WHO'S IN CHARGE?

FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN

The more we learn about the human brain, the more puzzling the question of free will becomes.

Forty years ago, cognitive neuroscientist Gazzaniga (Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique, 2008, etc.)—the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara—pioneered the study of the different functions of the right and left hemispheres of the human brain. Since then, it has become clear that what characterizes the human brain is not simply its size—after all, Neanderthal brains were larger—or even the greater connectivity of our neurons than occurs in the brains of our chimpanzee cousins. Neuropsychologists have established that the human brain is composed of specialized modules, local circuits that each operate automatically. “The end result is thousands of modules, each doing their own thing,” writes the author, so that “our conscious awareness is the mere tip of the iceberg of non-conscious processing.” This capability allowed us to create culture and technology, our hallmark as a species, but we are left with a disturbing question: “[W]hy do we feel so unified and in control” if our conscious experience is the result of “positive feedback” from modules that are each acting independently in response to environmental challenges? Gazzaniga goes on to pose the deeper question of whether can exist if “the thoughts that arise from our minds are also determined,” as can be shown experimentally by brain scans. If the brain is made up of subsystems without any one locus of control, can the concept of free will have any meaning? The author examines this knotty question from many different angles and offers a simple analogy to explain how, in his view, consciousness and moral responsibility emerge from social interaction. In other words, the rules of traffic are collective and cannot be reduced to the behavior of individual cars. A fascinating affirmation of our essential humanity.

 

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-06-190610-7

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2011

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An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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