Saturday, February 12, 2011

Science Corner

Recommended science reads by Steve, a staff member from Erna Fergusson Library.

Gravity from the Ground Up by Bernard Schutz -- Nontechnical but deep and clear.

Entropy Demystified by Arieh Ben-Naim -- Most simple and clear explanation of a concept that often trips people up. And it's a somewhat novel take on the subject.

The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon -- Inspired by a child's question--"Why don't animals have simple languages?" A deep and erudite inquiry into the nature of linquistic symbolism and why animals don't get it, covering linguistic, neurological, evolutionary, developmental and computer approaches to the problem. But very accessible.

These first few books are about how the nature of the mind relates to quantum theory, both in the sense that you can't disentangle the observer's role in bringing into being what he observes (the measurement problem), but also in the other direction, how what the mind does can't be reduced to any purely classical computation, and must involve some of the strange properties of a quantum computation.

Quantum Evolution by Johnjoe McFadden is about evolution, but interestingly he invokes the same quantum Zeno effect to address the origin of life problem. McFadden is a molecular geneticist, not a physicist, but he comes up with a lot of interesting physical insights, and he knows exactly where to find deep biological mysteries even in something as "simple" as how a finger moves. He gives an eloquent critique of current theories of how life originated. We are at square one clueless about how life could have originated from non-life, and once again classical thermodynamics and chemistry are inadequate, and only some odd quantum phenomena like molecules going into a superposition of a gazillion possiblilities and then snapping back into a single reality seems capable of maybe finding the needle in the haystack. Very speculative, and very worth considering.

The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind is about the subject of a bet the author made with Stephen Hawking about whether information is lost when it goes down a black hole (he said no, Hawking said yes). Eventually he won the debate, but the explanation is really out there, deep in string theory. This is the kind of book that describes things to laymen more to amaze us than with any hope we can understand, but it's very good for amazement purposes.

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin is a critique of the way physics is being done--basically he doesn't like the way people's careers are shaped by pressure to conform to the latest band wagon, in this case string theory, and the stifling effect it has on possible innovation. He has his own very interesting ideas about what physics should look like.

Three Roads to Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin describes his own very interesting idea about what Quantum Gravity should look like, contrasted with string theory and one other road.

Faster Than the Speed of Light by Joao Magueijo is an autobiographical account by one of those non-conformist students who pits himself against the establishment to get consideration for the idea that in the early universe the speed of light might have been faster and allowed distant regions to come into equilibrium without any need for the conventional dogma of cosmic inflation. Whether he's right or wrong it's good to consider such things, not to mention that his personal adventures and conflicts are tremendously fun to read about.

QED by Richard Feynman is a classical layman's account of quantum field theory, which he helped invent. Most popular accounts resort to analogies and descriptions that don't let you get really close to the subject, but QED uses diagrams and words that tell you what the equations mean, like a translation from another language into English, in a fundamental sense equivalent to what the equations are saying.

The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose is another one like QED. It's a big fat book, and covers a lot of ground. It's the one you'd want if you could only have one book on a desert island. It's about the essential features of very deep math described in diagrams and words and applied to state-of-the-art mysteries of modern physics. It's not a textbook, there are no special prerequisites, but it is mathematical, and there are optional problems you can work if you want to improve your understanding. I'm going to spend the rest of my life studying it.

Programming the Universe by Seth Lloyd, "designer of the first feasible quantum computer," here considers how the universe itself is like a quantum computer.

About Time by Paul Davies looks at all the different ways time enters our models of reality, full of wonderful questions about the nature of time.

On evolution, everything by Richard Dawkins is good-- The Ancestor's Tale for its scope covering a path through the whole history of life, and The Greatest Show on Earth which makes the case for evolution point by point.

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