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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
Scientific Theory and Religion: The World Described by Science and Its Spiritual Interpretation - Ernest William Barnes People new to Goodreads will not be familiar with the enigmatic BishopBarnes. When I joined in 2008, he was one of the most active members, and his witty, erudite, provocative posts had attracted a large following.

No one knew who BishopBarnes really was; he maintained the persona of a 1930s senior British cleric with rather unorthodox religious views, who somehow also happened to be startlingly well-read in science and mathematics. He never allowed the mask to slip, and invariably stayed in character. There were several theories. Some people claimed he was a consortium of smart grad students at CERN or the Perimeter Institute; his prolific output and wide-ranging interests tended to support that idea, as did his remarkable grasp of the technical aspects of relativity theory. But he was stylistically consistent, and would CERN grad students also know Latin and obscure science texts from the late 19th century? After a while, a rumor started to circulate that he was Roger Penrose. (One self-claimed expert pointed knowingly to the way he cited Poincaré and Clifford). It didn't seem impossible; but why would Penrose spend so much time on such an obscure joke? The fact was, we simply couldn't figure it out.

His core interests were science and religion, but BishopBarnes had opinions on absolutely everything: whether quantum mechanics made sense, if bees could learn from experience, in what ways the characters of the Son and the Father differed, whether Helen of Troy might have had an unusual number of chromosomes. He was clever about deploying his 1930s outlook for maximum shock value. Some people, like me, found him hilarious, but others were less amused. After he posted his Jared Diamond review, where he solemnly assured us that scientists had determined that the sub-human Neanderthals were black while the superior Cro-Magnons were white, he was angrily unfriended by several people; there was a similar reaction to his Cyril Kornbluth thread, where he argued that "feeble-minded women" urgently needed to be sterilized "before their uncontrolled breeding undermined our race".

On the whole, though, his fans were very loyal. He had two party pieces, which we never tired of. The first involved getting into a debate with a creationist. He would begin by explaining the scientific evidence in favor of evolution (it was impressive how he never once forgot himself and mentioned DNA); then, just as they were starting to quote Biblical verses back at him, he would switch around smoothly and demonstrate that they were equally ignorant about theology. The second routine was basically the first one in reverse. This time, the stooge would be an aggressive atheist; the Bishop would start by demonstrating how poorly they understood philosophy (he was himself particularly well-versed in Kant, Berkeley, Hume and Hegel), and then proceed to show that he also knew more about science. Both setups were marvelous to watch.

One day, we discovered to our sorrow that BishopBarnes had disappeared. His account was no longer there, and all his reviews and comments had vanished. We missed him. But a few weeks ago, I made a remarkable discovery. The Bishop had gone underground! He had taken the entire body of work he'd posted on Goodreads and miraculously reformatted it all into a lengthy book. Evidently, Cambridge University Press are in on the joke: completely straight-faced, they assure us that this is a reprint of a work originally published in 1933, which in turn is based on a series of lectures delivered between 1927 and 1929 at the University of Aberdeen. Someone has even constructed a few plausible-looking Wikipedia pages.

I immediately ordered a copy, and have spent several evenings reliving the Bishop's glorious career. A single little grumble: he probably shouldn't have begun with his one-star review of A Brief History of Time. Admittedly, he's done a fantastic job of condensing down the 800-post comment thread into a coherent narrative, and I think he does more or less justify his rather extravagant claim. (General Relativity is obvious: it just follows from the definitions when you think about it carefully enough). But not everyone will want to read though this amount of tensor algebra, and personally I think he could have moved it to the end of the book. On the other hand, if he'd done that he wouldn't have been the Bishop.

I still wonder who he was.