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Monday, September 27, 2010

Sarcastic book reviews are even better heard than read

"If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little." - George Carlin


Understanding the universe: Order of creation | The Economist

(on The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow)

"“A Brief History of Time”... was renowned for being bought by everyone and understood by few. Twenty-two years later... once more we are told that we are on the brink of understanding everything.

The authors may be in this enviable state of enlightenment, but most readers will not have a clue what they are on about... The problem is not that the book is technically rigorous... but because whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion. Anyone who can follow their closing paragraphs on the relation between negative gravitational energy and the creation of the universe probably knows it all already. This is physics by sound-bite...

The book is peppered with quips, presumably to remind the reader that he is not studying for an exam but is supposed to be having fun. These attempted jokes usually fuse the weighty with the quotidian, in the manner of Woody Allen, only without the laughs. (“While perhaps offering great tanning opportunities, any solar system with multiple suns would probably never allow life to develop”)...

Given what the authors have to say about Aristotle, one can only hope that they are more reliable about what happened billions of years ago at the birth of the universe than they are about what happened in Greece in the fourth century BC. Their account appears to be based on unreliable popularisations, and they cannot even get right the number of elements in Aristotle’s universe (it is five, not four)...

The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that “philosophy is dead”...

It is hard to evaluate their case against recent philosophy, because [there is] only [one] subsequent mention of it, after the announcement of its death... Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles...

Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think."
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