The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul
By: Jay Lombard
Narrated by: David Acord
Dr. Jay Lombard (Author, Neurologist, specializing in child neurology, Ted conference presenter.)
The introduction to Dr. Lombard’s book is by Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy’s self-effacing acknowledgement of his personal struggles draws one into Lombard’s story. As an introduction, a listener is interested in a scientist’s belief in God. However, by chapter 3, some listeners will be tempted to quit listening.
Patrick Kennedy (Former Democratic Representative from Rhode Island, Nephew of President Kennedy, son of Ted Kennedy.)
Lombard agues God is real because His existence is proven by evolution and human consciousness.
The basis for his argument is the “miracle” of evolution and human consciousness. The idea of “miracle” is a return to a neolithic age. Lombard’s “miracle” argument is off-putting for three reasons. One, miracles are frequently used by those who have not yet proven something by science. Two, evolution is proven by science. Three, consciousness remains undefined.
Earth is flat and the center of the universe, i.e., until Galileo proves otherwise. We live in a world of Newtonian physics (cause and effect), i.e., until Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and others discover quantum theory and mechanics. Time is a precise measure of the past, present, and future, i.e., until Einstein proves time is relative. History shows miracles are often explanations for something humans do not understand. The human mind consciously interprets and intentionally believes the absurd–like lightning strikes because Zeus is angry. One is justifiably skeptical of those who argue God is the origin of creation and human benefaction.
What may draw a skeptic back to the book is Lombard’s experience as a neurologist in treating patients with proven brain dysfunction. Lombard shows an empathy for his patients because of his professed beliefs. Whatever one’s belief, empathy is essential ingredient of a good life.
Lombard’s empathy is an evolutionary pattern that offers hope to the world.
Philosophers of the past like Nietzsche and Camus, reject God because they believe He/She is a construct of human consciousness, not an omniscient being who created heaven and earth. Nietzsche argues humanity killed God by becoming Superman or Woman, without the need for something greater than themselves. In contrast, Camus suggests belief in God makes no difference.
The world to Camus is an unpredictable place and every human must consciously seek a mission in life to be free.
Lombard agrees with Camus’s argument. However, Lombard believes evolution of human consciousness is proof of God. Lombard suggests proof of God’s presence is shown with transformation from human self-interest to empathy. That is Lombard’s gigantic leap of faith, unwarranted by facts. It is the equivalent of an oft quoted comment by Einstein about God not playing dice.
The last patient in Lombard’s book is a Buddhist monk who is at early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Ironically, as Lombard notes, Buddhist belief is to “let go” of human emotion. Dementia results in “letting go”, but dementia is not a conscious act.
Dementia gives no comfort to one who is older and has a fear of Alzheimer’s and its consequence for others. Others, who are left to care for the stricken. What makes this chapter interesting is Lombard’s careful diagnosis, attentiveness, and empathetic care for his patient.
By the end of Lombard’s book, one is convinced of the need for science, with a hope for clearer understanding of brain, mind, and consciousness.
God may or may not have anything to do with brain, mind, and consciousness. Lombard’s argument for God’s existence is no more convincing than a bolt of lightning from Zeus.
Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality, 2nd Edition
By: The Great Courses
Lecturer: Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is an author, American neuroendocrinology researcher, and doctor of neuropsychology, educated at Harvard and acting professor at Stanford.
Sapolsky’s lectures begin with optimism. He infers one can understand the biological origin of human behavior. However, as the lectures progress one becomes skeptical. By the end of Sapolsky’s lectures, the source of human behavior seems too complex for human understanding. In a future age, it may be possible to reduce uncertainty, but determination of the sources of human behavior are likely to remain a probabilistic endeavor.
Sapolsky begins with neurological, physiological, endocrinological, genealogical, and environmental influences on behavior but ends with no definitive origin for human behavior.
This is not to say these lectures are not interesting, but science is far from understanding how any discipline can effectively or accurately identify the sources of dysfunctional human behavior. Cures for psychological maladies remain elusive because of the complexity of their origin.
There is no nerve that can be cut, no drug that can be administered, no gene that can be removed, no environment created that singularly cures abnormal human behavior. Sapolsky is saying the origin of human thought and action begins with genetic history, is influenced in the womb, is subjected to hormonal disruption, lives to be changed by environmental circumstances, and dies either early or late depending on the circumstances of life.
Sapolsky begins his lectures with a lesson in physiology and discussion about cells and the nervous system and how it works.
He explains limbic and autonomic nervous systems. A limbic system is where subcortical structures meet the cerebral cortex. It influences the endocrine system and the autonomic (breathing, heartbeat, and digestive system) functions of the body.
Sapolsky explains how regulation of body function is affected by hormones that come from many organs of the body. These hormones affect brain function (which is also a hormone producing organ) that have a great deal to do with how one acts. The physiology of the nervous system and blood circulatory system carry hormones throughout the body.
Sapolsky goes on to explain evolution of behavior that comes from genetically inheritable social history. What is revelatory is the myth of evolution based solely on a genetic singularity which preserves itself at all costs.
Sapolsky argues preservation of species, not specific gene preservation, is the key to understanding evolution. (This is a partial disagreement with the “selfish gene” postulated by Richard Dawkins.)
The example Sapolsky offers is the Wildebeest herd that plans to cross an alligator infested river.
An early interpretation of that crossing is that a leader of the herd voluntarily steps into the river to sacrifice itself to allow the herd to cross the river while it is being feasted upon by alligators. Sapolsky explains the Wildebeest is not sacrificing itself. Careful observation shows an older Wildebeest is forced into the river by the herd. It is not a voluntary action but a heritable social behavior of the herd to preserve itself.
Sapolsky identifies myths about what causes abnormal human behavior. The idea that testosterone levels are a cause for aggression is untrue. The National Institute of Health found that increased or decreased levels of testosterone have a weak correlation with aggression. Sapolsky notes that testosterone levels vary based on environmental circumstances and interaction with other hormone producing organs. It is not found to be a hormonal cause of aggression.
Every country of the world is populated with people like the wildebeest. Until the world is one herd, it seems humans are destined to lose their way as a species. The river to cross is the world’s environmental crises. With disparate herds in the world, the alligator in the river (our environment) will eat us all.
Stephen Nowicki (Professor of Biology at Duke University.)
Professor Stephen Nowicki offers a 36.5-hour lecture on Biology. From the origin and growth of life to the chemical and neuronal function of living things, Nowicki systematically reveals experimentally tested knowledge of the “…Science of Life”. This brief review only addresses a few of the many fascinating details Nowicki explains.
Nowicki suggests, cells evolve from the agglomeration of detritus from the “Big Bang”.
The early formation of these cells is missing two ingredients for life. Nowicki explains these early cells evolve from violent volcanic and electrical activity of the “Big Bang”, an environment in which those two missing ingredients are created.
Nowicki explains early non-living cells are bombarded by electrical storms that generate amino acids (organic compounds) and sugar from violent atmospheric conditions that include water.
In the early 1950s, these conditions were tested in laboratory conditions and found to create two essential building blocks of life. Nowicki explains, these building blocks (amino acids and sugars) became part of non-living cells.
The eukaryotic cells had a nucleus containing genetic material while prokaryotic cells carried free-floating genetic material without a nucleus. Nowicki then explains the role nucleotides (protein) play in activating genetic material within these cells.
Nowicki notes DNA is present in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, but they need to have a way of being activated. With replication, molecules (chemical compounds) could form. Nowicki explains living matter originated from the clumping and replication of these molecules.
Nowicki explains ribonucleotides (proteins) were created in the primordial soup of early earth. These ribonucleotides transformed into RNA which activated DNA genetic material and replicated both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.
Evolution of species, established by Darwin in the 19th century, appears quite consistent and reminiscent of the primordial process Nowicki outlines.
With that reflection, Nowicki reminds listeners that evolutionary process should not be thought of as a necessarily progressive improvement. Evolution is chancy. It can either preserve or destroy species. Nowicki wanders back in history to explain classification of species as theorized by Linnaeus in the early 18th century.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778, Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist, physician.)
The second doubling of a zygote creates four cells separated in a vertical axis with all genetic material present in each cell. Subsequent doubling is separated on a horizontal axis. These new cells do not have all genetic material enclosed. The new cells have a more limited genetic role. There is significance in that axis change because of the location of genetic material in respective cells. With a change in axis, the viability of one cell carrying all the characteristics of its host goes from certainty to doubtful. The specialization of cells removes some of the genetic material that would contain all the characteristics of the life form.
The zygote at four cells is mature. The next doubling becomes an embryo. All four cells have the genetic material of a male’s and female’s contribution. Each multiplication reduces the size of sister cells until they form a mass that surrounds a vacant space within its middle. This vacant space is the blastocyst stage. The blastocyst is made up of an exterior shell, a middle shell, and an inner shell. Each shell becomes the seat of design for what is to be born.
All amassed cells around the blastocyst carry site specific genetic material of life that forms a living thing.
The process of design in a human begins with an intrusion into the blastocyst without breaking its shells. That intrusion (a human gastrula), around the 7th or 8th day, uses the membranes as laboratories within which genetic codes create skin, bone, internal organs, and the digestive system.
Each of the three membranes are the laboratories of creation. The exterior or outer shell for example would become skin, the middle shell would become organs, the inner shell would become the digestive system.
The next exploration of biology by Nowicki is more suited to students of biology. Nowicki makes a valiant effort to explain the chemistry of ADP and ATP phosphates that provide energy needed for growth and maintenance of life. This part of the lecture series becomes too technical.
As molecules of ATP and ADP break down, they fuel cells of life to act in specific ways to promote growth and maintenance. Like the importance of protein messengers for activation of genetic material, life cannot exist without the energy provided by ATP and ADP. Nowicki diligently tries to explain the mechanics of this phosphate process but loses this reviewer’s interest.
The first inkling of cause for plant growth is noted by Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century. Nowicki explains Helmont planted a tree in a tub of soil. He carefully weighed the soil and tree at the time of planting. Over several years, he observed the growth of the tree. At the end of those years, Helmont weighed the soil and tree. He found a small decrease in the soil’s weight and a gigantic increase in the tree’s weight. Helmont speculates the difference is from water added over the years. Though his conclusion is only partly correct, he paved the way for discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Baptist van Helmont , a Dutch chemist and physician (1580-1644, On the left with his son on the right.)
That synthesis is a more complete explanation of the weight gain noted in Helmont’s experiment. The fundamental point being made by Nowicki is that species growth and demise is based on resource availability. Jan Ingenhousz completes Helmont’s theory with the discovery of photosynthesis.
Jan Ingenhousz (1730-1799, Dutch physiologist.)
Around 1779, A Dutch physician named Jan Ingenhousz found that green plants use sunlight to synthesize food for plants from carbon dioxide and water.
The remaining lectures are about Malthusian limits to life. There are natural and societal actions (meaning acts of war) that affect species survival. For natural calamities, one is reminded of the Black plague in the 14th and 17th centuries, the Spanish flu after WWI., the Irish famine in 19th century, the great Chinese famine during the “Great Leap Forward”, and now Covid19.
From man’s inhumanity to man, there is the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, two 20th century World Wars, the holocaust atrocity of WWII that murdered 11,000,000 (6,000,000 of which were Jews), and most recently, an estimated 600,000 dead in the Syrian Civil War.
How many more deaths will there be from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Of course, Nowicki’s attention is on the biology of life. Nowicki explains, the key to balance of nature is biodiversity. Nowicki notes the unprecedented loss of species in the post 20th century world risks life’s future. Nowicki briefly explains how drug discoveries and loss of genetic material from species extinction affects the balance of nature by diminishing the sources and utility of future medical discoveries.
The fundamental point of Nowicki’s view is that no species escape the natural biological limits of life. Nature balances life based on resources available. A listener may imply Nowicki believes humanity is threatened as much by ignorance of biology as of “man’s inhumanity to man”.
Journey to the Edge of Reason (The Life of Kurt Gödel)
By: Stephen Budiansky
Narrated by: Bob Souer
Stephen Budiansky (American writer, historian, and biographer with B.S. in chemistry and S.M. in applied mathematics, Yale and Harvard.)
Stephen Budiansky offers a biography of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. His name was Kurt Gödel.
Kurt Gödel (Logician, mathematician, philosopher 1906-1978.)
It is the biographic details and good writing that make “Journey to the Edge of Reason” interesting. Budiansky sets a table for what becomes Gödel’s life.
Budiansky explains the history of Austria before WWI and WWII. Gödel’s family lives an upper-middleclass life when their son Kurt is born. That lifestyle is interrupted by WWI and destroyed by WWII. In the mid-19th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire, particularly Vienna, is a center for education and culture in Europe. Unlike much of the continent, equality of opportunity, regardless of religion and ethnicity, were available in the Austro-Hungarian’ capitol of Vienna. For a short time, Vienna became a magnate for Jewish immigrants seeking education and opportunity.
When the heir to Franz Joseph’s throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand is assassinated, religious and ethnic difference becomes increasingly disparate and nationalistic. After WWI, it becomes impossible for the empire to stay together, but Vienna remains a cultural and educational center for Europe. It is in this environment that Gödel is born and formally educated.
Gödel is an excellent student who attends studies among many who were increasingly discriminated against, particularly Jews. Though not Jewish, Gödel is not infected by growing anti-Jewish sentiment of the times. Budiansky reminds listeners that Hitler grows up in this Austrian Viennese environment.
WWII arrives and the Gödel family falls on hard times. Before the second world war, in 1931, Kurt Gödel develops the “incompleteness theorem” of mathematics. He is only 25. He is soon recognized by leading mathematicians for this foundational theory.
Kurt Gödel developed two theorems of mathematical logic that limit the provability of mathematics. One plus one makes two, but Gödel’s fundamental theories claim its truth is mathematically unprovable. To one steeped in mathematics that may make sense. To this reviewer, it does not.
Budiansky explains how Gödel eventually escapes Vienna at the beginning of WWII. He arrives at Princeton in 1940. Gödel becomes close friends with Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern. Budiansky notes how instrumental other geniuses, like John von-Neumann, were in advancing Gödel’s career.
John von Neumann (1903-1957, Hungarian American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, engineer and polymath with an eidetic memory.)
A striking fact in Budiansky’s biography of Gödel is how many geniuses came to America from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Without its education system, the Viennese equal opportunity, and the attraction of western freedom, the advance of science and its role in the world would be diminished.
Gödel’s life story revolves around math and its provability limits. Gödel’s life waivers between paranoia and accommodation with periods of terror and intermittent tranquility. Gödel’s paranoia is relieved at times and Budiansky notes his friends recognized his genius while noting his episodic behavioral abnormality.
A surprising sidelight to Budiansky’s biography is Gödel’s odd marriage to what Budiansky characterizes as an uneducated Austrian woman named Adele.
Budiansky explains Adele saves Gödel’s life by bringing him back to reality when he nearly starves himself to death with a paranoid belief that someone is trying to poison him.
Gödel takes daily walks with Einstein. Their walks are legendary according to Budiansky. They were frequently seen together at Princeton. Einstein recognizes Gödel’s paranoia for what it is but acknowledges the brilliance of his understanding of mathematics, its logistic continuity, and its limitation.
There often seems a fine line between genius and normality. One is reminded of the unheralded Paul Dirac who is compared by some to Einstein but, because of his isolationist behavior, is largely unknown to the general public.
As a non-mathematician one may not understand the importance of Gödel’s theory, but Budiansky does a great service to the public by writing Gödel’s biography.
Nick Bostrom (Swedish philosopher at University of Oxford, author.)
Nick Bostrom explains the difference between A.I. potential and human brain limitation. With addition of sentient reasoning, Bostrom explains the incomprehensible leap beyond human brain capability with the advent of artificial intelligence.
That leap can be viewed with fear and trembling as inferred by Bostrom or it might be seen as a next step in human evolution.
Bostrom’s concern revolves around human brain limitation in setting standards for A.I.’ programming.
A machine’s ability to recall billions of facts and historical precedence cannot be matched by the human brain. However, the significance of A.I.’s achievement is delimited by how it may be programmed to have moral, ethical, and normative standards that benefit humanity. The difficulty of that programing is humanity’s continual redefinition and lack of agreement on normative standards.
One may ask oneself how good a job has human evolution done in setting standards for humanity? Have authoritarians like Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump benefited the world?
Bostrom notes two fundamental scenarios for human evolution. Both seem more a return to the past than to the future. Bostrom suggests A.I. will become either an oracle or sovereign leader of humanity. As an oracle, one is reminded of Athenian fealty to the Oracle of Delphi. As sovereign, one is reminded of Augustus Caesar, Caligula, Franklin Roosevelt, and Adolph Hitler. Humanity has survived all–both false predictions of the Oracle and atrocities of sovereigns.
It is unfair to suggest Bostrom is not revealing the difficulties accompanying the introduction of A.I. to humankind. The reality of advancing intelligence through machine learning far outstrips the ability of any singular past or present scientist, philosopher, or politician. One is intimidated by the shear complexity of programing A.I. and its potential for benefit and harm to humanity.
To understand humanities place in the world, human beings cannot agree on what is moral, amoral, equitable, or unfair in society.
How will input from human beings to an oracle or sovereign A.I. escape the imperfect nature of humankind? Added to that difficulty is A.I.’ potential to ignore the best interest of humanity in the interest of its own self-preservation.
Bostrom’s book is interesting, but he beats the idea of A.I.’s ascendance to death by delving into game theory. Bostrom notes the world’s race to create artificial intelligence has the potential of ignoring safeguards for A.I.’s growth and potential for world domination.
Though abandoning safeguards is quite true as evidenced by the Crispr revolution that opened Pandora’s box of genetic manipulation, evolution of species is a fundamental law of the world’s existence.
A.I. is a step in the evolution of species. Its consequence is unknown and cannot be known because it follows the randomness of genetic selection. Humanity needs to get over it and get on with it. A.I. will either be humanity’s savior or its doom.
The Constitution of Knowledge (A Defense of Truth)
By Jonathan Rauch
Narrated by: Traber Burns
Jonathan Rauch (American author, journalist, freelance writer for The Economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.)
The structure of knowledge is the subject of Jonathan Rauch’s “…Constitution of Knowledge”. What may come as a surprise to some is Rauch’s argument that knowledge is a social construct, not an inviolable fact or truth. Knowledge grows from tests of society.
As Karl Popper, a highly respected philosopher of science noted, knowledge can only be found through pursuit of its falsification.
The fear that accompanies Rauch’s argument about knowledge, and Popper’s belief about science’s truth means a lie can be as influential as truth. The two greatest twenty first century examples are Trump and Vladimir Putin.
All human beings lie. The problem is those with preeminent power use the lie to lead others to believe what society’s tests show to be false. The problem is distinguishing a lie from societal truth. A lie is never as evident as it is with Pinocchio’s nose.
Truths should not be based on a singular view of reality. Lies of leadership in recent history have led to tragic interventions by America, France and most recently, Russia in sovereign countries like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and today’s Ukraine.
Rauch both personalizes damage that lies have on individuals and society with his experience as a gay person and combatant against cancel culture, violence, sexism, and racism. Though Rauch’s explanation notes many examples of what is wrong with society, he ends with a degree of optimism about how one can deal with leadership’ lies.
Words matter but if they don’t lead to violence, they can be logically addressed by society and rejected for their distortion of perceived truth. Rauch is careful to explain truth is a perception, not a fact or necessarily a truth. As is shown by science, the human brain does not record facts but recreates events that fit a human’s perception of reality.
What is true is tested in Popper’s theory of facts that are tested by search for falsifiability.
If a tree falls in the forest and a tape recorder records the sound, one is tempted to believe a fact has been found. If that experiment is repeated many times by different people, the falling tree makes noise, whether a human is there or not, is likely to be true. However, it is a sound that remains a perception. The difference is it has been tested many times by society with the same result.
Cancel culture is when there is a public boycott of people or organizations because of an interest group’s belief. If a group’s belief is challenged by perceptions and experience of a broader society, cancel culture can be, at least, ameliorated.
Rauch shows himself to be a free speech believer. One presumes he endorses all free speech if it does not induce or insight violence. This is not to suggest words spoken or written are not harmful, but they are not physically injuring another.
Attacking a person physically for words spoken is reprehensible but attacking an idea is societies’ way of revealing the truth and acquiring knowledge.
After listening to Rauch’s explanation of what knowledge is and how it is acquired, one wishes a signal could be sent when one is knowingly lying, e.g., something like Pinocchio’s nose.
Livewired (The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain
By: David Eagleman
Narrated by: David Eagleman
David Eagleman (Author, neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine.)
A bright future is outlined for humanity by David Eagleman in “Livewired”. His vision has to do with what is presently known of the brain and its interactions with the world. Eagleman believes what we know of the world from the physics of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr today will enhance human brain capabilities tomorrow.
Eagleman details what is known about the brain. He explains the remarkable capabilities of the brain to adapt to its environment. The neuronal activity of the brain interprets the environment in which the body exists.
The body responds to change by sending signals from the environment to the brain. The brain interprets those signals with synaptic transfer of information for thought and action.
Eagleman explains the creation of language in children begins with babbling which is testing their relationship with others and the world. The sensations they receive from verbal and physical contact are connecting their brain function to the world. The brain changes with contact from people and things in the environment.
On the one hand Eagleman is saying the world is what we see. On the other, he notes the world is an interpretation of reality by the brain. Eagleman explains a brain interprets the world of events. The brain is not a recorder. It is a recreator of events.
The significance of that recreation is in unperceived facts of an event. Additionally, Eagleman notes-if an event continually repeats itself, the brain can hide the event because of the constancy of its existence. An example would be a constant machine noise at a factory or the smell of offal at a pig farm. The mind initially notes the noise or smell but if a person is exposed for long periods of time to the same event, the noise or smell disappears.
The fascinating consequence of Eagleman’s observation of brain function is the truth of events may be quite different from reality. This reminds one of the discoveries of Quantum reality which is probabilistic rather than definitive. What we see may not be what is real. The real-world impact of event recreation by the mind is the threat of misidentification of a person accused of a crime.
Eagleman explains older sufferers have learned how to deal with life based on previous experience. That experience is a mixed blessing because it impedes new learning. The ramification is that new discoveries about the world are and will be from the young, much more often than the old.
Eagleman goes on to explain brain input and malleability extend to all parts of the body.
The skin, the eye, the tongue can be used as a source of stimulation to aid the brain in sending signals to malfunctioning appendages. This realization has led to ways of helping patients with palsy to stabilize their condition, for patients to recover from strokes, for the handicapped to walk with a prosthesis, and for epileptics to manage their seizures.
The optimism engendered by Eagleman is explained in one of the last chapters, titled “The Wolf and the Mars Rover”. He recounts the failure of the Mars Rover because of a malfunctioning wheel that ends its productive life. The Rover is unable to decide what to do to overcome a wheel that would not work. In contrast, a wolf will chew its leg off when in a trap because its brain tells she/he will die if not released. The Rover has pre-determined limits to action. The wolf changes behavior based on brain malleability, and unforeseen environmental circumstance.
Eagleman reinforces Rovelli’s argument that information will reveal all there is to know about the quantum world, and the nature of reality. To Eagleman, that information will come from the malleability of the human brain. Despite Eagleman’s optimism, there are skeptics.
By: Carlo Rovelli, Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
Narrated by: Roy McMillan
Carlo Rovelli (Writer, Italian theoretical physicist specializing in quantum gravity and loop quantum gravity theories.)
Carlo Rovelli is an optimist. He suggests reality “…Is Not What It Seems” but will be revealed by scientific inquiry. It will not be revealed by time because time does not exist. Reality does not lie in infinity but in the revelations of physics research and fundamental laws discovered by scientists from future information.
Rovelli argues information holds the key to unlock the door to reality. That seems simplistic but Rovelli implies the advent of the information age in conjunction with technology multiplies the creation of information. He argues more information is the sine non qua of reality.
The focus of physics today is on understanding quantum gravity and melding quantum physics with Newton’s and Einstein’s understanding of the forces and elemental particles of nature. Rovelli believes the answer lies with loop quantum gravity theory. Others believe the answer is string theory.
The difference is that Rovelli believes gravity is not a force like vibrating strings but a feature of spacetime based on packets of granular space that travel within a Planck length. It has its own atomic structure. This granular space is made of a woven fabric of loops that create a spin network that creates a foam that constitutes gravity.
Whether strings or loops, Paul Dirac believed all fundamental particles of physics have been discovered and physics’ science must correlate that information with the mysteries of dark matter and energy to explain gravity’s role in the cosmos. Though one may have read this in a biography of Paul Dirac, Dirac is considered the heir and equal of Einstein.
What makes Rovelli’s book interesting is his optimism. It is an optimism grounded in his experience as a physicist. (Parenthetically, that makes it a mixed blessing to a dilatant of the subject.) Parts of Rovelli’s book are difficult to follow. However, the history of physics pioneers that are less well know to the public are revelatory.
Matvei Petrovich Bronstein (1906-1938, Executed by Stalin, Soviet theoretical physicist, a pioneer of quantum gravity.)
Matvei Perovich Bronstein is executed by Stalin. Rovelli notes Bronstein’s brilliance as a physicist is revealed in his theory of quantum gravity. He was executed because he protested the Stalinist interpretation of Leninism.
Rovelli helps one understand why time does not exist and that creation of infinity as an answer to an unknown physics anomaly is wrong. To Rovelli, the idea of infinity just means one does not know the answer.
Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906, Austrian physicist and philosopher, developed statistical mechanics, defined entropy.).
Rovelli notes time, as Einstein proves, is relative. Rovelli suggests time is just the function of heat entropy as discovered by Ludwig Boltzmann in the second law of thermodynamics.
Time might be defined as a rock that hits the ground. It creates heat that dissipates by transferring its heat energy to the ground. Time is like a marker for heat that dissipates. To Rovelli, infinity is simply an unanswered question in physics that will be answered with more information.
Rovelli gives another peek at the complexity of the science of physics. He writes with as much clarity as the subject will allow for a non-scientist.
To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge. Socrates (469 BC-399 BC)
Frank Wilczek (Author, American theoretical physicist, mathematician and Nobel laureate.)
After listening to “Fundamentals”, one recognizes how Socrates’ quote is an apt description of this listener’s knowledge of reality. Frank Wilczek does a good job of explaining the nearly incomprehensible science of physics.
Wilczek’s ten keys are labels of the known fundamental particles of physics.
3 kinds of neutrinos
After a first listen, the choice of this review is to ignore proffered definitions by offering interesting and partially understood explanations of Wilczek’s keys to reality. Wilczek explains the science of physics.
Wilczek argues Physics reveals the truth of reality.
Wilczek suggests a scientist who understands and uses the known ten fundamental particles of physics can create whatever reality there is or may be. However, that reality is a probabilistic future based on the experimentally proven “uncertainty principle”. The quanta (the particles of physics) cannot be fixed by position and momentum to insure specific outcomes. Reality is what it becomes, not what a scientist or anyone else designs by using the particles of physics.
At the level of atomism, reality is a matter of probability, not certainty.
Wilczek explains the science of physics revolves around mass, charge, and spin. Mass is revealed in Einstein’s equation of E=MC2 where energy, as well as an elephant or chair we sit on, is a form of mass and unreleased energy. Charge is defined by the concept of negative or positive, and spin is either an up or down motion for particular fundamental particles.
Wilczek adds explanation of Einstein’s discovery of the bending of space from the force of gravity.
Wilczek delves into the creation of the universe, the recognition of dark matter and energy and its use as a weak force that makes up 75% of the elementary particles of nature, though neither dark energy or mass has yet been seen by anyone.
Wilczek recounts the history of physics from ancient times of Democritus to Newton’s experiment and theory of force, to Einstein’s theories of light, mass, and energy, to Bohr’s spectrographic analysis of atoms, to the 21st centuries discovery of Higgs-Bosun.
At the level of atomism, probability rather than certainty is reality. Wilczek does not mean an elephant on a rampage will not destroy everything in its path but that atoms that make the elephant do function probabilistically. Reality is both probabilistic and deterministic. That is complementarity.
This is a book to be listened to more than once, particularly for one who is ignorant of higher mathematics and physics. The author’s story is not bogged down by explanations of those essential subjects that relate to understanding reality.
Big Science (Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex)
By: Michael Hiltzik
Narrated by: Bob Saouer
Michael A. Hiltzik (Author, American Journalist.)
Interesting details are revealed about the discovery of fission and the advent of the nuclear age in Michael Hiltzik’s history of “Big Science”. Hiltzik shows “Big Science” is expensive and involves large teams of scientists led by people like Ernest Lawrence.
Ernest Lawrence (Scientist,1901-1958) Lawrence died at 57 years of age.
Lawrence was born and raised in Canton, South Dakota, a rural community of less than 3,000 residents. Lawrence pioneered American nuclear science and won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for invention of the cyclotron.
Lawrence’s invention led to the creation of the atom bomb, and later the Large Hadron Collider.
Lawrence’s indefatigable energy, persuasiveness, personability, and equanimity gave him the ability to raise huge sums of money to assemble the largest group of physicists, engineers, and experimentalists of the twentieth century.
Lawrence touched the lives of M. Stanley Livingston, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, James Conant, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Vannevar Bush, and many others.
Ernest’s ability to organize a team of scientists and engineers to create the first cyclotron coalesced with Lawrence’s personality. The cyclotron paves the way to a more precise understanding of the atom. His ability to tap into the resources and ambitions of young scientists and engineers, to convince government agencies, and private donors to contribute money for experiment creates a framework for “Big Science”.
Lawrence’s early cyclotron experiments pave the way for splitting the atom which ultimately leads to atomic blasts at Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Ernest’s younger brother, John Lawrence, became a physician.
Ernest Lawrence worked on radioactivity with his brother as a treatment for cancer.
Impetus for the unimaginable expansion of “Big Science” is magnified by WWII. Because of the atom bomb’s horrific consequence, the fame of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the infamous Edward Teller, become known to the world. Hiltzik explains the key role that Lawrence plays in getting Oppenheimer appointed as the science manager for the Manhattan Project (the project name for America’s rush to create the atom bomb). Edward Teller is an early member of the team but is found to be a disruptive team player. Teller is an outlying and brilliant theoretician with an acerbic personality, who breaks as often as he makes friendships with fellow physicists, including Ernest Lawrence.
Leslie Groves (1896-1970, General in charge of the Manhattan Project.)
The creation of the Manhattan Project required the appointment of a military supervisor.
An interesting note by Hiltzik is the relationship between General Leslie Groves and Lawrence. Lawrence, soon after meeting Groves, realizes who is in charge. Any roadblocks for funding or personnel disappear with the appointment of Groves. The two great managers complement each other and grow to respect each other’s roles in the Manhattan Project.
Hiltzik takes listeners into the aftermath of “Big Science” after the war. Once Russia demonstrates their arrival in the nuclear bomb era, the danger of nuclear war and atomic bomb testing comes to the forefront of research.
During the Eisenhower government years, a main concern is with the military/industrial complex and competition for nuclear superiority in the face of potential world cataclysm.
Hiltzik addresses the dismantling of J. Oppenheimer’s reputation by Eisenhower’s appointment of Lewis Strauss as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Strauss creates a government investigation of Oppenheimer and his early political life. Strauss comes off as an unfair judge of Oppenheimer’s contribution to America in Hiltzik’s telling of the investigation. One is reminded this is in the beginning years of McCarthyism.
Oppenheimer briefly joined the communist party but left it early in his career. Despite Oppenheimer’s great contribution to the creation of the atom bomb, Strauss manages to tarnish the brilliant scientist’s reputation. Ernest Lawrence did not come to Oppenheimer’s defense. The two scientists had different political beliefs. Hiltzik implies Lawrence’s mid-western upbringing conflicted with Oppenheimer’s cosmopolitan life. Both scientists respected their roles as scientists but differed in their politics.
Lewis Strauss (Former U.S. Secy. of Commerce & Chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission)
Hiltzik’s driving theme is the importance of “Big Science” and America’s waning support after WWII. Hiltzik’s primary example is America’s failure to lead in creating a super cyclotron like that which was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). America participated in the cost but chose not to be the lead in its creation. Of particular note today is the need for investment and leadership in environment and energy.
Though many American physicists work at CERN, research at the Large Hadron is managed by 23 member states with each state having a vote. Members make capital contributions and pay operating expenses while making all operational decisions. America has no vote. Japan, Russia, and America are observers (Russia was suspended on March 8, 2022).
After listening to Hiltzik’s book, one may ask oneself–where is the Ernest Lawrence of the 21st century that is leading a team of young scientists in “Big Science”? Ideas are out there but America’s investment seems destined to be limited by capitalist incentives, not “Big Science” experimentation.