and rigorously examine the wildest ideas – they seem to have made a habit of coming true.

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Posted by on March 20, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being HumanSupergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human by Grant Morrison

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

In the title of Supergods, Grant Morrison seems to be promising an exploration of ‘What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human’. Does he live up to that promise? No. If you take up this book expecting moral philosophy or some kind of analysis on how the values in our fiction will help us be better humans, boy, are you in for a disappointment.

I have a sulky feeling that the only reason Grant published this book was to take advantage of the predicted upsurge in importance of comics that his pet theories tell him and the reason why publishers went ahead was to cash in on the sudden elevation in the status of pulp comics following Nolan’s reinvigoration of Batman.

So with a serious sounding title and an alluring subject matter, Morrison proceeds to happily serve up a brew of 75 years worth of comic book history, his own bildungsroman and literary criticism on his colleagues and praise for his favorites. The history that he presents is thoroughly colored by his own biases, but at least he never makes an attempt at projecting a dispassionate observer persona. The book is cursory and without focus for the most part; the history is too superficial for an ardent fan and would be way too detailed to serve as an introduction to comics. The analysis that he attempts to bring to the art of story-telling has already been done in much better fashion by Scott McCloud and the evolution of ideas and causal connection to real historical events could also have been better handled by a historian or in conjunction with one. The constant comparisons to Beatles, to Picasso and to Wagner, among others, makes one feel like Morison is trying too hard to fit something that we all know to be a mass product to the exclusive category of High Art.

Almost half the book is about the Golden and Silver ages which saw the birth of Superman and was followed by a burgeoning pantheon of copy-cat heroes like Batman and soon by original and radical version like Captain Marvel. One of Morrison’s pet ideas is the idea of the author inserting himself into the page. He gives a detailed analysis of how this grew in him and of his experiments in sending a 2D version of himself into the comic world to interact with the characters and this makes more and more sense as he himself blends into the narrative of the book in the last two-thirds and the book becomes more an autobiography than a history. Of course, the book becomes a completely psychedelic trip at this point with Morrison using up most of the remaining pages to convince us that he is God’s agent on earth to spread peace and truth. These quasi-religious ideas and Morrison’s long rants about peers soon make the book seem loose and untidy and it just plain comes apart in the last few chapters and all the good impression one might have built up for the book erodes away as the reader struggles through Morrison’s repeated assurances that there is more to the world than what we see and that extra-dimensional super heroes has made him the vessel to reach us through his art. As we close the book, even though we are thoroughly impressed by the force of his language and the wild imaginative scope of his ideas, it would be an effort in credulity to take Morrison or the book too seriously. At the very least, it pointed me to some excellent graphic novels and artists. For that and for the writing style, an extra star.

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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Book Review: Isaac Newton by James Gleick

Isaac NewtonIsaac Newton by James Gleick

My Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I read this to compliment my reading of Quiet by Susan Cain, thinking that studying the life of one of the most famous introverts will give me greater insight.

But all James Gleick provides is a cursory summary of Newton’s work and hardly touches on his personal life and not at all on his character or personality. The book is also a history of the enlightenment age, the growth of the Royal Society, of the rivalries that drove its growth, and the role they played in transmission of information.

How can one understand a man willing to fill millions of words worth of pages with new and imaginative thrusts into the unknown, with no intention to publish and only giving them away in reluctant small portions; a man who took 30 years to publish his greatest work. Even after he became famous, he resorted to publishing under the cloak of anonymity about his own works as well as his critics.

Newton was told by his well-wishers that this withholding of his work only helped in losing recognition for himself and benefit for others. This was sadly illustrated when Leibniz published his own version of Calculus – this prompted Newton to finally bring out his own better and earlier version and start a fiery rivalry which overshadowed their achievements and constricted the growth of mathematics for almost a decade. But one good thing did came out of this – Newton started bringing out texts that he had kept hidden till then.

He was also a dedicated pursuer of biblical and ancient texts, convinced that the ancients knew secrets hidden in these symbolisms. Another strange fact was that Newton made more money from being in charge of the public money minting office than from his scientific enquiries – He was the one who standardized England’s currency and made major contributions to economics and public policy too.

The most intriguing part of the book is when Gleick details out Newton – The Alchemist, probably the greatest of the esoteric order. It was another of the various facets of his life and enquiry that he never made public and came to light only years after his death. This was in fact the cause of his death – the mercury poisoning that resulted from his fascinated constant handling of ‘quicksilver’ which he believed to be the essence of all metals.

While I cannot say that the book was of much use in aiding an understanding of Newton, the man, or that it was a detailed history of his thoughts and works, at the very least, I will never talk about how modern science killed Newtonian Physics. His vision of the universe was as metaphysical as the latest quantum advances, even though the most critics he ever had in his life was for these very metaphysical elements in his ‘Optics’.

He was careful to only present to the public those ideas which he could back up by experimentation, but this does not mean that this powerful mind did not explore and push the same boundaries that we now grapple with in the vast eternities of his solitude.

He was a scientist, alchemist, philosopher, epistemologist, economist, a theologian, and the last of the magicians; combining and distilling all of this vast knowledge into the simple truths that we all know today. Newton was a great of the modern age, not of a quaint age which we have surpassed as we like to imagine.

I would like to agree with Byron as he sang, “Man fell with apples; and with apples rose.”

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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Book Review: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Einstein's DreamsEinstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some of the best fun I have had in recent years of reading came in the two hours it took me to read this (including frantic back-tracks and hop-skips). Time is the hero of this collection and comes veiled in every twisted garb we can conceive, or rather, that Einstein can dream up. Einstein in his mad canter towards discovering the most revolutionary idea in science tumbles right down an imaginary wonderland in this book.

What comes out of the recesses of Einstein’s brooding on the nature of time and its relation to our lives is a montage of dreams that stretch our imagination to its limits. Time goes backwards, becomes personal, loops in on itself, slows down and speeds up according to your speeds and even stops altogether in his various dreams. But in the process we also see our own natures reflected in these bizarre behaviors that Einstein (or rather Lightman) subjects our protagonist to.

While each of the ‘worlds’ are immensely entertaining and thought-provoking, the real crux of the book comes out in the interludes, which are the only times we meet the dreamer – Einstein. The book is an exploration of the twists and turns of the creative process, of the blind alleys and the arcane notions, the tomfoolery and the Baudelaire circus contortions that the creative imagination has to be twisted to before a coherent idea emerges.

Of the dreams, numbering around thirty, some are particularly imaginative while others are variations on earlier themes. At first I was disappointed to encounter these variations and slight modifications, until I realized that Einstein, the dreamer/thinker, has to revisit ideas and try these mutations before he can proceed with them or discard them. Some of the ideas had to be short, some elaborate, some gripping, some boring and some outlandishly silly.

But through it all, the constant feeling, almost magical, of being part of this evolution of thought and of peering into the wildest musings (even if imagined) that led to the conception of time as we know today makes the book a treasure to be revisited and indulged in at every opportunity.

Did I mention that I read the book three times today?

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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Poetry, Thoughts

 

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