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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Book Review

I've just finished "reading" a book that I sort of ordered by mistake, "An Introduction To Black Holes, Information And The String Theory Revolution: The Holographic Universe". The mistake was that I pre-ordered it based on a mention on a blog somewhere and the title.

I failed to look at the table of contents first, or leaf through a few pages. Had I known there'd be more equations than words I probably wouldn't have ordered it. But I soldiered on and read what I could, looked at the pictures, used the internet to look up unfamiliar terms (space-like, light-like, time-like, caustic, dialation, etc.), sometimes looking up the same terms several times.

In the end (which came last night on the train) I was left wondering if I had actually understood the things I'd thought I'd understood. Had I just "read" a science book, or had I gone on a guided fantasy? Similar to reading a novel in a language you don't understand, reading a physics book without knowing physics requires a bit of imagination. It did make me think. It reved the engine and spun the propeller. We're just not sure if we got off the ground. I'm not sure if I got the right ideas, but reading a book on "theory" suggests that the author isn't sure either (he's much more precise about what he's unsure about).

I've moved on to Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature". In the introduction he states; science does not prove, it probes." That might make scientists uncomfortable, but it's honest. A scientist should honor an honest desire to probe. But what I find is that there's very little tolerance of physics hobbyists like myself. Physicists make some efforts to give the rest of us a window into what they're on about, but that window also forms a partition.

To be fair, I don't envy their position. They're in something of an ivory tower/gilded cage. It even goes to the extent that specialists in high-energy physics are divided into camps that hardly communicate. And when they do communicate it usually ends in slap fights and hair pulling. What chance does the curious onlooker have to get some attention (or information that's not colored by in-fighting) in the middle of an all-out brawl?

Physicists also don't get much time to explain themselves to the popular culture. What does get popularised is usually so perverted by Hollywood or SciFi that it bears little to no resemblance to the science actually being done. And I'm sure your average garden variety physicist is as familiar as I am with the glaze that comes over people's eyes when you tell them what you do for a living.

So obviously for the physics enthusiasts there's nowhere to go. On the net there are plenty of new age crystal abusers who appropriate the buzz-words and metaphors of science to help them glamorize their fetish , but there aren't many sane lamen out there willing to chalk-talk their understanding of what the elite are getting up to. There's always some smug jerk two branches up the food chain waiting to smack down an inquiring mind making itself known. It seems like at every level science is a maniacally competitive environment. Maybe that's for the best. Maybe there's no other way for it to be.

I'm hoping that Bateson will be a good follow-up. He attempts to explain how culture follows biology, and how it can be that biology follows culture simultaneously.

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