Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Book Selection(s) of the Month: Mutants, Strings, Burners, the Singularity, and More

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ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (August 2007):

Science and Beyond (seven books on science — and its opposite!)


I was lucky enough to join my friend Chuck Blake and a few others (including girlfriend Koli) recently in a discussion of physicist Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. Smolin argues that physics has basically gone down a blind alley the past few decades by assuming, without (as yet) much empirical evidence, that some form of string theory must be true — that all particles are generated by the varying vibrations of multi-dimensional strings. But what if this confidence is little better than stubbornness verging on…faith?

(Indeed, when I saw Richard Dawkins speak at the New York Academy of Sciences last year, he half-jokingly complained to a string theorist in the audience that it was men like him who make it harder to explain science’s superiority to intellectually-reckless religious belief.)

Smolin describes what he sees as the stifling, calcified state of academic physics, with its overly-respected leaders and cowed graduate students — reminding me once again of the book Calculated Chaos by my anarchist law professor friend Butler Shaffer, who argues that all institutions begin for an ostensible outward goal such as uncovering the workings of the universe but end — if they endure — by settling upon the de facto goal of self-perpetuation. (I am reminded, further, of the alarm that I’m told was felt at a branch of one political thinktank when it appeared that branch’s specific political agenda might actually be achieved, stripping that office of the thinktank of any purpose — don’t ask because I won’t tell, but it wasn’t my employers.)

Smolin goes on to offer some tantalizing glimpses of upstart alternative theories, including ones occasioned by recent evidence that the universe, contrary to all prior expectations, is accelerating rather than slowing in its expansion — and evidence, even more shocking to my mind, that gravity may work differently at the fringes of galaxies than at galactic cores, the stuff of Vernor Vinge sci-fi novels such as Fire Upon the Deep.


And even more like something out of a Vernor Vinge novel is the vision of the future described by inventor Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near (recommended to me by Renaissance man and Intergalactic Nemesis star L.B. Deyo), “the singularity” being the name for the hypothetical — and to Kurzweil’s mind, imminent — fusion of humans and machines. Kurzweil isn’t just imagining you and me with a few extra doodads such as built-in iPods or inborn Net access. Extrapolating (with pseudoscientific precision) from the accelerating rate of computing power and technological advance, he envisions cyborgification within mere decades but, more intriguingly, imagines within centuries the transformation of all available matter in the known universe into ideal “circuit board” material for conveying our immortal, uploadable minds and carrying endless, perfectable, Matrix-like fantasy worlds a trillion times greater than any pleasures or intellectual pursuits currently available to our paltry, flesh-stage brains [UPDATE: Coincidentally, John Tierney contends with the disturbing idea that we might well already live in such a computer-simulated reality, in his column in the Science section of today's New York Times]. And much as I love monkeys, I am inclined to agree with Kurzweil about our destiny — unless we nuke or bioterrorize ourselves into oblivion first, or we fail to blend seamlessly into our natural successors, the robots, and are instead destroyed by them or bypassed by them on their road to near-omniscience and near-omnipotence, like lemurs at the Bronx Zoo. (Think of this video, by the cartoonist/rocker responsible for the monkey-and-scientists-oriented song in the opening credits of the sitcom The Loop, as a glimpse of the tension that defines your future: “Monkey vs. Robot” [and note Andy Samberg as the monkey].)


Incidentally, I have something unexpected in common with Kurzweil: we both took our youthful inspiration as science admirers (and to some extent, I suspect, admirers of capitalism) from the children’s novels about teen inventor and adventurer Tom Swift (Reason’s Dave Weigel also notes Swift as an influence on the sci-fi parody cartoon The Venture Brothers). My parents read those novels to me when I was very young, and looking back at a few of them, I realize how my whole worldview is contained in those half-century-old books: Tom, a basically happy and curious 1950s-type lad with short blonde hair and a nice nuclear family, has no qualms about using capitalism (specifically, his father’s company, Swift Enterprises) to create futuristic inventions with which to fight criminals and communists — even if he has to ask his employees to work unexpected overtime, which they always do with pride (he is not so unlike another of my youthful heroes, Johnny Quest, about whom there may be a new movie in the works, and I only hope it manages, in this globalized age, to capture that eternal youthful sense that the world remains vast and largely unexplored, possibly containing lost civilizations and giant tarantulas living in dormant volcano craters).

The title of each Tom Swift book usually follows the simple formula of naming Tom and naming his invention of the moment, such as Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth-Blaster (no shame about using uranium as a power source, either, I’m pleased to add). My favorite title (though I may not have read the story itself) is surely Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar. Sheer poetry, and of a sort I would rediscover and love in varying forms in comic books, from the intentionally bombastic and unintentionally psychedelic work of Jack Kirby when I was a kid to the intentionally psychedelic and unintentionally bombastic work of Grant Morrison when I was an adult (but more about them — and my entire history of comics-reading! — in next month’s ToddSeavey.com Books Selection entry, dear reader).

Connecticut is my original home state and also where I once saw a lecture by two great-granddaughters of Edward Stratemeyer, the founder of the publishing syndicate that gave mid-century Americans not only Tom Swift but the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Bobbsey Twins, all staples in my maternal grandparents’ house when I was small (and for the story of what it was like to grow up with one of Stratemeyer’s numerous writers-for-hire, my friend Katherine Taylor, a novelist in her own right, recommends the new book House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis).

Before moving on to the next science-themed tome, I must note a few other Tom Swift novel titles, and to Hell with you if you don’t see the beauty in them:

Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire

Tom Swift and His Ultrasonic Cycloplane

Tom Swift and His Deep-Sea Hydrodome

Tom Swift and His Space Solartron

Tom Swift and His Electronic Retroscope

Tom Swift and His Spectromarine Selector

Tom Swift and the Electronic Hydrolung

Tom Swift and His Megascope Space Prober

Tom Swift and His Repelatron Skyway

Tom Swift and His Aquatomic Tracker

Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X

Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates

Tom Swfit and His 3-D Telejector

Tom Swift and His G-Force Inverter

Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere


For another sort of reminder of human potential, read Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi (recommended to me by medically-savvy former co-worker Aubrey Stimola), an understated historical overview of many of the most commonly-occurring human deformities. From dwarves to cyclopes, it is amazing how much this flesh can vary and still survive, even flourish in some cases (as with more than one dwarf who became the toast of European courts). So often looked upon with pity now, perhaps the mutants will seem like pioneers if the singularity ushers in an age of personal transformation (incidentally, I have long said that if I were a dwarf I’d cloak myself in bogus ethnicity by carrying a battle-axe and wearing a Viking-style helmet and that if I needed a prosthetic hand I’d want a gleaming chrome one with spikes instead of a bland, beige prosthesis, in each case avoiding seeming like a pitiable medical case — and famed architect Stanley Tigerman, who has devoted much of his career to making high-tech accommodations for the handicapped, told me he agrees with my reasoning).

In some ways, of course, that age is already upon us, as I was reminded when Jill Friedman forwarded to me a New York Times story about whether a man with a new type of prosthetic legs is too good to be allowed to compete against normal runners — how far we have come when the normals envy the amputee, and how pleasing it is! (But then, I was rooting for the computer to win in that chess match against Gary Kasparov.) Body modification is so common now that a hoax about two twins swapping limbs seemed all too plausible. We should ready ourselves — especially those prone to cling to simplistic and simplifying notions such as a unitary, non-physical “soul” — for ever-increasing ambiguity in this area. I would imagine, for instance, that those who insist there are clear-cut dividing lines between what is a person with a soul and what is mere tissue, such as many pro-lifers, will experience increasing difficulty in coming years even keeping track of what things they support and what things they condemn, as we learn to turn adult cells into experimental — yet technically unfertilized — pseudo-embryoes and the like. I recall that when the cloning of Dolly the Sheep was first announced, Rush Limbaugh condemned cloning on the grounds that the process could never create anything with a soul. A decade later, religious conservatives instead routinely condemn the process for unintentionally creating souls every time DNA and hollowed egg unite in a Petri dish. It all seems rather arbitrary — as long as you keep trying to shoehorn human complexity into sparse “spiritual” models. (For a more sober note on the limits of human possibility, though, you might enjoy this lecture on the serious limitations of life extension potential, pointed out to me by webmaster Michel Evanchik.)

A likely inadvertent reminder of how different the future of human potential looks to different prognosticators was provided by the op-ed page of a recent New York Times when, on the very same day, Paul Krugman despaired that short people like himself were in danger of being seen as freaks in Europe where, due in his mind to their superior health systems and political culture, the average height of youth is increasing with much greater rapidity than in the U.S., while David Brooks expressed concern that everyone everywhere will soon have such easy access to genetic engineering technology that everyone will be over six feet tall and, much like Krugman, he will be left looking like an ancient pygmy. This juxtaposition was a reminder, too, that no matter what trends intellectuals notice, in no matter what direction, it is always cause for concern and alarm. Shorter, taller, thinner, fatter — we are all doomed if current trends hold (but they never really do).


One current trend that my friend Brian Doherty clearly hopes is a model for the future is the annual southwestern-desert art festival called Burning Man, in effect a temporary city where all manner of games, sex, drugs, machines, structures, and experiences occur (right around this time of the year). Doherty’s book This Is Burning Man reveals an anarchist, pagan-transformational impulse at the heart of Burning Man but also shows, as I’ve come to expect from dealing with some of my own Burning Man-attending acquaintances, that a lot of the people who go to the thing are hardcore techno-geeks (I’ve long noticed art blending with engineering) rather than classic, back-to-nature hippies, despite all the sex and bodypaint. (I don’t know what Ray Kurzweil would think of Doherty’s Star-Trek-replicator-like musings about how Burning Man’s all-art-all-the-time decadence could be a glimpse of the de facto scarcity-free nanotech future, but I know the hippie-averse L.B. Deyo who recommended Kurzweil’s book to me would be aghast — despite the fact that he named his own monthly Austin, TX festival of intellectual oddities the Dionysium.)

Doherty, like me a libertarian, also sees Burning Man as a shining example of what can happen when people spontaneously, anarchically form a community with few legally-enforced rules — though a near-total lack of inhibitions claims the occasional casualty, as in the disturbing and surreal sequence in his book describing the day a temporary nightclub at the festival was set on fire (as many things are at Burning Man when those attending have finished with them) only to have an actual burning man emerge, wild-eyed, from the wreckage, apparently having decided for reasons that will never be known to walk directly and deliberately into the blaze.

(And if neo-paganism plus expensively engineered art projects don’t strike you as achieving the right balance between old and new, you might instead enjoy this unrelated retro typing-machine in a “steampunk” [as opposed to "cyberpunk"] vein or this project to move giant rocks around with only the technology that would have been available in the time of Stonehenge.)

Another reminder that unregulated frivolity (much as I ultimately side with anarchism) has its risks comes to me from my friend Dan Greenberg, state representative in Arkansas, who notes this fascinating and funny look at the notorious deathtrap that was New Jersey’s Action Park — and for another dose of anarchy, consider joining me this Thursday, August 16, at the 8pm showing of the documentary Off the Grid, which depicts people right here in modern American who’ve opted to live lawlessly in the desert, about which I’ll write more later.


Of course, no figure embodies our profound fear of unfettered, morally unbound transformation like that wily, serpentine ur-trickster, Satan, so think of my recent purchase of the 1930s satirical novel The Memoirs of Satan as something of an antidote to all the humanist optimism above. And the novel does (from my brief skimming of it) appear to concern almost exclusively Satan’s power of transformation, as he assumes the form of one notorious historical figure after another. To be honest, I’d considered giving the tome to my friend Michael Malice when I impulsively bought it, since he has taken an increasing albeit idiosyncratic interest in matters of faith of late, but he already owned a copy and an ex of mine, Dawn Eden, was moving to DC to become a professional promoter of chastity for a Catholic organization and deserved a fitting going-away present, so Satan lies with Eden now (and despite our philosophical differences, I hope Eden continues to do well).

As for Malice, I was reminded of another book he says he acquired long ago, the beloved children’s book Little Miss Curious, when I began seeing t-shirts emblazoned with the title character and her logo all over town recently. The first time I saw such a t-shirt, Little Miss Curious was stretched across mammoth breasts, and I had the disturbing experience of immediately thinking of Malice when I saw the shirt. More disturbingly, I thought of him again the second time I saw such a shirt — on a little girl with an immense facial birthmark, standing near the pit of rubble at the World Trade Center site. It’s fortunate I didn’t go mad.

(Speaking of both faith and Islamic terrorism, as of this writing, I still need a brave Muslim [ideally] willing to be one of our debaters — in what I promise will be a friendly, easy-going, humorous, thoughtful yet informal environment — up against singer turned movie producer Brian McCarter at Lolita Bar at 8pm on Sept. 5, 2007, as he argues “yes” in answer to the question “Is Muslim Immigration a Threat to Democracy?” while you argue “no,” via about seven minutes of opening remarks and an hour of largely unplanned but gently-moderated back and forth and Q&A with a likely politically-mixed and open-minded audience. [UPDATE: Got one! Stephen Suleyman Schwartz will be our other debater.])


Finally, in recent months I’ve read essays from the book The Flight from Science and Reason, a mid-90s collection of speeches and papers dealing directly with the question of the conflict between our superstitions and our efforts at science education. As a recent story about a tech-oriented school employing a Santeria priestess in an attempt to drive out the students’ evil spirits reminds us, Western civilization has not yet achieved complete scientific rationalism, and the older I get, the more I am convinced that people’s beliefs are dictated more by whatever primitive forces are at work inside their heads than by the vast universe of empirical facts outside their heads, though finding the courage to change that self-absorbed and self-limiting pattern offers immense rewards, both material and psychological.

That is not to say that the rational and the passionate cannot coexist. Indeed, I have rarely experienced a moment of greater delight than when I recently received a copy of Scientific American Mind in the mail at work, sent by writer Ken Silber, with a big, handwritten note attached saying “Todd — Nietzschean material on p. 85 — Ken” and directing me to a review by Silber of a book that argues that Nietzche’s dichotomy between the “Apollonian” (or rational, refined) elements of culture and the “Dionysian” (or passionate, dark, and dangerous) elements of culture may map rather well onto the activation by differing cultural activities of the left and right brain, respectively (vague and broad though all such metaphors are, even with attached brainscans).

I must say that, for what it’s worth, I tend to love music that features the rational breaking down into more passionate la-la-la melodic nonsense-sounds (say, the “Oh come away, oh come away” part of U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming,” or the “La la-la la-la” part near the end of Peter Murphy’s “Cuts You Up”) — perhaps not so different from the ecstatic transition from scripture to speaking in tongues that some religious believers experience.


I will skip the speaking in tongues (unless we’re referring to the Talking Heads album, of course), though, and stick to promoting science professionally. In fact, I just saw an article about Brown-alum bloggers in Brown Alumni Monthly (the May/June 2007 issue), and (though I think the most prominent blogger mentioned was Duncan Black from the leftist blog Atrios) it included a short inset listing a few “other” bloggers from Brown, including (in a note that technically squeezes about three errors into one sentence but pleases me anyway) Todd Seavey (class of ’91) who, in the magazine’s slightly-off formulation, writes HealthFactsAndFears.com, which takes a conservative look at environmental issues. Close enough.

I may not write FactsAndFears single-handedly (or always end up on the conservative side of environmental issues therein), but, as it happens, today brings my new copy, featuring a letter to the editor from me, of the very pro-science Skeptical Inquirer (the Sept./Oct. 2007 issue) — the magazine that taught me as a teenager to be wary of New Age mystics like those who (along with reincarnation buff Shirley MacLaine) celebrated the so-called Harmonic Convergence exactly twenty years ago this week, on August 16, 1987 (which also happens to have been exactly ten years after the death of Elvis, perhaps explaining his “resurrection” as a ghost in supermarket tabloid stories right around then — but I’ll be spending the thirtieth anniversary of his death and the twentieth anniversary of the Harmonic Convergence seeing that Off the Grid documentary, as noted above).

My Skeptical Inquirer letter chastised them (as did many other letter-writers, apparently) for not being more skeptical, a couple issues ago, about global warming doomsday predictions. Even the skeptics could do with a bit more science and a bit less faith, apparently. Excelsior.

P.S. But seriously, send me a defender of Islam’s compatibility with democracy for that Sept. 5 debate, and I will host in my usual neutral fashion, not favoring one debater just because of my own admittedly atheist inclinations. [UPDATE 8/16/07: The politically and religiously eclectic Stephen Suleyman Schwartz will be our Islam-defending debater on Sept. 5. Join us.]


Ken Silber said...

Ken Silberman? I think you’re conflating me with the Nietzschean Superman, even though we’re two different people.

Todd Seavey said...

Sorry, that’s exactly how I think the neurons skewed around midnight — corrected above now.

Scott Nybakken said...

A small correction — the theme song to “The Loop” is *not* “Monkey Versus Robot”; it is the musically superior (to my mind) song “Hockey Monkey” (also by James Kochalka Superstar). You can hear it in all its glory at http://www.fox.com/theloop/.

Scott Nybakken said...

Sorry, that should read “clarification,” not “correction.”

Lefty said...

Action Park was the greatest. I’ll always remember, on any given visit, the sea of humanity walking around covered in huge, red, bloody welts after wiping out on the alpine slide. We used to play a game where we’d go down the water slide one after the other, and then engage in hand-to-hand combat all the way down, trying to steal our opponent’s mat from under him so he would be subjected to gruesome scrapes and bruises from the slide’s joints. Wonderful memories.

And there’s a new and sanitized version of the park that still operates under the name Mountain Creek. Might be time for a nostalgic road trip.