Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book 5: A Demon-Haunted World

A Demon-Haunted World
By Carl Sagan

I apologize for not putting a book up last week. When I started this blog I had not foreseen becoming somewhat passionate about science and was thinking my reading would involve mostly dramatic paperbacks. Mind-candy.  It was a strange form of events, from watching a video on YouTube recommended by a friend to then reading a book referenced on the site of that video, and then finally deciding to read a book by Carl Sagan, a man who was often vilified from the pulpit of my small-town church growing up.

 But then you see pictures like this: 

That little dot on the lower right-hand that band of light? That's Earth.

In 1990, at the request of Carl Sagan, NASA sent a command to the Voyager 1 spacecraft, on its way out of the Solar System, to turn its camera back towards Earth and take a picture. The above image is the result, and I get goosebumps every single time I look at it. 

I think it is very rare for a book to be life-changing, and by that I mean paradigm-changing. This blog is not to delve into my personal beliefs, so I will leave it at this book changed my paradigm, and I am so very sad that Carl died as young as he did. We need more people like him in this world lighting more candles. 

The book itself was one of the best I’ve ever read. It was entertaining and fascinating and taught much. It delved into alien abductions, religion, ghosts and the dangers of frenzied group think. A part I found particularly interesting and devastating was when he chronicled the witch hunts in Europe and America. I personally had no idea so many women and children (yes, even young girls) were killed – estimates put it as many as 2 million.

The first half of the book talked extensively about paranormal events while the second half of the book really discussed all that science had done for us as a people, how far we’ve progressed and how far we have to go. I appreciated that Carl pointed out the fact that science doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a God, I also appreciated his desire to really know, not believe, things. Carl’s enthusiasm for science is inspiring, and his style of writing is fantastic and entertaining. He quickly has topped the list as one of my all-time favorite authors. 

More than anything, the book made me think about what I want my children to know and appreciate. Geology in college taught me an enthusiasm for old rocks and dinosaurs and wildly large mammals. Now, I can add the importance of space knowledge and biology to that list. It’s the great thing about kids, you can learn right alongside them and there are so many items readily available to us like telescopes and microscopes and chemistry kits etc… ignorance does no one any service. 

One of my favorite quotes of the book was this:
“Every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

And really, what’s more fascinating, the idea that God snapped his fingers and we popped into existence? Or the fact that ‘all the atoms that make each of us up – the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our brains – were manufactured in red giant starts thousands of light years away in space and billions of years ago in time. We are, as I like to say, starstuff’.

Thanks, Carl.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book 4: Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
Richard Feynman

This book took me a bit of time to read. It wasn’t quick, and it often was clunky in the way it flowed. However, it was chock-full of fascinating information and factoids and bits of trivia about physics. I just loved it. 

Richard Feynman was about as interesting and eclectic as they come. He was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan project and won (among others) the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. This book that I read was a series of recollections and personal experiences that ultimately formed an autobiography.

 The beginning of the book was a bit difficult to get into, while I love physics (and indeed, wish I were a much smarter mathematician – I’m not well-suited to the sciences for that one fact.) he didn’t really start off with physics. The entire time he wrote about his work on The Manhattan Project, he kept talking about his fascination with picking locks, pinpointing security flaws with their security of top-secret documents, and systematically working the mail-censoring to figure out what he could and couldn’t get through the mail. Really, that whole section was just tedious. However, it showed what an interesting character he was. 

The last half of the book was much improved. It talked about his work at the universities, some information on numbers, and his insatiable desire to learn. A fun fact discovered in the book about numbers: If you divide 1 by 243 you get .004115226337 and such which is an interesting pattern. He referred to it as ‘cute’ – which probably hints at some fundamental difference in thinking which made him a physicist and me…not. The latter half of the book he became a great bongo-drum player, taught himself multiple languages, appeared to be something of a womanizer, and spent a stint in some sensory deprivation chambers where he mastered the ‘out-of-body’ experience. 

I rather liked that bit (the out-of-body experiences). He achieved a way to move his consciousness, even to the point where he had multiple out of body experiences in these sensory deprivation chambers, but came to an interesting conclusion: “The representation that things are real does not represent true reality. If you see golden globes or something, several times, and they talk to you during your hallucination, and tell you they are another intelligence, it doesn’t mean they’re another intelligence; it just means that you had this particular hallucination.” I sincerely appreciated that he know how the world worked so…completely…that he was able to brush off all personal experiences for what was known  scientifically. That is impressive to me. 

Another theme which was woven throughout the book was about second-guessing yourself. Feynman didn’t appreciate looking the part of a fool (who does?) and thus wrote often about second-guessing himself in areas where he was ultimately correct. It was interesting to read that even a world-renowned physicist dealt with that sort of self-doubt, and his ultimate message was to quit doing that already! He also talked about not taking what experts say at face-value because in his experience, experts were often wrong. He also talked about feeling socially obligated to do things. He finally gave up on that and stopped trying to live up to others expectations, realizing that he simply couldn’t and when he disappointed others, stated that individuals being disappointed in him for having high expectations really stemmed from their mistake in overestimating his ability, not his failing. I felt that was a rather interesting conclusion. Somewhat profound, really. 

The whole book was laced with that sort of general wisdom in-between his work and experiences as a scientist. He wasn’t held into a social role of “just” being a scientist or professor. He branched out into all sorts of areas that interested him. Reading that made me feel a bit more normal for the times when I extensively /obsessively start studying something (like astrophysics, nutrition, or how to make the perfect macaroon in high-altitude); it’s more an intense passion for all there is to learn in this life than anything else, and I’m glad that a new hero of mine engaged in similar activities. 

So of course I started Googling him, and found that Bill Gates published a video series of Feynman’s lectures at Cornell. FASCINATING. The internet is amazing, how else could you ever have been educated on gravitational law by a professor who is dead? It’s just incredible. Anyways, check out the videos, I highly recommend them. Project Tuva - The Messenger Series

If you're interested in science at all, I'd say this would be a great book to read. If you're not interested in science, read this anyways. It may be enough to interest you. :)

Also, a web clip I particularly enjoyed as I was watching a few other lectures and interviews with Feynman.