The Transcendent Brain

The Transcendent Brain coverThe Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science
Alan Lightman
Pantheon (March 14, 2023), 209 pages
Kindle edition, $13.99, Amazon hardcover $23.40

This is the second book I have read by Alan Lightman, the first being Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. In both books he talks about his experience of spirituality, and in both books he insists that he is a materialist.

In The Transcendent Brain, Lightman writes in the introduction about watching the comings and goings of ospreys at his home in Maine. He describes how two young ospreys made their first flight after leaving their nest, and how they made eye contact with him. Lightman writes, “Words cannot convey what was exchanged between us in that instant.” Throughout the book he talks about spirituality, but he insists that “the universe is made of material stuff, and only material stuff.”

Lightman writes about a philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn who argued for the existence of the soul. He then discusses the Roman philosopher Lucretius, whose work I read in the original Latin when I was a classics major at Pitzer College in Claremont. In De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) Lucretius offers a sort of natural history, in which he states that the whole world is strictly physical in makeup and there are no gods to intervene with our fate. He wants to tell us that we need have no fear of their wrath. This was in contrast to Plato, who conceived of a soul separate from the body.

The author then discusses scientific research on the nature of consciousness and argues that all consciousness can be shown to come from strictly material sources. He writes about a debate in which he participated with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in which he described some of his transcendental experiences. Dawkins, Lightman reports, responded by saying that he would not let Lightman out transcend him. In the end it appeared to me that there was not really much disagreement between the two of them. It’s just that Lightman is tolerant of people who have religious beliefs and Dawkins is not.

Ultimately, methinks that Lightman doth protest too much. His insistence on the material seems forced and perhaps a tad desperate. I might wish that he accept his transcendent experiences at face value and leave them at that. For reading on the awe and wonder of nature, look elsewhere. Many of Loren Eiseley’s books are out in reprint editions, available in paperback, hardcover, and e-book. You will not be disappointed reading Eiseley.

Ways of Being

Ways of Being coverWays of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence
James Bridle
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (June 21, 2022), 386 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.99

I first heard about Ways of Being when Krista Tippett wrote about it in her weekly On Being email, gushing about the book for multiple consecutive weeks. I admire Tippett’s work, so I downloaded the Kindle sample and read it. Author James Bridle is obsessed with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and in the introduction provided in the Kindle sample, that’s what he discusses. I am fully aware of the ubiquity of AI these days and I don’t mean to be an ostrich with its head buried in the sand, but between the mainstream news media and social media I sometimes feel saturated with the topic. I put the sample aside and didn’t buy the book.

But then the marvelous Maria Popova wrote positively about the book in her Marginalian blog. I decided to revisit it and bought the book. Much to my annoyance the first chapter was all about AI as well. Bridle writes about his experiment in creating his own self-driving car with off-the-shelf parts. He was living in Greece at the time and tried it on the narrow road going up Mt. Parnassus. I was annoyed but I persisted. The book got better after that.

Bridle writes about how we might think about self-awareness in the animal kingdom. He discusses animals in captivity and their attempts to escape their cages or enclosures. He writes about experiments to determine whether animals had self-awareness by putting mirrors in their environments. Interestingly, different primates exhibited different behaviors. Dolphins, when presented with mirrors, engaged in frenzied sex.

The author devotes part of a chapter to a discussion of the octopus. Those animals are highly intelligent even though their makeup is radically different from mammals. The bulk of their intelligence is not in the central brain but rather in their multiple arms. Bridle describes the ingenious attempts one octopus made to escape its captivity. I wish he had devoted more space to the octopus.

Plants are part of the equation as well. Bridle describes how a tree can experience a threat and when that threat returns the tree will communicate the danger to its neighbors. Then there is the slime mold. Not properly classifiable as an animal or as a plant, the individual cell is extraordinarily simple, yet when working together the collective cells engage in intelligent behavior. This is not new knowledge: I read about the slime mold in Lewis Thomas’s enchanting Lives of a Cell back in the seventies.

Bridle also discusses other early human species. He describes how Neanderthals and Denisovans were just as capable and skilled as early humans. In fact, Bridle writes, “Neanderthals and Denisovans were pioneers in what were once considered extreme environments: their adaptations, their genetic legacy, helped our ancestors to outlive them.”

The author devotes considerable space to the computer, beginning with the mechanical precursors to the modern computer. This, of course, takes him back to AI. Bridle writes that the idea that we can program AI systems to be completely friendly and non-threatening is “both wildly optimistic and worryingly naive.” (Full disclosure: in the mid-1990s when I was a technical writer I worked for a company that developed “expert systems” for the banking and insurance industries, a term then preferred over AI.)

Bridle concludes the book by writing about solidarity, not only with other humans, but with “the more-than-human world.”

I’m glad I returned to Ways of Being and stuck with it. There is much to ponder here.


Rooted coverRooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown Spark (May 4, 2021), 241 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $17.99

The subtitle of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book is a bit misleading, in that Rooted doesn’t really contain a lot of science. There is plenty of nature and spirit here, however. The book is reminiscent of the work of Loren Eiseley or Annie Dillard’s early masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, with a good dose of medieval Christian mysticism thrown in.

Haupt writes about hope. She says that a Benedictine definition of hope is “that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future,” which imbues our actions with a “special urgency.”

Where Haupt does engage in science is where she discusses how science has proven that spending time in nature improves our physical health in measurable ways. She discusses what she calls forest baths, the practice of mindfully spending time in nature. And she invokes Carl Sagan who kept reminding us that “we are star stuff.” You may remember Sagan intoning those words if you watched the original PBS Cosmos series in the eighties. Haupt quotes Dr. Ashley King, a meteorite researcher at the Natural History Museum, who validates that sentiment. King says, “It is totally 100 percent true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.”

Haupt does not hide her anger about human offenses against nature. She fumes about a deer that was killed by an inept archer on a nature preserve located on land owned by the University of Washington, where hunting is prohibited. She writes about orca whales separated from their pods and taken to aquariums where most of them did not live long. Haupt is furious with her city government’s plan for destroying a starling nest and rescues one of the birds which becomes a loved household pet (about which she wrote an earlier book).

The author describes how, as a child, she discovered a pond near her house which frogs inhabited. She learned the frogs would sit with her if she was quiet and moved slowly. She called this her frog church and, being raised Catholic, felt the need at confession to tell the priest that she had another church.

Haupt embraces the Christian mystical tradition. Without mentioning St. Francis by name she refers to the animals of the natural world as brother and sister. In the beginning of the book she lists the medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen as one of her mentors. And throughout she quotes another medieval woman mystic, Julian of Norwich.

So, yes, in Rooted you will find a lot of nature and spirit with just enough science to tie it all together.

Creativity and Your Brain

Creativity and Your Brain coverCreativity and Your Brain
Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

I’m always interested in the subject of creativity, so when I saw this course publicized I had to take advantage of my Wondrium subscription to watch it.

The course covers a lot of material in its twenty-four lectures. There is a lot of material about brain research and what part of the brain handles what functions, complete with graphics that show where in the brain a particular activity is handled. Professor Viskontas early on dispels the myth that the left brain is strictly analytical while the right brain is strictly creative. But in later lectures she makes clear that the right brain does play a role in creative thinking and the left in analytical thinking; It’s just not as clear-cut as popular culture would have us believe.

Viskontas discusses issues such as dyslexia (apparently Beethoven was dyslexic), brain damage, and conditions such as autism. She is sensitive about placing labels on people with non-normative brain functions and explains why it is often better to talk about “a person with autism,” rather than “an autistic.” At the same time, she acknowledges that sometimes a person with autism is comfortable with the adjective “autistic” because it accurately denotes how their brain functions.

The lecture on drug use and creativity was interesting because of its balance. While Viskontas admits that sometimes drugs (including caffeine) used in a certain way can enhance creativity, on balance chemical stimulants rarely do a lot for creativity.

The most interesting part of this series is the professor herself, Indre Viskontas. She has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. But she is also an accomplished professional musician. She has played starring roles in professional opera productions, has directed opera, and has coached vocalists. I can’t imagine a more accomplished person to present this course.

Eloquence of the Sardine

Eloquence of the Sardine coverEloquence 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 coverHelgoland: 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.

Time keeps on slippin’ into the future

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.

time imageIt’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:

quoteSomeone 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

Starry Messenger coverStarry 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

A Brief History of Earth coverA 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.

Understanding the Periodic Table

Understanding the Periodic Table cover Understanding the Periodic Table
Ron B. Davis Jr., PhD
Georgetown University
Watch for the sale price to recur at The Great Courses
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

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.