03 July 2010


I read two popular science books this week: The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough and Thinking about Physics by Roger Newton. One of these books is great. Which I will get to in a minute.

First I have some remarks about Ms. Goodenough's book. It was good enough. She is a molecular biologist and some of the book is an explanation of rudimentary molecular biology with highly schematized diagrams for how signal transmitter molecules lock into cell walls and how the genes in our DNA are utilized in the building of protein molecules. Very few of the chemicals are mentioned by name--mostly common ones such as lactase. This is the part of the book which I was after, and it worked very well for me. I have not taken a biology class since high school and I have some issues I am really interested in doing some research on, particularly in the areas of health and fitness, and I need to review some remedial material before trying to make sense out of current research controversies.

I recently read, for similar reasons, How to Make a Good Brain Great by Daniel Amen. Which was interesting in some respects and a little discouraging in many others. Doctor Amen may be a great doctor, but I did not find in him a source of any useful information in how to improve my brain. He is a little notorious on the Internet, with a Quackwatch page and dirt on his Wikipedia page. He recommends approximately fifty nutritional supplements for improved brain function. I am dubious that any of them is worthwhile, and I am not a dogmatic skeptic on the topic of nutritional supplements. I take (every single day without fail) a multiple vitamin tablet and a garlic tablet, in spite of the fact that my doctor did not advise me to do this and I suspect, if I ask him, he is likely to tell me this is a waste of time, energy and money. But fifty is getting into the neighborhood of Ray Kurzweil with his 400 daily oral supplements and six weekly intraveneous supplements.

It seems crack potted to me. Anyway the most discouraging feature of Amen's menu of supplements is he has a long reference list of peer reviewed and positive findings for every one of them. I would almost go so far as to conclude that in medical and clinical publications of research, one could find a positive result for almost anything which is not downright harmful. Looking for research on personal health issues seems like it is something of a quicksand swamp.

For example, yesterday I investigated ketosis, what happens in our metabolism when we exhaust our store of sugars and have to metabolize our fat. At the moment I am in my best physical condition ever, and in my workout yesterday at the peak of the thing I could smell weird aromatic molecules being secreted and I suspect that is what was happening in my system. My investigations of a couple hours with google and PubMed were completely fruitless. One expert says it is the royal road to uber fitness and another expert says you are stressing your heart and brain and other vital organs very hard when this happens and you should avoid it totally. I have no idea what the facts are, but I am definitely not going to be making a point of pushing myself like that very often. I suppose I could ask my doctor, but I doubt that most doctors know enough more about it than I do to give me a recommendation I would be more confident in than my own conclusions.

If you are ill or you are sick or you are injured or you are diseased, medicine in our modern Western Civilization is great stuff. If you are mostly healthy and you are functioning at 70% or above, my experience is it is a tower of babble. But I am digressing pretty far afield from Goodenough's book in explaining the strength of my motivation to extract as much from it as possible. I got exactly what I needed from her book, but it was not an efficient use of my time. The book is not about molecular biology; the book is about her pantheism. And she makes a large number of arguments from science to spiritual subjects and values. My own feeling is this is a logical failure. In the Constitution of the United States we have separation of church and state. In my brain I maintain a separation of church and science. I understand her sentiment. And if it works for her, more power to her. That sentiment has nothing to do with my own. My last blog post was on religion. This one is not.

Enough about Ms. Goodenough.

Roger Newton's book was a pleasure to read. I got it because it was described to me as the best modern defense of the Copenhagen Interpretation Quantum Mechanics. It is a great defense of Copenhagen Interpretation Quantum Mechanics. And more. His explanation on the necessity and impact of Mathematics and Probability on all of Physics made me think, and I enjoyed the way it made me think. I particularly enjoyed his argument against the late Richard Feynman's famous contention--"nobody understands Quantum Mechanics". That may be true, but the chapter in Feynman's Lectures on Physics where he says it was a very poor argument for it. I was gratified that Newton saw the exact same flaw in Professor Feynman's argument that I did., i. e. it is confusing to ever talk about an object which reveals itself to one apparatus as a wave and to another apparatus as a particle as either wave or particle. To minimize confusion, use all the words necessary and skip those two particular shorthand descriptions.

The best parts of Thinking about Physics were his discussions of quantum non-locality, Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, Bell's theorem, and Aspect's experiment. Newton considers the argument over for now, as I thought everybody did until I read his footnote on page 173:

"They have however not convinced everybody. Occasional arguments about the reliability of the experiments still break out."

The parts about Probability were a bonus. I recently joined a book study group on Edwin Jaynes' Probability Theory, the Logic of Science. There are 80 participants on four continents and we are doing the discussion so far on IRC, with google wave possibly to follow when we get deep into it. So far in two weeks we have done two chapters. The leaders of the book study group consider Jaynes authoritative. Many people do not consider Jaynes authoritative. The fellow who recommended Newton's book do me does not consider Jaynes authoritative, for example. He considers Jaynes wrong. This is one of those questions which I would like to have an informed opinion on some day, soon; I do not know enough yet and I have my mind open for now.

Two other points of lesser importance that stuck out for me:

In discussing the space wherein the Schroedinger equation wave function is evaluated, Newton calls it a configuration space. I love this, as I have always loathed the term hyperspace. Every time I see or hear that term I think about Star Trek and warp factor and I have an unpleasant visceral reaction to it. I blame Michio Kaku.

I am sad to say Newton uses the "butterfly effect" metaphor. It is physically impossible for a butterfly flapping their wings near the coast of Africa to cause a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. As near as I can tell, this goofy metaphor goes back to James Gleick (not a meteorologist) and his report of Edward Lorenz's (also, not a meteorologist) weather modeling in Chaos. It is true that there are a number of real world phenomena that display the behavior of huge dependence on small change of initial conditions. Much more common, numerical models can exhibit pathological sensitivity to initial conditions. When they do this, it means they fall on the other side of the Box boundary:

All models are wrong; some models are useful.

The butterfly effect is a useless metaphor. As much as I hate it, this is only a minor quibble with Roger Newton's otherwise beautiful short book.

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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.