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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5 Ways the World May Be Weirder Than It Seems

Werner Heisenberg famously said, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.”

5.) Ancestor Simulation: The idea that we could be in a simulation isn’t only a staple of science fiction–e.g. The Matrix. It’s been given serious thought by thinkers who aren’t exactly on the lunatic fringe–most famously inventor /entrepreneur Elon Musk. The core of the argument goes like this. 1.) We are getting better and better at making simulations ourselves. 2.) At some point we will achieve a simulation indistinguishable from reality. 3.) If 2 is true, then it’s vastly more likely that we are already simulations because if it can be done, it probably already has been done many times over. (Thus, we’re more likely to be in one of the simulations than so-called “base reality.”)

4.) Mathematical Universe Hypothesis: Max Tegmark proposes that the universe may be–at its core–a mathematical structure, making us self-aware substructures. This may sound like a different way of stating the preceding hypothesis, but not necessarily. The simulation hypothesis suggests certain motivations of a simulation creator. MUH doesn’t require a creator or an objective. It could be the nature of reality at it’s most basic.

3.) A Holographic Universe: This idea sprang from thinking about what happens to the information when something falls into a black hole. The idea being that the information is trapped on the outside of the event horizon–i.e. information for a three dimensional entity stored in two dimensions. As physicists pondered this, some concluded that it might be that we are a projection of data, or–alternatively–much of what we see when we look out into space is.

2.) One of Myriad Universes: The idea that our universe is one of many (or an infinite number of) universes comes in several flavors and is a prediction of several theories widely given credence. In some versions, all the universes have different sets of laws and constants such that many flash in and out of existence and only a small proportion are capable of hosting life (but the math of infinity is weird and a small proportion of the infinite may also be infinite. I don’t know, I’m not a mathematician and the infinite never mattered in economics because ground zero is that everything is limited but desires.) This answers the Goldilocks zone issue nicely–i.e. we couldn’t exist if the equations and constants that govern our universe were very much different, but if there are many universes with many sets of laws then we just happen to be in one of the ones we can be in–hence, credulity remains unstrained. Other versions propose universes with the same laws such that there could be an infinite number of you living out lives that may be slightly different than yours (or–for that matter–in which you might be the Supreme Galactic Overlord.)

1.) Time is slowing: A couple Spanish physicists have suggested that the universe might not be expanding at an accelerating rate (as is the consensus view in physics,) but rather time may be slowing. This slowing would be anticipated to continue until one final moment is captured frozen in time–note: said point would be long after the Sun swallows the Earth.

BOOK REVIEW: Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of RealityOur Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality by Max Tegmark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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In this book, physicist Max Tegmark makes an argument for the possibility of a reality in which the universe is a mathematical structure a theory that predicts a Level IV multiverse (i.e. one in which various universes all have different physical laws and aren’t spread out across one infinite space [i.e. not “side-by-side.”]) Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner wrote a famous paper entitled, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.” The article describes one of the great mysteries of science, namely, how come mathematics describes our universe so well and with such high precision. Tegmark’s answer is because the universe is fundamentally mathematical—or at least he suspects it could be.

The first chapter serves as an introduction, setting the stage by considering the core question with which the book is concerned, “What is reality?” The book then proceeds in three parts. The first, Chapters 2 through 6, discuss the universe at the scale of the cosmos. Chapters two and three consider space and time and answer such questions as how big is the universe and where did everything come from. Chapter 4 explores many examples of mathematics’ “unreasonable effectiveness” in explaining our universe with respect to expansion and background radiation and the like (a more extensive discussion is in Ch. 10.) The fifth chapter investigates the big bang and our universe’s inflation. The last chapter in part one introduces the idea of multiverses and how the idea of multiple universes acts as an alternative explanation to prevailing notions in quantum physics (e.g. collapsing wave functions)—and, specifically, Tegmark describes the details of the first two of four models of the multiverse (i.e. the ones in which parallel universes are out there spread out across and infinite space), leaving the other two for the latter parts of the book.

Part two takes readers from the cosmological scale to the quantum scale, reflecting upon the nature of reality at the smallest scales—i.e. where the world gets weird. Chapter 7 is entitled “Cosmic Legos” and, as such, it describes the building blocks of our world as well as the oddities, anomalies, and counter-intuitive characteristics of the quantum realm. Chapter 8 brings in the Level III approach to multiverses and explains how it negates the need for waveform collapse that mainstream physics requires we accept (i.e. instead of a random outcome upon observation, both [or multiple] outcomes transpire as universes split.)

The final part is where Tegmark dives into his own theory. The first two parts having outlined what we know about the universe, and some of the major remaining mysteries left unexplained or unsubstantiated by current theories, Tegmark now makes his argument for why the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH) is at least as effective at explaining reality as any out there, and how it might eliminate some daunting mysteries.

Chapter 9 goes back to the topic of the first chapter, namely the nature of reality and the differences between our subjective internal reality, objective external reality, and a middling consensus reality. Chapter 10 also elaborates on the nature of reality, but this time by exploring mathematical and physical reality. Here he elaborates on how the universe behaves mathematically and explains the nature of mathematical structures—which is important as he is arguing the universe and everything in it may be one. Chapter 11 is entitled, “Is Time and Illusion?” and it proposes there is a block of space-time and our experience of time is an artifact of how we ride our world lines through it—in this view we are braids in space-time of the most complex kind observed. A lot of this chapter is about what we are and are not. Chapter 12 explains the Level IV multiverse (different laws for each universe) and what it does for us that the others do not. Chapter 13 is a bit different. It describes how we might destroy ourselves or die out, but that, it seems, is mostly a set up for a pep talk. You see, Tegmark has hypothesized a universe in which one might feel random and inconsequential, and so he wants to ensure the reader that that isn’t the case so that we don’t decide to plop down and watch the world burn.

While this book is about 4/5ths pop science physics book, the other 1/5th is a memoir of Tegmark’s trials and tribulations in coloring outside the lines with his science. All and all, I think this serves the book. The author avoids coming off as whiny in the way that scientists often do when writing about their challenges in obtaining funding and / or navigating a path to tenure that is sufficiently novel but not so heterodox as to be scandalous. There’s just enough to give you the feeling that he’s suffered for his science without making him seem ungrateful or like he has a martyr complex.

Graphics are presented throughout (photos, computer renderings, graphs, diagrams, etc.), and are essential because the book deals in complex concepts that aren’t easily translated from mathematics through text description and into a layman’s visualization. The book has endnotes to expand and clarify on points, some of which are mathematical—though not all. It also has recommended reading section to help the reader expand their understanding of the subject.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be loaded with food-for-thought. If Tegmark’s vision of the universe does prove to be meritorious, it will change our approach to the world. And, if not, it will make good fodder for sci-fi.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking w/ Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand DesignThe Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Why is there a universe, and why is it as it is? This is the question addressed by “The Grand Design.” These questions have been taken up in many ways by many disciplines in addition to science (e.g. mythology, religion, and philosophy), and science, itself, is continuously attempting to hone in on an explanation that is consistent with observed reality. Hawking and Mlodinow suggest that, for now, the leading contender is M-theory.

The authors advocate for M-theory, but also for the [relevant] notion of model-dependent realism. M-theory predicts that quantum fluctuations are causing a continuous spawning of new universes—each with its own laws of nature (or lack thereof.) Most of the bubble universes in this frothy multiverse don’t have staying power, but a few—like ours—are governed by laws that not only allow them to blossom, but also to spawn life. Besides the existence of a multiverse of universes governed by differing sets of laws, there are some other predictions of the M-theory model that remain to be proven. These include the existence of eleven dimensions, most of which are curled up and must be curled up in a certain way according to a set of laws and conditions. The theory also predicts that there will exist “objects” of various dimensionality up to nine. [Whether we will ever be able to test any of these predictions remains unclear.]

What’s this model-dependent realism bit? This is the idea that what we know of reality exists through models that connect observations to a set of rules. Within the limited space for which we have observations, there is no requirement that there be a solitary model or mapping between rules and observations. Because of this, there may be multiple theories. Physics has been long looking for a grand unified theory (GUT) or a Theory of Everything (TOE) that explains all the laws of the universe in one fell swoop. Hawking suggests that such a solitary theory may not be found given our limitations, and that we may have to exploit different theories for different situations. This belief is important because M-theory isn’t a unified theory but a grouping of theories that each work well in certain domains. Needless to say, this isn’t a particularly satisfying notion for the many physicists who are hoping for a more satisfying level of elegance.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first, entitled “The Mystery of Being,” is a brief description of the central question and an outline of why M-theory is proposed as the answer. Chapter two gives an overview of our evolving understanding of the laws that govern the universe, and sets up the important idea that the configuration of the universe is contingent upon the form of the laws governing it. The third chapter is where the authors argue for model-dependent realism, while discussing the arguments of realists and anti-realists as well. Chapter four describes alternate histories and the idea that the probability of an observation is dependent upon all possible histories that could have led to said observations. This bit of quantum strangeness is crucial to reconciling the central question. The next chapter describes the forces seen in our universe and considers attempts to unify the four forces (i.e. gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force) in a single theory that explains it all—a ToE. Chapter six discusses our universe with particular respect to its steady expansion that has allowed galaxies and solar systems to form. Chapter seven goes further, exploring the nature of a universe that could support the development and evolution of life. There are a wide variety of precise conditions needed to produce intelligent life. We live in a narrow band with respect to our distance from our star in which our type of life could be created. If the orbit of the sun was more elliptical or our axis wasn’t stabilized by a moon, we couldn’t be—and those features require laws that support them. The authors also examine how the chemistry of our universe is conducive to the development of complex life. The final chapter uses a discussion of a primitive computer game called “the game of life” to show how a model shapes reality as we know it. This grid-based game has only a few rules, and yet if there are more than a few pixels at the beginning, it becomes impossible for us to predict an outcome. With the complexity we see in our universe, this situation is vastly greater.

The book contains many graphics, mostly color, to clarify ideas that are difficult to comprehend via verbal description, or sometimes just to add levity. The only ancillary matter is a brief glossary of terms that come up in the book. There are no notes and no bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. However, I don’t know why it had the feel of a sales pitch. It repeats the theme of “M-theory is the best game in town” ad nauseam. This repetition draws attention to itself because the book fails to directly challenge those who critique M-theory in any depth or detail. It also fails to take on the question of how it is that M-theory might be taken from a purely theoretical construct to one that can be tested. (It makes falsifiable claims, but does that matter if we may never have a capacity to test those claims?) Those aspects wouldn’t be necessary if the book wasn’t making a pitch. [It felt like the book may have wanted to convince its pop-sci readers that–while they would only have a foggy idea of the why M-theory might have merit at the end of the book–they should remember that it’s the best–so that no funding gets cut from M-theory research and delivered to other lines of inquiry. In other words, the take-away sometimes feels like: “Stephen Hawking is super-smart, and he says ‘vote M-theory.’”]

I would recommend this book for those interested in the big picture of our universe’s existence, but as a neophyte it has made me want to read Woit’s “Not Even Wrong” or Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics” just so that I’ll know what the critics are saying.

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BOOK REVIEW: Quantum Enigma by Rosenblum & Kuttner

Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters ConsciousnessQuantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Consciousness remains a great mystery. While it has increasingly begun to look like consciousness is an output part of the brain, intriguing questions remain unanswered, and some of these unknowns are hard to reconcile with a materialist model (materialism says all phenomena are born out of matter.) It isn’t just pseudo-scientists and cranks that have a problem with the materialist approach. Major names in physics have pointed out that everything is not accounted for by a model that imagines consciousness as the computational product of the brain. Rosenblum and Kuttner address one such hiccup, the so-called Quantum Enigma that lends its name to the book. In brief, the quantum enigma reflects the fact that physical reality is created by observation. This may seem hard to believe, because it’s only been observed at the levels of the really small—i.e. primarily the atomic and subatomic, though the authors propose that there is theoretically nothing to limit the phenomenon to that level and experiments are being conducted at molecular level.

Rosenblum and Kuttner remind us that while the quantum world behaves oddly, quantum theory is exceptionally successful in scientific terms. Meaning that it has been validated by every single experimental inquiry, and the knowledge gained from quantum mechanics has made possible many of the advanced technologies that shape our world (laser, transistor, CCD, and MRI.) The oddness of Quantum Mechanics can be seen in several issues. One is the two-slit experiment in which atoms and photons behave like either a particle or a wave. Another is quantum entanglement, in which two atoms that have interacted become “wired” together such that changes in one are instantaneously reflected in the other—even if they have been separated by great distances.

The book is a bit repetitive, but perhaps this is necessary. People seem to have trouble grasping the nuances of the arguments being made, and this can lead to some wrong conclusions. For example, some people have leapt to the conclusion that ESP is supported by quantum entanglement, but the evidence doesn’t support the idea that one’s thoughts can control anything. Observation causes some physical reality to coalesce, but one has no influence over what reality displays itself. (In other words, with observation the wave function collapses and some state of being comes into existence from what was a field of probabilities.) Randomness remains. Physicists tell us that this is the problem with the idea of using quantum entanglement for instantaneous communications across light-years of space. A further example of a nuance that is hard to grasp is the notion that quantum probability doesn’t describe the likelihood an atom is a certain place, but rather it describes the likelihood you’ll find it there (and that that is a distinction with a difference.)

One may be wondering how consciousness is central the issue. If a non-intelligent entity observed, would the wave forms collapse? Consciousness doesn’t necessarily equate to intelligence as we know it. Consciousness can be thought of as merely the ability to observe and recognize significance in what is observed. So a thermostat is a very primitive form of consciousness. However, the authors do outline why a robotic observer wouldn’t end the controversy.

I found “Quantum Enigma” to be readable despite the challenging subject being explained. The authors to a good job of both describing the relevant phenomenon in terms the average person could understand (Ch.2 though which doesn’t reflect reality) before going on to explain the experiments in which the phenomena is actually observed (i.e. Ch. 7.) The authors use simple line drawings as graphics as necessary as well as staged dialogues to help make the concept clear by anticipating objections and dealing with them as they come.

I’d recommend the book for those interested in the unresolved questions of science with respect to Quantum Mechanics. In particular, there is the issue of consciousness—though it might not seem as central to the book’s discussion as the subtitle would lead one to believe. The last few chapters do deal in consciousness, though in a way that creates more questions than they answer. (It often feels like another summation of the strangeness of quantum mechanics, but that may be because the issues regarding consciousness remain so unclear. Furthermore, a lot of background is necessary to make sense of these complicated issues.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Fight Like a Physicist by Jason Thalken

Fight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial ArtsFight Like a Physicist: The Incredible Science Behind Martial Arts by Jason Thalken
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When I saw this book’s title, I imagined a bloodied and battered Poindexter in a bow-tie–a professorial type dying in a puddle of his own bodily fluids as he calculated the Bayesian probability of winning given that initial beating. After all, physics is a highly cerebral activity, and being cerebral in a fight is a certain path to a beat down. However, Thalken makes a good point with his explanation of the title (and the book’s theme.) He’s suggesting that one use tactics and techniques that are supported by evidence and rooted in a sound understanding of the science of combat—as opposed to mindlessly doing whatever your sensei tells you or–worse yet–just muddling through on a combination of instinct and ignorance. In short, be skeptical, but inquiring. It turns out that there is a time for a fighter to be cerebral, but it’s when they are making decisions about how to train.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part explains how classical mechanics can help one to be a better fighter. There are four chapters in this section that deal with center of mass and its crucial role in a fight, the differences between high momentum and high energy strikes and how each is achieved, differences in circular versus linear paths and where the advantage in each lies, and what simple machines (i.e. levers and wedges) can do for a fighter. This section is what one would expect from such a book. Unlike the second section, which deals largely with sport fighters, the advice on offer in the first section is as applicable to those involved in self-defense or other real world combative situations as it is to fighters in the ring.

The second section examines the issue of concussions and brain damage in some detail, including consideration of the degree to which gloves and headgear do—or don’t—make one safer. The reader gains great insight into the mechanics and neuroscience of a knockout. While the majority of the section offers advice for those engaged in combative sports, the last two chapters take a bit of a turn. The first of these two deals with the myths perpetuated by Hollywood—which, let’s face it, is the source of most people’s information on what combat is. Debunking the notion that a person who gets shot is always and everywhere instantly incapacitated is a central theme this chapter. The last chapter deals with the issue of pseudoscience in the martial arts, and the insanity of believing one can defeat an opponent with chi (also qi, or—in Japanese Romanization–ki) or mind power alone. These last two chapters seem like a turn from the main theme of the book, but they do stay under the umbrella of the martial arts through a scientific lens.

While this is a book about science, it’s readable even for an educated non-scientist. All the math is put in boxes that the reader can opt to skip, or to follow, depending upon his or her comfort level with equations. There is no complex jargon, nor any incomprehensible concepts. The physics is largely high school level Newtonian mechanics.

Diehard believers in the supernatural or pseudo-scientific conceptions of the universe should be warned that this isn’t the book for you unless you like your sacred cows flame-broiled. You won’t learn about chi (qi) in this book except to be reminded that it’s a make-believe concept.

I’d recommend this book for those who are interested in how science can be applied to the martial arts or human movement more generally. It’s short, readable, and offers some interesting food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Secrets of Judo by Jiichi Watanabe and Lindy Avakian

The Secrets of Judo: A Text for Instructors and StudentsThe Secrets of Judo: A Text for Instructors and Students by Jiichi Watanabe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Every once in a while, one stumbles onto a book that one feels desperately needed writing but which one thought didn’t yet exist. In the case of The Secrets of Judo, the book has been around for almost 60 years. First off, a more telling title for this book would be “The Science of Judo” or “The Physics of Judo.” It’s not a book that deals in arcane knowledge, as its title might suggest, but rather applies science to the skills of throwing, pinning, and submitting seen in judo.

While there’s a brief discussion of the nervous system as it pertains to reaction times, the bulk of the book is classic mechanics applied to judo techniques. The first six chapters (which constitute a little over half the book) provide a background of the relevant principles of both physics (e.g. force, momentum, and center of gravity) and judo (e.g. kuzushi [unbalancing], seiryoken zenyo [maximum efficiency], and ukemi [breakfalls].) The last two chapters provide explanations of how forces are applied to achieve successful throws (ch. 7) and grappling techniques—i.e. pins, chokes, and locks (ch. 8.)

I found this book to be invaluable and would recommend it for anyone who’s interested in grappling arts generally (whether judo or not) or even the science of human movement. The writing is clear. There are some mathematical equations, but just the algebraic formulas seen in basic physics. The graphics (mostly line drawings with a few photos) are useful, especially the drawings of the sequences of techniques which have letter labeled arrows to clarify the lines of force.

I should note that I read the original (1960) edition. Tuttle put out a 2011 edition that is probably what you will get–unless you stumble onto a copy in the used bookstore as I did. From a quick glance at the table of contents of the new edition, it doesn’t look like a major change and I suspect the new edition is at least as good.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Future of the Mind by Michio Kaku

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the MindThe Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind

by Michio Kaku

My rating: 4 of 5 stars Amazon page

The Future of the Mind continues a line of inquiry that Michio Kaku has been following with his earlier books Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future. The central question remains: what sci-fi imaginings might come to fruition, which of them are impossible given the laws of physics in the known universe, and what breakthroughs or discoveries would be necessary to achieve the achievable. Technology is the inevitable gateway to these advanced breakthroughs. Humanity has eliminated gross evolutionary pressures through technology—this might not remain true, but we can certainly not expect X-men style mutations as a result of the foreseeable progression of humanity (which is more likely to be described by the horrible—though probably presagious 2006 movie Idiocracy than it is by the X-men movies.)

The theme of the book, as the title suggests, is the mind. As the most complex system that we know of, the human nervous system offers fertile ground for investigation. Among the sci-fi mainstays considered by Dr. Kaku are telepathy, telekinesis, false memories (think Total Recall), intelligence enhancement, mind control, artificial intelligence, and the nature of alien minds. Along the way he considers the challenges of reverse engineering the brain and whether consciousness could take a non-material form (e.g. embedded in a beam of light.)

As always, Kaku’s book is easy to follow, even for the scientific neophyte. Few others write on the topic with such clarity. While part of Kaku’s book deals with the same concepts covered by Roger Penrose in his book Shadows of the Mind, the Kaku book scores much higher in readability. Of course, the flipside is that Kaku’s book offers less explanatory power. So if one isn’t looking for pop science simplification, The Future of the Mind is probably not for you. However, if you want the jist of the science and have neither the background nor the energy to digest the mathematical and biological nuance, you’ll find this book readable.

Incidentally, Kaku is more optimistic about the ability to computationally replicate consciousness than Penrose, which the latter argues is impossible. Professor Kaku’s optimism runs through all of his books. He takes the stance that if one can imagine it–and figure out a technological or theoretical loophole around the known barriers –one can achieve it. Therefore, some of his discussion of what could come to pass depends upon theories about, for example, black-holes being true. It should be noted that Kaku is quite clear about the differences of opinion that exist about these theories and the role that differences between theory and reality could play in making science fiction into scientific reality.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve been reading a lot about neuroscience lately—entirely on the pop science level- and found this book to be beneficial to my understanding of the subject. It begins by discussing what is known about the brain and consciousness—it turns out that a lot remains unknown, but the technology of recent years has vastly improved our understanding of the brain, and it continues to do so by the day. The book also delves into the depths of what could come to be. There is definitely pragmatic understanding to be gained as well as outlandish, but fun, science fiction ruminations.

For sci-fi fans and writers, it’s definitely worth reading. I had many new conceptions of the future as I read the book. (I might suggest reading Physics of the Impossible first, which gives an overview many “impossible” technologies and explains how few are just flat impossible regardless of technological development and scientific discovery. My review of that book is here.) Many of the ideas covered may seem a bit eccentric, such as what first contact with an alien race would look like. (Kaku is of the notion that the transmission of an immaterial consciousness(es), possibly in conjunction with self-replicating machines would be the likely shape of such an alien presence.)

I recommend this book for almost anyone. We are really only beginning to venture out of the dark ages understanding the mind, and this book provides an interesting map what might be possible.

As I mentioned it, sadly, this may be the more likely future of the human mind:

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BOOK REVIEW: The Einstein Theory of Relativity by H.A. Lorentz

The Einstein Theory Of RelativityThe Einstein Theory Of Relativity by Hendrik Antoon Lorentz

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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It’s hard to complain about this book because: a.) it’s a free kindle book, b.) the author was brilliant, a Nobel Laureate, and a man whose work contributed to the discoveries of Einstein, and c.) it’s a very short book, clocking in at about 60 pages, and so it’s not a huge time investment–though for most it will be a bigger time investment than its page count would suggest.

All that being said, I’ll be upfront and tell you that his work is the product of a different era and doesn’t establish its audience clearly.

Science writing, particularly on subjects as arcane as relativity, is a challenge. One has to pick an audience and carefully write for that audience. If ones audience is broad (i.e. not well-trained in science), this means one has to accept a lot less precision in exchange for clarity. In other words, one has to write like Brian Greene or Michio Kaku do in their popular works. On the other hand, if you want to write for technical people, you should probably feel free to show your math and sling the technical jargon.

This book tries to walk a middle ground. It doesn’t lay the subject out in clear, simple, and entertaining analogies. (With the exception of a moving car analogy early on that gets bogged down.) However, there’re no equations or highly technical and jargon-suffused discussions. (Though the section on deflection of light does get into measurements and is bit technical.)

So the question the reader needs to ask themselves–provided they haven’t had physics since high school or their freshman year of college–is whether they are willing and able to grind through reading that will require them to think hard the whole way. One doesn’t need a big science vocabulary, and you aren’t asked to ponder any equations, but you do have to noodle out what the author is saying to get value out of the reading. As I implied earlier, this book (pamphlet) took me considerably longer to read than 60 pages normally would–and I read a fair amount of popular science works.

Of course, given that it’s free, it’s worth a try if you have a Kindle. If nothing else, you should come away with some basics– such as what differentiates special from general relativity. If you don’t like the book you can always buy a Greene or Kaku book to explain the subject in a more palatable fashion.

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BOOK REVIEW: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Einstein's DreamsEinstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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One might think that a novel written by a physicist would make for dreadful reading–and most of the time one would probably be correct. However, Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams is a fascinating read. The arc of the book–what makes it a novel rather than a series of short scenes–is conveyed by a prologue, a few interludes, and an epilogue. These brief sections show an Albert Einstein as he went about life trying to work out his special theory of relativity.

In between the interludes are a series of written sketches that depict dreams that might have been had by Albert Einstein between April 14th and June 28th of 1905. Each of these dreams depicts an alternative universe in which time is not experienced as we experience it: that is, as an inexorably flowing river with a clearly defined arrow. In one dream, time is circular. In another, a lifetime is compressed into a day. In another, there is no flow of time; the world is a snapshot. In another, immortality is the norm. In the latter dreams of the book, we see a convergence on time as we know it–though in dream-like abstraction.

This short book is both creative and well-written. Lightman excels at creating scene through vivid description. His approach to structure is unique.

One thing that might have improved the book is if the author had been a little bolder. Lightman feels the need to explicitly state what is going on in each dream world. However, his description is strong enough that such discussion is generally anti-climactic–one already knows how time is working (or not working) in a given universe before the author states it explicitly. Thus, these explicit descriptions succeed only in taking one out of the dream.

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