My Amazon Book Reviews
By Andy Ross
A genial travel guide from flat space to black holes
The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time and Motion
By Sean Carroll
25 February 2023
Sean Carroll is a genial master at making real physics accessible to non-specialists. This first volume in his Biggest Ideas series is aimed at any bright and motivated reader who can handle high-school mathematics. From classical Euclidean geometry through Galilean relativity and Newtonian mechanics to the neoclassical cosmology that peaks in Einstein's cosmological equation, Carroll presents the real math behind the curved spacetime we now know we inhabit in such an honest and perceptive way that its meaning is clear.
A confession: As a lazy reader who tends to skim over any math he can't do in his head, I had never befriended tensor calculus, differential geometry, and the like to the level where I could quite get the hang of the various four-dimensional tensors that feature in Einstein's equation. Most of the dazzling detail in Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler's beautifully crafted blockbuster Gravitation was a closed book to me. But now, with Carroll's brilliant new book as a primer, its thickets of Greek superscripts and subscripts make more sense.
Carroll explains all the formulas in his story lucidly and transparently, so much so that the big ideas behind them shine through. His book is not about the math, but it does show how mathematics is the natural language to use when the ideas in play are as big as space, conservation, symmetry, mechanics, and gravity, and how those all fit together. If you want to understand our modern theory of the expanding universe from its hot Big Bang origin to its fate in a cold night of black holes at more than the mythic level, read Carroll.
The book offers a dramatic narrative, with such heroic characters as Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Leibniz, Laplace, Gauss, Hamilton, Riemann, Maxwell, Einstein, Minkowski, Hilbert, Schwarzschild, Penrose, Hawking, and many more to animate it. If any of these names mean something to you, and you like simple math, and you want to understand how Einstein's glorious update of Newton's law of gravitation really works, this is the book for you. Then follow it with Cox and Forshaw's recent book on black holes.
A brilliant brief history of our understanding of black holes
Black Holes: The Key to Understanding the Universe
By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
13 December 2022
This is a really good introduction to black hole physics. Bright schoolkids and science undergraduates will certainly enjoy it. The story starts with Newtonian black holes and goes up to the latest wacky ideas linking wormholes with entanglements and using quantum codes to weave the fabric of spacetime.
As you might expect for a book with the name Brian Cox on the cover and the man Stephen Hawking among its actors, the tone is light and informal. Many readers will enjoy its garnish of winking references to Douglas Adams, Monty Python, and beer, though Americans might miss mentions of Star Trek. More serious readers will be reassured by the steady slog past famous milestones to the advanced ideas toward the end.
More to the point, the hard ideas are well explained. One gets the clear impression that the authors thoroughly understand the maths of general relativity, the Kerr solution for rotating black holes, AdS/CFT duality, the holographic principle, entanglement entropy, the RT conjecture, the ER = EPR idea, and quantum error-correcting codes. Keeping up a breezy tone as they navigate this lot is good going.
Naturally, the story includes its share of equations. But these are presented without false modesty and clearly explained, so target readers will appreciate them. They're certainly easier to understand than the sort of word salads, replete with misleading metaphors, that too many popular writers get lost in. As Galileo said, maths is the language of nature, so lovers of physics need to meet the equations early.
Altogether, this book is a model of how to get such basic books right. The topic of black holes is exciting, so it provides a natural peg on which to hang the potentially dull stuff about, say, the history of thermodynamics or the details of Bell correlations and nonlocality. In short, well done, lads.
As gripping and shocking as a history book can be
By Jonathan Dimbleby
22 June 2021
Published to rave reviews, this readable and informative volume is a supremely good history of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. I'd strongly recommend it to anyone who can handle a book with over 600 pages and plenty of substance on the one hand but is unwilling to dig out multiple sources or fine scholarly details on the other. I found it a gripping and shocking read.
Jonathan Dimbleby says Operation Barbarossa was Hitler's climactic aggression against the international order and marked the beginning of his end. In June 1941, his past was prelude to this supreme folly. By December 1941, his future was a postscript of accelerating failure and defeat toward death in a Berlin bunker. That six months was the most appalling orgy of senseless violence in modern times.
Astonishingly, the German general staff that implemented this colossally misbegotten atrocity did nothing effective to register their protest or even their doubts about its sanity. Dazzled by Hitler's surprise victory over France, they let "the greatest field marshal of all time" not only take over command of their military campaign but also double down on its failure with crazy decisions that defied all military logic.
Shockingly, Barbarossa was not even Hitler's most chilling atrocity. Although the operation was the direct cause of of maybe 30 million deaths, his role as the presiding genius of the Holocaust, the murder of some 6 million Jews, is the crime that will fester in infamy for a thousand years. Compared with that madness, Barbarossa was a Blitzkrieg that failed, a horrific mistake.
Deutsche Philosophie hat zwischen den Weltkriegen die Welt geschüttert
Zeit der Zauberer: Das große Jahrzehnt der Philosophie 1919−1929
Von Wolfram Eilenberger
9. Juli 2019
Das Leben und Wirken von vier deutschsprachigen Philosophen in den zehn Jahren nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg mag für ein faszinierendes Buch als wenig erfolgversprechend erscheinen, doch Wolfram Eilenberger hat sich der Herausforderung gestellt und ein Buch von außerordentlichem Interesse für alle herausgebracht, die etwas über deutschsprachige Philosophie und ihre Auswirkungen auf die Weltgeschichte wissen.
Um den offensichtlichen Punkt zu verdeutlichen, ist dieses Buch nicht für jedermann geeignet. Die vier Philosophen, denen der Autor nachspürt - Martin Heidegger, Ernst Cassirer, Walter Benjamin und Ludwig Wittgenstein - sind nicht alle bekannte Persönlichkeiten, und die technischen Probleme, die sie in der Philosophie beschäftigten, waren selbst für viele Philosophen oft bis zur Unverständlichkeit geheim Gleichaltrigen. Aber zumindest zwei von ihnen - Heidegger und Wittgenstein - waren so beeindruckend, dass sie als die größten Philosophen des 20. Jahrhunderts bezeichnet wurden, was meiner Meinung nach eine hinreichende Rechtfertigung für die Veröffentlichung eines Buches darstellt, in dem sie ihr Leben und Werk in einer Weise beschreiben, die ihre größere Bedeutung unterstreicht.
Eilenberger ist ein intelligenter und geschickter Schriftsteller, dessen Prosa eine enge und sorgfältige Lektüre belohnt. Er versteht seine vier Hauptakteure mindestens so gut wie jeder historisch orientierte Autor und bietet Einblicke in alle vier Philosophien, die ich als Spezialist für solche Dinge oft als aufschlussreich empfunden habe. Aber da die meisten Leser Schwierigkeiten haben werden, sie in die richtige Perspektive zu rücken, möchte ich Ihnen eine Einführung in den Topf geben.
Martin Heidegger war ein Student in der Tradition des großen Philosophen Edmund Husserl, aber er reagierte 1919 mit einem brutalen Primitivismus gegen diese Tradition, der die ganze Geschichte seit Aristoteles mit einer hartnäckigen Rückkehr zu den Ideen des vorsokratischen Philosophen Parmenides zur Frage des Seins zunichte machen wollte. Für Heidegger basiert das Sein und insbesondere das Dasein, das die menschliche Identität begründet, auf nichts, so dass der Mensch immer am Rande des Abgrunds steht und keine philosophische Versicherung gegen die Vernichtung hat. 1933 trat Heidegger der NSDAP bei und förderte und verteidigte die Ansichten der Nationalsozialisten. Sein internationaler Ruf brach ein, doch da er ein entscheidender Einfluss auf Jean-Paul Sartre und die Existentialisten war, lebt seine philosophische Bedeutung weiter.
Ernst Cassirer war ein Berufsphilosoph der klassischen deutschen Tradition, im Wesentlichen ein höherer Beamter mit einer Verpflichtung gegenüber dem Staat. Seine Philosophie war eine zeitgenössische Marke des Neukantianismus, die eine im Wesentlichen orthodoxe Position mit hoher akademischer Seriosität war und ist, deshalb nichts in seiner Karriere bis zu dem Zeitpunkt, als er auf der Konferenz von 1929 in Davos eine Debatte mit Heidegger verlor - die übrigens als Höhepunkt von Eilenbergers Geschichte dient - veranlasste ihn, diese Position zu ändern. Cassirer war Jude und 1933 gezwungen, Deutschland zu verlassen, zuerst in die Schweiz und dann nach Amerika, wo er seine distinguierte, aber unauffällige Karriere fortsetzte.
Walter Benjamin war ein jüdischer Sonderling, der in akademischer Philosophie durchgefallen ist und den Rest seines Lebens damit verbrachte, gegen ein unfreundliches Schicksal anzukämpfen. Er schrieb ziemlich undurchdringliche Dinge über Kunst, Tragödie, Religion und Semiotik, oft in Form von ehrgeizigen Buchbesprechungen oder Einführungen, und wurde zu verschiedenen Zeiten ein Anhänger des jüdischen Gottes, ein kommunistischer Agitator, der leidenschaftliche Liebhaber einer russischen Revolutionärin, ein enger Freund des hebräischen Philosophen Gershom Scholem und ein Flaneur im dekadenten Nachtleben von Paris und Berlin. Nach einer Reihe von Rückschlägen und seelischen Zusammenbrüchen beging er 1940 vor den Nazis Selbstmord.
Ludwig Wittgenstein war einer der Söhne in der extrem dysfunktionalen Familie eines extrem reichen österreichischen Industriellen. Als Ingenieurstudent in Manchester las er die logischen Werke des Jenaer Mathematikers Gottlob Frege und schloss sich leidenschaftlich Bertrand Russell in Cambridge an, der ihn als klassisches deutsches Genie bewunderte. Während des Ersten Weltkrieges kämpfte Ludwig in Italien mit Auszeichnung für die Österreicher und arbeitete danach im Jahrzehnt der Eilenberger-Geschichte als Dorfgrundschullehrer in den österreichischen Alpen. In der Zwischenzeit wurden die nummerierten Anmerkungen zur Logik, die er vor und während des Krieges geschrieben hatte, zu einer Quelle der Inspiration für Russell und seine Kameraden in Cambridge und für einen Kreis von Bewunderern in Wien. Diese Notizen wurden 1929 als Doktorarbeit in Cambridge angenommen, wo Wittgenstein Stipendiat und ab 1939 für den Rest seines Lebens Professor für Philosophie wurde.
Eilenberger erweckt diese vier unterschiedlichen Charaktere auf eine Weise zum Leben, die ihre jeweiligen Philosophien ziemlich gut beleuchtet. Die Erzählung, die er webt, stellt einen zentralen Knoten in Deutschland zwischen den Kriegen dar, in denen die tiefsten Ideen nach der Schockniederlage Deutschlands im Krieg in Fluss waren, in denen die Bedrohung durch die Revolution Massen auf die Straße brachte und in denen Kommunisten gegen Militaristen und Nationalisten wie die Nazis regelmäßig kämpften. Ein Denker, der über die Vernichtung der Menschen nachdachte, einerseits und eine Flucht der Vernunft nach England oder Amerika andererseits, schien dagegen allzu natürlich.
Leider ist all dies nicht nur Geschichte, über die man nachdenken und dann vergessen kann. Heute beleben Heideggers Ansichten viele Denker in Russland, Italien, dem Iran und sogar in Amerika, und Wittgenstein hat unter analytischen Philosophen immer noch eine Kult-Anhängerschaft. Unser Zeitalter des radikalen Populismus und der staatlichen Gewalt gibt Eilenbergers Geschichte aus Weimar neue Relevanz.
The problem of consciousness has no better introduction
Conscious: A brief guide to the fundamental mystery of the mind
By Annaka Harris
23 June 2019
Introductory books on the philosophical problem of consciousness are easy to find but harder to enjoy. You have to luck out, as I did almost twenty years ago when I read
Colin McGinn's little classic The Mysterious Flame. But that book was far from perfect, as I pointed out in several writings. And now, Annaka Harris has
written a better book — shorter, clearer, less laced with jargon — that sets a new standard for consciousness studies. I, for one, am happy to recommend
it as the best way into the subject from now on.
The great merit of her book, apart from its being so smoothly readable that I read it in a single unwearied sitting, twice, the second time for sheer pleasure, is that it
is both passionate and authoritative. Harris knows her topic both intimately and in scientific detail, and demonstrates a close and critical understanding of all the
main ideas and theories, many of them dismayingly implausible and some of them frankly incredible, in this burgeoning field of wannabe science, as well as revealing
an acquaintance with all the central actors in the community. The passion is evident from her clearly held opinions, which make eminently good sense and raise all
the niggling doubts that have bothered me, too, for the last twenty years or so.
A few details are worth remarking on here. Her sympathy with Thomas Nagel's idea that an organism X is conscious if and only if there is something it is like to
be X is conventional but problematic, for me at least. What this "definition" does is to shift the burden onto the question of being, and with a baldly
declarative claim, to boot. Anyone who has struggled with the mess Heidegger made with the great question of being will find this unhelpful, and anyone who likes
Quine's views on questions of ontology and existence will say Nagel's claim merely begs the question. So already on page 5 of Conscious I'm humming and
Harris gets a lot of mileage from David Chalmers' great work on the hard problem of consciousness, and his brilliant play with the concept of philosophical zombies, but
she may have missed its main value. David’s argument is almost mathematical in its clarity, and in its logic recalls the diagonal argument Cantor used to prove the
uncountability of the real numbers. It stands as a logical critique of any scientific theory of consciousness or experience, or indeed as a gloss on the epistemic
predicament of any centered subject in any objective world. As such, it can almost be bracketed out from the scientific enterprise, which faces questions about the
reality of the self, panpsychism, or temporal experience independently of the hard problem.
Harris is rightly both critical of the work of researchers like Christof Koch, Giulio Tononi, and Anil Seth on the neuroscience of consciousness, where pragmatic results
that converge on clinical praxis are paramount, and sympathetic to that work, which of course has an importance that goes beyond philosophical navel-gazing. Her
criticism, rightly in my view, focuses on the extent to which that work engages with consciousness itself, as opposed to cognitive performance and the construction
of a functional self from neural activity. Her sympathy is only human, and no one can deny that neuroscience is where public funding should be devoted to advance
As a meditator (and the wife of a meditator), Harris is rightly critical of the concept of self at play here, which sets up a natural resonance with the views Daniel
Dennett espouses. The question of conscious experience arises independently of the existence or the sophistication of the self-image that an organism either builds
or does not build. This raises the tricky issue of panpsychism. Here I share the curiosity and interest Harris admits to having for the idea, and I agree that an
intriguing interface with fundamental physics looms as an opportunity for breakthrough work.
At this point, Harris comes up against hard limits. As she concedes, the puzzles of quantum physics, where the experimental evidence for Wheeler's delayed-choice ideas
raises the deepest questions about the nature of reality, and the puzzles surrounding the concept of time, both of experienced time and of the eternalized time of
Einstein's block universe, are really beyond the scope of neuroscience. Yet these questions are where consciousness leads us, which suggests the need for a major
paradigm shift. As I see it, qualia, the quanta of experience, can only survive scrutiny as, say, the "phenomenal vibrancy" of physically fundamental quanta such
as photons, which hints at vast domains of utterly nonhuman phenomenology, which hint in turn at Copernican revolutions yet to come.
A little book that can light up an aging brain as this one has done for me is good. Harris has hit all the right notes and hit no dud ones that I can see. As an
introduction to the current state of consciousness studies, it has no equal.
A ripping yarn, told to a proven formula
By Jim Al-Khalili
30 May 2019
Professor Jim Al-Khalili, OBE, FRS, is man who may need no introduction, given his frequent television shows on physics and his engaging public presence. His novel
is a new departure for him, and an impressive debut in a challenging format. Regardless of his own identity, this book rips along as well as any science-fiction
thriller and delivers an overall punch that will delight any fan of the genre.
As a personal disclosure of interest, I share with him a deep interest in quantum physics and astrophysics stretching back for years, as well as a fascination with
issues in quantum biology, where he did good work in collaboration with Johnjoe McFadden, with whom I too had discussed a collaboration. Not only that, I too
published a science-fiction thriller, albeit a quarter-century earlier, and in my case a flop, for which I bear the blame. With all that in common, I read Jim's
novel (if I may presume to call him Jim) with more than usual interest.
The scenario for Sunfall is simple and compelling. The Earth's magnetic field flickers and fades, deadly radiation and particles in the solar wind reach
the Earth’s surface, and life on Earth is endangered. Given our thin understanding of how the planet's protective field is generated and maintained, and why it
regularly flips its polarity over geological time, the scenario is plausible. Jim's intimate acquaintance with the scientific community now kicks in to create
a series of realistic vignettes of young scientists reacting to the challenge and struggling to come up with an effective response.
Without wishing to spoil the plot, I can reveal that the response involves dark matter, which Jim conceives as consisting largely of neutralinos, as introduced
within the ambitious but disputed theory of supersymmetry. All this is fair game in science fiction, of course, and Jim does not burden the reader with more
theoretical details than he needs to keep the plot humming along. Beside this key thread, Jim has filled a tale set in the year 2041 with as informed a series
of technology predictions as anyone could make, starting from 2019. Here his story really shines. I know how hard it is to predict what technology will have
achieved widespread deployment a couple of decades hence, but Jim has made a brave go of it and made most of his bets seem reasonable.
Inevitably, some readers will baulk at some of the suspensions of disbelief required to follow the plot. Whether adoption of augmented reality (AR) in retinal
implants will seem normal so soon into the future leaves me agnostic, and I suspect the planetwide network of artificial Intelligence (AI) required to leverage
it to the levels Jim imagines will still seem utopian (if not dystopian) in 2041, but again in a novel this is normal enough. What finally prompted me as a
reader to utter a loud "Bullshit!" I dare not reveal in detail, but let me say it involved quantum entanglement, where Jim has definitely sailed too close to
the wind, in defiance of Einstein and others.
As for the mechanics of the novel, with its supporting cast of standard-issue characters and its ample supply of formulaic plot moves, Jim has clearly taken plenty
of advice from his team of editors and helpers in the publishing team. This has paid off well in the sense that the structure is a classic exponential countdown
to a dramatic climax, but it has the downside that toward the end it all becomes as predictable as a children's pantomime. This is no shame, however, and will
certainly pay off when a production team gets to work to transpose all this into a major motion picture. Jim has worked enough quirky and realistic details into
his characters and their adventures to put his unique fingerprint on the final product, and nothing his editors could do would rescue his authentically clunky
prose, but if you agree that good science trumps literary finesse then Sunfall is worth reading.
A beautiful little book, but not quite for everyone
Quantum Computing for Everyone
By Chris Bernhardt
19 May 2019
In less than 200 pages of delightfully lucid mathematical prose, Chris Bernhardt has crafted a truly masterful introduction to the otherwise forbidding field of
quantum computation for anyone with high-school math who is prepared to put in the hours to master the finer points. As he modestly says, the last twenty years
have brought great advances in the clarity of some of the required elements here, plus agreement on what needs to be said and what can safely be left for a
later run through the topic. I tackled a 700-page “introductory” text on all this twenty years ago and was frankly defeated by half of it, despite a career
that involved deep dives into quantum theory and computer science. Now, to my great relief, the key ideas seem smooth and logical.
Bernhardt makes it easy from the start by limiting his scope to what he can explain without complex numbers, which I thought was flunking out until I saw how much
he managed to say without loss of rigor within that limit. Inevitably, there was a sacrifice, and he had to stop short of explaining quantum Fourier transforms
and Shor's algorithm, which is a pity, but for most readers the trade-off will probably be good. I was delighted anew with just how elegantly Dirac algebra
copes with all the hard work that comes with entangled states, and greatly relieved that Bernhardt spelled out all his derivations fully, so that one could
read his text line by line with full understanding, rather than having to go off and make cryptic notes, or, worse, do fiddly exercises, before taking up the
Even more impressively, Bernhardt has managed to infuse what could otherwise have been a rather dull plod, to be fair, with his own excitement at the amazing new
horizons opened up by the emergence of quantum computing as a new paradigm. As he says, and as we should expect from the parallel situation in physics almost a
century ago, computation is quantum computation, and classical computation is only a special and limited case of it. Once we develop the technology, we shall
doubtless see our present computers as clunky calculators that could never simulate reality except in the most superficial way. We shall simulate chemical
reactions and biochemical processes so accurately that a new world of artificial life will be born, which makes a nice final frontier for us.
On the practical side, I would have welcomed a smoother integration of the Bell inequalities into the narrative to flesh out the later discussion of quantum
teleportation and encryption, and a fuller discussion of how Fredkin gates and billiard-ball computers relate to deeper discussions in physics, but this would
likely go too far. I would have welcomed complex numbers too, if only to allow the text to explain Shor's algorithm properly, but again this would burst the
author's self-imposed bounds. More trivially, I found about half a dozen typos, though none were bad enough to trip up a careful reader. In summary, this book
is an excellent example of how to introduce tricky stuff to new readers — but it's certainly not for everyone!
A horror story, but not a fictional one, with a damning verdict
Among the Dead Cities: Is the targeting of civilians in war ever justified?
By A.C. Grayling
15 May 2019
Professor Grayling is a distinguished philosopher, and his book on the Allied bombing campaign in WWII is less a history than a moral indictment. Rereading it now, just
after reading Bomber Command, Max Hasting's more conventional history of the RAF bombing campaign against Germany, reminds me of how far humanity has come
since then. Today, thanks to fate and good fortune, we condemn indiscriminate mass destruction in wartime.
The bombing was horrific in its effects, so far beyond anything we can really imagine it that comes over as a kind of zombie apocalypse scenario. Red-hot scenery,
hurricanes of fire, falling masonry, corpses burned to shrivelled black puppets, body parts like grilled kebabs in the ashes, cellars filled with asphyxiated bodies:
this is the stuff of nightmares, but it was the actual fate of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in Germany and Japan.
All this was deliberately inflicted by warlords who conceived it to be their duty to civilisation. In particular, Marshall of the Royal Air Force Arthur "Bomber" Harris
applied himself to the stern task with unholy relish and pushed hard for the strategy of systematically reducing to rubble all the inner cities he could reach in
Germany, at night, with hundreds of bomber aircraft dropping big high-explosive bombs and huge numbers of small firebombs onto each target, dragging civilian men,
women and children out of their beds and reducing their warm bodies to cinders, night after night, for years, until he had run out of targets to incinerate.
Ordered to attack military targets, he complied only briefly and under duress. His mission was to inflict maximum terror.
Was this a crime? Was this morally better than the systematic and genocidal extermination of a people conceived as enemies of the Reich by methods as cold and calculated
as those used to kill cows and pigs in a slaughterhouse? Do two wrongs make a right?
These questions are the topics of Grayling's passionately conceived but forensically cool case, presented as a lawyer might present it, with a verdict. War is not
cricket, of course, and rules drafted by the light of reason in a comfortably furnished office will never survive unbroken in the heat and chaos of mortal combat,
but his case is persuasive. Read it and reflect on how fragile and recent our humanitarian perspective is upon the ash-heap of history.
Cutting-edge cosmology for anyone with high-school math
Cosmology for the Curious
By Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin
25 April 2019
Without personal guidance, the challenge of understanding modern cosmology may seem too much for any but the most ambitious and gifted general reader. The modern
science of cosmology, with its deep reliance on nuclear and particle physics and its foundation in general relativity, plus its outer reaches in eternal inflation,
multiverse scenarios, and string theory, surely looks too daunting for people whose mathematical skills top out with calculus and complex numbers. Their best hope
would seem to be television documentaries that hide all the hard stuff behind showy personalities.
If you feel you deserve better than this, Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin may have just what you want. Cosmology for the Curious is a friendly self-help text,
peppered with all the important numbers and plenty of simple equations as well as with colored graphics that help you understand key points at a glance, which also
comes with intriguing questions set in the style of informal exercises, plus a mathematical appendix solving the Friedmann equation. If you read the book carefully
enough, you will be able to form your own opinions about the views of those television personalities.
Perlov and Vilenkin start at the beginning and proceed methodically, so readers who were not even sure what Ptolemaic cosmology was or what was so special about
Newtonian gravity can get a safe foothold before we meet Einstein, Hubble, the Big Bang, stellar nucleosynthesis, inflation, black holes, and all the more exotic
ideas that can so easily be dizzying. Their presentation is delightfully authoritative, with none of the irrelevant anecdotes or evasions that can spoil a book
like this. With admirable clarity, the authors just get to work and tell you what you need to know, no more, building up step by step to reveal a panoramic view
of the grand peaks.
The skyscape that emerges is stunning, even for people who have spent their lives studying this stuff. If you can afford to put in the hours to master this book, you
will be amply rewarded by the sheer brilliance of the way so much fits together coherently into a rigorously detailed view that answers just about everything you
could wish to ask about how the light show above our heads at night illuminates our ultimate history and our deepest nature as physical beings on a small planet.
In summary, this is an impressively competent introduction, an excellent first draft for a good university textbook.
Bumping off Hitler in 1936 — a gripping and sobering story
A Prophet Without Honor: A Novel of Alternative History
By Joseph Wurtenbaugh
14 April 2019
A sentimentalist for all that was good in German culture a hundred or so years ago would naturally imagine how it might have been if the Third Reich had been aborted
before Adolf Hitler had managed to do too much damage. Perhaps the last chance to abort it painlessly and decisively came in 1936 when Hitler ordered a few small
detachments of Wehrmacht troops to march into the Rhineland. At any rate, this is the premise of Joseph Wurtenbaugh's curious but impressive novel.
Alternative history, especially of the Third Reich, is a tricky field, where deep background research is essential to please would-be historians who claim to know
better. On this test, Wurtenbaugh comes out with flag flying. Although suffering all the usual weaknesses of a self-published book based on years of personal
obsession, his novel turns out to be a compelling read and delivers a satisfying overall experience.
The mechanics of the deviations from the facts of this historical scenario are straightforward, although Wurtenbaugh has to go to extraordinary lengths to stage his
swerves from history with the requisite attention to detail. He does so by eliding any awkward patches and effacing his authorial omniscience behind a simple
trick: The entire work is assembled from fictional letters and extracts from imagined memoirs and history books. His central invention is a purely fictional
character, an aristocratic army officer, inserted into what is otherwise an authentic setting and traced faithfully from birth to death.
Although I can only guess the identity of the prophet in the title, the noble hero is Karl von Haydenreich. We learn the history of his family from about the
turn of the century and experience vicariously all the ups and downs of his childhood and early life as a student and a soldier. All this is traced in sufficient
depth and with sufficient sensitivity to encourage us to identify strongly with this upstanding young man, which is the key threshold to overcome when staging a
scenario like this one, where a casual reader is tempted to dismiss the whole lot as tosh.
Our sympathy for such an unlikely hero is engaged quite naturally by giving him a beloved Jewish stepmother. Since our detestation for the Third Reich and all its
trappings is colored beyond redemption by the regime's abominable treatment of Jews, this part of the fiction was key to romancing the reader into going along
for the ride. The device works well and gives the author an excuse to let his literary fragments include a reasonable number of contemporary execrations of German
and Nazi antisemitism during the period.
Some of the fictional letters and extracts are purportedly penned by real figures, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major General Kurt von Hammerstein Equord.
Eisenhower comes over quite credibly in the transposition to the alternative reality in play here, though I have no idea how authentic the Major General is, and
the other real characters the fictional writings depict, such as Stanley Baldwin, Charles De Gaulle, Claus von Stauffenberg, Reinhard Heydrich, and of
course Hitler himself, are portrayed with what seems to me to be startling accuracy. What also comes over well is the range of disparate reactions these players
have to each other as the fictional drama unfolds.
Without wishing to spoil the plot, I can reveal that the Rhineland adventure is foiled, the putsch is successful, and the world is saved. The loathsome brutality of
the Nazi regime and its abysmal vulgarity in comparison with the aristocratic ideals of the Wehrmacht officer elite are vividly apparent, and the tragic incidents
that are inevitable in a plot of this scope are both harrowing and entirely plausible in their graphic horror. The drama is grim enough on this scale, and to
imagine it all scaled up a few millionfold in the actual course of history is heartrending. German high culture deserved a better fate than this.
In summary, if alternative histories of the Third Reich are your bag, this is definitely one for you. In fact, with a sufficiently creative screenplay, the story
would make a good movie. Another author might even pen a shorter, smoother version of Wurtenbaugh's story to go with it.
New York at its showy best by an Anglo-American star
The Vanity Fair Diaries 1983-1992
By Tina Brown
18 December 2018
Vanity Fair had once been a fashionable magazine. But in the early years of the Reagan presidency it was losing money. Then its owners had an inspired
Tina Brown was a brilliant young journalist in London. Born in 1953, she went up to Oxford at age 17 to read English at St Anne's College, then worked hard until,
at age 25, she was invited to edit the obscure society magazine Tatler. She turned it around spectacularly, and created from it a lively, cheery,
visually interesting must-read that caught the fashion and cultural buzz of London life.
The owners of Vanity Fair recruited Tina as its new editor and relaunched the magazine in 1984. By 1991, when she left it, the title had increased its
readership sixfold and was turning a fat profit for its owners. The Vanity Fair Diaries tells the real-time story of how she did it, in day-by-day
format but already as readable and fun as any novel, and bursting with amazing cameos of New York high society in the late Reagan and early Bush years.
Back in 1981, just weeks after the Royal Wedding of Charles and Diana, Tina Brown had married Harold Evans, the renowned former editor of The Sunday Times,
in New York. During her Vanity Fair years, Tina gave birth to their two children. This story too is retold with all its human drama in the diaries.
Those were the years when New York City was at its edgy, lawless best, before zero tolerance, when Woody Allen's movies were the talk of the town, and Tom Wolfe's
brilliant comic novel Bonfire of the Vanities and Donald Trump's ghosted book The Art of the Deal caught the mood of the moment. Donald and
Ivana Trump were showy presences in the local night life, Trump Tower was a glittering new spike on the Manhattan skyline, and the ambitious young brokers on
Wall Street were the brash new Masters of the Universe.
For Tina, the Oxford years were not far behind and the connections were everywhere visible. Her former boyfriend Martin Amis was cutting an Anglo-American dash
with his sizzling 1984 novel Money and she still kept in touch with him. Another Oxford friend, Allegra Owen, was the girlfriend of "a young fogey
with a thatch of blond hair and a plummy voice called Boris Johnson" who then published words so nasty about Tina in The Sunday Telegraph that she
confided in 1986: "Boris Johnson is an epic shit. I hope he ends badly."
Tina Brown was a glamorous star on the New York social circuit. Her reports of innumerable social and editorial encounters with such celebrities as the Trumps,
Jackie Kennedy Onassis, the Reagans, the Kissingers, and all the biggest names in the arts and show business world make her diaries an inexhaustible epic of
name-dropping. But her magazine featured epic images too.
Only the best photographers worked for Vanity Fair. Helmut Newton shot Claus von Bulow in black leather in 1885, Harry Benson created a classic 1985
cover of Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing in the White House, and Annie Leibovitz shot numerous covers, including Michael Jackson in 1989 and, as a bold
symbol of womanhood in 1991, a gloriously controversial cover image of Demi Moore naked and pregnant, which many newsagents would only sell if it came in
a plain wrapper.
To round off the story, in 1992 Tina became the editor of The New Yorker, which was bleeding money fast, and proceeded to turn that around too. In 2000,
she became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. And in 2007 she published a spectacularly good book, The Diana Chronicles, telling in her
uniquely lively style the story of Diana Spencer's romance with Prince Charles, her apotheosis as Princess Diana, and her shocking death in 1997.
The Vanity Fair Diaries is history at its best, real and vivid. Read it!
An engaging and insightful survey of the future of life
Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
By Max Tegmark
6 September 2018
Max Tegmark is a physicist with math envy. Having acquired prominence in the physics community for his persuasive case that our understanding of the physical universe
dissolves in a fog of mathematics before a clear vision is revealed, he now sees that the math of the intelligence explosion on planet Earth caused by the rise of
digital machines promises extrapolation to future visions of doom or paradise, depending on how we humans navigate the rise of AI in the present century. Math
reveals that AI will outsmart us, either to bury us or to give us a legacy we can glory in.
Tegmark is an artist of the big picture. In Life 3.0, a complete and final takeover of the human world by a band of AI pioneers steering a secretive company to commercial,
social, economic, and political success is just the prologue. We see how the rise of superintelligence poses unprecedented control and policy problems, first aired in
a visionary but challenging book by Nick Bostrom that has obviously influenced Tegmark deeply, and hence leads to a substantial transition of global power from humans
to machines in the foreseeable future. Then we see how the dynamic of machine life drives an interstellar expansion of its kind of order, in ways that exceed our
understanding, for reasons aired by Ray Kurzweil in his hyperbolic prophecies of the Singularity, toward ends that invite Omega Point visions of a cosmic apotheosis.
Finally, Tegmark offers his riff on the point of it all in a gloss on the supreme value of conscious experience, with due reference to David Chalmers, the
mathematician turned guru of consciousness.
In all this, Tegmark remains winningly focused on our human lives, here and now, and on what we can do to help steer the rise of AI that triggers the entire cosmic
drama. His revelation of cosmic possibilities is always conditioned by the caveat that for each scary scenario there is another one, less scary, that requires only
a suitably wise human intervention to ensure it prevails instead. Tegmark remains optimistic, and has put his money where his mouth is by founding, with friends,
the Future of Life Institute to inject precisely that wisdom into our efforts. Good on him.
A deeply engaged philosophical history for physicists
What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics
By Adam Becker
2 August 2018
Copenhagen is dead! Long live, er, pilot waves, many worlds, decoherence, objective collapse, it from bit, or maybe something made from strings. This is the quandary
the quantum philosophers have landed us in. The Copenhagen interpretation cooked up by Niels Bohr is generally reckoned to be a pillow of soothing fudge, but no
one can agree on a better account of what the formalism of quantum mechanics really means. We all agree that the math works fine, the results fit more neatly than
we could ever have expected, and the prospects opened up by the theory in just about all branches of the exact sciences are rosy. Yet the deep feeling of
weirdness and paradox hangs like a lingering fog around the whole enterprise.
Adam Becker explores this jungle with about as much feeling for the physics and the history as a reader can wish for, yet comes up as empty as every other writer on
this topic after a few hundred pages. I was worried at first when he crusaded for robust common sense against the obscure and oracular pronouncements from Bohr
and seemed to come out in favour of the unsatisfactory pilot wave story that David Bohm tried to set up in its place. But then Becker treks patiently through all
the other alternatives that people like Hugh Everett, Eugene Wigner, Roger Penrose, Dieter Zeh, Anton Zeilinger and a few others have come up with and correctly
concludes that the game is far from over and the prize remains unclaimed.
The fundamental problems of interpretation posed by superposition, entanglement, and the apparent collapse of the wave function on measurement bedevil basic quantum
theory before we ever get to the further issues of ensuring compliance with special relativity, seeking to restore locality with hidden variables, allowing for
the dynamic spacetime of general relativity, and grasping the ontological implications of all the probabilities in quantum theory. So Becker can air the basic
problems without ever getting too technical. But still things get tricky when he tries to explain John Bell's theorem without math, which doesn't really work
and leaves us with the story of Bertlmann's socks instead of a clean pile of logical laundry.
The saving grace of Becker's book is the historical work of reconstructing the personal stories of the main protagonists well enough to give us a sense of their
lives and careers and their intellectual ups and downs as they worked out their contributions to the story. We glimpse a master narrative on a heroic scale as
various aspects of the truth gradually emerge into the clear light of day. Yet of course we remain at the end with no closure at all. As quantum field theory,
string theory, loop quantum gravity, and all the other ideas go boldly forth, the confusion is only likely to get worse. Something has to give, and I fear it
may be the patience of general readers who despair of ever getting their heads around all this.
The best introduction to the math, without blather about quantum weirdness
Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum
By Leonard Susskind, Art Friedman
8 July 2018
This book will appeal to people who, like me, have dabbled in many ways with quantum theory over the years and read many books on it but perhaps never before found
anything so clear, authoritative, mathematically sound, and free of blather about how quantum theory defies what seems to pass for common sense along lay readers.
The mathematical level will challenge readers lacking prior acquaintance with algebra, calculus, vectors and matrices, complex numbers, and classical mechanics,
but this is after all the basic toolkit for anyone seeking to get a serious grip on what makes quantum mechanics tick. Apart from that, the humility that comes
with advancing age and a wry sense of humor will suffice to carry you through this engaging little book.
Leonard Susskind obviously knows the theory as well as anyone, intimately, and has evidently taught it often enough to know exactly know to optimize his approach. He
prepares the ground carefully and uses the qubits representing spin as his main running example, which lets him avoid murky issues around particles and waves for
most of the discussion. He also works in Dirac algebra from the start, which is far and away the clearest approach for my money and provides a solid base to discuss
the respective approaches and main results of Heisenberg and Schrödinger, when he gets that far. I found his treatment far more enlightening than that in
volume 3 of the Feynman lectures, where Feynman made a mess of presenting Dirac algebra and failed to motivate either matrix mechanics or wave mechanics with
sufficient mathematical or philosophical care.
Susskind has properly taken on board the depth of the foundation work needed to present quantum theory intelligibly, so as not to be shipwrecked on the rocks of the
paradoxes that lead weaker heads to despair about ever making sense of their challenge to what used to pass for common sense about physical reality. His discussion
of states and state vectors, basic principles, entanglement, uncertainty, nonlocality, dynamics and so on is always spot on, with a confident mathematical grip on
the issues and a calm refusal to be ruffled by the difficulties they present to intuitive comprehension. His approach is ideally suited to showing how and where
quantum logic defies classical logic, how far you can go before deep issues about spacetime need to be confronted, for example by going from discrete sums to
continuous integrals, and how little you need to fuss about particle and waves before the new foundations are in place.
A modern introduction to quantum mechanics needs to go beyond Dirac's elegant but dated and difficult textbook, both in terms of approach to set things up for new work
in quantum computation and high energy physics and in terms of content to touch on such topics as the Bell inequalities, the trials of Alice and Bob, and the
creation and annihilation operators of quantum field theory. Susskind does all this with masterly cool, as well as a warm appreciation of the excitement in wait
for people who go on to tackle those further topics. Art Friedman has made sure the text remains accessible to plodders like me, though perhaps some of his humorous
additions might be trimmed or deleted in future editions of what seems to me to be a core text with a long and glorious potential afterlife.
Quantum theory is still baffling and difficult
By Philip Ball
17 June 2018
Philip Ball is as good a journalistic commentator on the current state of play in quantum physics as you could wish to find. Unfortunately, even after his best effort
to sort it out, the quantum view of reality remains confusing and difficult.
Ball makes a good job of banishing the traditional paradoxes with his account of decoherence, where real progress has been made in the last few decades. He shows how
work in quantum computation highlights the importance of the concept of information to the story. But his weak dismissal of the many worlds theory shows how hard
it all is. We are still stuck with convoluted recipes that only after much manipulation lead to results we can test in experiments.
So far the experiments support the quantum story completely. When it comes to bedrock reality, it seems there is no other game in town and classical reality is just
an emergent approximation to the quantum truth. That truth forces us to let go of particles and locality and embrace fields and entanglement, or worse, given the
proviso that any future theory good enough for gravity and spacetime will likely push us further into a mathematical jungle.
Ball seeks to cover all this in a chatty and engaging style that aims to excuse a baffled reader. As a reader of such books who will not accept bafflement, I prefer
a more bracing approach that confronts the hard stuff honestly and fearlessly.
Both readable and relatively credible: a winning combination
The President is Missing
By Bill Clinton, James Patterson
11 June 2018
This thriller is both well conceived and well written, which I think is well worth celebrating. Bill Clinton has clearly taken a back seat on writing most of the
scenes, which abound with the smooth cliches of the generic thrillers that fill racks at airports, but has added enough authenticity to enough scenes to redeem
a potentially formulaic plot. And James Patterson has wisely let the presidential perspective shine through clearly enough to keep it real, certainly way better
than the sort of comic hero nonsense that leaves me yawning.
The computer virus about to swallow America makes for a more credible scenario than most other plot drivers. Some of the geek details are wildly unreal — one young
coder says "trillions" where he would have known full well, as I did in the real time of reading the sentence, that "about a hundred million" was right, and a
bunch of them trashed a big pile of laptops when all they had to do was swap out the hard drives — but, hey, Bill and Jimmy had better things to do than sweat
the details. More absurd was the idea that such a meltdown could be largely confined to America.
At the character level, the presidential hero was a far more idealized figure than James should have let Bill get away with. All those female colleagues sound like
a male fantasy that would surely have sorely tempted our hero, even if a dead wife and a medical condition limited him to loving his luck at having a pack of
alpha women to pull the presidential juggernaut. As for the action scene heroics, our sick president would not, in my humble estimation, have survived his
risky undercover jaunt and would have been dumb enough to deserve impeachment for even contemplating it.
But the slick writing covers a lot of what would otherwise have been boring thriller tropes. The plot ticks along as nicely as the timeline of a winning Hollywood
screenplay, with big moments ratcheting up the tension and the pace in a satisfying reader experience, and words flash by with scarcely a stumble. James is a
master at smoothing out the syntax and avoiding clumsily artful phrases that would merely trip the reader in a hurry to find out what happens next.
The bottom line for me is I read the bulk of the book in a single day. I cleared my diary and just got on with it. Meanwhile, a stack of half-read science books,
histories and so on lay waiting their turn. Anyone ready for a satisfying reveal on how a real president sees a real problem, if only in his dreams, is warmly
recommended to give the book a go.
Well researched and written but too pious and
No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam
By Reza Aslan
30 December 2017
Reza Aslan is a good writer and a good historian of religion. His 2013 book
Zealot on Jesus was excellent, so I had high hopes for
this 2011 book on Islam. Many hopes were indeed fulfilled: the historical
timeline is clear, the known facts are in place, the conjectures are
properly flagged, the context for contemporaries and believers is sketched
credibly, and the final result is easy and pleasant to read.
historian of Islam will be confronted with controversy and compelled to take
sides. Aslan takes the side of the Sufis, a relatively gentle and reflective
tradition in Islam with mystic leanings, which grew up in the shade of the
Shia branch of the Mohammedan faith in lands that had rich and deep
traditions of belief and philosophy. In doing so, he distances himself from
the Sunni branch and those of its variants such as Wahhabism that have
attracted Western anger in recent years.
What Aslan does not do, and
what diminishes his book for me, is stand back far enough from the entire
tradition of veneration for the revelations of the Prophet, and their
expression in the series of texts that form the Quran, to see the wood for
the trees. Even today, no pious Muslim would dare regard the revelations or
their canonical expression as anything but holy, but for a modern Westerner
with some respect for science and rational thinking the leap of imagination
required to take such affirmed holiness at face value is just too great.
This reader at least is driven to taking a remote anthropological stance on
the Arab and related societies of a thousand plus or minus a few hundred
years ago and regarding their strange belief system as shot through with
hardly less nonsense than any other ancient myth or curious narrative.
Despite his Muslim roots, Aslan is a modern Western writer, so he must
must see the need to keep such rational readers on board, even if in the end
he parts company with them in continuing to venerate his holy relics. There
may be a learning curve here, for he does a fine job in standing back from
Christian or other pieties in discussing Jesus in his later book Zealot;
perhaps it is easier to stand back from a faith one feels no residual need
to defend or believe in. Modern societies with Christian or Muslim roots are
surely robust enough to rise above superstitious awe in face of alleged
revelations and the purportedly holy texts that spring from them, or at any
rate we can only hope so, if we are to avoid a new clash of civilizations.
Like Aslan, I have some sympathy for the Sufi thread in the story of
Islam, and feel some distaste for the hardened institutional forms of the
Muslim faith, which like their Christian equivalents have led to serial
disasters in the societies swayed by them. Unlike him, however, I see little
hope for a revival of Sufism in the Muslim world and indeed little hope of
sufficient reform within Islam to accommodate it to the constraints of life
in an age of global connectivity, robots, and nuclear weapons. Only a clean
separation of secular life, including politics, from the inner life of
religion can enable us to regulate the modern world, it seems to me, and
even a revived Sufism would be of no obvious help in doing so.
summary, then, a modern history of Islam, especially one that like this
volume takes us up to contemporary political issues surrounding the ongoing
wars in Muslim majority societies, can only work for Western readers if it
rises above a partisan perspective. As it is, Aslan seems to feel sympathy
for the victim narrative that Western imperialists have cruelly exploited
the Muslim world, which must therefore rise up and restore its fortunes by
defeating the infidels. This cuts no ice with me, even in the context of a
volume of history that otherwise deserves some praise.
How Winnie pipped Baba's boyfriend for the top job
Six Minutes in May
By Nicholas Shakespeare
26 December 2017
Nicolas Shakespeare has written a history that reads like a novel. By
turning his entire tale around the six minutes of a parliamentary division
on the evening of May 8, 1940, he gives the story of how Winston Churchill
took over as British prime minister from Neville Chamberlain a dramatic
twist. He sees the division as the watershed moment after eight months of
war between Britain and Germany, when the island nation determined at last
to pull itself together and fight the foe in earnest by putting Winston the
imperial warhorse at the head of the charge.
The catalyst for this
act of parliamentary resolve was the Norway debate that led to the division.
The debate in the House of Commons was a first attempt to address the
governmental weaknesses revealed by a catastrophically bungled British
campaign against the German invasion of Norway. The debate, although its
exchanges sound to a modern ear as dry and constricted by parliamentary
protocol as any war of words in the imperial sounding box, laid bare a
campaign so incompetent and confused as to beggar belief.
does not shy from pointing out how Churchill himself, as First Lord of the
Admiralty and the leading champion of both the strategy and the execution of
the Norway campaign, bore as damning a share of responsibility for the
debacle as he had for the comparably bungled Gallipoli campaign in 1915,
when he had also been First Lord of the Admiralty. The 1915 disaster led to
his disgrace and humiliation, but amazingly he survived in 1940. Somehow,
the blame for the mess was shifted to Chamberlain, whose restrained and
uncharismatic performance as prime minister seemed to threaten further
dismay if not swiftly addressed.
In the usual telling of this tale,
the more decisive watershed came on the day after the division, when the
foreign secretary Lord Halifax, who had been seen on all sides until then as
the heir apparent for the top job, revealed he had no stomach for the task
of waging war and essentially handed the vacancy to Churchill. As a
novelist, Shakespeare obviously takes delight in reconstructing in damning
detail the open secret of the intense romance between Halifax and Lady
Alexandra Metcalfe (Baba to her friends) that amply explains the
impossibility of Halifax ever achieving glory as a warrior against so
implacable a foe as Adolf Hitler. After that writerly indulgence,
Shakespeare says simply that Halifax, whose former role as Viceroy of India
had obviously spoiled him for a lesser life in 10 Downing Street, had the
decency to defer gracefully to his old friend Winston.
reader might hazard a guess as to why Shakespeare turns his tale on the
Norway division, namely that his relative Geoffrey Shakespeare was a
minister in the Chamberlain government and played a significant role in the
course of the Norway debate, whereas he played no such role in the dealings
with Halifax. This personal interest encourages Shakespeare the historian to
wax eloquent on the appalling incompetence of the British conduct of the
Norway campaign and thus to air a chapter in the history of the war that was
too gratefully forgotten in Britain when Churchill began to fulminate
against the Nazis and to get a grip on the British war effort. Today, when
the historical mind glides easily from the defeats in Poland and France to
the victories in the Mediterranean theatre and in Normandy, we do well to
recall these finer details.
Altogether, Shakespeare has done a fine
job of historical reconstruction here. The book is big and well furnished
with the scholarly apparatus that will earn it a respected place on
historical bookshelves, yet still spiced with the novelistic dash that makes
the enterprise come alive. For my taste, the book is overloaded with trivial
detail and lamed by excessive respect for the preposterous paraphernalia of
British parliamentary procedure and tradition, so I refuse to praise the
work unreservedly, but for all practical purposes, in a crowded marketplace,
the book is a triumph.
Ausschlaggebende Zusammenfassung für Kenner
Deutschland und der Zweite Weltkrieg
Von Michael Salewski
Professor Salewski ist es gelungen, eine autoritative und detailreiche
Geschichte des zweiten Weltkrieges — die allerdings eher für schon ziemlich
versierte Leser geeignet wäre — innerhalb einer überschaubaren Band zu
veröffentlichen. Voraussetzungen für den Leser sind nicht nur ausführliche
Kenntnisse über die Hauptereignisse des Krieges sondern auch eine
akademische Orientierung, wobei ausgedehnte und ausgiebig mit Nebensätzen
artikulierte Sätze, zahlreiche Phrasen in Fremdsprachen, kryptische und
nicht immer ausgeschriebene Abkürzungen usw. überall in den Lektüren
auszuharren sind. Für mich war das — etwa als Reifeprüfung für einen
gebürtigen Engländer — ganz unterhaltsam, aber für jemand mit weniger Geduld
könnte es arg schwerfällig wirken.
Jeder, der durch diese vielleicht
etwas abschreckende Oberfläche durchkämpfen will, wird reichlich gelohnt.
Die Einsichten und Perspektiven, die massenhaft zu verdauen vorgelegt sind,
wären für einen philosophisch oder psychohistorisch orientierten
Studierenden durchaus Denkstoff genug sein, um die dafür notwendigen Stunden
darin zu investieren. Für mich, der bisher hauptsächlich englischen oder
amerikanischen Geschichtsbücher über den Krieg gelesen habe, waren diese
konzeptionellen Diamanten von überraschend hohen Wert, um meine Vorurteile
über die historische Bedeutung von ikonischen Begriffen des Krieges wie
Stalingrad oder Auschwitz mit besser durchgedachten und belegten Ideen zu
Besonders in diesem Zusammenhang wertvolle Zutaten des
Buches waren für mich die fachmännisch richtig gewählten und interpretierten
Zitate aus der Originaldokumentation und Nachlässe von Hauptfiguren wie
Hitler und seine Untertanen. Sie haben mich erlaubt — sozusagen durch die
Echtzeit des Krieges — die strategische Bedeutung des Tagesablaufs meines
Erachtens fundierter als vorher schätzen zu können. Die zahlreichen
Anmerkungen und Quellenhinweisen haben sicherlich zu diesem Eindruck
beigetragen, aber für mich entscheidend war, dass der Autor 1938 in
Ostpreußen geboren war und viele geschichtlichen und insbesondere
militärgeschichtlichen Veröffentlichungen in seinem Werdegang zu buchen hat.
Das mag soweit schön und gut sein, aber wichtiger für den seriösen Leser
sei die Frage, was Wesentliches am Ende über den zweiten Weltkrieg im Kopf
blieb. Für mich war das Ganze im Grunde Hitlers Kunstwerk gewesen, im Sinne
Wagners, also als Oper im allergrößten Stil, mit einer Götterdämmerung von
welthistorischer Bedeutung, zu verstehen: ein ganzes Reich und ein ganzes
Volk ins Abgrund geführt — das war eine geradezu dämonische Leistung, die
ohnegleichen im der ganzen Weltgeschichte nun vorliegt. Für den Philosophen
steht dies jetzt Felsenfest als alle bisherigen Offenbarungen übertrumpfende
Offenbarung des Böses im Menschendasein bloßgestellt. Schade, dass wir
Überlebenden mit so einer Überlieferung verdammt geworden sind, aber diese
Offenbarung bedeutet, jeder Mensch auf der Erde muss sich damit irgendwie
zurechtkommen: Menschenskind zu sein heißt am Rande des Abgrunds zu sein.
Clegg says British voters can still stop Brexit
How to Stop Brexit (and make Britain great again)
By Nick Clegg
Yes, we can, says Nick Clegg in his readable and persuasive little book. He
recalls the reasons and motives behind the Leave victory in the 2016 Brexit
referendum and marshals the case for reversing the decision before it is too
late. For my part, I find the case cogent and convincing.
Essentially, Brexit is far more complicated and damaging than voters ever
imagined when they made their decision last year. Misled by a shameless and
mendacious propaganda campaign, many simply did what came naturally and
voted out of a vague sense of national pride. Most of them had no clue about
the economic and political complications that make Brexit, in any rational
assessment, one of the worst policy decisions ever made in the British
Nick Clegg was punished already in 2015 for his unfortunate
coalition with the Conservatives in government. As a consistent and
prominent supporter of EU membership from the start, he found himself on the
losing side in the 2016 battle for British votes. Admirably, he has stuck to
his guns and refused to drink the Kool-Aid that is currently poisoning the
Conservative government led by Theresa May.
As a former leader of the
Liberal Democrats, Clegg is so mortified by the electoral demise of his
former party that he now advises his readers to vote Labour, in the vague
and poorly founded hope that a government led by Jeremy Corbyn might find a
way to reverse Brexit. Such a government would be far more likely to keep
Britain in the single market and the customs union, which is a minimum
condition for national prosperity in the foreseeable future, but it would
probably also do great damage on other fronts, so this looks like bad
The practical advice Clegg urges toward the end of his tract
is sound. British voters who are unhappy at the prospect of Brexit should
join a political party, attend political meetings, badger their MP, make
their views known, and add their weight to a mass movement to demonstrate
that the 2016 referendum decision is no longer valid. Democracy was never
intended to mean one citizen, one vote, one time.
A beautiful book and a future classic
A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design
By Frank Wilczek
1 January 2017
Beauty is more than skin deep. This book contains a lot of text, a lot of
monochrome figures, and a lot of color plates — but more importantly it
contains ideas of great mathematical beauty that reflect with high accuracy
the cosmos we live in. The quest to understand nature that began with
Pythagoras and Plato has matured in the work of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein,
and a host of more recent scientists, to produce a Core Theory of our
reality that is at least as deep and stable as anything in the world we wake
up to every day.
Frank Wilczek won his Nobel Prize in 2004 for
breakthroughs on the mathematical foundations of quantum chromodynamics —
our theory of how quarks make atomic nuclei — and is a passionate advocate
of the supersymmetric extension of current theory that would deepen it yet
further. His motive power for all this is a sense of beauty that reaches
beyond the technical concerns that apparently suffice to animate most
physicists. On the evidence of this book he is one of the great artists of
our physical understanding of reality.
Unlike most authors of books
on physics for poets, Wilczek is not patronizing and does not seek to erase
the technical truth behind his readable gloss on the quest for deep beauty.
On the contrary, he puts his passions on show with rapturous outpourings of
praise for the creative impulse behind the visions he beholds — and then
cites details in appended explanations of his terms of art that spell out
the cash value of even his most apparently overblown rhetoric that show he
chose every word carefully, and meant it.
This is clearly a book that
transcends most of the glosses on physics that litter bookshops today. As an
addict of such books, ever hopeful of striking gold but too often
disappointed, I am confident it will stand as a classic of its kind a
century from now, when almost all the others have sunk into oblivion. If you
are too frightened of technical details and even simple equations to touch
most such books, yet want your brain stimulated and seduced down to the
innermost recesses of mystic imagination, this is The One.
A good novel with some nightmare characters
By Jonathan Franzen
1 January 2017
Jonathan Franzen is a good writer and Purity is a good novel. With a story
about a star German hacker, whose proclaimed mission is to let sunlight
disinfect the dirty secrets of this world, and a mixed cast of hapless
Americans, who unwittingly reveal deeper downsides of modern life, this book
could have been written for me. The German details were authentic and the
depiction of modern life convincing, but in the end I felt no orgasmic joy.
Critical distance is the key here. The best novelists manage to achieve
a forensic detachment from their subjects that gives the reader space to air
dissenting views. Franzen did well at standing back, but not well enough for
me. Perhaps I am too far out on a limb for any conventional novel, but the
characters all seemed like nightmare products of Franzen's imagination, with
exactly the lack of frontal lobe function that dream figures often display.
Franzen let himself become infatuated with his characters. Without
wishing to give away the plot, I found the ending, where lots of unresolved
threads were tied off neatly, too pat. Such imperfect characters don't
deserve such luck, except at the indulgent whim of a fantasist. But by any
normal standards it was a fine novel — except for a few superfluous
paragraphs about birds — so I can recommend it to all but the fussiest
Excellent on relativity, exciting on entropy, dud on
Now: The Physics of Time
By Richard A. Muller
24 December 2016
I started this book with high hopes and found the first half really
interesting, then it went downhill fast. Muller is obviously an excellent
experimental physicist and has understood Einstein's theories of relativity,
at least, really well. He also gives workmanlike accounts of large parts of
particle physics and the basics of quantum theory, albeit with all the
standard metaphors and anecdotes that regular readers of pop physics books
will have read a dozen times before, up to and including the tired tale of
Schrödinger's cat. He seems to be aiming his book at readers for whom all
this would be new, so this much is forgivable.
Muller is surely right
to direct serious doubt at claims (originating with Arthur Eddington) that
the arrow of time is set by the direction of rising entropy. Both Brian
Greene (in his 2004 book The Fabric of The Cosmos) and Sean Carroll
(in his 2010 book From Eternity to Here) raise doubts too, and
explain why in persuasive depth. But Muller adds something new to the debate
with the idea that if time ends now and expands as the future unfolds, the
entropy of our universe can be said to shrink, as negentropy, also known as
information, increases to reflect the accumulation of new facts. This is
exciting (for me at least, since I aired the same idea in a paper on time in
Unfortunately, Muller goes on to flunk his discussion of
quantum mechanics with the disarming admission that since no one understands
it (citing Richard Feynman and John Wheeler to this effect) he can be
forgiven for bugging out too. In fact he fails to explain how good recent
work by Dieter Zeh and others on decoherence (see Greene's book or indeed
many more recent popular accounts) both gets rid of the old confusions about
Schrödinger's cat and sheds new light on the measurement problem, which
Muller makes heavy weather bewailing. As for the Everett interpretation,
which people like David Deutsch and Max Tegmark have begun to take
seriously, Muller seems to think that his dislike of the idea that people
like himself might go their own way in parallel universes is enough to
dismiss the interpretation.
Then things go downhill. Part IV of
Muller's book gives what for any philosopher must count as an atrociously
poor account, in a personal and folksy but blunt and emphatic manner, of
everything beyond physics, including the mind and free will. His editors or
early readers should have quietly advised him to dump the entire section. It
adds nothing of value to the book.
That said, the denouement in Part
V is an utter disappointment. There is no theory of now on offer, beyond the
suggestion that time expands just as space does, and now is its leading
edge, plus a few proposed tests indicated without proper explanation. To
make this suggestion do real work in modern physics takes a lot of technical
care, as he should know very well. Unforgivably, he has totally ignored all
the recent work in neuroscience on the specious present and how the brain
manages to give us a sense of the here and now. Given that his hero Einstein
said the passage of time was a psychological phenomenon, and that this fact
sufficed to explain how the underlying time symmetry of the relativistic
block universe was unmoved by our sense of now, this oversight on Muller's
part is hard to explain except on the assumption that he shares with Feynman
a robust contempt for psychology. This fact alone should inhibit him from
making such big claims for now.
In short, Muller is out of his depth
in the latter half of this book. He is a senior and distinguished physicist
who has devoted his life to doing solid work in experimental physics and to
teaching others at the highest level, so I do not want to write the book off
as a mess. As I said, the first half is really good. But the last quarter is
Admirable history of an Asian millennium of glorious
triumph and bitter tragedy
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to
By S. Frederick Starr
21 December 2016
This is a thoroughly admirable history book, with a persuasive narrative and
all the detail in place. The main facts of the story are clear and the
verdict is hard to deny — in Central Asia, over several centuries, a
cultural and intellectual flowering appeared that bears comparison with the
earlier classical flowering in Greece and Rome and the later Renaissance and
Enlightenment flowering in Europe. But it died, for reasons that are still
Professor Starr is a distinguished historian with a long
record of service to the culture he portrays here, and he may be forgiven
for doing it slightly more than justice in this fine history. For although
the achievements of the Central Asians in their golden age were impressive
and extraordinary, they were not, in the end, in my humble opinion, as
astonishing as those of classical Greece or Enlightenment Europe. What was
missing was a harder focus on science.
The Persian and Turkish
cultures that flowered between the rise of Islam and the Mongol invasions
produced remarkable work in astronomy and mathematics. The refinement of the
Ptolemaic system with more exact measurements and a more perceptive
cosmological perspective prepared the ground for the work of Copernicus,
Kepler and Newton. The development of Greek mathematics using Hindu numerals
led to great advances in arithmetic and algebra and in what we now call
algorithms in homage to Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Khwarazmi (780—850 CE). But
neither advance overshadows the earlier work of Euclid or Ptolemy or the
later work of Newton, Euler and Gauss.
Medicine too flourished in the
Islamic golden age, but again its achievements pale beside the strides we
have made in the last few centuries. As for the philosophy of the era, even
as ardent an advocate as Professor Starr admits it was finally all but
buried under a crushing weight of Islamic orthodoxy. Altogether the story of
the intellect in the golden age was a tragedy, as the religious prejudices
of Sunni and Shia fundamentalists not only snuffed out whole traditions of
free thought but also banished an interesting religious strand of Sufi
mysticism into the darkness.
Central Asia started its golden age with
a rich marketplace of religious traditions, including Zoroastrians,
Buddhists and Nestorian Christians, but within a century or two of violent
struggle the Muslims had gained the ascendancy. Within a few further
centuries, their stranglehold had become deadly. When Chinggis Khan and his
Mongol hordes descended from the northern steppes and slaughtered all who
stood in their way, the culture was already past its best, and with the
final bloody conquests in all directions, into Russia, Anatolia, Africa,
India and China, of the self-styled "Sword of Islam" Tamerlane or Timur
(1336—1405 CE) the Timurid culture broke into the Ottoman, Safavid and
Mughal empires, and Central Asia settled into world-historical decline.
Lost Enlightenment is a history book for historians. The reader must
make a serious effort to slog through its forest of detail, and I for one
would have welcomed more maps, more standing back to take stock and look
around more globally, and less special pleading for this or that minor poet
or architecturally unremarkable tomb. The Islamic golden age was glorious
enough to deserve a central place on the world-historical map, but I think
we need to be clear that Islam was at least as much a hindrance as a help to
that cultural flowering.
Just what it says on the cover — all in one big book
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself
By Sean Carroll
14 December 2016
Sean Carroll is quite a star in the world of theoretical physics, and this
book shows you why. Not only does he understand the deep ideas about as well
as anyone but he can explain big ideas generally in a readable and helpful
way. Sean has obviously read around quite widely, and the sources and
debates to which he lightly refers and contributes here cover all the ground
that I, for one, in an unusually promiscuous reading career, have explored.
The big picture, for Sean, merits the label poetic naturalism. Based on
quantum field theory, informed by the latest work in cosmology and
elementary particle research, leavened by Bayesian probability theory, and
infused with a gentle atheism colored by modern politically correct
liberalism, the picture is very much what you might expect. But it is
painted so deftly, so effortlessly, that one is charmed into taking it all
as is and putting aside critical thoughts for the duration of the ride.
For me this was light bedtime reading, but I can imagine that many
readers will not have encountered enough on, say, the interpretation of
quantum mechanics or the science of consciousness to follow some of the
detail in a critical way. These readers I can reassure — the perspective
Sean outlines is a fair reflection of those issues and an entirely
reasonable basis for further thoughts and study. My only caveat is that on
topics outside physics the views are sketched so casually that the reader
might imagine many things are clear that for some of us are still
Sean is content to demur from belief in the naively
conceived god of popular Christian faith without more ado, and quite
reasonably too, but he does not venture further into the psychology of
belief. He is content to accept the conventional view of life as the natural
expression of the physics of large molecular assemblies evolving over
millions and billions of years, again reasonably, but does not seem curious
about the emergence of astonishingly complex attractors in the state spaces
of biological systems. And he does not seem to appreciate the implications
of contradictions surrounding self-reference in either mathematics or
subjective psychology, where logical incompleteness and the feeling of free
will seem at odds with the comfortable orthodoxies of physics.
of this is likely to disturb Sean in the slightest. Of course there are deep
problems on the horizons of science and deep prejudices buried in our
everyday notions of life and meaning, but a popular book designed to offer a
sort of standard model of our lived world is hardly the place to go heavily
into all that. So I have no problem in giving him five stars for his effort
— and recommending it to anyone looking for reassuring and intelligent
A helpful edition of the text for the lay reader
Qur'an: A Translation
By Kader Abdolah
14 December 2016
This is the first and only translation of the Qu'ran that has encouraged me
to read it from beginning to end. It gives every appearance of being a
sensitive and accurate translation — though I am no expert to judge that —
and it makes the message of Islam come alive in a more human way. Helpfully,
the suras are presented in chronological order, to give the work as a whole
a narrative flow, and interpolated with notes on how to understand otherwise
baffling parts of the text.
Elegantly civilized introduction to a powerfully
illuminating view of the cosmos
Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity
1 November 2016
Carlo Rovelli is a true heir to the legacy of the Renaissance man. Even in
translation, his prose is flowery, even poetic, and his exposition is
enriched with deeply learned references to artists and philosophers from
Anaximander and Democritus to Dante Alighieri. More to the point, his
exposition of loop quantum gravity is authoritative and, I am pleased to
say, intelligible, so far as it goes, which is admittedly not far in a book
of physics for poets.
For too long, physicists have struggled to do
what they regarded as justice to infinity in their theories of the spacetime
continuum and their differential equations. The clear lesson of quantum
mechanics is that finite limits bound any physics of small phenomena that we
can devise, and a salient lesson of relativity theory is that not only do we
face a finite universal speed limit but also the cosmos is quite possibly
finite in extent too, even when our curved spacetime now seems to be
shooting off to a hyperbolic infinity under the mysterious influence of dark
energy. Putting finite bounds on the granularity of spacetime rescues us
both from the paradoxes of renormalization in QED and from the singularities
at the heart of black holes, not to mention the incalculability of the Big
If higher mathematics is the science of grappling with
infinity, which is the view that remains when all finite mathematics is
consigned to logic and computation, then physicists like Rovelli need to
purge physics of its higher mathematics. The paradoxes of measure theory,
whereby basic quantum computations lead us to talk of infinitely improbable
events, are only the tips of the iceberg. Rovelli is clear that all these
paradoxes should be done away with in a decent theory of quantum gravity.
Our challenge is to model the granularity of spacetime at the Planck scale
in a way that does justice to the observed phenomena, and here we face a
massive enterprise for which the definitive equations are not yet in sight.
For decades now, the fashionable way to work toward a theory of quantum
gravity has been via string theory, but that theory is still bogged down in
its own mathematical intractability. By contrast, the approaches of such
mavericks as Rovelli and Lee Smolin and others are less trodden and less
massively developed. This is a shame, because the philosophical advantages
of their approaches, not least in banishing infinities, are considerable.
Rovelli also mentions approaches to physics via the concept of
information, which are even less well trodden and still poorly understood.
As pioneers of quantum information theory like David Deutsch take it
further, and as the Everett interpretation of quantum branching that Deutsch
favors becomes more amenable to reasonable debate, this may change, but
meanwhile the reserve on quantum indeterminacy that Rovelli maintains may
This book is a report on a massive work in progress, where
decades could pass before a widely agreed resolution of the outstanding
problems comes into view. We are fortunate that Rovelli has entrusted us
with his personal thoughts on the story, even though they cannot be final.
Sadly, this is a topic that most lay readers will struggle with, but the
book is already worth reading for the philosophical perspective on physics
and science that Rovelli reveals, where his incomparable Renaissance
erudition and wisdom makes for a truly thrilling read.
A fascinating and readable corrective to Eurocentric histories
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
By Peter Frankopan
This is a fascinating view of history. It puts the story of the most active
and important parts of the world in their rightful place at the heart of the
narrative. Instead of starting with ancient Greece and Rome and marching the
reader through Christian Europe up to modern America, Peter Frankopan starts
with the ancient Persians and takes us up to recent developments in south
and central Asia, where Islam has held sway for over a thousand years and
where China is now playing a dominant economic role in transforming the
region and through it the entire world. He does do in an engaging way,
mixing a sober appreciation of the military and economic facts with a keen
eye for amusing anecdotes about historical people and places that put things
we thought we knew into a fresh and better perspective. Young people in
Britain should encounter big history this way, so that their view rises
above the blinkered and nationalist concerns of traditional school
histories. The story is not told perfectly, and experts will complain of
thin or weak patches in some places, but altogether the merits of the
presentation so outweigh these signs of haste that I have no hesitation in
giving the book five stars.
The Prophet superbly imagined
The Messenger: A Tale Retold
By Kader Abdolah
6 August 2016
This is the best biography of the Prophet I have read. Not only decently
short and readable, it captures the tone, the mood and the magic of desert
life 14 centuries ago with great credibility. More to the point, it does
justice to the transcendent ambition of the Prophet without falling into
weak acceptance of nonsense or bigotry and without losing the sympathetic
understanding of what on the evidence of this text is a masterful novelist.
Gott und die Welt verleugnet
Warum es die
Welt nicht gibt
von Markus Gabriel
26. Dezember 2015
Die Welt existiert nicht, weil sie zu groß und unbegrenzt
wäre - so Gabriel. Die Welt ist die Summe aller Sinnfelder aber nur
Sinnfelder existieren. In der Terminologie von Frege, wenn wir reden oder
schreiben, bedeuten wir Objekte jeder Art durch einen Mechanismus, den Frege
Sinn nennt. Bedeutung ist im Bereich der Ontologie, Sinn dagegen Teil der
Epistemologie. Gabriel will uns überzeugen, dass auch Sinnfelder ontologisch
sind. Dies begründet er mit Argumente, die auch Frege zum ernsthaften
Nachdenken bringen könnten.
Soweit darf seine These nicht besonders
kontrovers aussehen. Weniger neutral ist seine Behauptung, Sinnfelder stehen
generell in keinem berechenbaren Verhältnis zueinander. Dies hat als Folge,
dass kein fundamentales Sinnfeld unter allen anderen liegt. Wenn wir uns zum
Beispiel im Sinnfeld Alltagsleben bewegen, hat dies laut Gabriel in der Tat
und nicht bloß in Erscheinung nichts mehr mit dem Sinnfeld von
Elementarteilchen und so weiter zu tun. Für Gabriel sind solche Sinnfelder
disjunkt, was heißt wiederum, dass wir in keiner einheitlichen Welt mehr
leben. Dies kommt mir philosophisch unangenehm vor.
einem harmonischen Zusammenleben ist sicher, dass wir in einer gemeinsamen
Welt leben. Wenn wir jeweils in getrennten Welten leben, und dies sogar
jeder selbst vom Moment zu Moment als wir gedanklich leichtsinnig von Physik
zu Alltagsleben und zurück springen, kommt mir alles viel zu schizophren
vor. Natürlich sind die Übersetzungen, die uns zwischen Sinnfelder tragen,
nicht immer leicht zu definieren. Wenn wir aber die Übersetzungsarbeit
aufgeben und seufzend sagen, dass sie überhaupt nicht zu finden sind, fällt
alles auseinander und die Welt zerbröselt zum Staub.
Analog geht es
bei Gott. Gabriel gibt eine gute Zusammenfassung vom Gedankengang
Kierkegaards zum Thema Gott und Glauben und endet mit der Idee, Religion sei
die Anerkennung der Tatsache, dass Gott im traditionellen Sinn gar nicht
existiert. Gott ist kein Objekt oder Supergegenstand. Soweit könnten moderne
Theologen gern gehen, sogar auch mit Gabriel zustimmen, dass über Gott zu
predigen ohne gleichzeitig über die ganze Geschichte vom Geist in der Welt
zu reden unzureichend sei, aber sie werden nicht so leicht akzeptieren, dass
der Gottesbegriff gar keine Rolle mehr in einem modernen Sinnfeld spielen
sollte. Für Gabriel ist alles was wir über Gott und die Welt sagen am Ende
Man kann die Sache anders sehen. Der Selbstbegriff ist
heute in der Philosophie des Bewusstseins oft gern als Konstrukt gesehen:
Wir bauen ein Weltbild und gleichzeitig, als Spiegel davon, ein
Selbstporträt. Die jeweiligen Bauteile, etwa Weltbilder und Selbstaufnahmen,
ändern sich ständig in einem dialektischen Zickzack als neue Kenntnisse
eingenommen und verarbeitet werden. Der Selbstbegriff ist die moderne
Version der Seele, die nicht mehr im wissenschaftlichen Sinnfeld namentlich
angesprochen wird. Wenn wir Nagels "Blick von Nirgendwo" auf der Welt
werfen, was wir immer wieder als Philosophen versuchen, dann wird die
seelische Perspektive eben göttlich. Dies können wir als wissenschaftliche
Dialektik betrachten, wo jede Annäherung uns asymptotisch weiter bringt.
Gott und die Welt machen so als Gegenpolen einer Dialektik eine natürliche
Paarung. Trotz Gabriel, kann man die zwei verpönten Wörter geltend machen,
ohne den wissenschaftlichen Ernst zu schaden.
Gabriel hat seine
Vorarbeit in den Werken von Kant, Hegel, Heidegger und anderen hervorragend
geleistet. Er hat auch moderne angloamerikanische Philosophie von Quine,
Goodman, Putnam und Kripke auch hinreichend studiert. Aber einiges fehlt
noch. Einem Autor, der Hegels "Wissenschaft der Logik" als "einem der besten
(und schwierigsten) Philosophiebücher aller Zeiten" beschreiben kann, sogar
wenn er mit den Werken von Frege vertraut ist, wird es kaum zu erwarten,
dass er gleichzeitig tiefgreifende Kenntnisse über die logischen Grundlagen
der Mathematik verfügt. Dies wäre zu viel zu erwarten.
Dies habe ich
aber versucht, wenn auch in sehr bescheidener Weise. Von Hegels Logik, trotz
heftiger Anstrengung, habe ich nicht besonders viel gelernt, aber von der
Zermelo-Fraenkel Mengenlehre und verwandten Systeme habe ich einiges
kapiert. In ZF wird eine kumulative Hierarchie auf der Nullmenge gebaut, die
bis ins Cantors Paradies hinausragt, in einem Verfahren, das wieder als
Dialektik dargestellt werden kann. In ZF heißt die Welt der Mengen "V" und
provisorische Annäherungen dazu "V" mit einer Indexvariable. Die Paradoxen
der Mengenlehre zeigen genau was Gabriel in Wörter gemerkt hat, dass die
Welt V der Mengen nicht definitiv als existierende Menge dargestellt werden
kann. Die indizierten Annäherungen können als Ersatz dafür einiges leisten,
aber eben nicht alles.
Soviel hat Gabriel sicherlich wohl verstanden.
Schon Frege hat dies nach Kritik von Bertrand Russell geahnt. Aber was
danach kam, als Wittgenstein, Gödel und Turing ihre jeweiligen Beiträge zur
ganzen Fragestellung geleistet haben, wird ein Forschungsprojekt für sich -
oder eben für mich. Wittgenstein sagte, "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall
ist." Später: "Ich bin meine Welt." Davon könnte man einen ganzen
Selbstbegriff aufbauen (ich habe es mindestens versucht). Gödel: Jedes
(arithmetisch beschreibbare) System hat eine logische Lücke darin, analog
zur Lücke in einer indizierten V-Annäherung. Turing: Jeder Universalrechner
hat auch so eine Lücke, die als unbeweisbare Sätze erscheint. Moderne
Neurowissenschaftler: Wir sind als "Biorechner" in dieser Hinsicht nicht
besser. Die Lücke bei uns besteht darin, dass unsere phänomenalen Welten
(die Spiegelbilder der Seele) nie ganz richtig sind. Durch diesen Mangel zu
schauen ist für uns in Richtung Gott und die Welt zu bewegen, schon wieder
in einer Dialektik. Meiner Ansicht nach könnte man die Ideen von Hegel
soweit modern umsetzen. Dies scheint mir aber wesentlich weiter als Gabriel
zu gehen gewagt hat.
Fazit: Gabriel hat anscheinend Gott und die Welt
noch nicht ausreichend verstanden.
Teen romance as fairy tale? We have a winner!
By Helen Falconer
29 June 2015
An Irish novel for young adults about fairies may seem an unpromising item
for readers outside the charmed circle of Irish teenage girls. But Helen
Falconer gives it enough power to work its magic on a wider class of
readers, and she surely nurses the hope of emulating in her own modest way
the success that J. K. Rowling achieved with her Harry Potter books. As a
novelist accustomed to high praise for her prose, Ms Falconer is no doubt
eager to enjoy a royalty jackpot commensurate with the exceptional quality
of her talent.
The story starts with enough modern realism about
schoolgirl crushes and teen texting to lull its target readers into a
relation of trust. Then, with accelerating tempo, the magic kicks in and
realism goes out the window in an escalating rush of supernatural fantasy.
Once the tale has taken off, the action lets rip in fine style, with enough
dash to propel this reader at least through a fairly long saga in one
extended sitting. That, by the way, is a big achievement. Most of the few
novels that this impatient philosopher reads at all leave him cold. Those
consumed in one sitting are rare indeed. But modern teens unused to reading
big books will need this narrative drive, and a novel that lacked it would
fail at the gate.
With its artful blend of young love and folk
The Changeling strikes one as eminently fit for purpose. It weaves
its spell both effectively and with a certain bravura, quite unashamed by
its vivid evocations of the humble pleasures of daily life in a rural
Ireland of little villages beside a rocky Atlantic shoreline. The grit and
sensuality of social intercourse at a level most modern urbanites associate
more with Thomas Hardy tales or with Poldark than with mobile phones and
pinup pop stars form a fitting backdrop to a tale where realism is suspended
in an indulgent reanimation of ancient Gaelic folklore. Add a swooning girl
and a handsome hero and you can hear the happy chimes.
readers might baulk at an uncritical resurrection of traditional myth and
superstition. We might even accuse the author of seeking to cash in on a
load of old tripe, except that her love for the stuff is too manifest and
our duty of respect for its ethnic authenticity too sobering. Any modern
teenage girl will understand that fairies and goblins and so on are fantasy,
and indulge them anyway as an affirmation of Celtic identity in the
multicultural marketplace. One obstacle to world readers is that the Gaelic
names and terminology will challenge them. Most of them will find even the
pronunciation of the old words too much to handle. So some parents who might
have liked to read out the story to their kids will be frustrated, or at
least forced to do a spot of homework in advance. On the plus side, even
educated readers will learn a few new words.
Much of the Celtic myth
on show in the book, it must be said, looks pitifully homespun and
threadbare. In an era where Superman and Salman Rushdie have raised the bar
for collective myth and symbolic supernaturalism to new heights, a
celebration of the metaphysics of sprites and demons can look naive or
disingenuous, as if any modern exhibition of such symptoms of psychic
impoverishment should be seen with clinical cool or even as satire. But the
truth deserves to be acknowledged. Most traditional belief systems in
premodern times were as pitiful as the Celtic myths, and it does a modern
author credit to accept and even celebrate those roots without
As an accomplished modern author, Helen Falconer is
mature and cosmopolitan enough to remain untroubled by charges of
childishness or cynicism. And Irish culture has a treasured place in a world
community that celebrates a pantheon of Irish artists including names as big
as James Joyce, not to mention an American scene that puts Irish Americans
into the White House with remarkable frequency. If ever a little rural
country punched above its weight, Ireland takes the cake. So no native of
the Emerald Isle need be ashamed of ancestors who believed in fairies. Not
least for these reasons, this thoroughbred hybrid of teen romance and fairy
tale will be a winner.
A Vatican drama that highlights Christian life and faith
The Fifth Gospel
By Ian Caldwell
21 June 2015
I found this a thoroughly satisfying novel. Ian Caldwell has done his work
well. The novel has an intriguing theme and it is thoroughly researched, as
well as skillfully plotted and populated with deep and credible characters.
The Shroud of Turin is the iconic motif in a plot that really turns on the
schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Debatable claims for
and against the authenticity of the Shroud give way to much more interesting
reflections on the apparent blasphemy of such imagery, while parochial
reflections on eastern versus western faith from the perspective of Vatican
politics turn into a deeper analysis of the numerous little contradictions
between the four canonical gospels. Here the fifth gospel of the title plays
a didactic role in dramatizing what might otherwise have been a rather
tedious exercise in comparative hermeneutics. The outcome is that the Gospel
of John has something to say on the mystery of the Shroud, although to say
more here might spoil the plot for some readers. The priestly characters,
including Pope John Paul II in all his terminal frailty, add real depth to
the philosophizing and illustrate better than any moralizing would do how
Christian faith, for all its intellectual vulnerability, can give shape and
meaning to mortal human lives. Altogether this is a novel for discerning
readers. With a body count of one and no graphic sex it is not an airport
Surely the best big history book so far
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari
This book is easy to read and yet deep in its reach. The story is the
biggest story ever told, far bigger than the bible and far less speculative
than the brief history of time of recent fame. Dr Harari, a graduate of
Jerusalem and Oxford, has developed a course that for clarity and insight
beats all previous historical overviews of the human condition in the
history of our species, or at least all I have come across.
may seem to boast the biggest stories, from the Big Bang to the evolution of
life on Earth, but these tell only part of the tale that leads to us. They
leave unexplained those aspects of our human predicament that play a
decisive role in shaping our powers and our priorities, both of which gaps
leave scientists hanging, unable to round off the key final chapters of
their sagas to form a satisfying narrative of how we became who we are. We
need to understand the roles of agriculture and cities, of money and
writing, of religion, imagination, ignorance and greed, before we can feel
the grip of the great narrative in which we play our bit parts. When the
story races up to genetic engineering, global connectivity and posthuman
cyborgs, we need that firm anchor in the familiar facts of life. Dr Harari
throws out all the lifelines a cautious reader needs, without ever blinding
us with science or bogging us down in the trivia of conventional histories,
with their kings and generals and dubious heroes.
My take on this
book is conditioned by the fact that the last book I wrote was a big history
with much the same ambition as we see in Sapiens. My book, Coral, was framed
by a color-coded schematism that owed something to Hegelian dialectic and
was freighted with some ambitious scientific claims from biology and the
neurosciences, so quite apart from the fact that it plowed relentlessly
through a lot of traditional historical detail it surely fails the easy-read
test. But I did go from the Big Bang to global brains and cyborgs, so the
scope was very much the same. My ambitious theorizing aside, Dr Harari has
done the basic job much better.
There are hundreds of interesting and
pregnant questions thrown up by Sapiens. None of them can be discussed with
any finality in a brief review, but any reader of Sapiens will find them
popping up with delightful frequency. Dr Harari is not afraid to make big
and simple claims, and many of them have a ring of plausible truth, so much
so that any future lexicon of quotable quotes will include a few of the gems
in Sapiens. I shall not spoil the fun by quoting them here, for part of the
joy of reading Sapiens is finding them and smiling with unexpected delight.
The chapter on capitalism features big chunks of good stuff, so much so that
even economics, that dismal pseudo-science, comes alive in the telling. For
instant gratification, this is better than Adam Smith or Karl Marx.
history of everything as brief as this leaves a lot out. I would like to
have seen much more on science and war, as movers and shakers of the settled
lives of contented flocks of humans, but others may prefer other biases. In
the end, the balance in this volume is as good as any reader has a right to
expect. It will likely be a long time before another short introduction to
big history as good as this comes along. And as Dr Harari suggests, Homo
sapiens might be obsolete before long. So this might become the best human
story ever told.
Bloody Hell: A Holocaust Novel
The Zone of Interest
By Martin Amis
7 September 2014
The Jews have a history of obsession with a domineering God. The
entanglement began some four or five thousand years ago and for many it
continues still. The God is cosmic in ambition but strangely parochial in
its gendered and ethnocentric preferences, and is all but impossible to take
seriously in the age of science. This tribal God was inherited by two
mainstream faiths, Christianity and Islam, which each revamped their
theologies to efface the tribalism and inflate the cosmic ambition to
fantastic extremes. The ruinous conflicts that resulted threw a shadow over
many centuries of human progress.
The dark nadir in recent times of
that ungodly struggle was the genocide perpetrated by the more demented
servants of the Third Reich. Within the ugly context of an industrialized
total war that racked up tens of millions of corpses in less than six years,
including six million in Germany alone, some six million Jewish corpses were
manufactured in a scattering of factories dedicated solely to that hideous
task. Among them, Auschwitz in Poland is the most notorious. On a single
large campus, about a million people, the great majority of them Jews, were
deprived of life like cattle in a slaughterhouse. Most of the victims were
herded into large chambers and gassed, after which their carcasses were fed
by conveyor belts to ovens and incinerated. The remains were buried in
unmarked pits in the surrounding pastoral landscape.
for this action was a racist ideology that seems in retrospect like a
perverse and demonic caricature of the ethnocentric ideology of the Jewish
people. Centuries of Christian persecution of Jews had set a precedent for
interpreting Jewish theological speculations in the most malign light
possible, and it was natural in the early years of the human sciences to
update such paranoid fantasies into racist ideas with a scientific gloss.
The general drift of these ideas was that the Jewish tradition of seeing the
Jews as the chosen race of God, destined by divine election to prevail over
the lesser races of the Earth, was itself destined to be overturned by a
revolt of one such race, one which regarded its own credentials for
prevailing over the lesser races to be scientifically more valid.
science behind this revolt of the imperfectly Christianized race the Nazis
idolized was transparently fallacious. The political impulse derived from it
was morally benighted and practically absurd. Nevertheless, in the
emotionally charged environment of a German nation that was, firstly,
aggrieved by a sudden defeat in a bitter mechanized war of unprecedented
destructiveness, secondly, existentially threatened by the sudden and
barbarous eruption of communism on a continental scale in the territory of
the former Russian empire, and thirdly, envious of the colonial empires of
such peripheral European nations as Britain and France, the wild idea that
Jews had somehow exploited not only their theocratic primacy over Christians
to subjugate a proud warrior race but also their financial machinations to
push the German nation to ruin struck a resonant chord. Thinkers with a poor
grasp of science used the resonance to advance their racist fallacies.
The sad result of this eugenic madness was a plan to exterminate the
Jews of Europe. The plan was hatched in late 1941 at a conference in Wannsee
near Berlin and implemented within five years in an orchestrated undertaking
now known as the Holocaust. This purportedly final solution to the Jewish
problem involved the construction of giant camps like Auschwitz.
consequence of the existence of such camps was the creation of a large class
of state functionaries charged with the planning of the genocide and the
administration of every last detail of the whole ghastly business. That this
should have resulted in the moral contamination of the entire generation of
such functionaries, who after guilty immersion in those deeds were fit only
for termination with extreme prejudice, was in retrospect only natural.
These functionaries, banal as they may have seemed as individuals, had
become monsters beyond salvation in any rational judgment of the aftermath.
This is where Martin Amis takes his cue. As a novelist who rose to
prominence by exposing to scurrilously satirical treatment the darker side
of life in the dirtier corners of modern Britain, and who grew up in a
Britain grown quite rotten with relief at having prevailed in its wartime
defiance of the Third Reich, Amis seems to have been quietly obsessed for
decades by the brutalization that the lesser Nazi officials endured in
performance of their slaughterhouse tasks. The result is a novel set in
Auschwitz and starring a camp commandant whose almost comic problems in the
line of duty create a narrative thread to weave the big theme of genocide
together with the more modestly human themes of sex and love, venality and
courage, and so on. Like all novels, its success or otherwise for the reader
is largely a matter of taste, but this novel has what it takes to appeal to
discerning readers, as well as more than enough of what it takes to
discourage almost anyone else.
Fortunately, Amis has good credentials
for the task of writing this potentially embarrassing tract. As a true Brit
with blond hair and blue eyes, he is almost certainly of largely Germanic
extraction, but he also has a Jewish wife and Jewish daughters, so he is
viscerally aware of the view from the other side of the racist fence. His
literary ambition and accomplishments have served him well for the
enterprise, and the shelf of books he has authored offers plenty of back
story for the moral blockbuster that now adds its weight to the shelf.
Unfortunately, that back list includes beside the encouraging volumes a
few tomes to which the only proper response is caution. Amis has written
such brilliant books as the novel Money (1984) and the memoir Experience
(2000) and such good books as the novel London Fields (1989) and the
anthology The War Against Cliché (2001), but he has also published some
horrible flops. His strange novel Time’s Arrow (1991) tackled the Holocaust,
but it was written backwards, which disqualifies it as a contribution to
anything but a psychiatric dossier. His monograph Koba the Dread (2002) on
Stalin and Soviet atrocities is naïve and best politely ignored as a work of
history. And his novel Yellow Dog (2003) tackled racism and the limits of
reason in a way that called forth cries of despair and loathing from
Whether The Zone of Interest succeeds on a topic where so
much is at stake is moot. Genocide is not a promising scenic backdrop for a
comedy of human manners, and a novel with richly human characters whose
repertoire includes comic tropes as well as tragic ones can only drive its
narrative by relishing the everyday trivia surrounding its players. These
have the effect of losing the forest of mass murder for the trees of
personal pleasure and pain. A more fully conceived novel about the Nazi
genocide would delve with forensic imagination into the mad science of
racial types and the military acceptance of slaughter in the line of duty.
We would need a novelist of the calibre of Tolstoy and a verbal tapestry on
the scale of War and Peace to do justice to all that. As it is, Amis has
made a bold stab in the dark that will do little more than annoy most
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
20 February 2014
This bloodbath comedy reinvents the end of the Third Reich in a slapstick
assassination of the top Nazis in a little cinematic holocaust planned and
perpetrated by American and French Jews. The trademark Tarantino gore is
splashed in abundance and the dextrous wit of the multilingual screenplay is
a joy to the ears. Christoph Waltz plays an exuberantly garrulous "Jew
hunter" SS colonel in a virtuoso performance that holds the plot together
with dazzling panache. Brad Pitt by contrast looks out of place as a
drawling hillbilly US lieutenant leading an inglorious pack of Jewish
scalp-hunters. Still, with Tarantino chapter breaks and applied graphics to
put a modern gloss on what could easily have sunk into another fictional war
story, the production sings along quite effectively.
What worried me
at the outset and still worries me now two viewings later is that the moral
standpoint the movie as a whole represents is both well worn in countless
previous movies and philosophically inadequate to the loathsomeness of the
evil it reflects. The Nazis were beastly to the Jews, so let a bunch of Jews
be equally beastly to the Nazis, and let them kill Hitler too, to end the
war nine months earlier and save the world, as it were. This is fine as a
first introduction to the issues for innocent youngsters, if there are any
left, who have not yet gone deeper. But brutality was not the unique horror
of the Nazi phenomenon, and ending the horror show nine months earlier would
have saved far more Germans, who had collectively voted to stage the
spectacle in the first place, than Jews, who had suffered their worst
attrition already by then. Hypotheticals are anyway moot in history.
No, the unique horror of the Nazi phenomenon was its deep intellectual roots
in a culture that saw history in racist terms and was prepared to suffer
mightily to showcase its view in historical fact. Some six million Germans
were killed in the war, in circumstances as hideous as those in which six
million Jews also died, and the Germans knew from 1943 at the latest that
their furious revolt against the rest of the world was doomed to
spectacularly bloody failure. But they did it anyway, in an operatic
celebration of the martial arts armed with the latest high-tech weapons that
may well stand as unparalleled in history since the astonishing career of
Alexander the Great in antiquity. That the feat left the stench of genocide
in its wake is troubling, and nothing in Tarantino's movie helps us to
digest or reprocess that obstinate fact of history.
Psychiatric insight at its best
The Shock of the Fall
By Nathan Filer
1 February 2014
This is a first-person novel about a young man whose troubled life bloomed
into psychosis that only medical help could alleviate. As an inside view of
his state of mind it is fully convincing. Moreover it is as sympathetic as
it can be without falling into sentimentality or crass political posturing.
Here was a young man who needed more to flourish than his modest
circumstances could provide, and the result was a descent into what most of
us, lacking insight, would call madness. Nathan Filer has helped us
understand such sad stories more deeply. The book is also neatly structured
and plotted to get us through the harrowing stuff smoothly. I read it
through in one sitting, which for me is remarkable and convincing proof of
Inspirational advice on how to write a classic
Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
By Christopher Vogler
7 February 2014
Our world is overflowing with clumsy and turgid texts that barely reward the
effort of reading. What we all need is less pap and more pudding. We need
stories that nourish and inspire us. We need stories that lift the soul to
those enchanted and eternal realms from which we can return refreshed,
filled with zest to revitalize and revamp the world of everyday cares. But
writing those stories is a challenge.
Christopher Vogler knows this.
His inspirational guide to ambitious writers of all kinds, but especially
those who burn to write classic novels and screenplays, has surely lit the
flame of many a soul that might otherwise have gone out in the weary climb
to fame and fortune. Both in book publishing and in Hollywood, the road to
stardom is long and hard. A writer needs a guide like this to light the way.
The book is replete with references to classics old and new that show
how to do the job. The mythic structure Vogler reveals behind those classics
is eternal, and even writers of Hollywood comedies can learn a lot from it,
and doubtless have in the years since his book appeared. The frontispiece
illustrations for the chapters in the third edition are beautiful. They set
the tone for the chapters quite delightfully.
Is Jesus a fictional character and
Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus
By Joseph Atwill
20 November 2013
The hypothesis advanced in this book is scientific. It can be checked by any
scholar who makes the effort to read the historical works of Josephus
Flavius and the New Testament Gospels carefully, in parallel. I found the
forensic case Atwill assembles in his cool and methodical report both
startling and convincing. Assuming that he has correctly translated and
interpreted the texts, and that the mathematics is fairly deployed to prove
the case with high probability, we have a clear case of massive and
systematic deception. Christianity becomes a fraud.
Atwill claims that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character written into
history to prophesy events that were new at the time of writing. The intent
of this deception was to persuade the successors of the militant Jews who
were defeated in the Roman destruction of the Second Temple to adopt a
pacifist ideology that in effect deified the the Flavian emperors Vespasian,
Titus, and Domitian as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost,
respectively. A more egregious blasphemy against Judaic monotheism is hard
What I found especially shocking in this scenario is that
the deception worked for almost two millennia. The evidence for the
hypothesis was there for all to read in the first-century literature, but
generations of earnest scholars had missed it until Atwill, who was raised
in a deeply Christian environment but had an exceptionally gifted analytic
mind, serendipitously spotted the key threads of the fraud and then took a
few decades to build up his case. His book is not a light read and his key
finding is presented more in sorrow than with glee, but the result is clear.
The huge irony in all this is that Christianity has arguably become the
greatest religious ideology the world has ever known. Based on a Jewish
militant tradition bordering on rabid racism, tempered by Greek philosophy
and poetic sensibility, and spread by Roman military and institutional
strength, the ideology that was centered on the figure of Jesus turned out
to be a winner for many millions of believers, whose successors created the
modern world. Modern Christians might prefer to rebury the filthy roots that
Atwill digs up, but truth will out, and must.
Shocking, gripping, sobering report on human folly
Command and Control
By Eric Schlosser
18 November 2013
The most amazing fact about the cold war is that we survived it. There was
no outbreak of major hot war — assuming we count the wars in Korea and
Vietnam as minor — and no accidental detonation of a big bomb. We lucked
How far we lucked out is evident from Eric Schlosser's
astonishing reportage in this book. He obviously put in a lot of work on the
research, and it paid off. More shocking than a thriller, more gripping than
any novel, and more sobering than a war history, his account on the
fragility of the nuclear stalemate during the cold war confirmed my worst
fears about the US military and its shaky mastery of new technology.
Wisely, Schlosser avoided fancy effects in his style. The facts are chilling
enough without any embellishment. But he humanized the story masterfully.
The impact of preparing for Armageddon on all the voices and thoughts
recorded in the book is clear enough. A horror beyond human imagination
loomed just a button, or a dropped spanner, or a misunderstood message away.
Read this book and tell your friends about it. And thank providence that
we're still here to reflect on the folly of all those who got us into this
mess. It's not over. It will last as long as humans can muster the skill to
build a bomb. We need secure global control of all nukes.
A revealing portrait of Jesus
rooted in historical
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan
Reza Aslan has performed a public service with this readable review of the
life and times of Jesus the Nazarene. As a scholar of religion and a teacher
of creative writing, he has managed to hit a high note in a field both
swamped with demented polemics from religious cranks and overgrown with
pedantic exercises in obfuscation by bookish bores, all of which has fed a
forbidding forest of obstacles to writers like Aslan. His new book is about
as exciting as a monograph backed by a solid list of academic references can
be, and it tells the story with a spin that begs for a Hollywood movie
treatment by a team that can do justice to his thoroughly modern vision.
Zealot is the story of a politically engaged Jesus in a world where
religion and politics were inextricably entangled. So the tale has a
striking resonance in the turmoil currently gripping the Mideast region, and
Aslan as a confessed Muslim is coming from the right corner to tell it. The
Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman rule two thousand years ago finds a
disturbing mirror in the modern Palestinian struggle to break free of
Israeli domination, and although the contrast between the two struggles is
so great as to make the second seem a wild inversion of the first, the
parallel is revealing. Aslan is wise enough to do no more than hint at this
side of his story and to focus on the old struggle. He presents the vivid
facts surrounding the narrative in order to set in sharp relief the unknown
details that have been blurred into mad minefields by endless polemics
between various believers. What we see is a profile of Jesus that makes the
Christian confabulations surrounding his life look transparent. No
reasonable person can fail to see through the threadbare veils of faith to
the shadow of the man behind them.
A great merit of the book is its
gently ironic distance from the three monotheistic faiths. We see the facts,
so far as they have been established by generations of patient scholars,
plus an honest assessment of the gaps and the conjectures, all wrapped up in
a story that stays lively enough to keep readers going. The ancient clash of
Romans and Jews is a drama without equal in Western history, and its uneasy
resolution in the Christian tradition is with us still. So Aslan needs skill
and courage to stay on top as he surfs the waves of the ongoing
controversies. He does so with such aplomb that even simple Christians need
not be offended by his portrait.
Any such portrait confronts a
historical challenge. A hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer concluded a
magisterial review of all previous lives of Jesus with the dismaying verdict
that key facts were lost and all the lives said more about their authors
than about their subject. More recent studies, for example on the Dead Sea
scrolls and newly discovered gospels, have helped, but they have also raised
wider questions. To disclose my own interest, last year I drafted a book on
the life of Jesus that I now find largely shared the perspective Aslan
adopts in Zealot. I know how hard it is to rise to the challenge posed by
Schweitzer and failed to meet it. Aslan does better. His touch is so light
as he approaches matters of moment to fundamentalists that he leaves his own
opinions out of play, with the pleasing result that the facts, at least so
far as we know them, can speak for themselves. Also, his scholarship has
been impressive, albeit with gaps that some reviewers have attacked with
their own zeal, so readers of Zealot can rest content that the main claims
are reasonably solid.
In my opinion, Aslan fails the Schweitzer test
on two aspects of the story. First, he drastically undervalues the pacific
doctrines of the gospel Jesus, which show that Jesus was influenced by
Essene ideas. The love and peace vibe makes Jesus more of a hippy than a
zealot, and sets up a resonance between his ideas and Buddhism. Second,
Aslan fails to look more closely at the resurrection stories. Odd details in
the crucifixion drama suggest that Jesus may have survived the punishment,
for a while at least, and perhaps even hoped to do so. Aslan may be forgiven
for glossing over the resurrection issue, but losing the love thing behind a
call to arms makes for a travesty.
Despite the flaws, Zealot is the
best book on Jesus for a long time. Atheists and believers alike will find
both cheer and challenges as they come to grips with its drama. All its
readers will be better informed in the debates on faith that are likely yet
to come. Our global civilization is struggling to integrate the three
strands of monotheism in a world where science puts hard bounds on any truth
behind their faiths. Zealot helps narrow the scope for believers to make
wild assertions about Jesus the Nazarene, and thus helps us all.
The greatest movie ever filmed
Lawrence of Arabia
By David Lean (Blu-ray)
30 November 2012
This is the version of Lawrence I'd been waiting for. You need Blu-ray to
see the little camels in the desert panoramas. As a buff who has seen the
movie several times since my first viewing back in 1966, I feel no need now
to rehash the plot or the performances or the reasons why this is the
definitive movie classic. Let me just say that anyone who likes classic
movies should see this one, in this edition, on the biggest HDTV screen they
can find. The desert shots are priceless. The story is unique. David Lean
By Bernardo Bertolucc (Blu-ray)
27 November 2012
This is a great movie dramatizing a great story. A man who began life as the
last emperor of the greatest dynasty the world has ever seen, who was
involved in some of the most exciting events of the century, and who ended
up as a humble gardener in Maoist China, is a worthy subject for a good
movie. Bertolucci is a good enough director to have made the most of it. And
unlike some director's cuts, this one is fascinating enough to make the
extra hour well spent. I cannot imagine a better screening of the life.
Impressive and gripping
By C. J. Sansom
27 November 2012
This is a classic spy novel set in Britain in 1952, reconstructed as
realistically as possible on the assumption that Britain had capitulated to
Nazi Germany in 1940. The reconstruction is, so far as I can tell (I was too
young in 1952 in north London to remember well), well nigh flawless, and the
mood of the time is captured with great plausibility. The characters too are
realistic and sympathetic, and the drama is gripping enough to keep one
turning the pages. Everything is researched and assembled with impressive
skill, and doubtless one could make a good movie from it. My sole
reservation is that everything fits too neatly into the historical and
dramatic template. To grip the deep emotions, a novel must do more with the
characters than march them through a preplanned scenario. The hero struck me
as a cypher, a nice guy who never transcended his obvious role. But maybe
I'm asking too much. It's a really good novel.
Effective, efficient, and evocative
By Ian McEwan
24 September 2012
Forty years ago, life in Britain was even worse than it is now. The British
secret service was snobbish and paranoid about enemies of the state, and
even a clever and beautiful girl fresh from Cambridge was hard pressed to
carve out a career that rose above dreary office routine. From this unlovely
mix, Ian McEwan has
crafted a novel that works impressively well. His prose is smooth without
being distracting, his orchestration of the plot is tidy and efficient, and
his evocation of the mood of the times is, as I can attest, entirely
credible. The girl whose drama we follow is naive in the manner of those
years but engaging, as a gathering storm of literary scandal casts a gloomy
spell over this chronicle of a reckless love affair.
Some of McEwan's
early books were fairly forgettable, for me, but since his classic novel
Atonement he has been in fine
form, with Saturday and Solar as excellent additions to the corpus, and this
new effort shows him at his best. The natural comparison to make is with his
longtime friend Martin Amis, whose strange and fizzy concoctions defeat all
contenders judged as heady draughts but leave bitter aftertastes in the cold
light of the morning after. By contrast, McEwan is not too proud to work at
plotting his books carefully and at making them realistic in the ways that
count for anyone with a more sober appreciation of the hard facts of life in
bygone Britain. Sweet Tooth would make a good little movie for a new
Brisk and impressive scholarship
from an orthodox perspective
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
By Bart D. Ehrman
27 August 2012
Anyone who wants to understand the emergence of the New Testament as a
canonical anthology can profit from reading this book. The raw texts for the
canon were a muddle of assorted memoirs, tracts, and letters written by
people who mostly lacked sufficient understanding of what they were writing
about to express themselves clearly. The result was a dismaying tangle of
confused and competing doctrines that took time to settle into a stable
foundation for an organized church. In fact it took about three centuries,
which makes for quite a story.
Bart Ehrman has documented this
development superbly. He highlights the uneven quality of the original
texts, the controversies and corruptions that bedeviled their preservation
and publication, and the personal failings and animosities that constantly
threatened to derail the entire process of finding agreement on what should
go into the canon. He does so clearly in muscular and energetic prose that
makes for easy and enjoyable reading.
My main criticism of his book
is that he seems totally uncritical about the orthodox faith that emerged
from the history. I sensed a triumphalist tone in his crowing over the
success of that orthodoxy over its defeated rivals. He considers briefly how
it might have been if a competing doctrine had won out, but this is more for
rhetorical effect than as part of any serious attempt to get at the roots of
the doctrinal disputes. One can hardly fault him for not going beyond his
stated intention, but I for one felt hustled by his lack of critical
distance from the faith he upholds.
Ehrman expresses no curiosity
about how Jesus spent the formative years before his baptism, no interest in
how the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate the Jesus story, no doubts about the
miracles or the resurrection, and no awareness that the apostle Paul might
have been moved by darker impulses beside evangelical zeal in his missions
among the gentiles. As a professor of religious studies, Ehrman may prefer
not to exceed his mandate, but his easy acceptance of orthodoxy means he
sees the trees in this study but not the forest.
Ein besseres Buch über Heideggers Philosophie
ist kaum vorstellbar
Ein Meister aus Deutschland: Heidegger und seine Zeit
22. August 2012
Seit Jahrzehnte wollte ich mich mit Heideggers Philosophie befassen. Mit
Kant und Hegel habe ich in Oxford hauptsächlich in englischer Übersetzung
gekämpft. Aber Heideggers Werke lassen sich nicht so leicht übersetzen. Nach
25 Jahre hier in Deutschland dachte ich, jetzt oder nie! Also habe ich
Safranskis Buch als Propädeutik gelesen. Es war so einleuchtend, dass ich
keine Lust mehr habe, Heidegger selbst zu lesen. Besser kann ein Buch über
einen Philosoph kaum wirken. Konzeptionell ist Safranski fast so schwer zu
verinnerlichen wie Heidegger, aber vom Redefluss her ist Safranskis Text
wesentlich angenehmer. Man hat das Gefühl, den grossen Denker ausreichend
durchgeschaut zu haben.
Nietzsche als Denker und Mensch durchleuchtet
Nietzsche: Biographie seines Denkens
von Rüdiger Safranski
Nietzsches Philosophie ist von seinem Leben kaum trennbar. Um die
Philosophie zu verstehen, muss man etwas über das Leben wissen. Umgekehrt
scheint Nietzsches Leben ohne die Philosophie völlig sinnlos zu sein. Aber
um beide Seiten zusammen zu bringen braucht ein Autor seltsames Talent.
Safranski hat dieses Talent ganz offensichtlich. Er hat es geschafft, sich
in Nietzsches Gedankenwelt so überzeugend einzuschleichen, dass der Leser,
der vorher seine eigenen Meinungen zu Nietzsches berühmtesten Werke
(Zarathustra, Ecce Homo usw.) bringt, wohl doch diese Werke neu und tiefer
verstehen werde. Das Buch ist meisterhaft.
Schopenhauer mit Scharfsinn und Verstand durchleuchtet
Schopenhauer und die wilden Jahre der Philosophie
von Rüdiger Safranski
22. August 2012
Schopenhauer ist schwer für einen Biograph, weil erstens er selbst so gut
schrieb und zweitens sein Leben abgesehen von der Philosophie ziemlich
uninteressant war. Aber Safranski ist es gelungen, die Seiten so zu
kombinieren, dass die sich gegenseitig einleuchtend ergänzen. Schopenhauer
hatte das Unglück, in Hegels Schatten seine Karriere starten zu müssen, und
als stolzer junger Mann hat er dies kaum überlebt. Aber sein Hauptwerk, Die
Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, war ein Klassiker, das noch ein Jahrhundert
später noch gut zu lesen war. Safranski erklärt genug von dieser
Philosophie, um den Leser das Gefühl zu geben, die Hauptidee darin
ausreichend verstanden zu haben, und gleichzeitig erzählt genügend
biographische Einzelheiten, um den ganzen Fall Schopenhauer in kritischer
Perspektive zu setzen. Mehr von einer seriösen Biographie kann man wirklich
Strange combination of speculation and scholarship
A Search for the Historical Jesus
Professor Fida Hassnain
July 24, 2012
Professor Hassnain seems to have misrepresented the story he attempts to
tell about the historical Jesus. He relies heavily on several unreliable
sources, yet expresses no doubts about their provenance, while building a
controversial and finally unsatisfying biography for Jesus the Nazarene. Naturally he
concentrates on the parts that interest him and emphasizes the last years in
Srinagar, but a more thorough attempt to integrate his findings with the
sober historical work of historians in the Jewish and Christian traditions
would have greatly improved this book. I have recently published the short
book Christ, which covers much the
same ground, but I hope to have integrated the speculation more candidly
within a more conventional tale, and taken more care to try to reconstruct
the mindset of the unknown person who lived the biography.
prospective reader of Professor Hassnain's book should first Google Nicolas
Notovitch and look at his 19th-century memoir of his travels in Ladakh and
Tibet (in which he made the claims that Hassnain leverages with no hint of
skepticism about NN's "Life of St. Issa") and check Holger Kersten's book
Jesus Lived in India: His Unknown Life Before and After the Crucifixion,
which for my money covers the same ground as the professor but in a way that
is much more accessible to a European who is ready to accept the idea that
Jesus lived to a ripe old age.
Patrician poetry dressed down as populist prose
By Martin Amis
July 2, 2012
The eponymous Asbo is an unlovely vulgarian whose presence for 276 pages is
frankly wearying. His counterpoint, the boring arts student Des, lightens
the load at the cost of diluting the savage fun the Asbo saga throws up. As
always with Amis, language gets in the way, and recherché words and phrases
distract and bemuse any reader hoping to watch him pig out on tabloid tales of
drunken debauchery of the sort that inspired this fastidious dip into a
This book is emphatically not a "good read" for the
masses, nor is it a scholarly tour de force of sustained insight into a
subculture we'd all like to see cleaned up or done away with. See it instead
as a book of prose poetry. Amis can catch the unintended music of demotic
language like no other writer I know, and many of the lines in this volume
of sound bites are superbly evocative of the character types that lie behind
the absurd caricatures we see in Asbo and his milieu. Reading these pages,
one is reminded that English at its best is a phonetic language that has an
auditory impact on the brain. Too much of the dead prose that surrounds us
lets us forget that fact. But Amis is fast becoming a language pedant, and
this tiresome trait intrudes on the story (a chav girlfriend called
"Threnody" — WTF?) to an irritating degree. The boring Des is the main foil
for this word worship, but a plot thread involving crossword clues (to say
more would spoil the thread) betrays it more candidly.
What could have saved this book from the arts ghetto is a stronger focus
on Asbo the financial wizard. After winning his lotto fortune and surviving
the wild excesses that follow, Asbo rises far enough in the world of
investment portfolios to make vast profits, it seems (though Amis disdains
to say how), and thus reveals a fine resonance between his chav ways and the
buccaneering spirit of the financial go-getters who have nearly brought us
all to ruin. If Amis had taken the trouble to research this side of his
chosen topic with more care, he could have begun to make up the ground he
lost to Tom Wolfe two decades back when that former journalist showed us how
well a novel could both satirize and illuminate the ways of the "masters of
the universe" in Wall Street and the City. But no, Amis is not cut out for
fieldwork. His world is already there in the tabloids, with their curt
neologisms and their atrocious alliterations. His idea of getting his hands
dirty is to read their smudged pages, and his idea of putting his mind to
work is to parse his degustation of the lives vomited forth there.
short, this comedic profile of Asbo the lotto lout is another worthy little
tome on the shelf of Amis potboilers, but hardly a book to change the world.
Despite its thin and unedifying story and its vacuous and unappealing
characters, at least it's not instant trash. Enough to fill a quiet
weekend it just about is, which is probably all an Amis fan needs to know to
fork out a tenner for it.
Integral vision with no physics in sight
Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science,
By Ken Wilber
June 10, 2012
Ken Wilber is a deep thinker and has good things to say. In a book on a
theory of everything, a physicist naturally hopes for insight into how new
physics is changing the way we see the world. But the hope is dashed: this
is a book of easily digestible thought bites for a popular audience. That
said, the thought bites are well worth deep thought. The integral vision, in
which mind, soul, and spirit, both of the individual and of everyone else,
get star billings alongside the objective science of self and world, is
good. Much contemporary commentary in economics and politics is radically
defective when seen with integral vision. Score a big one for Wilber.
Apart from what is now known as the Wilber diagram, with four quadrants
and a set of nested levels to anchor the integral vision in a handy meme
that anyone can sketch on a flip chart to liven up a meeting, the main
theoretical device in the book is a meme for juggling worldviews called
spiral dynamics. Wilber did not invent this meme, but it has great currency
among pop theologists as a way of juggling simple concepts of gods or God.
The idea comes with a color coding running from beige to turquoise, where the
most interesting levels are red, blue, orange, and green. Roughly, red gods
are tribal and aggressive, blue gods are mythic and legalistic, orange gods
are rational and individualistic, and green gods are relativist and
multicultural. With thought aids at this level, the reader should not expect
too much insight into science, but it all makes for good reading.
Wilber has built up a great reputation among modern meditators and
introspective philosophers, and this book shows why. Despite its simple
tools and modest ambition, it displays an impressively strong and balanced
grasp of the main issues and pushes on to ideas as deep as any in our
culture. Wilber truly has an integral vision, and it is one we would all do
well to pursue. Physicists will be happy to cut him some slack.
Thin science, dubious philosophy, and poor rhetoric
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
By Sam Harris
May 6, 2012
Sam Harris is an ambitious young man who has done some great propaganda work
in the global war on terror. Now he hopes to settle down quietly as a
neuroscientist and offers this book as a step in that direction. The science
in the book arises from his doctoral thesis and is an entirely routine
exercise in performing and interpreting a few brain scans with the aim of
locating the neural correlates of belief. The philosophy is a crusade
against facts and values that argues for a kind of utilitarianism in which
our supreme moral duty is to enhance the well-being of conscious agents. The
rhetoric against religion is familiar to any reader of the New Atheist
manifestos of the last few years and is open to all the same objections.
Neuroscience is about to change the world as radically as physics and
biology did in the last century. When our new brain scans and computer
simulations together result in our building a solid foundation for a science
of psychology, all our old notions of choice and preference, reason versus
emotions, happiness and fulfillment, and more will be overturned in a new
conception of what it is to be human, and conscious, and alive. But these
are early days. The results that Harris cites to support his thesis are
trivial relative to the work to come. Think of the first experiments on the
molecular basis of genetics compared with the full genome scans we can do
now. It is too soon to see the full scope of the revolution to come. Harris
is overselling his first glimpses.
Utilitarianism is a Victorian
philosophy of happiness that consorts well with the idealistic rationalism
of the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century. Now it is obsolete.
A conception of morality according to which I do right when I more
efficiently please myself and others is quite likely to contradict any more
transcendent duty to which I may find myself committed. A projection of such
an outstanding duty onto the dimensions of pleasure or happiness, however
elaborate the summation over populations or integration over time, is
unlikely to cut ice. We can conceive our goals independently of any such
projection and hence have no idea how their projection should be scaled
against others on a balance sheet, yet know with certainty that the goals
Religion is an easy target for a certain kind of scorn.
But the intelligent reaction to such easy pickings is to stop and ask
whether religion has not survived despite that vulnerability, which has been
obvious in the west since classical times, because it fulfills quite
different functions. The doctrines are like mood music and the verbal
formulations are just scores for certain instruments, for selected
audiences, in specific locations. Treating moral pronouncements taken from
such scores as analogous to fixed laws supporting legally defensible
derivations is asking for absurdity. Religions typically support apodeictic
laws in contexts where their sanctioned application produces the appropriate
tonal effects in the mood music. Outside the concert hall they merely cause
noise pollution. But similarly, brain scan results may be irrelevant to a
life in the sacred time of a living tradition.
Overall, Harris has
written a book on a big subject from the perspective of a relatively small
cultural base. Modern life in California may allow great sophistication on
some matters, but may be expected to suffer tunnel vision relative to wider
perspectives available to cultivated people elsewhere. The world according
to a freshly minted neuroscientist is a place full of wildly exciting
promise for revolutions in our human awareness of our actual and potential
place in the cosmos, but (1) the science of how the brain works is still far
from ready to offer insights with the scope and certainty that the arguments
in this book would require, (2) the philosophical distinction between what
is and what ought to be is a pretty good one for many purposes and is not
yet ready for scrap, and (3) our scientific understanding of religion and
its potential contribution to an enriched science of human life is far more
inchoate than our understanding of the brain. So this book aimed too high
and missed its target. But it is well written and good for provoking
A clear and convincing historical analysis
Jesus Lived in India
by Holger Kersten
April 24, 2012
Believers in the death and resurrection of Christ will have a hard time with
this book. They will pick and poke at details just as some do over Darwin's
theory of evolution or the new sciences of the universe and the brain. But
Kersten's destruction of the orthodox position of traditional faith is clear
and convincing, for me at least. His own research and his summary of the
research of a vast number of other careful scholars has shown with some
clarity that (1) Jesus was a teacher in the tradition of Buddhism and
Hinduism who quite possibly learned his trade in advanced and extended
Indian or Buddhist training, (2) Jesus survived the crucifixion, as he would
have hoped, using Yogic skills developed during his training plus the
cooperation of friends who may have seen his suffering Roman cruelty as a
Jewish victory, and (3) Jesus probably headed back east after his recovery
and became a wandering teacher called Yuz Asaf who finally settled in
Kashmir and is buried in Srinagar.
Any attempt to reconstruct the
events of so long ago with any clarity is doomed to be debatable, and any
attempt to do so for a historic figure like no other in (Western) history is
going to raise organized resistance from vested interests, but Kersten has
given us a platform for doing so that is really good, in my humble opinion. I have
read several books on this and related themes, and this is the best, for me.
The balance of fine detail and judicious overview, the insistence on hard
facts and the sober appraisal of probabilities, the sympathy extended to
people of faith, whether Indian or Mediterranean, and the overall scholarly
tone of the enterprise together make this for me the fiducial source on this
topic. I have no hesitation in recommending it to seekers after truth and
giving it five stars.
A work of historical genius and new relevance
By Peter Watson
February 28, 2012
Peter Watson has written the best biographical
introduction to the glories of post-Enlightenment German history that I have
found or can imagine. This is a thick book and dense with facts, but the
narrative drive is relentless and the overall conclusion is convincing.
Germany has done more than any other nation to shape the modern world we
live in, the world in which the United States of America has taken up the
flag and continued the long march into a brighter future. If the USA is the
modern Rome, Germany is its Greece, its Athens and Sparta rolled into one.
Watson rolls out a pantheon of great Germans for our edification, and an
impressive roll call it is. From the early days of Kant and the idealists
and Goethe and the romantics, through the middle years of Nietzsche and
Wagner, science and industrialization, military prowess and colonial
adventures, to the glory days of Einstein and the quantum theorists, Freud
and scientific medicine, Heidegger and the existentialists, to the
apocalyptic horror of Hitler and the Nazis, and onward through the economic
miracle to reunification and a respected place at the heart of the European
Union, Germany has been there, done that, and seen it all.
entire astonishing story is tirelessly chronicled in Watson's magnum opus.
He offers potted biographies and assessments of the hundred or more
prominent Germans that all educated people should be acquainted with, and
sets the tales in a master narrative that takes the reader through a story
like no other in the entire history of civilization. The new relevance of
the story is that Germany is a lot more than the blighted source of two
world wars and a holocaust. Germany was the engine of a hundred years of
progress that changed the world and gave America the tools and the opening
for its own world hegemony. Now, in a Europe that otherwise looks desolate,
Germany is the best hope for renewal.
Good honest fun, readable and realistic
By David Nicholls
January 12, 2012
This is a surprisingly and
impressively good novel — I say this as a jaded and picky connoisseur of
novels by Martin Amis and other relatively literary writers — that really
comes alive. The pair Dexter and Emma come over as real people, portrayed
honestly in all their human imperfection, and their interactions are
presented with the lovingly clinical attention to detail that only the best
authors can pull off convincingly. The story is fun too, with incidents and
accidents that regularly put a smile on the reader's face. And unlike some
longish novels, this one has you turning the pages - the tale pulls you
along effortlessly. The author knows how to write too, with enough cute
phrases and gracefully conveyed scenes to keep the pot bubbling without
snagging your attention on contrived effects or overwrought sentences. So
altogether this is as good as the hype suggests.
Yet it's not
perfect. The one day per year device worked fine, and didn't chop up the
tale excessively at all. Also, the ending is real enough, and life can be
like that. But the later flashback chapters had me frowning. I'd have
preferred them up front, even at the cost of some dramatic suspension and
closure. And the pair were irritating enough in their limitations to make me
want to stand back further, to put their foibles in more perspective. The
movie, which in many ways does a fine job of reflecting the mood of the
book, made that aspect clear enough for me before I read the book, so if you
saw the movie already you'll know what to expect there. Also, some of the
sentences in the book had me reading them twice just to catch the correct
sense. That suggests some suboptimal writing, which is forgivable when all
the rest is so good but can be distracting.
More trivially, the
physical book was too cheap for words. The typeface reverted to typewriter
font for italic caps and the print was sometimes blurred. In my copy, pages
37 and 38 were printed on the overlapped sheets where a second printer roll
took over, and came complete with a sticky tab that gummed the pages. The
volume had a production quality that would disappoint me in a toilet roll. I
guess I should have read the Kindle edition. Perhaps these are End Times for
paperbacks, or perhaps someone at Hodder should wake up.
A proof that Homo sapiens is not rational
Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
January 5, 2012
Kahneman has performed the historic feat of finding hard evidence for the
limits of human reason. With simple but convincing experiments, he has done
more to advance psychology as a science than anyone else in a hundred years.
The implications for the rationalist ideology behind economics are what led
to his Nobel prize, but those implications will probably take a century to
work their way into political life, where much of the psychobabble about
reason that is used to defend Western political ideals is now revealed as
obsolete and scientifically untenable.
Kahneman's book is
impressively readable, indeed compelling, and the argument he builds up is
as solid as anything in psychology. Using simple questionnaires and
elementary statistics, the author reveals facts about Homo sapiens that do
more to destroy our self-serving illusions than anything since the
breakthrough work on the psychology of religion by William James or the
radical exploration of sexuality in the human psyche by Sigmund Freud. In
his review of Kahneman's book, Freeman Dyson says Kahneman outranks those
thinkers as a scientist. A physicist would say that, but even a lay reader
will sense greatness in this book.
Martin at his best
War Against Cliché
by Martin Amis
January 5, 2012
Martin Amis was an excellent journalist and this volume of essays spanning
three decades proves it. One can be — and I am — sceptical about the merits
of some of his novels, but the literary quality of the essays in this
collection is pretty much undeniable. For any student who wants to
understand the Anglo-American zeitgeist of those decades, this may be a
better place to start than Martin's novels. Once you see the majesty of his
mental landscape in these essays, you can dive into the murk of those novels
with more sympathy for the sensibilities of the muck-racker that he there
reveals himself to be.
A novel for big bucks, not for big brains
by Daniel H. Wilson
August 31, 2011
This is a real page-turner with a great concept and a neat execution. But
the focus on butchery and horror is too much for a cool chap like me. I
don't see any possible future where robots go berserk like this. Sorry, Dr.
Wilson, you may be a robogeek but in all honesty the scenario sucks. I too
studied robots and I published a 1996 novel (now defunct) exploring a way
for robots to take over the world in a slightly more civilized fashion. As
for the writing style, the breathless verbatim reports of immediate
observers is great for putting the reader in the battlezone but is really a
cop-out for an author who couldn't make a more considered perspective on
this scenario fly straight if he tried. The novel is a great addition to the
Michael Crichton tradition and a natural for Steven Spielberg treatment, but
I despair for your soul, Dan Wilson. If you want to see how the robots can
really achieve their Global Organo-cybertronic Dominion, read my 2010
manifesto G.O.D. Is Great and
weep. Snoozilicious it may be compared to Robopocalypse, but at least it
seems feasible in the cool light of day. In short, Dr. Wilson has written a
novel for big bucks, not for big brains.
A must for any serious student of consciousness
The Character of Consciousness
by David J. Chalmers
David Chalmers is perhaps the greatest living philosopher of consciousness.
The essays collected in this anthology of his best short writings for
professionals are definitively classic. But many of them are hard work to
read through. An introduction to the field this is not. Written over a
period of a decade or so and published in a variety of outlets, the essays
add up to a fascinating portrait of genius at work in a field where the
final truth is still decades, if not centuries, away. By a curious
coincidence, in 2009 I published a similar collection of my writings in
consciousness over a decade or so —
Mindworlds — and in effect dedicated it
to David. Perhaps his new book, in concept if not in content, is his way of
responding. Whatever the truth, his book is an absolute must for any
dedicated consciousness buff. More serious appraisal must await peer reviews
in professional journals.
An incendiary manifesto for reason
The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
April 6, 2011
I read this book soon after it first appeared and was electrified. It
changed my world. Harris pulls no punches in his attacks on the absurdities
of organized religion and the atrociousness of much of what now passes for
Muslim faith in particular. He wrote it as a young man and the book has the
flaws you might expect: it's sometimes clumsily written and somehow poorly
structured, but the clarity and brilliance of the central message is
outstanding enough to put all that in the shade. As his "war work" in
response to 9/11, this book is Harris' finest achievement to date — though
he would probably wish to insist that his recent work as a brain scientist
turned moral philosopher in The Moral Landscape deserves recognition
independently of that achievement.
A fun take on the science of mind and brain
by David Lodge
April 6, 2011
This novel is light and inconsequential but fun. I read it years ago, when
it first appeared, and when I was in the community of researchers into the
science of consciousness. Although the novel is rather British, it did catch
some of the conceits of the community remarkably well, both sharply and
wittily. In fact, I presented at a "Brain and Self" workshop in Elsinore,
Denmark, in 1997 where David Lodge gave a talk and evidently gathered
experiences for the novel. Some of the stuff in the book is rooted in that
event. If you have any interest in the intersection of British academia and
neuroscience, this book is for you.
Based on an idea by Max Tegmark
The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
April 2, 2011
Brian Greene must have enjoyed Max Tegmark's May 2003 Scientific American
article on parallel universes, since he recycled the concept for the third
book in his physics trilogy. After covering string theory in The Elegant
Universe and inflationary cosmology in The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene
covers alternative, possible, and parallel worlds and universes in this new
book. He does so with a light touch and an easy manner, honed by years now
of delivering such highly theoretical and speculative content to popular
audiences. Whether he succeeds in whetting your appetite is another matter.
Personally, I loved his first book, really liked his second one, and felt a
slight ennui over the third one.
The fact is that the science of all
these possible worlds is hardly science at all in the traditional sense, and
there's a lot of hand-waving and vague philosophizing in Greene's account of
it all. Like Steven Pinker, who wrote several big popular books in quick
succession and found his content thinning out accordingly, Greene has found
that the physics on show in his new parade is less meaty than most physics
buffs will hunger for. Indeed, when string theorists admit that they need
five hundred zeroes just to write out the number of possible universes on
their recent estimations and when Greene admits that we might just as well
be living inside a giant simulation in an alien supercomputer, à la Matrix,
we are right to sigh and lose heart for the new physics.
had a great run in the last hundred years. From the Newtonian world of
colliding particles in absolute space and time, perfused with
electromagnetic waves, we have moved on to the weird world that Greene has
presented as well as any physicist since Heinz Pagels, who published a fine
trilogy on quantum physics, big bang cosmology, and the emerging science of
complexity a quarter of a century ago. We need these popular prophets for
physics even in times like these when the theory has navigated into a fog
bank. Perhaps a bright kid somewhere will be inspired by Greene's books to
find a way out of the fog.
Note added in proof: For a physics buff,
the notes in Greene's new book are the best part. It's a pity that most
readers, me included, will probably never read them all. Greene should have
the courage of his professorial salary and put the good stuff in the main
book where it belongs, and forget about trying to reach the top of the
bestseller lists with a book that without the notes is too bland.
A long march on the left-right brain
Master and His Emissary
by Iain McGilchrist
March 9, 2011
Iain McGilchrist has poured his life's work into the capacious frame of this
book. Only a thinker who first spent some twenty years getting his case
together could have produced so massively buttressed an argument for greater
awareness of hemispheric differences between the two halves of our cerebral
cortexes. The scientific need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of
our brains' lateralization is clear and acute, and the social pathologies
consequent upon our ignoring this key feature of our anatomy are
correspondingly important. That said, the investigations brought together in
this book can only represent a small start on a huge task.
McGilchrist is certainly to be congratulated for having made a start.
Previous work on this topic has been of variable quality, a fact which
becomes alarmingly clear as McGilchrist reviews the panorama of that work.
Such contrasts as intuitive versus logical, or emotional versus rational, or
even male versus female, hardly do justice to the subtle and often tricky
nuances of our hemispheric specialization. In future, any researcher who
wishes to do justice to this topic will have to take due account of this
fundamental book. In fact, any such researcher will have to start here, for
it brackets all that went before.
At first I expected a monograph
that in its scope and ambition would essentially update the classic work on
the bicameral mind published in 1976 by Julian Jaynes, but Iain McGilchrist
takes a rather different tack. Although the depth and the scope of his work
invites comparison with Jaynes, who was thinking so far ahead of the
empirical work of the time that parts of his classic work now seem almost
nutty, McGilchrist has wisely held back from speculating on the evolution of
consciousness. Given the cataract of works on consciousness that have
appeared in recent decades, this is perhaps only prudent, but it also
reflects the fact that hemispheric lateralization cannot really be expected
to shed much light either on the physiological question of how the operation
of neural networks sustains or creates phenomenal experience or on the
psychological question of how the emergence of consciousness can be traced
in the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. However, McGilchrist does not shy
away from conjecturally tracing any number of historic cultural impacts back
to our differentially lateralized brains.
One reservation is worth
emphasizing. This book is not a work of science in the modern data-driven
sense. It is much more correctly considered as a work of philosophy in the
sense that prevailed a century ago before the logicians took over. Iain
McGilchrist is a writer who in comparison with William James or Sigmund
Freud is more inclined to cite artistic works that have no scientific
credibility in support even of his more scientific claims. For example, he
expects his readers to accept that poetic thinkers like Wordsworth or Goethe
had insights that we can translate reliably into harder modern terms. I
doubt that this translation is possible without controversy, and hesitate to
endorse the pursuit of science in such a manner. Gilchrist also writes in a
dense and allusive manner that many scientists will find hard to take. The
fact that readers of a more reflective disposition will enjoy the style is
beside the point. The message of this book, if summarized too sharply, will
sound to many scientists like a rant or a jeremiad against modern
civilization and its evils. My five stars are intended to persuade such
scientists to read the book anyway.
A good history with a very real flavor
The Pacific: Complete HBO Series [Blu-ray]
Presented by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman
December 26, 2010
The war in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945 can only be sketched in ten hours.
This sketch captures the grit, the horror, and the sort of people who became
heroes. It misses the grand strategy, many of the set-piece events, the
technology, and the whole perspective from the Japanese side. But what it
does it does well. It portrays telegenic characters who react believably to
the unbelievable horrors of war and it frames a social history that brings
the action home to a couch-bound viewer. The production values are superb
and this is state-of-the-art historical reconstruction.
the ten parts soon after watching the ten-part Band Of Brothers: Complete
covering the American ground war in Europe in 1944 and 1945 in a similarly
episodic and character-oriented way. I must say Band Of Brothers did it
better. It was based on a real unit with consistently real events and
characters, and seemed more real to me. The Pacific story, by contrast,
seemed to have been dramatized to a formula. But this is a personal reaction
and I have no hesitation in recommending both products as a pair for anyone
who wants to invest twenty hours in understanding the American war against
fascism from the grunt's eye view.
Reader's Digest for the soul
Teachings of the Christian Mystics
Andrew Harvey (editor)
December 26, 2010
Andrew Harvey has been a one-man industry in matters mystical. His
credentials as a Christian are thin (a gushing book on Jesus —
Son of Man:
The Mystical Path to Christ — that put me right off) but for this collection
it hardly matters. The classics presented here are obvious choices and brief
enough for hurried readers who just want a bit of mystic titillation before
moving on with their lives. Anyone who wants to engage with the deep thought
paraded here will have to go much, much deeper than this anthology, but at
least it points them in the right direction. Maybe it's the sort of book to
put by the bed instead of a Gideon's Bible, or to put by the loo for people
who have about one minute to spare. Think of the volume as Reader's Digest
for the soul.
Overproduced and disappointing
War Bots: How U.S. Military Robots Are Transforming War in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Future
by David Axe
December 26, 2010
The topic of this book is intriguing but perhaps it is too early to give it
the treatment it deserves. This book shows every sign of having been
produced too hastily without sufficiently critical editorial attention. The
text is brief and thin and the illustrations are of mixed quality. The
layout seems designed to display the weaknesses of this content as lavishly
as possible. The whole thing could have been edited down to a good in-depth
magazine article for a periodical like Wired. A deeper analysis of the topic
that appeals to me (I haven't read it yet) is
Wired for War: The Robotics
Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
Much better than I feared from the hype
by Jonathan Franzen
November 13, 2010
Franzen has become a really good novelist. His earlier best-seller The
Corrections was pretty good, but it was only a proof of promise, as far as I
was concerned. I took a long time to get through it because I thought some
of it was silly and boring, but it did show the emergence of real talent.
Freedom has been so hyped that I was ready to find it as useless as Joyce's
Finnegan's Wake. But no, after reading the first 24 pages I realized I was
hooked and read the rest at high speed. For me, that's high praise already.
I won't bore you with the details — I'll just recommend it.
A scattershot volume that lacks coherence
Hitch-22: A Memoir
by Christopher Hitchens
August 6, 2010
The Hitch is a public figure now, so this book will sell whatever I say. But
don't expect too much. It's a collection of essays, some quite interesting,
some less so, that tend toward autobiography. If, like me, you know some of
the protagonists and were there at some of the events, the accounts Hitchens
offers can be quite fascinating. But the chapters record a political
evolution from naive student Trotskyite to posturing socialite
Neoconservative that will grate on you if your views differ from the offered
line by so much as a hair.
Given that unwelcome fact, the book has
its merits. The book is written with a certain polish and includes some deft
phrases. And the cameos of British boarding school life, of Oxford
undergraduate demagoguery, of shabby London literary life, and of variously
loathsome political and revolutionary figures worldwide, are often sharp and
vivid. The energy the Hitch has invested in meeting, like Forrest Gump, all
the big names of his time is impressive to behold. But the effect, in the
end, is more depressing than inspiring. All that sound and fury has resulted
in a scattershot volume that lacks the crafted coherence of a classic.
Hitchens has emphatic views that brook no opposition. As his best friend
Martin Amis once said, resistance is futile. With the Hitch it's my way or
the highway. In the end, after a mind-numbing recital of famous and infamous
events and names of our time interspersed with repeated drum-rolls of
self-righteous grandstanding, all leading up to a tedious review of his
Jewish roots that exhausts all patience, this reader hit the highway.
A manifesto for rebuilding life on Earth
G.O.D. Is Great: How to Build a Global Organism
by Andy Ross
Andy Ross says we are busy creating a global organization so integrated that
we become parts of a single living organism that he calls
Globorg. He claims
our best hope of flourishing is to identify with Globorg. Recalling the
psychology of group solidarity, he says that we shall learn to see and act
as one. But first we shall need to smooth over the join between new science
and old religion. As a former logician and consciousness researcher, Ross
proposes a logical foundation for a new psychology that can accommodate
machine minds alongside humans. On the basis of this psychology, he proposes
a new philosophy of life.
The book has the stated aim of serving as a
road map to take us from here and now to Globorg with this century. Some
readers will find it utopian. Others may find the proposed changes
appalling. But the issues Ross raises are realistic and practical, and they
will be upon us sooner than many people think. This book is exactly the sort
of primer we need to prepare ourselves. Not only that, it's engagingly
written and filled with fascinating detail. Read it and glimpse our future.
Ross is also the author of
Mindworlds: A Decade of Consciousness
A balanced, dramatic, and factually sound history
The Battle of Britain
by James Holland
July 3, 2010
This is an account of Britain's finest hour that you can safely recommend to
history buffs of all kinds, from amateur enthusiasts to university students.
Actually, the finest hour here lasts six months, but that's long enough to
take the Sceptred Isles from their day of greatest peril when the Nazi
forces started their Blitzkrieg in the West to the period when the acute
danger of invasion and collapse had receded and the war settled to a
relatively sustainable slog. This is also the honeymoon period of
Churchill's first six months in command, when he secured his place in the
hearts of the English speaking people for all time by saving Europe and the
world from its darkest years since the Black Plague. So the bar for this
book is high. Only the very best is good enough to sit on the same shelf as
so many other accounts, up to Churchill's own official history.
special ingredients that Holland brings are balance and drama. He emphasizes
the experiences of the warriors on both sides, and the reader is encouraged
to sympathize with the German pilots and other ranks as well as with the
British heroes. As for drama, the clash of Spitfires and Messerschmidts
would seem exciting enough without more ado, but to keep the tension high
over hundreds of engagements until the strategic picture becomes clear is
one of Holland's big achievements. From our position 70 years later, the
facts are in and we can be relatively objective, but the challenge of
marshalling the facts into a coherent narrative is serious, and Holland has
The book is not perfect. Sometimes the author's grammar runs
away with him in the enthusiasm of the chase, and some fine technical detail
about aircraft and engine systems could have benefited from deeper research,
but these are quibbles. Also, the big picture, where the place of the Battle
of Britain alongside the struggle on the Eastern Front or the debate in
America over siding with the British Empire deserve some weight, gets short
shrift in Holland's account. But this is no shame in a popular history.
Holland deserves congratulations for a job well done.
A scrumptious feast of mad ideas for obsessives
Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
June 9, 2010
Rebecca Goldstein is a rare find among novelists: not only a big imagination
but also a sharp analytic brain behind the scenes. She writes books that
reward serious thought. For anyone who has moral scruples about reading
novels during daylight hours this is a huge bonus. The 36 arguments are such
delicious hokum, so often trotted out in earnest yet so flimsy, that a
lampoon like this book is the only adult response to their emergence in
public discourse. And the characters! Don't get me started. I recognized the
real-life originals (yes, living, breathing souls) for her cartoon figures
and saw them in all their sensual glory as the tale unfolded. On the other
hand (ahem), some of the intellectual set-pieces explaining technical
details for lamer readers did come over as the day job intruding into what
would otherwise have been sweeter indulgences, but then again that touch of
astringency is just what my ascetic palate, for one, finds most titillating.
Any philosopher whose soul has been hung out long enough to dry will love
the impish glee behind the caricatures of pomp and academic circumstance on
parade here. The tale also presents a diorama of strangely anachronistic and
dysfunctional Judaism in action, but with just the lightness of touch and
compassion for its oddity that redeems the social commentary and lets the
reader off the judgmental hook. Altogether, any readers who can savor the
high life of the mind so scurrilously trashed here will hoot with joy as
they read this gem.
Right on the Money
by Ian McEwan
June 9, 2010
Ian McEwan is the best British novelist of his generation. And Solar is one
of his best works. A comedy about a physicist — that's a hard act to pull
off. But he did it, and creditably too. The novel is less dazzling than
Martin Amis' Money, but the conception is similar, and I'm sure McEwan sees
Solar as a kind of homage to Martin's comic brilliance. In fact, you can
read Solar as Money reconstituted in a more craftsmanlike style and with a
more substantial and credible central figure. Like Saturday, McEwan's other
contender as his second-best novel, there's a lot of solid research behind
Solar, which some readers may find too much but I find reassuring. If your
conscience says you shouldn't be wasting time reading novels, you can tell
yourself that the factual background is worth the lost opportunity to be
reading something more worthy. And Solar is often really funny. That's
already worth the time spent flipping the pages. Still, Atonement is
McEwan's crowning and definitive masterpiece. Solar isn't in that league at
all. But it doesn't pretend to be, and it's so much better than most novels
out there that five stars are the least it deserves.
A tombstone for eternity
The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis
June 8, 2010
This is Martin's best novel since The Information. But it's not his best
novel. That was Money. The Pregnant Widow is written with a long view, with
a view to the reputation in decades and centuries to come. Perhaps it's a
begging letter to the Nobel Prize committee. Or a required text for his
university course, with the requisite plethora of vaguely scholarly
references to more or less classic writings. But an airport novel it's not.
That was Yellow Dog, which I bought in its first days as a hardback to read
over the Atlantic and felt compelled to hide from the traveler beside me to
prevent his seeing the shameful words on the page before me (once I'd read
it to the bitter end, I tore up the book and trashed the shreds). By
contrast, this new novel is worth sporting on the shelf for a lifetime. It's
Martin's best shot yet at classic status. In times to come, when the London
trilogy has lost much of its contemporary sizzle, The Pregnant Widow will
live on as a challenge for English undergraduates eager to test their
exegetical powers on a worthy target. This new novel also deftly overshadows
Martin's first three novels, The Rachel Papers (where in effect he channeled
the skills of his father Kingsley), Dead Babies (a pulp work that I panned
with more zeal than craft in my 1975 Oxford university magazine Isis review
of it), and Success (the less said the better), and leaves Martin with an
airbrushed but serviceable legacy for posterity. In fact, the 2010
contribution to the collected works is better than all its predecessors in
several ways. It's more sober, more craftsmanlike (except for the sometimes
oppressively esoteric vocabulary and references), more reflective (despite
the profusion of stylistic tics, such as in-sentence repetition, and pet
topics, like breast and stature statistics), and more philosophical. Yes,
Martin is aging, and it shows. But so are we all, and there are still plenty
of readers ready to read a doorstop like this one to recall the
embarrassments of their younger years. One detail for gourmet readers — the
Ted Hughes story of Narcissus that reappears regularly in the novel as a
leitmotif is brilliant, almost so much so that it overshadows the murky sex
games in the castle. That, more than any other visible thread in the
tapestry, is what will give the book classic status, if indeed it gets it.
For Martin's place in history, it also makes the book a suitably impressive
Sock it to 'em, Chris!
is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens
June 8, 2010
As good as it gets from the New Atheists — if you only read one of their
books, read this one. The more serious arguments you can find in the other
tomes — and pick earnestly over their logic or the scientific evidence for
this or that claim. With the Hitch, you get the punch in the gut that tells
you the religionists are a bunch of scoundrels who urgently need to put
their own house in order before they presume to tell us how to live our
lives. I was at Oxford with Chris and we had common friends (though I
detested his leftist activism and his general debauchery), so don't accept
my opinion. Just read the book and find you agree with my assessment.
This is a good little book
of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the
Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noe
June 8, 2010
Alva Noe is a good philosopher, and the argument he presents in this book is
worth taking seriously. As a philosopher too (who should disclose that he
has traded words and shared parties with Alva), I'm not convinced entirely
by his case, but I find the general drift quite persuasive. Essentially, the
prevailing orthodoxy that minds are implemented by brains is conceptually
lazy and possibly only half the truth, but we have our work cut out trying
to go beyond it. Noe has made a brave start. Naturally, there's still an
awful lot of mileage in the mind-brain orthodoxy, and much of the hard
science in the area would be incomprehensible without it, in some form, but
minds extend beyond brains and are sustained in being by more than brains.
As an intuition pump here, imagine that minds are like money. Dollar bills
and so on implement money, but money is a lot more, even if you exclude
collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and so on as beyond
the pale. Minds are part of a huge public institution by which we build our
organized and collective appreciation of nature and our place in it. Noe
sees something like this (my gloss on the view is of course my own to live
down) and gives the view a hearty helping hand. My reservation (hence four
stars) is over the rather folksy rhetoric that decorates the book. This
creditably personal style makes the hard core argument easier and smoother
reading, and many will welcome it for that reason, but for me as a logical
purist it was rather ad hominem. Anyway, that said, read this book in
conjunction with Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind. The basic message is the
same. This is a message whose time is coming, I think. And Noe has done a
great job in putting it out there for all interested readers to enjoy.
A biologically authoritative rant
The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins
June 8, 2010
Richard Dawkins is a chap with a chip on his shoulder. He's the world's most
accomplished and persuasive Darwinist and he's a man of high intellectual
conscience who won't tolerate lazy thinking. His rant — that's the best word
I can find for this book — is a great joyride for readers who like to see
some righteous indignation behind an atheist tract in the tradition of
Bertrand Russell. Dawkins has fallen in with some odd company since his best
days as a popularizer of Darwinism, the essential core of an organized
science of biology. Now Dawkins runs in a pack of four well-known New
Atheists. Dan Dennett is respectable enough. He's perhaps the greatest
living philosopher in the Western tradition and a fellow Darwinist of some
renown. The rest of the pack are atheists of lesser fame. Sam Harris wrote a
scandalized — and electrifying, and best-selling — tract against religion
following 9/11 (and now studies neuroscience) and Chris Hitchens is an
all-purpose rhetorical bruiser (an ex-Trot, no less, but a great journalist)
I recall from my Oxford days many years ago. The four of them — Dick, Dan,
Sam, and Chris — are the "four horsemen" of the atheist apocalypse, in the
title characterization on the DVD proudly advertised on Richard Dawkins'
website. The God Delusion is the literary reference that makes the "four
horsemen" posturing respectable for Dawkins. Otherwise I'd worry that his
atheist hobby-horse was fellow-travelling, to use a trope familiar to Chris.
Anyway, if you're passionately for or against both Darwinism and
Christianity (or for D and against C or for C and against D, of course),
this book is an absolute must-read for you. Otherwise, maybe not: you'll
just be bemused at all the speaker's spittle flying in your direction.
A very illuminating biography
Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths
by Shirley Du Boulay
January 11, 2010
I confess I was skeptical before I started reading this book. I expected an
uncritical hagiography. But I was pleasantly surprised. While never doubting
that Bede was a quite extraordinary holy man, the author succeeds in
maintaining the distance needed to present the facts without spin. In fact,
this is an impressively skilled piece of writing, with everything logically
in its place and presented correctly to enhance the quality of the overall
portrait. The level of detail is impressive too, with much more than the
average investigative journalist would have extracted. Altogether, Bede is
fortunate indeed to have such a fine biography.
Insightful and still important
The Marriage of East and West
by Bede Griffiths
December 28, 2009
This book is an insightful classic by a Christian mystic. Driven by an inner
vision of the shared goal of all genuine religions, Dom Bede argues
passionately that Western religion, by which he really means Christianity,
can be "married" with Eastern religion, and in particular with Hinduism. His
own experience as a Catholic monk in India makes this view persuasive and
convinces this reader at least that the vision is lucid and veridical. But
the book is not perfect. Bede's disdain for science and industry, indeed for
the whole "modern" world that has developed since the Renaissance, is
unreasonable, in my humble opinion. For me, his understanding of modern
science is too superficial and his antipathy toward the popular desire for
creature comforts is too procrustean. Also, his views on Semitic versus
Asiatic thinking and male versus female psychology are badly dated. Still,
the man deserves to be a saint and his book deserves to be read by anyone
interested in deep spiritual experience.
A loose and sloppy ramble that could have been more
The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me
About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to be Happy
April 15, 2009
I first read a novel by Rudy Rucker in 1980 and was totally delighted. Over
the years I read several of his more serious books and was often very
impressed. Also, I respect his curriculum vitae, which is intriguingly
similar to mine but consistently a notch or two (or more) better. So I
embarked on this book with some hope. And indeed there are glimmers of
brilliance. But for a book that in ambition and scope invites comparison
with Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel Escher Bach and Stephen Wolfram's
Kind of Science it offers far too little. Rucker has written too much and
blown his mind too far. Verdict: only for Rucker fans.
A fun take on some heavy math
The Pea and the Sun: A Mathematical Paradox
by Leonard M. Wapner
April 15, 2009
This book is about the Banach-Tarski paradox. It is light and easy to read,
with the technical nitty-gritty decently veiled in light banter. The
"paradox" is a proof that you can cut a ball into a finite number of pieces
and reassemble the pieces into two equally big and equally solid balls. Or
one or more bigger balls. This magic trick is done with infinities — you
define fractal cuttings that you can twist and hence pull more stuff from
infinity. A total cheat, of course, and Tarski should have been spanked for
failing to deprecate his "achievement", but there it is. Wapner offers some
personal stuff about Banach and Tarski and their milieu, but for that side I
prefer the big book on Tarski by Feferman and Feferman.
A sober and sobering analysis of European secularism
Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
by Mark Lilla
April 15, 2009
For anyone seriously concerned to understand the secular trend in Europe
over the last few centuries, this is an important and relevant text. Lilla
offers a solid and competent analysis of how the Christian concept of God
slowly evaporated in Europe as philosophers and others attacked the
foundations of faith. Lilla sees this more pessimistically than I would
prefer, and fails in my view to rise to an understanding of what is gained
in the scientific rationality that we now enjoy in what an American
neoconservative a few years ago (I forget who or exactly when) called our
"Kantian paradise". I quite like it here myself.
The early years of a saint
Golden String: An Autobiography
by Bede Griffiths
April 15, 2009
Bede Griffiths is an exceptional figure, as good a candidate for sainthood
as one could hope to find outside the orthodoxy of institutional religion.
This candid and lucid autobiography covers Bede's early years, up to the
time when he became accepted as a Dominican monk but before he went to
India. Since it was in India that he developed the compassionate and shining
presence that makes him the very image of sainthood, this book can only whet
the appetite for more. Also, to be critical, I found myself unable to
celebrate his rejection of modernity in almost all its forms, which for Bede
stretch back to the thirteenth century CE. Still, it was helpful for me to
appreciate how and why he took this procrustean position.
Besser als Science Fiction
Doppelgänger: Wie es zum Urknall kam — Wie unzählige Universen
von Alex Vilenkin
25. November 2007
großartige Lektüre, die meine Erwartungen weit übertroffen hat. Vilenkin hat
eine tiefes Verständnis von den hochfliegenden Ambitionen der Kosmologie,
weiß diese auch gut zu vermitteln. Hier lässt er seinen Ideen freien Lauf,
ohne dabei die Grenze des wissenschaftlich Vertretbaren zu überschreiten. Er
begleitet den Leser auf eine beschwingte Tour durch alle relevanten Themen:
die Relativitätstheorie, die Urknalltheorie, Inflation, Symmetriebrechung,
Vakuumzerfall, String Theorie, kosmische Zyklen usw. In die Erzählung bringt
er etliche persönliche Anekdoten ein, die dem Leser einige charmanten
Vertreter der neueren Geschichte der Kosmologie vorstellen. Er fühlt sich
sehr zu Hause in diesem Mileu, und seine Freude, Ideen mit diesen
Zeitgenossen auszutauschen, kann man auf jeder Seite des Buches miterleben.
Insgesamt erzählt Vilenkin eine faszinierende Geschichte, besser als jeder
Science Fiction. Mich hat er oft zum Schmunzeln gebracht — mehr als Stephen
Hawking, der mit seiner 'Kurzen Geschichte der Zeit' als schärfster
Konkurrent in der Welt der großen Ideen für ein breites Publikum gelten mag.
von Silvia Arroyo Camejo
16. März 2006
Wahrlich ein Paradebeispiel, wie man mit subtilem und teilweise paradoxem
Stoff unterhaltsam und doch rigoros umgehen kann. So ein Buch hätte ich gern
vor vielen Jahren als Jugendlicher gelesen. Darüber hinaus ist das Buch eine
äußerst interessante Dokumentation, wie eine unvoreingenom-mene Schülerin
sich mit den formalen und konzeptuellen Herausforderungen der Quantenphysik
auseinandersetzt. Durch die Lektüre dieses Werkes kommt der Neueinsteiger
einem Grundver-ständnis der Quantenmechanik ein ganzes Stuck näher.