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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Higher Speculations: Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology - Helge Kragh I only discovered Helge Kragh recently, but I've really grown to like him. Unlike most people who write non-technical (I hesitate to say "popular") books about science, he doesn't have an obvious agenda; he seems to be an old-fashioned kind of academic who believes in old-fashioned things like impartiality, scholarship, careful weighing of the evidence and historical perspective. He refuses to dumb it down, and produces dense, longish volumes full of small print and smaller footnotes. It's easy to see why he's so deeply unpopular here on Goodreads. His one saving grace is that he does actually write quite well. That's always something.

Higher Speculations is his latest book, and if, like me, you're confused by things like Greene's The Elegant Universe or Krauss's A Universe from Nothing, you might want to consider checking it out. We are right now being deluged with amazing scientific stories about the world we live in. Everything is made of sub-microscopic vibrating strings, and there is a super-complicated thing called M-Theory which is soon going to explain all of physics! The Universe started as a vacuum fluctuation, and the process which blew it up to macroscopic size has also created countless other universes! Somehow (at least, so Krauss and Dawkins assure us), this proves that God doesn't exist! And so on, and so forth. It's getting remarkably hard to distinguish science from science-fiction.

Kragh, in his dull, old-fashioned way, asks a question which surprisingly few other authors seem to have touched on in any detail: when you look at the history of science, have similar things ever happened before? Oddly enough, it seems that the answer might possible be in the affirmative. For example, the "vortex theory of atoms" was insanely popular between 1870 and 1900. Atoms were vortices or knots in the ether, and studying the way these vortices interacted was going to solve all the problems of science. The mathematics was rather complex and results were slow to emerge, but it was just a question of giving the mathematicians time to work on it! But somehow people lost interest after a while. The vortex theory was never exactly refuted, just abandoned; and the same thing happened to the "electrodynamic" theory that followed it. Relativity and quantum theory were so much more productive and interesting. The first half of the book describes these and similar episodes at length.

In the second half, Kragh turns his skeptical eye on currently fashionable science, where we don't yet know what history's verdict is going to be. In particular, he examines string theory, the Anthropic Principle and the Multiverse, which over the last 20 years have all linked up together. Maybe, as the exponents of these theories like to argue, they constitute a revolution in the way we do science. Maybe the most important thing is now mathematical elegance rather than experimental confirmation. Maybe the inescapable consequence of "M-theory" and "eternal inflation" is that we have a very large/infinite number of different universes, and some of the stranger properties of our own universe are to be explained simply by the fact that they are necessary if life is to exist.

Or maybe people will just get tired of these ideas the way they got tired of atomic vortices. Kragh doesn't know: he tries to show you the evidence on each side, and lets you make your own mind up. I couldn't help thinking that it made a pleasant change from Greene and Krauss, but I'm aware that I'm swimming against the tide.

On further reflection, I take it back about Kragh not having an agenda. He does: he'd like to preserve the dull, old-fashioned idea that the difference between science and pseudo-science depends on falsifiability, and much of the book is about that in one way or another. As string theorists dismissively say these days, a typical member of the Popperazi.