Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea
Bill François, translated by Antony Shugaar
St. Martin’s Press (August 17, 2021), 186 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.49
In this short but thoroughly enjoyable book Bill François shares his love of the sea and the creatures that live in it. He writes about the science, legend, and mythology of sea life.
The author opens the book by describing an encounter at the seashore as a child. He discovers a sardine in a tidepool, far away from where it should be. The sardine somehow communicates to him that it wants to be back in the ocean, and François obliges. This transforms him from a youngster with a fear of the ocean to an avid snorkeler. He describes doing line drawings of sea life in school when he should have been paying attention to a boring lecture on geometry, and how his teacher doled out detention for such subversive behavior. François has no love for the French school system.
Each chapter takes on a different aspect of ocean life and he prefaces every chapter with a series of “in which…” statements, just as you might find in a nineteenth-century British novel. (“In which distant galaxies glitter in the black eyes of prawns.”)
François describes how fish communicate with each other and work together. He discusses how they protect themselves from predators and how they find their food. He delves into how sea creatures perhaps communicate with humans.
The author devotes some space to the sexuality of fish. Several species of fish can change gender as appropriate. Others are truly hermaphrodite. He tells us the rockfish carries its young for more than two years, the longest gestation of any animal on the planet. (And he mentions that a rockfish can live more than a hundred years.)
One enjoyable section discusses how there are legends and accounts from around the world regarding how remora (that parasitical fish that attaches itself to larger sea life) communicate with humans and help them catch the sea life they were hunting. These stories seem to be similar while coming from disparate cultures. A modern researcher was not able to replicate this behavior, however.
François tells us that the sea serpent is more than a legend. It’s a fish called the giant oarfish, and he notes that it is shaped like a serpent and can grow up to thirty-five feet. The giant oarfish seems to be sensitive to earthquakes. Humans rarely see them, but they show up on occasion.
Eloquence of the Sardine is a translation of the French, so I have no way of telling how much of François’s voice is preserved, but translator Antony Shugaar’s light, conversational English is delightful to read.
If you enjoy reading about sea life and the oceans you won’t be disappointed with this title.
Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.
The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.
Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.
The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.
In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)
Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.
For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.
We talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity, but relativity is a scientific reality. We have to adjust for relativity in our timekeeping and GPS devices.
It’s not relativity in the scientific sense, but on a personal level we experience time at different speeds. I can stare at a digital clock display and it can seem to take forever for the clock to click over to the next minute. On the other hand, I can be focused on a task on my computer and an hour can be gone in what seems like no time.
Time can become relative when we look at the past as well. Someone on LinkedIn quoted another person’s tweet:
Someone said, “Thirty years ago,” and my mind went, yes! The 1970s, but they meant 1992, and now I need to lie down.
I feel exactly the same way. I look back fondly on the seventies. I still listen to seventies music regularly. I was at my hair stylist’s shop the other day and she was streaming seventies music on her Amazon Echo. I said, “I like your taste in music.” She replied, “I really love it. My dad used to listen to this music.” Make me feel old why don’t you? I have trouble accepting the fact that I graduated from high school fifty-one years ago. Can’t be? Can it? Yes, it can.
Thirty years ago I was working in Silicon Valley and Terry and I had been (back) together for a year. We moved to Gilroy when we bought our house there in 1997 and we moved to Hemet in 2105 after I had been laid off for a year. That meant we spent eighteen years in Gilroy. Sure didn’t seem like it.
Sometimes it all simply seems out of control.
We have the Steve Miller band to remind us that:
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future
That’s for sure.
Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Henry Holt and Co. (September 20, 2022), 279 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.20
I have mixed feelings about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sometimes I like what he has to say and sometimes I simply think that he is arrogant. I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish in Starry Messenger. (“Starry Messenger” is the English translation of the title of a work written in Latin by Galileo.) He says that the book “is a wake-up call to civilization.” I hate that phrase. I find it both trite and condescending. And to what he’s trying to wake us up I’m not clear. Except that he likes to suggest, and I paraphrase, that “we scientists have a more accurate view of the world than the rest of you.”
His first chapter is entitled “Truth and Beauty,” in which he tries to distinguish between the objective and the subjective. He talks about pi, (3.1416592…) and its infinite nature. Tyson writes about how President Clinton kept a moon rock on the table in the Oval Office and when people were at loggerheads in a discussion he would show it to them to offer some perspective. OK, fair point.
In a chapter entitled “Earth and Moon” he provides a cosmic perspective on things. He points out that the only human-built structures visible from space are Hoover dam and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Tyson notes, “Everything else that divides us—national borders, politics, languages, skin color, who you worship—is invisible to you.” Although he is not a big fan of religion, Tyson writes about the Apollo 8 astronauts reading the Genesis creation story from their lunar orbit. He writes about how the famous atheist of the sixties, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed lawsuits because of this. He imagines a conversation with her in which he asks if she were there in space looking back at the earth. When she replies she wasn’t, his imaginary response is, “Then shut the fuck up.”
In the same chapter Tyson shares an anecdote about how for an eighth-grade science fair he built a spectroscope from scratch to prove that the spectrum of the moon’s light is identical to that of the sun. (Hence proving that the moon’s light is reflected.) He says that he came in second place. I wish he had told us what project beat that out for first place.
Tyson’s chapter four is entitled “Conflict and Resolution.” He makes the point that liberals are not always as liberal as they believe, and that conservatives are not always as conservative as they think they are. Again, fair point.
In his chapter on the subject of “Risk and Reward,” it seems that Tyson is simply trying to demonstrate how much more rational scientists are than the general public. Thanks, guy.
I won’t go on. Other chapters had me scratching my head trying to figure out what Tyson was trying to get at.
There are some interesting ideas in Starry Messenger, but I’m not sure that I’m any the better for having read it.
A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters
Andrew H. Knoll
read by Tom Parks
HarperAudio, April 27, 2021
$17.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
This book is 277 pages in the print edition, which translates to four hours and fifty-seven minutes in the audiobook version, rather short by audiobook standards, but long enough for Andrew Knoll to get his message across. The print and Kindle editions contain several charts, diagrams, and photos. Fortunately, purchasers of the audiobook version can download a PDF file with these images.
Knoll does indeed condense the history of planet earth into eight chapters, and he arranges them logically. His eight chapters are:
- Chemical Earth
- Physical Earth
- Biological Earth
- Oxygen Earth
- Animal Earth
- Green Earth
- Catastrophic Earth
- Human Earth
The author does a nice job of tracking the history of the planet from its earliest days shortly after the formation of the solar system. Although the first chapter is titled “Chemical Earth,” Knoll refers to chemistry and chemical elements throughout the book.
He offers some interesting material. For example, he describes how life had to first form without oxygen before oxygen breathing animals could evolve. He describes one of the great extinctions, when there was an unusual amount of volcanic activity on the planet. This, he says, created an environment that allowed the dinosaurs to evolve. Then, of course, that infamous meteor hit what is now the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, causing their extinction.
Knoll describes the geological evolution of the planet, and how the continents moved and shifted until we got the geography that we know today. The first seven chapters offer an interesting blend of history, chemistry, geology, and biology.
Then the author gets to the final chapter: “Human Earth.” He paints a grim picture of what humans have done to the planet, and how human beings are responsible for global warming and climate change. He paints an alarming picture about the impact that these changes will likely have on the planet and society. Although he ends on a hopeful note, it’s clear that humankind needs to take bold action to protect the planet and our environment.
Tom Parks does a superb job of reading the book. He allows Knoll’s voice to come through while creating an enjoyable listening experience.
Chemistry was not my favorite subject in high school; I was much more focused on English and social studies. I didn’t like science subjects all that much. Then there was the fact that my chemsitry teacher was late in his career and seemed to be dealing with a case of burnout. I think he took his full complement of sick days, so we often had a substitute. He was also in charge of A/V at the school, which he seemed to be more enthusiastic about than teaching chemistry. That meant that when he was out we often watched films (of the old 16 mm type), whether or not they were related to chemistry, or even to science.
I managed to complete four years at Pitzer College without taking a single science course. (This was back in the olden days when Pitzer did not have any general education requirements.) Still, as an adult I was interested in science topics, and certainly watched plenty of science programs on the local PBS station wherever I lived. Similarly, I have watched or listened to plenty of science courses from The Great Courses. After finishing twenty-four lectures on Norse Mythology I was looking for something completely different (right Monty Python?) so I selected Understanding the Periodic Table, which The Great Courses and Wondrium were touting as one of their new releases.
I can’t say that this was the most captivating course I have watched, but I did learn a few things. I finally got it down that an isotope is an atom with a different number of neutrons than the most common form, and an ion is an atom with a different number of electrons than the most common form. I learned that there are many elements that don’t exist in their pure state but have to be extracted from the compounds in which they exist by using heat or a chemical means. I learned that allotropes are different configurations of the same element. For example, there are different allotropes of tin, some of which are stable and others of which disintegrate quickly. Graphite (pencil lead) and diamonds are different allotropes of carbon. And I came across elements I hadn’t heard of before, for example hafnium and osmium.
Professor Davis has a tendency to anthropomorphize the elements. He says that hydrogen wants to bond with other elements. Or that elements want to form octets, that is a molecule with eight electrons in the outer shell. It’s an interesting perspective.
The periodic table is larger today than it was during my junior year of high school. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) finalized today’s table in 2016, taking us up to element 118, oganesson. The PDF version of the course guidebook sacrifices a lecture-by-lecture outline of the course, as is found in most Great Courses lecture series, but instead provides us with an interactive periodic table. When you click on an element the guidebook takes you to a description of that element. Pretty cool.
If such things interest you, this is a course well worth watching.
Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas
by Jennifer Raff
Twelve (February 8, 2022), 369 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $14.99
In Origin Jennifer Raff sets out to dispel some of the misconceptions about the origins of humans in the Americas and to describe some of the results of the most recent genetic research on the subject.
A central component of the study of humans in the Americas is the Clovis people, named for the town in New Mexico near which their arrowheads were found. They were believed to be in the Americas around eleven thousand years ago. Some old-school archaeologists and anthropologists insist that these were the earliest peoples in the Americas and that sites believed to be earlier are not to be trusted. Raff disagrees, and her irritation with this approach shows. She tells us that humans were in the Americas fourteen to fifteen thousand years ago by the most conservative estimates, and perhaps as much as thirty thousand years ago, depending on the evidence you accept.
Raff is a geneticist and her work along with that of her colleagues takes a much more nuanced view than that of some traditional archaeologists. Their work shows at least four distinct genetic groups who migrated to the Americas at different times.
The author also uses the latest research to debunk other preconceived notions. Disputing the long-held belief that there was a Bering land bridge over which people migrated from Siberia to the Americas, she shows how more recent research suggests that there was a land mass called Beringia in the region where people lived, hunted, fished, and had families for many centuries. It was only later that they moved on to the Americas. She makes the case that some could have made the trip by sea rather than by land.
Although a geneticist, Raff has the utmost respect for her archaeologist colleagues and spends a lot of time discussing the archaeological evidence. She visits one archaeological site, a cave in South America, to see the first-hand the work her colleagues were doing. She understands the criticality of preserving the integrity of such sites. She writes:
Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints. Kill nothing but time. (And vandals, some of my father’s friends added, darkly—the gallows humor of long-suffering veterans of cave conservation.)
She discusses her work at a site in Alaska as a consulting geneticist, removing genetic material for study from ancient people whose remains were being moved to safer ground in advance of rising sea levels.
Raff describes in detail the methodology she and her colleagues use to extract ancient genetic material in order to prevent contamination. There are several layers and levels of safety and decontamination she must go through before starting work on a sample. It made me think of the decontamination scene in the movie version of The Andromeda Strain. Such precautions are well-justified, however. Another book I read describes how the first scientist who attempted to sequence a Neanderthal genome ended up with results that were mostly his own genes.
The author is adamant on one issue: respecting the wishes of Indigenous people. She firmly believes that scientists should not study the genes of the remains of Indigenous people without the consent of present-day descendants. While she describes incidents of cooperation between scientists and Native Americans, she also pointedly recounts those times when science did not respect the wishes of the people and engendered their mistrust.
If you are interested in the latest work on human migration to the Americas, Origin is a great place to start.
The experience of watching this course was rather odd. First, it was taped when the COVID protocols at the Great Courses had the instructors sitting instead of standing, and always looking at one camera rather than turning from one camera to the other. Second, instructor Gary Felder has a rather odd demeanor. His quiet, measured tone projects the more of an image of Buddhist meditation instructor than a cosmologist.
But a cosmologist he is, and there is a lot of good material here. Felder goes through the basics of the big bang theory, describing the various phases of the process. The formation of the first stars, and after that the planets, solar systems, and galaxies, did not occur right away. That happened sometime between thirty million and two hundred million years after the big bang. And Felder tells us the big bang was not an explosion but simply the moment the universe started expanding. Cosmologists call this moment Planck Density, “the earliest moment we can describe with our currently known laws of physics.”
Felder explains the original theory of the big bang was pretty much accepted once Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). Before that a few cosmologists, most notably Fred Hoyle, believed the universe was a fixed, stable entity, what Hoyle and colleagues called the steady state theory. But although most scientists believed the CMB was sufficient proof of the big bang, there were several phenomena that the theory failed to account for. This is where the theory of inflation arose. Inflation posits that distances in the universe increased by a huge amount, perhaps 101,000,000 (that’s ten to the one million) in a fraction of a second. This explains many of the inconsistencies found in the original theory. I won’t go into them here, but Felder describes them in detail.
There are some theories that say just because the big bang happened as it did in our observable universe, it did not necessarily happen that way in the whole universe. There might be multiverses these theories say. That’s where cosmologists draw from quantum mechanics.
An open question is whether the universe will expand forever or stop expanding and collapse back into itself. That depends on the critical density of the universe. It turns out that the universe is so close to that critical density that we don’t know. At least that was the case until the discovery of dark energy. With dark energy in place the universe will expand forever. Unless dark energy decays. Then maybe it won’t.
Confusing, yes. But Gary Felder helps make all of this clear in his twelve lecture series.
Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect
Basic Books (August 18, 2020), 247 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $26.99
This book was not what I expected.
I have been interested in the phenomenon of synchronicity since the mid-1970s and have experienced it in my own life more than once. I’m interested in reading new material on the subject, hence this title caught my attention since I had just finished listening to the audiobook version of Paul Halpern’s Flashes of Creation, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But I’m not sure what Halpern was trying to accomplish here.
He discusses the debate over the speed of light, and the argument over whether it was fixed or variable. He recounts how Einstein’s special theory of relativity put an end to that debate: it is fixed. Halpern then provides an overview of the emergence of quantum mechanics, and how Einstein could never embrace the theory.
The author describes how quantum entanglement was discovered, which states that two subatomic particles can be at a great distance from each other, but the state of one can affect the state of the other. He delves into the work of Wolfgang Pauli, who was interested in this phenomenon. But the work of Carl Jung and his investigations into synchronicity fascinated Pauli as well. The two worked together and Pauli shared his dreams with Jung, which Jung published without revealing the subject’s identity.
Halpern spends a good portion of the book discussing the collaboration between Halpern and Jung but dismisses Jung’s understanding of synchronicity as anecdotal and not verifiable. The author, however, gives grudging credit to the work the two did together: “Though Pauli and Jung’s dialogue was not purely scientific, they did identify a significant dichotomy in nature: the distinction between causal linkages and synchronous connections.”
This book is not the place to go if you want to learn about synchronicity. (Start with Jung’s monograph for that.) Nor is it the best place to learn about quantum mechanics, although there is nothing wrong with what is here. There are many other excellent books on quantum mechanics. (Click the Books link in the Categories map on your right to find several.) If you want to read the best work of Paul Halpern go straight to Flashes of Creation.
Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate
read by David Stifel
Basic Books, August 17, 2021
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
In this highly listenable volume Paul Halpern traces the history of cosmology in the twentieth century through two of its most famous researchers and popularizers: George Gamow and Fred Hoyle.
The two men were alike in many ways and different in others. Gamow was one of the developers of the big bang theory of the universe while Hoyle advocated a steady-state hypothesis. Both were capable researchers and both were popularizers of astronomy and cosmology. Gamow appeared on television in the United States and wrote a “Mr. Tompkins” series of books: a sort of “for Dummies” set long before that line existed. Hoyle did radio programs in the United Kingdom and wrote novels. Gamow loved riding motorcycles and Hoyle was a hiker and mountaineer.
Along the way Halpern writes about many others involved in twentieth century cosmology. He discusses Edwin Hubble and his discovery that the universe is expanding. He gives plenty of attention to Einstein, who leaned toward a steady-state universe until he met with Hubble and learned of his findings. Halpern recounts how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. This discovery essentially confirmed the big bang theory of the creation of the universe and discredited Hoyle’s steady-state theory. Stephen Hawking appears in the book, and we learn that, ironically, early in his career he had applied to work with Hoyle but was turned down.
Halpern discusses the B2FH team: Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William A. Fowler, and Hoyle. The Burbidges were a husband-and-wife team who wanted to work in the United States as it was impossible for Margaret as a woman to get telescope time in England. The team, though steady-state proponents, did some highly credible work regarding the formation of the elements in stars. Sadly, Hoyle could not accept the rejection of his steady state theory and kept coming up with more and more bizarre permutations of steady-state as evidence for the big bang increased.
I read a lot of astronomy and cosmology when I was in elementary school. I no doubt read about the big bang theory, but I specifically remember reading some of Fred Hoyle’s work and his discussion of the steady state theory. I know I read one of his novels. It was in that context that I found this joint biography engaging.
David Stifel capably reads Flashes of Creation and wisely avoids too much vocal inflection when voicing the words of the individuals the book discusses. Listening to this audiobook was time well spent for me.