Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Lamentation: "hammer the sky"

In Khalil Gibran’s “On Joy and Sorrow” (from The Prophet), the poet describes the two emotions of his poem’s title as ‘inseparable’ from one another. Persuasive though his arguments may be regarding the shared source and strength of these feelings, I have generally found myself more enduringly affected by profound expressions of sorrow than of joy.

It has been lamentations that have stuck with me, well beyond the moment I first encountered them in my reading or elsewhere. For while joy seems fleeting, its emotional high ephemeral, sorrow and its origins maintain a powerful and lasting presence in my memory.

With that introduction, I begin an occasionally series of posts of lamentations that have had such a deep impact on me.

The selection below comes from Annie Dillard’s wonderful book For the Time Being. I must first offer apologies to Dillard, for although I have accurately quoted the selection below, I know that I have taken it out of the context of her engaging book on what it means to be alive. Nonetheless, her image of a man hammering the sky has remained with me, a visceral expression of rage against the heavens.
On the shore beyond me I saw a man splitting wood. He was a distant figure in silhouette across the water. I heard a wrong ring. He raised his maul and it clanged at the top of its rise. He drove it down. I could see the wood divide and drop in silence. The figure bent, straightened, raised the maul with both arms, and again I heard it ring just as its head knocked the sky. Metal banged metal as a clapper bangs its bell. Then the figure brought down the maul in silence. Absorbed on the ground, skilled and sure, the stick figure was clobbering the heavens. 
I saw a beached red dory. I could take the red dory, row out to the guy, and say: Sir. You have found a place where the sky dips close. May I borrow your maul? You maul and your wedge? Because, I thought, I too could hammer the sky --- crack it at one blow, split it at the next --- and inquire, hollering at God the compassionate, the all-merciful, WHAT'S with the bird-headed dwarfs?

Other reviews / information:

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: "Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nesreddin"

Burros burros burros y Nasrudín
(Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nasreddin)
Adaptation: Carmen Romano
Illustrations: Eloisa Torres

47 pages

A significant number of humorous stories have been attributed to Nasreddin, a 13th century Sufi philosopher; in the centuries since his death, these stories have been passed on, adapted and added to, forming a rich and deep tradition. Generally just a paragraph or a most two or three long, in these stories Nasreddin takes on various roles, from a sage, to a common man, to a fool; generally the tales contain a moral, or universal truth, in some more directly stated than others.

The wonderful little collection Donkeys donkeys donkeys and Nasreddin (in the original Spanish Burros burros burros y Nasrudín) consists of twenty-three such stories, involving Nasreddin with his donkey. In these brief tales, we find the broad variety of characterizations that Nasreddin can take on. For example, in No One Escapes, Not Even the Donkey (No se salva, ni el burro), Nasreddin teaches his son an important life lesson:
Nasreddin traveled together with his son. The father walked, while the son rode on the donkey. Along the road they crossed paths with several peasants who gossiped:
— What an inconsiderate kid, riding the donkey while the poor old man walks!
The son got off the donkey, and the father climbed on. A short while later, they came across several villagers,
— What a heartless type! they said — leaving the kid to walk in this heat, while he so comfortably rides the donkey.
Hearing them, Nasreddin and his son continued on riding the donkey together.
Soon they again crossed paths with other perolesople who gossiped:
— How inconsiderate. Don’t they understand that that is too much weight for the poor animal?
Then Nasreddin and his son got off the donkey and walked along next to it.
After a time the met other peasants who said:
— What fools, the donkey walks by himself, while those two walk at its side.
Nasreddin said to his son:
— Have you noticed? Each one said something different.
In this world you can’t please anyone nor save oneself from criticism.
Therefore, the best thing to do is to faithfully follow your own will my son.

Nasreddin as the simpleton makes an appearance in Helping my Donkey:
One day, Nasreddin rode on his donkey, while carrying a sack full of flour on his shoulders. — Hey, Master — they asked him — why are you carrying the sack on your shoulders?
— What would you like? — he answered — my poor donkey is old and barely able to carry me, and so I took pity on it and decided to help it a little, by carrying the sack on my shoulders.

In Contraband Donkeys we find another view of Nasreddin, as a shrewd operator, who again points out human short-sightedness:
Nasreddin crossed the border every day with baskets of his donkey filled with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler, the border guards searched him over and over again. Hoping to discover the hidden merchandise, they looked through the straw, soaked it in water and even burned it on occasion. Despite all this, Nasreddin continued to become richer with his earnings from the contraband.
Eventually he retired and went to live in another country, where, several years later, one of the border guards came across him.
— Now you can tell me, Nasreddin, what contraband where you taking through, that we could never manage to discover?
— It was clear: The Donkeys! — answered Nasreddin.

Each of the stories in this beautiful collection is accompanied by a lovely illustration composed of a simply presented scene featuring Nasreddin and one or more donkeys. The illustrator has used cloth to create puppet-like cloth figures, and then placed photographs of them onto simply drawn backgrounds to create the final images. The cover illustration shown at the top of this review provides an example of the artwork in the book.

Taken together, the anecdotes in this collection provide pointed commentaries on the human condition, presented as humorous anecdotes. The stories and images create an engaging book for adults, but one that will also appeal to and intrigue children.

Other reviews / information:

Included below are the original Spanish versions of the stories translated for the review:

No se salva, ni el burro

Nasrudín viajaba acompañado de su hijo. El padre caminaba mientras el hijo iba montado en el burro. En el camino se cruzaron con unos campesinos que murmuraron:
— Qué muchacho más desconsiderado,
¡Va montado en el burro mientras que el pobre viejo camina!
El hijo bajo del burro y subió el padre. Al poco tiempo, se encontraron con unos aldeanos
— ¡Qué tipo más desalmado! — dijeron — deja al muchacho caminar con tanto calor, mientras él va tan tranquillo en el burro.
Al oírlo, Nasrudín y su hijo montaron los dos en el burro.
Al rato se volvieron a cruzar con otra gente que murmuraron:
— Qué desconsiderados ¿Es que no comprenden qué esa es una carga exagerada para el pobre animal?
Entonces Nasrudín y su hijo desmontaron y caminaron al lado del burro.
Después de un rato se encontraron a otros campesinos que dijeron:
&mdash Qué tontos, el burro camina solo, mientras que esos dos caminan al lado.
Nasrudín le dijo a su hijo:
— ¿Te has dado cuenta? Cada uno ha dicho algo diferente.
En el mundo no se puede dar gusto a nadie y tampoco se puede uno salvar de la crítica.
Así que, lo mejor es seguir fiel a tu propia voluntad hijo mío.

Ayudando a mi burro

Un dia, Nasrudín iba montado en su burro, levando un saco lleno de harina sobre sus hombros. — Oye maestro — le preguntaron — ¿por qué llevas el saco en tus propios hombros?
— ¿Qué quereis? — contestó — mi pobre burro es viejo y apenas puede cargar conmigo, así que me dió pena y he decidido ayudarle un poco, cargando el saco sobre mis propios hombres.

Contrabando de burros

Nasrudín cruzaba la frontera todos los días con las cestas de su burro cargadas de paja. Como admitía ser un contrabandista, los guardias fronterizos lo registraban una y otra vez. Esperando encontrar la mercancía escondida, cernían la paja, la sumergían en agua e incluso la quemaban de vez en cuando. Mientras tanto, Nasrudín se enriquecía cada vez más con las ganancias del contrabando.
Por fin se jubiló y fue a vivir a otro país, donde, unos años más tarde, lo encontró uno de los aduaneros.
— Ahora me lo puedes decir, Nasrudín, ¿Qué pasabas de contrabando, que nunca pudimos describirlo?
— Estaba clarísimo: ¡los burros! — Contestó Nasrudín.

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

Physicist Leonard Mlodinow on the Concept of Free Will

On her engaging and thought-provoking radio program On Being, host Krista Tippett has invited in a number of physicists. During her discussions with them, she has often touched on the concept of free will, and, in particular, raised questions about the view among some physicists that free will does not exist: that at least in a theoretical sense, our every thought and action are determined by the same physical laws that govern every other event in the universe.

Tippett returned to that topic in a recent conversation with the physicist Leonard Mlodinow, entitled Randomness and Choice, and as the exchange developed, her deep discomfort with physicists’ viewpoint on free will became apparent. For Tippett, a lack of free will makes a human being little more than a kind of automaton, tightly constrained to think and act in ways that are dictated by the laws of physics.

With Mlodinow, the discussion on free will began with Tippett referencing an earlier exchange she had had with physicist Brian Greene on the topic. (For a transcript of a key moment in that program with Greene, see the post-script to my review of Edward O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which can be found here.)

Greene had tried to assuage Tippet’s concerns by noting that the complexity of the human brain makes it effectively impossible to predict our future actions, and that this fact gives us the feeling of having free will even though in reality we don’t. The short-coming of this argument, as Tippett pursues with Mlodinow, is that having the feeling of having free will is not equivalent to truly having free will.

She notes that, independent of however convincing the feeling of having free will may be for us, if we consciously accept that we don’t truly have free will, then it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have no responsibility for our actions. A disturbing consequence of this would seem to be, as Tippett points out, that moral qualities such as heroism or cowardess that we might associate with particular actions, suddenly have no meaning, since a person has merely reacted based on the fixed, physical laws of the universe.

Mlodinow attempts to create a path through this thicket by starting from an argument similar to Greene’s comments on the complexity of the mind, but that doesn't satisfy Tippett anyone than it did when Greene presented it.  She sees an opening in something Mlodinow wrote, which describes a concept that he refers to as a randomness inherent in our environment and our interaction with others. 

Ironically, Tippett — the journalist and author — interprets Mlodinow's writings on randomness in a strict, almost scientific sense, assuming that he means that a fundamental randomness exists in the universe, and that this could be a window through which free will could be considered to exist for human beings.  Mlodinow —the scientist —  explains however, that he uses the word randomness in a more colloquial sense, and that it relates to an <i>apparent</i> randomness, one that arises directly out of the complexity argument described above; given enough information, that randomness would disappear into the laws of physics.

He then goes on to describe his thinking related to the concept of randomness, arguing that when faced with the constant stream of events in our lives that are, for all intents and purposes, random, we make choices, and that we must make these choices as if we do have free will.  Thus, even as he acknowledges his fundamental scientific understanding that the physical laws of the universe determine our every decision and action, he makes clear his belief that we must not use that reality to absolve ourselves of responsibility for what we do.

Ultimately, although Tippett’s fascinating discussions with physicists such as Greene and Mlodinow help us think about many of the deep questions involved in the concept of free will, we are left with no clear-cut answers. It remains for each of us to resolve for ourselves how we understand this mystery of human existence.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I had a conversation with Brian Greene and that still has me thinking and we ended up talking a lot about something that I know is a given for physicists, and it’s there in your writing, although I think you nuance it in interesting ways. And I want to get into this with you. Which is, no scientist in any field claims to be able to predict or understand human personality or destiny, but most physicists do believe fundamentally that nothing happens in the universe that is not the result of fundamental forces and laws of physics. I mean, you’ve wrote this from the birth of a child to the birth of a galaxy. And that is just a really stunning and puzzling fact. [Laughs].  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs] Yes. And, I could give you a monologue for hours about that, but I’ll try not to.  
MS. TIPPETT: Well, I mean, let’s just have a conversation about it, because I haven’t been able to really stop thinking about it, puzzling with it. And as I was reading, getting ready to talk to you, I realized you’re a perfect person to talk to this about. I mean, where would you start talking about that as a puzzle?  
DR. MLODINOW: There are a lot of aspects to that question. Maybe the most basic one is really comes down to are there miracles? Meaning exceptions to the laws of nature. Or does everything follow physical law? In a way that’s the essence of the question. You know, Isaac Newton, when he invented his physics, which is to say the beginning of modern physics, the physics of the everyday world, he believed that everything followed his laws without exception, except that God steps in now and then, and sets things straight when they start to go awry.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: So he believed in some kind of limited miracles. Pierre Simon Laplace, who proved that the solar system is stable, was very famous for saying something that he actually semi-stole from a Catholic priest. But his statement — very famous statement is that if you know everything, the state of everything now, and you know all the laws, and you have infinite calculation ability, then the future and the past are both determined. Neither is hidden from your knowledge or from your eyes. And so when Napoleon asked him why there was no God in his science, Laplace said, I have no need for that hypothesis. [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: If you believe that there are no exceptions, whether they be big miracles or minor deviations from the laws of physics, whether you look at the quantum laws that are fundamental or Newton’s laws. Whichever laws you look at, neither set of laws has room for deviations or choice, let’s say. Conscious choice. So, if you believe that the brain follows those laws, as everything that — in the laboratory that we’ve ever looked at, does, then it’s not a question for scientists.  
MS. TIPPETT: But the totality of our lives and circumstances at any given moment is the result of so many more — like we imagine choice and we imagine we have an intuition of purposefulness. Or the need for that. But one thing that was very striking to me about, you know, getting into the way you think about this is, I think, one thing I said to Brian Greene, you know, his title — his book title that’s so well-known is The Elegant Universe and you physicists use that language of elegance and beauty together with truth, right, in terms of, you know, the equations that are true are elegant and somehow this picture of the laws of physics being as tyrannical as any medieval God was…  
DR. MLODINOW: [laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: …this is what really troubles me. At the extreme edges of talking about the laws of physics this way, you could just substitute the way the most primitive human cultures have used the word God, and we are so reduced.  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, this is interesting, because now we’re coming to the difference between theory and practice. [Laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And, the idea that we have no free will is an interesting philosophical question. In reality, we do have free will. Because in reality a system as complex as the brain with 100 billion neurons and I think 1,000 to 10,000 connections between each of them on average, is so complex that not only could one say that one can’t, in principle, model it or predict exactly what it’s going to do next, but almost in principle you can’t. Because in very complex systems, small changes in the state of the system produce large changes in the output.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. DR. MLODINOW: It’s called — that’s called chaos. But that’s typical of very complicated, non-linear systems. And…  
MS. TIPPETT: The human beings are…  
DR. MLODINOW: …the thing about the brain is…  
MS. TIPPETT: …I would say every human being…  
DR. MLODINOW: …that even…  
MS. TIPPETT: …every human being is a complicated, non-linear system. [Laughs]  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs] Yeah, hey the ones I know are.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: Of course, not me, I’m very straightforward, and logical, and always right. [Laughs ]. But other people are like that. And, when you look at their brain, there’s no way, even if you put the equations of physics, it’s an infinite possibility. And with something as complicated as the brain, I believe that errors in these measurements are always going to ruin your predictions. So in physics you have these things called effective theories, which are saying okay, there’s some other theory underneath it, but that’s too complicated. This one works. And this, but we’re still even going farther and saying almost in principle that the brain is too complicated to apply Laplacean determinism and so, the free will that we feel that we have is really — does defy the God as you say, the rulers or the despots of determinism. [Laughs]. So that’s just another way of looking at it. That’s probably as far on the spectrum toward free will as most scientists are willing to go.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Well, I mean, and let’s just bring it down to earth. You know, your father, resisting the Nazi’s in Poland, if you took this blanket statement that there is no choice, there is no free will, somehow this was all determined by forces beyond our control or comprehension. Your father’s life there and his action meant nothing, and had no nobility, and no meaning, and there’s just something — everything in, I don’t think just me, but most scientists as human beings, would rebel against that thought.  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, to me, even with my own view of free will and feeling that the laws of nature don’t have exceptions, what my father did, or what anyone does, is meaningful. Because if you think of this way, that he’s a biological organism that I don’t know his — the layout of his brain or how that produces whatever he does, so I judge him by his actions. And what he was doing with those heroic actions was revealing who he was. And, there are other people who revealed who they were and, you know, it wasn’t, in my mind, as attractive of a person. [Laughs]. So, I don’t think that there’s a difference between he’s on the spot making a decision do I take the fall for this or do I try to blow up that or whatever his decision was, is any less heroic if the decision was meant to be based on who he is as a person.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I mean, it raises the question of whether there is such a thing as courage, or maybe it’s just that our definition of courage is like isolated acts, but…  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, of course there’s…  
MS. TIPPETT: …you’re saying maybe it’s…  
DR. MLODINOW: …or maybe the courage is who you are. And the courage isn’t that decision at that moment, the courage is that you’re the kind of person who would make that decision.  
[Music: “Oblivion” by Ahn Trio]  
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the physicist Leonard Mlodinow. He’s reflecting with me on the puzzling dissonance between our human sense that we choose and shape our lives, and the scientific observation that free will is an illusion. He is a child of two Holocaust survivors, and someone who’s written books with figures as diverse as Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. He’s been sharing the nuanced way he reconciles his life experiences with modern physics faith in randomness.  
MS. TIPPETT: I find a bit of an opening, also, in the way you think about this and the way you write about randomness. So here’s something you wrote and I think these two things went together. I mean, you write about your father’s — a story he told you about how he got the job in the bakery at Buchenwald, the concentration camp. His sense that this is just random but tell that story.  
DR. MLODINOW: Oh, that was in The Drunkard’s Walk.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And the book is about randomness and life. And to me, you know, when I was thinking about writing that book, I was almost shaken by the realization that I’m, you know, a random effect of something very bad. And I hope that for me, I’m glad I’m here, but I’m only here because Hitler or the Nazis killed my father’s previous family. And that led to my being here.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: And that was a very hard to thing to face, in a way, that — what’s the meaning of my life, when it arose from something like that? And in that story, he was in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and he had stolen — he stole a loaf of bread from the bakery. And, the baker, I guess there were a certain number of people who had access. They lined them all up and brought the guys with the guns. And they said who stole the bread? And my father didn’t say anything. And then they said, okay, we’re going to start at this end of the line, and we’re going to shoot everybody, until either you’re all dead or the thief steps forward. And so he puts the gun to the head of the first person. So my father, at that point, steps forward, and admitted that he stole the bread. And, he told me that it wasn’t a heroic thing that — he didn’t do it out of heroism, he did it surely practical that these guys are all going to die, and I’m going to die, too, or I’ll just be the only one. So he stepped forward. And instead of killing him, though, the baker acted like God, and somewhat arbitrarily took him under his wing and gave him a job as his assistant in the bakery. And so, he had a much better job after that, based on that incident. And it just shows you that even in the midst of all this cruelty, there’s randomness, or I don’t know what, whim? I don’t know if the guy — I don’t know if he was being human and let some of his humanity peek out, or he wanted to play like God, I don’t really know what was the person’s motive, but that’s one of many things that happened to my father. If it had happened differently, I wouldn’t be here, and my kids wouldn’t be here. And everything would be different in, you know, that lineage.  
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one of the things that’s so fascinating is how quantum physics has presented a picture of the world that is so much more of reality, the way things work — that is so much less ordered, more — there’s chaos, there’s randomization, and it wasn’t there for Newton or even for Einstein or they didn’t want — you know, Einstein didn’t want those things to be there. And, you know, one of the things you say is anything that is possible eventually will occur. [Laughs]. Just wait long enough and strange things will happen. But still, there’s an order to it.  
DR. MLODINOW: Doesn’t your life work that way? [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. [Laughs]. But here’s the out I — here’s the opening I feel you give. Here’s something else you wrote. “The outline of our lives, like the candle’s flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate.” You know, you say that we are driven to see patterns and create patterns where the patterns aren’t there, but essentially there’s so much randomness. But, you — seems to me that you’re also presenting our responses as mattering. There is randomness, and then you talk about that even though that is true, you know, the number of at-bats, the number of chances taken, number of opportunities seized does make a difference. It does shift things. Can you explain that in scientific terms?  
DR. MLODINOW: [Laughs]. Yeah, I was thinking about Brownian motion, so that says it all.  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs].  
DR. MLODINOW: No, I’m just kidding [laughs]. The — so The Drunkard’s Walk, which is the title of that book, is sometimes called The Random Walk and it comes from a jagged path that particles in Brownian motion seem to take for no apparent reason. In Brownian motion, people look at — this in the 19th century, they noticed that little grains of pieces of pollen would jiggle around for no apparent reason in liquid. And they thought at first maybe that was a life force, because there was no force on it. Maybe that’s what was jiggling, because it’s pollen. But they eventually figured out, and Einstein actually is the one who explained it, that this jiggling comes from the impact of the molecules on the pollen, pushing it this way and that way. And I saw a parallel with our lives, because when you look at your life, if you had to sit down and think about, and I’m talking about in detail, not just the headlines, if you think about all the details of what happened to you, you will find that there was a time where you had the extra cup of coffee, where if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have met Person A.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: Or you probably don’t realize that if you hadn’t done this, you would have gotten into crash which you — car crash but you didn’t, because you were a little bit later than and the guy — the drunk guy hit someone else or whatever. When I look back in my life, or I looked at the life of certain celebrities, I could find so many instances like that. And I had fun tracing some of them. How little things make a big difference, and — but the little thing that happens to you, other than if it’s something random like getting hit by a car, but in other ways, the little things that — what they really do is they raise opportunities for you. Or they raise challenges. And the course of your life depends on how you react to those opportunities and challenges that the randomness presents to you. So that’s what I meant by that. That if you’re awake and paying attention, you will find that things happen. They might seem good, they might seem bad at first, you don’t even know. Or you’re wrong about whether it’s good or bad. But, in time, it becomes clear whether the thing was good or bad, but the important thing is how you reacted to it.  
MS. TIPPETT: And, how is that acceptable for you as a physicist in a way that the notion of free will is less convincing? I’m just trying to figure out what the distinction is.
DR. MLODINOW: Well, if I were to describe your every atom, then there wouldn’t be this randomness. I mean, there is still quantum randomness, which I don’t — I think just as a red herring here, but randomness is really a context-dependent term. So imagine you’re flipping a coin. That’s one of the archetypical random event in our culture. We always flip a coin. And it comes out, if it’s a fair coin, 50/50. But actually if you control very carefully how you put the coin on your thumb, and how you flip it, and where it’s going to land, you can — it’s not really random. It’s going to come out heads every time, or tails every time. So, whether it’s — the coin flip is random or not really depends on what you know and how much control you have. And so what I’m saying about life is you don’t know a lot, even if you think you do [laughs] and you don’t have a lot of control, even if you’re a control freak. So a lot of things that happen to you in that sense are random and the same thing with your reaction to it. Yes, maybe a god-like person who knew what the state of all the atoms in your body could tell how you’re going to react, but since none of us are that, it really does matter, and you do have a choice. And that determines your life.  
MS. TIPPETT: Okay.  
DR. MLODINOW: It doesn’t sound like you’re very satisfied, though, I think.  
MS. TIPPETT: No, no. I just wonder, I mean…  
DR. MLODINOW: Hmm, another scientist answer, ha. [Laughs].  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Well, I feel like this could be a few hours, but I mean, I do hear, I mean, the words…  
DR. MLODINOW: So, the quality of your voice tells a lot, doesn’t it. [Laughs]  
MS. TIPPETT: [Laughs] Yes, it does. It does. I just wonder if there’s a vocabulary thing here. Do you know what I mean? Like that the notion of free will doesn’t work for science, but, I mean, you used the word choice, and I suppose that would be subject to some debate, but I feel like there’s a way in which you’re saying, you know, that what we do matters. Although you might say it, and describe it, and see it in a very different way that humanity has said that kind of thing up to now. Knowing what we know now about the universe. Is that fair?  
DR. MLODINOW: Yeah. I definitely think that my decisions matter.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.  
DR. MLODINOW: Now, it’s more of a philosophical question, I guess, whether I was destined to make that decision.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: In my life, that question doesn’t — is something to ponder at times, but the effective theory is that yes, if I step off the building, I’m going to fall off the roof, and bad things will happen. And I don’t know whether I was destined to decide not to step off or not, but I take the decision as if I have a choice.  
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.  
DR. MLODINOW: And I think you have to live your life that way. And no one — whether or not you can argue that theoretically there’s a choice or not, no one knows enough to tell you what choice you’re going to make.  
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.  
DR. MLODINOW: Not even yourself, I think. 
[Music: “Halcyon” by Jon Hopkins]  
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today: physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow. 
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a way in which this thing that physics is pointing out and that you point out in your books and on — they subliminal, the way our subconscious is kind of influencing us in ways we aren’t aware of and randomness. I mean, you — there’s a way in which that pointing out how little control we actually have over so much of what happens to us is a piece of truth that the spiritual traditions have carried forward in time. And that philosophy has known for a long time. I also sense that there’s — the way you take that in, even the science of it is that’s real power in that knowledge. Does it change the way you kind of move through your everyday life knowing about your lack of control? I mean, how does that — how do you work with that as a human being?  
DR. MLODINOW: Well, certainly it does change, I certainly don’t mean to say that the unconscious is not you and there’s someone else [laughs] pulling the strings.  
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah.  
DR. MLODINOW: But what we don’t realize is how much of our feelings, our actions, our beliefs, are coming from our unconscious mind. And I think that when we raise our consciousness about our unconscious, you’re knowing yourself better and to know yourself better, I think, is a good thing. You understand how you’re going to react, and you understand why you did things. And you just have more understanding for yourself. So it not only helps you make in a way better decisions, economically, but it helps you make better decisions, I think spiritually, because you have, in a way, more tolerance for yourself, as well as more understanding.

Other reviews / information:

My review of Leonard Mlodinow's book written with Stephen Hawking, <u>The Grand Design</u>, can be found here.

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Why Do Trump’s Supporters Remain Steadfastly Committed to Him?

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been listening regularly to Sam Harris’ podcast, Waking Up, on which he has engaging and thought-provoking conversations with people from a wide variety of fields. As he summarizes on his site, his intent is to explore ‘important and controversial questions about the human mind, society, and current events.'

In the wake of last fall’s election results, ‘current events’ has, not surprisingly, become a recurring topic of his conversations with the guests he invites onto the podcast, just as it has for so many of us in our discussions with family, friends and colleagues (assuming, of course, that we can even broach the subject at all in the current polarized climate). His guests have included: former world chess champion, and now political activist, Gary Kasparov (The Putin Question); political commentator, and former speech writer for George W. Bush, David Frum (We’re All Cucks Now); journalist and author Anne Applebaum (The Russia Connection); and, in the wake of the most recent revelations of mid-May, Applebaum again, along with journalist and author Juliette Kayyem (The Path to Impeachment).

One question that has surfaced repeatedly in Harris’ conversations and analysis: why do Trump’s core base of supporters consistently dismiss as unimportant Trump’s on-going string of seemingly self-destructive behaviors — actions and statements that for any past politician would have certainly been career ending? Harris, for example, raised that question in his discussion with Applebaum in The Path to Impeachment (~29 minutes in):
So, what do you think it’s going to take, because this is the thing that I find above all so depressing about what his existence is doing to American society. I mean it’s just uncanny to continually hear from Trump’s defenders, who seem completely oblivious to his flaws. No matter how awful you imagine Hillary Clinton to be, and how much you wouldn’t want her to be President, it seems to me that you have to admit that Trump is showing some signs of a dangerous unprofessionalism, at least. And so I mean, what do you make of the fact that there seems to be no path from where we are through the brains of Trump’s defenders to an admission of what should be obvious, that this person is unfit for office. What would he have to do, do you think, to actually turn the tide?

Applebaum’s answer was the verbal equivalent of throwing her hands up in the air, saying that, well, perhaps the tide will finally turn, that enough negative stories will build up to create a tipping point. Her response is not altogether unreasonable given the unceasing stream of shocking moments that Trump has generated. My concern with that line of thinking, however, is that it’s been the working assumption since early in the primaries; there has been a consistent belief after each new negative event by or about Trump would be the one that finally ended his run — and obviously that point has so far not been reached.

I would argue that this line of thinking — believing that the next mistake he makes will be the decisive one — constitutes a kind of failure of imagination on the part of those dismayed by Trump as president — an inability to recognize and acknowledge the deep-seated nature of his base’s commitment to him. Only by understanding the origins and depths of this commitment can we imagine how Trump’s political story might end. To that end, I suggest that Eric Hoffer’s treatise from 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, offers a path to just such an understanding; in it, Hoffer demonstrates how all mass movements, whether they result in good ends or bad, "share certain essential characteristics." (xi). (For my full review of the book follow the title link; quotes from the book include page number references.)

To be clear, I would not characterize Trump’s supporters as constituting a mass movement in the traditional sense. His base largely continues to support him, but does not appear to be, at least at this point, a mobilized group ready to be called to action; they voted for Trump, and are now simply waiting for him to fulfill the promises he made during the campaign. Nonetheless, many of Hoffer’s descriptions in his book of the general characteristics of members of mass movements seem to be strongly represented among Trumps hard-core supporters. Thus Hoffer’s analysis can perhaps provide insight into the motivations of these supporters, and why they hold so faithfully and tightly to Trump.

It must be acknowledged that those who voted for Trump certainly had a variety of reasons for doing so, including, for example, a visceral dislike of Hilary Clinton and strong conservative views on particular social policies. But I feel that the most valid analysis of his support has recognized that the core base grew out of a much more fundamental and so much more enduring motivation: people frustrated with the path their lives are taking, who feel little hope for the future, and who are convinced that the political and social elite of the country not only cares nothing for their plight, but actively pursues policies that work against their interests.

I recently heard an interview given by historian Vincent Harding back in 2011 (details here) — long before Trump appeared on the political scene — in which he provides a trenchant analysis of the source of this frustration:
I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty…. Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color.... But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.

The feelings of “anxiety … fear [and] anger” Harding describes have led to a deep frustration among a significant portion of the American population, and, turning now to The True Believer, we find that the starting point of Hoffer’s analysis is in fact that “the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements.” (xii) Hoffer goes on to write that American society can be particularly reactive to the kind of uncertainty that Harding has described:
One of the most potent attractions of a mass movement is its offering of a substitute for individual hope. This attraction is particularly effective in a society imbued with the idea of progress. For in the conception of progress, “tomorrow” looms large, and the frustration resulting from having nothing to look forward to is the more poignant. (15)
 Hoffer adds, in a statement that now, almost seventy years later, feels ripped from the top stories of our day:
The present-day workingman in the Western world feels unemployment as a degradation. He sees himself disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things, and is willing to listen to those who call for a new deal. (27)

As noted above, the central point of Hoffer's thesis is that the frustrated masses that come together to form a political or social movement — whether with positive ends, such as the American Revolution, or negative ends, such as Nazism — share certain common characteristics.  For one, to be moved to action, Hoffer found that they must in part be “intensely discontented yet not destitute … [and] wholly ignorant of the difficulties involved in their vast undertaking.” (11)  It would certainly be hard to dispute that many of Trump’s supporters seem to underestimate the challenges Trump could face in delivering on his promises, whether it is to bring back in significant numbers heavy-industry manufacturing jobs, or to make Mexico pay for the wall, to name but two of the more obvious examples.

Regarding the willingness of Trump’s core base of supporters to discount his seemingly unending string of controversial and often offensive statements and actions, Hoffer’s analysis again resonates. He argues in the book that, by submerging themselves into a unified mass of the disenfranchised, people lose the critical discernment of individuals, and develop such feelings and behaviors as “a facility for make-believe, a proneness to hate, a readiness to imitate, [and a] credulity.” (59)

In particular, he describes a “connection between dissatisfaction with oneself and a proneness to credulity.” (83)   He notes that “the facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but from holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason.” (79) Thus, critically — and dishearteningly for anyone who hopes that sober discourse could turn Trump’s supporters against him — “the fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense.” (85)

This then would appear to be the point we have reached. A group of people so angry, so disenfranchised, so frustrated (to use Hoffer’s term) that they are beyond the reach of reasoned counter-argument. In such an environment it is not so surprising then that for Trump’s base: any facts contradicting what Trump says are defined as fake news; Trump’s inability to make good on his legislative promises despite Republican majorities in the House and Senate is blamed on a lack of support from establishment Republicans and Democrats; calling Trump out for inopportune or inappropriate comments is simply the press or his irrational detractors making a mountain out of a molehill. It would seem that there is quite literally no argument that can be made that would convince a hardcore supporter of Trump to turn their back on him.

Which leaves us where? What is then the path to Trump’s base turning on him? I would argue that path goes through Trump himself. He will have to say or do something that shows him reneging on what he promised his base, something over which he clearly and visibly has control and for which his base cannot rationalize the blame for his failure onto other politicians or the media.

The challenge is that Trump seems to instinctively recognize this, and so continues to push a legislative agenda that fulfills his promises even though it clearly can never pass as proposed; he assumes that his supporters will blame that failure on congress. Meanwhile, on those things that are truly within his control, he does what he promised during the campaign, whether through executive actions, or, for example, in pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. He cannot be reasoned out of doing these things, because he is not doing them for ideological reasons — he does them to survive.

Note, too, that making the argument to Trump that he is now losing some of his support is unlikely to gain traction with him. He was told throughout the primaries that he couldn’t win, that the numbers weren’t there, and yet he became the Republican nominee for president; and this repeated itself again in the general election. Even if some supporters have indeed now begun to drift away, there remains a vocal core that continues to support him. Given all that, why would he suddenly start listening to the polls, and stop believing in his own infallibility? And, ultimately, his self-assuredness only reinforces his supporters’ faith.

Thus, we come to recognize that the answer to the question of why Trump’s base seems so unwavering in its support despite all he has done lies not in over-simplified and disparaging explanations of irrationality or stupidity. Harding’s identification of the social shifts now taking place suggest that a significant portion of the American population has sunk into a deep frustration with their lives; Hoffer’s analysis demonstrates how this frustration can lead people to band together to create a powerful and unyielding group ready to rally behind a populist candidate, and how such a group would become largely immune to arguments against their standard-bearer.

Those with the power in politics and society at large to effect changes that could have acknowledged and attempted to ameliorate the social and economic challenges for a significant portion of their fellow citizens over the past several decades have failed to do so, and have as a consequence allowed the development of a group of people primed for Trump’s arrival on the scene.

At this point, it would seem that we are all consigned to ride this political roller-coaster for the foreseeable future.

As an aside, there is one rather disturbing thought to consider: if Trump does finally fall from power, and Pence becomes president, it’s not clear that Trump’s base would support Pence going forward — in fact, it seems highly unlikely, as Trump’s hard-core base clearly seems to find little to like in either the Republicans or the Democrats. Thus, after coming together to pin their hopes on Trump, they will suddenly find themselves without a standard-bearer in government. Will they quietly become invisible? Or, will they perhaps turn to a new populist leader, one more competent and focused than Donald Trump, who may harness their frustration with even more dangerous effectiveness?

Other reviews / information:

Hoffer anticipates too the rise in hatred that has been evident since late in the campaign, and has only spread since election night. The use of hatred of the other may seem a commonly accepted means of riling up a crowd, but Hoffer’s analysis provides perhaps a new and deeper insight into how such techniques work. He notes that “even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice — in other worlds from self-contempt.” (94) Thus, again, the heart of the matter is to be found in frustration and disenfranchisement. In a statement with strong implications today, seven decades after it was written, Hoffer claims: “Should Americans begin to hate foreigners whole-heartedly, it will be an indication that they have lost confidence in their own way of life.” (96)

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: "The Collapsing Empire" by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire (2017)
John Scalzi (1969)

333 pages

In the far future, mankind has discovered a means to travel faster than the speed of light: by accessing a phenomenon referred to as the Flow, spaceships can move between points in space many light-years apart in only a matter of months. Using the Flow, a group of some three dozen systems has been established in the stars.

The catch is that the Flow can only be accessed by so-called shoals — openings created by particular, if poorly understood, physical conditions at specific points in space. Thus, the Flow cannot be used to travel to any arbitrary point in space, only between systems that are near such shoals. And, if a shoal collapses or shifts, a system can find itself suddenly isolated from the rest.

In the story, just such a shift in the Flow had occurred in the distant past, and cut off the rest of the systems from Earth. As most of the far-flung worlds have no habitable worlds, and so consist of either enclosed habitats on desolate planets or satellites in orbit around them, life without access to Earth and its resources became a difficult challenge. To survive, an empire evolved, made up of a complex power structure of gigantic, complementary mercantile guilds, powerful families each with the sole license to produce and market particular goods. The empire became known as the Interdependency; for the centuries since its founding, the Interdependency has been led by the head of the most powerful of the houses, a leader given the title emperox.

As the novel opens, the daughter of the current emperox awaits his death with apprehension. Her brother had been raised to be the next emperox, but his death some time before the novel opens has thrust her unwillingly into the line of succession, and now the moment for her to ascend to power is at hand. In addition to having little appetite for the responsibilities that await her, she also discovers that she faces challenges far greater than she imagined, as instability in the Flow threatens the survival of the widely dispersed and highly specialized systems of the empire.

Though set well into the future, and built around a clear element of science fiction with the capability for faster than light travel, Scalzi’s story otherwise downplays futuristic technology to evolve as a tale of political and corporate intrigue and maneuvering. With the exception of the Flow, and the significant number of women in powerful positions, the story could easily be set in our present, even down to the characters dialogue and personalities which, despite being a millennium or more into the future, would fit comfortably into a modern-day adventure tale.

The focus on action generally trumps character development in the story; with the exception of a few upright citizens, most of the principal characters seem to be largely driven by the principle of 'honor among thieves;' perhaps not surprising in an empire built around highly competitive monopolies. And, who could have imagined that our most famous swear word would remain an integral part of the language so many centuries into the future? That popular profanity is not just used euphemistically, either, as Scalzi sprinkles in a bit of sex along the way, to further spice up the action. Hardly a surprise, I suppose, to learn (on-line) that the TV rights to the story have already been purchased.

But, these are minor quibbles; The Collapsing Empire provides an entertaining romp in an engagingly developed future world. I look forward to the (already announced) sequel, to discover where Scalzi will take his story next.

Other reviews / information:

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 20, 2017

Book Review: "Reality is Not What it Seems" by Carlo Rovelli

Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity (2017)
Carlo Rovelli (1956)
Translated from the Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre

280 pages

Theoretical physicist and author Carlo Rovelli warns readers already with the title of his book Reality is Not What it Seems to be prepared to leave our intuitive understanding of the physical world behind as he introduces us to the outlines and implications of current research into quantum gravity.   As Rovelli mentions in the preface, this book is appearing in English after his work Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (my review here), though it had been written and published in Italian a couple of years before.  He indicates that for those who have read Seven Brief Lessons, this new book provides a more in-depth treatment of the topics; as described below, it also goes back to review the historical underpinnings of the millennia long path over which the developments have occurred.

It turns out that our daily interactions with and observations of the world provide little or no basis for understanding what happens at the level of elementary particles of the universe.  In fact, they most likely mislead us, hindering our ability to accept physicists’ current theories and models.

The book’s subtitle, The Journey to Quantum Gravity, hints at Rovelli’s approach to helping readers get past such obstacles of our intuition. Instead of simply diving into the topic of quantum gravity, or perhaps providing a little background by starting with, say, overviews of the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, Rovelli opens his story much earlier — very much earlier. He begins with the ancient Greeks, and their first conceptions of the idea of atoms.

By going so far back to begin his story, Rovelli aspires not simply to highlight the scientific roots that have, several millennia later, led to investigations into quantum gravity. He also looks to demonstrate that the larger goals of modern day researchers working on this cutting edge theory (and competing ones) lie within a framework and motivation first established in our distant past: the idea that we must strive to understand the world through observation and reason. Rovelli describes the transition to this early version of the scientific method made by the Greek philosopher Anaximander and those around him in the 5th century BCE, as they strived to move beyond using supernatural stories to explain physical phenomena. These philosophers argued that instead of venerating received ideas and descriptions of the world as unquestionable wisdom, philosophers must focus on using observation to build on and correct earlier ideas. Rovelli states that “from this moment onward, knowledge begins to grow at a vertiginous pace.” (17)

The first critical step occurred in the late 5th century BCE, when the philosopher Democritus and his teacher Leucippus proposed a structure of the world that has — remarkably — served as the basis for the development of our scientific understanding through to this day. The two philosophers formulated the idea that “the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run … [and that] atoms are indivisible … elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them.” (20) In these lines, and a few additional paragraphs, Rovelli summarizes Democritus’ amazing leap forward from the superstitious beliefs of his time to a powerful vision “on which the knowledge of civilization would later be built.” (20)

In a fascinating review of the historical context of these early developments, Rovelli describes the many books Democritus wrote on an astonishing variety of topics, from science to philosophy to history to name but a few; he notes that these works had a dramatic influence on those who followed Democritus. Rovelli notes that for several centuries after Democritus — into the first centuries of the Common Era — philosophers and scientists steadily built upon his ideas. The extent of his impact becomes clear when Rovelli points out the shattering fact that we only know of Democritus’ work through the extensive discussions of it by his contemporaries and those that followed him: all of his works were lost in the vast and savage destruction wrought in the wake of the 4th century CE Roman declaration “that Christianity was to be the only and obligatory religion of the empire” (33). As a result of this heart-breaking loss notes Rovelli, “astronomy did not take any very significant step forward for more than a thousand years,” (45) in a Western world plunged into the darkness of the Middle Ages.

The West eventually rediscovered this Greek scientific heritage, which had been preserved in India and was eventually reintroduced to Europe through Persian and Arab scholars. (The surprising path of this knowledge back into Europe is discussed in works such as Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher, and Ornament of the World by María Rosa Menocal.)  This recovered knowledge reignited interest in astronomy and more broadly physics, Rovelli notes, influencing scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo. A next critical step, however, was made by Isaac Newton, who not only formalized what Democritus and those who had followed him proposed, but build a mathematical framework for it, describing how the force of gravity influences objects. In a schematic encapsulation that Rovelli then carries forward to explain developments in understanding through to the current research, he describes Newton’s view of the world as being made up of space, time and particles.

Newton himself, according to Rovelli, recognized that while his theories describe many of the phenomena of the natural world, there are forces other than gravity at play; in the 1800’s, Michael Faraday and James Clark Maxell discovered and described mathematically one such force, that of electromagnetism. The critical insight was to “not think of forces acting directly between distant objects, [but rather] think that there exists an entity diffused throughout space that is modified by electric and magnetic bodies and that, in turn, acts upon … the bodies, … what is today called the field.” (55) Thus, while Newton had described the existence of particles, and the concept of a force acting between them, Faraday and Maxwell describe a universe made up of both particles, and fields which exert forces on them.

This description of the physical world as being made up in part of fields began the movement of physics into descriptions of reality beyond our intuitive understanding of the world. Developments in the 20th century would only accelerate this movement, beginning with Albert Einstein’s publishing of his theory of special relativity. Rovelli points out two key features of Einstein’s theory.

One is that it combines space and time — which had been viewed until then as independent concepts — into a single spacetime. Rovelli explains spacetime as implying that it makes no sense to think of “now” in a universal sense; at points away from an individual observer, now, has a duration, which grows ever longer the greater the distance away — what Rovelli calls the “extended present.” He notes, for example, that: “In the Andromeda galaxy, the duration of this extended present is [with respect to an observer on Earth] two million years.” (72) Thus, space and time are tied intimately together.

A second key consequence that Einstein realized, and elaborated in his theory of special relativity was “that energy and mass are two facets of the same entity, just as the electric and magnetic fields are two facets of the same field, and as space and time are two facets of the one thing, spacetime.” (74) Einstein goes on to calculate the relationship between mass and energy, the famous E=mc².

Though the theory of special relativity brought Einstein much renown, he realized according to Rovelli, that his theory “does not square with what was known about gravity” (77); he (and others) worked for years to incorporate gravity into the new models. Einstein comes to realize that the force of gravity exists as “a gravitational field [with descriptive] equations analogous to Maxwell’s” (78) for electricity. This leads Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, to propose just such a field description of gravity. But he then also adds an extraordinary concept: that the gravitation field is not simply present in space, but that it is space itself. From this comes the picture of spacetime curved by a mass, such as the sun, and the Earth then not attracted to the sun by gravity, but rather rolling around the sun as it falls in a funnel-shaped curvature generated in spacetime by the sun.

The other “pillar[] of twentieth-century physics” (109) according to Rovelli, is quantum mechanics, which he describes as having been motivated by the work of Max Planck and Albert Einstein, who first characterized light as made up of packets of energy, called photons. Rovelli notes that the details of the theory were then worked on over decades by a number of physicists; after giving an overview of the stages of development of quantum mechanics, he culminates with a summary of what he feels constitute the theory’s key conclusions. The first echo’s back to Democritus: that there is a fundamental granularity to nature, implying that a finite amount of information can exist in a system, a finite number of states. The second and third results are even more challenging to our deterministic intuition of the world: the future states of a system are indeterminate at the quantum level, meaning they can change randomly, and can only be predicted in a statistical sense, and also that events in a system only exist and occur relative to other events, that is, in the interactions between objects.

Rovelli points out that while quantum theory has been upheld in every experiment so far designed to test its descriptions of nature, “it remains shrouded in obscurity and incomprehensibility.” (109) He concludes his discussion on the theory with a brief description of the difficulties some physicists, including Einstein, have had in accepting its implications. He reminds us that quantum mechanics is a model of the universe, one that so far describes accurately the world as we have been able to test it, but one that, as with any other theory, may eventually be corrected by a different and better understanding of the world.

Having spent the first half of the book presenting an overview of the path physics has taken from its beginnings in ancient Greece to the accepted, modern-day theories, Rovelli pivots to the current, cutting edge in physics research: the work to find an answer to a critical missing piece in the existing theories of General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics that arises from the recognition that: “they cannot both be true, at least not in their present forms, because they appear to contradict each other.” (147)

Rovelli focuses on one proposed theory to address this dilemma, known as loop quantum gravity, an area of study in which he is in fact one of the initial researchers. Over several chapters, he provides an overview of the theory and some of its consequences.

He begins by describing key outcomes in development of the theory. The first result runs counter to our (again deceptive) intuition, in this case our impression of space as an emptiness in which mass exists. Instead, the theory of quantum gravity postulates that “space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity” (174), and so that space is not continuous, but rather made up of extremely — but not infinitely — small quanta. The result builds on a fascinating implication of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: “The smaller the region where we try to locate a particle, the greater the velocity at which it escapes … [and so that particle] has a great deal of energy … [which] results in curving space so much that it collapses into a black hole. … [thus] quantum mechanics and general relativity, taken together, imply that there is a limit to the divisibility of space.” (152)

A second implication that has arisen out of the research on quantum gravity upends our understanding of time, and in particular the idea that there is an absolute passage of time for the universe. He points out that Einstein’s theories already abstracted time, by recognizing that it passes differently for observers at different locations, due to the relative locations or movements of observers. According to Rovelli, quantum gravity implies that at the quantum level time does not exist as an independent variable at all; thus events occur due to the interactions of fields, and are not aligned to an overarching guide of time.

Rovelli provides a way of thinking about this at our macro level view of the world. He describes a clock as a mechanism that counts up events (for example, the swings of a pendulum), and when we use such a clock to measure the time over which some process takes place (say the movement of an object), though we may represent the object’s movement as a function of time, in reality what we know is the distance the object moves as a function of the number of swings of the pendulum; that is, one series of events relative to another series of events. Time is simply a construct that can be useful for our purposes at a macro scale of the universe, but it does not constitute an absolute and fundamental property of the universe.

Thus, Rovelli summarizes the theoretical direction of quantum gravity as forcing us to realize that “The space and time that we perceive in large scale are blurred and approximate images of one of these quantum fields: the gravitational field.” (193)

In order to summarize the long road physics has taken from Newton’s formalization of the world understood already by the Greeks, through to the modern theory of quantum gravity, Rovelli includes a wonderfully concise diagram that he evolves over the course of the book into the final form shown below (193).

This schematic also reinforces the transformation from a view of the universe that aligns with our daily observation and experience, to an increasingly abstract and unintuitive understanding of the true nature of the cosmos.

In the final part of the book, Rovelli discusses several fascinating implications of the theory of quantum gravity, if it proves to be an accurate model of the universe.

Once such consequence alters the concept of the Big Bang — the idea that the universe began from a single point that exploded outwards — to what Rovelli refers to as the Big Bounce. The Big Bounce is based on ideas from quantum gravity that indicate that “the universe cannot be indefinitely squashed [as is] predicted by Einstein’s equations if we ignore quantum theory.” (207)  Instead, according to quantum mechanics incorporating quantum gravity, as the volume into which the universe compresses grows ever smaller, the repulsion eventually grows large enough that a renewed explosive expansion would begin.

After a chapter on some of the empirical investigations being done to test the ideas of quantum gravity, Rovelli discusses the implications of the theory for our understanding of black holes. The key point again is that at extremely small volumes of space, quantum mechanics together with quantum gravity predict a different behavior than the theory of general relativity. One result is that black holes are not stable objects, but rather — similar to the universe as a whole — eventually constrict to a size at which the repulsion forces cause them to explode.

Rovelli then goes on to look at some of the broader implications of the fundamental quantization of space. One of these is the nonexistence of infinity, in many senses. Since the universe is no longer infinitely divisible, there is no such thing as an unaccountably infinite number of anything. We live, he writes, in “a vast cosmos, but a finite one.” (237) Even with his clear and lucid presentation, and accepting the idea that in the smallest sense there is quantization, and so finiteness, it can be a struggle to transform that understanding to the large scale of the universe, and wonder what lies beyond that finite extent. Again, I suppose, the failure of intuition to allow grasp new models of reality...

Rovelli follows with, in the second to last chapter, a discussion on the idea of information and how physicists are thinking about the concept of information of a system given the theory of quantum gravity. Again the fundamental idea of quantization plays a critical role: “quantum mechanics can be understood as the discovery that information in nature is always finite.” (245)

In the concluding chapter of this fascinating and thought-provoking work, Rovelli gives a clarion call to readers, one that serves both to acknowledge the challenge that modern physics presents to our intuitive views of the universe, as well as to encourage us to continue striving to broaden our understanding. He asks that we accept our own ignorance of the world, and rather than allow the frightening uncertainty of our ignorance to drive us into the arms of any person or group claiming to have all the answers, that we instead exalt in that ignorance and use it as motivation to continue pushing our knowledge forward: “To seek to look further, to go further, seems to me to be one of the splendid things that give sense to life.” (263)

Other reviews / information:

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, May 7, 2017

Book Review: "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
Anthony Doerr (1973)

531 pages

Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel All the Light We Cannot See fires a readers imagination from the opening scenes, and maintains its magical grip straight through to the final lines. At its heart a story of the fate of a jewel with a diabolical curse, Doerr transforms this simple mystery into a deeply engaging exploration of human dreams and desires in the face of a world seemingly bent on repressing them.

In the late summer of 1944 the German army — though in full retreat — desperately holds an isolated outpost along the Brittany coast of France: the walled, port city of St. Malo. As allied planes approach the city to fire bomb it into submission, a pair of adolescents who have already experienced far too much horror in their young lives find themselves caught up in the imminent attack: sixteen year-old French girl, Marie-Laure, and eighteen year-old German private, Walter Pfennig. As the bombs begin landing on the city, Doerr jumps back ten years, to introduce and begin the winding paths that eventually bring these two teenagers to that fateful day in St. Malo.

Though growing up just a few hundred miles apart, the two come of age on opposite sides of the calamitous decade that followed Hitler’s final assumption of power in 1934. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris in the years before the war, living with her father who works as a locksmith for the National Museum of Natural History. At the age of six she goes blind, and to encourage her to develop some level of independence, her father builds a miniature model of their neighborhood for her to study. Through his gentle but insistent encouragement she eventually becomes able to walk the streets on her own, and her self-confidence grows. At the same time she develops a deep and abiding fascination for the natural world as she spends time wandering her father’s workplace and untiringly posing questions to the scientists working there.

Across the border, in the Ruhr Valley coal mining region of west-central Germany, Werner lives with his sister in an orphanage. Already as a young child he exhibits a remarkable curiosity about the world, as well as an uncanny ability to build and fix things — most particularly radios, which gradually brings him to the attention of neighbors, who regularly arrive at the orphanage door to have their sets fixed. As an orphan, he has little hope for the future, expected to eventually work in the nearby coalmines, the same mines in which his father died.

But then Germany’s rise out of economic collapse and transformation into a nation gearing up for war offers Werner an opportunity to escape his dismal destiny, when his technical gifts lead to an offer to study at a military school of the regime, known as a National Political Institute of Education.  Desperate for something better, he ignores his sister’s prescient warnings about the terrible consequences of the bargain he is making, and enters into the repressive web of the new regime.

When war finally breaks out, Marie-Laure and her father escape Paris just ahead of the invading German army, ending up at the home of her great-uncle, in St. Malo. Her father carries with him a beautiful diamond from the museum, with orders to hide it from the Germans. Only the size of a small egg, the piece comes freighted with an ancient and terrible curse, one that, however much rational thinking might desperately try to dismiss it, events seem repeatedly to reinforce.

Werner takes a more circuitous route to St. Malo, as the war first leads him far to the east, his expertise with radios in heavy demand on the Russian front. There the technical skills and work that he had found so thrilling and engaging while at school reveal a darker side that comes to weigh heavily on him. Eventually these same skills pull him to the coast of Brittany, to a hotel in St. Malo just blocks away from Marie-Laure. As the town awaits and then experiences the ineluctable allied assault, Werner is offered a chance for redemption, as he discovers his fate to be bound up tightly with a young girl he’s never met.

A recurring theme in the story centers on puzzle boxes that Marie-Laure’s father makes for her as gifts — intricate little wooden devices that she must learn the secret to opening in order to discover the prize contained within. For Marie-Laure the joy lies in discovering the secret; the prize inside is secondary. Doerr’s story presents readers with the intricate detail of such a puzzle box. The mystery lies not so much in the main plot line, for we know from early on roughly how things will develop; it lies instead in the paths taken by the characters, and what they experience on the way to their intersecting destiny in St. Malo.

Doerr builds the novel as a series of short chapters, each from a page to at most four or five long, and each told from the viewpoint of a different character. The chapters are grouped into sections that jump forward and backward in time, from the nominal present of the Germans losing their grip on St. Malo, to events during the decade leading up to that moment. From chapter to chapter, Doerr develops scenes slowly, a short, thrilling piece at a time, progress sometimes delayed by sections that jump to entirely different characters and points in time.

By never following a story-line for but a few pages at a time, the threads that bind the characters together — though invisible to them — become poignant realities to the reader. The tightly woven and intricately detailed structure helps make manifest the interconnected paths characters take as they follow their unknowable destiny to arrive together in St. Malo in the catastrophic final days of the war.

Constructing the story in this way also has the effect for the reader of becoming a kind of wild ride into a whirlpool — inexorably pulling us inward toward the dramatic climax. The result is a powerful urge to read faster and faster to discover what happens next. Resisting that temptation gives the benefit of not missing out on the joy of Doerr’s beautiful writing, his sensitive descriptions of both the physical world and the inner complexities and confusions of his characters.

A mystery lies at the heart of All the Light We Cannot See, though not so much about what will happen in the end, as in how the characters will confront the relentless demands of the world around them, as they seek to realize their hopes and dreams. Doerr reminds us that even in the darkest depths of war and destruction, opportunities for wonder and beauty — and hope for the future — can blossom.

Other reviews / information:
The destiny that draws Marie-Laure and Werner together evokes a bit the idea of the Chinese belief in a deity, the ‘Old Man of the Moon’, as for example recalled in (to admittedly completely different effect) David Rabe’s story, Girl by the Road at Night (my review here):
... the legendary Old Man of the Moon who sits in the moonlight reading his book in which are recorded the connections that will come between people in the world. Quick and silent as a spider, he puts a web of invisible, rosy threads throughout the world until all people everywhere who are destined to be pairs are linked in a secret, lovely manner. Down through their lives the threads draw the lovers, down the trails and rivers, from city to forest, until they finally meet…

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