Book reviews: science

The Undivided Universe: an Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory, by David Bohm and Basil J. Hiley. Yes, it's a mouthful. This is aimed at the research physics community. It is not light reading. Not being a research physicist myself, I mostly passed over the numerous equations, and just got the ``gist''.

It goes like this. Conventional quantum theory is an epistemological theory: it delineates how and what we can measure about the world, and how to compute the probabilities of outcomes of experiments. It does not purport to explain what is really going on -- it doesn't take the point of view that ``This is reality and this is how it works''.

This is where Bohm and Hiley come in. They propose an underlying reality that gives a ``complete'' and consistent mental model. It predicts exactly the same outcomes to all experiments (except if one can find a domain in which general relativity breaks down), so one can't hope to ``prove'' or ``disprove'' this model in the ordinary experimental sense.

The authors show their model to be complete, economical, and to have many fewer blemishes in comparison with other interpretations, e.g. the (several) many-worlds interpretations.

If you're at all interested in quantum theory, read (or skim) this book. Recommended.

Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs by Ivars Peterson. An introduction to computer (un)reliability for the layman. Includes accounts of the 1990 crash of an Airbus A320 airplane, the Therac-25 faults, the Pentium division bug, and others. I got this 1995 book in hardcover for only $3 at a used booksale. What a find! Not exactly very deep, but it's an easy read, and useful as an introduction to the problems software engineering and system design are trying to solve.

The Mythical Man-Month: 20th Anniversary Edition by Fred P. Brooks.

Interesting, but the 20-year-old parts are really dated. For example, he talks about IBM renting memory for such-and-such dollars per kilobyte per month. Ok, the point is that space matters, but one can't help but think how much of the book is twisted by that kind of restriction. Another example, the chapter on "The Surgical Team" recommends that each expert programmer be supported by 9 other people, at least half of whom are doing purely clerical work. And surely, the one who does system administration, can be shared by teams of programmers! Anyway, I found the main value of the book in three of the last chapters, which were written since 1986 (including the famous No Silver Bullet essay). These are thoughtful and, thankfully, thoroughly up to date. However, anyone who has to design software ought to read this book.

On a related topic, I found the October 1995 Communications of the ACM article about the use of object-oriented tools and techniques in the reimplementation of OS/400 by IBM to be very interesting. Go look at it.

The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose. A smart physicist tries to debunk the ``strong AI'' view that minds are in principle complex algorithms, and that the particular manifistation of that algorithm is unimportant in principle. Penrose argues that the physical embodiment is important for the presence of actual consciousness. He believes there is a level of physical action deeper than quantum mechanics (quantum gravity?) that is essential to the operation of the brain and is a prerequisite for the presence of ``real'' consciousness.

I happen to disagree with Penrose, though I think he should be heard. (Note added after finishing: Boy does he really lose it in the last two chapters! IMHO, he has a very naive view what the mind is all about. Sour ending. Blech.)

For the strong-AI point of view, read Goedel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader. This book was way too slow for me. I only got about one quarter through it. It did win the Pulitzer prize, though.

QED: The strange theory of light and matter by Richard Feynman. An explanation of quantum electrodynamics for the interested layman, based upon four lectures by the great one himself. Lots of pictures of little arrows; very clear explanation (but maybe because I've had exposure to this kind of thing before, i.e. I'm more math- and physics- educated than the intended audience of this book). He does not resort to describing square roots of negative numbers, i.e. no explicit reference to complex numbers. By Jove, how does he do it? Well, he talks about ``little arrows'', and shrinks and turns, which are, respectively, complex numbers, and complex multiplication. He does a fabulous job at describing what we know and what we don't know, and telling us which is which. I glanced at the first chapter on July 29, 1995. I promised myself that I'd finish Halberstam before continuing with this one... Ok. Finished September 10, 1995. Very good.

Lost Moon by Jim Lovell and Jefferey Kluger. This is about the Apollo 13 mission co-written by its commander. The movie, starring Tom Hanks, is based on this book. Well written, and a nice change from all the fiction in scifi. Started June 11, 1995. Finished June 25 or so. By the way, the movie (go see it!) stays quite close to the facts as stated in the book.

When I was 14 I read William Poundstone's The Recursive Universe . It introduced me to cellular automata, information theory, thermodynamics, and artificial life. It is subtitled "Cosmic complexity and the limits to scientific knowledge." It's quite packed with good stuff, tied together by John Conway's game of Life. I'd recommend it to any bright teenager.

James Watson's The Double Helix is a lively look at the life of a scientist and at scientific discovery. It's the highly entertaining look at the research that led to the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson and his partner Francis Crick.

There are two books that I'm waiting to read about the role of science with respect to war. The first is Modern Arms and Free Men: A discussion of the role of science in preserving democracy by Vannevar Bush (who happened to be the science advisor to both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman). It was written in 1949 during the turmoil at the start of the Cold War. It's "old" and I can guess its thesis, but I still think the issues are important today. (Don't worry, I've also got Noam Chomsky's Deterring Democracy and Manufacturing Consent.) The second is Tongues of Conscience: war and the scientists' dilemma by R.W. Reid. For a TV introduction into these issues, see the Star Trek: Voyager episode Jetrel, which aired in Toronto on May 15, 1995. Also, see the popular movie Fat Man and Little Boy for some background into how the scientists of the Manhattan Project dealt with these issues.
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