Jordan Ellenberg (Author, American mathematician, Professor of mathematics at University of Wisconsin-Madison).
Like listening to Brian Greene (a theoretical physicist), Jordan Ellenberg reminds one of what it must be like to be the smartest person in the room. One feels better from the experience of listening to “How Not to Be Wrong”, but understanding will be a struggle for most non-mathematicians. A non-mathematician leaves Ellenberg’s book better informed, if not entirely enlightened.
A non-mathematician may be hesitant to take Ellenberg’s book in hand. Ellenberg does not convince one that mathematics will always help one “…Not…Be Wrong”. However, Ellenberg convincingly argues mathematics will offer a better chance of being right.
Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics. He capsulizes mathematics as the language of science. He reveals how mathematics offers a qualified understanding of reality.
Ellenberg shows how “right” is qualified by mathematical proof. Like Brian Greene, Ellenberg shows how mathematics brings one closer to truth but only to the point of a “null hypothesis”. A null hypothesis is a repeatable experiment where there is zero (null) difference in results. Being right is dependent upon the same results from population samplings and relevant repeatable experiments.
What strikes at the heart of Ellenberg’s explanation of “How Not to Be Wrong” is human natures tendency to make events conform to plan. Human beings can lie to themselves.
Lying to oneself is the source of conspiracy theories based on the human strength and weakness of seeing patterns in nature. Perceived patterns from observation may or may not meet the criteria of a “null hypothesis”. Ellenberg suggests one should be skeptical of observed patterns that defy common sense.
What is disturbing about Ellenberg’s explanation of “How Not to Be Wrong” is that probability enters into the equation of truth.
This is the same fundamental law noted by theoretical physicists like Brian Greene. With the use of mathematics as the language of science, one can only expect a probability of truth: not certainty.
Ellenberg notes one must keep in mind–not being wrong is entirely different from being right. Determination of whether one is right or wrong is two-edged where one edge offers a probability of being right while the other implies possibility of being wrong. The uncertainty of probability is a lighted match that can burn down a forest of science.
That match is fanned into a flame by those who disparage all of science because of revised theories based on newly discovered facts. As an example–our recent experience with the former President of the United States who discredited the science of masking and distancing during the Covid 19 pandemic.
Ellenberg gives numerous examples of people who are misled by population sampling and the concept of correlation. Human nature often misleads people to see patterns where cause is unrelated to effect. Ellenberg argues that better understanding of mathematics can teach humans “How Not to Be Wrong”.
Being right is always qualified by some level of probability. Ellenberg explains repeatable experiment, with a level of consistency in mathematical proofs, is our way of not being wrong. Good to know, but daunting to achieve when mathematics is the only avenue for understanding.
Don’t we all want to know “How Not to Be Wrong”? Is the language of mathematics the only avenue for understanding? Therein lies the fear of realizing you are not the smartest person in the room.
There is a great deal to unpack in Brian Greene’s “Until the End of Time”. As is true of many of Greene’s scientific observations, much of his self-effacing intelligence and science-based opinion is lost in the ignorance of his listeners (more specifically, this listener). However, where Greene’s beliefs intersect with one’s limited knowledge, his theory of the ending of time and life is immensely rewarding and enlightening.
Greene does not argue there is no God. However, he suggests modern science shows there is no reason for God to exist to create life.
To Greene, there is more verifiable proof of life in science than verifiable proof of God in either science or religion.
In Greene’s thought, God and religion may have a great deal to do with sustaining human life, but in ways more sociological than religious. Weather one is a believer, atheist, or agnostic makes no difference to Greene. He carefully constructs an explanation of how science shows life may have come into existence, why stories of life may explain belief in God, and why humans are fundamentally different from other forms of life. The fundamental point of “…the End of Time” has to do with human mortality. Human mortality lies at the core of Greene’s view of time and life.
Greene suggests the laws of physics founded by luminaries like Newton, Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Erwin Schrodinger offer evidence for the basis for life on earth, with or without God. Greene explains the principle of thermodynamics, the fundamental science of energy that creates and sustains life.
Greene explains–the physics of energy (thermodynamics) ensures eventual death. All life is pre-determined by the fundamental law of entropy. The fate of time and life began with a bang. This singular event disbursed tightly organized atomistic particles into a continually less organized space.
Greene notes that all forms of life are subject to entropy, a gradual decline from order to disorder. Greene argues that entropy acts at an atomistic level to determine the fate of all living things. Greene suggest laws of quantum mechanics determine the course of life for all “living” things.
To Greene, humankind is free to make choices. However, he argues humankind does not have free will. The physics of science show that all living things cannot choose to live forever. Humans can choose how to live, what to think, who to love, who to hate but they cannot choose one Nano second longer than what is dictated by the fundamental law of entropy.
Greene notes the science of Darwinian evolution and genetic inheritance is a relevant reinforcement of his argument for the inevitable extinction of life. The entropy accompanying human habitation is evident in pollution of the air we breath and the water we drink. (Though Greene does not address advances in genetic inheritance through gene manipulation, genetic manipulation does not negate Greene’s overriding concept of entropy.)
Just as earth’s environment slowly degrades, genetic inheritance as a process will eventually lead to extinction. Humans, just as dinosaur’s, sabre tooth tigers, and Dodo birds will disappear. All life adapts to change until the speed of environmental change becomes greater than the speed of evolutionary adaptation.
Greene agues humankind’s recognition of mortality shapes lives as consequentially as evolution. The significance of Greene’s argument is that religion is founded on acknowledgement of eventual death. Knowing that one cannot live forever, creates the desire for something beyond death. Greene elaborates by arguing that human lack of control over natural events compels creation of stories about a Supreme Being. *
The big picture in “Until the End of Time” is that the world and life is heading for an end. Based on the science of physics, there is an “…End of Time” for humankind, based on the immutable and experimentally proven laws of thermodynamics. Entropy is evident in the science of quantum mechanics (the physical properties of nature at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles), and the science of a continually expanding universe.
What does this mean to us? Humans still make their own choices on how to live, love, and hate in their lifetimes. The singer, Bobby McFerrin, suggests “Don’t Worry Be Happy”. Others suggest the meaning of life is to live in the moment. Brian Greene suggests it is up to you. Our lives and death may be pre-determined, but we have freedom to choose how we live, love, and work.
* Greene acknowledges the slim possibility of Devine existence but considers it much less probable based on the discipline of science and the existence of entropy. Greene does not discount the comfort religion offers humankind, including the rituals that help one cope with life and the passing of loved ones.
Bruce E. Fleury (Professor of Practice in the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University)
“Mysteries of the Microscopic World” is a reflection on the “The Invisible Realm”, the world of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa.
It is somewhat dated because of today’s history of Covid19. However, Fleury offers a modern understanding of pandemics and the role germs play in human life.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)
Fleury explores a world unseen until the 17th century. Antony van Leeuwenhoek is identified as the first to see the “…Microscopic World” in 1683.
However, the microscopic world was not considered important until the 19th century when puerperal fever was found to be caused by germs. A germ theory of disease originated with Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician in the 1840s. Many babies were dying from puerperal fever because doctors were going straight from deceased patients’ autopsies to delivery operating rooms.
An interesting side note by Fleury is Semmelweis’s germ theory required careful hand washing before delivering babies. Washing hands is still not carefully followed, even by the medical profession. Fleury suggests only 50% of doctors and nurses properly wash their hands.
In the late 1850s Louis Pasteur suggested the spread of microorganisms (germs) could explain infectious disease. Pasteur, and later Robert Koch, began to isolate bacteria of diseases like anthrax, TB, and cholera. The race for understanding the microscopic world’s relationship to disease is launched.
Fleury explains this microscopic world is not only a disease producer. It also aids human existence by offering microorganisms that get rid of wastes and remove toxic chemicals from the body. Fleury notes some humans die from microorganisms, but they cannot live without them.
Fleury explains how the microscopic world follows the same Darwinian evolutionary path as the macroscopic world. The microscopic world, like the animal world, evolves with random adaptation that sustains all life.
The two edges of this microscopic world can cure or kill. Fleury explains how this unseen world evolves in the same way the animal kingdom evolves. Today’s Covid19 virus changes to preserve itself. Covid19 evolves like any life force to become resistant to current drug treatment. Pfizer and other drug manufacturers are tasked with modification of their drug formulas to defeat viral and bacterial evolution.
In Fleury’s history of pandemics, listeners/readers will find interesting facts that parallel today’s Covid19’ experience. A striking parallel is the 1918 Flu pandemic. It killed an estimated 50-100 million people.
Today the world has lost over 2.5 million people from Covid19, but it pales against the 1918 pandemic’ loss of an estimated 50 to 100 million people.
The 1918 world population is estimated at 1.8 billion. The world’s population today is at 7.674 billion, over a six-fold increase. Today’s 2.5 million people lost from Covid19 could become several times greater based on today’s population.
This reminds one of the Texas and Mississippi governors’ choice to return to business as usual with no mask mandates and reopened businesses.
It may be that medical science and vaccination is so much better today than in 1918, but these governors are gambling with American lives. Covid19 may kill many more.
Fleury reminds reader/listeners of the history of wars and how the microscopic world of poisons, and disease-producing germs were used to defeat combatants. He notes how small armies were able to defeat large armies. Fleury tells stories of smaller military forces throwing bags filled with poisonous snakes into enemy camps to create chaos and death, lethal gas use in explosive devices that are thrown into enemy foxholes, and deadly smallpox impregnated blankets given to native Americans by American settlers. He notes how small expeditionary invasions decimated empires by introducing germs that came from their home countries. Explorers and soldiers were carriers of germs that had never been seen in the new world. Millions have died from this newly weaponized unseen world. Fleury notes that biological research and warfare are ongoing threats to the human race.
In the Sunday NYT’s on 3/7/21, an article criticizes the use of public funds to stockpile an Anthrax vaccine when so many problems have arisen in the fight against Covid19. The complaint largely revolves around one company’s high profitability and government influence in preparing an anthrax antidote stockpile to protect against biological attack by terrorists.
Fleury notes that anthrax bacterium is “…a perennial favorite in every nation’s biological arsenal.” Anthrax causes a rapid and painful death within 12-24 hours and the bacterium can last for 40-80 years in soil.
One has to wonder why can’t government “chew gum and walk” at the same time. Stockpiling an Anthrax antidote and being prepared for a Covid19 type of pandemic could be done at the same time. After all, America is the richest nation in the world.
Many presume Aids has been cured because it is not in the press like it used to be. Something not widely known is that Aids has no known cure. It remains a killer. Only palliative treatment has been found to extend life and Fleury notes the treatment is quite expensive. Aids is caused by a germ that attacks the immune system. It is introduced through sexual contact or re-use of hypodermic needles.
Aids eventually kills nearly all Aids carriers, either from cancer or some other disease that takes advantage of a carrier’s compromised immune system. Fleury notes an exception is a small minority of carriers with a genetic variation that allows them to live a long life.
Fleury explains there is a race between microbes and humans. As antibiotic treatment improves, microbes mutate into strains that resist treatment. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. Fleury implies there is a natural balance among all living things. Humans may be destined for extinction, but Fleury reminds us of the myth of Pandora. She left hope in the bottom of the box when all the evils were unloosed on the world.
The Disordered Mind (What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves)
By: Eric R. Kandel
Narrated by David Stifel
Eric Kandel (Author, Austrian-American MD, Neuroscientist. recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology)
In “The Disordered Mind”, Dr. Kandel offers an explanation of what is known about the physiology of the human brain. What is thinking? How does the brain work? What is consciousness? What causes brain dysfunction? What is mental illness? How can mental illness be diagnosed and treated?
Most know there are two distinct halves of the human brain. What is less well known is that the left and right brain hemispheres conflict with each other.
Kandel explains that right brain activity generates much of human creativity while the left brain is tasked with logic. It is not that the two halves of the brain never cooperate with each other. However, regions of the brain frequently interfere with each hemisphere’s understanding of what humans see, feel, hear, and think. With those senses, human thought and action is affected.
Damage or disease of either side of the brain is a proximate cause of psychiatric disorder but the interconnection of the two sides makes diagnosis and cure a hit and miss proposition. The physiology of the brain is complex and difficult for today’s practitioners. To diagnose or cure symptoms of brain injury or disease requires precise information about location and physiological characteristics of brain function. Kandel notes that brain imaging has been a boon to understanding how the brain functions and where thought and action originates and initiates, but interconnectedness thwarts precise understanding.
Kandel informs us of symptoms of various brain injuries and diseases and how science searches, stumbles, and recovers to find ways to ameliorate physical and mental disorders caused by brain dysfunction. He explains how too much or too little of naturally produced chemicals like dopamine and melatonin affect brain function. Kandel notes how normal behavior becomes unbalanced with excess or diminishment of brain chemistry.
The origin of artist creativity is explored by Kandel. Kandel implies the dada movement reflects bizarre subconscious images that titillate the public because they resonate with one’s own subconscious.
Artists are exhibiting right brain evocations. This reminds one of Edmund Munches’ Scream and his note hidden in the painting that says, “Could Only Have Been Painted by a Madman”. Kandel dismisses that characterization of artists. Kandel suggests they are simply magnifying right brain neural activity.
Kandel notes the progress that has been made in abating, if not curing, psychiatric disorder. It is surprising to find how many treatments have been discovered accidently. This is not meant to diminish leaps of science in mapping the brain, or creating medicinal treatments for psychosis and neuropathy but it discloses much of the luck that leads to palliative, if not curative, care.
Kandel notes a fundamental cause of certain psychiatric disorders have been found to be misfolded proteins that negatively affect biological activity and, in some cases, increase neuronal toxicity. This misfolding is considered to be a cause of antitrypsin-associated emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and other maladies.
A somewhat surprising disclosure by Kandel is that physical change of the brain is shown from use of psychotherapy as well as physical or chemical intervention. Kandel suggests psychotherapy is an important part of treatment for patients being treated with drugs or surgical intervention. Kandel infers physiological change in the brain can be as consequential with psychotherapy as with drug or surgical treatment. However, he suggests both forms of treatment offer more lasting success.
There is a lot to unpack in Kandel’s book about “The Disordered Mind”. Many who read/listen to this book will conclude that treatment of drug addiction and other psychological imbalances need more scientific research and better diagnosis and treatment.
Janna J. Levin (Author, American theoretical cosmologist and professor of physics.)
Janna Levin writes a brief history of the invention of the Laser, Interferometer, Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO for short.
Janna Levin is a professor of physics and a theoretical cosmologist. Obviously, a well-educated and intelligent person but not an accomplished writer. Levin’s history fails to capture a coherent picture of what LIGO is or who the scientists were that pursued understanding of gravitational waves. The many scientists involved are a confused jumble of characters who are never clearly described except as scientists in pursuit of an elusive discovery. Levin does offer character quirks of many of these scientists but fails to bring them to life. The significance of gravitational waves in Levin’s story seems less stellar because it is given little context in the world of science.
The best one can say about Levin’s story is that it sparks interest in a layman’s understanding of Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves.
Levin offers some understanding of the subject but misses a succinct description without a listener having to turn to other sources for clarification. Gravitational waves are air particles–that vibrate like a guitar string when it is strummed, or a drum is beat. That is as close as Levin gets to a definition. Einstein predicted cosmic’ gravitational waves are created when phenomenon like black holes, or “Big Bangs” occur.
One reason Levin’s story holds interest to this critic is that two LIGO’ observatories had to be created to confirm Einstein’s theory. One was in eastern Washington, the Hanford nuclear reservation, and the other was in Louisiana. I lived in the Hanford area in the seventies, not as a scientist but as a project manager for a local developer.
It has always been something of a mystery that eastern Washington continued to develop after WWII when Hanford played a big role in the science of nuclear fission that led to Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s bombing. One thought Hanford’s nuclear program would wind down with mitigation of nuclear contamination in the area, but the area continues to grow. LIGO is one of the reasons Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco (known locally as the Tri-Cities where Hanford is located) continues to grow.
One must acknowledge Levin’s story offers some personal insight to the nature of scientific discovery. She shows how a community of scientists is plagued by the same insecurities and ambitions of any human organization. There are always organization struggles over who is in charge, how internal conflict is resolved, and how money, power, and prestige affect productivity.
Levin implies conflict may be more intense in scientific pursuit because personal motivation is different. She seems to imply scientists are more motivated by power and prestige than money. One doubts that is true because humans within any organization have degrees of desire based on all three motives.
The beginning of Levin’s story is with Rainer Weiss, a professor of physics at MIT. Weiss’s interest in gravitational waves began with his interest in radio waves and refinement of phonographic reproduction.
As a child, Weiss experimented with speaker systems and refined reproduction through tinkering with how records reproduce music. Levin suggest Weiss’s personality is deeply affected by his families experience with authority in Germany during the Nazi’s rise to power.
Weiss pursues his interest in gravitational waves with Soviet scientists, and two Scots named Ronald Drever and James Hough. Levin imprecisely explains their collaboration and how each conflict with the other over control of the science of gravitational waves. Drever is a brilliant tinkerer who designs a rudimentary gravitational wave detector. In 1980, the National Science Foundation funds a large interferometer study at MIT.
Ronald Drever (1931-2017, Scottish pioneer on laser measurment and gravitational wave observation.)
After fits and starts, Rochus Vogt is appointed as director of the development at the LIGO project. Levin, also a family victim of Nazism, notes that Vogt is an important first director because of his ability to organize scientific research. However, Vogt is noted as an authoritarian that often conflicts with other scientists (like Drever) who worked on LIGO.
Levin explains Vogt was a manager who resented authority of any kind but had a high degree of organizational skill. Levin suggests Vogt’s family experience with Nazism fed his dislike of supervision or direction from others.
Levin notes that Vogt had a great deal to do with successfully raising funds for LIGO’s early development. However, he was eventually fired for his authoritarian way of dismissing other team members ideas and his objection to superiors’ oversight.
Levin notes the massive size and cost of the project which finally locates in two states, Washington, and Louisiana. Funding is key to its development and is delayed for various reasons. The politics of science research is touched on by Levin but not clearly defined. One surmises from Levin’s book that location of expensive projects are as much a political as science-based decision.
There are many pessimists and a few optimists on the value of this research. The time it took to confirm or deny the theory of cosmic gravitational waves is long, expensive, and seemingly serendipitous. Attempts to prove Einstein’s 1916 theory began in the 1960s, but it takes over 50 years to even begin to prove the existence of gravitational waves. In the end, Levin recounts the success of these scientists’ efforts on February 22, 2016.
A gravitational wave is recorded on September 14, 2015 when two black holes collide light years away. In the following year, the gravitational wave’s finding is fully recognized. The record of the wave confirms Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves.
Without Levin’s final chapter, “Black Hole Blues…” would be a literary failure. However, with this chapter Levin redeems her story. Without science, the world would remain in the dark ages; burdened by myth and superstition that distorts the true value of being human.
Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)
This is the storied life of a self-educated savant. Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother. Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.
Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.
Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man
Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.
Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious. He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence.
The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees. The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.
Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries. From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting.
However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist. Leonardo is a polymath. Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance.
At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings. Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering. Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.
Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death. Some were never finished. Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone.
In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.
Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.
Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders. He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici).
Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.
By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant. Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State. He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations. Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.
Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions. Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation.
One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders. It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.
Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).
Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.
Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience. Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.
A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.
Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.
Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.
Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality.
His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses. They both looked for perfection in their work.
From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time. Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics.
(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)
Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist. From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history. Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.
Bill Bryson’s skill as a researcher and writer pleases the mind but as John Milton noted, “the mind…can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven”.
Bryson published “The Body” in 2019, months before Covid19 became known to the world. Bryson’s greatest fear, gleaned from his research, is the potential of a world-wide infection from a flu-like virus. Bryson’s comment about the body’s greatest 21st century risk is prescient. Bryson suggests the United States, and most nations, have not prepared well for national medical crises. This is a particularly poignant observation when one looks into the 1918 flu pandemic. America has lost over 500,000 people to Covid19.
National and international medical crises reach back to antiquity. Among many of Bill Bryson’s insights in “The Body” is his history of medical crises in the world.
The 1918 flu killed more than 600,000 Americans. The difference is that there were only 103 million American citizens in 1918. Today, there are an estimated 331 million.
Governors Abbott and Reeves of Texas and Mississippi.
Today is not 1918 but how foolish it is for the Governors of Texas and Mississippi to remove mask restrictions in the face of a pandemic that could kill over a 1,000,000 Americans.
Bryson recalls the Bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, influenza, Polio, and Ebola and other outbreaks as examples of national unpreparedness. With failure to prepare, nation-state’ responses have ranged from careful, reasonable, and effective, to careless, illogical, and ineffective.
America’s response to Covid19 shows America’s lack of preparation. America’s national response speaks for itself.
This is only a small part of Bryson’s enlightening research on “The Body”. He recounts many incredible medical discoveries made by science. As with all disciplines, some discoveries are made by chance; some by the exigency of illness or medical emergency, others by curiosity, and yes, some by diligent scientific research and experiment.
Alexander Fleming (1881-1955, credited for discovering penicillin.)
A green mold forms on a mistakenly, un-discarded petri dish used to study bacteria.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by chance while growing bacteria for research. One of many petri dishes had been accidently contaminated. When Fleming returns to his lab, a mold appears to be killing the bacteria on the dish. Bryson explains the serendipity of the discovery while reflecting on lesser known information about Fleming’s life.
Bryson gives a similar description of the discovery of blood transfusion by Dr. James Blundell in 1818. The first transfusion is a success. However, the success is as much from luck as misfortune because the importance of blood typing was unknown in 1818. The first transfusion was luckily from a donor (Dr. Blundell himself) and patient with type 0 blood.
Karl Lansteiner (1968-1943, Austrian biologist, physician, and immunologist, discovers and names blood types in 1900.
Bryson recounts Samuel Pepys diary and his harrowing experience in having a gall stone removed from his bladder in 1658. With no anesthetic, a gall stone the size of a tennis ball was removed. Pepys keeps the gall stone in a glass jar to show others while telling his story. He describes the hellish pain as the scalpel pierces his abdomen.
Not until 1882 does Carl Langenbuch remove the first gall bladder. Langenbuch studied 17th century records of dogs that exhibited gall bladder problems. Langnbush’s experiment on a human body comes from that research. His medical judgment leads to a pragmatically successful surgical treatment.
Mukherjee offers a grim history on the evolution of cancer treatments. Mukherjee details, and Bryson confirms, many errors made by physicians who presume more surgery, more chemotherapy, or more radiation will cure, rather than kill, the patient. Experience shows that presumption incorrect.
William Lane (1856-1943, British surgeon and physician killed many patients with what was called colonic innertia by removing large sections of intestine in the early 1900s.)
With improved knowledge, intestine removal became limited with better recovery statistics for patients.
Bryson notes many medical experiments offered no cure and killed patients in the process. Physicians sometimes ignored their failures and skewed results to reinforce their poor medical decisions. Some patients who did not die, were irreparably harmed by medical practitioners who believed they were right. Practitioners ignored failures and continued to treat patients with medications and treatments that offered no cure but death or disfigurement.
One of many insights Bryson notes is that approximately 50 percent of the cause for premature death in humans is self-inflicted. Poor diet, tobacco use, and lack of exercise are principle causes.
Other chapters cover longevity, predictions of life span, medical symptoms of old age, and the story of telomeres’ role in cell death. Bryson notes some scientists believe scientific research will lead to extended life well beyond current life spans.
One of the most disconcerting observations made by Bryson is that Americans, who pay most in the world for medical service, fall (at best) into the middle of industrialized countries for general public health.
Who should America turn to in the 2020 election?
Bryson infers sociological difference between the United States and other industrialized countries affect the health and longevity of America’s population. The specifics of sociological differences are left unwritten. Having a national health system in those countries with better health care statistics is undoubtedly one of the sociological reasons.
Bryson’s book is an enlightening journey into the mysteries of “The Body”. Bryson gives a good account of the methodologies and myths of the body’s history and its discoveries. There are many discoveries yet to be made that will tell us more about physical existence and our body’s possible future.
Sean Carroll (Author, theoretical physicist in quantum mechanics, gravity, and cosmology.)
Being a fan, Sean Carroll is usually a good source for understanding science but “The Big Picture” is not his best work. Traveling through centuries of discovery and science’ revisions is too broad a picture for a layman’s understanding. Many attempts at clear communication about current physics fail to enlighten “The Big Picture”.
Carroll does clarify the difference between “is” and “ought” that explains why science is important. God may be the origin of life on earth but proof relying on faith is an “ought” without an “is”. Science reduces knowledge to facts based on repeatable experiments and predictable results. If experiments are conducted by different experimenters with the same results, what “is” becomes predictable and more likely correct. Carroll explains science deals with the world as it “is”; not how the world “ought” to be.
The consequence of patterning distorts reality. Eye-witness accounts of events are notoriously misleading because of human patterning.
“The Big Picture” recounts the history of physics and how human understanding has evolved over the centuries. Carroll explains how past discoveries based on science have evolved. Newton lived in the same world as Einstein. Both discovered fundamental truths about “The Big Picture”.
Newton’s laws apply to earth’s realm. Einstein’s laws apply to the universe. Both are correct within their spheres. Carroll notes neither Newton nor Einstein contradict the laws of physics, but their laws are confined by the earth or universe in which they are proven.
Carroll believes all essential particles of the atom have been discovered. This reminds one of the scientists in the late 19th century who said, “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few unimportant holes”.
It is difficult not to enjoy Carroll’s way with words but with the unexplained essence of gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, it seems premature to suggest no new particle discoveries will change our view of the world and their impact on reality.
Something Deeply Hidden (Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime
By: Sean Carroll
Narrated by Sean Carroll
Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist. He explains the science of physics to the general public with unusual clarity for non-scientists. “Something Deeply Hidden” explains a theory that has the potential for explaining everything about everything.
Carroll touches on the theoretical history of Quantum Mechanics. He notes the fundamental objection to Quantum Mechanics raised by Einstein and his followers.
Einstein insists that Quantum Mechanics is an incomplete theory of space, time, and motion. Einstein’s famous quote is “God does not play dice with the universe.” Carroll agrees.
Neither Einstein or Carroll are talking about belief in God but belief that there is a deeply hidden secret in Quantum Mechanics that may explain everything about everything.
Carroll recalls the history of the 1927 Fifth Solvay International Conference where quantum theory was discussed by the world’s most notable physicists.
The confrontation between Niels Bohr and Einstein results in agreement on the truth of Quantum Mechanics as a construct for calculation of space, time, and motion in the sub-atomic world. The disagreement comes with Bohr’s opinions about Quantum Mechanics. Einstein suggests Quantum Mechanics is an incomplete description of subatomic unpredictability.
Carroll explains that Quantum Mechanics has been reinforced as true by every experiment tried since its discovery. It fulfills Karl Popper’s dictum that a theory of anything must be falsifiable to be called science.
The many experiments on Quantum Mechanics have proven its validity as a theory of time, space, and motion in the sub-atomic world.
However, Quantum Mechanics remain a subject that Richard Feynman said no one can clearly explain or understand.
Carroll accepts Feynman’s and Einstein’s views. The theory of Quantum Mechanics is not explainable and (as Einstein suggested) it may simply be an incomplete theory.
Carroll suggests Quantum Mechanics remains unexplainable because of human inability to observe its truth from what is called a superposition. We cannot look at Quantum Mechanics outside the realm of personal cognition.
His answer is to acknowledge its truth by adhering to the Schrodinger equation which insists that a cat in a box is both dead and alive. Carroll argues that scientists waste their time challenging Schrodinger’s equation. Carroll suggests the cat in the box is both dead (actually Carroll prefers asleep) and alive.
Carroll argues that probability is an essential ingredient of Quantum Mechanics but he explains it is not the “probability” often understood by the public. Carroll’s view of probability is in knowing our human limitation of not being able to look at nature outside of what we understand as nature.
Humans cannot be in a superposition to see the effect of Quantum Mechanics because humans are trapped in their own sense of space, time, and motion. Probability, rather than certainty, is a function of a personal observation trap.
What Carroll suggests is other worlds are created because of the nature of Quantum Fields that are the essence of everything that exists in the universe.
Carroll explains particle physics were once considered the holy grail of understanding nature. Now, there is wide recognition that fields; not particles, are the building blocks of nature. Every particle vibrates like a string and emits a wave that permeates all space; including a vacuum where no particles exist.
Empty space is simply a low state of energy with no extant particles within its emptiness (aka a vacuum). It is not to suggest particles are not important. They are the source of the waves that permeate space.
Finding the Higgs-bosun is confirmation of the importance of particles in showing that it is undiscovered glue that holds atoms together.
Carroll’s books are excellent physics primers for non-scientists because they reduce science complexity to understandable examples; at least most of the time. (Space-time remains a mystery to me; even with Carroll’s valiant effort to explain it.) He may not be right about everything he explains, and a listener/readers’ interpretation of his writing may be wrong, but Carroll’s explanations are fascinating.
Feynman is said to have had the ability to explain the complexity of physics to the non-scientist. Carroll is today’s Feynman.
Presented by Ron B. Davis Jr., Ph.D.Associate Teaching Professor of ChemistryGeorgetown University
Ron B. Davis Jr. ( Associate Teaching Professor of ChemistryGeorgetown University)
Professor Davis’s lectures successfully interest a layman in the field of chemistry. However, this is not a simple introduction to chemistry.
Davis’s lectures are well done. Davis provides a lot of information with a summary of what has been said at the end of each lecture. His lectures offer interesting facts about chemistry, the world’s origin; its survival, and hopeful continuation. Where it loses some of its utility for a non-chemist is in calculations for chemical reaction, equilibration, and energy expenditure. Not that these calculations are not important, but they become too detailed for the merely curious.
At best, Davis’s lectures will spark a dilettante’s interest; at worst, they will lead a non-chemist to look elsewhere for easier understanding of the subject.
In his first 6 lectures, Davis breaks the science of chemistry into its most elementary particles.
The role of atoms in chemistry is explained at the sub-atomic level of neutrons, protons, and energy producing electrons.
On the 7th lecture, Davis notes the fascinating history and utility of the periodic table. As of 2002, the known elements on the periodic table come to 118. Over 90 of those elements are naturally occurring. They are organized in the periodic table by number of protons (atomic number) in each nucleus with hydrogen being first (no. 1) and oganesson (a synthetic chemical) being the last (no. 118).
Davis explains the importance of the periodic table by their grouping. The groups are vertically and horizontally organized with each family of atoms beginning in a line from left to right and in columns from top to bottom.
The horizontal line reflects one of seven periods. Each atom in these periods has the same number of electron shells (aka orbitals) constituting the same energy level. To a degree, the horizontal rows share the same chemical characteristics.
The vertical rows begin with hydrogen and are generally classified as groups. The first group is classified as Alkali metals. The far right which is row 18 are called noble gasses; beginning with hydrogen.
Elements in the same family (the vertical row) have the same electron configuration in their outer shell. A shell is what is called a valence shell, an orbiting electron around a nucleus. Elements in the same family tend to have a shared chemistry.
Davis notes that the vertical orientation of the periodic table indicates electrons get farther from the nucleus as you go down the table. The effect is to lower ionization energy as you go down the group; making electrons more easily released to other atoms. However, Davis notes this is not an iron clad rule; i.e. there are exceptions.
The next several lectures deal with chemical reactions, formations, and randomness and how they can be calculated. You enter the realm of chemistry mathematics. This is where listening for some of us meets ignorance, and understanding escapes.
Energy generation reawakens a listener’s interest. Davis explores the history of nuclear fission and fusion.
He explains the great promise and threat of Einstein’s insight to the equivalence of energy and mass. Fission leads to the destructive force of atomic bombs during WWII.
Nagasaki and Hiroshima show what uncontrolled fission can do in time of war.
Fukushima shows what uncontrolled fission can do in time of peace.
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were uncontrolled fission events that destroyed buildings and contaminated the environment. To date, fission has been found to be a viable source of energy but admittedly dangerous, and in disasters, highly polluting.
The principle of nuclear fusion may be the solution for a non-polluting, less dangerous, supply of energy.
However, fusion has not been achieved because of the high energy demand (heat) required to compel atoms to fuse. Only the heat of the sun has successfully produced fusion. The hope is that a method of cold fusion will be discovered. The fundamental point made by Davis is that the production of nuclear energy is all chemistry.
In the next lectures, Davis addresses polymers, medicinal chemistry, poisons, chemical weapons, fuels, and explosives.
Davis explains why trees grow to be over a hundred feet tall while not being overturned by weather. It is largely due to cellulose which is one of the longest polymers in nature.
Davis notes DNA is one of the most complex of the natural polymers in chemistry. DNA contains all of the characteristics of carbon-based life forms.
He also notes chemistry is used to directly attack or fool human cancers that invade human DNA. These compounds have the potential for curing cancer.
Poisons are next. Davis notes that poisons have been around since the beginning of recorded history. He explains there are three classifications for this category of chemicals; e.g. poisons, toxins, and venoms.
Poisons are substances that cause death, injury, or harm at a molecular level. The key to their effect is dosage. Toxins are substances produced within living cells that are contracted by touching or ingesting plants, or by contact with animals carrying microorganisms that cause disease. Davis explains venoms are secretions produced by animal’ or insect’ predators for defense or predation.
Fuels are lightly touched on by Davis with an examination of the discovery of fire; beginning with wood and progressing through other carbon-based materials.
Davis notes the evolution of coal, oil, and plant-based derivatives that produce fuel for industry and automobiles. He delves into the consequence of pollution in using these fuels, and their threat to humanity. He touches on global warming and its ecological consequence.
War is noted as impetus for the weaponization of chemicals, and explosives. A listener is introduced to Fritz Haber, a Jewish German genius that introduced chlorine gas (phosgene) to WWI. Haber became known as the father of chemical warfare.
Chemical warfare in Syria
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist invented and patented dynamite. However, Davis notes high explosives were first discovered by Christian Schonbein in 1846. Schonbein’s discovery, like many chemical discoveries noted by Davis, is accidentally found when Schonbein spills hydrochloric acid in his lab and wipes it up with cloth apron. He puts the apron next to a stove to dry it out and it bursts into flame.
Alfred Nobel (Swedish chemist who invented dynamite and plastic explosives.)
Gunpowder cotton is discovered with Schonbein’s accident. The problem is that gunpowder cotton was too volatile. It is left to Nobel to come up with a stabilizing compound for gunpowder cotton to create sticks of dynamite. Nobel invents an igniter fuse to start the explosive potential of dynamite. Further discovery by Nobel leads to nitroglycerin and plastic explosives in the late 19th century.
Davis ends his lectures with the chemistry of earth. He notes how life may have begun with chemical building blocks introduced to earth from fragments of meteorites. Meteorites are created from exploding stars. Where water exists, he argues organic life is possible. Davis concludes–human exploration of the Universe holds hope for the future.
Davis speculates that there could very well be a habitable planet that has the same characteristics as early earth. He suggests, with the building blocks of life coming from meteorites, only water needs to be added to create and sustain life.