Book Review


Thomas Jefferson prepared his own “New Testament” bible by pasting the words and story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth by razor cutting from a King James Bible and his personal translations from Greek.  The “Jefferson Bible” is  a chronological amalgam of the four New Testament  books.  His first attempt to extract the philosophy in a less successful work The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth which he edited in 1804.  It appears that this first forty three page pasted book does not survive.

In the winter of 1816-1817 he produced a handsome morocco-bound volume, labeled on the back, `Morals of Jesus,’ which contained parallel texts in four languages.  This book is held by the National Museum, and 9000 copies were produced for the Congress.  Jefferson kept the book a secret from the public during his lifetime, but reportedly read from it each night before retiring.

Jefferson said his task was:

“… extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense.”

The original bound manuscript is held by the US National Museum in Washington,   The actual manuscript has been scanned and can be viewed online, with the Greek and Roman next to the English King James excerpt.  Its age and old fashoned printing make this great as a reference, but hard to use to just read.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence

Reading Carl Sagan’s “The Dreams of Dragons” is like reading an ancient polymath’s writing – Bacon or Voltaire proposing their best insights from renaissance knowledge. Sagan draws on 1970’s knowledge of the human brain and consciousness to propose a broad vision for what was known from “recent” researches from the likes of Bronowski, Dement, Eccles, Gazzaniga, Gould, Leakey, Minsky, Sperry and Von Neumann. Many of their researches were cutting edge at the time, but have been overshadowed, modified or overturned by new work by themselves and others.

Flatland (Illustrated Edition)

This is a seminal little book. Edwin A. Abbott‘s Flatlands, A Romance in Many Dimensions is what allows thousands of us to be able to visualize higher dimensions.
Flatlands is the story of a two dimensional person who has become aware of the existence of three dimensions.  He tells us, from a two dimensional perspective all about his world – its features, science, society, social classes, intriques.

What the story achieves within the first few chapters is to expose us three dimensional beings to what it means to live in a world constrained by the dimensions we inhabit. He lives in two and has learned about three.  We live in three dimensions universe and can be be aware of four or more additional dimensions by extrapolation.

For many, this is a difficult task – even with my hands free I cannot describe a four dimensional square, or tessaract.  Abbott has done this in an easy reading romp through our two dimensional friend’s world.

The world he describes is bizarre but understandable.  The first several chapters set up a framework to visualize higher dimensions, and these chapters should be required reading for every student planning to study solid geometry.

Abbott explores, in a matter of fact way, the social structure of his flat world.  Our flatlander friend’s description and opinions about his society also provide a framework for thinking about the society of our world – by extrapolation.  To understand this concept it is necessary to read the entire short book.  I am sure that his intention was to show that his flatlander’s class structure was just as arbitrary as Victorian society.

The End of America:  Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot

Naomi Wolf is an outstanding pamphleteer. She makes the case that all ten steps to fascism are in play in America. Her arguments are clear, convincing and persuasive that an an organized plot is afoot to strip us of our freedoms and institute an American fascist state.

The ten steps to fascism, as outlined by Ms. Wolf:

  1. Invoke an internal and an external threat
  2. Establish secret prisons
  3. Develop a paramilitary force
  4. Surveil ordinary citizens
  5. Infiltrate citizens groups
  6. Arbitrarily detain and release citizens
  7. Target key individuals
  8. Restrict the press
  9. Cast criticism as “Espionage” and dissent as “Treason”
  10. Subvert the rule of law

Unfortunately, she made her case in the first half of each chapter, then filled the chapter out to make book length. This would have been a great 50 or 75 page pamphlet. There is just too much fluff to be Thomas Paine.

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Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything

Ervin Laszlo has spun an interesting fable – a way of looking at reality that utilizes an information field to tie together the universe. It is a theory that weaves the fabric of existence from “in-formation”, essentially the instructions to build atoms, suns, dna, life and consciousness. His theory could explain everything.

The problem is that Laszlo has not connected his theory to actual experimental results. He refers to the scientific works of others that peripherally touch on the points he is trying to make, and then makes sweeping generalizations that are not supported by those experimental results. A scientist takes experimental knowledge and builds a theory that fits the facts, he then tests the theory against new experiments to test the validity of the theory.

It is clear that what has happened here is that Ervin Laszlo has built a theory from his knowledge of a number of scientific principles and then sought out related studies and drawn his own conclusions from them. This builds a large body of citations that appear to support the theory, but actually neither support nor disprove it.
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River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (Science Masters Series)

River out of Eden is Richard Dawkins’ clear, readable and well researched explanation of basic Evolution and Natural Selection. This entirely accessible explanation dispels many confusions and erroneous views of the current scientific understanding of the “Origin of Species”. It includes a comprehensive (through 1995) bibliography for those who want to continue their reading. Dawkins is a firebrand for the Brights athiest-naturalist movement, and many religious folks would cast anything he writes out as the word of the Satan. I picked up my copy for a quarter at the local Salvation Army thrift shop, and probably would not have gotten it at a regular bookstore because of Dawkins’ reputation as a strident, evangelical athiest. I am very glad I picked it up.
Well, Dawkins does make a case that if an “Old One” holding the keys to life exists, he either could care less about his creations, or reallly loves to play dice. Dawkins’ conclusions in this area do not overburden this book with anti-religious philosophy – he sticks to the facts and exposes how we now understand the way that species vary and optimize for their unique environments. Upon careful reading of River out of Eden, the mechanisms of the DNA evolutionary process become not only clear, but obvious. The Utility Function for evolution and natural selection is simply optimizing the prevalence of the particular DNA patterns of an organism in the universe. (more…)

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Consilience brings together information from different disciplines to generate a far greater knowledge than the sum of the parts. Edward O. Wilson‘s bestseller explains just how that occurs. For those of us who have already come to that conclusion, the book starts kind of slow. He carefully and thoughtfully builds the case for a unity of knowledge, that for folks who already understand, is plodding. He does this so the rest of the world can follow the case he builds. The source of the data is meticulously laid out in the work itself and in extensive final notes.

For those who don’t see his point, or had not thought about consilience and its multiplicative effect on knowledge, he hammers the point home that information without context is not very useful, and putting it in the context of the total knowledge of the human race is how it gets value. If you do not yet see how science and art, or biology and chemistry are cut from the same cloth, this book will change your life.

Wilson’s underlying goal with Consilience is to prove and sell the world view that the Human Race is a race for survival: That humans are consuming the world’s resources at a rate which will shortly cause cataclysmic destruction. Our numbers and wastefulness are destroying the ecology in which humans have evolved. The gains of consilience can permit the dramatic adjustments our footprint on the earth so that it will remain habitable. (more…)

I Am a Strange Loop

I waited with great anticipation for the release of Doug Hofstadter‘s new book, I am a Strange Loop. Doug has expanded on a central theme of his landmark book, Godel, Escher, Bach (known as GEB) to explore and expand his concept of the strange loop, and its implications on human consciousness. I call him Doug in this review because he has written both an enlightening and personal book that makes me feel that I have known him for years, in spite of only reading two of his books.
The book meets all my expectations and hopes. It is not to be approached without effort, as Doug makes reading a mental exercise – illustrating his points on self referential loopiness by wildly alternating between straight exposition, and restating others’ illustrative passages in barely recognizable forms. This strategy shows additional meanings by mapping classic themes to new symbols. He also masquerades new parables as quirky stories using a vocabulary of anagrams of the main points and names in his thesis.

These antics can fatigue your mind, especially because he seldom lets you know what he is up to until you are several pages along. You then have to go back to pick up the fourteen points that you have missed along the way. (more…)

Do you remember the best teacher you ever had? Dick Feynman is better! Six easy pieces are six of his twenty two lectures from Caltech’s freshman lecture series.
If you don’t care for math, but really would like to UNDERSTAND classical and basic quantum physics this is the book that will do it. Feynman develops each subject, with aplomb.

The first chapter or “piece” transistions from the description of molecules, to their Brownian motion, then relating that to heat energy in gases, to pressure in a cylinder, to diffusion, to state changes (solid, liquid, gas) in such a smooth and logical progression that you preface each new insight with: “Of course”

Many people think that physics is hard, and that it takes a lot of work and math to understand the principles by which the universe works. Accessing this knowledge the normal way is tough. Feynman gives you the easiest way to see the way creation works.

Quantum theory – the world of atoms and subatomic particles is never seen by us in normal life. Unfortunately the subatomic world does not work like the Newtonian physics of bouncing balls, friction and smooth curves.

Nels Bohr’s original picture of atoms with electrons spinning in planetary orbits is not how it is. The Bohr model looks at the atom as though it follows Copernican rules of planetary motion – but the electron energies are quantized or discrete, so they cannot be shown as nice clear orbits, but more like a cloud where the Bohr orbits trace the average paths. Few, not even Carl Sagan could easily explain the experimental model that has probability clouds, where you can know either the location or the velocity of a particle, but not both, or the fact that an electron must be thought of as a particle, and a wave. (This reminds me of Chevy Chase and Jane Curtain with “Shimmer – its a Dessert Topping and a Floor Wax!”)

Quantum theory is just not very intuitive. Feynman, in his sixth piece makes the only clear, understandable, and accurate explanation of the quantum behavior of particles (or waves) that I have ever seen. He lets you get from – “You may say that, but I won’t believe it” to: “Oh, so that’s how it works”. Everyone who wants to get the most out of Vorpal.us and cannot say that they feel they understand physics, especially quantum physics should read this book. (nb: Required Reading)

The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics

Julian Barbour has written a clear and groundbreaking manifesto in The End of Time that states what may be the most profound insight since Aristotle. Time, according to Barbour, the reference by which all of Newtonian physics is measured is merely an illusion!

Newton proposed a universe of physics which contained a fixed reference coordinate system upon which physical existence plays out. The cartesian or polar playing field contains three fixed dimensions of space and one of time. In Newtonian physics, the world simply operates according to the rules of motion which he so clearly identified.

While most experiments conformed to Newton’s picture of physical reality, there were some experiments, like black body radiation, that did not work out according to plan. Just as Newton corrected and extended Aristotle’s views, Einstein, Bohr and the others corrected and extended Newton’s mechanics with quantum mechanics.

Just as Newton’s view ran into experimental problems, quantum theory runs into problems when trying to incorporate gravity into a grand theory. Barbour painstakingly develops his theory, and a method of visualizing the basic concepts that permit his theory to be understood. (more…)

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