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These past 4 years, I don't think I have actually fully finished any books but I have read the first few chapters of a lot.

Books I started over a year ago (but not more than 4 years ago): Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, Gregory Maguire's Wicked, Kenneth Jones' The Jones Boys Off to War, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, David Chalmer's The Conscious Mind, David D. Friedman's Machinery of Freedom, Easton & Liszt's The Ethical Slut, Janna Levin's A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, Leonard Susskind's Black Holes, Information, and the String Theory Revolution, and Rebecca Goldstein's Incompleteness.

Of those above, the two which I came the closest to finishing were Machinery of Freedom and Incompleteness. Incompleteness was probably the best of any of the books (from what I read of them), and I read the whole thing except the last chapter, which just seemed like wrap-up stuff that was unnecessary to invest the time for. Machinery of Freedom is a short book of about 200 pages plus some appendices, and I read it in a highly non-linear way, picking interesting chapters out in order of interest... I eventually read most of it, although there were 2 or 3 chapters and several appendices I never got to.

After Incompleteness and Machinery of Freedom, I think the only other one that I made it more than halfway through was Leonard Susskind's book. In some ways, it was better than Incompleteness, but it's pretty dense and technical, and it's hard to compare... it's actually a lot more like a review article than a book, so I'm sort of not counting it when I say Incompleteness was the best (it's in a different category). Snow Crash I made it roughly halfway and then got bored. Ethical Slut I think I made it almost halfway through, and then other stuff came up... I did enjoy what I read though, and still want to finish the rest at some point if I ever get a chance.

The God Delusion, I only made it through the first chapter or two. While Dawkins is clearly the public person whose viewpoint on religion I agree with the most, I just didn't find it too worth my time to read what he had to say because it seemed so obvious... I might have well have just been reading all my own thoughts, and all it serves to do is make me more angry and dogmatic against those who disagree with me. Instead, I prefer to read dissenting viewpoints in the hope that someday, I may find someone who has something interesting to say that I haven't thought of before... unfortunately, the dissenting viewpoints, while they occasionally turn up interesting stuff, are usually filled with what seems to me to be severe ignorance, misunderstandings, misstatements, or exaggerations. Dawkins has a way of putting it simply and plainly, in a way that gets to the root of the matter quickly.

The Singularity is Near looked interesting, but it's so long it would probably take me the better part of 5 years to read the whole thing. I read 2 or 3 chapters here and there and enjoyed them. I found a couple places where Kurzweil exaggerates, or is overly optimistic about things, and lots of places where it seems like he is being overly confident about his timeline... but for the most part, I agree with his assessment of where things are headed technologically over the next century.

Wicked was somewhat neat, but it didn't hold my interest enough to make it past the first few chapters. I got swept up with other stuff going on, and other books, and now I'm not even sure what happened to that book. Picture of Dorian Gray was pretty boring, but I pushed on to read nearly half of it, because Oscar Wilde seems like a cool guy from what I hear about him and I really wanted to say I'd read something by him. The Jones Boys Off to War is a book written by a relative of mine about our family (mostly, my grandfather and his 4 brothers, and their 5 different and unique experiences serving in World War II). I really should finish this at some point, but I have always found war to be extremely boring... I find the book interesting because it teaches me things about my family history that in turn make me wonder about how similar or different my ancestors were from myself.

David Chalmer's book I read the first couple chapters, and skimmed a couple later chapters that I thought were interesting. I do intend to read more of it at some point. I'm pretty certain that Chalmers is just wrong about the mind, and Dennett is right (there is no "Hard Problem"). But I have to admit that due to other reasons (not reading his book, but participating in certain SL4 discussions, and thinking more about time in quantum mechanics, and mathematics and such) I do occasionally find myself wondering "what if some of what Chalmers thinks is right? what if materialism does still have some more explaining to do in order to be as rock solid as I think of it as being?" While I feel like he kind of goes off the deep end at certain places in his book (particularly, with the pan-psychism stuff) I have to admit that my certainty about materialism is slightly less than it was 4 years ago, which was just about the time I was finishing Dennett's book (where by finished I mean, read all but a few chapters scattered throughout). Semantically, I could imagine coming to believe at some point that there was some advantage in describing things in a way that's not strictly materialist... although I still think that's unlikely, and that materialism is surely a safer bet and is more universal and encompasses any other semantics that would be helpful.

Janna Levin's book about Turing and Godel was poetic, but not nearly as good as Incompleteness, and it's hard to tell how much is creative license and how much is based on documented historical fact. While I was reading this, I went to an astrophysics lecture on the floor below my office. I noticed that the speaker was particularly hot, and her name sounded familiar... so I looked it up online when I got back to my office. Imagine my surprise when I realized who she was, and reached in my bag (that I had carried with me to the lecture) and pulled out her book, that I'd been carrying around for the past month or two everywhere! I probably should have asked her to autograph it or something. The book is beautiful and poetic, but I see it as unsophisticated in some ways. I think the average person would enjoy it a lot, but not so much someone who thinks a lot about the philosophical issues that Godel and Turing were grappling with (which was my primary interest in the subject).

Roger Penrose's book? I guess all I can say is that the guy makes a shitty philosopher, and he's got this whacked out theory about quantum gravity and the mind. He's pretty bright in some ways, but he doesn't understand concsiousness, and he doesn't understand quantum mechanics, and in some ways he doesn't even understand mathematics, all of which makes him sound pretty naive. I read a decent amount of his book, but less than half, and agree with very little.

Oh, there is one book that I did finish in its entirety, which was Bob Laughlin's A Different Universe, but I think I started that over 4 years ago if memory serves... I could be wrong. I also finished Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, but that was also more than 4 years ago.

Now on to the books I've started this year, which have accelerated greatly in number... in part because my father sent me 6 off of my Amazon wishlist for my birthday in November...

Books I've started within the past year: Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, Mark Ronan's Symmetry and the Monster, Vivianne Crowley's The Magickal Life, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, Robert Geroch's Mathematical Physics, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Lisa Randall's Warped Passages, Brad Matsen's Titanic's Last Secrets, and Piers Anthony & Julie Brady's Dream a Little Dream.

The two books that I've dedicated the most time to, and which have had the most influence on me by far are Symmetry and the Monster, and The Magickal Life. I've only got a few chapters left in SatM, and I'm just under halfway through TML. I think I'm going to have to give separate book reports for each of these by themselves, since they are so important. Symmetry and the Monster is amazing, and I can't recommend it highly enough. If you want to know how awesome mathematics is, and get a glimpse of the reason why mathematicians find it so beautiful and inspiring, this is the book to read! It's a real page turner, with a lot of fascinating history as well as exciting breakthroughs in mathematics explained in a way that a fairly wide audience should be able to grasp. The Magickal Life has been very interesting, in part because it's from a perspective so different from mine. It occasionally references blatent pseudoscience and things that are clearly wrong, but she is very non-dogmatic about it and I sometimes get the sense she is just mentioning these things for the benefit of those of her readers who are attached to them, rather than because she actually believes them. I think she tries to walk a fine line between offending the die hard materialists like myself, and offending the people reading her book who believe in a literal, metaphysical, interpretation of all the woo woo stuff she talks about. I get the sense that she is somewhere in between, being somewhat agnostic about a lot of things, and choosing to emphasize their practical psychological benefit but not clobbering the reader over the head with one explanation or another for why they might work. Much better than I had imagined for a book on this kind of stuff, but I do find myself occasionally squemish about it and wishing she would take more of a stand against the non-materialists.

I read all but the last chapter or two of Kuhn's book... enough to get the important stuff. I may finish it off at some point since it is not a long book, but I don't think the last two chapters are as central to what he's saying as the bulk of the book. As I suspected, all of the facts in Kuhn's book look right but he strings them together to form a narrative that I think is a misleading picture of science. Science doesn't happen in revolutions, it happens as a series of discoveries and breakthroughs.. yes, paradigms shift as you get more data, but he makes it into this epic thing that I think is mostly unjustified. And yes, big breakthroughs you can call revolutions and that's fine, but there just isn't this dichotemy he sets up where big breakthroughs are somehow fundamentally different than small breakthroughs. Also, he seems to ignore the fact that the size of the paradigm shifts have gotten progressively smaller and smaller over time, as science has zeroed in on the objective truth. At this point, we are making very minor corrections compared to the ones in the past. Once you gain new knowledge in science, it is never undone as he seems to suggest.. it just builds on the old knowledge. Sociological factors can play a role in determining the order in which new discoveries are made, and can significantly delay progress in some cases, but in the long run sociology plays little to no role at all in what the final product looks like.

I'm not sure Geroch's book really counts since it's a book about mathematical physics, and all I've done is skim a couple sections. It's mostly theorems and proofs, not a book in the sense of a narrative. It was one of the 6 I've had on my list forever, and my Dad sent it to me. It's well organized, and I intend to read more of it when I get a chance.

Lisa Randall's book is a popular physics book... so like most popular books, the vast majority of it is the same as any other popular physics book, and I can get away with reading the last few chapters. So I read most of the last few chapters, and have one or two left if I get a chance. She's a good physicist, and does come up with some good analogies. I think a lot of people say that Brian Greene is better at explaining things to the public than she is... that's probably true, because he dumbs it down a bit more. I guess it's about what I expected--found some good analogies, and some bad analogies. Overall I think the book is somewhat good, but not great... might be better if I knew less about all of this stuff.

The other books I haven't read more than a chapter or so, so I guess I should wait until getting further in to say anything about them. Tom Wolfe and Jack Kerouac both have writing styles that I find damn near impossible to parse. I feel like I spent a really long time in both cases getting through the first chapter, having to read most things 2 or 3 times before they made any sense... and still wasn't able to get most of what they were saying. Maybe I should read more books like this to try to adapt? Or maybe I should just avoid them, I don't know.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 9th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
Whew. I thought I was the only one starting books and not finishing many.

I actually seem to have a better record of finishing the ones I do start than you, but my list contains half (or less) as many as yours. So, perhaps I am just more stubborn about starting new books before finishing old, heh.

Your point on reading authors you disagree with is a good one, but another good way to go about it is to read the ones you agree with AND try very hard to play devil's advocate - look for arguments you can make against it, even if they are arguments that require some creative prepositions. I think that really helps in finding flaws in my own thinking, and as a bonus when those people do try to attack my thinking, I sometimes know their own argument better than they do (including why it's a false argument).

And Keroauc / Wolfe - these are not authors for anyone looking to get straight to the point. They are writers, and being writers they take the entire book to make their point; expect you to fully immerse yourself and spend lots of time trying to absorb the intricacies. So, unless you're an English major or uninvolved in academia and have lots of time on your hands, you probably can't read these the way they're supposed to be read. Unfortunate, because they're good books, but not exactly worth dropping school for, heh. (I haven't read that particular Wolfe book, but I read pretty much all of his other ones years ago... difficult to read, but I remember really liking them.)

And what's up with the Roger Penrose hate? Heh, I haven't read anything by him, but I have had professors recommend I read his book. Last time he was mentioned in the physics community there were some snide remarks also... I've been wondering why there's such a contrast.

Mar. 9th, 2009 12:26 am (UTC)
Penrose is a great physicist and mathematician, with some patently false misinterpretations about the significance of Gödel's theorems for our understanding of the mind. But I think even the stuff that he is known for in his core professional activity is some weird stuff involving "twistors" and "spinors" that, from what I've heard, is probably wrong as a description of the actual world, but leads to some deep and useful insights.
Mar. 9th, 2009 04:58 am (UTC)
He sounds as if perhaps he was the first physics "sensationalist," as I like to call them (e.g. Hawking). I remember reading in "Black Holes..." by Thorne that he (Penrose) really is a brilliant mathematician... and from the descriptions of what he contributed to physics, his skill is really in understanding what the mathematics being used by modern physicists is "saying" or telling us - of course, it's not always true that the details of the mathematics are always saying something about reality (but a lot of times they are). So, all of that really fits with your (and spoon's) description of him. I think I'll still read his books and stuff (if I should ever have the leisure time), since it's really rare to find someone who has an intuitive understanding of mathematics to that extent, but I'll probably be offended in the same ways when he goes off in mathematician's dreams about physics.

Mar. 9th, 2009 12:30 am (UTC)

And what's up with the Roger Penrose hate? Heh, I haven't read anything by him, but I have had professors recommend I read his book. Last time he was mentioned in the physics community there were some snide remarks also... I've been wondering why there's such a contrast.

Snide remarks made by me, or by someone else?

He's certainly made some important contributions to physics. But all I can tell you is my reaction to his book, which is that he's smart, but when he tries to think deeply about philosophical issues he just falls into a lot of traps that to me, seem pretty transparent. And the whole thing about microtubules in the brain having to do with quantum mechanics (or even quantum gravity!) is just nutty. (And actually, I think he realizes it's nutty, but he is willing to go that far out on a limb because he's made too many mistakes in his understanding of consciousness and its relationship to mathematics and quantum mechanics... mistakes that convinced him that there was no other way than to go way far out there.)
Mar. 9th, 2009 05:00 am (UTC)
The snide remarks I particularly remember were from cocacola/ohava, heh. He didn't add anything this time though haha.

Mar. 9th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
Dawkins is one of my favorite authors - he explains things generally quite clearly, and even though I generally agree with him, he's clear enough that I can figure out points where I do disagree with him. In The Ancestor's Tale he gave a great argument for the fact that there was a single human that is an ancestor of all currently living humans. If there was no human that was the ancestor of both you and me, then go back ten million years to a time when none of our ancestors were recognizably human (maybe even none of them were recognizably primates, I'm not sure). Our lineages must then both have gone through all the same changes in that period without sharing any genetic material, which is extremely radically improbable, and therefore we must share an ancestor at some point, and a version of the argument shows that this ancestor must be not much more different from the two of us than we are from each other.

As for Kuhn, it's been ages since I read that book, but I'm not sure that it's susceptible to the critiques that you raise. For instance, I don't know that it's accurate to say that subsequent revolutions have gotten smaller. (For one thing, it's sort of hard to say what exactly counts as a revolution - I suspect that Copernicus, Darwin, and Einstein are basically the only ones that would be universally agreed to.) I don't know that the revolution overturning the central dogma (that DNA makes RNA which makes proteins, and no hereditary processes go in reverse) was necessarily any smaller or less significant than the revolution in the 1920s showing that Mendelian genetics was compatible with Darwinian evolution. Maybe this is wrong, but one major point he makes (which seems right) is that science isn't completely cumulative - stuff does get discarded and undone. I don't know the details of the history of the cosmological constant, but I think it was a proposal that seemed to be ruled out but has now come back into consideration. Phlogiston and luminiferous ether are two more cases of things that were once productive parts of science but have now been discarded.

And about Penrose - I've really liked what I've read of The Road to Reality. He seems to have a good talent for explaining a lot of the mathematics there, and especially when it comes to issues like the double cover of SO3 by O3. As long as he stays far from Gödel's theorem and the mind, he seems quite good.
Mar. 9th, 2009 01:04 am (UTC)

I don't know the details of the history of the cosmological constant, but I think it was a proposal that seemed to be ruled out but has now come back into consideration.

The details are that we have made steady progress on increasing the precision to which we know the cosmological constant, and there wasn't really a revolution. Initially, Einstein guessed that it was large and negative, and tuned precisely to balance out the expansion of the universe. That was never considered a scientific fact, it was just a hypothesis, and a very speculative one, of which he and everyone else was aware. That hypothesis was tested and ruled out by Hubble's observation of the redshift (and subsequent expansion of the universe). I don't know if they knew immediately that it was approximately zero, but it seemed like setting it to zero was a natural assumption given that it wasn't necessary to cancel anything out. As far as I know there wasn't any dogma surrounding it so people went and measured it to see what it actually was. For a long time, the more accurately it was measured, the closer to zero it was known to be. Only when the measurements got so incredibly precise that they were able to measure the 120th decimal place did it become known that it was not exactly zero, but 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000...01 (where there are 120 0's before the 1).

So there was never really any revolution, as far as I can see. It's true that many people, after seeing how many times it was confirmed to be very close to zero, expected that it would continue to be confirmed to be zero to more accurate decimal places. And I think that was a good rational bet at the time, Occam's razor and all. But the point is, it's an extremely minor correction compared to what was learned before. Yes, it has some interesting implications... and the fact that it is so tiny is itself troublesome now, because it's really hard to get numbers that tiny out of a theory where you are trying to calculate it from first principles. But ultimately, I see it as being a great example of how the things we're learning over time get more and more minor, and none of the approximate knowledge we learned in the past is overturned.

Edited at 2009-03-09 01:05 am (UTC)
Mar. 9th, 2009 01:14 am (UTC)

Phlogiston and luminiferous ether are two more cases of things that were once productive parts of science but have now been discarded.

I don't know about phlogiston, but luminiferous ether I just don't see as being a part of science. That's a metaphysical interpretation of the science, and yeah... I'll agree that those are subject to change a lot. I think it is true that the further back you go, the more you found metaphysical interpretations mixed in with the science. But today I think scientists are more careful to separate it out. For example, different scientists have different interpretations of quantum mechanics, and sometimes they argue about that... but for the most part, it's accepted that those arguments are about metaphysics, not physics... and we all agree on the physics (well, except for Penrose and a few others). So I would say that metaphysics can get undone, but physics cannot get undone. I don't know about biology or chemistry. But if it works anything like physics, I strongly believe that the corrections to it today are really minor compared to what they were in the past few centuries.
Mar. 9th, 2009 01:32 am (UTC)
I guess I don't understand the distinction you're making here between the metaphysics and the physics of a theory, if ether counts as metaphysics and not physics. It made some clear testable predictions (falsified by the Michelson-Morley experiment, unless auxiliary assumptions about the nature of the ether were modified) and gave rise to questions about what the ether could be like in order to have such a high speed of sound and yet be fairly non-interactive with other materials.

Phlogiston was an important part of chemistry in the 18th century - at the time they thought that the elements were various "earths" and "airs", and had replaced fire with phlogiston as an element (I don't know what they thought about water at the time). They thought that metals were compounds of an earth and phlogiston. Priestley thought he had found dephlogisticated air when he isolated oxygen. Lavoisier showed that if this whole theory was right, then phlogiston must have negative mass, so instead we should assume that dephlogisticated air is an element, and that earths are compounds of a metal and this air.
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:07 am (UTC)

I guess I don't understand the distinction you're making here between the metaphysics and the physics of a theory, if ether counts as metaphysics and not physics. It made some clear testable predictions (falsified by the Michelson-Morley experiment, unless auxiliary assumptions about the nature of the ether were modified) and gave rise to questions about what the ether could be like in order to have such a high speed of sound and yet be fairly non-interactive with other materials.

Well, you cited it as an example of a big change. But if you're not talking about the metaphysical part, then to me it seems pretty clear it was a tiny correction, not a big change. The change was that electric and magnetic fields (and hence the propagation of light) transform under the Lorentz group rather than the Galilean group. For observers with small relative velocities, the Lorentz group and the Galilean group are the same. Only when the observer and source are moving close to the speed of light with respect to each other do they differ significantly. Because the velocity of the earth relative to the rest of the solar system is small compared to the speed of light, the difference in the prediction of these two different theories of physics is very slight and hardly noticeable. Nevertheless, once the technology improved enough they were able to do a careful experiment that ruled out one theory and confirmed the other. So yes, this was a difference in physics, but no it did not involve any major undoing of knowledge... the approximate theory was known beforehand, and a better approximation was known afterwards. What did change, however, was the metaphysical interpretation... it caused most people to give up their belief that light waves had to be propagating on a substance that fills space. And even there, I would sort of disagree with the people who gave up their belief in such a substance. Clearly, it's just a metaphysical issue, but I think it does make sense to talk about it in terms of the waves propagating on fields that are waving up and down (or back and forth)... it's just that those fields don't transform in the way we thought they did under boosts... and the word "substance" may or may not be the right language to use to get the right mental picture. So I guess, even if you include the metaphysical change, I would still say it's a minor correction compared to what we knew beforehand... it possibly undoes some of the metaphysical picture we had, but even that is debatable.
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
I guess my point is that if you restrict attention to the "non-metaphysical" parts of a theory, then you actually end up ignoring a lot of the physical reasoning that goes on. If you're thinking of things in terms of ether, then the Michelson-Morley experiment suggests a notion of ether being dragged by the earth, which suggests certain types of correction factors to the equations. If you think of things in terms of electromagnetism being invariant under the Galilean group (which is predictively equivalent to thinking in terms of the ether) then the Michelson-Morley experiment suggests trying a different transformation group, like the Lorenz group. Empirically equivalent theories with different metaphysical commitments end up leading to different modifications in light of problem cases. This is the relevant paradigm shift, and in some sense it could have been made even without any recalcitrant evidence if people had pondered the metaphysics of the situation and thought that symmetry groups were more fundamental than the substance a phenomenon was realized by.
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:45 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's a good point.

I maybe am too harsh on Kuhn, because I do find there to be something useful or interesting about looking at it in terms of paradigm shifts. It's just that I think there are other good, if not better, ways to look at it... and looking at it all through that lens will often leave out what I consider the most important aspects of scientific progress.

I agree that it is hard to separate physics and metaphysics fully... and some of my complaints sort of hinge on such a separation.

I guess the other thing though that bothered me about his book... is that he makes it sound like there is more resistance to a paradigm change than there is. Yeah, old habits die hard... but there is always a good chunk of people in any field who are desperately trying to find new paradigms, all the time. It's just that most new ideas you think of tend to not work, unless there is some new experimental data spurring on such a change. I can think of slight paradigm changes in my field that have happened all the way through the past 30 years... but again, I see them as having grown consistently smaller over time. And one of the most consistent changes has been to divorce things from metaphysical assumptions as much as possible so that you're not commiting yourself to one fixed mental picture. I guess my best compliment to Kuhn is that maybe... just maybe, I could imagine that that's been a result of people like him pointing out that scientists were too attached to such paradigms. But somehow, I doubt his commentary made much difference... and my point remains that as our picture of reality has grown more accurate over time, there is less and less wrong with the correct paradigm which has emerged.
Mar. 9th, 2009 05:26 am (UTC)
You might be interested in reading a bit of stuff by Imre Lakatos. I haven't read anything more than maybe a paper or two by him, ages ago, but from what I understand, I think he's the one that's made the Kuhnian stuff make more sense. Rather than "paradigms" he talks about "research programmes" (for some reason it doesn't seem right to spell that the American way when talking about Lakatos), and he points out that there are often multiple research programmes active in a field at any time, and an individual can sometimes do productive work in multiple programmes. There's some amount of incommensurability between them, in that the same experiments often get interpreted in different ways, or the entities one group talks about don't get understood in the same way in the other group's work (like, say, "mass" in pre- and post-Einsteinian physics). There's some amount of inertia in people sticking with their programmes, but he doesn't need it to be as clingy as Kuhn seems to.
Mar. 9th, 2009 06:11 am (UTC)
Sounds a lot better.

I did get the sense that by "paradigm" Kuhn meant "research programme" (or at least what I associate with that word, perhaps not the same as what Lakatos defines it as) more than what most people would mean by a paradigm. Although I think in an addendum that was in the copy I had, he mentioned that he regretted using the word paradigm in two different senses in the first edition of SoSR... and goes on to explain what the two different senses mean and why it caused some confusion for people responding to him or criticizing him.

The "multiple research programmes" is definitely true in theoretical physics. The most striking example in high energy physics is the string theorists and the loop quantum gravitists. They do end up interpreting the same experiments in pretty different ways sometimes, and having a tough time talking to each other. But the thing about theoretical physics is that it's theoretical, and everyone doing it knows that... nobody would say that any of the theorems in string theory are scientific facts about the world. They are truths relative to a hypothesis that has yet to be confirmed. So having multiple ongoing research programs is the kind of healthy thing that goes on before you narrow things down and say you've actually gained solid "scientific knowledge" and have learned specific things about the world. Although it is interesting to take borderline examples of research programmes that still exist even though the vast majority in a field think it has been ruled out (perhaps for example, the cosmic ray hypothesis for global warming, although I don't think that is quite a strong enough case as probably the mainstream opinion is just that it's very unlikely, not that it is officially ruled out.)
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)
Also, I haven't even mentioned the biggest problem with what he says, which is that new paradigms are incompatible with old ones to the extent that you can't even understand one from within the other. That was probably the only thing in the book that I consider total bullshit... the rest of it all has some basis in reality, but this has none as far as I can tell.

Edited at 2009-03-09 02:50 am (UTC)
Mar. 9th, 2009 05:19 am (UTC)
Yeah, the notion of incommensurability is one of the most provocative ideas in the book, that I think people tend to largely reject these days. (I think moderated versions of it are often accepted, where people working in different paradigms often understand the same experiment as proving different things.)
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:16 am (UTC)
I do recall Kuhn talking a lot about the discovery of oxygen, and the phlogiston. It's an interesting story, but I guess I'd have to know more about what people were actually saying at the time to know for sure whether it's really an example of scientific "knowledge" being undone. It hardly seems appropriate for them to take a wild speculation about what things are made of and then claim that as scientific fact... somehow, I doubt that's what actually happened. But even if it did, it's not the kind of thing that would happen today, and an example of how the mistakes we're making today are so much smaller than what was made back then.
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC)
Let me try to articulate my view on how science progresses a bit more...

People come up with theories, the theories are tested. Gradually they accumulate evidence. With something like phlogiston, it's hard to imagine anyone seriously thought it had enough evidence behind it to be established scientific fact... although many people surely thought it was the best explanation they could think of.

With any theory, we know under what conditions it has been tested, and there is always the chance that if it is tested under different conditions, the theory will need to be modified or augmented. But if it does need to be augmented, it will never be modified significantly in the places where it was already been confirmed. For example, in the forementioned example of the ether, there was no significant modification for velocities small compared to light... if the new theory disagrees with the old one in this regime, it can't possibly be true because we have already established that as fact. But if the new theory disagrees with the old one in a new regime which had never been tested before (almost always because the technology was unavailable yet, not because of bias about which experiments are done) then that's fine... that's just normal scientific progress. It's a modification in a sense, but really all modifications of this forms are additions, not undoings or replacements. You still have to keep the old theory around and teach it in classes, since it works well for the vast majority of situations.
Mar. 9th, 2009 02:34 am (UTC)
It's true that the numerical differences between the predictions of different theories will be very small in domains that have already been well-tested. (Even there there can be some surprises - when Fresnel proposed his wave theory of light in the late 18th century in a submission for a prize papers contest, Poisson tried to disqualify him because his theory had the absurd consequence that there should be a bright spot in the center of the shadow of a perfectly circular object - but Fresnel ended up winning the prize, because Arago did the experiment and showed that the spot existed, even though no one had noticed it before in this seemingly ordinary sort of circumstance.) But numerical differences between predictions aren't an especially useful measure of theoretical change. The concepts used and worldview involved make a huge difference. A theory that says energy is always conserved, and a theory that says energy is conserved to within .00001% will make very few different predictions, but there are ways of thinking of the world according to the first theory that make no sense according to the second.

Sometimes we keep around the older theories, because they're useful for making predictions, and are conceptually related to newer theories in ways that make teaching the new theories easier. But I suspect that sometimes that just isn't the case - no one bothers teaching the luminiferous ether any more except as an illustration of the history of science. Similarly, no one teaches Darwinian (as in, anti-Mendelian, pre-synthesis) evolutionary theory.
Mar. 9th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)

A theory that says energy is always conserved, and a theory that says energy is conserved to within .00001% will make very few different predictions, but there are ways of thinking of the world according to the first theory that make no sense according to the second.

Incidentally, it may interest you to know that energy is not conserved in several different ways, in our world.

One of those ways is due to the energy-time uncertainty relationship. If you look on small time-scales, there are energy fluxuations (called "vacuum fluxuations") where random amounts of energy get added or subtracted from moment to moment. The smaller the time-scale, the larger the energy fluxuations. Only in the long run is energy approximately conserved. But another has to do with the cosmological constant (aka, the dark energy). Because the cosmological constant represents a constant energy density, as spacetime expands you get more and more total energy. I think even before the dark energy, the total energy of the universe was already known to be not conserved... and the interesting thing is, there were people who tried to add an extra "gravitational energy" to make it conserved. Presumably, these people were acting out of the sort of thinking you're describing, where because they had some kind of metaphysical interpretation of energy that told them energy *must* be conserved... they threw in something that was unnecessary. There was a long battle between those who wanted the gravitational energy in there, and those who did not think that counts as energy (in part, because it isn't rigorously definable, and in part because it's just an extra unneeded piece of junk thrown in). I think this battle is still going on to some extent, but my impression is that most people have now come over to the "energy is just not conserved" way of thinking.
Mar. 9th, 2009 03:07 am (UTC)
Also... the paradigm change that the people who thought energy had to be conserved seemed to be missing was due to Emmy Noether.

She figured out that all conserved quantities, such as energy, are just a result of the symmetries of a theory. In the case of energy, it's due to time-translation symmetry. So if you have a system like the whole universe, where it is expanding as an explicit function of time... there is not time-translation symmetry, so it's pretty obvious that you shouldn't have energy conserved. Nevertheless, the cosmologists who weren't used to thinking in terms of symmetries as fundamental and conservation laws as the result, resisted the idea that the total energy of the universe is changing. Particle physicists were more on board with it sooner, since they were already more used to thinking this way.

So in this case, I'm agreeing with you and Kuhn :)
Mar. 9th, 2009 01:17 am (UTC)

I've really liked what I've read of The Road to Reality.

Yeah, I have flipped through that book in the store and thought it was well written and organized.
Mar. 10th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
I am shaktool, temporarily unable to access my account. long story.
there was a single human that is an ancestor of all currently living humans. If there was no human that was the ancestor of both you and me, then go back ten million years to a time when none of our ancestors were recognizably human (maybe even none of them were recognizably primates, I'm not sure). Our lineages must then both have gone through all the same changes in that period without sharing any genetic material, which is extremely radically improbable

Yes, but the first part is phrased in a misleading manner. I'd replace "there was a single human" with "a human existed", to imply that this human is a member of a set. In fact, there were probably very many individuals who fit this description.
Mar. 10th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC)
Re: I am shaktool, temporarily unable to access my account. long story.
Oh, I hadn't even thought of the other (more biblical) interpretation! Because clearly if you have one person who's an ancestor of all living people, then any ancestor of that person is as well. If we say someone is a minimal universal ancestor when they are an ancestor of all living people, but none of their descendants is, then there still may well be multiple minimal universal ancestors.

But of course the point generalizes - take any set of living individuals that have ever existed. These individuals have universal ancestors, and in fact they have minimal universal ancestors also. The Ancestor's Tale considers the sequence of minimal universal ancestors of all living humans, and any set consisting of all living humans and some other currently living things.
Mar. 9th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
I only read part of Lisa's book but the analogy that I remember is where she compared the renormalization group to a bureaucracy. I couldn't figure out if the analogy was brilliant or awful; I guess I would have to find someone who read the book and didn't know what the renormalization group was, and see whether they came away with an understanding that's anywhere near the right one. She clearly put a lot of thought into how to explain things to the public, though....
Mar. 9th, 2009 04:06 am (UTC)
Yeah, I LOL'd at that beurocracy analogy too. I think it was brilliant but kind of ridiculous. I suspect that whoever reads it not knowing anything about the RG would be frustrated, feeling like the analogy wasn't telling them much about what was physically going on... but the truth is, there's not much more you can tell them, and they're going to be frustrated no matter what... it's just a really hard thing to get across without going into more technical detail. So perhaps she did the best thing she could have there.

Here's one that does bother me though. She used it, and I've seen it in the past, and it really seems like a bad analogy to me unless I'm missing something: The idea that energy gets "borrowed" from the vacuum for a period of time, and then "paid back" after its time is up... where the larger amount you borrow, the sooner you have to pay it back. I didn't realize how bad this one was until someone asked me about it on lj one time, and I tried to explain it... and by the end I had to say "you know, that's just not how it works." The problem is, it gives people the impression that when some virtual particle pair is created the energy in the vacuum (bank) goes down... and that energy is carried by the virtual particle for a while, and then the energy in the bank goes back up when it annihilates. But this is really backwards from how it works. If anything, the vacuum energy (which includes this virtual correction) should be viewed as going *up* when the particle is created, and back down when it is annihilated. And then the thing we often refer to as the "vacuum energy" is really the average over long term of these fluxuations. At least that's the way I look at it... but perhaps both of them are being a bit too literal about virtual particles. Anyhow, do you know of any way in which this "borrowing energy from the bank" analogy actually makes sense? It also seems like a way to convince people that energy is conserved in virtual interactions, when really... it's not... or is it?
Mar. 9th, 2009 05:24 am (UTC)
If you have consonance of the views Dawkins expressed in The God Delusion, you have my condolences. As has been said so many times and in so many ways, "To the Pure, all things are pure; to the Base, all things are base." You're obviously an intelligent bloke. To see you fumbling in the dark seems almost tragic.
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