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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.

Comments

spoonless
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.
easwaran
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.
spoonless
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.
easwaran
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.
spoonless
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.)
spoonless
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)
easwaran
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.)

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