Tag Archives: physics

Question

“Why do we never get an answer, when we’re knocking at the door?”   Question, The Moody Blues

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing Company, $27.95, 309 pages)

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (Plume Reprint, $17.00, 448 pages)

“Could it be… that the world exists precisely because it is, on the whole, better than nothing?”

Reading Tim Holt’s extended treatise on life and the universe is the equivalent of listening to a classic philosophical album by The Moody Blues – one hears numerous questions about being and existence but receives no answers.   All in all, Why Does the Earth Exist? is an entertaining read but it’s far too clever by half; one gets the impression that Holt is trying to dazzle the reader with his brilliance – supposed or real – as he all too often gets off track.   Holt never answers the question raised in the book’s title, and much time is wasted on diversions such as mathematical formulas and the rules of formal logic.

The writer seems to be at his most engaging while pondering deep thoughts after nights of imbibing far too much alcohol at the world’s glamorous hotspots.   As such, he comes off as a tamer, more intellectual version of the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary); one whose entertainment value (unlike the late Thompson’s) runs thin very, very quickly.   Another flaw with Why concerns Holt’s unwillingness to acknowledge that much of the interest in time, and the birth and death of our 13.7 billion year old universe, relates to our personal fears of death and non-existence.   Occasionally, he grudgingly concedes the point:  “Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being…  might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning.”   “The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

“…philosophy is a terribly difficult subject, and sorting out the hardest questions in the finite time of a human life is asking a lot.”   (Emphasis in the original)

This book’s recommended only for those few selected – if perhaps strange – individuals who felt they didn’t take enough tough philosophy classes in college.   And if you want to cover the majority of the same ground – from Einstein to modern physics, time travel and more – and get even deeper into the weeds of existence, existentialism and science – a better choice would be From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (2010).   Carroll offers less entertainment value, and fewer side trips than Holt but he delivers more content that actually helps us understand “how we came to exist” and where our existence (our world and our universe) is headed.

From Eternity to Here is well recommended, although it has the feel of a very serious college textbook.   The universe itself is a terribly difficult subject, one not for the timid, weak or lazy.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of Why Does the World Exist? was provided by the publisher.   From Eternity to Here was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:  Tim Holt was raised as a Catholic.   Undoubtedly, some will find that he spends far too much energy on religion in this work, while others will decide that he’s not said enough about God.   What cannot be denied is that he gives full space to the arguments (and views) of all of the great modern and ancient existentialist philosophers – a matter that some will find pleasing, and others extremely painful.

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A review of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt.

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Wonderful World

Good Vibrations: The Physics of Music by Barry Parker (Johns Hopkins University Press, $27.95, 274 pages)

“Music is sound but it’s a very special type of sound.”

An alternate title for this book might have been Music and Math for Morons, but it is seriously easy to understand.   Yes, there have been many survey books out in the last few years attempting to explain the science of sound.   Most of them have been too high-level for the average reader to understand, including this reader.   Kudos should go to Barry Parker for translating a few not always simple-to-understand concepts into plain English.

It is clear that Parker loves having been born into a world that includes music.   Reading this book is like listening to a teacher who worships his subject matter.   Parker explains rhythm and the major types of music, and gives us an overview of how all of the major instruments – including the human voice – work.   He examines the acoustics of classical concert halls, but he’s no snob when it comes to “new” recording techniques.   He concludes his survey by explaining electronic (computer-generated) recordings and acceptance of the new world of iPods and mp3s.

Bach or Dylan?   It’s all good.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon.

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An Audiobook giveaway

Thanks to Hachette Audio and Hachette Book Group, we have 3 (three) audiobooks to give away.   We’re giving away the unabridged 5-CD audiobook version of The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by the noted author Herman Wouk.   This boxed set has a value of $26.98.

Here are some summaries of and comments on The Language God Talks.

The first half of Wouk’s third book on religion (after This Is My God and The Will to Live On) is as engaging as his mega-selling historical novels.   It’s about his encounters with famous scientists, foremost among them physicist Richard Feynman, who suggested Wouk learn the “language God talks” – calculus.   He uses a little paleoanthropology and World War II research to bridge from science to religion but then bogs down.   He finishes well, though, with an imaginary dialogue with Feynman that winningly binds him and the physicist as Jews and affirms the continuing viability of questioning God.   Hard not to like.  

Ray Olson, Booklist

At age 94, Wouk embarks on an autobiographical journey through his monumental writings, people he has met in his life, world events and books he has read to weave a testament of faith.   This book will interest any person of faith who has followed Wouk’s storied career and read his fiction.

Publishers Weekly

Masterful…  After several readings, I keep finding new treasures in this entertaining book.

Maarten Schmidt, Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

Extraordinary.   Wouk’s recounting of conversations with Richard Feynman is not to be missed.

Stanley B. Pusiner, Nobel Laureate, UCSF

In a crowded book market filled with self-serving and redundant theories about humankind’s place in the grand scheme, it is rare to encounter an original, honest, charming voice.   Such is the case with Wouk’s latest work…  Wouk’s humility, humor and insight make the book a joy to read and a wonder to contemplate…  Authentic, accessible prose mixed with real insight.

Kirkus Reviews

You can enter this book giveaway by posting a comment here or sending an e-mail message with the heading The Language God Talks to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   In order to submit a second entry, tell us why you think you’d like to win and listen to this unabridged audiobook.  

You must live in either the United States or Canada and have a residential mailing address (audiobooks will not be shipped to P.O. boxes).   The deadline for submitting your entry or entries is Friday, June 18, 2010 at midnight PST.   If  your name is drawn by Munchy the cat, you will be sent an e-mail that you will need to respond to within 96 hours.   (If you do not respond within that time frame another winner will be drawn.)

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good listening!

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