Saturday, February 14, 2015

At the Edge of Uncertainty by Micheal Brooks

Read by an always neutral yet engaging and sympathically curious Sean Runnette, At the Edge of Uncertainty by Micheal Brooks is an examination of the latest discoveries in science that may go against what was previously believed. Life is complex, not just on the social level, but also on the molecular level. This is a broad view of the sciences, but with surprising in-depth focus. So it walks the balance beam between the limited knowledge of pop audiences and the fact-based erudition of geeks, with entertaining flips along the way likely to be appreciated by both. Subjects include the quantum link in understanding smell (and scents perception, as in perfumes); the finding that women experience pain differently than men; why we unconsciously judge what people say by what they are wearing (something politicians exploit); the fallacy of positive thinking in affecting outcomes or overcoming disease (with the caveat of stress and depression); the nature of reality: (holographic, string theory?); why studying vision in how birds navigate may usher in artificially intelligent computers (covering one eye in birds takes away their ability, but not the other!); cosmology and inflation theory; time as illusion; human consciousness (cognition, deception); genes and DNA: are we special? The Nazis experimented on creating chimeras, or human/ape hybrids. It didn't work, but could it? The answer is a shocking "maybe." Stem cell research is but one of the "11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise," the subtitle of this fascinating book, written by a journalist with a PH.D in physics. (Note on the narrator: while some readers tend to add drama to non-fiction, as they are used to doing with fiction, Runnette is one of the best because he disappears behind the narrative in the same way that a good dramatic reader does in creating character in novels. This is not an easy task, since one wants naturally to emphasize or dramatize certain revelations. Runnette sticks to goal, which is to create awe in the listener, allowing them to experience that awe by stepping aside, in essence pointing with skillful pacing and pauses.)  One of the myopic concepts discussed in the new book THIS IDEA MUST DIE is the notion of simplistic answers to complex problems. We (as humans) tend to want the external world outside our own conscious ego to conform to this need to categorize everything as right or wrong, good or evil, black or white. Star Wars type movies and video games and ball games all require myopic simplicity to work on the level of mindless sensory engagement (US vs THEM.) The real world is not so simple. We do not even know our place in it, and so gravitate toward our baser instincts to dominate or defeat those outside our more understandable clan or family or team. In order for progress to work efficiently we need to retire many such fallacies, and this audiobook discussion of why we are stuck in a violent, incomprehensible world explores and debates the issues posed by dozens of scientists at the frontiers of knowledge. Edited by John Brockman, who also did THE UNIVERSE.

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