BOOK REVIEW: Beyond Weird by Philip Ball

Beyond WeirdBeyond Weird by Philip Ball
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Quantum mechanics is so mystifying and baffling that I even misunderstood the title of Philip Ball’s book on the subject at first. I thought “Beyond Weird” was being used as is in, “twelve miles outside of Weird, almost all the way to ‘Incomprehensibly-bizarre-burg,’ is where one finds quantum theory.” About two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized that what he meant was that it’s time to move beyond thinking of the subject as one that – while it works well for the technologist’s practical purposes — is impossible to make any sense of with the human mind. [Perhaps the author wants to move “Beyond Weird” because the popular descriptions of quantum mechanics paint a picture that’s hard for the average reader to differentiate from magic – i.e. things popping in and out of existence inexplicably, things seeming to be in two irreconcilably different states at once, particles interacting instantaneously across light-years, etc. It all sounds like the stuff of a Harry Potter novel.] Who knows, maybe Ball meant “beyond weird” in both ways, like a quantum object is said to be both particle and a wave. (Though Ball weakly rejects that notion as untrue, though stating that sometimes it might as well be true.)

What is weird about the quantum world? To oversimplify, one can think of three interconnected conundrums. The first set of challenges I’ll group together as measurement problems. This includes both the fact that observing evidence of a quantum object cannot be done without influencing the nature of that evidence, and the fact that measuring one characteristic may limit the accuracy with which one can measure another. The second challenge, which derives from the first, is often called wave-particle duality, and it’s the fact that evidence of the same entity or object may sometimes suggest it’s more particle-like and other times that it behaves in a more wave-like fashion. [As is famously observed in double-slit experiments.] A third counter-intuitive fact is quantum entanglement, which is observed when one quantum object is observed and another that has become entangled with it instantaneously displays a corresponding measure. [The reader will note that, even after reading the book, I’m sure that I’m not describing these ideas in nearly sufficient precision to make them truly accurate. And still I’m writing convoluted sentences in attempt to give it my best shot to accuracy. And that’s just how confusing the topic is.]

Because the world behaves oddly at a quantum scale when compared to the world we see (the one that is governed by classical physics,) many paradigms have been established to try to convey what is happening to non-specialists. These models are necessarily oversimplifications. A lot of what Ball does is to try to wring a tiny bit more clarity out of what goes on at the quantum scale by describing in greater detail what is true, false, or under contention about what we “see” in quantum objects. This is how Ball comes up with chapter titles such as: “Quantum objects are neither wave nor particle, (but sometimes they might as well be.” Or, “Quantum particles aren’t in two states at once (but sometimes they might as well be.)” The first half of the book is mostly spent trying to clean up the public perception of quantum mechanics a little. Completely clarifying the subject isn’t yet possible. If it was, the value of such a volume would be minimal.

In the second half of the book, Ball gets into the influence of quantum mechanics on technology (and, in particular, tries to give the lay-reader some concept of what is being talked about when technologists talk of quantum computing.) He also explores some of the theories that are being pursued in the halls of academia to try to make sense of the parts of quantum mechanics that we can’t yet wrap our heads around. This includes the many-worlds interpretation in which each [“decision”] event results in a schism of the universe, such that Schrodinger’s — much misunderstood — cat isn’t in a super-position of alive and dead, but is alive in one branch universe and dead in the other. The book ends with a chapter entitled, “Can we get to the bottom of it?” There is hope that once we are able to look at the subject from the right angle, it will all clear up. Humans do have difficulty making sense of scales that are smaller or bigger than those of our daily experience, as well as time scales shorter than we can notice or longer than we live. We are viewing the world through frames, and those frames create – in a sense – blinders. Some scientists hope that one day we’ll be free of whatever frame (e.g. inability to experience all dimensions of space, time, or space-time) is limiting our capacity to understand the quantum.

As one would expect of this type of book, there are graphics, notes, and a bibliography.

My primary interest in quantum mechanics involves its implications (if any) for consciousness, and this is not a subject that Ball gets into in much detail beyond discussing Eugene Wigner’s views on the subject and touching on the ideas of David Bohm. Wigner was a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who believed that consciousness caused wave-form collapse. It should be noted that there are many scientists who feel that there is no need to think consciousness exerts any influence outside the skull of the conscious one. However, it remains an open question, and it’s not clear whether those who reject it have much better ideas or just have a knee-jerk reaction to that which might halt the onward march of the Copernican revolutionary norm. Though ideas at the interaction of consciousness and the quantum are not explored in great detail in Ball’s book, I still found it of use for edging a little closer to what goes on at a quantum scale than past popular science books have gotten me.

I’d recommend this book for the non-physicist who wants a little better grasp on quantum theory. It’s readable and helps separate wheat from chaff with respect to popular models of quantum mechanics.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bonk by Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and SexBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Mary Roach specializes in nonfiction on quirky topics that offer plenty of opportunities for humor – if of an uncomfortable variety of humor. Few topics hit those marks better than sex, especially when it is juxtaposed with science. Sex has a long history of being on the fringes of scientific study because the value judgments society applies to the topic makes it hard to attract both scientists and subjects, and when neither are lacking there is the matter of convincing agencies and institutions to fund one’s work. On the other hand, there is both demand for better information about sex and a great deal of potential for earnings to be gained by making both the experience and result of sex better or more reliable (more or less fertility as is desired.) All this has led to sex and science becoming strange bedfellows — that have sometimes let in pseudo-science for an awkward threesome.

Roach presents a wide variety of studies from famous early scholars like Kinsey and Masters & Johnson to obscure present-day scientists like the Egyptian researcher who has to find prostitutes to have intercourse with inflated condoms in order to study nerve reflexes in the female nether regions. Sometimes, the research involves animals, as in the case of researchers trying to determine whether the female orgasm draws semen up further toward the Fallopian tubes by studying pigs, or studies of mating rituals of monkeys and how they compare and contrast to those of humans. Though most often the studies are human-centric and ask questions such as: why do a few women orgasm with excessive (and, unfortunately, embarrassing) ease, while too many others have difficulty achieving that result at all? And, why aren’t sex toys better designed to achieve their objective?

I give Roach bonus points on a couple of grounds. First, there is the plentiful combination of humor and fun facts that make the book extremely readable. Second, Roach takes some personal risk when, for example, taking part in an imaging study with her husband that involved intimacy in an MRI. That is not even to mention the many things she must have seen that she can never unsee on her global tour that took her to places like Taiwan and Egypt as well as to conventions and research parks across the US.

It should be pointed out that there are important and serious topics being addressed by the science in the book, issues like: erectile dysfunction, sexual dissatisfaction (and its adverse effects upon relationships), and fertility difficulties. So, it’s not all jokes and quirky facts. Solutions to problems (surgical, pharmaceutical, and even psychological) are discussed, though there is a lot of basic science to consider as well. (For the less scientifically oriented, basic science is that which doesn’t have a specific objective, but is rather to enhance understanding so that further down the road economically and practically viable solutions can be achieved. The lack of specific objective means this type of science can be particularly tricky to get funded. It also makes for some of the more amusing anecdotes because – unlike painful issues of persistent genital arousal disorder or erectile dysfunction – its easier to form jokes about penis cameras and romancing a sow.)

The book consists of fifteen chapters. As is common in Roach’s book, there’s not an obvious organizational schema – except the first chapter which is a bit more general and the last which answers the old question, “who has more fun, and why?” [except the answer isn’t “blondes or redheads” but rather heterosexual or homosexual couples.] That said, there is a grouping of male genitalia (ch. 6-8) versus female genitalia (ch. 9-12) studies. There are some photos (not particularly graphic) as well as endnotes and references.

I found this book to be fascinating and highly readable, and would recommend it for anyone with an interest in anatomy and physiology, or in sex for that matter.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns & Eva Burns-Lundgren

Psychotherapy: A Very Short IntroductionPsychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The word “psychotherapy” conjures images of a patient on a burgundy recamier-style couch, a psychoanalyst in a matching stuffed armchair, neither one looking at the other as the analyst uses terse questions and monosyllabic acknowledgements to coax out the patient’s problems through interrogation about his or her childhood. While that approach, Freudian psychoanalysis, stubbornly maintains a following, there have blossomed many other varieties of therapy using talk as a tool to ease maladies of the mind. This “Very Short Introduction,” put out by Oxford University Press as part of a large and diverse series with the same subtitle, presents an overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy and its less formal cousin, counselling.

The book consists of eight chapters, and begins with a preface. The preface covers various and sundry topics useful for the reader, but most importantly it takes a step back from psychotherapy to situate this therapeutic approach in a context of psychology and psychiatry, which are subjects often confused in the popular mindset.

Chapter one continues with the basics by defining psychotherapy and offering a thumbnail of the various approaches that will be expanded upon throughout the book. The second chapter pays homage to Freud and his psychoanalytic approach. The authors maintain a diplomatic approach to psychoanalysis though it has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons, both practical (e.g. it’s a huge drain on time, often involving five hours a week for months or even years) and theoretical (e.g. it places a great deal of emphasis on the past, whereas many currently popular approaches favor the present as the relevant time.)

Chapter three explores a number of post-Freudian psychotherapists including Jung, Adler, and Erik Erikson. Chapter four moves on to what is called “Time-Limited Therapy.” As suggested in the preceding paragraph, psychoanalysis placed huge demands on a patient’s [and therapist’s] time and could go on and on with no end in sight. Time-limited therapies focused more on finding a present-day solution for the current problem, and not so much ceaselessly trolling one’s distant past for traumas.

Chapter five is about counselling, which is very much related to psychotherapy in that it involves getting a person to talk out his or her problems. The difference is that it needn’t necessarily involve a therapist with extensive training, but rather someone briefed and / or sensitive enough to know how not to become sidetracked into dangerous territory. Chapter six discusses cognitive behavioral therapy, its principles, and its variations (such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], which combines elements of Buddhist mindfulness with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to form a popular and successful therapeutic approach.) Cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in the premise that distorted thoughts cause emotional and behavioral problems, and that one must address the thought to change the outcome. It also famously requires “homework” to be done between sessions rather than the work being contained within sessions.

Chapter seven moves away from the one-on-one therapy discussed so far, and investigates the various ways in which therapy can be carried out in groups. Groups can be beneficial because they allow the patient to see that they aren’t unique in their woes, which people often believe themselves to be. Family therapy is also discussed as it all allows family members to chip away at their problems as a familial unit. Also, there are numerous interactive forms of therapy in which patients might use various art forms to work out their problems.

The last chapter looks at where psychotherapy stands, and where it appears to be going. One of the important considerations discussed is the influence the advance of neuroscience is having on therapy. For few decades since the famous decade of the brain (i.e. the 90’s,) neuroscience has dominated the discussion of the realm of the mind. There has been less-and-less thinking in psychological terms and more and more in physiological terms. However, there still seems to be a widespread belief that solutions need to combine a recognition of both areas.

Like other books in the series, this one employs a variety of graphics (cartoon, photographic, and diagrammatic), and it also presents brief references and further reading sections to help the reader continue his or her study through other works.

This book offers a solid overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy. I would recommend it for neophytes who need to start with a concise outline of the field.

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BOOK REVIEW: Two Saints by Arun Shourie

Two Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana MaharishiTwo Saints: Speculations Around and About Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharishi by Arun Shourie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I suspect this book is extremely controversial for many, though it echoes many of my own views. The central premise of the book is that there is a middle ground position between: a.) true believers who insist that gurus and god-men hold superpowers and can perform miracles, and b.) rational skeptics who hold that god-men are inherently frauds and their followers are necessarily either shills or dunces.

What is this middle way? First of all, it denies the existence of the supernatural and rejects the premise that certain men and women — through great virtue or intense practice — can circumvent the laws of physics. (Which isn’t to suggest that great virtue and intense practice can’t have profound impacts on a person and the community in which he or she resides.) Secondly, on the other hand, it acknowledges that scientific findings (or at least feasible hypotheses) on matters such as out-of-body experiences (OBE,) hypnotic trances states, hallucinations, epileptic seizures, the placebo effect, and near-death experiences (NDE) can offer insight into how rational, intelligent, and good-natured individuals might develop a belief in the supernatural. There is a third premise that is implicit throughout Shourie’s discussion of the life and works of these two great teachers (also which I share), which is that a lack of superpowers in no way detracts from what these two great gurus achieved.

As the subtitle suggests, the author is merely speculating as there is no way to put these ideas to the test, given these individuals are long deceased and (unlike, say, the Dalai Lama) would be unlikely to show an interest in such explorations even if they were alive. However, Shourie seeks to systematically demonstrate connections between the events described by the holy men and their followers and what scientific papers have described with respect to studies of unusual phenomena like OBE, NDE, and hallucinations. (e.g. it’s long been known that with an electrode applied to the right place on the brain a neuroscientist can induce an OBE in anyone. The widespread accounts of this feeling /experience that one is rising out of one’s body, often by respectable individuals of impeccable character, is one of the reasons for believing there must be an immaterial soul that is merely carted about by the body.)

The titular two saints that Shourie makes the centerpiece of his inquiry are the Bengali bhakti yogi Sri Ramakrishna and the jnana yogi from Tamil Nadu, Sri Ramana Maharshi. [For those unfamiliar with the terms “Bhakti Yogi” and “Jnana Yogi,” the former are those whose practice emphasize devotion and worship while the latter are those whose practice emphasize self-inquiry and study. The third leg of the stool being “Karma Yogis,” who focus upon selfless acts is the core of their pursuit of spirituality.] These two teachers were both born in the 19th century, though Sri Ramana lived through the first half of the 20th century. Besides being widely adored and seen as holy men of the highest order, they also serve as a kind of bridge between the ancient sages who lived out simple lives of spirituality in destitution and the modern gurus who often have vast commercial enterprises ranging from hair-care products to samosa mix all run from ashrams that are similar to academic universities in scope and grandeur. Some might argue that Ramakrishna and Ramana were the last of their kind in terms of being internationally sought after as teachers while not running an international commercial enterprise. Another way of looking at it is that they are modern enough that the events of their lives are highly documented, but not so modern as to have the taint modernity upon them.

The book is organized over sixteen chapters, and is annotated in the manner of scholarly works. The early chapters delve deeply into the life events of these two men, and in particular events that are used as evidence of their miraculousness. Through the middle, the author looks at how events in these individual’s life correspond to findings in studies of subjects such as the placebo effect (ch. 10,) hallucinations (ch. 7, e.g. given sleep or nutritional deprivation,) and hypnotic suggestion (ch. 9.) Over the course of the book, the chapters begin to look more generally at questions that science is still debating, but which are pertinent to spirituality – e.g. what is the nature of the self (ch. 12), what is consciousness? (ch. 13), and what does it mean for something to be real (ch. 15.) The final chapter pays homage to these two saints.

I found this book to be highly thought-provoking and well-researched. Shourie is respectful of the two teachers, while at the same time insisting that it’s not necessary for them to be super-powered for them to be worthy of emulation, respect, and study. I’d highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the questions of mystical experience and the scientific insights that can be offered into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money

Fungi: A Very Short IntroductionFungi: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas P. Money
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Bear with me. Fungi might sound like the most brutally boring topic on the planet, but hopefully by the end of the review you’ll be convinced it’s worth learning at least 125 pages about the basics of these unexpectedly powerful organisms. Regardless of whether you agree with people like Paul Stamets who suggest that if the planet is to be saved, the solution will no doubt hinge on fungi, (FYI – Dr. Money, author of this book, explicitly urges caution about such grand hopes) there’s no denying that these musty denizens of the forest floor (and almost everywhere else) are profoundly important to humanity. From taking out the trash in their role as decomposers to serving as the key ingredient in medicines to helping us digest foods to allowing us to make beer and bread, fungi can be greatly beneficial. They can also be legendarily deadly.

This book gives an overview of fungi with special emphasis on their interaction with the world. The book consists of eight chapters. The first three of these chapters look at the members of the Kingdom more or less in isolation, and the rest of the chapters delve more into how fungi interact with ecosystems and other organisms. Chapter one discusses what fungi are exactly, and what defines members of this kingdom. Given that most people only think of the fruiting bodies of certain kinds of fungus (e.g. the button or shitake mushrooms they get at the supermarket), being explicit about what separates fungus from other organisms is useful. This leads into the second chapter, which explores the huge diversity of this kingdom. The third chapter explores the genetics and life-cycle of fungi. All of these chapters are limited by the fact that there are far too many varieties of fungi to dive into specifics, given how wildly divergent they can be.

The other five chapters explore how fungi interact, and these chapters also move from more general interaction to those specific to mammals in general and to humans, specifically. Chapter four is entitled “Fungal Mutualisms” and it introduces how fungi interact with other species. Specifically, the chapter focus on interactions that are mutually helpful or at least not harmful to either party. Parasitic relationships, in which one participant (specifically plants) is damaged by the relationship, are saved for their own chapter — five. Chapter six investigates the role that fungi are perhaps most known and beloved for, decomposition.

The last two chapters deal with fungal interactions with animals, with specific emphasis on how they benefit or hinder humans. Chapter seven considers how fungi contribute to health or illness in animals. The reader learns about the good (e.g. contributions to digestion), the bad (e.g. infections) and the trippy (psychedelic mushrooms and derivatives – e.g. LSD comes from ergot fungus.) The final chapter explores edible mushrooms and the fungal role in biotechnology, including: pharmacology, fermentation, and bio-fuel production.

The book has many graphics that consist mostly of line drawings but include a few frames microscope photography. There is also a brief “Further Reading” section that suggests other books as well as websites.

I’d recommend this book as a first step to learning more about fungi. It won’t help with things like identification, but it’s a nice overview of a surprisingly broad topic for a neophyte. As is common with this series from the Oxford University Press, there’s not a lot of room for long stories that might make the reading more entertaining, and so it’s probably not the most engrossing book one can find on the topic, but it’s likely one of the most concise and accurate.

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BOOK REVIEW: Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the role of biology in the best and worst of human behaviors – as well as presenting factors that compete with or complement biological explanations, as the author finds relevant. Sapolsky is neuroscientist (specifically, a neuroendocrinologist) with a unique perspective as his research cuts across species – involving not only human beings but also baboons. Sapolsky investigates why humans fight, cooperate, rape and forgive by comparing and contrasting human behavior with what is seen in the animal kingdom.

The first thing a potential reader must realize is that Sapolsky dives into the weeds more so than most scientists writing for a popular audience. This will be a plus if one’s grasp of science (biology, in particular) is strong. However, if the reader hasn’t read anything on biology since high school or freshman year of college, one is likely to find the names and descriptions of hormones and neurochemicals, brain sectors, and protein processes a bit daunting. The book has three appendices that offer primers on neuroscience, endocrinology, and proteins, respectively, to get readers up to speed on the basic science. Furthermore, Sapolsky is quick to point out what can be skipped by readers who don’t want so much detail. I don’t want to give the impression the book is boring. Sapolsky uses humor and story to good effect. It’s just that he gets into Latin names and physiological minutiae at a level that most of his counterparts don’t, and that some readers will find challenging.

While not formally divided so, the seventeen chapters of the book can readily be split in two parts. The first ten chapters discuss the types of behavior that Sapolsky is taking on, and then work back from what happens immediately before a behavior (i.e. one second before) through neuronal, hormonal, and other proximal causes to the far distant causes rooted in human evolution. The first half of these chapters take one to a point in the individual’s life at most months out from the behavior under consideration. Chapters six through eight go back to the individual’s youth, exploring the role of adolescence, infancy, and fetal development. Chapters nine and ten peer back before the birth of the individual to those who contributed indirectly to the individual’s vice or virtue, including the role of the broad run of human evolution. It should be pointed out that this first part is where the aforementioned technical depth is mostly observed.

The second part of the book changes the approach by taking a more topical approach. Said topics include: us/them discrimination, hierarchy (and the acceptance / rejection thereof), morality, empathy, metaphors and symbols that become integral to good and bad behavior, the biology of free will (or the lack thereof,) and consideration of the question of whether humanity is getting more peaceful (as Steven Pinker argues in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” [which is arguably one of the main competitors to Sapolsky’s book, though the focus is a little different.]) This second part gets much more into the social science perspective, and isn’t as scientifically dense as the first portion of the book.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the good, the bad, and the ugly of human behavior. With the exception of getting a little technical in spots, it’s quite readable and interestingly organized and presented. As one can’t help get into political and cultural norms in a book on human behavior, Sapolsky betrays his personal biases here and there, but is quick to admit when there is evidence against them (or no evidence at all, either way.) I felt he maintained a reasonable scientific objectiveness, but others may feel differently.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

Hidden Depths: The Story of HypnosisHidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis by Robin Waterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Hidden Depths” is a history of hypnotism in the Western world from speculative discussion of its use in the ancient world through its employment for self-improvement in the modern era. It’s a bold undertaking. For one thing, hypnotism as we know it today given the insight of modern science is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, what we call hypnotism has existed variously in the domains of religion, spirituality, pseudo-science, entertainment, and outright fraud. For another thing, the hypnotic trance is a subjective experience and an individual’s susceptibility varies greatly, leaving some scholars to doubt to this day that a hypnotically-induced trance is a real thing. Added to all that, another aspect of confusion is that there are few activities that are so firmly wrapped in misconceptions in the popular mind as hypnosis. The hypnosis of fiction and film is different from the practice as it exists in the real world.

Waterfield takes on the aforementioned difficulties throughout the book. He tends to error on not calling any practice hypnosis unless the descriptions of it in historical documentation are quite explicit on a range of criteria we currently associate with hypnosis. I was ambivalent about this skew. On the one hand, I sometimes wished that Waterfield had more expertise in hypnosis (as a practitioner rather than as a historian) as it might have given him greater insight into hypnotic activities before that word (or its predecessor “mesmerism”) evolved. It seems dubious that all mentions of hypnotic activities are going to be described in a way that makes the state of consciousness readily identifiable to a lay reader, and some reading between the lines might be of benefit. On the other hand, I’ve read books by hypnotists who are what Waterfield (quite properly) calls “hypnotic imperialists” – i.e. individuals for whom any activity that involves suggestion or persuasion is hypnosis. So, it is easy to go to far, and to start calling everything hypnosis. While at times I thought Waterfield suffered from that chronic malady of historians (i.e. thinking that a thing never existed before the first mention of it in the earliest texts they can find), ultimately, I think his approach was sound in that he presented the thoughts of other authors about what activities constituted hypnosis and then offered his reasons for discounting (or not discounting) them. That seems to be a sound line to take.

The first couple chapters discuss this complex question of what hypnosis is and how we can tell it from other states of consciousness (if we can) and they also refer to the earliest mentions of activities that may (or may not) have involved hypnotically-induced trance. It is only when we get to chapter three that we get onto terra firma on the history of hypnosis. That’s when Franz Anton Mesmer enters the picture. Some credit Mesmer with inventing hypnosis. [Note: It wouldn’t come to be called “hypnosis” until a surgeon by the name of James Braid later coined that term. It did become known as “mesmerism,” reflecting Mesmer’s role in development of the technique and / or his fame. Personally, I always cringe when I hear someone in the modern world credited with “inventing” mental and physical techniques that require only a body and conscientiousness, rather than a particular state of technological advancement. It stinks of what a beloved professor of mine used to call the “outhouse fallacy” – the idea that because earlier people had no indoor plumbing that they were complete blithering idiots.] Mesmer was a study in contrasts. He thought himself a man of science and railed against the accusations of false science, but he also wore a cape and engaged in bizarre showmanship that one wouldn’t want to see if one went to one’s doctor’s office for a check-up. While it turned out that the hows and whys of Mesmer’s method are generally considered pseudo-scientific quackery (Waterfield is more diplomatic), it seems clear that the man had a gift and /or a skill for inducing trances.

There are chapters on the early use of hypnosis in both the United States and the United Kingdom, including by both doctors and religious men. There is also a discussion of the early debate about whether hypnosis presented a public safety danger. While the consensus view today is that a hypnotist can get most people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, he or she can’t make them do something they don’t want to do, at the time there was a concern that nefarious hypnotists might use hypnosis to prey on women or even to make an assassin of an unwitting stooge. There is a lot of interesting legal history to be discussed involving individuals who pled non-guilty by way of mind control. The discussion of hypnotism for nefarious purposes is revisited in chapter 12, which deals not only with persuasion by advertisers but also [unsuccessful] government attempts to make Manchurian Candidates (programmed assassins who would kill on command, but have no recollection of it in a state of ordinary waking consciousness.) The idea that a hypnotist could make a subject do anything they wished is a notion that has died hard, but remains alive and well in fiction. I should point out that Waterfield addresses many of the more prominent fictitious applications of hypnosis, and – as an avid reader – I found this to be of literary interest, while as a person interested in human behavior I was intrigued by the influence of fiction on people’s decisions and behavior.

The middle of the book also has a chapter that discusses a widespread notion that hypnosis was key to unlocking super-normal skills of extra-sensory perception (ESP.) While that part of the chapter might not be of much interest to the skeptically minded reader, chapter 8 also addresses the fascinating and well documented phenomena of false memories. The book devotes a chapter (ch. 9) to Freud, another individual who went from being at the top of his field to being widely disregarded by modern psychology.

Chapter 10 elucidates the debate over whether the hypnotically-induced trance is actually an altered state of consciousness, distinct from other states. As I said, there are many psychologists today who believe that it’s just suggestible people in a state of waking consciousness. This chapter lays out the arguments on both sides. While the author argues for the considering hypnotic trance a unique state, to his credit he gives fair hearing to the opposition.

Chapters 11 through 13 consider hypnosis in the modern era as a tool used in medicine, mind-control, and self-improvement. The first and last of these applications are alive and well. Attempts to use hypnosis for mind-control seem to have been written off with the debacle of MK-Ultra. However, that chapter (ch. 12) also deals with hypnosis related to sales and persuasion. However, use of hypnosis as drug-free analgesic as well as for other medical purposes, as well as to quit smoking or stick to diets is alive and well. The final chapter is a short plea to keep interest in genuine hypnosis alive. The book has illustrations, annotations, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about hypnosis — particularly its history in the Western World.

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BOOK REVIEW: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the UniverseBiocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book argues for an understanding of the universe in which consciousness is key – the sine qua non of reality, i.e. without which there’s nothing. While Lanza emphasizes biocentrism is a scientifically-based conception, his argument will likely find more immediate traction with people of faith than with the scientific community. Skepticism is likely to arise among the scientific community because the history of science from the Copernican Revolution onward has indicated that we are a bi-product of the universe in action, and not the reason for its existence. Humanity, with our brilliant brains that are the most complex systems we know of in the universe, is neither the geographic center of the universe nor are we its center of meaning or purpose either. Looking at it another way, our annihilation wouldn’t even register as a blip to the universe. Lanza (along with his co-author Bob Berman), fairly uniquely among men of science, argues otherwise.

Lanza and Berman present seven principles of biocentrism over the course of the book. I won’t list these, but they essentially say that in the absence of an observer the world exists only as an unresolved probability function, and that time and space are meaningless in the absence of consciousness. Not to oversimplify the authors’ case, but the heart of their biocentric argument is that it’s consistent with, and could arguably solve, two of the biggest mysteries in science.

The first mystery is the nature of quantum weirdness that has been shown true repeatedly through experiments such as the double slit experiment (which the authors discuss in some detail, but I will not.) I will mention a thought experiment designed make this subatomic strangeness clear in the world at our scale. It’s called Schrödinger’s cat. The idea is that a cat is in a box with a vile of poison that is released by a radioactive trigger. One can’t know when the radioactive decay will release the poison. (This is a bit of subatomic strangeness that can only be reconciled in the face of an observer.) It’s said that the cat would have to be thought of as being in a superposition, simultaneously both alive and dead, until the observer enters the picture. The reader also may have heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which states one can’t know both of a pair of measurements (e.g. position and momentum) with perfect accuracy. All of this says that at the infinitesimally tiny scale of the quantum, particle behavior seems erratic, baffling, and is influenced by observation. While it’s hard to relate to through the lens of our macroscopic experience of the world, it’s a notion that is completely accepted by physicists because it’s been validated by countless experimental observations.

The second truth that science struggles to make sense of that biocentrism presumes to eradicate is the conundrum of the “Goldilock’s universe.” Taken from the fable of finding the porridge that was “just right.” We live in a universe whose actions comply with a series of equations and constants that – were they slightly different – would make life in all the forms we can fathom completely impossible. Starting from the fact that our universe is so mathematically consistent (a feature that it’s commonly argued needn’t be) to the fact that turning the dials a little would make intelligent life impossible, it’s easy to start wondering whether the creationists aren’t on to something. Religion doesn’t have a problem with the Goldilock’s Universe because it presumes the universe was made this way purposefully. Biocentrism doesn’t have a problem because the universe can only exist where there are conscious beings. Of course, science hypothesizes its own solutions to the conundrum. These varied solutions generally revolve around the anthropic principle (we exist in a universe capable of supporting life because if we didn’t we couldn’t) and a multiverse of parallel universes (because the anthropic principle applied to a single universe isn’t intuitively superior to assuming a god, goddess, or gods magically “poofed” us into existence.) Under this idea, which appeals to the Copernican Revolutionary mindset, there will be many more universes where life doesn’t exist, and perhaps even ephemeral bubble universes that can’t even exist as a universe – let alone as a life supporting universe.

There’s a major challenge to biocentrism that results from the fact that we are fairly certain that the universe is 13+ billion years old and our planet didn’t come into existence until about 9 billion years after that (i.e. Earth is about 4.5 billion-years-old.) Even if one assumes the conscious life grew up elsewhere before us, it’s hard to imagine it having happened instantaneously with the beginning of the universe. Lanza’s end run around this can be found in his sixth and seventh principles of biocentrism which state that time and space are illusory in the absence of an observer. Of course, this raises questions of how this could be so and why we might believe it is so — because “it’s essential to my case” isn’t a good reason to believe anything. To be fair, there are all sorts of theories out there – many more mainstream than Lanza’s – that propose time and space aren’t what they seem – starting with Einstein’s well-proven idea that time and space are relative.

This book is oddly composed. It describes the principles of biocentrism largely in the first half to two-thirds of the book, with a few random digressions, and then it really goes off the rails. Most of the digressions are little biographical stories about Robert Lanza, many of which are interesting but completely irrelevant to the book’s proposed topic. I’m unsure which of three competing explanations account for these erratic digressions: a.) the publisher said, “this manuscript must be 200 pages or we aren’t publishing it.” b.) the author is getting up there in age, realizes there is no market for his memoirs, and thinks he can sneak the highlights into this book which is sure to have a following if a controversial one. c.) the author was concerned about being taken for a kook and wanted to establish his bona fides (note: many of the biographical digressions consist of name-dropping.) I should point out that these digressions are the main reason for my mediocre rating of this book, and not disenchantment with the case for biocentrism. (I think we know too little about consciousness and about it’s odd interactions at the quantum level to draw any firm conclusions in that regard.)

I found this book to be fascinating – even some of the digressions were interesting, though not helpful to discussion of the topic at hand. It’s a thought-provoking work. I have no idea whether it will prove to have merit as a description of how the world works. I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether they think it is a sound interpretation of observed reality or a physics-envy based attack on the stronghold of physics as the heart of science or an attempt to reduce the fear of death in a way consistent with science (i.e. time as we perceive it being an illusion makes us all immortal.) If you are interested in the big questions of why the universe exists and what is the nature of reality, you may want to give this book a read – not that it’ll answer all your questions, but it will provide an alternative to mainstream views that you may find useful.

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BOOK REVIEW: Agriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Brassley and Soffe

Agriculture: A Very Short IntroductionAgriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Brassley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is another in my favorite series of brief guides to various topics and disciplines, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” books. These books typically take around 100 pages to cover the fundamentals of a given subject. The series offers a quick overview in a no-frills fashion. This book is no. 473, providing an overview of agriculture.

The book is divided into six chapters, and has an Introduction in the front and a “Further Reading” section at the rear. The first chapter is about crop farming and it discusses the major issues of concern, including: the best soils, essential nutrients, fertilizer, as well as discussing what kinds of problems are faced in crop cultivation. Chapter 2 explores the other major division of farming, raising animals. In it, one learns about basic issues of feeding, breeding, housing, and providing medical treatment.

The third chapter investigates the topic of agricultural markets and trade. Here the reader is reminded of their basic economics education, and how market forces result in the topsy-turviness of farming in which a bumper-crop year can be bad while a drought year not so bad. (i.e. Huge harvests mean unit prices drop and surpluses may be lost to waste, whereas shortages result in high unit prices.) The authors also discuss the issue of global trade which is unique for agricultural products because almost every country makes some portion of their own food (excepting nations like Singapore and Vatican City), they are resources no country can afford to be cut off from, and they are perishable on varying time scales.

The fourth chapter is about the inputs used in agriculture such as land, labor, and machinery and equipment. This chapter discusses these topics more generally than they are touched upon in the first couple chapters. The penultimate chapter compares modern and traditional forms of agriculture. As the author points out, this division could mean very different things depending upon what two periods one is comparing. However, it is a worthwhile topic to consider with respect to its relevance to sustainability and the effect on the environment.

The last chapter is nominally about the future of farming, but it considers a number of current issues such as GMO (genetically modified crops) and the effects of climate change. The chapter explores what changes will need to be made as the population approaches 9 billion. It doesn’t go into issues like urban farming, petri-dish grown meat, or insects as the future of protein as much as I’d have thought, but does raise some interesting questions.

There are many graphics, from photos to tables, used to more conveniently and concisely convey information.

I would recommend this for those looking to get an overview of how farming works. Like most books in this series, it is optimized to being concise, not to being interesting – so if one wants fun facts and narrative creative non-fiction this isn’t so much the book for you. But if you want the gist of agriculture fast, this will do nicely.

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