Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

This is an excellent history of the words "science" and "religion." The way we use them today is not more than a couple hundred years old, yet we constantly talk as if science and religion were always around in the way that we think of them. They. Were. Not. Peter Harrison shows how the ancients thought differently from us, and how and why it changed to the concepts we have today, as the verbal maplines were redrawn. This kind of study across cultures and nations is immensely valuable, and Harrison brings out the value and application to our current seeming standoffs over these terms. What struck me most on this reading is how "scientists" were deliberately created by secondary scientists like Huxley and Spencer, not through intellectual need so much as through political maneuvering and propagandizing. I don't use that last word lightly, but there's no other word for what Huxley and company did to Darwin's legacy, and how the Galileo story was distorted into the dark parable that scientists repeat today. (Don't get me started on Bruno.) Harrison writes in an easily accessible mode, because it seems that much of what he describes is at least known as open for debate among historians, but people outside of history, especially scientists, keep repeating the same old stories using the same old words. We need to both recover the old meanings and forge new ones. As a chemist who wants to do natural history, this book is especially encouraging, because it helps explain why natural history is no longer in vogue -- and how, perhaps, it can be again.

Book Review: Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

I picked up this book because I read a review in The Atlantic that described it as "weird" in its intimate combination of faith and longing, the same way an early review called my own science book "weird." If by "weird" you mean it takes faith seriously, and takes its flawed and yearning characters seriously, well, I wish that wasn't so weird but here we are. The book is a paradox. Its dissection of middle age is both harrowing and beautiful. It's not easy to read but I finished it in two days. The drawback for me is that the faith of the narrator is depicted in isolation, and she doesn't seem to miss the community of church. That makes her faith ring false in a few ways, in a book that otherwise rings true. This book delves to the very bottom of the individual psyche, and I found it compelling in both the lyrical and ugly parts. But then again, I'm weird like that.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: World Without Mind by Franklin Foer

As "what's wrong with the world" screeds go, this is above average. Foer grounds his complaints against Google/Facebook/Apple/etc. in both his personal and our national history. His personal history was as editor of The New Republic who clashed with the new tech-billionaire owner over how to preserve journalistic integrity in the 21st century, and who was ultimately fired. Mostly this leads to substantial insights rather than sour grapes. The national history was the real surprise for me. I didn't know that Lincoln was a tech addict (to the telegraph); that Western Union was a precursor to today's tech monopolies; or that Rutherford B. Hayes was likely put into office by Western Union's machinations. I would have preferred to hear more about the technocrat angle, which is detailed early on but seems dropped later. The line from Leibniz to Locke to Comte to Herbert Hoover is fascinating -- all were technocratically minded and (in my view) all failed in particular ways. Foer criticizes the mindset but I'm not convinced that he gets to the root of the mindset. Foer's solution includes increasing journalistic professionalism (this is a problem in the sciences as well, I'm sure) and creating a version of the EPA to safeguard privacy (how exactly would this work?). A lot of good connections and caveats here, and it points to a way forward, but I think it needs to go a little farther and deeper to be truly effective.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

This book illustrates the perils of trying to mount an emotional defense of rationality. Despite the size of the book, its pace is fast, because Andersen attempts to give all examples of what he calls the "fantasy-industrial complex," which in his telling ranges from the Puritans to Disney and Oprah. Half the chapters are four-star chapters, while half are two-star chapters, but it averages out to two stars because in his conclusion (which is far too short relative to the rest of the text), Andersen blithely tosses out the typical, stale view of non-American history as it was taught a few decades ago rather than the version being debated now, and that takes what could be a stirring call to reject illusion and turns it into just another screed. This is particularly frustrating because Andersen's central concept of the fantasy-industrial complex is really onto something, and it deserves a better book than this. I can say this with confidence because a much better (and shorter) book than this actually exists: The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America by David Bosworth. A comparison of Andersen and Bosworth is instructive: Andersen aspires to be H.L. Mencken, while Bosworth aims for Emerson. Andersen has particular blind spots when it comes to race, sex, and economics, while Bosworth is more balanced in his targets. For example, Andersen gives Big Pharma a pass while Bosworth focuses a chapter on that industry in a much shorter book. It would be a fruitful project to compare the two authors, because their politics, aims, and scope are very similar, but Andersen manages to alienate this reader while Bosworth welcomes. It doesn't help that Andersen accepts the standard historical stories uncritically, while authors like Marilynne Robinson (for the puritans) and Peter Harrison (for the Greeks and the Enlightenment) show that reality is much more interesting.  Maybe I should do to this book what Jefferson did to his Bible and paste together all the four-star chapters? It would be a decent book against the excesses of religion (both that of the institutional church and the Oprah institutions), and I think centering the book on the damage of the Satanic Panic of the 80s would make all the points Andersen should make. It's a shame that Andersen's own biases turn what should be a surgery into a shotgun blast. My frustration comes from this book being so close to being so right on, but it goes sideways in too many ways.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: On Purpose by Michael Ruse

Is this what philosophy books are like? If so, I want to read more of them. Here Michael Ruse takes on an important question (purpose), gives a historical overview and spends the last few chapters working through specific issues and giving his own take on what makes for purpose. Ruse truly listens to all and sees the light in each of his subjects, and in the end commits to a particular standpoint: in his case, the Kantian view that purpose is a useful heuristic. At one point he likens purpose to the imaginary number i: it's necessary for accounting for life's goal orientation, but it's not "real" in the same sense as integers. Maybe I'm more along the line that purpose is like the number pi: impossible to describe with ratios but possible to know in other ways, and to calculate to impressive precision with dedication. The discussion of the area most near and dear to my own heart, purpose in biology and natural history, ends up ambivalent for me. He pulls out the old standard arguments (the carbon resonance level for stellar fusion, the possibility of silicon-based life) but at the end of the day his rebuttals to these specific examples seem to miss the point, and it seems like we go down a long road to end with a shrug. Nevertheless, Ruse makes a welcome companion even and especially where I disagree. What's most impressive about this book is its accessibility, which welcomes all, and which makes me recommend it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Like all Mark Helprin books, this is a mix of lyrically soaring passages describing emotion and place with loving detail, with occasional clumsy exaggerations or outbursts of ugliness that seem deliberately added in precisely to highlight how well-proportioned and lush the rest of the writing is. Of Helprin's books, Winter's Tale with its magical realism still has the best overall combination (which makes it one of my top 10 books), but Paris in the Present Tense is in most places just as satisfying if more subdued.

What Helprin did for New York City in Winter's Tale, he (almost) does for Paris in this book: he makes it a character in its own right, and in a sense the book is not really about the aging cellist Jules, but about the 21st century City of Lights.

Sometimes I'd literally catch my breath at Helprin's descriptions, especially of music. This is a beautiful story about a musician at the end of his life, who has lived for music, not fame or fortune, and the best kind of unheroic hero.

Despite the fact that I like the bigger story in Winter's Tale more, I actually think this may be a better book if it was even more subdued and interior: a detective subplot comes across as needless overplotting, and there's more than a little time spent decrying anti-Semitism, with an anxiety about its widespread nature that seems more like old people worrying than an accurate depiction of Europe today.

But then again, I'm not there so I don't really know. What I do know is that Helprin is a welcome throwback, and he is such a generous author that the reader is inclined to be just as generous back and to forgive him all dissonances. Let this book wash through you like the symphony -- and the worthy successor to Winter's Tale  -- that it is.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Answer to "Is Design Detectable?"

The Henry Center's Creation Project just asked a bunch of scientists and philosophers a simple question: "Is Design Detectable by Science?". My answer starts like this:

As a chemist, I turn naturally to the evidence of the past that is amenable to geochemical or biochemical analysis, and integrate that with other lines of evidence. This evidence tells a story with order and even direction.

Geology, Biology, and the Story of Data

The rocks give a timeline showing how the environmental chemistry of the planet has changed radically over billions of years. In the oldest layers, geologists detect rocks that can’t exist in today’s world with its high oxygen levels: rounded, previously exposed pebbles of iron pyrite and uranium. Those rocks went away as time elapsed, and then, we detect rust-orange iron-oxygen compounds worldwide, called “Banded Iron Formations.” These formations tell a story with a direction: the oldest earth was oxygen-free, then oxygen filled the air and reacted with the rocks. Eventually, after the rocks had reacted, oxygen could fill the ocean. The geologist Robert Hazen has threaded these data into a story of “mineral evolution” over time in his book The Story of Earth.Robert Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet (New York: Penguin, 2013).

These pieces of data from the geological environment coincide with other pieces of biological data, which show that oxygen can increase biochemical complexity. In old genes, at the time of the first great oxygen increase, DNA sequencing detects a burst of newly invented oxygen-using genes.Lawrence A. David and Eric J. Alm, “Rapid Evolutionary Innovation During an Archaean Genetic Expansion,” Nature, 469 (2011), 93-96. Biochemical models project that oxygen metabolism allows the most complex biochemicalOnce enough data are collected, the question becomes whether the story being told about the data is true—that is, whether the story is something real that we are uncovering, or merely a collection of arbitrary dots connected by imaginary lines like so many constellations. networks, so that increased oxygen supports increased metabolic complexity.Jason Raymond and Daniel Segrè, “The Effect of Oxygen on Biochemical Networks and the Evolution of Complex Life,” Science, 311 (2006), 1764-67. In the presence of oxygen, life could build more complex things.

The end of this essay can be found here: http://henrycenter.tiu.edu/2018/03/a-story-we-can-understand-told-with-chemistry/