Thursday, June 20, 2019

Book Review: Disorder And Order: Proceedings Of The Stanford International Symposium (Sept. 14 16, 1981)

This was a hard book to track down, but it was worth it. Cynthia Haven's biography of Girard describes a conference he helped host in the 60s in great detail. In 1981, after moving to Stanford, Girard co-hosted another conference with a Nobel Prize winner ... in Chemistry. The Nobelist was Ilya Prigogine, who has some very interesting ideas about complex chemical systems that help reinterpret quantum mechanics and even challenge the common conception of time itself. What do Girard and Prigogine have in common? I wished I could attend that 1981 conference. And lo and behold, in a sense, I can. Every talk from the conference, with discussion, is recorded in this book. Some of the essays are five-star essays. There's enough essays not up there that my rating's brought down to four stars, but the essays worth reading are very much in the majority. Here's my favorites with a sentence about how I liked each one. (Full text is here:

ILYA PRIGOGINE, "Order out of Chaos": One of the best summaries of Prigogine's ideas for a general audience ... well, a more general audience than Ph.D. chemists, at least. 
RENE GIRARD, "Disorder and Order in Mythology": A fine summary in itself, although I was mostly familiar with this from my recent reading already. The discussion afterwards may be more originally illuminating than the talk itself.
JEAN- PIERRE DUPUY, "Shaking the Invisible Hand": A nice take on how Adam Smith and Girard fit together. Also, might be a better summary of Girard's application than Girard's own talk!
JOHN FRECCERO, "Cosmology and Rhetoric": The hidden gem of the conference. I expected a wonderful reading of Dante from a Dante scholar, but this is a reading of my favorite image from The Divine Comedy that extends to show how Augustine of Hippo anticipated an answer to one of Einstein's big questions, and it all has to do with reading the universe like a poem, with attention.
FRANCISCO J. VARELA, "Living Ways of Sense-Making: A Middle Path for Neuroscience": Another hidden gem. Varela raises some very good questions about perception of color and puts things together in a way that's new for me, and bridges both Prigogine's ideas about the importance of the observer and Girard's ideas about order from chaos.
Workshop 1: Girard's comments are of course good, but the best parts are when Isabelle Stenger (Prigogine's colleague and co-author) speaks. Pay attention -- I wish she had been given her own talk.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Book Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

This collection of stories has two big award-winners. I was floored by one (5 stars!) and only merely impressed by the other (3 stars). The other stories fall in between those extremes -- which means the collection as a whole is impressive. Chiang has a gift for taking an original, plausible, intriguing idea to its logical conclusion -- then blowing past mere logic to fully realize the implications, both scientific and personal. His science is prescient and creative, but it's in combination with its effects on people that it really shines. Each story is at least as good as a good sci-fi novel. And "Story of Your Life," the basis of Arrival, is one of the best stories I've ever read. This is my fifth time experiencing it (third time reading and have watched the movie twice), and it opens up new depths of meaning each time. This time the theological implications fell out, and the deep connection between mother and daughter. The other award-winning story, "Hell is the Absence of God," on the other hand, took an excellent idea but showed how science takes religious concepts and ossifies them into idols, and I think it showed a lack of theological sophistication, which would have been fine if that had been the point. I still think it's far better than most sci-fi depictions of faith, but it felt as wrong and dystopic as The Hunger Games. God is not like that, and this story contains really good reasons why God is not like that. Even that of course has distinct value. Each story is intellectually provocative and this book by itself makes me want to read more short stories. Chiang's newly released book is going in my queue now.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Book Review: The End of Certainty

This is the book by Ilya Prigogine that I will send people to. It's genuinely for a general audience and seems to have been influenced by the success of A Brief History of Time. I actually think this book is more interesting than Hawking's, but I'm a chemist, so of course I would. Even here, fascinating connections are made and not fleshed out: I'm particularly intrigued by connections to music, and his frequent insistence that non-equilibrium dissipative systems allow matter to "see." Most of his argument from On Being and Becoming is recapitulated here, and its later publication date allows for more interaction with the scientific community (although he doesn't really engage with critics significantly, I guess when you've got a Nobel prize you don't worry about that so much?). This is a book with an argument that catches fire and makes connections you never saw coming. Time itself is reformulated. I haven't had time yet to be completely convinced, but I do want to think more about how the cosmos is musical from the description Prigogine gives.

Book Review: From Being to Becoming

This seems like Ilya Prigogine's post-Nobel victory lap book. It claims to be written for a general audience, but, no, it's not. Prigogine is challenging the very way physicists and physical chemists do calculations, and that's not going to be accessible to a general audience. This book lays out his case in one place for chemists and physicists, and it's probably not enough to convince skeptics, but it worked for me to see a bird's eye view of his argument from outside the field. I'd say it requires at least a BS in Chemistry or Physics to read this book and recommend his other books for people who actually want to read an argument rather than deduce it from equations and figures.

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller is in the same league as Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze) and Kate Tempest (Brand New Ancients). Circe's perspective as a mother is the most compelling part of this book. The parts about her relationship with her parents and siblings, and about her sorcery, all feel like something I've heard before, but her relationship with her son feels urgent and vital. Maybe I've just had too many isolated underdog stories lately, but I'd prefer to know more about her positive relationships than her negative ones. Of the other characters, Odysseus is particularly well drawn: it's a long time before he's named, but it's clear he's a magnetic and brilliant (and cunning) personality. Telemachus is fascinating, too, and is very different from his father. Come to think of it, the brief role Icarus plays in the story is another standout moment, so parents and children are a strong theme here. The story itself avoids the problems of pacing that go with a story of exile, although the conclusion feels faded, just like the myths do at that point. I prefer Tempest's mix of today and yesterday, and I think myth isn't quite represented by Miller the way it really works, but as a novel set in a mythical context, this worked.