Friday, May 21, 2021


 I've been reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wulf, and have decided to give up. My idea was that I would delve farther back into romanticism and naturalism and develop a clearer picture of the zeitgeist that developed between Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Von Humboldt (1769-1859) fits that period perfectly. Although he was not a Romantic per se, he influenced both Goethe and Darwin, so he managed to become a significant historical figure. He also had an obvious influence on less-famous writers such as G.H. Lewes. Under slightly different circumstances I might have finished the book, but there were a couple of problems with it that put me off. First, Wulf seems to have written with the specific purpose of producing a bestseller, which means that the quality of the writing is significantly lower than one finds in, say, Maurice Cranston, Andrzej Franaszek, Rosemary Ashton and other biographers I've read. This doesn't mean that the book is of no value, but that I don't find it particularly informative or perceptive. Second, I am having a hard time identifying with von Humboldt because of his frenetic behavior. On the positive side, he was extremely curious and loved to explore, but, on the negative side, some of his ideas were naïve and have been surpassed by modern science. He was one of the first writers to develop a sense of ecosystems and the possibility of anthropogenic climate change, but, preceding Darwin, he never came up with a comprehensive scientific worldview. I think that he was a model not only, as Wulf notes, for Goethe's Faust, but also, possibly, for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and perhaps even Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet. Von Humboldt more than anyone else popularized the idea of amateur scientific observation and exploration, which reached a peak in the mid-nineteenth century. However, the detailed record of his life seems somewhat limited, perhaps because he was homosexual. Generally, that kind of information was not recorded in the past, and it leaves a gap in understanding his private life. While, in the case of Bertrand Russell, Ray Monk overwhelms the reader with details of his daily life, Andrea Wulf had comparatively little information to work with. In sum, I was put off both by Wulf's writing style and the narrow view of von Humboldt's life, even though he influenced others, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Goethe and Darwin. After one hundred pages I felt as if I was forcing myself to continue reading – something I've stopped doing in recent years.

In other news, I am still trying to break out of the pandemic mindset, but progress is slow. The weather abruptly changed from very cold to very hot, and I've planted my tomatoes much earlier than usual. My regular summer outdoor chores are time-consuming, but there is still a lack of the minimal social interaction that I was used to. During the winter I like being curled up with books, but less so when it is warm. We did have an outing to the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, which was a nice change. Driving in Vermont in mid-May is extremely pleasant. If I can get out a little more and find a decent book to read, I should be in good shape. I am starting on a new book search, and, if that fails, I may end up resuming posts on general topics like the ones I used to make quite often. As always, I am open to suggestions, and I am not committed to a fixed format for this blog.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


 We are having the coldest spring since we moved to Vermont, and I am still lighting fires in the morning. Fortunately, we had a lot of extra firewood this year. Usually the hummingbirds have returned by now, but they are nowhere to be seen. However, according to the weather forecast, there is only one more cold day left, and temperatures should then return to normal. With the coronavirus fading, we are going out a bit more often and are interacting with other people, but life still seems curtailed.

Under the circumstances, though I am resuming my usual spring activities outdoors, I am a little at a loss in finding pleasant pastimes. The small window of investing opportunities seems to have closed, so I will no longer be spending much time on that. I am also, as usual, stuck in finding suitable reading material. I still like biographies, but over the last few years I've worked my way through what I think are the best ones, and it may be challenging to find good ones on a regular basis in the future. Since I have no desire to read fiction of any kind or to delve into poetry again, I will have to continue looking into relatively new nonfiction and hope for the best. I currently have a book on order that I'll be starting soon.

After having read several biographies, I've started to notice some of the more subtle qualitative differences, and it is easier for me to become displeased with deficiencies. Also, the presumption that the subject of a biography is worthwhile is often incorrect as far as I'm concerned, and there aren't many people whose lives I find interesting. For example, there is a new biography of John F. Kennedy which I won't read. Kennedy had many of the characteristics that tend to make people famous, though on closer examination the pitfalls of hero-worship became part of the formula. The Kennedy children were spoiled brats with an unscrupulous, wealthy and ambitious father. He wanted one of his sons to be president, and when Jack's older brother, Joe Kennedy, Jr., died during World War II, Jack was the next in line. Not much happened during Kennedy's presidency: the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a few stirring speeches, an elegant wife, and then the assassination. Without an early death, Kennedy may never have been considered a good president. He does not seem to have had much interest in policy or governing, and his private life would be considered immoral by most. I think that Kennedy got the classic dying-young bonus, which you can also see in Ché Guevara, John Lennon and others. When you live to a ripe old age, your weaknesses become more conspicuous. For example, from a biographical standpoint, Bertrand Russell may have done better to die in 1920 rather than in 1970. No one gets very excited by Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr.

Another area in which I've lost interest is the news. I've mentioned it before in my posts, but it is disconcerting to me how the media dance around issues in a manner that does nothing to increase public awareness. I began to become weary of them when they did nothing to prevent the Iraq War, let George W. Bush win a second term, and, finally, allowed Donald Trump to become president and stay in office. Even today, they have done little to stop Trump's stranglehold on the Republican Party – when nothing could be plainer than that Trump is a menace to society. While it is true that Trump is an experienced grifter, I think that vigorous investigative reporting could have exposed his criminal activities, and he could have been removed from office well before the end of his term. In the light of day, it is astounding that any informed person could find Trump qualified to hold public office: jail is where he belongs. Of course, I am well aware of human cognitive limitations, both individual and collective, but I have no desire to have them paraded in front of me on a daily basis by the media, particularly when no end is in sight.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Cosmic Revolutionary's Handbook (Or: How to Beat the Big Bang)

This is a new book by two astronomers, Luke A. Barnes and Geraint F. Lewis, who live in Australia. I read it to update myself on the big bang theory, at least in an informal sense. Of course, the actual research in this area is quite abstruse, so books like this only give you a vague sense of what is going on. While there is an informal tone to the book, it is quite apparent that there has been an incredible amount of research, accompanied both by better telescopes and advances in physics, since Edwin Hubble first proposed the theory in 1929. One amusing aspect of the book is the continuous cautioning by the authors of how theories must be presented according to prevailing mathematical standards and provide experimental proof for their assertions; apparently this occurred because the authors wrote a book earlier and have been deluged with ideas and theories from people who have no conception of the scientific method. They were inundated with emails and letters, particularly from retired engineers, who thought that they had theories that explained everything. So the book is an attempt to provide them with some guidelines if they expect to be taken seriously.

As discussed in the book, the big bang theory is one of the great triumphs of modern science. It is still holding together, though various observations in recent years have raised questions regarding its validity. The main idea is still intact. The theory came about as new ways of measuring distance in space became possible. Cepheid variable stars were observed locally, and it was determined that their intrinsic brightness was the same no matter where they were located. Thus, a dim Cepheid is farther away than a bright Cepheid. Initially, the distance of Cepheids was measured by their parallax, using the earth's orbit to form the base of a triangle extending to a star. Hubble observed that the light from distant Cepheids was shifted toward the red end of the visual spectrum in the same way that the Doppler shift lengthens sound waves from objects that are moving away. He showed that the more distant a Cepheid star, the more its light had redshifted, indicating that it was moving away faster. This was the first indication that the universe is expanding. Later on, with the discovery of Type 1a supernovae in 1993, the measurements from objects at even greater distances became possible. The distance of nearby Type 1a supernovae can be determined when they occupy the same galaxy as a Cepheid variable, and this provides a distance scale for Type 1a supernovae that are well beyond any visible Cepheid variables. These supernovae have a predictable intrinsic brightness, which can be determined by the time it takes for the light to fade after the explosion. As it turned out, the more distant a Type 1a supernova, the more its light is redshifted, confirming Hubble's theory.

Most of the book discusses various findings that have occurred since Hubble and whether they are compatible with the expanding universe hypothesis. In the1980's, Alan Guth proposed the inflation theory in order to explain why we can't detect magnetic monopoles, as would be expected with a big bang. His theory was that the universe accelerated its expansion briefly very early in its existence. This does not necessarily contradict the basic idea of an expanding universe and is itself an unresolved issue. Another discovered phenomenon, the cosmic microwave background, seems to be compatible with the big bang. Then there are dark matter and dark energy, which, at this point, are theoretical entities used to explain galactic movement. They may be compatible with the big bang theory, but are not currently well understood. The discovery of quasars, which emit radio waves, has been useful for studying extremely distant objects and the matter between them and the earth.

The big bang theory is an important concept, because it summarizes all that we know about the early universe, which came into existence about fourteen billion years ago. It began very hot, expanded rapidly and gradually cooled down. The expansion that occurred was the stretching of space-time according to Einstein's theory of general relativity. At the particle level, the picture is far more complex and requires the use of the Standard Model of particle physics. It currently looks as if it may never be possible to know exactly what happened in the first moment of the universe or anything before that. There is a lot of speculation which may be impossible to prove. One person thinks that the universe began as the opposite end of a black hole: a white hole. There may never be a way to prove this. We may also never know whether there are other universes. Then there is the multiverse concept, in which new universes are created every moment: I find that theory unappealing. I think that future advances, probably with the assistance of AI, may produce some answers in these areas, though the theories may still be untestable.

The book is written in a light, humorous style, while the underlying ideas are quite complex, so the mental gymnastics can be strenuous. However, on the whole I found it highly instructive and it is probably better than the astronomy classes that I took in college.