BookReview: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing
by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, June 15, 2008, 978-0199216802

One of the most interesting collections I have read in a long time. Richard Dawkins chose the pieces extremely well. There's a theme of evolution, but also trying to understand evolution in the context of the unverse. I can't think of a page in this book which I skipped over or which bored me.

Technology Note: I read this book on the Amazon Kindle, an e-book reader, my first experience with such a device. I don't intend to review the Kindle. I like it. There are two things that are relevant to Via Rob. The first is that my reviews can no longer include page numbers, since the concept of a "page" does not exist on the Kindle. Instead, I'm listing [kNNN] values in the text. The NNN is a Kindle Location, which is impossible for non-Kindle readers to convert to page numbers. I apologize, but frankly, the page numbers are not all that useful to anybody but me anyway.

Second, I will be getting my reviews out more quickly. Indeed, this review is coming out ahead of about 10 books I have read since my last review. The Kindle allows me to highlight text and to write notes digitally. I no longer have to scan my selections from the books I read nor do I have to decipher my handwriting from sticky notes to my only marginally improved writing for you to decipher.

Now back to the review which is already in progress... The selections Dawkins picked are listed below separate from the quotes. This is a "modal" review. If you read a quote from the book, it's author is identified in the previous selection heading. If the quote is from Dawkins himself, it begins with [Dawkins].

[k745] J. B. S. Haldane from 'ON BEING THE RIGHT SIZE'

[k788] Some of the methods of increasing the surface are useful up to a point, but not capable of a very wide adaptation. For example, while vertebrates carry the oxygen from the gills or lungs all over the body in the blood, insects take air directly to every part of their body by tiny blind tubes called tracheae which open to the surface at many different points. Now, although by their breathing movements they can renew the air in the outer part of the tracheal system, the oxygen has to penetrate the finer branches by means of diffusion. Gases can diffuse easily through very small distances, not many times larger than the average length travelled by a gas molecule between collisions with other molecules. But when such vast journeys-from the point of view of a molecule-as a quarter of an inch have to be made, the process becomes slow. So the portions of an insect's body more than a quarter of an inch from the air would always be short of oxygen. In consequence hardly any insects are much more than half an inch thick. Land crabs are built on the same general plan as insects, but are much clumsier. Yet like ourselves they carry oxygen around in their blood, and are therefore able to grow far larger than any insects. If the insects had hit on a plan for driving air through their tissues instead of letting it soak in, they might well have become as large as lobsters, though other considerations would have prevented them from becoming as large as man.


[k1266] Science doesn't have all the answers, but it is good at spotting the important questions when they are camouflaged against a background of common sense.

[k2365] Peter Medawar from THE PHENOMENON OF MAN

[k2377] How have people come to be taken in by [the book] The Phenomenon of Man? We must not underestimate the size of the market for works of this kind, for philosophy-fiction. Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly of tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought.

[k2632] Darwin had chosen well to illustrate his generality. What better than worms: the most ordinary, commonplace, and humble objects of our daily observation and dismissal. If they, working constantly beneath our notice, can form much of our soil and shape our landscape, then what event of magnitude cannot arise from the summation of small effects. Darwin had not abandoned evolution for earthworms; rather, he was using worms to illustrate the general method that had validated evolution as well. Nature's mills, like God's, grind both slowly and exceedingly small.

Darwin made two major claims for worms. First, in shaping the land, their effects are directional. They triturate particles of rock into ever smaller fragments (in passing them through their gut while churning the soil), and they denude the land by loosening and disaggregating the soil as they churn it; gravity and erosive agents then move the soil more easily from high to low ground, thus leveling the landscape. The low, rolling character of topography in areas inhabited by worms is, in large part, a testimony to their slow but persistent work.

Second, in forming and churning the soil, they maintain a steady state amidst constant change.

[k2893] There is another related but different creature, nothing like so wonderful as a human child, nothing like so hopeful, something to worry about all day and all night. It is us, aggregated together in our collective, critical masses. So far, we have learned how to be useful to each other only when we collect in small groups-families, circles of friends, once in a while (although still rarely) committees. The drive to be useful is encoded in our genes. But when we gather in very large numbers, as in the modern nation-state, we seem capable of levels of folly and self-destruction to be found nowhere else in all of Nature.

[k3012] Julian Huxley from ESSAYS OF A BIOLOGIST

[k3067] On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

[k3075] Carl Sagan from THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD

The following is a very Popperian. I have been reading quite a bit of late mid-20th century philosophy lately, and this book touches on Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Popper quite nicely.

[k3109] One of the reasons for its success is that science has built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition. Every time a scientific paper presents a bit

[k3113] [E]rror bars are small, the accuracy of our empirical knowledge is high; if the error bars are large, then so is the uncertainty in our knowledge. Except in pure mathematics nothing is known for certain (although much is certainly false).


The following interesting quote about understanding naturaal selection. Individuals (and their offspring) survive, and natural selection says nothing about species or other groupings abstracted by man.

[k3335] This fundamental difference between the classes of the physical scientists and the populations of the biologist has various consequences. For instance, he who does not understand the uniqueness of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural selection.

The following quote about Quetelet is like physicists trying to treat each trade as the error off the mean (or the high/low/close). The mean in economics is meaningless. Unless a transaction takes place the stock/bond/entity has no value.

[k3339] Quetelet, a follower of Laplace, was interested in deterministic laws. He hoped by his method to be able to calculate the characteristics of the "average man"; that is, to discover the "essence" of man. Variation was nothing but "errors" around the mean values.

[k3345] Garrett Hardin from THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

I didn't know who Garrett Hardin is, but I enjoyed this article. I think about the tragedy of the commons, quite often. It's good to know who coined it.

In the following, Hardin explains how evolution favors denial. The more aware (educated?) we are, the more we fight against individual survival. The fact that society needs rules is nowhere to be found in the theory of evolution.

[k3364] Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all. Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

[k3458] Per Bak from HOW NATURE WORKS

One of the many problems I struggle with is how to grow bivio. While I'm learning to "let go" of control, that does not mean I want to let go of our core values: testing (feedback, criticism) and code (communication). As organizations grow, they often have to let go of both of these ideals. They compartmentalize to avoid the N-squared communication problem, and they cease to have the ability to accept criticism (test new ideas). Some people say that bivio's systems are complex, but I don't think of them that way. Rather, we are achieving the ultimate software goal: reuse. And, reuse implies complication, not complexity. It takes a great deal to understand our processes. Large companies are basically self-organizating, and follow an evolutationary path of growth. This is what I found interesting about this little quote: evolution is the law of large numbers. Design is about the law of more with less. Later you'll read about "more is different", or evolution's law, from John Wheeler.

[k3467] The evolution to this very delicate state occurs without design from any outside agent. The state is established solely because of the dynamical interactions among individual elements of the system: the critical state is self-organized. Self-organized criticality is so far the only known general mechanism to generate complexity.

Another interesting insight: Quality in some way emerges from quantity. Design is just the opposite: quanity is tamed by quality.

[k3488] If no new phenomena emerged in large systems out of the dynamics of systems working at a lower level, then we would need no scientists but particle physicists, since there would be no other areas to cover. But then there would be no particle physicists. Quality, in some way, emerges from quantity.


The Turing Test defined.

[k3851] The Imitation Game

This is a succinct description of evolution versus design without big design up front (BDUF, in the XP parlance).

[k3894] One may hope, however, that this process will be more expeditious than evolution. The survival of the fittest is a slow method for measuring advantages. The experimenter, by the exercise of intelligence, should be able to speed it up. Equally important is the fact that he is not restricted to random mutations. If he can trace a cause for some weakness he can probably think of the kind of mutation which will improve it.

I've come to learn that The Constitution is not time invariant. The words used hundreds of years ago are not the same words we use today. Consider the word "man" then and now. What I think Turing got wrong is that a human's brain constantly rewires itself. That code and data are not independent in the brain is very important to the reason our brains can solve problems very differently from the Von Neumann computer.

[k3926] The idea of a learning machine may appear paradoxical to some readers. How can the rules of operation of the machine change? They should describe completely how the machine will react whatever its history might be, whatever changes it might undergo. The rules are thus quite time-invariant. This is quite true. The explanation of the paradox is that the rules which get changed in the learning process are of a rather less pretentious kind, claiming only an ephemeral validity. The reader may draw a parallel with the Constitution of the United States.

Interesting thought about injecting random behaviour into computers. This is what genetic algorithms and some other search techniques use to attempt to slay data complexity. I also find it interesting that Turing thinks you hold the program in your head. Is this is an intelligent way to design software, or not? For simple programs, yes. For large scale, highly-refactored systems, no. It's impossible.

[k3929] An important feature of a learning machine is that its teacher will often be very largely ignorant of quite what is going on inside, although he may still be able to some extent to predict his pupil's behaviour. This should apply most strongly to the later education of a machine arising from a child-machine of well-tried design (or programme). This is in clear contrast with normal procedure when using a machine to do computations: one's object is then to have a clear mental picture of the state of the machine at each moment in the computation. This object can only be achieved with a struggle. The view that `the machine can only do what we know how to order it to do' appears strange in face of this. Most of the programmes which we can put into the machine will result in its doing something that we cannot make sense of at all, or which we regard as completely random behaviour. Intelligent behaviour presumably consists in a departure from the completely disciplined behaviour involved in computation, but a rather slight one, which does not give rise to random behaviour, or to pointless repetitive loops. Another important

Alas, this next paragraph defined the blueprint for AI that we were to use over the next 50 years -- and still going imho. Sad that we haven't progressed past this. What we see here is a strong argument for Kuhn's paradigm-puzzle approach to scientific advance. It takes an imaginative thinking individual like Turing to set the course of "normal" science.

[k3945] We may hope that machines will eventually compete with men in all purely intellectual fields. But which are the best ones to start with? Even this is a difficult decision. Many people think that a very abstract activity, like the playing of chess, would be best. It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child. Things would be pointed out and named, etc. Again I do not know what the right answer is, but I think both approaches should be tried. We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

[k4274] Stephen Hawking from A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME

I like Hawking's egitarian approach. I do wonder about the use of God here. For one, it presupposes monotheism. Two, it does not solve the thoughts about sects, which are at the core of many religious debates. Three, it supports a world view that is at once confirming and disaffirming. Is that right or fair? I mean by this, is it important to validate this historical concept? Should we think of ghosts in the fourth dimension, too?

[k4330] However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God.

[k4504] Lee Smolin from THE LIFE OF THE COSMOS

[k4515] The Flower and the Dodecahedron

Is math like the concept of flat space? Does it happen because we can't really understand it? You have to read the whole article to really understand my statement.

[k4550] But in spite of the obvious effectiveness of mathematics in physics, I have never heard a good a priori argument that the world must be organized according to mathematical principles.

It does seem to be what he is saying, that is, math exists only because we create it.

[k4551] No other conception of reality has led to so much success, in practical mastery of the world.

A very succinct and different picture from what I have of physicists or mathematicians.

[k4557] Perhaps the greatest nightmare of the Platonist is that, in the end, all of our laws will be like this, so that the root of all the beautiful regularities we have discovered will turn out to be more statistics, beyond which is only randomness or irrationality. This is perhaps one reason why biology seems puzzling to some physicists. The possibility that the tremendous beauty of the living world might be, in the end, just a matter of randomness, statistics, and frozen accident stands as a genuine threat to the mystical conceit that reality can be captured in a single, beautiful equation. This is why it took me years to become comfortable with the possibility that the explanation for at least part of the laws of physics might be found in this same logic of randomness and frozen accident.

[k4710] John Archibald Wheeler with Kenneth Ford from GEONS, BLACK HOLES, AND QUANTUM FOAM

Wheeler is assuming that computer programs are well understood by their creators. Unfortunately, that's not the case, unless one applies testing, like evolution applies to individuals.

[k4729] Yet one enormous difference separates the computer and the universe -- chance. In principle, the output of a computer is precisely determined by the input (remember the programmer's famous admonition: garbage in, garbage out). Chance plays no role.

I like the idea "it from bit". The universe is information. The popperian universe assumes everything is measurable, which the real universe isn't, of course. The Popperian approach does apply to computers, where all possible information is predetermined. One of the reasons the universe is not computable -- or even a small part of it -- is that it all happens in parallel. This is much like a distibuted computer system which is not computable either -- it is non-deterministic and behaves like the n-body problem.

[k4732] Trying to wrap my brain around this idea of information theory as the basis of existence, I came up with the phrase `it from bit'. The universe and all that it contains ('it') may arise from the myriad yes-no choices of measurement (the `bits'). Niels Bohr wrestled for most of his life with the question of how acts of measurement (or `registration') may affect reality. It is registration-whether by a person or a device or a piece of mica (anything that can preserve a record)-that changes potentiality into actuality. I build only a little on the structure of Bohr's thinking when I suggest that we may never understand this strange thing, the quantum, until we understand how information may underlie reality. Information may not be just what we learn about the world. It may be what makes the world.

Wheeler introduces more is different, which explains why I do bOP. I do not know what we are creating by adding and augmenting bOP, but I do know that bOP will be and is different than all those systems which are considered "finished". I contrast this to "less is more" used often by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Gustave Flaubert's "God is in the details". Less is more is a great design principle, but the universe or the earth or anything in nature is not designed; it's qualities are created from quantity (see above). "More is different" is an evolutionary and life choice principle. Travel to new places, read books like this one, and create lots of "its" to get "more", which will be useful to you.

[k4746] `More is different' may have something to do with `it from bit'. The rich complexity of the universe as a whole does not in any way preclude an extremely simple element such as a bit of information from being what the universe is made of. When enough simple elements are stirred together, there is no limit to what can result.

[k4747] David Deutsch from THE FABRIC OF REALITY

This describes the Popperian software world I have been struggling to describe (and will succeed!).

[k4762] Every last scrap of our external experience is of virtual reality. And every last scrap of our knowledge-including our knowledge of the non-physical worlds of logic, mathematics and philosophy, and of imagination, fiction, art and fantasy-is encoded in the form of programs for the rendering of those worlds on our brain's own virtual-reality generator.

[k4768] Primo Levi from THE PERIODIC TABLE

Truly fascinating. I didn't know this about photosynthesis. When we speak about the carbon footprint, we are talking about the footprint of food for plants.

[k4851] Besides the vegetable and animal worlds, these reserves are constituted by deposits of coal and petroleum: but these too are the inheritance of photosynthetic activity carried out in distant epochs, so that one can well affirm that photosynthesis is not only the sole path by which carbon becomes living matter, but also the sole path by which the sun's energy becomes chemically usable.

[k4904] Loren Eiseley from LITTLE MEN AND FLYING SAUCERS

The last sentence in this paragraph is incredibly terrifying if you feel abandonded in general. It's a tough line for those who cannot face mortality--afraid of physical death or spiritual death or expecting an after-life, in some way.

[k4913] Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

[k4917] Carl Sagan from PALE BLUE DOT

[k4919] [Dawkins] Read Sagan's words. Read them again. Read them for that special Kind of humility which only science can give, the special Kind of humility with which this book began, and which we cannot afford to forget.

[k4924] The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Via Rob 10/19/2008