Byers incorporates many brilliant thinkers and seminal scientific breakthroughs into his discussion, offering the cogent,...

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THE BLIND SPOT

SCIENCE AND THE CRISIS OF UNCERTAINTY

Is the idea that anything can be determined with absolute certainty an illusion?

In mathematics and science, “certainty” is often assumed to be the result of quantification or experimentation. This notion is reassuring, but it can also set a dangerous precedent for how we view and interact with the natural world. This so-called mythology of science, or misguided “culture of certainty,” hides what mathematics professor emeritus Byers (How Mathematicians Think, 2007) calls “the blind spot”—an inevitable ambiguity within all situations, from the velocity of an elementary particle to the behavior of the stock market. Even established scientific fields like evolutionary biology or quantum mechanics are inherently ambiguous, though the data and knowledge gleaned from these fields is still revolutionary. The author argues that while reconfiguring the human attitude toward embracing uncertainty may be uncomfortable, ultimately it will enable creative opportunity on a massive scale; that an acceptance of ambiguity is “the price we pay for creativity.” Byers suggests that a continuing adherence to certainties may allow the fundamental uncertainty of modern culture to manifest itself in a variety of catastrophic ways. For example, Wall Street's faith in certain algorithmic approaches to investing makes an interesting point about how incapable of certainty such mathematics can be—as evidenced by its recent collapse. In addition, the author argues that perhaps very little of what we deduce scientifically is actually objective: Is it possible to conduct an experiment without the observer or participant affecting the outcome? If mathematicians are able to use real numbers to solve immense equations, but the answers reveal an even deeper paradox, is there such a thing as truth?

Byers incorporates many brilliant thinkers and seminal scientific breakthroughs into his discussion, offering the cogent, invigorating argument that only by embracing uncertainty can we truly progress.

Pub Date: May 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-691-14684-3

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 9, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2011

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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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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

THE ORDER OF TIME

Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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