Friday, June 30, 2006

What We Believe But Cannot Prove, John Brockman

Title: What We Believe But Cannot Prove
Author: John Brockman
Rating: OK

What We Believe But Cannot Prove came to my attention via a mention in the back of a copy of Science News. In each issue of that weekly magazine they recommend a set of science related books. This book was in such a list and it sounded interesting, so I got ahold of a copy via

Capsule review: it was OK, but it could have been better.

The book consists of a series of very short (1 sentence to 4 page) essays by leading thinkers - mostly in scientific fields - about exactly what the title says: what they believe but cannot prove. There exists a web site - - that provides these people a place to publish articles on "third culture" topics. (Don't ask me to explain what "third culture" means. I don't know, but a quick look a the web site suggests that I need to spend some time there.) Each year they also ask a question - the "Edge Question" - of their contributors and publish their responses. This book is the collected responses to the 2005 question, which is (again) the title.

A lot of people contributed to this little book. I just wish there was more to it. My wife - always one with a good quote - scanned it one evening and called it the mental equivalent of potato chips.

For me, the reaction is a bit more complicated. A few of the contributions were genuinely interesting, and those I wanted see fleshed out in more detail so I could learn more about the issues presented. A few more of the essays were just plain stupid or wrong to my mind. (Yes, I know, I am not on the same intellectual plane as these people. Tough. Anyone who says that there is no physical world "out there" lives in an entirely different universe from me. I'll be judgmental in such a case if I want to be, and I do.) Most of the contents, though, were pretty much what I would expect. Not at all surprising to me - someone reasonably well read on science related issues. But even those items needed better fleshing out to help people less familiar with the concepts understand what is being discussed.

So there's part of the problem for me: perhaps 10% of the book was interesting enough to hold my attention in depth. The rest was ho-hum or caused me to wonder what the authors were smoking. Not a very fulfilling reading experience.

And there is another issue with this book: I don't know who the target audience is. If it is intended for the scientifically literate it needs to be deeper on each topic, or provide references to relevant literature, or something. If it is intended for the layperson it fails for lack of enough detail to even start to draw someone into the concepts presented.

So while I give this book an "OK" review, I'm not sure I recommend it.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, Neal Stephenson

Title: The Diamond Age or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Author: Neal Stephenson
Rating: Good

This is the second Stephenson book I've read this year, and I enjoyed it. My thanks to the people who recommended it to me when I asked about other Stephenson I should read.

The book takes place in the future, when nanotechnology has come to full fruition, and the ability to create just about anything from individual atoms (via a program and a device called a "matter compiler") is commonplace. The story revolves around several major characters, their actions, and their interactions. It has elements of hard science fiction, politics, and fantasy within it, and it's a pretty good mix.

We meet Nell - probably the most major of all the characters - as a child, when she is given an electronic book. This book wasn't made or intended for her, but it works for her just as well as it would have in it's intended recipient's hands, and she begins to learn from it. More specifically she learns all kinds of things about how to take care of herself on all levels, which is the book's designed in purpose. Other characters include the designer of Nell's book, the person providing the voice acting as she's reading the book, and several political figures who are pulling strings in various places.

The story changes point of view to these various characters, and includes passages from the primer, which mirror Nell's reality in more ways than she knows.

Most of the book is hard SF, and I found it well written. I hit one blunder in the science that I think Stephenson should have avoided, but it wasn't related to the plot in any way. (Stephenson's books are detail rich and thus he can get something wrong on a side track and it doesn't matter in the end.)

The largest problems with this book are the ambiguous ending, and the descent into fantasy. The ending is probably fine, but thanks to other complications in my life I read this book over a much longer time period than I usually would have, and possibly as a result the ending didn't hold up well. There are many threads to keep track of but they aren't all wound up nicely by the time the last page is turned. Many questions I would like to have seen answered weren't, and the various political implications are still opaque to me. But the descent into fantasy is where I had the most trouble, and I think it's not the only time Stephenson has done this sort of thing.

A few years back I read Snow Crash and had a similar complaint. In both books Stephenson creates complex, believable worlds full of interesting things and characters, and then adds in an element of the supernatural that I find distracting. In The Diamond Age it's more subtle, but it is present. It amounts to a mystical way to bypass the security measures protecting network data by use of the combined intellect of a large group of people. I am deliberately leaving that description vague so as not to ruin the book for others. In any event, I would have been been happier if he'd stayed in the hard SF genre and resolved the issues in less spiritual ways.

Even with those flaws, though, I found The Diamond Age to be a good read, with an interesting view of the future, good characters, and a plot that keeps moving. As with Zodiac, Stephenson's writing is light and easy, though his vocabulary is larger here and every so often I wanted a dictionary handy. If you like SF - and particularly if cyberpunk has a place in your heart - you will probably enjoy it.