Pop science and natural philosophy

Partly thanks to having had a few long flights, I’ve been reading some popular science books – I find them bizarrely relaxing & am sure it’s good for me to keep up. In order of reading:

Reality Is Not What It Seems by Carlo Rovelli. I thoroughly enjoyed this beautifully-written¬† book, and thought for the duration that I finally understood something about quantum theory. This grasp evaporated when I closed the book, needless to say (but it’s loops, not strings, ok?) I highlighted lots of fascinating observations eg “The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects; it is a world of events.” And, “All events in a system occur in relation to another system.”

Scale by Geoffrey West. Another really interesting & a discipline-boundary-leaping exploration of what the title says: how do things behave as they get bigger, things being everything from small bugs to mega-cities. On the latter, he observes that physical infrastructure does not need to grow linearly with city size, but anything social increases more than linearly as cities grow – hence economic agglomeration effects. The one thing that troubled me is that West uses ‘economies of scale’ to mean decreasing returns, the kind of language barrier that contributes to the challenge of inter-disciplinary work.

Cognitive Gadgets by Cecilia Heyes. Brilliant book on cultural evolution, by an experimental psychologist crossing into cognitive science and evolutionary biology. I’m going to review this separately. If her argument is correct – and it persuaded me – it has big implications for the idea of social progress.

The Synthetic Age by Christopher Preston. I bought this after hearing him talk at the Hay Festival but was a bit disappointed in the book. The argument is that the new geological age should be thought of as synthetic because nature is now so wholly made by humans  Рthe entire Holocene can be thought of as anthropocene in a sense, he argues, as humans started to affect nature. Now we have the power to shape it entirely. He looks at synthetic biology, climate engineering etc. The talk was quite balanced about the merits and dangers of such technologies, but the book pretty clearly against their use without being convincing about it.

I also read Tara Westover’s Educated, an extraordinary and gripping book.

Also, to round off yesterday’s 10 hour flight, Benjamin Black’s Prague Nights. A fine 16th century crime caper set in mad Rudolf’s capital, featuring a young ‘natural philosopher’ as its hero.

Oh for the days when one person could hope to range across all of existing scientific knowledge….


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