Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Universe from Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss

This book was unexpectedly disappointing.  As a non-scientist who reads extensively about cosmology, particle physics, and quantum mechanics, I wasn’t surprised that the author spent the first 142 pages of his book rehashing what we know so far about the formation and evolution of our universe and its component structures.   Some of the information is quite recent, and I expected the foundational knowledge to be important to understanding the argument and evidence that would presumably follow.

Unfortunately, I was fairly well stunned (and disappointed) that he then blithely extrapolated one known phenomenon into a wildly different context with barely an acknowledgement of how different it is, and then declared victory in a ridiculous and unnecessary argument with theists.

It is true that we know from recent experiments that what we long thought of as “empty space” beyond the edges of our solar system is not “nothing.”  Even places in deep outer space that are truly empty of any dust or molecules are still physical structures that are capable of holding matter – similar to how an empty shoe box is still a physical box.

We all know that shoe boxes are made from cardboard, and we now know that space itself is made of a seething sub-microscopic “quantum foam” that contains vast amounts of energy and strangeness.  (See

Quantum mechanics also tells us that inside this quantum foam, at the tiniest microscopic level, all sorts of particles and anti-particles are constantly winking into and out of existence.   The author describes on page 154 that under the right circumstances, two charged plates can be brought close enough together such that a “real particle-antiparticle pair can “pop” out of the vacuum, with the negative charge heading toward the positive plate and the positive charge toward the negative one.”

As crazy as this sounds, we know from Einstein’s famous equation that energy and mass are essentially interchangeable.   They are different manifestations of the same thing, and under the right circumstances (such as nuclear fusion), we can convert matter into huge amounts of pure energy such as nuclear weapons. 

These same principles suggest it is entirely reasonable for energy to turn into particles (mass), and the author presents a compelling case of how the math works out fine when an equal balance of particles and antiparticles pop into existence, because they represent zero net energy.   (Imagine having two bank accounts with zero balances and then electronically transferring one dollar from one account to the other.  Suddenly one account has one dollar and the other account has a negative balance of one dollar.)

Unfortunately, this is where the author makes a leap of faith that I simply can’t follow.  He concludes that because it is probable (or even certain) that miniscule quantum particles and antiparticles pop in and out of existence inside our spacetime, it must follow that it is possible or probable that the same thing happens outside of spacetime – in a manner that allows for the creation of a quantity of spacetime that is so huge as to be literally mind-boggling.

(Our Milky Way galaxy contains approximately 300 billion stars, and is so vast that it would take a rocket ship (traveling 500 miles per hour) more than 147 billion years just to cross the Milky Way.  And our galaxy is one of more than one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.)

After making the case that it is possible for universes to pop into existence so long as they have zero total energy, the author completely fails to explain why our universe seems to have far more matter than antimatter.  I was expecting him to say there must be vast amounts of antimatter beyond our view , but he instead provided a head-scratching explanation of how the imbalance could have come to be – without addressing the fact that such an imbalance flies in the face of everything he postulated about the primacy of zero energy systems.

Near the end of the book the author unintentionally shows how weak his arguments are when he comes right out and claims that it is a “fact” that “in quantum gravity, universes can and indeed always will spontaneously appear from nothing.”  It may be true that this is so in some version of the speculative (and unquestionably incomplete) theory of quantum gravity.  But it certainly is not a fact and the author’s presentation of it as one is emblematic of the sloppy reasoning found throughout his book.

Finally, a grudging word about the book’s discussion of religion.  I am embarrassed for everyone that a book dedicated to exploring cosmology and scientific principles spends so much time pointing out how the overwhelming huge mountain of scientific facts (based on easily repeatable experiments) conflicts with the mix of inconsistent ancient myths that comprise monotheistic religions. 

From my perspective, "religion versus science" isn't a conversation worth having because religion brings nothing testable to the table.  Religion isn't even the equivalent of a spoon at a knife fight.   (Its more like claiming a cupcake is a great life preserver while living in the desert, far from water.)

I would have greatly preferred that the author split this book into three books.  One being his robust and excellent discussion of modern cosmology, the second being a more logical explanation of his theory of nothingness, and the third being a scientific evisceration of the myths of theistic religions.  Having read the book the author wrote, however, it is clear to me now that he (and/or his publishing company) intended to pick a fight with religion in order to generate buzz, controversy, and sell more books. 

He should have spent more time explaining and defending his central theory, and laying out the case for the next generation of scientific experiments that we should perform in order to prove or disprove his theory.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Our Angry Birds Birthday Cake

I use the phrase, "our" loosely as my contribution to the project was asking whether it could be done for our boys' 4th birthday party.

It was even more delicious than it looked.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity, by Matt Miller

This book was absolutely fascinating. Everyone I know should read it -- you may not agree with all of the author's conclusions and policy prescriptions (I didn't) but I guarantee that you will shake your head numerous times in agreement with the underlying analysis, and have at least a few "oh crap" moments as you realize how much differently we're going to need to do things here in America if we are to have a reasonable chance at maintaining our standard of living and our status in the world.

Through numerous excellent examples and historical analysis, the author makes what should be a painfully obvious point but is sadly obscured by inertia, intellectual laziness, and the short-sighted politics of self interest: Times have changes and we as a country need to make major changes if we want to continue thriving as a country.

Moreover, he compellingly explains why many huge changes are coming whether "we" want them to or not. The only question is whether we will change proactively when we can better manage the transitions, or will we change when macroeconomic and other unstoppable forces clobber us into it the hard way.

Sadly, I fear we are in for the hard way on many of the issues.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific,” by J. Maarten Troost

One of the things I like about being in a book club is reading books I would not discover on my own. The travelogue “The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific,” by J. Maarten Troost” is a good example of such a book. It was an interesting read, though somewhat frustrating and not entirely satisfying.

To begin with, the cheap gimmick of a misleading sensationalist title sets the tone for a book ripe with embellishment. (“The Sex Lives of Cannibals” has nothing to do with sex and less to do with cannibals. Rather, it is the story of a young American couple that spends two years on one of the poorest and remote islands in the world.)

Quite simply, too much of this book is written in a way that strains credulity. Do I think that the author had difficulty re-adjusting to American life after spending two years on a tiny Pacific island? Yes. But, I’d gladly wager that he is full of it when he writes that upon their return to America, he “made a foray to the supermarket around the corner for provisions. Two hours later, when I had failed to return, Sylvia went out to look for me. She found me staring blankly at a display of maple syrup. My shopping cart was still empty.”

Yeah, right.

This type of thing happened over and over in the book and made reading it frustrating because that type of exaggeration was unnecessary: The tale of the author’s time in Kiribati was often riveting and quiet eye-opening.

The detailed descriptions of life on the island were the best part of the book. It is hard to believe that people live in such poverty and deprivation. The book was so long and was mostly so well written that I almost began to develop island fever myself.

The discussion of government corruption was disheartening. Such self-interest and corruption seems sadly embedded in the human fabric.

The descriptions of the animal life on the island were eye-opening. Especially the survival of the fittest amongst the dog and cat population.

What may be the most important concept in the book was a bit buried in this line: “I soon learned that the greatest beneficiaries of the [foreign] aid were the [foreign aid workers] themselves, and I was excited to finally get a piece of the pie myself.” The author does a nice (if too brief) job of showing how much foreign aid accrues to the benefit of those who dole out the aid.

I find this to be very similar to the American non-profit scene generally, where many non-profit organizations are remarkably inefficient at helping those they are putatively chartered to assist. Too many non-profits take money from the public and then spend it paying full time “staff” to administer programs, when that money can/should be used to help the needy, directly.

I believe that most non-profits should be run the way our founders suggested that our government should be run – by part-time citizen volunteers. Having a permanent ruling class of politicians has not done us well (overall), nor has having a huge number of people working full time for non-profits. But that is a post for another day.

All in all I am glad I read this book. I’d give it four stars but for the exaggerations and the needlessly misleading sensationalist title.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

An Impressive Short Story

Great science fiction writing shines a light on how we live right now by speculating about a possible future where something is . . . different.

For example, we take it for granted that all of us are born as children and live for many decades. But what if there comes a time when most people are born as adults and live only for twelve months? How would their perspectives and priorities differ from ours? What would the relationship between father and son be like?

Similarly, a good writer finds clever ways to show us how concepts that we ridicule today are likely to come to life in the future - albeit in a way we might not expect.

For example, no one seriously argues that telepathy (mind reading) exists today. But does anyone doubt that in the coming years electronic communications devices will get smaller, faster, and more sophisticated? And that at some point biologists and computer scientists will start to interface communications devices with our bodies, such that people will be able to "think" at each other instantly? What would that be like?

A final example relates to extra-terrestrial life. What it would be like if aliens do show up here someday and are wildly different from the childish pop culture depictions so common in today's popcorn flicks? What if the aliens aren't out to eat us or enslave us or probe us? What if they see our planet as nothing more than an interstellar bathroom, and don’t even notice us -- the same way we barely notice colonies of ants in the woods? What could do to prove our sentience to aliens who may be so far advanced that, to them, we are nearly indistinguishable from ants and other lifeforms found on Earth today?

These three concepts (short life, wetware-telepathy, and being unable to get the attention of an alien) are explored wonderfully in a short story that I just read – or should I say listened to: “The Fifth Zhi,” by Mercurio Rivera.

I think the story was first published in Interzone but you can listen to it for free at Escape Pod, and if you are not familiar with the website "Escape Pod," and you enjoy short science-fiction stories, I strongly encourage you to check it out. In addition to new weekly episodes being free, their archive of 200+ shows is also entirely free. A few months ago, I downloaded all their old episodes (stories) and have been enjoying working my way through the archives. It has been an enjoyable journey, especially as the quality of the stories has been steadily improving. I also like how they sometimes post "flash" stories that are generally only 5 minutes long.

If you get hooked on Escape Pod too, let me know which stories are your favorite.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The God Effect: Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon, by Brian Clegg.

Anton Chekhov once said that if you say in the first chapter of your book that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. In other words, if the gun is not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging prominently on the wall.

With that in mind, I looked forward to the author’s discussion of how quantum entanglement could be seen as evidence of an invisible space deity, and was seriously disappointed that he dedicated but a single sentence to the topic, saying in the preface that entanglement is “a physical phenomenon so strange and all pervasive that this book calls it “the God Effect.””

I found his use of the third person here quite odd. Why does “the book” call entanglement “the God Effect?” Did the book write itself? What does the author think? We never find out, and I suspect that the word was added to the title to be sensationalistic.

Much of the rest of the book was similarly unsatisfying. Some parts were clever and thorough and I was fascinated to learn that mirrors do not really “reflect” photons of light. Rather, each time a photon of light hits the surface of a mirror it is absorbed by an electron. Nearly instantaneously, the electron make a quantum leap to a higher energy state where it becomes unstable and emits a new (different) photon of light to stabilize itself.

That said, I got the feeling that the book was dictated to a research assistant while the author sat before a fireplace with a glass of wine: Many of the chapters started on one topic and then devolved into anecdotes or historical explanations only tangentially related to the concept at hand.

Other ideas were explained in a way that I can only describe as lazy in their reasoning. One example concerns the concept of whether light is a wave or particle, and the concept of superposition, which says that photons fly through the air not as a single particles but rather as a clouds of possibility that coalesce into physical states only when they are forced to, by third-party observation/interaction.

The author describes an experiment in which 45-degree-polarized photons are fired through three slots in different orientations and claims that the fact of some particles getting through the obstacle course proves the concept of superposition.

He may be right that superposition is why it happens but his explanation is incomplete at best. The way he describes the experiment, the answer to what happens could be as simple as “anytime a photon goes through a slot it become oriented such that it can only go through another slot oriented within 45 degrees of the previous slot.”

To make my point let’s imagine high speed racecars instead of photons going 200 mph traveling north through a pair of cones and then trying to make a quick 90 degree turn. They are unable to do it because they are going too fast. Then, we change the 90 degree turn into two 45 degree angle turns, spaced out. Does the fact that some cars are now able to make those two turns mean that they entered a superposition and were simultaneously heading north and east? No, of course not.

The point here is not that the experiment was wrong (I’ve read much better descriptions of this experiment and I’m grudgingly willing to accept its conclusion) but rather that the author does a poor job of explaining how he (or anyone) knows that probabilities in quantum physics are real.

Also frustrating is the fact that the author give no effort to explaining what he (or anyone) thinks is the actual, factual, physical cause of quantum entanglement and spooky action at a distance. How can someone write a book called “Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon” and not discuss the how and why of two particles being separated by great distance, impacting each other simultaneously, seemingly faster than the speed of light?

My layman’s research into this topic is in its infancy, but even I have my wild guesses about what is going on with entanglement (more on that in another post). Unfortunately, this author was more interested in telling stories of the CERN laboratory, the history of the telegraph and typewriter, and explaining how entanglement impacts cryptography than he was in diving in to the meat of how spooky action at a distance works.

In the end I don’t recommend this book to anyone, other than perhaps to those seriously into cryptography. “The God Particle” isn’t a good first introduction to the concept of quantum entanglement and it isn’t a book that dives deeper into any particular concepts. It rants and rambles and tries to mesmerize but in the end failed to interest, intrigue or inspire me much at all, other than to look for more and better books on the subject.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics was Reborn, by Louisa Gilder

“This quantum question is so uncommonly important and difficult that it should concern everyone.”

-- Albert Einstein, 1908.

The concepts of quantum mechanics have fascinated me for a great many years. I’ve read dozens of books on the subject but am no closer to grasping the concepts underlying a mystery that perplexed Einstein himself until the day he died.

Einstein spent his entire life wrestling with the issues raised by the initial discovery of quantum mechanics in the year 1900. He was never really able to move past his initial frustration with the fact that under certain physical circumstances, two individual subatomic particles, far apart from each other, act in concert with each other in a way that violates all known explanations.

These two particles seem to influence each other simultaneously and remotely; communicating with each other by an unknown mechanism that would far exceed the speed of light.

Einstein ridiculed this phenomenon as “spooky action-at-a-distance” and called it “a sort of telepathic coupling” in his initial efforts to argue that someone must have had a few too many drinks down at the lab.

The phenomenon has since been proven to exist and this book is the true story of the people who spent (and are spending) their lives studying quantum mechanics, spooky action-at-a-distance, and are trying to make sense of it all. I really hope they figure it out in our lifetime because it is 100% guaranteed to be a jaw dropping revision to our sense of reality. [For a (relatively) quick overview of quantum entanglement, this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does as good a job of any on the web:]

What may be in store for us is a shock as big as the one that came to the citizens of Flatland in one of my absolute favorite books: The very brief (less than 50 pages) story of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbott.

In Flatland, Abbott describes a world of people who live in a two dimensional world – a flat plane -- where men are polygons and women are line segments. They have no concept of up or down. And then, one day, a three dimensional sphere visits them and it rocks their world as it demonstrates how what they see in two dimensions is proof of a third dimension.

Such a world-rocking is likely somewhere in our future, and some very smart folks (string theorists) think that many additional dimensions exist and that all matter (and especially those spooky particles) is connected through one of those other dimensions.

At first, The Age of Entanglement was not at all what I wanted, because I was hoping for an account of the latest breakthroughs in the field and a description of new quantum theories. Instead I found myself reading a historical account of the characters, featuring a fictionalized recreation of their conversations. (The author drew on actual letters and speeches by the scientists in her effort to recreate various conversations.)

After the initial frustration at this artifice I found myself captivated by the story of how Einstein, Schrödinger, Oppenheimer, von Neumann, Bohm, Feynman, and of course Bell devoted much of their lives to thinking about and discussing the phenomenon of quantum entanglement.

Put another way, I did not want to learn about the historical context of their respective efforts and how they overlapped and interacted with each other. But I’m glad I did.

I recommend this book only to people who have a strong interest not only in quantum mechanics but in the stories of the scientists whose lives were and are tangled up in its concepts. Those folks will likely enjoy it a great deal.