Archive for the Books Category

Quote of the Day

Posted in Art, Books, physics on August 12, 2007 by Mike Procario

“Across the campus trees broke out in absurd petaled profusion. Life returned to life, sporting a spin, strangeness, and charm that Spiegel had never suspected.”

Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark

Richard Powers writes literary fiction. He tackles hard subjects and his writing is dense with allusions. He frequently writes about the intersection of art and science, which is definitely true of this book. A physicist would recognize the spin, strangeness, and charm int he quote are quantum numbers of elementary particles. I wonder how readers will pick that up. What does that sentence convey to non-physicists.

The Map that Changed the World

Posted in Books on May 16, 2007 by Mike Procario

I have become fascinated by European intellectual history from the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. The sciences were flourishing. The modern economic system was just developing. My latest read falls into the end of this period and actually extends into the nineteenth century. It is The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester. It is a biography of William Smith, sometimes called the Father of Geology. Smith was the first to use fossils to date different strata of rock, and he made the first geological map of England.

I understood the basic ideas of geology that were presented, but I felt like I wanted more. It appears that while Smith did  go into coal mines and see the strata change and he went down, most of his data for the map depended on observations of outcroppings and the shallow excavations of canal building. I have trouble understanding how his mostly surface observations can yield data that is described.

Since the book was a biography and not a textbook, much of the book discussed Smith battles with the geological establishment to get credit for his work. Much of the battle was due to class conflict. Smith was born of humble origins and the Geological Society was founded by “gentlemen”. Eventually, the leadership of the Geological Society passed to working scientists who honored Smith in his old age.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

Posted in Books on April 15, 2007 by Mike Procario

I have just finished The Alphabet Versus the Goddess by Leonard Shlain. I read the epilogue and discovered that the author had already written my review.

Perhaps in my zeal to make my points I have overstated the right/left, feminine/masculine, nutrer/killer, and intuiter/analyzer dualities. … Nevertheless, I believe overlaying these templates upon human history has helped clarify many complex currents and have made certain patterns apparent that would have otherwise remained murky.

A more general thesis that changes in the means of communication is disruptive to societies seems to be compelling. The introduction of writing, the printing press, and television have all been accompanied by turmoil. The connection of alphabetical literacy with monotheism, patriarchy, and misogyny seems real, but it is hard to understand if it cause and effect or something more oblique. I am not sure that we know enough about psychology to make the stronger statement yet.

The book is thought provoking and it does give one a new way to think about the the sometimes tumultuous history of western civilization.

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A Conspiracy of Paper

Posted in Books on March 31, 2007 by Mike Procario

I just finished reading A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss. The book was originally published in 2000. It is a murder mystery set in England in the early 18th century. The murder is motivated by financial fraud in England’s developing stock market. I am not usually a reader of mystery novels, but I have gotten interested in this time period by Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which dealt with the major upheavals in science and economics that occurred in the 18th century.

Bart Ehrman in the Washington Post

Posted in Books, Religion on March 5, 2006 by Mike Procario

I have blogged about Bart Ehrman's book , Misquoting Jesus. I found it interesting and based on my reading of the book, I was of the opinion that Ehrman still believed in God although not in the literal words of the Bible. Apparently that is not true. An article in the Washington Post today contains quotes from Ehrman that clearly show he is an agnostic .

"I just began to lose it," Ehrman says now, in a conversation that stretches from late afternoon into the evening. "It wasn't for lack of trying. But I just couldn't believe there was a God in charge of this mess . . . It was so emotionally charged. This whole business of 'the Bible is your life, and anyone who doesn't believe it is going to roast in hell.' "

It is interesting that he is still a biblical scholar. His motivations for going into biblical studies are gone.

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Quote of the Day

Posted in Books on February 26, 2006 by Mike Procario

I came across this quote in the book that I am currently reading. The character who gives the quote claims that is from Dr. Arendt. I have googled for it, but I have not found it. I am not sure if this is really from Hannah Arendt, or the author is putting words in her mouth.

The God of the scientist, one is tempted to suggest, created man in his own image and put him into the world with only one commandment: Now try to figure out by yourself how all of this was done and how it works.

Time to get back to reading 23 of 637 pages done.

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Book: Misquoting Jesus

Posted in Books, Religion on February 22, 2006 by Mike Procario

A friend lent me Richard Rubenstein's When Jesus Became God a few months ago, and I found it fascinating. It that explained many different concepts were circulating in the early church about the divinity of Jesus, and showed how the orthodox view prevailed. I was raised Catholic and the perception that I always had was that the church exists today in very much same form as when Paul started converting the gentiles. In fact the structure of the church today did not even begin to develop until Constantine converted to Christianity and lent the power of the Roman Empire to the early church.

Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus covers similar but not identical territory. He approaches it through textual studies of the New Testament. The earliest existing manuscripts of the New Testament date from the second century, although the original texts were older they have been lost. What I took from the book is that the Bible shows a significant amount of variation, but that with some hard work and careful thought, a very reasonable approximation of the original can be reconstructed.

I read through many reviews of Misquoting Jesus on Amazon.com, and it is clear that this book provokes many reactions with opposite absolute reactions being common. One is comdemnation from people who believe that the Bible is the 100% accurate word of God. The other is from people who use the variation as evidence that the whole thing must be false. Certainly, neither is Ehrman's view.

I liked the book. It is clear that Ehrman has thought long and hard about his subject. This book is clearly simplified for a general audience, so one cannot evaluate whether he has gotten everything correct, but I believe that he has done a good job at explaining his method and giving an overview of the material.

I am of the opinion that simple answers and absolute certainities are rare, but careful thought and hard work can yield insights and useful knowledge that can improve our lives. It is one of the reasons that I am a scientist, and it appears that Bart Ehrman shares this view.