The Greatest Show on Earth

I just finished Richard Dawkins’ book The Greatest  Show on Earth, in which he explains the evidence for evolution. In fact, that’s the subtitle: “The Evidence for Evolution.”

I’ll mention here that I’ve long been a “believer” in evolution, although it turns out that my understanding of the theory and knowledge of the evidence were sadly lacking. Not to worry. The first few chapters corrected both of those shortcomings.

The first part of the book explains the large concepts on which the theory of evolution is based: non-random natural selection of random mutations over a very long time. Evolution, as Dawkins points out multiple times in the first few chapters, is a slow process. There are no “revolutionary” changes over short time periods. It takes thousands of generations to evolve significant change, and even longer to evolve a new species.

After explaining the basic concepts, Dawkins begins on the evidence: how we know this is what has happened. As it turns out, the evidence for evolution is much stronger than I thought it was. We have radioactive clocks, DNA, tree rings, many different experiments, the fossil record, and many other sources of evidence, all of which agree on the fact of evolution. There might be disagreements on some particulars, but all of the evidence points to the conclusion that life on this planet evolved from one common ancestor.

Something that’s long bothered me about others’ reactions to science is their assertion that “it’s only a theory.” As a result, I was pleased to see that the title of the first chapter is “Only a Theory?” In it, Dawkins’ explains exactly what a scientific theory really is.

The Oxford English Dictionary, as Dawkins points out, gives two definitions of the word “theory:”

  1. A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
  2. A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.

The “disconnect” when uneducated people say, “It’s only a theory,” is that they’re using the second definition of “theory”–the common usage that we hear every day. To them, a theory is an hypothesis or just idle speculation. A scientific theory, on the other hand, is much more rigorously defined. A scientific theory is the first sense of the word, above.

The theory of evolution is much more than idle speculation. It is an explanation of observed phenomena that has been confirmed by further observation and experiment. It is accepted by all serious scientists as accounting for the known facts.

The theory of evolution is no more and no less of a “theory” than the theory of gravity, the theory of continental drift, or Einstein’s special theory of relativity. All of these are based on observation and experiment, and serve as explanations of the known facts (observations).

One very important feature of a scientific theory is that it be disprovable. If you can find evidence that contradicts the theory, then at least part of the theory is incorrect. We’re seeing this right now with the recent experiments at CERN, where experimental results seem to show that some subatomic particles can travel faster than the speed of light, which contradicts Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

So far, all of the observations and experiments agree with evolutionary theory. There is no credible evidence to support any competing theories, and no evidence to contradict the idea that life on this planet evolved over billions of years, from very simple forms to the many and varied forms of life that you see today.

Dawkins spends some time (I think too much time) beating on what he calls “history deniers:” those people who, for one reason or another, deny the evidence for evolution. I’ll grant that I was amused by it early on in the book, but by the time I got to the end I was tired of hearing about it. There’s a fine line between showing how “competing ideas” don’t match the evidence, and ridicule. I think Dawkins crosses that line, and in my mind it detracts from the otherwise excellent explanations that he provides.

I sympathize with Dawkins’ desire to correct the collective ignorance that people cling to so dearly. If I didn’t run across it every day, I’d find it inconceivable that so many people deny the fact of evolution. It happened. It’s still happening!

I highly recommend The Greatest Show on Earth. If, like me, your understanding of the theory is based on the watered down explanation you got in your high school science class and the vehement denials that you get from others, then you’ll undoubtedly learn something from reading the book. It sure opened my eyes, giving a much better understanding of what the theory says happened, and the evidence that scientists use to back up that explanation.

Moby Dick

Call me Jeb.

In the course of years hoarding books of all description I have acquired quite a large number. It is perhaps unsurprising that I have not yet read through my entire library, as often a new volume will be added that I must needs read most hastily. The list of unread titles has grown to such proportions that were I to consume one per day–a most unlikely achievement considering that the bibliography consists of tomes penned by such writers as Stephen King, Leon Uris, James A. Michener, and others for whom the word “edit” apparently has no meaning–I would be reading for more than a decade and would in the intervening years surely bypass the opportunity to consume manuscripts of much greater value than what I currently possess. However, with such a variety from which to choose, never am I at a loss for something with which to entertain myself.

It came to pass that my high school English instructor–some 30 years after that worthy individual and I had last communicated in person–mentioned the book that forms the title of this entry, and I realized that in all my wide ranging reading I had failed to digest that particular novel. A most grievous omission, I’ve been told, as it seems that any well read American must be able to list this story among the best that he has read. So being, I took it upon myself to seek out and correct this deficit in my admittedly haphazard education.

Obtaining a suitable copy of Mr. Melville’s most famous work turned out to be a matter of just a few minutes, as the title existed in the aforementioned library that my wife and I maintain in our home, correctly placed on the shelf in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. When one has only a handful of books, one can haphazardly place them hither and yon, and recall with little effort the location of a particular volume. As one ages and the number of books grows, memory becomes a more unreliable device and thus requires that some artificial order be placed on the positioning of things lest they be lost but for a volume-by-volume search that would without question occupy more time than the actual reading.

In the nearly half-century I have been blessed with existence on this mortal plane, I have heard many things, mostly good, about Moby Dick. I do not recall, however, any mention of the book’s great weight. At five hundred forty three pages (in the faux-leather-bound edition that graces our collection), the volume is much larger than I had expected. Size, of course, is no indication of a story’s quality although it has often been noted that a longer story must needs be better than a short one, if only to hold the reader’s interest for such a duration. Boring is never forgivable, but at least one can endure an exceedingly dull story if it is short.

On an aside, I’ve often heard that Moby Dick starts with the words, “Call me Ishmael.” Perhaps the story itself starts with those words, but at least in my edition the book starts with a dozen or more pages of historical quotes–some quite obscure–about whales. In retrospect a quote or two or perhaps one full page at most would have been sufficient, I think, to give the impression that the author was intending. But filling fully two percent of the book with such drivel tries the reader’s patience at the very beginning. Had I not been convinced over years of positive reviews that I was in for a delightful read, I would have taken this early waste of time as a warning. But I soldiered on, putting aside my annoyance at the gratuitous quotes, and began the story proper.

Ishmael begins his tale quite engagingly, describing the conditions under which he found himself signing on to a whaling vessel in the great whaling capital of the world: Nantucket. With but few exceptions, the story of his trip to Nantucket, his meeting and new friendship with Queequeg, his initial interview with the owners of the good ship Pequod, and everything leading up to departure was interesting and entertaining. By the time the lines were cast off and the Pequod was leaving Nantucket harbor, I felt as one would be expected to feel at the start of a great voyage; looking forward to the promised adventure on the High Seas.

Sadly, as so often happens with grand adventures, the reality is much less than the anticipation. After preparing for much excitement, the ship is loaded, crew aboard, farewells shared, lines cast, and once the mast disappears over the horizon, it becomes apparent that the “grand adventure” amounts to day upon dreary day of nothing but the sea, the wind in the sails, and endless drudgery: working, eating, sleeping, and perhaps from time to time hanging on for dear life as Mother Nature does her best to capsize, crash, rip apart, or otherwise destroy the ship and thus leave you stranded in the boundless sea, clinging to the flotsam hoping against all odds that another ship will come by to extract you from the waves before your strength gives out and you slip into the deep, never to surface again.

After the first one hundred pages, the good ship Pequod sets sail and Ishmael becomes tiresome, regaling us with page upon ponderous page of information about whales, whaling, and all manner of things tangentially related, occasionally returning to the ship and crew as if reminding himself that there is a story in here somewhere, and along the way relating one or two mildly entertaining bits that ultimately leave the reader unsatisfied. The experience is reminiscent of being stranded at the old sailors’ home, listening to its most seasoned occupant who has perhaps three teeth left and half that many brain cells still functioning as he alternately sips his ale (“Avast! In my day we had proper grog, not this watered down swill that passes for ale among you landlubbers”) rambling tirelessly on about his career on the sea.

One could forgive the asides and the occasional insertion of a fact or three about the business of whaling but for a few egregious errors that the author, a supposedly well regarded writer in his time, should have known better than to commit so voluminously. Whereas it’s important that the reader understand at least some small amount of nautical and whaling jargon, such information should overall be brief, and be presented to the reader in an engaging style. The author’s presentation here is atrocious; as though he took essays written for popular periodicals of the time and slapped them into the text, arranging and lightly editing them so that they seem to fit into the story, but to anybody giving it more than a cursory glance–say, the attention required to actually read the book–the story looks like a cartoon ransom note. Furthermore, and more to the author’s discredit, those informative asides are too often filled with speculation, half truths, and downright fabrications all of which are presented as fact.

Throughout, Melville illustrates his facility with language by never letting a simple word do the work of a convoluted sentence. Nor does he skimp on the long, rambling, and ultimately incoherent paragraphs, as if the value of the writing is increased by having to read over the passage four or five times just to pick out a simple concept that could have been related in one or two short, simple, and interesting sentences. One can hardly escape the thought that the Levianthanic prose is a great joke played on the reader by the author. A grand joke it is, too, as countless learned scholars and critics continue to lavish unctuous praise on the book a century and a half after it was penned, despite the offenses so blatantly committed by the author.

Finally, after wading through hundreds of pages of irrelevant asides with a few colorful anecdotes (related, of course, with cetacean ponderosity) thrown in, and an occasional reference to Captain Ahab and perhaps a half-dozen queries of, “Have you seen the white whale?” we reach the end of the journey: the spotting and chase of the book’s eponymous antagonist–or, depending on your point of view, protagonist. This climax, too, is muted by the less than exciting writing, and the reader is left at the end wondering why he wasted countless precious hours (and, before the advent of electricity, one must conclude, precious candle wick or lamp oil) struggling with the tome and hoping against all reasonable expectation that there was some redeeming value to be found in the book.

I find it curious and more than a bit humorous that in a book about whaling–an occupation in which the primary goal is to keep the blubber and throw out the meat–the author (it’s unlikely that any reputable editor would have allowed this manuscript to leave his desk unscathed) decided to keep the meat and the blubber as well. It is little surprise, considering that the book is easily more than three-fifths blubber outright, and the meat is so marbled with fat that even a light trimming would reduce it by half, and a further treatment by a skilled editor would complete the job of turning this overweight, ponderous and ultimately dull sperm whale of a novel into a sleek and playful dolphin of a story that one could read and enjoy in less than two hours.

As a cure for insomnia, a condition that seemingly afflicts ever more people as time goes on, I would heartily recommend Melville’s Moby Dick. Other potential uses would be casual placement in a conspicuous location in order to impress visitors with the quality of your reading material. The tome would also serve well as a paperweight or, in a pinch, fireplace kindling. I would not, however, recommend it for the stated purpose–reading–unless you are compelled to do so by some outside force (say, a school assignment). Perhaps those who study mass delusions, too, would like to read the book in an attempt to understand how, after one hundred and sixty years, people still cling to the ridiculous notion that the book’s unsubtle and superficial symbolism, use of language, and incoherent exploration of sometimes controversial themes qualify it as a treasure of world literature.

Why fantasy worlds need rules

Jeff Duntemann’s diary entries for June 25 and June 29 helped me put my finger on something that has bothered me, but that I was unable to clearly identify.  Specifically, that fictional worlds must have limits and rules.  My case in point is Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer series.  The story starts out with a time travel incident, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of setting up a story.  A young man trained as an engineer is transported—inadvertently—from the 20th century to 13th century Poland.  His ensuing adventures are great fun, until the author starts helping our hero out of tough spots with things from the future.  By the end of the second book, you just know that Sir Conrad never has to worry about getting hurt, because his cousin (or uncle, or whatever) from the future won’t allow it.  Once I figured that out, I lost some of my interest in the books.

Beyond the help-from-the-future idiocy (which gets worse as the series progresses), the books have one other glaring problem:  the author’s absurd preoccupation with young girls.  Okay, we get the picture.  In 13th century Poland, a nobleman having sex with 14-year-old peasant girls was commonplace.  That’s made clear in the first couple chapters of the first book.  There’s no reason to slap me across the face with it every other chapter for six volumes.  Don’t get me wrong:  the books aren’t porn.  The author doesn’t describe sex acts in detail.  But still, mentioning the perks of nobility once or twice would have been quite sufficient.  I don’t need the name and vital statistics of every serving wench the guy beds.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

I picked up Simon Winchester’s new book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 while I was browsing in Borders last week.  (Seeing what it’s going for on Amazon makes me wish I would have ordered it there.)  Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman, which I reviewed here in November 2001.  I found the new book a much more engaging read.

The book examines the events leading up to and following the massive eruption of Krakatoa with an eye on the social and political goings-on of the previous three centuries.  There’s a very good discussion of the geology involved (Winchester is, after all, a trained geologist), but that isn’t the primary focus of the book, and in fact could probably be easily gotten from other sources.  I found two central themes in the book:

First, the news of Krakatoa’s eruption was broadcast throughout the world within a matter of hours by telegraph.  This was the first time that a major event like this was so widely known so quickly.  In addition, the recent (at the time) development of reasonably affordable recording barometers and similar devices allowed people all over the world to see real evidence of the explosion.  For the first time, people could see the effects of events occurring on the other side of the world.

Second, the native peoples of what was then called the Dutch East Indies were, to put it mildly, unhappy with Dutch rule and were increasingly turning towards a more militant form of Islam.  The explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 fell nicely into a prophecy of disaster, flood, and death that was to signal change, and served to hasten the rebellion of 1888.  It would have happened eventually, I think, but there’s little doubt that the eruption sped things along.

Winchester writes with an engaging style, with some humor and copious footnotes (I wish all authors would use footnotes rather than endnotes).  He manages to explain complicated geological concepts in layman’s terms without over-simplifying them, and he well supports the themes that he introduces.  The book is an excellent read.  Highly recommended.

Bicycling science

Considering the material, Bicycling Science by Frank Rowland Whitt and David Gordon Wilson is a surprisingly good read.  The book is exactly what the title implies—a study of the science behind bicycling, including human power generation, bicycle physics (wind resistance, friction, wheel physics, braking, etc.), and mechanics and mechanisms (power transmission).  The book includes chapters on the history of bicycles, unusual human-powered machines, and a look into the future of human-powered machines.  My only complaint with the book is its age.  It was written in 1980, so all of the advances in materials science and other innovations of the bicycle aren’t included.  Nonetheless, the basic science of bicycling hasn’t changed in 100 years, so most of the information is still relevant.

Many of the discussions explain the limiting factors not only of bicycling or human powered machines, but of power generation in general.  It’s interesting to note, for example, that if you double your speed, you cube the power requirement.  As I’ve pointed out before, the primary impediments to motion on the ground are wind resistance and rolling friction.  Power transmission on the bicycle itself is surprisingly efficient—in the 95% to 98% range.  But the human body’s efficiency is in the range of 23% to 28% efficient.  That is, only about one-fourth of the energy you expend is converted into useful work, making a person on a bicycle approximately 25% efficient—about the same as an automobile.

The book is well-researched, and full of charts, tables, and figures that illustrate the authors’ points.  The writing is slightly more formal than I’d prefer, but not dry by any means.  If you’re at all interested in the science behind bicycling, you should read this book.

Prey, by Michael Crichton

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Crichton’s work, but most of his recent novels have left me cold.  His new book, Prey, reverses that trend in a big way.  The subject:  nanotechnology.  A company working on nanobot surveillance technology for the Army releases a swarm of the critters into the wild.  They evolve quickly, and soon come to see humans as prey.  It’s a frightening tale, and told in much the same way that made Jurassic Park such a captivating story.  The central theme is one of my favorites:  the unintended consequences of new technologies.  It’s a great read.  Highly recommended.

Crypto

Crypto, by Steven Levy, is the story of the development of public key cryptography and its eventual release to the masses.  It’s the story of a handful of amateur cryptographers, mathematicians, and others who defied the government’s (particularly the NSA’s) attempts to keep cryptographic information secret and under tight control, and finally made strong cryptography available to the public.  Well written, non-technical, and a delightful read.  Recommended.

Book review: Bias

People have been pointing out a decided liberal bias in the media for years.  Especially television news.  And for years, news anchors, liberals, and others have dismissed those complaints as radical right-wing conservative rhetoric.  Admittedly, Rush Limbaugh screaming “liberal bias” has a certain hollow ring to it, but when a self-described “old-fashioned liberal” like Bernard Goldberg documents it, somebody’s got to take notice.  Bernard Goldberg is a 30-year veteran of CBS News, an Emmy Award winner, and well respected in the television news business.  In his book, Bias, he gives very strong evidence showing how your evening television news is slanted towards the liberal viewpoint.

I picked up the book out of curiosity, and approached it with some skepticism.  Something in me automatically distrusts “whistle blowers,” perhaps because so many of them are blowing the whistle just because they have some bone to pick with their employers.  The book is very readable, and Goldberg’s points very well supported by the evidence.  The primary point is something that I hadn’t considered.  Goldberg points out that the liberal bias in the media isn’t some master plan conceived by television journalists or politicians who are hell-bent on furthering their agendas.  Rather, the bias is a natural product of the media types’ personalities.  Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of journalists have liberal leanings.  For example in a 1996 survey of 139 Washington bureau chiefs, “89 percent said that they voted for Bill Clinton, compared with just 43 percent of the nonjournalist voters.”  As Goldberg points out: “There’s hardly a candidate in the entire United States of America who carries his or her district with 89 percent of the vote.”  61 percent characterized themselves as “liberal” or “moderate to liberal.”  9 percent said they were “conservative” or “moderate to conservative.”  These are but two examples from the many that he presents in the book.

All that would be okay, provided that journalists recognized their own biases and made a concerted effort to present real balanced reports.  Sadly, they don’t.  It’s the dishonesty that’s the real crime.  At least I know, when I listen to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, that I’m going to get a one-sided view of the world.  For journalists to pass their lopsided views off as balanced reporting is just short of criminal.

Goldberg’s book is an easy read, and quite worth the time, regardless of your political leanings.  Highly recommended.

Things a Computer Scientist rarely Talks About

Browsing in the book store last week, I picked up Donald Knuth’s book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About.  The book contains the transcripts of six lectures he gave in 1999 for the “God and Computers” lecture series at MIT.  Knuth covers a lot of territory in his book, including randomization as a means of scientific inquiry, aesthetics and computers, language translation, and creativity.  He ties it all together with his work on his previous book 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated.

The book is a pleasant read, humorous in places, and spattered with valuable insights into how a scientist thinks of God.  Perhaps the most powerful insight is this:  there is no practical difference between “infinite” and “really, really big.”  Knuth “invented” a number he calls “Super K” (see pages 171-175 of the book), which is so huge as to be far beyond human comprehension.  The number is finite, but for all intents and purposes, infinite.  Is it possible that God could be limited by a number that large?  It is, after all, way more than the total number of subatomic particles in the universe.  If so, would that God appear any different to us than the traditional “infinite” God?  I’m going to be pondering this one for some time.

Tom DeMarco’s The Deadline

I finished Tom DeMarco’s book The Deadline over the weekend.  It’s subtitled “A Novel About Project Management.”  The book has some keen insight into project management, all wrapped up in a silly story about a project manager who is kidnapped and “encouraged” to help the country of Morovia become a software powerhouse.  It’s worth the read, although if you’ve read DeMarco and Lister’s Peopleware, you probably won’t find anything new here.  The treatment in Peopleware is more thorough, but it’s not as fun to read.  I’d suggest you read both books, and then pass The Deadline on to those in your organization who aren’t directly involved in project management, but who would benefit from learning a little more about if.  If they like The Deadline and want to learn more, then give them Peopleware.