To Explain the World by Steven Weinberg

To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg, is a history of science. As he states at the very beginning, it isn’t necessarily to track our progress in science, though that naturally comes along for the ride, but rather “how we came to learn how to learn about the world.” He isn’t interested in how well the ancient Greeks did in their efforts to understand the world so much as how they did as scientists. Did they apply a scientific method? Did they perform tests of their ideas to try to validate them? Did they leave the realm of pure hypothesizing and look for real world implications of their ideas? Weinberg concludes that, for the most part, no, the Greeks weren’t much of scientists.

This is a different and often-times refreshing look at the history of science. By focusing less on what was learned and more on how it was learned, Weinberg takes us on a journey of what it means to do science. How has science, in a broader sense, evolved? How have we used it to understand the world around us?

Along the way, there are lots of examples of scientific discovery and how we did learn specific things about the universe. While Weinberg’s intention is that one doesn’t need much math to follow, the truth is that many of these concepts are rather challenging and require some time to think about them (more than I often devoted to them). Particularly when considering some of the ideas of the ancients, in which they built complex and clumsy scaffolds to support hypotheses that, for example, the Earth was the center of the universe, the more complex the model, the harder it is to get one’s head around it. He does provide an appendix of sort that goes into some of these in more detail, but unless one has pencil and paper at hand to work through them in detail, even these are less than intuitive.

However, this does bring me to one of the coolest experiences with this book. In one of the appendices, he describes a proof for Thales’ Theorem, which says that if we have a circle and a diameter, and we create a triangle from any point on the circle and the intersections of the diameter with the circle, the triangle is a right triangle. I described this proof to my daughter and she got so excited when she understood and was able to reproduce the proof. She genuinely loved the idea of being able to prove something like that.

So, there is a lot of love of science and the joy of discovery in this book. As the human race learned more about the universe around them, they also learned how to learn, to, essentially, do science. Weinberg describes this journey as a stern parent might, critiquing how far away those ancients (and not so ancients) were from true science, how they were so close but missed a key element. He isn’t criticizing, per se, but rather evaluating whether we should truly call what they were doing science.

He has a number of interesting observations about the scientific endeavor that he makes along the way, most of which I agree with:

  • “Inspiration and aesthetic judgment are important in the development of scientific theories, but the verification of these theories relies finally on impartial experimental tests of their predictions.”
  • “The progress of science has been largely a matter of discovering what questions should be asked.”
  • “Nothing about the practice of modern science is obvious to someone who has never seen it done.”
  • “Science is now international, perhaps the most international aspect of our civilization.”
  • “Science and technology benefit each other, but at its most fundamental level science is not undertaken for any practical reason.”

These last two, in particular, resonate strongly with me. We do science for science’s sake, to learn, to push the boundaries of knowledge. Some of that science may turn into useful technology, but that might not happen for decades or longer. And science is the one view of the world that has become international, embraced by parts of pretty much every culture and society in the world. It is a way of discovering knowledge that can truly be called universal.

Weinberg goes pretty deep into various aspect of Greek and Arabic knowledge, more than I want to capture here. (He does make an interesting reference to the Arab’s contribution to science: “For while in the East al-Rashid and al-Mamun were delving into Greek and Persian philosophy, their contemporaries in the West, Charlemagne and his lords, were dabbling in the art of writing their names.”) Again, the goal is to put that knowledge into context, to show how scientific their approaches to generating that knowledge was. Some of their achievements are truly amazing, and Weinberg highlights those. But, he is really interested in how they made those achievements. And, in most cases, he concludes it wasn’t really scientifically.

It wasn’t until Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, where a predictive model of the solar system was developed based on simple laws, that what we might call modern science came to be. These scientists took observations, built models that matched them, and tested them. Galileo was an important forefather of this as he did laboratory experiments to test his ideas, not relying simply on observation of the natural world. These developments ushered in the age of science.

Overall, this was an excellent journey through the history of human learning, of the development of our abilities to do science. Along the way, there are lots of interesting tidbits of scientific (and not-so-scientific) discovery and understanding. I highly recommend it to any student of science. It provides not only context for how and why we do science, but captures that joy and spirit of discovery that drives a lot of scientific pursuit.

If Politics is in the Gut, What Does That Mean for Democracy?

In the March 2019 issue, The Atlantic published a very interesting story about the differing reactions between liberals and conservatives to “disgusting” images. Summarizing a study by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, and his colleagues, the story reports that liberals and conservatives have measurably different responses to images such as “mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores.” They found that, monitoring people’s reactions via MRIs, he could predict whether they were liberal or conservative with 95% accuracy. They further found that “conservatives tend to have more pronounced bodily responses than liberals when shown stomach-churning imagery.”

This is pretty amazing, if you ask me. It suggests that, to a large extent, our political views are not shaped by reasoned thought about the issues. Rather, they are strongly determined by neurological processes that we simply don’t control. “Gut reactions” to repulsive things. Regardless of which side of the proverbial aisle one sits on, if our beliefs are so strongly connected to primal reactions, what does that mean for democracy?

Democracy relies upon reasoned debate, with the goal of reaching compromise on complex issues. No one is ever fully satisfied, but to convince the other side to go along with your point of view, you have to persuade them that you have a solid argument. Debate is all about convincing the other side of your point of view. But, if your point of view is essentially a function of your gut, what is there really to convince them of? What is there to argue about? You can create arguments to support your belief, but that is building the scaffolding after you already have the core. Rather, informed debate should be about defending beliefs that you have based on reason. We shouldn’t be defending beliefs post-facto, but develop our beliefs based on the evidence around us. If our beliefs are founded on gut reactions, we are always going the wrong way.

To me, this has profound implications for democracy. We hope, that when our politicians are working, debating, arguing, fighting for something they believe in, even if they don’t agree with you or me, that at least they have strong reasons for their beliefs and that they are working to better society based on those beliefs. But, if they really don’t have any foundation for their views beyond their gut reaction, their neurological impulses, how solid can those beliefs and the subsequent arguments be? How well can they be tied to our best interests? If they are not based on evidence or reason, can they truly be the foundation of policy?

The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf is one of the oldest stories in the English language, describing the adventures of Beowulf, a Norse hero. He fights a monster called Grendel and then is attacked by Grendel’s mother, furious due to the death of her son. Beowulf also kills her. This poem, dating to some time around the year 1000, is a cornerstone of English literature.

The Mere Wife, by Maria Dahvana Headley, is a twist on the classic tale. Taking place in modern times, it revolves around two women — Dana Mills and Willa Herot. These are very different women. Dana is a veteran of the wars in the Middle East, while Willa is the product of high society, having found her way as the wife of a powerful developer in the heart of a new community. Dana grew up in the same area but before it became gentrified. It’s why, when she finds herself inexplicably pregnant and then the mother of Gren, a boy that has some generally undescribed characteristics that set him apart (though it is mentioned that he is furry and has long claws), Dana escapes to the heart of the mountain that abuts Willa’s idyllic community.

Dana and her son Gren live in isolation, in the heart of the mountain, until Gren, now older, notices the kids down in the community. In particular, he becomes friends with Willa’s son Dylan (who goes by Dil). This unleashes a chain of events that neither woman can stop, try as she might. Both are fighting forces beyond their control. The story is about the consequences of their actions as they try to maintain some amount of control in their lives.

While the original poem focuses on Beowulf, the Beowulf-like character here is a relatively minor player. Dana and Willa are the true hearts of this story and events are described alternatingly from their points of view. Both are products of their world, not necessarily always willingly. They try to exert some control on their respective worlds, worlds they did not create but that they are now at the center of. Both women are also struggling in worlds created by men, though their worlds are very different. Dana comes from a world of war, while Willa is at the center of a world of power.

Through her narration, Dahvana Headley provides what I felt was some intriguing insight into the world at large, the place of women in our modern society, and motherhood, a big focus of the novel since both Dana and Willa’s roles as mothers frames a lot of their actions. The book centers around conflict, the conflict between the characters but also larger conflicts, including war and progress. Dahvana Headley comments on these through her characters. Some examples include:

  • “People never think, until it happens to their place, that all construction is destruction.”
  • “It’s international news, then national, then local. Tragedies happen every minute of every hour. The world is full of worse than anyone has yet imagined, and there’s only so much room.”
  • “You don’t really own anything. Nothing is yours forever, not your body, not your youth, not even your mind.”
  • “Here’s the truth of the world, here it is. You’re never everything anyone else wants. In the end, it’s going to be you, all alone, on a mountain, or you, all alone, in a hospital room.”

These kinds of comments about our world and society are peppered throughout the novel, providing both insight into the inner workings and feelings of the characters but also thought-provoking, if bleak, commentary on our world. If a novel gets you to think about something differently, that is a success. And The Mere Wife certainly does.

I would say that the structure of the novel, with the alternating points of view of Dana and Willa, and the way the story is essentially told as they think, can be a little disconcerting. It took me a little while to get into the flow. Once I got into it, though, it kept my attention and made me want to know what happened next. I knew, based on my knowledge of the original Beowulf, what I thought was going to happen, but how it all actually fell into place was still unexpected and engaging.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

One of the primary conceits of Scooby-Doo is that there is a mundane explanation for all of the weird stuff that happens in their world. Carl Sagan praised this aspect of the show, lamenting how other shows glorified supernatural explanations. He liked how, in Scooby-Doo, “paranormal claims are systematically investigated and every case is found to be explicable in prosaic terms” (from his book The Demon Haunted World). But, what if, at least once, the paranormal turned out to be real?

That is the premise of Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero. A gang of kids spent their summer vacations in the coastal area of Oregon and stumbled on to some weird goings-on. They ultimately find that it was a man in a costume who was trying to scare people to get access to some ancient fortune. The kids — dubbed the Blyton Summer Detective Club — are heroes. But, it turns out, they also uncovered an ancient and real evil.

Now adults, they are haunted by the glimpses of that evil they saw as kids. They decide to confront it. The gang — Kerri, Andy, Nate and Tim, versions of Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby (I won’t say why Fred isn’t here) — head back to Oregon to figure it out.

I won’t give too much away, but I will say that while Cantero violates the idea of Scooby-Doo that Sagan liked so much — that there is a “prosaic” explanation for all strange phenomenon — he still does manage to give a scientific basis for a lot of what goes on. For example, the kids are wandering in a mine and Nate, the Shaggy fill-in, asks how the miners knew where to dig to find gold. Kerri (who is a bookish Daphne) explains that the miners followed a quartz reef as gold was often found inside quartz veins. Later, in reference to how an earthquake can cause a pressurized lake to essentially explode, Kerri describes a limnic eruption. This happens when a body of water full of pressurized carbon dioxide becomes agitated, perhaps via an earthquake or tremor, violently releasing the CO2 as a deadly cloud of gas. So, Cantero, in creating the mystery the kids must solve, has still used science to an extensive and creative degree. While the core of the mystery still has elements of the supernatural, the rest of it is based on science in a way that I think does service to the ideas of Scooby-Doo.

So, I learned something new reading this book. I also found it very entertaining. The characters aren’t simple mash-ups of the Scooby characters, they have their own traits and flaws that make them unique. The plot is engaging and the quick pace almost feels like a movie. And, ultimately, there are enough twists and turns to keep it fresh. I enjoyed Meddling Kids and will be looking for more from Cantero.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Quantum mechanics is weird. Probably the weirdest part is that it only makes predictions about the probability of what can happen. Newton’s laws say that, with a give force, an object will move this way. Quantum mechanics says that it is probable that it will move a given way, but there is a probability it will move another way. So, with quantum mechanics, we are always dealing with probability. When we measure something, one of the many choices is actually realized. But, this is at the heart of the weirdness: which one?

There are several interpretations of quantum mechanics that try to address this, but they are all, essentially, non-testable hypotheses. One is that all possibilities happen and we are living in one of those potential worlds. That is, whenever a quantum measurement is made, reality splits into different worlds, where each possibility has happened. This is the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This splitting occurs whenever there is a measurement of a quantum system. Going even further, the many-minds interpretation says that any time a mind makes a decision, reality splits. It is this interpretation that is at the heart of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Really, the many-minds view of quantum mechanics is just the backdrop, a vehicle to let Crouch explore ideas about the road not taken. We all have wondered “what if,” what if I had asked that girl out, what if I had gotten that other job, what if that special someone was still alive? We only get one chance at life and we make the best of it. But, what if there was a chance to redo it, to take that untaken road? Crouch’s main character, Jason, had promise as a brilliant physicist. His wife, Dani, was an up and coming star artist. However, they both put those plans aside when Dani becomes pregnant, to raise their son. While both are happy, both also have regrets. What if they had made different choices?

I won’t give away the plot, as there is a lot of daring-do and action to go along with the exploration of these themes. I’ll just say that, in the end, Jason learns a few important lessons:

  • And maybe I can let go of the sting and resentment of the path not taken, because the path not taken isn’t just the inverse of who I am. It’s an infinitely branching system that represents all the permutations of my life…
  • I thought I appreciated every moment, but sitting here in the cold, I know I took it all for granted. And how could I not? Until everything topples, we have no idea what we actually have, how precariously and perfectly it all hangs together.

Dark Matter uses some out-there physics to explore some fundamental questions of existence, doing so while telling an action packed story that has some really interesting plot twists. Crouch’s approach to writing took inspiration from Michael Crichton: “I realized that he wasn’t just coming up with cool plots. He was writing books that allowed him to explore topics that interested him. Writing a thriller as self-education.” And, by educating himself, Crouch provides a yarn that is both thought-provoking and full of action.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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