March 2005

Smith, Edward E. Galactic Patrol. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1937-1938, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-11-5.
Although this is the third volume of the Lensman series, it was written first; Triplanetary (June 2004) and First Lensman (February 2005) are “prequels”, written more than a decade after Galactic Patrol ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in September 1937. This was before John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editor's chair, the event usually considered to mark the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. This volume is a facsimile of the illustrated 1950 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat by the author from the original magazine version.

While I enjoy the earlier books, and read them in order in this fourth lifetime trip through the saga, Galactic Patrol is where the story really takes off for me. If you're new to Doc Smith, you might want to begin here to experience space opera at its best, then go back and read the two slower-paced prior installments afterward. Having been written first, this novel is completely self-contained; everything introduced in the earlier books is fully explained when it appears here.

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Hayek, Friedrich A. The Fatal Conceit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN 0-226-32066-9.
The idiosyncratic, if not downright eccentric, synthesis of evolutionary epistemology, spontaneous emergence of order in self-organising systems, free markets as a communication channel and feedback mechanism, and individual liberty within a non-coercive web of cultural traditions which informs my scribblings here and elsewhere is the product of several decades of pondering these matters, digesting dozens of books by almost as many authors, and discussions with brilliant and original thinkers it has been my privilege to encounter over the years.

If, however, you want it all now, here it is, in less than 160 pages of the pellucid reasoning and prose for which Hayek is famed, ready to be flashed into your brain's philosophical firmware in a few hours' pleasant reading. This book sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I picked it up a couple of days ago and devoured it, exclaiming “Yes!”, “Bingo!”, and “Precisely!” every few pages. The book is subtitled “The Errors of Socialism”, which I believe both misstates and unnecessarily restricts the scope of the actual content, for the errors of socialism are shared by a multitude of other rationalistic doctrines (including the cult of design in software development) which, either conceived before biological evolution was understood, or by those who didn't understand evolution or preferred the outlook of Aristotle and Plato for aesthetic reasons (“evolution is so messy, and there's no rational plan to it”), assume, as those before Darwin and those who reject his discoveries today, that the presence of apparent purpose implies the action of rational design. Hayek argues (and to my mind demonstrates) that the extended order of human interaction: ethics, morality, division of labour, trade, markets, diffusion of information, and a multitude of other components of civilisation fall between biological instinct and reason, poles which many philosophers consider a dichotomy.

This middle ground, the foundation of civilisation, is the product of cultural evolution, in which reason plays a part only in variation, and selection occurs just as brutally and effectively as in biological evolution. (Cultural and biological evolution are not identical, of course; in particular, the inheritance of acquired traits is central in the development of cultures, yet absent in biology.)

The “Fatal Conceit” of the title is the belief among intellectuals and social engineers, mistaking the traditions and institutions of human civilisation for products of reason instead of evolution, that they can themselves design, on a clean sheet of paper as it were, a one-size-fits-all eternal replacement which will work better than the product of an ongoing evolutionary process involving billions of individuals over millennia, exploring a myriad of alternatives to find what works best. The failure to grasp the limits of reason compared to evolution explains why the perfectly consistent and often tragic failures of utopian top-down schemes never deters intellectuals from championing new (or often old, already discredited) ones. Did I say I liked this book?

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Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-679-45443-8.
This is simply a monumental piece of work. I can't think of any comparable book published in the last century, or any work with such an ambitious goal which pulls it off so well. In this book, Roger Penrose presents the essentials of fundamental physics as understood at the turn of the century to the intelligent layman in the way working theoretical physicists comprehend them. Starting with the Pythagorean theorem, the reader climbs the ladder of mathematical abstraction to master complex numbers, logarithms, real and complex number calculus, Fourier decomposition, hyperfunctions, quaternions and octionions, manifolds and calculus on manifolds, symmetry groups, fibre bundles and connections, transfinite numbers, spacetime, Hamiltonians and Lagrangians, Clifford and Grassman algebras, tensor calculus, and the rest of the mathematical armamentarium of the theoretical physicist. And that's before we get to the physics, where classical mechanics and electrodynamics, special and general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the standard models of particle physics and cosmology are presented in the elegant and economical notation into which the reader has been initiated in the earlier chapters.

Authors of popular science books are cautioned that each equation they include (except, perhaps E=mc²) will halve the sales of their book. Penrose laughs in the face of such fears. In this “big damned fat square book” of 1050 pages of main text, there's an average of one equation per page, which, according to conventional wisdom should reduce readership by a factor of 2−1050 or 8.3×10−317, so the single copy printed would have to be shared by among the 1080 elementary particles in the universe over an extremely long time. But, according to the Amazon sales ranking as of today, this book is number 71 in sales—go figure.

Don't deceive yourself; in committing to read this book you are making a substantial investment of time and brain power to master the underlying mathematical concepts and their application to physical theories. If you've noticed my reading being lighter than usual recently, both in terms of number of books and their intellectual level, it's because I've been chewing through this tome for last two and a half months and it's occupied my cerebral capacity to the exclusion of other works. But I do not regret for a second the time I've spent reading this work and working the exercises, and I will probably make a second pass through it in a couple of years to reinforce the mathematical toolset into my aging neurons. As an engineer whose formal instruction in mathematics ended with differential equations, I found chapters 12–15 to be the “hump”—after making it through them (assuming you've mastered their content), the rest of the book is much more physical and accessible. There's kind of a phase transition between the first part of the book and chapters 28–34. In the latter part of the book, Penrose gives free rein to his own view of fundamental physics, introducing his objective reduction of the quantum state function (OR) by gravity, twistor theory, and a deconstruction of string theory which may induce apoplexy in researchers engaged in that programme. But when discussing speculative theories, he takes pains to identify his own view when it differs from the consensus, and to caution the reader where his own scepticism is at variance with a widely accepted theory (such as cosmological inflation).

If you really want to understand contemporary physics at the level of professional practitioners, I cannot recommend this book too highly. After you've mastered this material, you should be able to read research reports in the General Relativity and Quantum Cosmology preprint archives like the folks who write and read them. Imagine if, instead of two or three hundred taxpayer funded specialists, four or five thousand self-educated people impassioned with figuring out how nature does it contributed every day to our unscrewing of the inscrutable. Why, they'll say it's a movement. And that's exactly what it will be.

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Bear, Greg. Moving Mars. New York: Tor, 1993. ISBN 0-812-52480-2.
I received an electronic edition of this novel several years ago as part of a bundle when I purchased a reader program for my PalmOS PDA, and only got around to reading it in odd moments over the last few months. I've really enjoyed some of Greg Bear's recent work, such as 1999's Darwin's Radio, so I was rather surprised to find this story disappointing. However, that's just my opinion, and clearly at variance with the majority of science fiction authors and fans, for this book won the 1994 Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for best novel and was nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Campbell awards that year. The electronic edition I read remains available.

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Fort, Adrian. Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003. ISBN 0-224-06317-0.
Frederick Lindemann is best known as Winston Churchill's scientific advisor in the years prior to and during World War II. He was the central figure in what Churchill called the “Wizard War”, including the development and deployment of radar, antisubmarine warfare technologies, the proximity fuze, area bombing techniques, and nuclear weapons research (which was well underway in Britain before the Manhattan Project began in the U.S.). Lindemann's talents were so great and his range of interests so broad that if he had settled into the cloistered life of an Oxford don after his appointment as Professor of Experimental Philosophy and chief of the Clarendon Laboratory in 1919, he would still be remembered for his scientific work in quantum mechanics, X-ray spectra, cryogenics, photoelectric photometry in astronomy, and isotope separation, as well as for restoring Oxford's reputation in the natural sciences, which over the previous half century “had sunk almost to zero” in Lindemann's words.

Educated in Germany, he spoke German and French like a native. He helped organise the first historic Solvay Conference in 1911, which brought together the pioneers of the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics. There he met Einstein, beginning a life-long friendship. Lindemann was a world class tennis champion and expert golfer and squash player, as well as a virtuoso on the piano. Although a lifetime bachelor, he was known as a ladies' man and never lacked female companionship.

In World War I Lindemann tackled the problem of spin recovery in aircraft, then thought to be impossible (this in an era when pilots were not issued parachutes!). To collect data and test his theories, he learned to fly and deliberately induced spins in some of the most notoriously dangerous aircraft types and confirmed his recovery procedure by putting his own life on the line. The procedure he developed is still taught to pilots today.

With his close contacts in Germany, Lindemann was instrumental in arranging and funding the emigration of Jewish and other endangered scientists after Hitler took power in 1933. The scientists he enabled to escape not only helped bring Oxford into the first rank of research universities, many ended up contributing to the British and U.S. atomic projects and other war research. About the only thing he ever failed at was his run for Parliament in 1937, yet his influence as confidant and advisor to Churchill vastly exceeded that of a Tory back bencher. With the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined Churchill at the Admiralty, where he organised and ran the Statistical Branch, which applied what is now called Operations Research to the conduct of the war, which rôle he expanded as chief of “S Department” after Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940. Many of the wartime “minutes” quoted in Churchill's The Second World War were drafted by Lindemann and sent out verbatim over Churchill's signature, sometimes with the addition “Action this day”. Lindemann finally sat in Parliament, in the House of Lords, after being made Lord Cherwell in 1941, and joined the Cabinet in 1942 and became a Privy Counsellor in 1943.

After the war, Lindemann returned to Oxford, continuing to champion scientific research, taking leave to serve in Churchill's cabinet from 1951–1953, where he almost single-handedly and successfully fought floating of the pound and advocated the establishment of an Atomic Energy Authority, on which he served for the rest of his life.

There's an atavistic tendency when writing history to focus exclusively on the person at the top, as if we still lived in the age of warrior kings, neglecting those who obtain and filter the information and develop the policies upon which the exalted leader must ultimately decide. (This is as common, or more so, in the business press where the cult of the CEO is well entrenched.) This biography, of somebody many people have never heard of, shows that the one essential skill a leader must have is choosing the right people to listen to and paying attention to what they say.

A paperback edition is now available.

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Lebeau, Caroline. Les nouvelles preuves sur l'assassinat de J. F. Kennedy. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 2003. ISBN 2-268-04915-9.
If you don't live in Europe, you may not be fully aware just how deranged the Looney Left can be in their hatred of Western civilisation, individual liberty, and the United States in particular. This book, from the same publisher who included a weasel-word disclaimer in each copy of Oriana Fallaci's La Force de la Raison (December 2004), bears, on its cover, in 42 point white type on a red background, the subtitle «Le clan Bush est-il coupable?»—“Is the Bush clan guilty?” This book was prominently displayed in French language bookstores in 2004. The rambling narrative and tangled illogic finally pile up to give an impression reminiscent of the JFK assassination headline in The Onion's Our Dumb Century: “Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, Teamsters, Freemasons”. Lebeau declines to implicate the Masons, but fleshes out the list, adding multinational corporations, defence contractors, the Pentagon, Khrushchev, anti-Casto Cuban exiles, a cabal within the Italian army (I'm not making this up—see pp. 167–168), H.L. Hunt, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, the mayor of Dallas … and the Bush family, inter alia. George W. Bush, who was 17 years old at the time, is not accused of being a part of the «énorme complot», but his father is, based essentially on the deduction: “Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Dallas is in Texas. George H. W. Bush lived in Texas at the time—guilty, guilty, guilty!

“Independent investigative journalist” Lebeau is so meticulous in her “investigations” that she confuses JFK's older brother's first and middle names, misspells Nixon's middle name, calls the Warren Report the product of a Republican administration, confuses electoral votes with Senate seats, consistently misspells “grassy knoll”, thinks a “dum-dum” bullet is explosive, that Gerald Ford was an ex-FBI agent, and confuses H. L. Hunt and E. Howard Hunt on the authority of “journalist” Mumia Abu-Jamal, not noting that he is a convicted cop killer. Her studies in economics permit her to calculate (p. 175) that out of a total cost of 80 billion dollars, the Vietnam war yielded total profits to the military-industrial complex and bankers of 220 trillion dollars, which is about two centuries worth of the U.S. gross national product as of 1970. Some of the illustrations in the book appear to have been photographed off a television screen, and many of the original documents reproduced are partially or entirely illegible.

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Pickover, Clifford A. The Loom of God. New York: Perseus Books, 1997. ISBN 0-306-45411-4.
Clifford Pickover has more than enough imagination for a hundred regular people. An enormously prolific author, his work includes technical books on computing and scientific visualisation, science fiction, and popular works on mathematics and a wide variety of scientific topics. This book explores the boundary between mathematics and religion, including Pythagorean cults, Stonehenge, cave paintings from 20,000 years ago which may be the first numbers, the Kabala, the quipu of the Incas, numerology, eschatology, and real-world doomsday scenarios, along with a wide variety of puzzles in number theory, geometry, and other mathematical topics. One of the many fascinating unsolved problems he discusses is the “integer brick”, which seems to be more often referred to as the “perfect cuboid”: can you find a three-dimensional rectangular parallelopiped in which all the edges and face and space diagonals are integers? Computer searches have shown than no cuboid with a smallest edge less than 1,281,000,000 satisfies this requirement but, who knows, you may find it in just a few more compute cycles! (I'll pass on this one, after spending three years of computer time pursuing another unicorn of recreational mathematics.) As with Pickover's other popular books, this one includes source code for programs to explore topics raised in the text, explanation of the science and history behind the science fiction narrative, and extensive literature citations for those interested in digging deeper.

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