My heroes are all dead: 1. DNA

And by DNA I don’t mean deoxyribonucleic acid, I mean Douglas Noel Adams, whom you probably know as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

There are only two people that I didn’t know, whose death made me cry: Pierre Desproges and Douglas Adams. Both wrote prodigious comedy with surprising depth, but Adams was also an outspoken Atheist, and used science as a foundation of his storytelling. Preferably weird science, like quantum mechanics.

The Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency series for example can be read as relying on the interconnectedness of the universe’s wave function, quantum uncertainty, and spooky action at a distance.

The Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitchhiker’s Guide series can drive anyone insane by showing them their insignificance. It does so based on the principle that boundary conditions, any boundary conditions, such as the surface of a piece of fruit cake, could contain all the information you need about the rest of the universe. Enough to show it all in its glorious infinity, with you in it, “a tiny little mark, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, "You are here."”

One of my favorite passages shows the futility of all arguments based on “pure logic” for or against the existence of God:

`I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, `for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
`But,' says Man, `The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
`Oh dear,' says God, `I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly disappears in a puff of logic.
`Oh, that was easy,' says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Or on fine-tuning arguments, when a puddle thinks:

This is […] an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"

And finally, this nugget on the role of science:

There are some oddities in the perspective with which we see the world. The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be, but we have done various things over intellectual history to slowly correct some of our misapprehensions.

I miss you, Mr. Adams.

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Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design

A model of the universeMany silly things have been written and said about this book, mostly by people who haven’t read it. Too bad, it’s a very short and easy read...

The central claim of the book, the one on which the marketing campaign has been centered, is that God is not necessary in order to explain the universe. That’s nothing new: when Napoleon asked Laplace about two hundred years ago why he wasn’t mentioning the Creator in his work, he famously answered:

“I had no need of that hypothesis”

In 1670, Spinoza also hypothesized that the world could be understood without God having to play any role in it.

Hawking’s claims are not very different. Never in the book does he say that there is no god. This hasn’t stopped most clueless commenters to assume that he did but he simply did not. Concluding that God exists or not is left as an exercise to the reader. The shrinking relevance of the concept is of course nothing new, it has been going on for centuries but the erosion has never seemed to be an obstacle to the true believer.

To be fair, there are jabs at religion in the book (which is not the same as jabs at God), such as this one:

“In 1277 Bishop Templier of Paris, on the instructions of Pope John XXI, published a list of 219 errors or heresies that were to be condemned. Among the heresies was the idea that nature follows laws, because this conflicts with God’s omnipotence. Interestingly, Pope John was killed by the effects of the law of gravity a few months later when the roof of his palace fell in on him.”

What Hawking does claim is that the relatively recent discovery that the total energy of the universe is zero, coupled with the existence of a law such as gravitation, are enough to explain the creation of our universe. There is actually not much here that isn’t already familiar to people who have been following the progress of physics.

Many commenters have pointed out that he doesn’t explain why there is a law of gravitation. Well, they either haven’t read the book or haven’t been paying attention. He does give an explanation, which is that a quantum cosmological model such as the one from superstring theory he’s using, has to include all possible physical laws. Still, I would agree with those commenters that he’s not going deeply enough to explain the origin of physical laws. That doesn’t mean that there are no naturalistic explanations, just that the book does not provide a fully satisfactory one. In that way the central claim of the book is a little overblown as it really only pushes God into a smaller gap.

Hawking in general does not enter into too many details and that would be my main grief against the book. There is a lot of hand-waving going on, which too bad as the science behind what he’s saying is worth explaining. Because he doesn’t explain, many readers may think he’s just making things up.

There is an insistence in the book on adopting what the authors call model-dependent realism, which is a philosophical parti-pris that because all we know of reality is through our sensations, we cannot have tests of reality that are completely independent of the models we build to account for observation. This is actually not very controversial but it has already been misinterpreted by the likes of Deepack Chopra as validation of their own crazy ideas that the mind was somehow creating reality. Hawking could have been more precise: he could have predicted that pitfall and avoided it by clearly stating what he was not saying.

I’ve been focusing in this review on the negatives (oh, did I mention the lame attempts at humor that could have been entirely avoided?). Still, I recommend the book as the positives vastly outweigh my nitpicking. It is a good and pleasant read. It does present solid arguments (although they could be supported by more actual scientific contents) and does push back the role of God in creation. It is also a good introductory text for those who want to understand the current state of cosmology. A modern and honest person should read it, if only in order to be able to speak of it intelligently.

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Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms

Allégorie (la Mort) After the absolutely amazing Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis delivers a relatively short read with Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to Less Than Zero. Let’s say it up front: if you’ve read all of his previous novels already, you have already read this one. It is almost entirely without surprise: perversion, murders, a nightmarish blend of the inner and outer worlds of the narrator and a desperate absence of feelings and empathy are all there.

And it’s a great read as usual. The style hits home. The way the narrator seems to float above his own story owes a lot to how extreme violence is depicted matter-of-factly and how ordinary events like a text message are overloaded with hidden threats and anguish.

The characters are those from Less Than Zero, Ellis’ first novel. They have gotten older with the author but their lives have not changed much. Clay is still an outsider who comes back to LA, only to find emptiness, and the other ones are reproducing much of the patterns they were already exhibiting 25 years ago. They still don’t exist but wish they did.

Verdict: read

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