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Thursday, April 08, 2021

Reread: Cosmos

 I checked out Cosmos from the library in the hopes of reading it to Bowen. To say that the book and the TV series was influential in my life and shaping my thoughts as an adolescent is an under-statement. The book's telling of the story of Hypatia, for instance, has haunted my thoughts and understanding of the price scientists and truth-seekers have paid for their unswerving allegiance of the truth.  Sad to say, Bowen got bored after I read him the story of how you could use sticks to measure the size of the Earth, but I found myself getting sucked in the book again.

It's a truism that science moves on, and one would expect that books written decades ago are obsolete today, but to my surprise, Carl Sagan picked such a good job picking topics and materials that are timeless and resistant to obsolescence that the book still reads well. Perhaps the only fault I might even consider picking on is the Drake's equation, where today we know that most stars close to the center of the galaxy are likely to have been sterilized constantly by the presence of supernovas nearby and wouldn't be able to harbor life, but doing the math even reducing those numbers by a third doesn't really make a huge difference in the end result.

But what comes through even more is how poetic the book is, and how much the book is a paean to the scientific endeavor and the sense of wonder it brings:

We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos. Think of the Sun’s heat on your upturned face on a cloudless summer’s day; think how dangerous it is to gaze at the Sun directly. From 150 million kilometers away, we recognize its power. What would we feel on its seething self-luminous surface, or immersed in its heart of nuclear fire? The Sun warms us and feeds us and permits us to see. It fecundated the Earth. It is powerful beyond human experience. Birds greet the sunrise with an audible ecstasy. Even some one-celled organisms know to swim to the light. Our ancestors worshiped the Sun,* and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even a mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars? Hidden within every astronomical investigation, sometimes so deeply buried that the researcher himself is unaware of its presence, lies a kernel of awe. (Kindle loc 4021)

Even the final chapters, written near the end of the cold war about the threat of nuclear extinction, still reads relevantly today: 

The chief danger of adopting a credible pose of irrationality is that to succeed in the pretense you have to be very good. After a while, you get used to it. It becomes pretense no longer. (Kindle loc 5400)

 If we are willing to contemplate nuclear war and the wholesale destruction of our emerging global society, should we not also be willing to contemplate a wholesale restructuring of our societies? From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: to preserve the lives and well-being of the citizens of the planet. Should we not then be willing to explore vigorously, in every nation, major changes in the traditional ways of doing things, a fundamental redesign of economic, political, social and religious institutions? (kindle loc 5452)

In today's post-truth society, the ethos of science and scientists is under attack more than ever.  But Sagan still reminds us that science is the framework that lifted civilization out of the dark ages, and that of the essential properties that have made it far different from the philosophy that came before:

it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. (Kindle loc 5516)

 In the final chapter, you can hear the pleading in Sagan's voice, begging scientists not to abandon public discourse, for fear that the story of Hypatia would become a common-place one. And today, we need it more than ever before. For me anyway, this is a much needed reminder after reading the biography of Enrico Fermi.


Monday, April 05, 2021

Review: Invincible Compendium 2

 Invincible Compendium 2 carries on from the first book, and you can see Kirkman having settled into a rhythm - have one threat in the background while the hero is dealing with another, and keep them coming fast and furious.

Superhero comics tend to escalate - after you've saved the world, you need to save the galaxy. After you've dealt with super-powered aliens, you have to deal with an army of them. This together with the problem that punching problems is of limited use in the real world, superheroes also tend towards taking over the world if they want to break out of the doom loop of capturing supervillains, putting them in jail, and then having them escape again only to do their dastardly deeds.

To his credit, Kirkman's book deals with all these issues. And it does so well in the context of the story -- Mark gets a younger brother who's half-alien, and hence doesn't have the same perspective as a human, and naturally asks wouldn't he have saved more lives if he'd killed the super-villains, given their penchant for escaping prisons and coming back to hurt more people. Similarly, by the middle of the book, he's questioning how much good he's actually doing by just repeating the super-hero loop, especially when one of the villains succeed in blowing up a city, and proving that the result was beneficial in the long run.

Kirkman isn't the first to deal with these issue. Alan Moore classically does this in Miracleman, still the best re-constructionist telling of the superhero story in history: the ultimate conclusion of the Superman history has to be Superman taking control of the world. It can't end any other way satisfactorily. A similar theme shows up in Warren Ellis's The Authority series, which also features the hyper-violence in Kirkman's work. To be honest Miracleman is a much better told story, tightly paced, and with much better science fiction (e.g., Miracleman's powers are explained, while Invincibles powers just rely on you knowing the superhero tropes). But Kirkman does do coupled superhero stories in ways that I thought were uniquely his own, so I still think his stuff is well worth the read.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Review: The Pope of Physics - Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age

 I picked up The Pope of Physics as an audio book when it was on sale.  One of the classic interview question types during technical interview is the Fermi estimation problem. But other than that, I realized I didn't know very much about Fermi, so a biography would be well worth reading.

This biography of Fermi turned out to be educational in more ways than just learning about his contribution to physics and how Fermions were named after him. Not only did it cover the rise of physics from being a backwater of intellectual progress (there were more professorships of Math in Italy than there were professors of Physics) to the forefront of war, it also covered the way the rise of fascism in Italy was ignored by high social ranking families who thought they were immune. Fermi's wife, Laura Capon was Jewish, and her father was a (retired) admiral in the Italian Navy and a war hero. Because they thought they were protected, they were complacent about the semitism that was on the rise in Italy at the time. By the time Fermi realized he had to flee, it was almost too late --- he eventually used the Nobel prize ceremony (he won one in 1938) as an excuse for him and his family to visit Stockholm and London and then ran away to the United States. The lesson I take from this is that if you're not a Nobel prize winning physicist and the country you live in is about to turn fascist (and you're not a member of the ruling party), you absolutely cannot wait until the last minute to take precautions and plan to escape.

One would think that after that intrusion of politics into Fermi's personal life would make him more of a political activist, but Fermi truly was a physicists' physicist, happy to make statements about how physicists don't have any special insight about how atomic bombs should or should not be used. In fact, when the hydrogen bomb was initially proposed by Teller, Fermi voted against pursuing it because he and others spotted flaws in the proposed implementation. When a revised implementation plan was proposed, he was so taken by the technical implications that he happily joined in against the effort!

All in all, the book does a great job in providing the context behind an amazing thinker (including many examples of how he was at the same time a theoretical physicist, an experimental physicist, and a teacher --- all of which he did well), as well as a good idea of what it took for him to do this --- his children grew up estranged from him, as he spent more time with his students and experiments than with his children.

Well worth the time. Recommended.