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  • A History of the Sciences

    Posted on March 12th, 2006 Brian No comments

    I recently finished reading A History of the Sciences by Stephen F. Mason. Despite a publication date in the early 60s, it gives a pretty complete overview of the past 10,000 years in scientific advancement. It’s quite an undertaking, and even the most thoroughly covered advancements receive but the meanest of discussion – but fortunately that’s not really what the book is about.

    Rather, Mason gives a history lesson along with the advancements of the eras. In our post-modern world, Science has achieved an almost sacrosanct status. We laud its deep knowledge that has given us real, verifiable ideas of how our universe functions, even as it opens up a seemingly never-ending series of doors, behind which often lie ethical dilemmas and humbling truths that even the most strong-willed of us would rather not face. It was not always so.

    Indeed, for most of history, the worldview and religious beliefs of a particular scientist almost always colored their scientific attempts. At the very beginning, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle mis-explained the universe in terms of epicycles and geocentric theory, with angels and gods as prime movers keeping the planets in motion. Their theories, often quite rational from their own point of view, obviously conflicted with even the crude astronomical predictions of the day, and yet their own worldview forced them to accept what was clearly incorrect. Worse, these early philosophers’ prestige as thinkers caused no one to question them, leading millennia of their intellectual scions further down the false paths they beat.

    Until recently, the cycle seems to have constantly repeated itself. Only in the last century, it seems, have we as a society begun to allow science to shape our worldview, and the ensuing conflict has been enormous. It can be seen played out in microcosm with the debate over evolution, from the original Scopes trial to the current Intelligent Design debacle. The impact of science on our morals is made amplified by the debates over technological uses of human biological science, such as cloning and abortion and their ilk.

    The History of the Sciences does have some flaws. It takes an extremely Euro-centric view of scientific advancement. It hardly discusses the discoveries of the ancient South American civilizations, although it does have some cursory coverage of the Chinese and Muslim worlds. It hardly mentions the United States, despite this nation’s huge advancements in the practical sciences and its non-negligable contributions to raw science. (For example, the invention of the airplane merits but one lonely sentence.

    Overall, however, it’s well worth the read. The illumination it gives on the socio-political-religious forces that have shaped science is very worth it.

  • Wheel of Time: Knife of Dreams

    Posted on December 15th, 2005 Brian No comments

    After I first graduated from college, I moved to an apartment in Chicago. However, my job at Geneer was located far away in the northewest suburbs of the city. I was without a vehicle, and thus took public transportation to and from work every day.

    My commute was 1.5 hours in one direction. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to say, but I read a lot of books. One of the series of books I began reading was The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan. I read the first eight or so that were out at the time, and hence have been sucked into buying the new entries as soon as they are released.

    I just recently finished the recently released Knife of Dreams, and I have good news and bad news. If you’re not familiar with the story, you might want to stop here, since the names and situations won’t mean much. Furthermore, there may be spoliers ahead. If you intend on reading the novel yourself, you should stop here.

    First, the bad news: As usual, Jordan has allocated a disproportionate number of pages to Perrin and Mat, and infuriatingly few to Rand. Perrin’s part continues to be dull, boring, and two-dimensional. While he finally does rescue Faile, it could have been accomplished in a third of the pages. I think Mr. Jordan was simply using that story as tree killer.

    Now some good news: Mat’s story is dramatically improved. The wonderfully amusing tension between he and Tuon is a delight to read, and his inability to fathom either her or her motives leads to some great situations and dialouge. In a fantastic single-chapter departure, the story is told from Tuon’s perspective. The pieces of Mat’s life that she had been slowly collecting since her kidnapping suddenly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, and her realization that her Toy is not at all who he appears to be is quite satisfying to the reader.

    Rand’s continued second-hand treatment by the author leaves much to be desired. As usual, the few moments that he gets are never dull, full of amazing new Power weaves and plot twists. Lews Therin continues to plauge him, and Rand’s fear that he might do something with the Power is finally realized.

    Finally, it seems the next book will be the last. The characters continually beat over your head that tarmon gai’don is near. The dead have been seeing walking, and waves of unreality sometimes ripple through the pattern as the Dark One continues to strain the bonds of his prison.

    Overall, Knife of Dreams is a far sight better than either Winter’s Heart or Crossroads of Twilight. I look forward to what will hopefully be the last of the series, though. Robert Jordan has worn this world out with the mindless multi-book-spanning filler plots (read, Faile’s kidnapping) he’s created. Final closure on the people and events in his world is long overdue.

  • Ralph Nader Book Reviews

    Posted on June 29th, 2004 Brian No comments

    A few weeks ago, I finished Ralph Nader‘s book Crashing the Party, along with a biography by Justin Martin entitled Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Since Hedda is working for Ralph’s campaign, I thought it might be a good idea to learn a little bit about the guy.

    His own book, Crashing the Party, is a chronical of Ralph’s journey through the 2000 presidental election. It is unfortunate that the book is so poorly written. With Ralph’s unique perspectives and insights, the topic is ripe with lessons to be learned for this current election. However, the book continually alternates between a credit-role of the campaign and Nader’s personal opinions about the current political system and how elections are won and lost. While the latter is interesting, fighting through the tidal wave of other material is difficult. There are a few highlights, though, such as the descriptions of the Super Rallies held near the end of the campaign; and his point is well made that even though he filled Madison Square Garden (and a dozen other similar venues) to the brim with supporters, they were hardly mentioned at all by any major media outlets. Overall, however, you could learn almost as much from Martin’s biography.

    And that biography is quite a different read. It is well organized and written, and the tales are quite amazing. Nader’s personal crusade against the corrupting power of money from enormous corporations has lead to some very interesting stories. At one time, he was considered by many to be the single most powerful man in Washington, even compared to the President. In fact, his endorsement of Jimmy Carter is seen as one of the reasons a strange peanut farmer was ever elected in the first place!

    The on-the-record and very public disclosure of GM’s underhanded dealings in trying to discredit him as he fought for automobile safety in this nation are anecdotal proof enough of the dangerous hubris of our souless money-making machines. It is fortunate for Nader that his life has been one of almost ridiculous ascetism, for they could find nothing at all to pin on him.

    At the end of the book, I was simply astounded by the sheer number of Good Things that this man has virtually single-handedly done for this country. Did you know that Ralph Nader was responsible for OSHA, Citizens Utility Boards, and the mandatory three-point seatbelt? Or how about getting complimentary travel when you are bumped from an intentionally overbooked airplane? And when you’re eating off-the-grill burgers on the Fourth of July this year, thank Ralph Nader for closing all the loopholes and making federal meat inspection standards apply everywhere. The list simply goes on and on…

    No matter who you’re voting for, you should read his biography. His life is an example of how to change this nation for the better from the outside. If you only think of Ralph Nader as a spoiler of elections, learning about his life might very well change your mind.

  • Survivor

    Posted on October 14th, 2003 Brian No comments

    I just finished Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. It was a very good book, and takes a hard look at several different topics, including pop culture and its dark similarities to some not-so-pop religious cults. The writing is excellent, and the plot is captivating, and I heartily recommend it.

    However, I have to admit that I feel about this book the way I feel about the film 25th Hour. I really liked it, and it was very powerful. I just can’t figure out what the hell it was really about! It’s like I missed something important, and I can’t put my finger on it, and it drives me nuts.