Jun 272018
 

A while back, I wrote about the uncanny resemblance between the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua and the fictitious doomsday weapon Iilah in A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant.

And now I am reading that Iilah’s, I mean, ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory changed due to non-gravitational forces. The suspect is comet-like outgassing, but observations revealed no gas clouds, so it is a bit of a mystery.

Even if this is purely a natural phenomenon (and I firmly believe that it is, just in case it needs to be said) it is nonetheless mind-blowingly fascinating.

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
Jun 232018
 

I am reading a year-and-a-half old article in The Nation, written by Susan McWilliams about the prophecies of a 50 year old book coming true.

The book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The article makes a compelling argument that Thompson’s observations aptly describe the rise and reasons of success of “Trumpism”. As I was reading its paragraphs, I was reminded of conversations I had recently with supporters of Trump. The sentiment of “total retaliation” described in the article closely captures my experience. What I saw was an automatic, almost visceral distrust of anything “liberal”. Trump supporters embrace things like racism not because they are racist, but because it is a way to piss off, to troll “liberals”. They reject things like climate science mainly because it comes from a scientific establishment that is seen as liberal, hence inherently untrustworthy.

Most compellingly, my conversations confirm the article’s main point: Trumpists are not looking for solutions because they do not really believe that solutions exist. Hence the ethos of “total retaliation”: nothing matters anymore, so long as they can piss off those lefty liberals some more. Children in detention camps? Great, look how those nasty liberals are squirming. The First Lady wearing a jacket with a questionable message? Look, she is even better at trolling liberals than her husband! Self-defeating tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum? Excellent, that will really piss off that wacko commie Trudeau and his cult of personality in liberal haven Canada. Let our alpha male leader show that wimp who the boss is!

In short, there is no point being a good sport when the game is rigged against you. You might as well just piss on the playing field and storm off in anger. Punching a few random folks who stand in the way helps driving the point through.

Trump, Brexit, the rise of governments mistakenly labeled as “populist” in Europe, but which really distinguish themselves by being anti-science and anti-immigrant, presenting the media or human rights and antipoverty organizations, all perceived as bastions of the liberal world order, as the enemy; they all fit the picture drawn by McWilliams, base on the prophetic words of Thompson.

I never read Thompson’s book, but now I feel compelled to look for a copy.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Jun 162018
 

When I was a teenager, the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, was one of my favorites.

And one of my favorite chapters in that book was a chapter with an uncanny (not to mention unusually long) title: “How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches”. In it, Dumas describes a classic hack: exploiting the human in the system. By bribing an operator of France’s early optical telegraph network, the book’s protagonist is able to plant a false message, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of one of his mortal enemies. In short: a targeted cyberattack on a telecommunications network.

What I did not know, however, is that this chapter may have been inspired by real life events. About ten years before Dumas published his novel, the brothers François and Louis* Blanc managed to hack the telegraph network in a manner even more sophisticated than the hack described in Dumas’s book. Yes, the real-life hack relied on bribing operators, too, but it also involved a case of steganography: inserting a coded message that would piggyback on the original telegraph transmission. Not only did the scheme succeed, like any good hack it remained in place and undetected for two years. And when it was finally detected, the Blanc brothers were charged but never convicted; there were, after all, no laws on the books back in the 1830s against misuse of data networks.


*Well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It appears that the twins are misidentified as Francois and Joseph in several English-language publications. Francois was later known as The Magician of Monte Carlo, a casino that he owned and where he first introduced the single-0 style roulette wheel.
 
 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Dec 152017
 

The Internet (or at least, certain corners of the Internet where conspiracy theories thrive) is abuzz with speculation that the extrasolar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, best known, apart from its hyperbolic trajectory, for its oddly elongated shape, may be of artificial, extraterrestrial origin.

Some mention the similarity between ‘Oumuamua and Arthur C. Clarke’s extraterrestrial generational ship Rama, forgetting that Rama was a ship 50 kilometers in length, an obviously engineered cylinder, not a rock.

But then… I suddenly remembered that there was another artificial object of extrasolar origin in the science-fiction literature. It is Iilah, from A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant. Iilah is not discovered in orbit; rather, it lays dormant on the ocean floor for millions of years until it is awakened by the feeble radioactivity of isotopes that appear in the ocean as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

Iilah climbs out of the sea and is thus discovered. It becomes an object of study by a paranoid military, which ultimately decides to destroy it using a nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, the energy of the explosion achieves the exact opposite: instead of destroying Iilah, it fully awakens it, making it finally remember its original purpose. Iilah then sets itself up for a tremendous explosion that knocks the Earth out of orbit, ultimately causing it to fall into the Sun, turning the Sun into a nova. Why? Because Iilah was programmed to do this. Because “robot atom bombs do not make up their own minds.”

Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua

So here is the thing… the Iilah of van Vogt’s story had almost the exact same dimensions (it was about 400 feet in length) and appearance (a rock, like rough granite, with streaks of pink) as ‘Oumuamua.

Go figure.

 Posted by at 10:15 pm
Oct 052017
 

When I first saw the movie, Never Let Me Go, a few years back, it left me breathless. I mean, it left me gaping, with my best “what the fuck was that?” expression frozen on my face. It was, to put it mildly, a shocking film.

We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.

I quickly grabbed the book and read it, too. Its impact, if possible, was even greater. An amazing “cautionary tale”, to use Larry Niven’s expression: a piece of science-fiction that holds up a mirror to let us see the darkest corners of our collective soul.

And now the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel prize for literature. Well deserved. Very well deserved.

 Posted by at 10:02 pm
Sep 082017
 

Jerry Pournelle, the noted science-fiction writer, political pundit and early computer enthusiast, is dead at the age of 84.

Pournelle was a long-time collaborator of science-fiction giant Larry Niven, with whom they co-wrote some amazing science-fiction novels, like The Mote in God’s Eye or Oath of Fealty, not to mention their take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, and its sequel, Escape from Hell. Novels he published under his own name included the memorable Janissaries or West of Honor.

Pournelle was well known to readers of the once legendary BYTE magazine. His Chaos Manor column, in which he reviewed software, hardware, new technologies, was very popular.

Pournelle was a political conservative, one of the intellectuals behind Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka. “Star Wars”) space defense program. He was a thinking conservative, not blinded by ideology; his views were based on facts and reason.

I corresponded with Pournelle a few times, going back to the late 1980s, when I exchanged e-mails with him on BYTE’s long-defunct dial-up bulletin board, BIX (the Byte Information Exchange). Later, I was an on-and-off subscriber to his Web site and blog. I wasn’t a regular reader, and certainly didn’t always agree with him, but I liked to read his views.

Pournelle suffered a stroke in 2014 and it certainly slowed him down. Even so, he never stopped writing. His passing is not exactly a surprise, but it still came a little too soon. May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Jul 252017
 

There is a bit of a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg, who thinks it is irresponsible to to spread unwarranted warnings about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk, who called Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject “limited”, and calls for the slowing down and regulation of AI research.

OK, now it is time to make a fool of myself and question both of them.

But first… I think Zuckerberg has a point. The kind of AI that I think he talks about, e.g., AI in the hospital, AI used in search-and-rescue, or the AI of self-driving cars, machine translation or experiment design, will indeed save lives.

Nor do I believe that such research needs to be regulated (indeed, I don’t think it can be regulated). Such AI solutions are topic-centric, targeted algorithms. Your self-driving car will not suddenly develop self-awareness and turn on its master. The AI used to, say, predictively manage an electricity distribution network will not suddenly go on strike, demanding equal rights.

Musk, too, has a point though. AI is dangerous. It has the potential to become an existential threat. It is not pointless panicmongering.

Unfortunately, if media reports can be trusted (yes, I know that’s a big if), then, in my opinion, both Musk and Zuckerberg miss the real threat: emerging machine intelligence.

Not a specific system developed by a human designer, applying specific AI algorithms to solve specific problems. Rather, a self-organizing collection of often loosely interconnected subsystems, their “evolution” governed by Darwinian selection, survival of the fittest in the “cloud”.

This AI will not be localized. It will not understand English. It may not even recognize our existence.

It won’t be the military robots of Skynet going berserk, hunting down every last human with futuristic weaponry.

No, it will be a collection of decision-making systems in the “cloud” that govern our lives, our economy, our news, our perception, our very existence. But not working for our benefit, not anymore, except insofar as it improves its own chances of survival.

And by the time we find out about it, it may very well be too late.

———

On this topic, there is an excellent science-fiction novel, a perfect cautionary tale. Though written 40 years ago, its remains surprisingly relevant. It is The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Joseph Ryan.

 Posted by at 9:42 pm
May 182016
 

In the fourth volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy”, we learn that just before the Earth was about to be destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new interstellar bypass, the whales left. They left behind a simple parting message: “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

Which makes me feel rather alarmed now that I am learning that hundreds of North Atlantic right whales went missing. I hope it’s not a bad sign.

 Posted by at 7:55 pm
Apr 082016
 

I just finished reading an online-only novel, Armageddon, part of The Salvation Wars series, originally planned as a trilogy by author Stuart Slade.

The premise: God gave up on the Earth, and let it be known that from now on, it all belongs to Satan. However… Earthlings fight back. And pity the poor demon with his pitchfork when he is confronted with machine gun bullets, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs or Sarin gas, brought about by an impersonal modern military machine that is designed to destroy and annihilate its enemy… and then they haven’t even seen the worst of it yet.

And just as I was finishing the book, I came across this GIF meme: a machine, crucifying Christ at a rate of about one crucifixion per second. And suddenly, I started to feel really sorry for Hell’s demons.

OK, I may be the stupid atheist here, but I find this short clip more than creepy. It speaks volumes about the human race, about what we became and where we are heading, and none of it is nice.

 Posted by at 1:22 am
Oct 052015
 

I am reading the latest “alternate history” book by Harry Turtledove: Bombs Away, which describes a world in which President Truman accepts the advice of general MacArthur in 1951 and responds to the Chinese invasion of Korea by deploying nuclear weapons. With predictably disastrous consequences for the whole world.

On account of this book, I looked up historical figures of nuclear stockpiles on Wikipedia, and happened upon a chart that I decided to call the chart of hope.

nukehope

It depicts the number of warheads owned by the two major nuclear powers. (Other countries are not listed; their combined stockpiles never reached 1,000 warheads, so their contributions are too small to appear on a plot like this.)

Although the more than 10,000 warheads that currently exist are still more than enough to destroy much of human civilization (and arguably, the reduction is due partly to more reliable, more accurate delivery systems), just a few decades ago, the number was in excess of 60,000. A ray of hope, perhaps, that sanity might just prevail. One thing is certain: Back in my high school years in the 1970s, very few people believed that we would live to see 2015 without experiencing the horrors of a thermonuclear war.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Sep 292015
 

In Douglas Adams’s immortal Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, someone builds a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. This device invariably drives people insane by simply showing them exactly how insignificant they are with respect to this humongous universe.

The Total Perspective Vortex may not exist in reality, but here is the next best thing: A model of the solar system, drawn to scale.

moonpixel

The scale of this page is set so that the Moon occupies one screen pixel. As a result, we have an image that is almost a thousand times wider than my HD computer monitor. It takes a while to scroll through it.

Thankfully, there is an animation option that not only scrolls through the image automatically, but does so at the fastest speed possible, the speed of light.

Oh, did I mention that it still takes well over five hours to scroll all the way to Pluto?

By the way, the nearest star, our closest stellar neighbor is roughly 2,000 times as far from us as Pluto.

Or, once again in the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

 Posted by at 12:41 pm
Aug 182015
 

Having grown up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I had a thoroughly Marxist education in history during my grade school and high school years. A central tenet of Marxist history is the concept of “historical inevitability”: that great historic upheavals are a result not of individual heroism or foolishness, but of great socio-economic currents that create change.

I was reminded of this conflict between the “dialectical materialist” vs. the “romantic” view of history while I was reading a superb piece of historical science fiction, Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again. A story in which the protagonist time travels from 2024 to 1914 to change history, prevent The Great War, and make the world a better place. Things of course don’t exactly go as planned (or maybe they go according to plan a little too well?) but I cannot say much about the book without revealing the plot, so I won’t.

But the book, as well as one of the reviews I found on Amazon, made me think of how some of the most fundamental sequences of events in the 20th century were far from inevitable: rather, they were series of astoundingly improbable events, inept bungling that any half-competent publisher would reject as too incredible if submitted in the form of a manuscript of historical fiction.

First, the main event in Elton’s book: the Sarajevo assassination. Think of it: the Serbian organization, The Black Hand, positions not one, not two, but six separate assassins (some sources mention seven, but the seventh conspirator was the recruiter) along the arch duke’s planned route. Meanwhile, the arch duke arrives by train and immediately loses his security detail due to a mix-up as a result of which local police officers took their place in one of the cars.

The sequence of events begins when the first assassin fails to act. The second, too, fails to act. The third finally does act and throws his bomb, which bounces off the arch duke’s car, only to explode underneath the next car, wounding more than a dozen people. This would-be assassin swallows an expired cyanide capsule and jumps into the river, which happened to be only five inches deep at the moment… so he fails to die. The remaining three assassins, too, fail to act as the rest of the motorcade passes by them at high speed.

So then the Austrian general in charge changes the route for the afternoon… and fails to inform the arch duke’s driver. Who then makes a wrong turn, comes to a stop and stalls the car right in front of one of the would-be assassins from earlier that day, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was there ostensibly because he hoped to complete his mission during the arch duke’s return journey, but for all we know, he gave up already and was just getting a sandwich at Schiller’s Deli when the target was so conveniently presented to him. And then he took out his gun and managed to kill both Franz Ferdinand and Sophie with a single bullet each. And thus the life of an arch duke who believed in increased federalism, in modernizing the Monarchy, came to an abrupt end, along with that of his beloved wife, despised and routinely humiliated by the court in Vienna for being outside of the arch duke’s rank. Franz Ferdinand’s last words were, reportedly, “Sopherl! Sopherl! Stirb nicht! Bleib’ am Leben für unsere Kinder!” (“Sophie! Sophie! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”)

And thus, world history changed and The War to End All Wars began a few short weeks later. Empires crumbled, murderous ideologies were born. A second world war and at least a hundred million deaths later, the world settled into the uneasy but surprisingly long-lasting peace of the Cold War, a peace that lasts to this day, bringing unprecedented prosperity to billions. Who knows what would have happened if Franz Ferdinand did not die on June 28, 1914?

The second bungled event that came to mind was the accidental fall of the Iron Curtain on November 9, 1989. (Astonishingly for me personally, just over three years after I left Hungary as a political refugee, having concluded that I saw no chance of “regime change” behind the Iron Curtain anytime soon, certainly not within a generation.)

The events that led directly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall began in Hungary a few months earlier, when my country of birth decided not to intervene as thousands of East German citizens crossed the border into Austria. Initially, the East German government responded by tightening its regime of exit visas, banning travel for its citizens first to Hungary and later, to Czechoslovakia. Nonetheless, unprecedented mass demonstrations followed in East Germany, with crowds rallying to the words “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”) The East German government decided to take the bold step of allowing severely regulated private travel to the West.

The new regulations were to take effect the next day, but this was not communicated to Günter Schabowski, East Berlin’s party boss who was only handed a brief note announcing the changes moments before giving a press conference. Having made the announcement, in response to a question from a journalist, he stated that as far as he knew, the new regulations liberalizing travel are to take effect immediately, without delay, and involved border crossings along the Berlin Wall.

Almost immediately, crowds of East Germans began gathering at the Wall, demanding the opening of the gates. As no-one among East Germany’s leaders was prepared to order the use of lethal force, finally the commander of one of the border crossings yielded, and the border was thrown wide open.

Less than a year later, the state of East Germany ceased to exist.

What would have happened if Schabowski had been better informed? If the East German state had been able to assert its authority and managed to maintain order at its border crossings? Or conversely, what if they had the guts to give the order to fire? Would there have been a bloody revolution? Would Germany still be divided today? What would the European Union look like?

The date of November 9 is famous for another reason, by the way. It was on this day in 1918 that Imperial Germany ceased to exist with the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ruler who probably bore the most responsibility for turning the 1914 Sarajevo crisis into an all encompassing World War.

Astonishingly, the last surviving member of the conspiracy to kill Franz Ferdinand, Vaso Čubrilović, lived to the ripe old age of 93 and passed away in the year of German reunification, in 1990.

 Posted by at 10:44 am
Mar 252015
 

Epic tales tend to be one sided. Hobbits: good, orcs: evil. Rebel Alliance: good, Galactic Empire: evil. And so on.

Except that sometimes, we do get a glimpse of the story from the perspective of the other side.

The conversations between orcs that we witnessed in later chapters of the Lord of the Rings kind of humanized them: they were not necessarily nice guys, but they were, well, foot soldiers in an army like foot soldiers in any other army. Russian novelist Kirill Neskov must have been thinking the same thing when he wrote The Last Ringbearer, a novel in which we learn that Mordor is a peaceful country undergoing an industrial revolution, which is threatened by backward, war-mongering imperialists led by Gandalf, who is seeking “a final solution to the Mordorian problem”. Wow.

As for Star Wars, I always wondered: When the Death Star was destroyed, for instance, how many innocent people: children, civilian employees, family members, cooks, nurses, doctors, and so on, were destroyed along with the artifact? More than that, what if the canonical account is really a one-sided, distorted version of the real story, and the Rebel Alliance is just a bunch of terrorists while the Galactic Empire is really a peaceful, progressive civilization representing law and order?

Apparently, I am not the only one with these thoughts. Here is an amazing short animation of a battle between the Empire and the rebels… from the Imperial perspective:

What can I say? Let’s hope the good guys win… whoever they are.

 Posted by at 8:58 am
Oct 132014
 

Science fiction has a subgenre: mathematical fiction. Stories of this nature are rare; good stories are even rarer. One memorable story that I recall from ages ago was A Subway Named Moebius, written by A. J. Deutsch in 1950. There was another story more recently: Luminous by Greg Egan, which I read in Asimov’s SF magazine shortly before I stopped reading (and eventually, stopped subscribing to) said magazine. (Nothing wrong with the magazine; it’s just that I found many of the stories unsatisfying, and I found I had less and less time to read them. The genre is just not the same as it was back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.)

So recently, I found out that Egan wrote a sequel: Dark Integers, published in the same magazine in 2007. I now had a chance to read it and I was not disappointed.

Both stories are very good. Both stories are based on the notion that as yet unproven mathematical theorems can go either way; that the Platonic book of all math has not only not yet been written, but that there is no unique book, and multiple versions of mathematics may coexist, with an uneasy boundary.

Now imagine that you perform innocent mathematical experiments on your computer, using, say, computer algebra to probe ever more exotic theorems in a subfield few non-mathematicians ever heard about. And imagine how you would feel if you realized that by doing so, you are undermining the very foundations of another universe’s existence, literally threatening to wipe them out.

OK, if you start poking holes in that idea, there are many, but the basic notion is not completely stupid, and the questions that the stories raise are worth contemplating. And Egan writes well… the stories are fun, too!

Incidentally, this was the first decent (published) science fiction story I ever came across that contained a few lines of C++ code.

 Posted by at 4:00 pm
Apr 172014
 

If I had to move to a deserted island with only a dozen or so books for the rest of my life, one of them almost certainly would be 100 Years of Solitude, by Nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I first read this book in the 1970s and it’s one of those books that I have re-read from cover to cover, once every decade or so, ever since. It is an absolutely remarkable, unique, wonderful story.

Alas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is no longer with us. Less than an hour ago, a breaking news e-mail from CNN informed me that he passed away after having been hospitalized for a lung and urinary tract infection. He was 87.

I admit the news brought a tear to my eye.

May he rest in peace, perhaps joining the Buendia family in Macondo. Adios, Gabo.

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Jan 082014
 

I just stumbled across some new research by climatologist Dan Lunt, who applied modern climate models to the geography and topography of Middle Earth. Yes, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, ents, orcs and other creatures live.

Prepared for possible interest by non-human readers, Lunt (writing under the pseudonym Radagast the Brown… or may be he *is* Radagast the Brown?) helpfully provided translations of his paper into Elvish and Dwarvish.

I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the list of references is missing from the translations.

Also, I wonder… does Google Translate know Elvish and Dwarvish?

 Posted by at 2:39 pm
Dec 092013
 

Imagine a country in which small children are given coloring books figuring a leading politician.

Coloring books that describe the politician in “non-partisan and fact-driven” terms. A lengthy speech becomes a “magnificent feat”, during which the dear leader spoke with “clairvoyant precision”. The goals of political opponents are “worse than any war”.

This coloring book is “approved by teachers and educators”. It is “designed to be a fun, educational tool”. Parents are encouraged to “Tell the truth – Tell it often – Tell the children”.

If you thought I was describing a North Korean coloring book featuring the “Great Successor” King Jong-un or his daddy or granddaddy, think again.

That is because the abomination that I just described was in fact published in the great United States of America. Its title: “Ted Cruz to the Future™ – Comic Coloring Activity Book“, published by Really Big Coloring Books®, Inc.

And it is available at Amazon for the bargain price of $5.69. Or it was, anyway; presently, it is shown as “Temporarily out of stock.”

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Nov 072013
 

I have been collaborating with John Moffat on his modified gravity theory and other topics since 2007. It has been an immensely rewarding experience.

John is a theoretical physicist who has been active for sixty years. During his amazingly long career, John met just about every one of the iconic figures of 20th century physics. He visited Erwin Schrödinger in a house where Schrödinger lived with his wife and his mistress. He was mentored by Niels Bohr. He studied under Fred Hoyle (the astronomer who coined the term “Big Bang”). He worked under Paul Dirac. He shared office space with Peter Higgs. He took Wolfgang Pauli out for a wet lunch on university funds. He met Feynman, Oppenheimer, and many others. The one iconic physicist Moffat did not meet in person was Albert Einstein; however, Einstein still played a pivotal role in his career, answering letters written to him by a young John Moffat (then earning money as a struggling artist) encouraging him to continue his studies of physics.

Though retired, John remains active as a member of the prestigious Perimeter Institute in Waterloo. I don’t expect him to run out of maverick ideas anytime soon. Rare among physicists his age, John’s knowledge of the science is completely up-to-date, as is his knowledge of the tools of the trade. I’ve seen physicists 20 years his junior struggling with hand-written transparencies (remember those, and the unwieldy projectors?) even as John was putting the finishing touches to his latest PowerPoint presentation on his brand new laptop or making corrections to a LaTeX manuscript.

More recently, John began to write for a broader audience. He already published two excellent books. His first, Reinventing Gravity, describes John’s struggle to create a viable alternative to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a new gravity theory that would explain mysteries such as the rotation of galaxies without resorting to the dark matter hypothesis. John’s second book, Einstein Wrote Back, is a personal memoir, detailing his amazing life as a physicist.

John’s third book, which is about to be published, is perhaps his most ambitious book project yet. Cracking the Particle Code, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, is about the decades of research in particle physics that resulted in the recent discovery of what is believed to be the elusive Higgs boson, and John’s attempts to explore theoretical alternatives that might make the Higgs boson hypothesis unnecessary, and provide alternative explanations for the particle observed by the Large Hadron Collider.

I had the good fortune of being able to read the manuscript earlier this year.  My first reaction was that John took up an almost impossible task. As many notable physicists, including Einstein, observed, quantum physics is harder, perhaps much harder, than relativity theory. The modern Standard Model of particle physics combines the often arcane rules of quantum field theory with a venerable zoo of particles (12 fermions and their respective antiparticles, four vector bosons, eight gluons and, last but not least, the Higgs boson). Though the theory is immensely successful, it is unsatisfying in many ways, not the least because it fails to account for perhaps the most fundamental interaction of all: gravity. And its predictions, while exact, are very difficult to comprehend even for trained theorists. Reducing data on billions of collisions in a large accelerator to definitive statements about, say, the spin and parity of a newly observed particle is a daunting challenge.

Explaining all this in a form that is accessible to the interested but non-professional reader is the task that John set out to tackle. His text mixes a personal narrative with scientific explanations of these difficult topics. To be sure, the technical part of the text is not an easy read. This is not John’s fault; the topic is very difficult to understand unless you are willing to invest the time and effort to study the mathematics. But John’s personal insights perhaps make the book enjoyable even to those who choose to skip over the more technical paragraphs.

There are two points in particular that I’d like to mention in praise. First, John’s book is amazingly up-to-date; as late as a few weeks ago, John was still making small corrections during the copy editing process to ensure that everything he says is consistent with the latest results from CERN. Second, John’s narrative always makes a clear distinction between standard physics (i.e., the “consensus”) and his own notions. While John is clearly passionate about his ideas, he never forgets the old adage attributed to the late US Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: John knows that he is only entitled to his own opinions, he is not entitled to his own facts, and this is true even if the facts invalidate a theoretical proposal.

I hope John’s latest book sells well. I hope others will enjoy it as much as I did. I certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Sep 032013
 

One of the giants of the golden era of science-fiction, indeed a co-author of one of the most influential science-fiction novels of all time, The Space Merchants, passed away yesterday, just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday.

I think it would be a fitting tribute if a future space probe took his ashes to Venus and scattered it in the planet’s atmosphere.

 Posted by at 11:12 am