Thursday, July 5, 2018

Book Review: "Sal" by Mick Kitson

Sal (2018)
Mick Kitson
234 pages

He hadn’t started going in Peppa’s room then but I knew he would soon because he said he would and Peppa was ten and that was when he started on me. (2)
These bracing lines from the opening pages of journalist Mick Kitson’s debut novel Sal make devastatingly clear the disturbing home life faced by the book’s thirteen year-old narrator, Sal, and her sister, Peppa. These same pages, however, also introduce Sal as clear-eyed and steely-willed beyond her years, determined to protect her sister at truly any cost.

As the story begins, the two huddle together in a shelter they have built for themselves in the wilderness; it is one of their first nights on their own in the woods, and a cold October wind chills them to the bone. But Sal has come prepared; after making the decision in the spring to flee, she willingly endured further months of abuse in order to give herself time to carefully and thoroughly organize an escape. Learning survival skills from many hours of YouTube videos, and creatively obtaining a variety of the survival tools shown, she has meticulously prepared herself, creating an elaborate plan to be able to stay together with her sister, and give them the best possible chance to survive.

Leaving their home behind, Sal has led her sister up into the deep woods of a mountainous reserve in the Scottish highlands. And, benefitting from both her detailed preparation as well as some timely good fortune, the girls come to make a go of it, relishing the peaceful beauty of their new home as they try to put the lingering horror of their old one behind them.

And yet. Can even Sal’s best laid plans and stubborn determination carry them through the daunting realities of surviving in the woods?

Kitson uses flashbacks by Sal to reveal the disturbing home life the girls have left behind, as well as the details of their escape. Through these flashbacks, Sal attempts to process what she has experienced, and the implications of the actions she has taken to protect herself and her sister. But however dark and at times overwhelming these memories, the newfound feeling of control over their lives that she and Peppa experience in the woods creates a powerful elixir. Despite the profound uncertainties of the natural world, the juxtaposition of the peace they experience in the woods to the premeditated violence and chaotic uncertainty of their abandoned home provides a convincing foundation for believing that two adolescents can be willing and able to put up with the challenges they encounter in the life they construct for themselves in the mountains.

Sal’s voice and tone also help in this regard. Her every thought and action reflects the translation of her role as the sole responsible caregiver and protector of her sister from the dangers they had faced at home to the preferable but no less threating world of their mountain home. Sal remains constantly on guard, almost robotic in her focus, with seemingly every event she faces triggering memories of a YouTube video she learned from, or an answer to a question she had purposefully asked a teacher, during her months of preparation.

Certainly it is no coincidence that Kitson titled the book after its narrator: at its heart the novel tells the story of how a thirteen year old --- abused and with no one to turn to or trust for support --- becomes a kind of machine in order to survive, single-mindedly focused on protecting her sister from her fate. Sal meticulously regulates her emotions and reactions, to the point of deliberately allowing herself on occasion a specific amount of time to worry about her situation before getting on with the business at hand. Robbed of her childhood, but not her humanity, Sal’s love for her sister Peppa burns strong and bright, enabling her to overcome seemingly any obstacle.

How appropriate, then, that the jacket designer for the hardcover edition elected to draw Sal’s name in large, glowing, capital letters, set like a leviathan astride a mountain wilderness scene.

Other reviews / information:

Having set the book in Scotland, Kitson includes Scottish expressions that were generally unfamiliar to me, some of them a struggle to understand even from context --- who knew that ‘greeting’ can be used to mean ‘crying’? Having a smartphone nearby to use to look-up the definitions for these words when they come up can be handy.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Review: "Our Mathematical Universe" by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (2014)
Max Tegmark (1967)
421 pages

Evolution endowed us with intuition only for those everyday aspects of physics that had survival value for our distant ancestors, leading to the prediction that whenever we use technology to glimpse reality beyond the human scale, our evolved intuition should break down. (363)
This observation by physicist and author Max Tegmark comes toward the end of his book Our Mathematical Universe, but it could perhaps have served well as its epigraph, giving readers fair-warning of the strange and profoundly counter-intuitive predictions and hypotheses about our universe that he describes as arising out of the most important and consequential theories in physics from the past century.

Given, then, that one must abandon intuition at the door, and despite Tegmark’s best efforts to distill the essence of what, as he himself indicates, at most a handful of modern-day physicists in the world truly grasp, his book is not for the faint of heart. But those who take courage in hand and dive-in will be rewarded with an engaging, if wild, ride through the latest --- yes highly counter-intuitive --- conclusions being explored about the nature of our physical world.

As hinted at in the book’s subtitle, My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, Tegmark goes beyond reviewing the origins and implications of the theoretical physics he covers, to also describe his role as a physicist in the developments of the past half-century and the conclusions he has drawn from that work about the “nature of reality.” Thus, into his explanations of the science, he works in auto-biographical notes that provide insight into the often incremental nature of scientific development, as well as the complexity of the politics among physicists. Certainly his description of the heated debates and disagreements among proponents of differing understandings of the models physicists have proposed to describe our physical reality, and the seemingly strict demarcation between what is acceptable to discuss or even consider publicly --- and what is not --- put the lie to an idealized view of science as a purely objective discipline driven only by the data.

Tegmark makes clear that the hypothesis that he has developed over the past few decades about the “ultimate nature of reality,” and that he lays out in this book, does not yet enjoy much support among the physics community. He even includes an e-mail from a “senior professor” (243) that implores him to, basically, keep his crazy ideas to himself, and so avoid destroying his own career. But, as evidenced by the irreverent style in which Tegmark has written the book, he is not one to be easily diverted from following where he feels that the mathematics and physics --- and observational data --- lead him.

Before getting to his own hypotheses about the physical world in the third and final part of the book, however, Tegmark sets the stage by reviewing some of the latest understandings and debates of physicists.

The first part of the book, labeled Zooming Out, deals with cosmology --- our understanding of, as the opening chapter is titled, Our Place in Space. Tegmark begins by re-tracing humankind’s gradual discovery of the vastness of space, and Earth’s place in it. Up to his description of the model of the Big Bang the story will be largely familiar to most lay-readers of science, though Tegmark provides fascinating insights, from his vantage point as a physicist doing experimental and analytical work, into especially the recent period of testing of the validity of the Big Bang model.

Then comes time, however, for readers to buckle their seatbelts. After discussing some of the limitations of, and seemingly wildly unlikely coincidences required by the Big Bang model based on the latest data and analysis, Tegmark introduces inflation theory, which was first proposed by physicist Alan Guth. Examining Einstein’s theory of gravity, Guth found that among its implications one can conclude that “once upon a time, there was a tiny uniform blob of a substance whose density was very hard to dilute,” (100) that such a substance can undergo an explosion in which it grows exponentially in size without its density dropping, and that this expansion can continue forever.

Tegmark notes that inflation theory has been found to address many of the issues observed with the Big Bang model. More critically, however, a further consequence of inflationary theory is that it can be understood to imply the existence of multiple, parallel universes, defined cumulatively as a multiverse, a concept that plays a central role in the reminder of the book.

Each of these parallel universes, according to inflation theory, results from the occurrence of a Big Bang in a region of the inflationary space, an event which, in fact, leads to an end to inflation in that particular region. And, as a consequence of the inflation of space going on forever, an infinite number of such parallel universes can exist, each the result of a separate Big Bang, our own universe being one among them. Critically, given different initial conditions for each such Big Bang, history will play out differently in each of these parallel universes: the history in a universe parallel to our own will differ from our own history to the extent that the initial conditions of the Big Bang in that region of space differ from those of our own region’s Big Bang.

One mind-blowing implication of such an infinite number of parallel universes is that somewhere in space, in a universe parallel to ours, history can proceed exactly as in ours except that, say, I stop writing this review after this sentence for whatever reason; and, of course, the same can be said about the next sentence, and so on. Given an infinite number of such parallel universes then, all possible histories can be imagined to be playing out, unaccountably many of them including some version of ourselves.

Taken together, Tegmark defines this set of parallel universes, in which the laws of physics are the same across all of them but the history taught in each one is different, as the Level 1 multiverse.

He goes on to define a Level 2 multiverse as the equally infinite number of universes that have the same fundamental laws of physics as ours, but whose effective laws of physics --- the laws as they are experienced --- are different in that key parameters (for example, the number of time dimensions or space dimensions, or the mass of the electron) can take on different values. The result is an infinity of Level 1 multiverses, each with different effective laws of physics, each separated from the others by an eternally expanding space between them, and each, of course, itself containing an infinite number of universes.

Given the weirdness (a word Tegmark himself uses repeatedly) of these ideas, and that they will only get still weirder as one gets deeper into the book, it is perhaps useful at this point to step back and highlight a key point that Tegmark makes: the potential existence of the Level 1 and Level 2 multiverses is not a theory or an unsubstantiated proposal; instead, the possibility of their existence arises as an implication of the mathematics of Einstein’s theory of gravity. And the fact that “Einstein’s theory of general relativity has successfully predicted many things that we can observe … we consider it a successful scientific theory and take seriously also its predictions for things we can’t observe.” (124) As Tegmark goes on to point out: “you have to either accept all [of a theory’s] predictions, or you have to start over from scratch” (125) --- you can’t pick and choose the predictions you like. Of course, as he points out repeatedly, such an understanding has not stopped significant portions of the community of physicists from discounting the idea of the existence of multiverses.

The middle part of the book, entitled Zooming In, turns to the very small, providing a history of the work that led to the development of quantum mechanics, and its still hotly debated meanings and implications. Tegmark summarizes the important conclusion of quantum mechanics as that particles can have “properties both of traditional particles (they’re either here or there) and of waves (they can be in several places at once in a so-called superposition).” (183) This behavior of particles, he recalls, is described by the wavefunction, developed by Erwin Schrödinger.

One implication of the wavefunction is that a particle, or a superposition of many particles such as an object or person, can be in more than one place at one time. But physicists have had to grapple with the fact that a particular particle (or superposition of particles) appears in a particular place when observed --- that is, the wavefunction is said to “collapse” to being a particle located at one particular place. He notes that Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg settled on “a remarkably radical remedy that became known as the Copenhagen interpretation, [which said in part that] if something is not being observed, then its wavefunction changes according to the Schrödinger equation, but if it is being observed, then its wavefunction collapses so that you find the object only in one place.” (178)

Tegmark summarizes the concerns some physicists have had with the apparent arbitrariness of the Copenhagen interpretation, then states that “in 1957, Princeton grad student Hugh Everett III had proposed a truly radical answer [to these issues] involving parallel universes” (186). Everett proposed that the wavefunction never collapses, regardless of whether an observation is taking place. The implication of this, according to Everett, was that if the wavefunction shows two possible locations for the particle, then when an observation is made our universe splits, so that in one branch the particle is in one place, while in the other it’s in the other place. As Tegmark describes it: “In other words, parallel-universe splitting is happening constantly, making the number of quantum parallel universes truly dizzying.” (190). This (again infinite) set of parallel universes he defines as the Level 3 multiverse.

Having set the stage by describing modern day cosmology and its implication for the potential existence of Level 1 and Level 2 multiverses, and quantum mechanics and its implication for the potential existence of the Level 3 multiverse, Tegmark gets to the heart of his own thesis in the final part of the book, in which he introduces what he defines as the Level 4 multiverse.

To introduce the conceptual walk he followed to arrive at the idea of this new order of multiverse, Tegmark recalls that scientists have long wondered at the effectiveness of mathematics in describing the physical universe. As an explanation for this he proposes “the hypothesis that there exists an external physical reality completely independent of humans.” (267) As a consequence of accepting this hypothesis, Tegmark argues that “the hypothesis that our external physical reality is a mathematical structure” (267) follows unavoidably. And, as a further consequence, if space (that is, the entire inflationary space in which we live, containing the Level 1, 2 and 3 multiverses) is defined by a mathematical structure --- that is, by the set of fundamental laws of physics that apply in our universe, and by extension in our entire inflationary space --- then it follows that other spaces can exist that have other mathematical structures, with different fundamental laws of physics.

Thus, the Level 4 multiverse contains an infinite number of spaces, each fully described by a different mathematical structure.

Key to acknowledging the essential nature of the mathematical structure of our space, according to Tegmark, is to not allow what he refers to as the “baggage of language” to interfere with our understanding; we must recognize that the names we give things are only for our own convenience, and don’t imply or represent any inherent property of those things. Thus, a “ball” or a “star” are convenient names we use to describe objects that are actually groupings of particles fundamentally described by the mathematical relationships between the particles. More broadly, the entirety of reality, Tegmark argues, can be fully describe by a set of mathematical relationships, independent of the descriptions any particular observer may give them, and in fact independent of the existence of any observer.

He points out that some, perhaps many, of the mathematical structures in the Level 4 multiverse may not be capable of leading to life, in any sense that we can imagine it. And as other mathematical structures may lead to vastly different fundamental physical laws, it can also be that the multiverses that have been proposed to exist in our space (our mathematical structure) may not exist in these other mathematical structures, though at the same time other kinds of multiverses that we can’t imagine may be present.

Over several chapters, Tegmark goes on to examine the mathematical structure of our particular universe, to the extent it is currently understood, and more generally the implications of his hypothesis for the existence a multiverse of different mathematical structures. He discusses how his hypothesis can address some of the currently unresolved mysteries of our universe, including the implications for the concepts of time, randomness, and complexity, and why the fundamental laws of physics in our universe seem to be tuned just right to support life. He also addresses how his hypothesis could be tested and verified.

The book concludes with a chapter whose title, Life, Our Universe and Everything, recalls the title of the first book in Douglas Adams’ series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Life, the Universe and Everything. (“Our” universe for Tegmark, of course, instead of Adams’ “the” universe, because the very subject of Tegmark’s book is that we live in one universe among infinitely many.) In this final chapter, Tegmark examines the potential ways in which our universe could one day end, based on current understandings. He then focuses more directly on the future of life, and in particular what could destroy life as we know it --- from near-term threats such as a global pandemic, nuclear war or climate change, to more distant threats such as the death throes of our sun or the eventual collision of our Milky Way with the Andromeda galaxy. He concludes with a plea that we recognize what he feels may be the nearly unique gift of consciousness that humankind enjoys on “Spaceship Earth” (398), and the importance of dealing with the near-term problems that place the existence of our life as a species at risk.

The link to Douglas Adams reflects the style and approach Tegmark uses throughout the book. He includes a variety of references to popular culture, from the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Star Trek and others. He also tells stories of his own experiences studying and working in the field of physics, to highlight the challenges of doing work in this highly competitive field, including the difficulties and risks of bucking the status quo. Though he occasionally goes into some details of the mathematics and physics, he generally relegates the most technical aspects to the footnotes, and so keeps the main text at a more descriptive level, using prose and helpful diagrams to make his points.

At times this almost folksy nature of his writing can seem to overly simplify the explanation, failing to highlight the importance of particular points. More than once I encountered a statement along the lines of ‘as we saw in the previous chapter…’ and when I referred back, it was a single line buried in a paragraph, one that hadn’t seemed particularly consequential on the first pass, and so the implications of which I had missed.

This is a minor quibble, however. In Our Mathematical Universe, Tegmark has provided an entertaining, engaging and profoundly fascinating exploration of the cutting edge of physics and its implications for our understanding of reality. In a tradition that goes back to the earliest human urge to understand and explain our physical world, we continue to learn that that which we can see occupies an ever smaller and less central part of our latest understanding of the whole of what is.

Other reviews / information: a coincidence that seems to highlight a focus of many physicists working today, the title of Tegmark’s opening chapter --- which serves as a kind of preface for the rest of the book --- has strong parallels to the title of a book published by physicist Carlo Rovelli in the same year. (Rovelli’s book, originally in Italian, didn’t appear in English until several years later.) Tegmark’s first chapter is titled, What is Reality, and opens with the section heading Not What It Seems, while Rovelli’s book is titled Reality is Not What it Seems; both physicists make clear reference to the breakdown in our intuition as we attempt to grasp the complexity of our physical world. (My review of Rovelli’s book is linked to at left.)

Sam Harris, as part of his podcast Waking Up, has had several fascinating discussions with Tegmark, on topics ranging from the multiverse, to the future of artificial intelligence.  Links are provided below.

The Multiverse & You (& You & You & You…)
The Future of Intelligence


The Multiverse & You (& You & You & You…)

 The Future of Intelligence

What Is and What Matters 

What Is and What Matters
with Max Tegmark and Rebecca Goldstein

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Book Review: "The Late Poems of Wang An-shih"

The Late Poems of Wang An-shih (2015)
Translated from the Chinese by David Hinton

105 pages
Following the Rhymes of Pattern-Unraveled’s
Poem Here in the Small Garden

Birds no longer sing among courtyard walls and open rooms,
so much beauty, and frogs no longer call in garden pools. Now

trees cling to overnight rain, stained with autumn’s first reds,
and wildflower grasses, green as ever, flare in morning sun.

The ten thousand things, heaven’s loom of origins: there’s no
loss or gain, it’s true, but who welcomes the worry of this life?

Let’s go out, walking-sticks in hand, and gaze into all change
itself --- wondering, wondering, eyes become offerings of light. (25)

After an influential life as a government minister, the Chinese poet Wang An-shih (1021-1086) retired to a life of quiet contemplation, living in an isolated house outside River-Serene (modern day Nanjing) and journeying frequently to temples and monasteries in the nearby mountains. During these years, as he cleansed his mind of worldly concerns and embraced the profound beauty of the natural world, he wrote poetry that explored his experiences. His delicate but powerful writings, collected in The Late Poems of Wang An-shih, reflect the challenges and rewards he discovered along his spiritual path.

Wang’s poems have been translated from the Chinese by the poet David Hinton, who has also translated the works of a number of other Chinese poets. In his introduction to this volume, Hinton describes Wang as “having devoted himself to government service until the age of fifty-five, becoming one of the most powerful and controversial statesmen in Chinese history,” and that then, at the end of this career, “Wang retired to the life of a recluse poet and spent his last decade wandering among the mountains and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhist monasteries of southeast China, writing the poetry that made him one of the greatest poets in a great poetic age: the Sung Dynasty.” (xiii)

Wang reflected this biography in his poetry, which returns often to the themes of shaking off the cares of his past life in the capital city, and embracing his study of Ch’an Buddhism:
Sent to a Monk

Through ten scattered years all confusion tangled among
affairs of the world, I masked my haggard look in smiles.

If you want a mind peaceful as autumn waters, you live
your life idle as cloud drifting ranges of mountain peaks. (3)


It’s all mirage illusion, like cinnabar-and-azure paintings, this
human world. We wander here for a time, then vanish into dust.

Things aren’t other than they are. That’s all anyone can know.
Don’t ask if this thing I am today is the thing I was long ago. (16)

Wang’s appreciation for the natural beauty he finds around his isolated home, and in the nearby mountains through which he often travels, comes through in many of his poems, which include radiant descriptions of this scenery and the profound impact it has on him.
Farewell to Gaze-Arrive

Pond a scatter of emerald-green fields,
terrace a radiant riot of crimson bloom:

who can exhaust the splendor of spring?
There’s no limit to mind’s own delight. (45)
Not surprisingly, his visits back to the city during this period leave him longing ever more urgently for a quick return to the countryside:
Leaving the City

I’ve lived in the country long enough to know its wild joys:
it feels like I’m a child back home in my old village again.

Leaving the city today, I put all that gritty dust behind me,
and facing mountains and valleys, feel them enter my eyes. (39)

These references to nature also tie directly, however, to the central theme in Wang’s poetry: his dedication to a life of contemplation. As Hinton describes in the Introduction, the Ch’an Buddhist idea that “the self and its constructions of the world dissolve into the emptiness of Absence [is] a concept that recurs in Wang An-shih’s poetry.” (xvi) Wang links the recognition and appreciation of the peacefulness and apparent timelessness of the natural world, in the face of the trials and tribulations of hectic human society, to the achievement of stillness in one’s own mind.
Wandering Bell Mountain

Gazing all day into mountains, I can’t get enough of mountains.
Retire into mountains, and old age takes the form of mountains:

when mountain blossoms scatter away, mountains always remain,
and in empty mountain streamwater, mountains deepen idleness. (7)

Although I’m not able to comment on the quality of the translations, in his introduction Hinton offers a fascinating discussion on the complexity of the task. He refers to “the remarkable resources of the Chinese poetic language: its texture of imagistic clarity, pictographic script, and grammatical emptiness.” (xvi)  Selecting a particular poem, he dissects it, character by character, describing both the images portrayed within each character’s drawing, as well as the multiple meanings inherent in the character’s representation.  Along with providing an engaging insight more broadly into the Chinese language, these several pages attune readers to the depths of meaning in Wang’s poetry.

The pieces in this exquisite volume of poetry are deeply affecting, drawing in a reader with entrancing images of beauty and stillness. Crossing centuries and bridging cultural differences, Wang’s transcendent lines communicate a startlingly relevant vision of how one might look up from quotidian cares and through a recognition of the beauty in the world, discover the path to a more profound and contemplative life.
Visiting River-Serene

I’ve traveled this land five times in seven years, and at last
laugh in wonder. It’s such majesty to be alive in this world,

to become another bundle of dry grain stored up, a lone old
man somehow sharing the idleness of generations to come. (5) 

Other reviews / information:

Hinton includes a glossary of terms tied back to the poems, to explain the meanings of particular expressions, including certain location names that have modern equivalents or that were an important part of Wang’s spiritual journey, terms and concepts from Ch’an Buddhism, and references Wang made to other famous poems.

The phrase “the ten thousand things” mentioned in the poem that opens the review is a Chinese concept that also appears in a number of the other pieces in the book; as Hinton describes in the Introduction, it refers to “the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand living and non-living things in constant transformation.” (xiv)  Author John Spurling used that expression as the title for his historical novel centered on another figure from China’s history, Wang Meng, who lived in the 1300’s, and served as a magistrate, but was also a talented artist. My review of Spurling’s novel is linked to at right.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Book Review: "Machine Learning" by Hugh Howie

Machine Learning (2017)
Hugh Howey (1975)

334 pages

Having thoroughly enjoyed author Hugh Howey’s Silo Trilogy (find my reviews of those books here: Wool, Shift, and Dust), I had high expectations for his recently issued collection of short stories, Machine Learning, in which he gathered twenty-one of his stories, most of which have been previously published in other places.

Organized into seven groups that span a range of science fiction sub-genres, the stories reflect the distinctive style that characterizes Howie’s novels, with the glint of a hard, sharp edge flashing out at a reader from the heart of each of these tightly spun tales. At the end of many of the pieces Howie has included a short note providing his recollections on the context in which the story originated. Though occasionally these vignettes can seem a bit forced, they generally give us a welcome look behind the scenes and into the mind of the author.

In the first section, Aliens and Alien Worlds, the story Second Suicide flips the framework of the typical invasion of Earth plot, telling it from the perspective of an alien soldier, a member of a force that has swept through the cosmos building up its power from the knowledge of countless, conquered civilizations that it has destroyed. With the battleships approaching Earth and planet-fall nearing, the soldier has inexplicably been transferred from a non-fighting unit into a frontline, landing group of infantry. Learning that many others have met a similar fate, his mood darkens in the face of ominous signs pointing to a challenging battle to come.

The four stories of the section Artificial Intelligence all examine the moment when an AI becomes more than its designers anticipated or even imagined possible. Glitch, for example, imagines a fighter robot designed for research into ever more advanced battle units for war that (who?) suddenly resists involvement in further fights. In Executable, a council meeting on a future Earth looks back at how the seemingly comprehensive security systems of an AI research center were compromised with devastating consequences by the creeping intelligence and connectivity gradually being introduced already now into the everyday appliances around us.

The Plagiarist, one of two stories in the section Virtual Worlds, examines the implications of the idea that we are on the verge of having computer systems capable of creating simulated worlds in which the inhabitants will not realize that they do no actually exist. The story incorporates the perhaps obvious where-does-it-end plot element for such a story, but it also examines the more subtle topic of the potentially wide variety of things that could be learned from such simulated worlds as the societies in them develop and grow in unexpected ways.

Although the stories in this collection are uniformly strong, my favorites by far are the three interlinked pieces gathered together under the heading Silo Stories, which form an extremely satisfying complement to the original Silo Trilogy. The three span the time-frame of the original books, and the surprising conclusion illustrates the enduing power of an obsessive desire for revenge, bringing to mind the quote from Melville’s Moby Dick that played a central role in another work of science fiction: “to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee."

Overall, the collection of stories in Machine Learning demonstrate the ability of science fiction to move beyond the simple trope of space-operas, and in so doing exploit the genre to great effect to examine human behaviors and the implications of technology through the lens of imagined futures and alternative worlds. Howey most powerfully and effectively takes advantage of this in the stories here that look forward just a few decades into our future, examining the potentially dramatic consequences of our present-day decisions and actions.

Other reviews / information:

For more on the concept of the concept of Simulated Worlds and the potential of our existing in one: the Wikipedia entry describing the simulation hypothesis;  a Scientific American article discussing it.  Supposed proof that we are not, in Cosmos Magazine

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Friday, April 27, 2018

Book Review: "Stardust" by John Gribbin

Stardust (2000)
John Gribbin (1946)

198 pages
One of the popular justifications in campaigns promoting recycling is that material can be reused to create new products. In his book Stardust, astrophysicist and writer John Gribbin takes this concept to a whole other level, describing, as his subtitle states: The cosmic recycling of stars, planets and people. In an engaging mix of science and history we learn how the universe recycles the remains of stars to form the basic building blocks of solar systems and, finally, of life itself.

Gribbin introduces his topic by summarizing theories put forward on how life could have first appeared on Earth, before concluding that
[although] we still don’t know exactly how life began … we do know, very precisely, what mixture of chemicals is required for the existence of life as we know it. And we know exactly where those chemicals come from --- as a natural by-product of the processes of start formation and evolution. (17) 
Identifying Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Nitrogen (CHON) as the fundamental elements to life, he focuses in particular on the properties of Carbon and Hydrogen, including their critical ability to easily form chemical links with other elements, and so to create such all-important structures of life as amino acids and DNA. This leads then to the central question of his book: “can we explain where the stuff we are made of, dominated by CHON, comes from?” (42)  The key word for Gribbin being explain, as both the title of the book and the introduction give away the answer: “stardust.”  Gribbin describes his motivation for writing the book as a desire to explain how scientists came to recognize the importance of stardust, to characterize its content, and to discover the processes of its creation.

Though Gribbin has targeted the book at a lay audience by avoiding the more complex details of the physics and chemistry involved, it helps for following his explanations to have some level of comfort with high school level science. To make the book more accessible, he does early on provide a brief but effective review of key scientific concepts, dusting them off for readers and so preparing a strong foundation for the rest of his text. He augments these explanations with clarifying sketches to illustrate the ideas introduced.

Gribbin’s presentation of the scientific history of stardust necessarily follows two scales of discovery that occurred roughly in parallel: the very large --- understanding the origins and development of the cosmos; and the very small --- understanding the constituent parts of matter and how they interact. He begins with the ancient Greeks and their understanding of what they saw in the night sky; in particular he highlights the philosopher Democritus, who proposed both that “the Milky Way might indeed be made up of countless numbers of stars … [and who] was also a leading early proponent of the atomic theory.” (44)   (For more on Democritus, see Carlo Rovelli’s excellent work investigating the intersection of science and history Reality is not What it Seems; my review here.)

Using Democritus as an example, Gribben highlights a key element of the scientific process, pointing out that “[Democritus] had no way to test his ideas because he lacked the appropriate technology. They remained hypotheses, not theories, until the technology to test them was invented.” (44)  This fundamental relationship between technological development and its relationship to theoretical understanding is central to Gribbin’s presentation in the rest of the book; he traces the intimate connection of the evolution and refinement of scientists understanding of the nature of the universe, including of stars and their systems of planets, to the availability of ever more advanced technology with which to make observations. And he doesn’t shy away from addressing the inevitable mistaken assumptions and dead-ends that scientists made along the way, and that often delayed progress until the technology became available to clarify and correct them.

As ever better tools came on-line, scientists were able to determine that the elements that had been discovered on Earth were also present throughout the universe, in stars and nebula. They also came to understand that our present universe had originated “from a superhot, superdense state --- the Big Bang --- about … 15 billion years ago,” (99) but that what “emerged [from the Big Bang]… was a mixture of 75 per cent hydrogen, just under 25 per cent helium, and a smattering … of very light elements.” (111)   The key question became then, how that “very light primordial stuff turned into the stuff we are made of?” (111)  The answer ultimately lay within an understanding of the processes involved in the creation, life, and, particularly, end-of-life of stars.

Gribbin describes how scientists came to understand that the earliest stars --- necessarily made from the only elements available, hydrogen and helium --- had short lives, at the end of which many expelled material into the cosmos as either red giants or, for some subset of stars, more dramatically as novae or supernovae. The processes that occurred as the dying stars ejected this material created a cosmic dust of heavier elements --- stardust. Supernovae in particular lead to vast amounts of these heavier elements, and Gribbin provides a fascinating review of the two types of supernovae that have been identified, and how they lead to the creation of different sets of elements.

The heavier elements contained in the nebulae of stardust created by that first generation of stars became a small but significant part of the next generation of stars that formed, which further enriched the interstellar material with an even larger proportion of heavier elements as these stars in turn completed their lifecycle. Each subsequent generation then continued this process of enriching the material available for the formation of new stars and their planetary systems.

As some scientists developed and demonstrated these theories for the end-of-life stellar processes that created heavier elements, others worked out an ever more refined understanding of how stars and planets form from this material. Gribbin describes what has been learned by using the formation of our own solar system as an example, and in particular the development of Earth and how it came to have the ingredients for life. Based on the latest evidence and understanding about the broad variety of molecular material contained in stardust (revealed and proven out using the latest technology), he summarizes current theories on how the fundamental building blocks of life may have arrived on Earth.

In an Appendix, Gribbin moves on from his main topic of stardust --- which he describes as now increasingly well-understood --- to the forefront of speculative science, at least as it stood when he was writing this book at the turn of the millennium. He notes that, while his book provides an explanation of the current understanding of how the universe we observe today arose from the Big Bang, it does “not necessarily [represent] the whole story of life and the universe.” (179)  At the cutting edge of astrophysics, the latest theories describe the potential origins for singularities such as that which caused the Big Bang; they postulate the existence of multiple universes, each with a potentially different set of physical characteristics, and one of which --- ours --- having the particular set of coincidences necessary for life as we know it. Thus, scientists continue to push forward, while remaining inseparably tied to what the latest technological developments make observable to them.

Stardust reads a lot like a detective or mystery story, though one in which the solution is revealed early on. The thrill comes from learning how successive generations of scientist-detectives, supported by ever more expertly engineered equipment, slowly but inexorably piece together answers to the mysteries of the universe. Gribbin’s engaging writing brilliantly achieves the right balance of conceptual overview, technical detail and scientific history to make his book comfortably accessible to those interested in understanding more about our cosmic origins.

Other reviews / information:
In an interesting note, Gribbin points out that it is incorrect to think of the Big Bang as having exploded to fill space:
The Big Bang was not an explosion that took place somewhere in empty space, with fragments from the explosion (galaxies) flying apart through space like shrapnel form an exploding shell. Rather, what happens is that space itself expands, and takes galaxies along for the ride. (100) 

I tripped across this wonderful video showing The Entire Life of the Universe.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Lamentation 2: the pointless dawn that will never have know you

Another entry in an occasionally series of posts of lamentations that have had a profound impact on me. (The introduction to this series can be found here.)

In his book The Man of Feeling, Javier Marías evokes the heart-breaking loss of watching a lover die, and the acutely inescapable reality it brings with it of one's own mortality.
When you die, I will truly mourn you. I will approach your transfigured face to plant desperate kisses on your lips in one last effort, full of arrogance and faith, to return you to the world that has rendered you redundant. I will feel that my own life bears a wound and will consider my own history to have split in two by that final, definitive moment of yours. I will tenderly close your surprised, reluctant eyes and I will watch over your white, mutant body all through the night and into the pointless dawn that will never have known you. I will remove your pillow and the damp sheets. Incapable of conceiving of life without your daily presence and seeing you lying there, lifeless, I will want to rush headlong after you. I will visit your tomb and, alone in the cemetery, having climbed up the steep hill and having looked at you, lovingly, wearily, through the inscribed stone, I will talk to you. I will see my own death foretold in yours, I will look at my own photo and, recognizing myself in your stiff features, I will cease to believe in the reality of your extinction because it gives body and credibility to my own. For no one is capable of imagining their own death. (169)

Other reviews / information:

My review of The Man of Feeling here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Book Review: "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson

The Warmth of Other Suns (2010)
Isabel Wilkerson (1961)
622 pages

The renowned historian W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the opening lines of his celebrated work The Souls of Black Folk (my review here) that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  From that prophetic observation, Du Bois proceeded over the course of fourteen powerful essays to describe the crippling social, political and economic situation faced by freed slaves in the South in the final decades of the 19th century, a period during which the short-lived promise of Reconstruction evaporated as Northerners’ interest shifted to the greater perceived economic benefit promised by reconciliation with the white South.

By the time Du Bois’ book appeared in 1903, politicians in the states of the former confederacy were aggressively codifying a separate and unequal situation for their black citizens in the form of Jim Crow laws. Thus, as the 20th century opened, extensive legal restrictions and deeply entrenched social proscriptions constrained most blacks in the South to a life as share croppers or day laborers. Factor in the ever-present risk of generally unprosecuted beatings and lynchings, and the situation for blacks in the south was little better than the slavery they had nominally escaped just a few decades before.

In one critical sense, however, things had changed dramatically for the former slaves: they now had freedom of movement. Though traveling for blacks remained unpleasant --- and far from risk-free --- the extreme dangers that had earlier led to the creation of the Underground Railroad were now largely a thing of the past. As a result, in the early years of the 20th century a small number of blacks began migrating North and West, looking to escape the desperate hopelessness and every-present risks that dominated their lives in the South.

Then, with the onset of World War I, industries in the North faced worker shortages and began aggressively pursuing cheap labor from the South, providing additional impetus to the tentative migration that had begun. The trickle of people leaving the South suddenly transformed into a growing flood that lasted well beyond the end of the war, as those who left became beacons of success and hope for relatives and friends who remained behind.

The environment in the South that helped motivate this migration and the experiences of those who joined the movement North and West form the basis of journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s engaging and thought-provoking work The Warmth of Other Suns, which recounts what her subtitle refers to as The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. She describes the main period of this migration as having lasted from 1915 to 1970, six decades that transformed the country, as
some six million black southerners abandoned the land of their forefathers and fanned out across the country for an uncertain existence in nearly every corner of America.  The Great Migration would become a turning point in history.  It would transform urban America and recast the social and political order of every city it touched.  It would force the South to search its soul and finally to lay aside a feudal caste system.  It grew out of unmet promises made after the Civil War and, through the sheer weight of it, helped push the country toward the civil rights revolutions of the 1960s. (9)

Through Wilkerson’s captivating narrative the personal impacts and experiences of this migration come alive for readers. Eschewing a simple, dry recounting of the period’s social history, Wilkerson instead builds the story around the lives of three specific people who made the move out of the South, three individuals with concrete histories. Though she includes brief interludes that step back to fill in the broader historical details, those vignettes are generally at most a few pages long. The majority of her story consists of a series of sections that rotate between her three principals, starting from their early lives in the South, through their migration North or West, to their new homes in cities distant from their birthplaces.

The three people whose lives she chronicles each grew up in different parts of the South, allowing Wilkerson to highlight the variety of black experience and struggle across the region in the context of the broad range of Jim Crow laws and unofficial yet violently enforced social constrictions that existed. They also migrated in different decades, and to different cities in the North and West of the country, and so experienced differently the newfound freedoms outside the South, as well as the numerous challenges of trying to find jobs and housing, and raising families far from their southern roots.

We are introduced first to Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who worked as a sharecropper picking cotton along with her husband and two children in Mississippi; she and her family migrated to Chicago in 1937, as the beatings and lynchings come too close to home and life too dangerous to continue on in the south. Next we meet George Swanson Starling, who grew up in the Citrus belt of Florida; forced by his father to abandon his dreams of college after his sophomore year, he worked as a day laborer in the citrus fields until his agitating for better pay for the workers forced him to escape to New York City in 1945. Finally there is Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who grew up in central Louisiana witnessing the challenges faced by his father as a school principal, and his mother a teacher; Foster chafed at the lack of opportunity and rigid caste system in his hometown, and when an opportunity to go to Morehouse College in Atlanta presented itself, he trained as a doctor, and eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1953.

Wilkerson opens the book by briefly introducing her three main characters, as well as the broader history of the Great Migration they become a part of, before dividing the main narrative arc of her story into three major parts. The first section describes her characters’ experiences growing up in the Jim Crow South. The second focuses on the events that finally led each of them to make the life-upending decision to escape the crushing reality of their lives in the South and migrate far from their families and hometowns. The third then describes the world each of them encountered in their destination cities: the many freedoms they discovered, but also the challenges they faced as they settled into a world that, though it did not have the level of restriction and violence of the South, confronted them with unwritten, and shockingly rigid rules at every turn. The book closes by describing the final years of the three, as they reflect back on their experiences and also the impact their choice to migrate had on their children and grandchildren who grew up in the North and West.

By focusing the book on the lives of these three particular individuals, within the context of the broader history of black life in America in the 20th century, Wilkerson makes the story of the Great Migration more personal for readers. It becomes difficult to cling to the misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions that seem to have endured for so many about the post-slavery reality of the black experience. Faced with specific migrants whose backstory we come to know, and so about whom we come to care as individuals, the soul-sapping discrimination and terror they repeatedly encountered becomes impossible to dismiss and ignore.

And, in fact, many events that Wilkerson describes recall the line from Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” However horrific the period of slavery that came before this migration was, when learning about its details, one can fall back onto the concrete fact that the slaves were in a condition of complete subjugation, and so perhaps ‘not surprisingly’ at the mercy of brutal owners and masters. It seems to become all too short and easy a walk from that idea, however, to the perniciously false conclusion that that time and those conditions ended over a century and a half ago with the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment, and so to dismiss their impact and relevance for our society during the 20th Century, or, for that matter, the 21st.

Wilkerson’s book makes readily evident the fallacy inherent in such thinking and assumptions, by demonstrating through the experiences of Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling and Robert Foster the searing impact of the Jim Crow laws on the day-to-day lives of blacks. It is not just that violence happened: we read about an in-law of Ida Mae’s who is nearly beaten to death over a misunderstanding that didn’t even actually involve him. It is not just that black education was poorly funded: we read about Robert’s high school, at which “every few years, a teacher … loaded a band of students onto the flat bed of a pick-up … pulled up to the back entrance of the white high school in town … and began stacking the truck bed with the books the white school was throwing away.” (84) And it’s not just that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus or in certain parts of the train: we read about George Starling moving north and becoming a train porter working on trains going up and down the east coast, and having to lead blacks who had boarded in the north-east free to sit anywhere to segregated cars as the train crossed the Mason-Dixon line into the South.

The hard truth is that these were not events of 150 years ago, or isolated stories; these events happened to people we come to know and care about, and occurred still in the middle of the 20th century, not so very long ago.

And it is finally this --- the recognition of the nearness to our own time and lives more than the events themselves --- becomes the most powerful and affecting part of Wilkerson’s story: the Jim Crow laws and ever-threatening vigilante violence in the South, and the unofficial but still sometimes violently defended discrimination outside the South, happened in the lifetime of Baby Boomers, or the lifetimes of the parents of those born later --- not in some distant past that might allow one to disassociate oneself and one’s understanding of and opinions about modern-day society from it.

Toward the end of the book, Wilkerson summarizes previous work done on the history of black lives in the 20th century, and the migration that so many participated in, recalling that:
Throughout the Migration, social scientists all but concluded that … the Migration had led to the troubles of the urban North and West … blaming the dysfunction of the inner cities on the migrants themselves [who] were cast as poor illiterates who imported out-of-wedlock births, joblessness, and welfare dependency wherever they went.” (528) 
But, she notes:
Newly available census records suggest the opposite to be true. … the migrants were, it turns out … [when] compared to the northern blacks already there … more likely to be married and remain married, more likely to raise their children in two-parent households, and more likely to be employed [and] to earn higher incomes than northern-born blacks even though they were relegated to the lowest-paying positions ... [and] were less likely to be on welfare. (528) 
Wilkerson’s book plays an important role in explaining this more accurate understanding of our past, and its impact on our present --- the on-going “problem of the color-line.”

Through her work, it becomes evident that the roots of the decay that struck major American cities in the second half of the 20th century are not to be found in some inherent personal failing of the migrants themselves, but rather in the social and economic milieu they encountered in the cities of the North and West they migrated to. Boxed into limited parts of the city that did not contain sufficient housing, they often paid more for places than the whites who had moved out, to landlords who had little incentive to perform maintenance given the captive market that made demand larger than supply. The resulting decay and decline of these neighborhoods became a self-fulfilling prophecy for whites in surrounding areas, who then doubled down on their efforts to exclude blacks from their neighborhoods, with violence if necessary.

These migrants also faced wide-spread discrimination as they looked for work, with many companies unwilling to hire them because of the reactions of existing white employees, leaving them with the lowest paid jobs, and little if any prospect for advancement. Migrants who came out of the South, however, “had experienced such hard times, and were willing to work longer hours or second jobs in positions that few northern blacks, or hardly anyone else for that matter wanted.” (528)

Thus by dint of their hardscrabble pasts --- and a powerful pride that would not let them return as failures to their family and friends back home --- they found ways to succeed despite the many challenges. And though many saw their children struggle to escape the destructive impacts of discrimination in their new cities, some climbed out of the enforced poverty to find great success --- with their children even becoming, as Wilkerson points out, political leaders in their hometowns.

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson succeeds brilliantly in giving us an intimate look at a critical period in American history, one that transformed the entire country as it unfolded over the middle half of the 20th Century. By choosing characters who came from three different states and circumstances in the South, and who each migrated in different decades to different parts of the U.S., Wilkerson provides a flavor of the variety of experiences of the many millions who joined in this Great Migration, and in so doing, makes personal for the reader not only the details of this history, but the deep ties it has to the issues and challenges in our current society.

Other reviews / information:

A website with pictures of the principals in the book, and additional information, is available at the link here.

On her program On Being, Krista Tippett has an engaging interview with Isabel Wilkerson. I recommend both the unedited and edited versions, which are available as podcasts at the link at the right.

The challenges and discrimination that Wilkerson describes blacks facing in the area of housing are summarized in a New York Times editorial, Blacks Still Face a Red Line on Housing, which charts the origins and history of red lining, and carries the story forward to the present day.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf