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EXISTENTIAL PHYSICS

A SCIENTIST'S GUIDE TO LIFE'S BIGGEST QUESTIONS

An intriguing book fully of highly opinionated and convincing arguments.

A German physicist digs into a host of existential quandaries.

In her 2018 book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, Hossenfelder, research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, excoriated her colleagues for falling in love with theories that bear little relation to reality. In her second book, she turns her gimlet eye on popular beliefs. More than other scientific fields, notes the author, physics asks profound questions about the meaning of everything, including life and death, the origin of the universe, and the nature of reality. Religious leaders ask the same questions, as do philosophers, gurus, mystics, alternative healers, and outright quacks. Unlike many other science writers, Hossenfelder is less interested in denouncing pseudoscience than revealing that many spiritual ideas are compatible with modern physics. Natural laws contradict others, and still others are “ascientific”—i.e., neither true nor false but unprovable: “Science has nothing to say about it. At least, science in its current state.” Some fashionable beliefs are “more appealing the less you understand physics,” but Hossenfelder avoids low-hanging fruit (Deepak Chopra and Elon Musk make fleeting appearances), preferring to interview and often argue with fellow physicists, including Nobel laureates. Casting her net widely, she investigates God and spirituality, free will, universal consciousness, dualism (whether the mind is separate from the body), the Big Bang theory about the origin of the cosmos, the possible existence of parallel universes, and whether we live in a computer simulation. As the author notes, the “simulation hypothesis” annoys her because it represents “a bold claim about the laws of nature that doesn’t pay any attention to what we know about the laws of nature.” Separating reality from nonsense has preoccupied philosophers for centuries. Nonsense remains as popular as ever, but readers who wonder how to tell a good from a bad explanation can now consult two good books: David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity and this one.

An intriguing book fully of highly opinionated and convincing arguments.

Pub Date: Aug. 9, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-984879-45-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 10, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2022

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ELON MUSK

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

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A warts-and-all portrait of the famed techno-entrepreneur—and the warts are nearly beyond counting.

To call Elon Musk (b. 1971) “mercurial” is to undervalue the term; to call him a genius is incorrect. Instead, Musk has a gift for leveraging the genius of others in order to make things work. When they don’t, writes eminent biographer Isaacson, it’s because the notoriously headstrong Musk is so sure of himself that he charges ahead against the advice of others: “He does not like to share power.” In this sharp-edged biography, the author likens Musk to an earlier biographical subject, Steve Jobs. Given Musk’s recent political turn, born of the me-first libertarianism of the very rich, however, Henry Ford also comes to mind. What emerges clearly is that Musk, who may or may not have Asperger’s syndrome (“Empathy did not come naturally”), has nurtured several obsessions for years, apart from a passion for the letter X as both a brand and personal name. He firmly believes that “all requirements should be treated as recommendations”; that it is his destiny to make humankind a multi-planetary civilization through innovations in space travel; that government is generally an impediment and that “the thought police are gaining power”; and that “a maniacal sense of urgency” should guide his businesses. That need for speed has led to undeniable successes in beating schedules and competitors, but it has also wrought disaster: One of the most telling anecdotes in the book concerns Musk’s “demon mode” order to relocate thousands of Twitter servers from Sacramento to Portland at breakneck speed, which trashed big parts of the system for months. To judge by Isaacson’s account, that may have been by design, for Musk’s idea of creative destruction seems to mean mostly chaos.

Alternately admiring and critical, unvarnished, and a closely detailed account of a troubled innovator.

Pub Date: Sept. 12, 2023

ISBN: 9781982181284

Page Count: 688

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 12, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2023

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GREENLIGHTS

A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

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All right, all right, all right: The affable, laconic actor delivers a combination of memoir and self-help book.

“This is an approach book,” writes McConaughey, adding that it contains “philosophies that can be objectively understood, and if you choose, subjectively adopted, by either changing your reality, or changing how you see it. This is a playbook, based on adventures in my life.” Some of those philosophies come in the form of apothegms: “When you can design your own weather, blow in the breeze”; “Simplify, focus, conserve to liberate.” Others come in the form of sometimes rambling stories that never take the shortest route from point A to point B, as when he recounts a dream-spurred, challenging visit to the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, who offered a significant lesson in how disagreement can be expressed politely and without rancor. Fans of McConaughey will enjoy his memories—which line up squarely with other accounts in Melissa Maerz’s recent oral history, Alright, Alright, Alright—of his debut in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, to which he contributed not just that signature phrase, but also a kind of too-cool-for-school hipness that dissolves a bit upon realizing that he’s an older guy on the prowl for teenage girls. McConaughey’s prep to settle into the role of Wooderson involved inhabiting the mind of a dude who digs cars, rock ’n’ roll, and “chicks,” and he ran with it, reminding readers that the film originally had only three scripted scenes for his character. The lesson: “Do one thing well, then another. Once, then once more.” It’s clear that the author is a thoughtful man, even an intellectual of sorts, though without the earnestness of Ethan Hawke or James Franco. Though some of the sentiments are greeting card–ish, this book is entertaining and full of good lessons.

A conversational, pleasurable look into McConaughey’s life and thought.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-13913-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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