April 2009

Levin, Mark R. Liberty and Tyranny. New York: Threshold Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-6285-6.
Even at this remove, I can recall the precise moment when my growing unease that the world wasn't turning into the place I'd hoped to live as an adult became concrete and I first began to comprehend the reasons for the trends which worried me. It was October 27th, 1964 (or maybe a day or so later, if the broadcast was tape delayed) when I heard Ronald Reagan's speech “A Time for Choosing”, given in support of Barry Goldwater's U.S. presidential campaign. Notwithstanding the electoral disaster of the following week, many people consider Reagan's speech (often now called just “The Speech”) a pivotal moment both in the rebirth of conservatism in the United States and Reagan's own political career. I know that I was never the same afterward: I realised that the vague feelings of things going the wrong way were backed up by the facts Reagan articulated and, further and more important, that there were alternatives to the course the country and society was presently steering. That speech, little appreciated at the time, changed the course of American history and changed my life.

Here is a book with the potential to do the same for people today who, like me in 1964, are disturbed at the way things are going, particularly young people who, indoctrinated in government schools and the intellectual monoculture of higher education, have never heard the plain and yet eternal wisdom the author so eloquently and economically delivers here. The fact that this book has recently shot up to the number one rank in Amazon.com book sales indicates that not only is the message powerful, but that an audience receptive to it exists.

The author admirably cedes no linguistic ground to the enemies of freedom. At the very start he dismisses the terms “liberal” (How is it liberal to advocate state coercion as the answer to every problem?) and “progressive” (How can a counter-revolution against the inherent, unalienable rights of individual human beings in favour of the state possibly be deemed progress?) for “Statist”, which is used consistently thereafter. He defines a “Conservative” not as one who cherishes the past or desires to return to it, but rather a person who wishes to conserve the individual liberty proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence and supposedly protected by the Constitution (the author and I disagree about the wisdom of the latter document and the motives of those who promoted it). A Conservative is not one who, in the 1955 words of William F. Buckley “stands athwart history, yelling Stop”, but rather believes in incremental, prudential reform, informed by the experience of those who went before, from antiquity up until yesterday, with the humility to judge every policy not by its intentions but rather by the consequences it produces, and always ready to reverse any step which proves, on balance, detrimental.

The Conservative doesn't believe in utopia, nor in the perfectibility or infinite mutability of human nature. Any aggregate of flawed humans will be inevitably flawed; that which is least flawed and allows individuals the most scope to achieve the best within themselves is as much as can be hoped for. The Conservative knows from history that every attempt by Statists to create heaven on Earth by revolutionary transformation and the hope of engendering a “new man” has ended badly, often in tragedy.

For its length, this book is the best I've encountered at delivering the essentials of the conservative (or, more properly termed, but unusable due to corruption of the language, “classical liberal”) perspective on the central issues of the time. For those who have read Burke, Adam Smith, de Tocqueville, the Federalist Papers, Hayek, Bastiat, Friedman, and other classics of individual and economic liberty (the idea that these are anything but inseparable is another Statist conceit), you will find little that is new in the foundations, although all of these threads are pulled together in a comprehensible and persuasive way. For people who have never heard of any of the above, or have been taught to dismiss them as outdated, obsolete, and inapplicable to our age, this book may open the door to a new, more clear way of thinking, and through its abundant source citations (many available on the Web) invites further exploration by those who, never having thought of themselves before as “conservative”, find their heads nodding in agreement with many of the plain-spoken arguments presented here.

As the book progresses, there is less focus on fundamentals and more on issues of the day such as the regulatory state, environmentalism, immigration, welfare dependency, and foreign relations and military conflicts. This was, to me, less satisfying than the discussion of foundational principles. These issues are endlessly debated in a multitude of venues, and those who call themselves conservatives and agree on the basics nonetheless come down on different sides of many of these issues. (And why not? Conservatives draw on the lessons of the past, and there are many ways of interpreting the historical record.) The book concludes with “A Conservative Manifesto” which, while I concur that almost every point mentioned would be a step in the right direction for the United States, I cannot envision how, in the present environment, almost any of the particulars could be adopted. The change that is needed is not the election of one set of politicians to replace another—there is precious little difference between them—but rather the slow rediscovery and infusion into the culture of the invariant principles, founded in human nature rather than the theories of academics, which are so lucidly explained here. As the author notes, the statists have taken more than eight decades on their long march through the institutions to arrive at the present situation. Champions of liberty must expect to be as patient and persistent if they are to prevail. The question is whether they will enjoy the same freedom of action their opponents did, or fall victim as the soft tyranny of the providential state becomes absolute tyranny, as has so often been the case.


Dunn, Robin MacRae. Vickers Viscount. North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2003. ISBN 978-1-58007-065-2.
Post World War II Britain had few technological and industrial successes of which to boast: as government administered industrial policy, sweeping nationalisations, and ascendant unions gripped the economy, “brain drain” became the phrase for the era. One bright spot in this dingy landscape was the world's first turboprop powered airliner, the Vickers Viscount. Less ambitious than its contemporary, the turbojet powered De Havilland Comet, it escaped the tragic fate which befell early models of that design and caused it to lose out to competitors which entered the market much later.

Despite its conventional appearance and being equipped with propellers, the Viscount represented a genuine revolution in air transport. Its turbine engines were vastly more reliable than the finicky piston powerplants of contemporary airliners, and provided its passengers a much quieter ride, faster speed, and the ability to fly above much of the bumpy weather. Its performance combined efficiency in the European short hop market for which it was intended with a maximum range (as much as 2,450 miles for some models with optional fuel tanks) which allowed it to operate on many intercontinental routes.

From the first flight of the prototype in July 1948 through entry into regular scheduled airline service in April 1953, the Viscount pioneered and defined turboprop powered air transport. From the start, the plane was popular with airlines and their passengers, with a total of 445 being sold. Some airlines ended up buying other equipment simply because demand for Viscounts meant they could not obtain delivery positions as quickly as they required. The Viscount flew for a long list of operators in the primary and secondary market, and was adapted as a freighter, high-density holiday charter plane, and VIP and corporate transport. Its last passenger flight in the U.K. took place on April 18th, 1996, the 43rd anniversary of its entry into service.

This lavishly illustrated book tells the story of the Viscount from concept through retirement of the last exemplars. A guide helps sort through the bewildering list of model numbers assigned to variants of the basic design, and comparative specifications of the principal models are provided. Although every bit as significant a breakthrough in propulsion as the turbojet, the turboprop powered Viscount never had the glamour of the faster planes without propellers. But they got their passengers to their destinations quickly, safely, and made money for the airlines delivering them there, which is all one can ask of an airliner, and made the Viscount a milestone in British aeronautical engineering.


Lane, Nick. Power, Sex, Suicide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-920564-6.
When you start to look in detail at the evolution of life on Earth, it appears to be one mystery after another. Why did life appear so quickly after the Earth became hospitable to it? Why did life spend billions of years exclusively in the form of single-celled bacteria without a nucleus (bacteria and archaea)? Why are all complex cells (eukaryotes) apparently descended from a single ancestral cell? Why did it take so long for complex multicellular organisms to evolve? (I've taken a crack [perhaps crackpot] shot at that one myself.) Why did evolution favour sexual reproduction, where two parents are required to produce offspring, while clonal reproduction is twice as efficient? Why just two sexes (among the vast majority of species) and not more? What drove the apparent trend toward greater size and complexity in multicellular organisms? Why are the life spans of organisms so accurately predicted by a power law based upon their metabolic rate? Why and how does metabolic rate fall with the size of an organism? Why did evolution favour warm-bloodedness (endothermy) when it increases an organism's requirement for food by more than an order of magnitude? Why do organisms age, and why is the rate of ageing and the appearance of degenerative diseases so closely correlated with metabolic rate? Conversely, why do birds and bats live so long: a pigeon has about the same mass and metabolic rate as a rat, yet lives ten times as long?

I was intensely interested in molecular biology and evolution of complexity in the early 1990s, but midway through that decade I kind of tuned it out—there was this “Internet” thing going on which captured my attention…. While much remains to be discovered, and many of the currently favoured hypotheses remain speculative, there has been enormous progress toward resolving these conundra in recent years, and this book is an excellent way to catch up on this research frontier.

Quite remarkably, a common thread pulling together most of these questions is one of the most humble and ubiquitous components of eukaryotic life: the mitochondria. Long recognised as the power generators of the cell (“Power”), they have been subsequently discovered to play a key rôle in the evolution of sexual reproduction (“Sex”), and in programmed cell death (apoptosis—“Suicide”). Bacteria and archaea are constrained in size by the cube/square law: they power themselves by respiratory mechanisms embedded in their cellular membranes, which grow as the square of their diameter, but consume energy within the bulk of the cell, which grows as the cube. Consequently, evolution selects for small size, as a larger bacterium can generate less energy for its internal needs. Further, bacteria compete for scarce resources purely by replication rate: a bacterium which divides even a small fraction more rapidly will quickly come to predominate in the population versus its more slowly reproducing competitors. In cell division, the most energetically costly and time consuming part is copying the genome's DNA. As a result, evolution ruthlessly selects for the shortest genome, which results in the arcane overlapping genes in bacterial DNA which look like the work of those byte-shaving programmers you knew back when computers had 8 Kb RAM. All of this conspires to keep bacteria small and simple and indeed, they appear to be as small and simple today as they were three billion years and change ago. But that isn't to say they aren't successful—you may think of them as pond scum, but if you read the bacterial blogs, they think of us as an ephemeral epiphenomenon. “It's the age of bacteria, and it always has been.”

Most popular science books deliver one central idea you'll take away from reading them. This one has a forehead slapper about every twenty pages. It is not a particularly easy read: nothing in biology is unambiguous, and you find yourself going down a road and nodding in agreement, only to find out a few pages later that a subsequent discovery has falsified the earlier conclusion. While this may be confusing, it gives a sense of how science is done, and encourages the reader toward scepticism of all “breakthroughs” reported in the legacy media.

One of the most significant results of recent research into mitochondrial function is the connection between free radical production in the respiratory pipeline and ageing. While there is a power law relationship between metabolic rate and lifespan, there are outliers (including humans, who live about twice as long as they “should” based upon their size), and a major discrepancy for birds which, while obeying the same power law, are offset toward lifespans from three to ten times as long. Current research offers a plausible explanation for this: avians require aerobic power generation much greater than mammals, and consequently have more mitochondria in their tissues and more respiratory complexes in their mitochondria. This results in lower free radical production, which retards the onset of ageing and the degenerative diseases associated with it. Maybe before long there will be a pill which amplifies the mitochondrial replication factor in humans and, even if it doesn't extend our lifespan, retards the onset of the symptoms of ageing and degenerative diseases until the very end of life (old birds are very much like young adult birds, so there's an existence proof of this). I predict that the ethical questions associated with the creation of this pill will evaporate within about 24 hours of its availability on the market. Oh, it may have side-effects, such as increasing the human lifespan to, say, 160 years. Okay, science fiction authors, over to you!

If you are even remotely interested in these questions, this is a book you'll want to read.


Moffat, John W. Reinventing Gravity. New York: Collins, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-117088-1.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, astronomers were confronted by a puzzling conflict between their increasingly precise observations and the predictions of Newton's time-tested theory of gravity. The perihelion of the elliptical orbit of the planet Mercury was found to precess by the tiny amount of 43 arc seconds per century more than could be accounted for by the gravitational influence of the Sun and the other planets. While small, the effect was unambiguously measured, and indicated that something was missing in the analysis. Urbain Le Verrier, coming off his successful prediction of the subsequently discovered planet Neptune by analysis of the orbit of Uranus, calculated that Mercury's anomalous precession could be explained by the presence of a yet unobserved planet he dubbed Vulcan. Astronomers set out to observe the elusive inner planet in transit across the Sun or during solar eclipses, and despite several sightings by respectable observers, no confirmed observations were made. Other astronomers suggested a belt of asteroids too small to observe within the orbit of Mercury could explain its orbital precession. For more than fifty years, dark matter—gravitating body or bodies so far unobserved—was invoked to explain a discrepancy between the regnant theory of gravitation and the observations of astronomers. Then, in 1915, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity which predicted that orbits in strongly curved spacetime would precess precisely the way Mercury's orbit was observed to, and that no dark matter was needed to reconcile the theory of gravitation with observations. So much for planet Vulcan, notwithstanding the subsequent one with all the pointy-eared logicians.

In the second half of the twentieth century, a disparate collection of observations on the galactic scale and beyond: the speed of rotation of stars in the discs of spiral galaxies, the velocities of galaxies in galactic clusters, gravitational lensing of distant objects by foreground galaxy clusters, the apparent acceleration of the expansion of the universe, and the power spectrum of the anisotropies in the cosmic background radiation, have yielded results grossly at variance with the predictions of General Relativity. The only way to make the results fit the theory is to assume that everything we observe in the cosmos makes up less than 5% of its total mass, and that the balance is “dark matter” and “dark energy”, neither of which has yet been observed or detected apart from their imputed gravitational effects. Sound familiar?

In this book, John Moffat, a distinguished physicist who has spent most of his long career exploring extensions to Einstein's theory of General Relativity, dares to suggest that history may be about to repeat itself, and that the discrepancy between what our theories predict and what we observe may not be due to something we haven't seen, but rather limitations in the scope of validity of our theories. Just as Newton's theory of gravity, exquisitely precise on the terrestrial scale and in the outer solar system, failed when applied to the strong gravitational field close to the Sun in which Mercury orbits, perhaps Einstein's theory also requires corrections over the very large distances involved in the galactic and cosmological scales. The author recounts his quest for such a theory, and eventual development of Modified Gravity (MOG), a scalar/tensor/vector field theory which reduces to Einstein's General Relativity when the scalar and vector fields are set to zero.

This theory is claimed to explain all of these large scale discrepancies without invoking dark matter, and to do so, after calibration of the static fields from observational data, with no free parameters (“fudge factors”). Unlike some other speculative theories, MOG makes a number of predictions which it should be possible to test in the next decade. MOG predicts a very different universe in the strong field regime than General Relativity: there are no black holes, no singularities, and the Big Bang is replaced by a universe which starts out with zero matter density and zero entropy at the start and decays because, as we all know, nothing is unstable.

The book is fascinating, but in a way unsatisfying. The mathematical essence of the theory is never explained: you'll have to read the author's professional publications to find it. There are no equations, not even in the end notes, which nonetheless contain prose such as (p. 235):

Wilson loops can describe a gauge theory such as Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism or the gauge theory of the standard model of particle physics. These loops are gauge-invariant observables obtained from the holonomy of the gauge connection around a given loop. The holonomy of a connection in differential geometry on a smooth manifold is defined as the measure to which parallel transport around closed loops fails to preserve the geometrical data being transported. Holonomy has nontrivial local and global features for curved connections.
I know that they say you lose half the audience for every equation you include in a popular science book, but this is pretty forbidding stuff for anybody who wanders into the notes. For a theory like this, the fit to the best available observational data is everything, and this is discussed almost everywhere only in qualitative terms. Let's see the numbers! Although there is a chapter on string theory and quantum gravity, these topics are dropped in the latter half of the book: MOG is a purely classical theory, and there is no discussion of how it might lead toward the quantisation of gravitation or be an emergent effective field theory of a lower level quantum substrate.

There aren't many people with the intellect, dogged persistence, and self-confidence to set out on the road to deepen our understanding of the universe at levels far removed from those of our own experience. Einstein struggled for ten years getting from Special to General Relativity, and Moffat has worked for three times as long arriving at MOG and working out its implications. If it proves correct, it will be seen as one of the greatest intellectual achievements by a single person (with a small group of collaborators) in recent history. Should that be the case (and several critical tests which may knock the theory out of the box will come in the near future), this book will prove a unique look into how the theory was so patiently constructed. It's amusing to reflect, if it turns out that dark matter and dark energy end up being epicycles invoked to avoid questioning a theory never tested in the domains in which it was being applied, how historians of science will look back at our age and wryly ask, “What were they thinking?”.

I have a photo credit on p. 119 for a vegetable.


Flynn, Vince. Transfer of Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-671-02320-1.
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that Islamic terrorists could make a successful strike on a high-profile symbol of U.S. power. Viewed from a decade later, this novel, the first featuring counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (who sometimes makes Jack Bauer seem like a bureaucrat), is astonishingly prescient. It is an almost perfect thriller—one of the most difficult to put down books I've read in quite some time. Apart from the action, which is abundant, the author has a pitch-perfect sense of the venality and fecklessness of politicians and skewers them with a gusto reminiscent of the early novels of Allen Drury.

I was completely unaware of this author and his hugely popular books (six of which, to date, have made the New York Times bestseller list) until I heard an extended interview (transcript; audio parts 1, 2, 3) with the author, after which I immediately ordered this book. It did not disappoint, and I shall be reading more in the series.

I don't read thrillers in a hyper-critical mode unless they transgress to such an extent that I begin to exclaim “oh, come on”. Still, this novel is carefully researched, and the only goof I noticed is in the Epilogue on p. 545 where “A KH-12 Keyhole satellite was moved into geosynchronous orbit over the city of Sao Paulo and began recording phone conversations”. The KH-12 (a somewhat ambiguous designation for an upgrade of the KH-11 reconnaissance satellite) operates in low Earth orbit, not geosynchronous orbit, and is an imaging satellite, not a signals intelligence satellite equipped to intercept communications. The mass market edition I read includes a teaser for Protect and Defend, the eighth novel in the series. This excerpt contains major spoilers for the earlier books, and if you're one of those people (like me) who likes to follow the books in a series in order, give it a miss.


Orlov, Dmitry. Reinventing Collapse. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-86571-606-3.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12. He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In this book he describes firsthand what happens when a continental scale superpower experiences economic and societal collapse, what it means to those living through it, and how those who survived managed to do so, in some cases prospering amid the rubble.

He then goes on to pose the question of whether the remaining superpower, the United States, is poised to experience a collapse of the same magnitude. This he answers in the affirmative, with only the timing uncertain (these events tend to happen abruptly and with little warning—in 1985 virtually every Western analyst assumed the Soviet Union was a permanent fixture on the world stage; six years later it was gone). He presents a U.S. collapse scenario in the form of the following theorem on p. 3, based upon the axioms of “Peak Oil” and the unsustainability of the debt the U.S. is assuming to finance its oil imports (as well as much of the rest of its consumer economy and public sector).

Oil powers just about everything in the US economy, from food production and distribution to shipping, construction and plastics manufacturing. When less oil becomes available, less is produced, but the amount of money in circulation remains the same, causing the prices for the now scarcer products to be bid up, causing inflation. The US relies on foreign investors to finance its purchases of oil, and foreign investors, seeing high inflation and economic turmoil, flee in droves. Result: less money with which to buy oil and, consequently, less oil with which to produce things. Lather, rinse, repeat; stop when you run out of oil. Now look around: Where did that economy disappear to?
Now if you believe in Peak Oil (as the author most certainly does, along with most of the rest of the catechism of the environmental left), this is pretty persuasive. But even if you don't, you can make the case for a purely economic collapse, especially with the unprecedented deficits and money creation as the present process of deleveraging accelerates into debt liquidation (either through inflation or outright default and bankruptcy). The ultimate trigger doesn't make a great deal of difference to the central argument: the U.S. runs on oil (and has no near-term politically and economically viable substitute) and depends upon borrowed money both to purchase oil and to service its ever-growing debt. At the moment creditors begin to doubt they're every going to be repaid (as happened with the Soviet Union in its final days), it's game over for the economy, even if the supply of oil remains constant.

Drawing upon the Soviet example, the author examines what an economic collapse on a comparable scale would mean for the U.S. Ironically, he concludes that many of the weaknesses which were perceived as hastening the fall of the Soviet system—lack of a viable cash economy, hoarding and self-sufficiency at the enterprise level, failure to produce consumer goods, lack of consumer credit, no private ownership of housing, and a huge and inefficient state agricultural sector which led many Soviet citizens to maintain their own small garden plots— resulted, along with the fact that the collapse was from a much lower level of prosperity, in mitigating the effects of collapse upon individuals. In the United States, which has outsourced much of its manufacturing capability, depends heavily upon immigrants in the technology sector, and has optimised its business models around high-velocity cash transactions and just in time delivery, the consequences post-collapse may be more dire than in the “primitive” Soviet system. If you're going to end up primitive, you may be better starting out primitive.

The author, although a U.S. resident for all of his adult life, did not seem to leave his dark Russian cynicism and pessimism back in the USSR. Indeed, on numerous occasions he mocks the U.S. and finds it falls short of the Soviet standard in areas such as education, health care, public transportation, energy production and distribution, approach to religion, strength of the family, and durability and repairability of capital and the few consumer goods produced. These are indicative of what he terms a “collapse gap”, which will leave the post-collapse U.S. in much worse shape than ex-Soviet Russia: in fact he believes it will never recover and after a die-off and civil strife, may fracture into a number of political entities, all reduced to a largely 19th century agrarian lifestyle. All of this seems a bit much, and is compounded by offhand remarks about the modern lifestyle which seem to indicate that his idea of a “sustainable” world would be one largely depopulated of humans in which the remainder lived in communities much like traditional African villages. That's what it may come to, but I find it difficult to see this as desirable. Sign me up for L. Neil Smith's “freedom, immortality, and the stars” instead.

The final chapter proffers a list of career opportunities which proved rewarding in post-collapse Russia and may be equally attractive elsewhere. Former lawyers, marketing executives, financial derivatives traders, food chemists, bank regulators, university administrators, and all the other towering overhead of drones and dross whose services will no longer be needed in post-collapse America may have a bright future in the fields of asset stripping, private security (or its mirror image, violent racketeering), herbalism and medical quackery, drugs and alcohol, and even employment in what remains of the public sector. Hit those books!

There are some valuable insights here into the Soviet collapse as seen from the perspective of citizens living through it and trying to make the best of the situation, and there are some observations about the U.S. which will make you think and question assumptions about the stability and prospects for survival of the economy and society on its present course. But there are so many extreme statements you come away from the book feeling like you've endured an “end is nigh” rant by a wild-eyed eccentric which dilutes the valuable observations the author makes.


Susskind, Leonard. The Black Hole War. New York: Little, Brown, 2008. ISBN 978-0-316-01640-7.
I hesitated buying this book for some months after its publication because of a sense there was something “off” in the author's last book, The Cosmic Landscape (March 2006). I should learn to trust my instincts more; this book treats a fascinating and important topic on the wild frontier between general relativity and quantum mechanics in a disappointing, deceptive, and occasionally infuriating manner.

The author is an eminent physicist who has made major contributions to string theory, the anthropic string landscape, and the problem of black hole entropy and the fate of information which is swallowed by a black hole. The latter puzzle is the topic of the present book, which is presented as a “war” between Stephen Hawking and his followers, mostly general relativity researchers, and Susskind and his initially small band of quantum field and string theorists who believed that information must be preserved in black hole accretion and evaporation lest the foundations of physics (unitarity and the invertibility of the S-matrix) be destroyed.

Here is a simple way to understand one aspect of this apparent paradox. Entropy is a measure of the hidden information in a system. The entropy of gas at equilibrium is very high because there are a huge number of microscopic configurations (position and velocity) of the molecules of the gas which result in the same macroscopic observables: temperature, pressure, and volume. A perfect crystal at absolute zero, on the other hand, has (neglecting zero-point energy), an entropy of zero because there is precisely one arrangement of atoms which exactly reproduces it. A classical black hole, as described by general relativity, is characterised by just three parameters: mass, angular momentum, and electrical charge. (The very same basic parameters as elementary particles—hmmmm….) All of the details of the mass and energy which went into the black hole: lepton and baryon number, particle types, excitations, and higher level structure are lost as soon as they cross the event horizon and cause it to expand. According to Einstein's theory, two black holes with the same mass, spin, and charge are absolutely indistinguishable even if the first was made from the collapse of a massive star and the second by crushing 1975 Ford Pintos in a cosmic trash compactor. Since there is a unique configuration for a given black hole, there is no hidden information and its entropy should therefore be zero.

But consider this: suppose you heave a ball of hot gas or plasma—a star, say—into the black hole. Before it is swallowed, it has a very high entropy, but as soon as it is accreted, you have only empty space and the black hole with entropy zero. You've just lowered the entropy of the universe, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that cannot ever happen. Some may argue that the Second Law is “transcended” in a circumstance like this, but it is a pill which few physicists are willing to swallow, especially since in this case it occurs in a completely classical context on a large scale where statistical mechanics obtains. It was this puzzle which led Jacob Bekenstein to propose that black holes did, in fact, have an entropy which was proportional to the area of the event horizon in units of Planck length squared. Black holes not only have entropy, they have a huge amount of it, and account for the overwhelming majority of entropy in the universe. Stephen Hawking subsequently reasoned that if a black hole has entropy, it must have temperature and radiate, and eventually worked out the mechanism of Hawking radiation and the evaporation of black holes.

But if a black hole can evaporate, what happens to the information (more precisely, the quantum state) of the material which collapsed into the black hole in the first place? Hawking argued that it was lost: the evaporation of the black hole was a purely thermal process which released none of the information lost down the black hole. But one of the foundations of quantum mechanics is that information is never lost; it may be scrambled in complex scattering processes to such an extent that you can't reconstruct the initial state, but in principle if you had complete knowledge of the state vector you could evolve the system backward and arrive at the initial configuration. If a black hole permanently destroys information, this wrecks the predictability of quantum mechanics and with it all of microscopic physics.

This book chronicles the author's quest to find out what happens to information that falls into a black hole and discover the mechanism by which information swallowed by the black hole is eventually restored to the universe when the black hole evaporates. The reader encounters string theory, the holographic principle, D-branes, anti de Sitter space, and other arcana, and is eventually led to the explanation that a black hole is really just an enormous ball of string, which encodes in its structure and excitations all of the information of the individual fundamental strings swallowed by the hole. As the black hole evaporates, little bits of this string slip outside the event horizon and zip away as fundamental particles, carrying away the information swallowed by the hole.

The story is told largely through analogies and is easy to follow if you accept the author's premises. I found the tone of the book quite difficult to take, however. The word which kept popping into my head as I made my way through was “smug”. The author opines on everything and anything, and comes across as scornful of anybody who disagrees with his opinions. He is bemused and astonished when he discovers that somebody who is a Republican, an evangelical Christian, or some other belief at variance with the dogma of the academic milieu he inhabits can, nonetheless, actually be a competent scientist. He goes on for two pages (pp. 280–281) making fun of Mormonism and then likens Stephen Hawking to a cult leader. The physics is difficult enough to explain; who cares about what Susskind thinks about everything else? Sometimes he goes right over the top, resulting in unseemly prose like the following.

Although the Black Hole War should have come to an end in early 1998, Stephen Hawking was like one of those unfortunate soldiers who wander in the jungle for years, not knowing that the hostilities have ended. By this time, he had become a tragic figure. Fifty-six years old, no longer at the height of his intellectual powers, and almost unable to communicate, Stephen didn't get the point. I am certain that it was not because of his intellectual limitations. From the interactions I had with him well after 1998, it was obvious that his mind was still extremely sharp. But his physical abilities had so badly deteriorated that he was almost completely locked within his own head. With no way to write an equation and tremendous obstacles to collaborating with others, he must have found it impossible to do the things physicists ordinarily do to understand new, unfamiliar work. So Stephen went on fighting for some time. (p. 419)
Or, Prof. Susskind, perhaps it's that the intellect of Prof. Hawking makes him sceptical of arguments based a “theory” which is, as you state yourself on p. 384, “like a very complicated Tinkertoy set, with lots of different parts that can fit together in consistent patterns”; for which not a single fundamental equation has yet been written down; in which no model that remotely describes the world in which we live has been found; whose mathematical consistency and finiteness in other than toy models remains conjectural; whose results regarding black holes are based upon another conjecture (AdS/CFT) which, even if proven, operates in a spacetime utterly unlike the one we inhabit; which seems to predict a vast “landscape” of possible solutions (vacua) which make it not a theory of everything but rather a “theory of anything”; which is formulated in a flat Minkowski spacetime, neglecting the background independence of general relativity; and which, after three decades of intensive research by some of the most brilliant thinkers in theoretical physics, has yet to make a single experimentally-testable prediction, while demonstrating its ability to wiggle out of almost any result (for example, failure of the Large Hadron Collider to find supersymmetric particles).

At the risk of attracting the scorn the author vents on pp. 186–187 toward non-specialist correspondents, let me say that the author's argument for “black hole complementarity” makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to this layman. In essence, he argues that matter infalling across the event horizon of a black hole, if observed from outside, is disrupted by the “extreme temperature” there, and is excited into its fundamental strings which spread out all over the horizon, preserving the information accreted in the stringy structure of the horizon (whence it can be released as the black hole evaporates). But for a co-moving observer infalling with the matter, nothing whatsoever happens at the horizon (apart from tidal effects whose magnitude depends upon the mass of the black hole). Susskind argues that since you have to choose your frame of reference and cannot simultaneously observe the event from both outside the horizon and falling across it, there is no conflict between these two descriptions, and hence they are complementary in the sense Bohr described quantum observables.

But, unless I'm missing something fundamental, the whole thing about the “extreme temperature” at the black hole event horizon is simply nonsense. Yes, if you lower a thermometer from a space station at some distance from a black hole down toward the event horizon, it will register a diverging temperature as it approaches the horizon. But this is because it is moving near the speed of light with respect to spacetime falling through the horizon and is seeing the cosmic background radiation blueshifted by a factor which reaches infinity at the horizon. Further, being suspended above the black hole, the thermometer is in a state of constant acceleration (it might as well have a rocket keeping it at a specified distance from the horizon as a tether), and is thus in a Rindler spacetime and will measure black body radiation even in a vacuum due to the Unruh effect. But note that due to the equivalence principle, all of this will happen precisely the same even with no black hole. The same thermometer, subjected to the identical acceleration and velocity with respect to the cosmic background radiation frame, will read precisely the same temperature in empty space, with no black hole at all (and will even observe a horizon due to its hyperbolic motion).

The “lowering the thermometer” is a completely different experiment from observing an object infalling to the horizon. The fact that the suspended thermometer measures a high temperature in no way implies that a free-falling object approaching the horizon will experience such a temperature or be disrupted by it. A co-moving observer with the object will observe nothing as it crosses the horizon, while a distant observer will see the object appear to freeze and wink out as it reaches the horizon and the time dilation and redshift approaches infinity. Nowhere is there this legendary string blowtorch at the horizon spreading out the information in the infalling object around a horizon which, observed from either perspective, is just empty space.

The author concludes, in a final chapter titled “Humility”, “The Black Hole War is over…”. Well, maybe, but for this reader, the present book did not make the sale. The arguments made here are based upon aspects of string theory which are, at the moment, purely conjectural and models which operate in universes completely different from the one we inhabit. What happens to information that falls into a black hole? Well, Stephen Hawking has now conceded that it is preserved and released in black hole evaporation (but this assumes an anti de Sitter spacetime, which we do not inhabit), but this book just leaves me shaking my head at the arm waving arguments and speculative theorising presented as definitive results.