The Fabric of the Cosmos

During my recent trip to Boston / MIT, I picked up a copy of “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene, and I read about half of it by now. It is a great reading; I think I am starting to get a vague idea about both how relativity and quantum physics work, subjects that I was utterly ignorant of not long ago. Sometimes the references to the Simpsons and Springfield and agent Mulder and Scully and baseball can be annoying, but overall I am really enjoying this book.

And I am realizing how ‘narrow-minded’ we humans are. Evolution shaped our minds so that we easily understand what is important for our survival, but there was no selective pressure to evolve an understanding of how things work on much larger or much smaller spatial and temporal scales: having some intuitive ideas about what trajectory a thrown piece of rock describes probably had some survival value, but our ancestors did not need to know about the probabilistic nature of the subatomic world in order to get through the hard times.

Finished reading two books by Steven Johnson: Emergence and Mind Wide Open. The latter is fresher. Quite liked it overall, although it does not feel as enlightening as Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker often do. But then, this might be too high of a measuring stick.

In the final chapter of Mind Wide Open, S. Johnson paints a bit too positive picture of Freud. Maybe it is a great insight indeed that the mind is divided, but it looks to me that there are a lot more misses than hits in the freudian view of the mind. It is a little bit like saying that the geosynclinal theory is very important because it got a few things right: sediments often do accumulate in big piles several miles thick and then become parts of folded mountain ranges. Well, that’s true, but there is no explanatory power to it — for that, you need modern plate tectonics and basin analysis. So, isn’t it easier to just forget old and wrong concepts like id, superego, and miogeoclines?

A couple of books

I went today to a Borders bookstore where Steven Johnson was talking about his new book, Mind Wide Open. I wrote here not long ago that popular science has become indeed popular in the US. However, this venue could not count as supporting evidence: in a city as large and as diverse as Houston only about a dozen people gathered to see a guy who is probably one of the best science writers around. He is certainly one of the best ‘science speakers’. I haven’t read yet any of his books, but bought now two of them (Emergence and Mind Wide Open), and hardly can wait to start going through them. Emergence must have some similarities to ‘Linked‘, written by my fellow Transylvanian Albert-László Barabási.

For now, I still have to work on Jonathan Weiner’s ‘The beak of the finch’. It is a great book, with a somewhat different perspective from what I got used to in writings by Dawkins or Pinker. Apart from learning quite a bit about how evolution works (not in theory, but in practice, in the field), it also gives good insight into the research process. Reading about how the Grants and their graduate students were essentially tracking evolution on a small island, sometimes I think about how nice it would have been if I knew exactly what questions I wanted to answer when I started my PhD 🙂 …

Understanding evolution

I stumbled upon a new website on evolution, created as a teaching resource by the by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. Among its many authors are Eugenie C. Scott (director of the National Center for Science Education) and Carl Zimmer (who wrote Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea). Excellent website, there is material that could fill a book (or more), including subjects like the nature of science, evolution 101, history of evolutionary thought, etc. It is websites like these that increase exponentially the value of the internet and make it worthwile to pay the monthly fee for a high-speed connection…