Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Our Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014

At the outset, let me say that I’m not a physicist, although I did major in physics briefly in college. Nevertheless, I’ve had a lifelong interest in physics and, when I learned about theoretical physicist Max Tegmark’s book, Our Mathematical Universe, I figured I ought to read it. Also, it had become a reading project for my wife’s book club, so to keep up with her, I thought I’d better have a look. What I found in Tegmark’s rather long opus was a mix of conventional and speculative physics that left me scratching my head and wondering how such an obviously brilliant thinker could wander so far afield of what, at least to me, appeared reasonable.

Tegmark’s thesis is that we live within a nested set of individually complex universes, each of which he calls a “multiverse” because each contains an infinite number of like, “parallel” universes. He identifies four basic types of universes, stratified as Level 1 through level 4. In his classification, we live in the most basic of the levels, the level 1 multiverse, which more or less consists of the universe that we observe. His level 2 multiverse is one which we cannot perceive because it exists at a distance so great from us that light from it has not yet reached us and, because of his theory of how space is created, may never reach us. Things get weirder at level 3, the quantum level multiverse, and weirdest of all at level 4, where Tegmark’s assertion is that things become purely mathematical, although he pretty much seems to believe that everything is mathematical in the sense that his multiverses all consist at their essence of mathematical relationships.

He takes just under 400 pages to make all of his arguments, as well as to offer his views on life, the future of mankind, and, well, just about everything else you can imagine. Thus, you will understand that in this brief review, I won’t be able to recite and critique all of his arguments and, frankly, some of them I don’t understand, anyway. Let me say, however, that I’m pretty much OK with his level 1 and 2 multiverses, and even with his level 3 multiverse at the quantum level. Where he loses me, and credibility in general, however, is in his attempt to scale quantum behavior from the subatomic/atomic level to the macro scale of our daily existence. I have no problems understanding, or at least following the argument that, say, one cannot know both the position and momentum vector of an electron around an atomic nucleus and, therefore, it must be described in probabilistic terms with the practical result that we view it as a probability sphere around the nucleus. From this, the Heisenberg uncertainty description of observational imprecision, and the work of Schrodinger (his famous equation), Tegmark then extrapolates to the preposterous notion that for every move we make there is an opposite move that occurs in (or creates?) an alternative, parallel universe within our level 1 multiverse but which we cannot and never will perceive. The justification for this extrapolation is never convincingly made, an unfortunate fact given the non-intuitive nature of the assertion.

Tegmark goes on further to look at issues of space-time, and suggests that there is no unidirectional linear streaming of time but only a whole entity of space-time in which everything that has existed or will exist is present. In this view, what we perceive as the flow of time is simply our existence at sequential sections through this four dimensional continuum.

The fact that Tegmark believes his math strongly supports these views does not make them valid. As a theoretical physicist, his ideas do not come from physical experimentation, the actual testing of hypotheses, most of which cannot currently be tested, in any case. Flights of fancy aren’t necessarily gong to be validated, and Tegmark’s extrapolations at the third level and his theoretical fourth level are at least controversial, of not completely wacko.

Finally, Tegmark uses the last part of his book to dive headfirst into a lengthy discussion of perception, current nuclear age morality, and future of the universe. He spends an awful lot of time on the obvious, namely, that what we perceive as reality is merely our brain’s creation in response to the input of our senses and powers of interpretation. Duh. Perception is relative and potentially imprecise. I believe we learned this in high school, and my own retinal disease more than confirms my own distorted, highly subjective sense of reality.

There’s more in the book than I’ve described. For example, his discussion of the probability of other intelligent life in our level 1 niche is interesting but, in the end, his main thesis, that we live in universe of universes that we cannot perceive, and that these universes are at their essence mathematical entities, leaves me a bit bewildered. It’s fairly easy to throw out ideas about things no one can test (not the definition of the scientific method!), and his insistence that the mathematical relationships do not define reality but actually constitute it, require a stretch of imagination – or a degree of brilliance – well beyond me. The book is fascinating, but I’d take a lot of what Tegmark proposes with more than a grain of salt. At least, so says this non-physicist.

Recommendation: Read it if you’re a physics junkie and up for a fascinating slog.

Book Review: The Passage Trilogy’s First Two Books

   The Passage and The Twelve are the first two books of a planned trilogy by Justin Cronin, a prior winner of the Hemingway/PEN, Whiting, and Stephen Crane awards. The third book of the trilogy has yet to appear, but has been variously announced for late 2014 or sometime in 2015.

   I can’t remember who first recommended The Passage to me, and it took quite awhile – more than a year, I think – before I finally began to read it, but once I did, I was immediately sucked (yes, sucked) into the apocalyptic world and multilayered story created by Cronin.

   Let me begin by saying that, if you think you’ve had enough of vampire stories in recent years, you probably haven’t read The Passage and The Twelve. The plot has nothing to do with Transylvanian castles, swooning maidens with fang bites to the neck, the need for native soil, or lush romantic views of New Orleans. No, this is something completely different.

   What Cronin has concocted is a nightmare of Frankensteinian proportions in which, in the military’s attempt to create a race of disease-resistant, superhuman warriors, things go wrong, the monsters becoming more than anyone could have anticipated. Grossly physically altered humans, vampiric in their need for blood and indiscriminate in the swath of destruction they create while killing or “taking up” most of the rest of humanity, the world, or at least, what we are shown of the United States, is completely devastated. Except (of course), for some hardy survivors. And thus the stage is set for a quest as a band of brave survivors sets out to try to destroy the rapacious predators that humans have created.

   Okay, now, I get it. You’re thinking, I really don’t need this. It sounds just awful. But the truth is, it isn’t. It’s terrific, with minutely detailed character descriptions and an emphasis upon what it is to be human, to be connected to others, to have a common purpose, and to pursue it with great dedication. This is a book not really about monsters. It is about people and about purpose and love. At almost 800 pages, it is also very long, and it ends with the setup for the second book, The Twelve.

   If the first book concludes with the heroes’ mission still in its early phase, the second book takes us much farther along and into the lives of survivors not acknowledged in The Passage. It is a world in which those who could rise within the vacuum to seize power and abuse it have clearly done so, and it is up to our band of friends both to liberate those oppressed by humans as well as to chase after the monsters. At its conclusion, we are prepared for the not yet released final book of the trilogy, City of Mirrors, in which the ultimate battle will surely take place.

   In this review, I’ve purposely not described any of the characters in the stories, for to do so would greatly diminish the pleasure the reader will have upon meeting such completely delineated individuals. Beyond that, to describe or even hint at what happens to several of them would give away much of what makes the saga so interesting since, again, the two books are far more about the people than about the (shudder) vampiric creatures.

   Upon finishing The Twelve, I was disappointed over the delay in appearance of City of Mirrors. I can assure you, however, that I’ll be reading it as soon as it’s released.

Assessment: Highly recommended


Reminder: Don’t forget my two books:  Zendoscopy and Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, both available online in softcover and e-book (Kindle) format.

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt and Co., 2014)

Planet Earth is four and a half billion years old. It is not, as creationists would have us believe, only 6000 years old, and humans did not coexist with dinosaurs. Evolution is a scientific fact, not what those same Bible literalists and other religions fundamentalists, all of whom fail to understand the scientific (as opposed to the popular) meaning of the word, theory, would have us believe. And while Earth continues to grow older, evolution continues to occur. But there is a problem, and it is that evolution is happening at an ever increasing rate. And therein lies the core concern of Elizabeth Kolbert’s as developed in her extraordinary book, The Sixth Extinction.

In a meticulously researched, scientifically sound, and yet eminently readable work, Ms. Kolbert tells a story of evolution and five previous large scale extinctions of species on the planet. Through a series of personal adventures with a variety of scientists expert in differing disciplines, she provides both an informative view of what has gone before the age of humankind and then, having set the stage, she looks in depth at what is happening now, in an epoch increasingly being recognized as the “anthropocene”.

Her well supported thesis is that humans have had and continue to have major impact upon evolution. Through the often inadvertent and sometimes intentional redistribution of species in such diverse ways as spreading them in the ballast tanks of ships to befouling our atmosphere and oceans and poaching endangered game in ways that change local ecologies to favor or disfavor species, we are hastening the process of evolution on Earth. And no small part of what we are doing is accelerating the rate at which myriad species are becoming extinct: the sixth extinction.

It is remarkable that her grim tale of planetary transformation is told with wit and in lay terms, making the book both entertaining and frightening while always enlightening. The take-away from all this? Ms. Kolbert doesn’t preach but, rather, she simply lays out the facts, leaving us to decide. For this reviewer, the lesson is clear. Unless steps are taken to alter major aspects of human activity, we may be creating a dismal fate for our own species as well as others, many already severely affected.

There are those who believe that we need not do anything about all this, that their God will intervene either to remedy the situation or effect the “Rapture” for the deserving. But even these folks must admit that they don’t have a timetable for their hoped for salvation, and this ought to motivate them to join forces with the rest of us to safeguard Earth for succeeding generations. Unfortunately, however, human behavior to date does not bode well for positive change.

Ms. Kolbert has accomplished an extraordinary feat with her book. Rarely have the prospects for a fatal future been related in such a witty and engaging manner.

*Highly Recommended*

BOOK REVIEW: Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, 2013)

Over the years, I’ve read many horror stories, some fictional and some not. In truth, the most terrifying of these have been those that were not fictional. For example, several years ago I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever encountered. Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright, is another frightening tale that is made all the worse because it is a continuing story, one of cultism, manipulation, coercion, deception, and the willingness of people to believe uncritically in, and to commit their lives to, a religion so preposterous that it would be laughable if the reality of its penetration into society were not so shocking. Going Clear is the story of Scientology, as reported by a reputable and scrupulous journalist.

At the outset, I should state my bias. Those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I’m an atheist and humanist. While I love reading science fiction and fantasy stories and have even written a published collection of such stories, I know that such tales do not represent reality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the poor souls who accept the bizarre fundamentals of Scientology, large among them being the existence of the galactic overlord Xenu and of individuals’ bodies being inhabited by multiple “thetans” that must be expelled in order to “go clear”.

Society tends to view all new religions as cults, and where the label of cult ends and that of true religion begins is a somewhat arbitrary matter. Arguably, all religion, no matter how mature, is really cultism and characterized generally by belief in some element of the supernatural, acceptance of a defined body of orthodox thought, group identity, and intolerance of apostasy. What, really, is the difference between believing in the Christian resurrection of Jesus and Joseph Smith founding the Church of Latter Day Saints based upon his use of “seer stones” to read golden plates to which he was directed by the angel Moroni? Between the virgin birth and Heaven’s Gate believers’ faith in extraterrestrials in a spaceship trailing behind comet Hale-Bopp? I could go on, but you get the idea: religion requires some element of belief in the supernatural or objectively unfounded and generally is not subject to arguments of science or reason.

Wright’s book explores the origins of Scientology, beginning with the extraordinary life of L. Ron Hubbard, the man who started it all with his book, Dianetics. The tale goes into his early life, admittedly remarkable and characterized by a number of worldly adventures, each of which ended largely in failure, his becoming a science fiction writer, and then elaborating the germinal ideas that led to dianetics, which eventually became the religion of Scientology.

Hubbard became progressively unhinged over a period of years, paranoid, irrational, and fanatical. In the end, he was quite out of control and isolated by the church he founded, which was taken over by a second, less bright but arguably more organized, autocratic, and allegedly brutal individual, David Miscavige.

Wright details a number of church endeavors, prime among them being its battle with the IRS tor tax exempt status in which it beat the agency into submission with endless legal challenges, forcing a settlement that taxpayers now have to live with. On the PR front, he details how the church has aggressively courted the entertainment industry, notably latching onto and cynically manipulating John Travolta and Tom Cruise into being the church’s most prominent exponents. He sheds light on the circumstances surrounding the death of Travolta’s son, and describes in detail how the church actively sought out and groomed a female consort for Cruise. The litany of stories involving harassment, confinement and physical abuse of church members for various and often trivial transgressions, and the aggressive activities of the church in trying to retain certain of its defectors, paints a picture of an organization with little respect for human rights or dignity even more troubling than its crazy core beliefs.

One may well ask after reading Wright’s account whether it can all be true. The church denies much of it, but Wright’s documentation appears sound, with extensive citing of existing materials and interviews with many witnesses and church defectors. In the end, it is left to the reader to decide whether to believe it all, but if even some of what is recounted is true, questions must be asked, including how people can be so pathetically ignorant and vulnerable as to be sucked into such an organization, and how the church hierarchy can get away with what it apparently does.

Again, it should be stressed that much of what Wright has documented is denied by the church, but the weight of the evidence is not in its favor. As an atheist and humanist, I recoil at religious cultism, and so whether Wright’s account is valid in all of its respects is less an issue for me than that it is a cautionary tale about religion and what it can do to people in general. Even if none of the abuses and cynical manipulations alleged (and well supported) in the book actually took place, the central beliefs of the church are preposterous enough to warrant our total amazement that anyone could take them seriously.

This is a truly terrifying story, but one that should be widely read and seen as a cautionary tale about the irrationality and, in the case of Scientology, the dangers of uncritical religious faith and commitment.

Highly Recommended

Book Review: Spelled, by Kate St. Clair

Back in prehistoric times, when I was a kid, my parents wanted me to become an enthusiastic reader. Toward that end, they took the position that it didn’t really matter what I read, as long as I was reading. This led to my accumulating a large collection of comic books and checking out every science fiction novel I could find from the L.A. public library’s “bookmobile” that regularly visited my elementary school. (I can still remember the first sci-fi book I ever read: The Red Planet, by Robert A. Heinlein.) My parents’ approach worked, and I became an avid reader.

With this in mind, and after meeting writer Kate St. Clair at a local authors’ “meet and greet” at a nearby bookstore on California Bookstore Day (where I was also one of the participating authors), I decided to check out her young adult targeted novella, Spelled, published by Black Hill Press this past February.

In the course of her short book, St. Clair tells the story of the Sayers family through the voice of Georgia Sayers, the eldest of five siblings. We quickly learn that the children live with their stepfather, their mother being deceased and their biological father being someone whose critical role will become evident later in the story. As the tale progresses, we learn that Georgia and her sibs have an unusual and supernatural heritage that sets them apart from all but one other fellow student, a boy older than Georgia but one whom she begins to tutor in English. As Georgia, her three sisters, and her brother come to grips with their previously unknown family legacy, they face unexpected stresses and risks, and ultimately learn much about themselves that will finally bring them closer together than they have ever been in the past.

The book seems aimed at an audience of adolescent girls in roughly the 12 to 16 age range, and one can easily imagine it as the start of a series of stories about the family. It also contains precisely the kind of youth-oriented setup that could provide the seed for a series on “The CW”. By the time I had finished reading the book, it had occurred to me that it would be an excellent “stocking stuffer” for parents wanting to encourage their kids as readers.

In Spelled, Ms. St. Clair has nicely captured adolescent behavior, including especially some of Georgia’s uncertainties and angst over how to deal with life’s challenges and relate interpersonally with those around her. She tells a story that involves the supernatural while grounding it in real world decision making and the stresses that come with it.

My only criticism of the book is that I came across a few proofing glitches, but these were relatively minor and did not detract from the overall reading experience. In an age when books are no longer traditionally typeset but, rather, are uploaded from word processed files, proofreading can suffer. In this regard, Spelled isn’t unique, but the potential for inadvertent retention of typographic errors mandates special care before approving final galleys.

Recommended for the younger end of the YA audience