...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gospel According to Sean ;-)

Suppose I was the Oracle of Delphi and you came to me inquiring, "What is the meaning of life?"...in my wistful imagination I might simply hand you a copy of Sean Carroll's latest book, "The Big Picture," and send you on your way! ;-)

Even though this isn't a math book I planned on reviewing it here, but that effort turned into 4 - 5+ pages of pedantry, there is soooo much to discuss or pass along from Sean's writing. There were also too many bits I wanted to quote... and, too many bits I'd want to take issue with... and too many bits to point out for contemplation... So I'll scrap most of that and opt instead for a few broad brushstrokes -- having looked at a number of the reviews of this book, I'm in good company, as I've not seen any that adequately cover its wide-ranging contents.

First, this is (to me) a fun read (the most fun read of all Dr. Carroll's books), and given the time of year, could even be called a "beach read" for science geeks at least.
In 400+ pages, Sean covers, somewhat breezily, a broad cross-section of physics, biology/neuroscience, statistics, philosophy, and matters in-between.  The sheer breadth of the book means it suffers a bit of shallowness here and there, sweeping along the surface of many topics without a lot of chance for nuance or fine details. You can read Sean's own description of what the book is about here:

...or get a sense of the range of material from his table of contents listed here (there are 50 chapters, but each is rather 'bite-sized'):

I'd almost recommend reading the very last short chapter of the book, "Existential Therapy," first. Even though it makes for a nice ending, it also gives a feel for how Sean's life journey to his current views transpired, and that may be helpful from the start. 

I like the joy one senses in Dr. Carroll's attempt (even mission) to communicate science (and specifically his "poetic naturalism" viewpoint), to the masses. He writes out of conviction and purpose to spread his own gospel as it were (though he'd probably object to that phrasing). It's always great to see people who don't merely go through the motions of writing or education, but seem truly invested in it.

Sean covers most all the major disputes between scientists and non-scientists (including creationists, intelligent-design folks, religionists, supernaturalists, solipsists, etc.) here -- which makes this a nice one-source reference for a lot of time-worn debates, as well as many of the arguments within the science community itself.
Perhaps the single most stringent idea running throughout the book is that you cannot defy the known laws of physics; any belief, theory, conception-of-reality one holds must be compatible with what we know of the particles, fields, forces that make up the universe. And this is where he'll catch a lot of flak for disputing the possibility of any future knowledge upsetting the apple-cart of our current-day understanding of those laws of physics. Who can see 5000 years ahead, even 1000? The picture of forces, particles, fields, just a century or two ago was vastly different than it is today.

He continues his long-held contention that a single mathematical formula accounts for how our everyday lives in the Universe proceed. And pushes his oft-spoken (but I think minority) support for the many-worlds/Everettian view of quantum mechanics. Carroll admits repeatedly that science is filled with uncertainty, doubt, the possibility of new evolving information, and that all those in the past who have declared some area of knowledge to be absolute or complete, have been shown to be laughably wrong. He admits that we cannot be "100% metaphysically" certain of anything, and that nothing is ever "proven" in science, but then seems to dismiss that as of no consequence, and annoyingly accepts physics laws as true based on the scant few decades of localized evidence collected. In short, it's annoying how easily Sean sweeps aside any possibility of enormous paradigm shifts (for lack of a better term) of our present state of knowledge. Critics will accuse Sean of "scientism" (a term I'm not terribly fond of) and worshiping a perceived, but illusory, rigor that physics bestows via "the Core Theory." Yet in mathematics, a billion true examples of something DOES NOT by itself prove that something is true (i.e., the Riemann Hypothesis); but in physics far, far fewer than a billion examples are enough to convince physicists of universal, unerring truth and precision. Induction may be necessary in the world (and physics), but it is not truly sufficient.

Carroll has been dismissive of Karl Popper in the past, but I was still surprised that Sir Karl doesn't even warrant a mention in the book. Similarly, no Carl Hempel, Doug Hofstadter, or Noam Chomsky and on the physics side, no mention of David Bohm, Lee Smolin, David Deutsch, or Freeman Dyson; one could probably easily cite two dozen more names oddly missing from these pages. But then, only a few of the thinkers that Sean does bring up get more than a few passing sentences of space; just a somewhat odd assortment. I don't even know how Sean knew when this book was done (other than the publisher setting a deadline), since the material could have easily gone on for another couple 100 pages.

Some of the weakest parts are in the last few chapters, where Sean dabbles in free will, causation, ethics, qualia, and other bits of philosophy (I would almost say 'semantic quicksand'), though I did somewhat enjoy his "10 Considerations" as substitutes for "10 Commandments" toward the end. Some of the philosophy discussion felt like token acknowledgment of philosophy's pertinence, while at other times Carroll's interest in philosophy seemed more genuine. But per usual, Sean is at his best when explaining physics and his perception of how the world (Universe) works; though if you've read his earlier books, you may not find much new material from him here on that.

Anyway, there's an awful lot to chew on in these pages, and I can't imagine any science-minded person won't enjoy reading it, whether you agree or disagree with Dr. Carroll's conclusions. This is a FUN-damental science joy ride, and a review can't do justice to the synthesis Dr. Carroll has attempted with it. The good parts are VERY good, and the weaker parts are still interesting, but just feel sketchy, with counter-arguments not always getting their due. Still, it is a sincere attempt by an infectiously-curious scientist to objectively grapple with the "big picture" of human existence and offer food-for-thought in very readable text. Depending on your own background, different parts of the volume will appeal to you most. It's a fabulous book for starting discussions... just not necessarily a great one for ending them. 

"The Big Picture" won't re-appear on my end-of-year Top 10 list here, because it isn't a math book, but it ought appear on any other end-of-year 'Top Nonfiction' list I can imagine.

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