BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Sunny Nihilist by Wendy Syfret

The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of PointlessnessThe Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness by Wendy Syfret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

In this book length essay, Syfret proposes that the reader reconsider the much-maligned philosophy of Nietzsche, arguing not only that it needn’t lead one into a dreary morass of gloomy thinking, but that it might just help one live more in the now while escaping brutal cycles of self-punishment. She has her work cut out for her, but she doesn’t shy from the challenge. Much of what she discusses could just as easily be presented under the guise of the less melancholious brother school called Existentialism, but Syfret embraces the vilified term, at least it’s cheerier side, under the moniker “Sunny Nihilism.”

Nihilism proposes that there is no inherent “god-given” meaning to, or purpose of, life. There’s no god to create such meaning and purpose. This notion is accepted as a given by most scientifically-minded people today, but it still results in the occasional visceral dread. For cravers of meaning, the argument goes like this: at least some of life is suffering, why should I subject myself to suffering if there isn’t some grand purpose and plan.

The retort of many nihilists and existentialists goes, “You only feel that way because you’ve made mountains out of molehills through your obsession with meaning, purpose, and divine plans. The experience of being able to experience life is awesome, but you make the whole of life such a daunting prospect that anything that doesn’t turn out perfectly makes you angst-ridden. You worry far too much, and – what’s worse – you’re usually worried about the wrong things. You’re missing the freedom that comes from being able to choose for yourself what you value and to put your setbacks in perspective.”

The book also explores such related issues as: coping with the pandemic, millennial malaise, celebrity deification, and how technology and social media influence the light and the dark sides of nihilism.

I found the book to be thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a philosophy to help them live through the trials of our age.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The TranscendentalistThe Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Free Online: Emersoncentral.com

In this short essay (about ten pages,) Emerson lays out an argument for Idealism over Materialism, and then contends that it’s reasonable to excuse oneself from the economic and civic aspects of society in favor of a simple life of introspection. [e.g. As Thoreau did in his years at Walden Pond.]

Emerson opens by suggesting that Transcendentalism is just Idealism by a different name. Idealism being a philosophical stance which puts consciousness at the fore while proposing that there is something beyond [that transcends] our experience of sensory information. The arguments put forth in favor of Idealism include the fact that sensory illusions exist and the Kantian critique of Locke’s view that there’s no more to the intellect than that which is or was sensory experience; Kant argues that there’s intuition. Kant’s influence is considerable, and Emerson explains that even the term “Transcendentalism” is derived from Kant’s use of the term “transcendental.”

The latter part of the essay echoes Emerson’s masterwork, the essay “Self-Reliance.” It proposes that it’s perfectly laudable to take advantage of the greatest gift one has, one’s consciousness, to introspect and indulge one’s need to better understand.

I may have mixed views on Emerson’s ideas, but one can’t say he doesn’t use language and reason and passion to make compelling claims. I found this brief essay to be both thought-provoking and inspirational, and I’d highly recommend it.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Dark Tourist by Hasanthika Sirisena

Dark Tourist: EssaysDark Tourist: Essays by Hasanthika Sirisena
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This collection of, mostly autobiographical, essays rambles over a territory that includes: grief, the immigrant experience, sexuality, art and catharsis, and the profound impact of self-perception on one’s experience of life. The title most directly links to one of the more evocative essays, “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” which is about the author’s travels back to her native country, Sri Lanka, to visit the northern region where a vicious civil war played out most intensely. [For those unfamiliar with the term, “dark tourism” is travel to areas that have recently experienced upheaval due to war, economic collapse, intranational conflict, or large-scale accidents and disasters.]

I used the term “rambles” in my opening sentence, and these essays (even within essays) can take the reader places a lawyer would object to on the grounds of relevance. That said, it’s a far better thing to be rambling and interesting than tidy and dull, and this book does a good job of keeping it interesting, using stories that are (I presume) meant to symbolically link to a point at hand. Sometimes, that symbolism hits, and sometimes it might not, but it does make for a compelling read. The author is valiantly candid about her personal struggles, particularly as they pertain to issues of self-perception owing to a lazy eye and her [bi-] sexuality.

If you’re a reader of essays and creative nonfiction, I’d recommend you give this book a look.


View all my reviews

On Intrusive Thoughts & Shoving Someone in Front of a Train

The other day I read that a man had pushed a person onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. 

The week before that, I'd read in a book by Robin Ince that a person who -- having had a baby thrust into his hands -- has intrusive thoughts of throwing said baby out of the nearest window is [believe it, or not] the best person to ask to hold one's baby.

The argument goes like this, the person having these intrusive thoughts is being intensely reminded by his or her unconscious mind that under no circumstances -- no matter what unexpected or unusual events should transpire -- is he to throw the baby out the window (or otherwise do anything injurious.)

I've heard that, at some point, virtually everyone has some type of awkward intrusive thought such as the thought of pushing a stranger in front of a train. 

Most never do it, nor truly want to do it.

Then this one time... someone did.   

BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”


I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil DisobedienceCivil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This 30+ page political philosophy essay argues that it is one’s responsibility to avoid letting the government make one complicit in its unjust activities. The major points of contention for Thoreau were two-fold: state facilitation of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which Thoreau – like many – saw as a shameless land grab.) Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and was briefly jailed for failure to pay taxes. [This brief stay might have been much longer had not someone paid the tax bill without Thoreau’s knowledge. While Thoreau doesn’t name said individual (if he ever knew who it was,) he treats that person as someone who did a bad deed in his name rather than someone to be thanked.] The discussion focuses heavily on tax-paying (or, rather, non-payment) as opposed to other acts of civil disobedience / passive resistance / non-violence such as breaking unjust laws.

This essay has been cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and many who are less well-known as proponents of non-violent resistance against oppressive or unjust governance. While the meeting of unjust governance with passive resistance has shown itself to be a powerful strategy in the intervening years, Thoreau was at the vanguard of thinking on this issue. Later activists would expand the domain of civil disobedience greatly, and it would become more explicitly associated with non-violent opposition. [Thoreau doesn’t talk up the virtue of avoiding violence like Gandhi does, but he also doesn’t mention violence as an alternative to his approach — and it seems he would find violent acts as morally reprehensible as supporting the government in its acts of aggressive violence.] I would be interested to know the following of this essay by different elements of the political spectrum today, and how that following was influenced by those who took up its banner. [It has a libertarian “the government is fundamentally untrustworthy” vibe going, but I suspect it is probably popular with elements the left who generally view the government as a savior against corporations, given the essay’s past proponents. Though I could be wrong.]

Thoreau doesn’t focus on his own case, which he only gets to well into the essay and which he addresses in quick manner. Rather, he spends most of the essay discussing the justification for breaking the law (i.e. not paying taxes) and what is moral and proper and what is not. [e.g. He says that he pays the highway tax because his desire to be a good neighbor matches his desire to be a poor subject. [paraphrased.]] Obviously, it’s a nuanced issue. If no one paid their taxes who had a gripe with the government, it might just result in everyone finding a gripe with the government – in perpetuity. Thoreau, himself, has quite a negative view of government’s ability to be just. While his focus is on abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, it’s not as though he proposes that these are exceptional and uncharacteristic cases.

Though it is short, this essay can be obtained as a standalone work (as it’s reviewed here,) but it’s also included in many Thoreau collections and political philosophy anthologies. Like it or lump it, it’s definitely worth reading because it addresses some pretty fundamental questions about what an individual’s responsibilities are to the government as well as what are one’s responsibilities to resist the government’s activities.

View all my reviews

ESSAY: This I Believe [Including My Views on Unicorns]

Occasionally, I’m asked whether I BELIEVE some idea or BELIEVE in X [i.e. fill in the person, place, thing, or concept.]

If I were to answer these questions honestly, that answer would almost invariably be, “No.”

But, because that can seem overly contrarian — not to mention insane — I often try to guess the sense in which the questioner is using the words “BELIEVE” and “BELIEF,” and then answer accordingly.

Like many words, BELIEVE is one whose meaning meanders, and shadows fall across it in different ways, creating different hues [and impressions thereof,] depending upon one’s vantage point.

Often, people seem to use the phrase, “I BELIEVE X ” synonymously with “I understand X to be true.” “I BELIEVE it” can mean: I behave as though X is true, [but am not necessarily commenting on the degree to which X is supported by evidence or reason.] I, on the other hand, try to use BELIEVE in the sense of: “I accept the truth of X and behave accordingly, but I don’t really have any solid basis on which to rest this conclusion.” I like to draw as few such conclusions as possible, though sometimes it’s hard not to. For example, like most people, I live my life as if we are living in base reality — as opposed to being in some “Matrix”-like computer simulated world, but — if pressed — I’d have to admit that I can’t really support this belief convincingly.

If I were to be asked whether I BELIEVE there is a force that inexorably pulls me toward the Earth’s center, using my own interpretation of the word “BELIEVE,” I would reply in the negative. Before you ask how I can be so anti-gravity [pun not intended, but acknowledged,] let me say that I firmly understand there to be such a force as gravity. This is not to say that I fully understand the mechanism by which gravity works — which I certainly do not — but rather to say that I recognize the truth of such a force’s existence. I can experience gravity in my pathetic vertical leap, and even note it in the very impressive vertical leap of skilled athletes. I see it in the red leaf, twirling as it falls to the ground. I feel it upon takeoff as an airplane’s seat raises against my butt. Furthermore, I recognize that there are many scientists who’ve come to understand a great deal more about gravity than I, but also that none of what they’ve learned through their vast number of controlled observations contradicts my basic idea that I’m being pulled toward the planet (and it toward me.)

At the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, I was once asked whether I BELIEVED in astronomy and astrology? The questioner clearly thought this was a closed-ended, yes or no, question — as if the two fields dealt in identical content. Of course, from my perspective, it was a question similar to: “Do you BELIEVE in Zebras and Magical Unicorns?” — which is to say, not at all a straightforward and closed-ended yes or no question. [Incidentally, the reason I used the modifier “magical” is because I do “believe” in unicorns. I just call them “Indian Rhinoceroses” [Latin name: Rhinoceros Unicornis.]]

A Unicorn — i.e. the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis

The long and short of the matter is this: I strive to BELIEVE as little as I can, and to hold even those BELIEFs only so tightly that they might fall away in the face of learning. Otherwise, what’s learning for [or is it even possible?]