The Human Swarm by Mark MoffettIn most accounts of world or macro history, you get a few introductory sections or chapters on our hunter-gather past before moving on to the civilizations of written history. Yet 6,000 years of written history represents only three percent of our collective 200,000 year history as a species. Surely this span of time has more relevance and deserves more attention than it is typically given.

The Human Swarm by biologist Mark Moffett does not suffer from this limitation; it takes 21 chapters and 275 pages before the author gets to the societies of written history. In what truly represents a biologist’s take on the history of our species and societies, the majority of the book discusses our deep evolutionary past and our connections to other social species, including chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and even ants.

Continue reading “Review of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall”

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution book coverTo understand the enigma that is quantum physics, it’s best to start with the relatively easier problems of classical physics.

Classical physics was invented by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton to deal with everyday macroscopic objects that you can see with the naked eye or with the assistance of telescopes. Classical physics—equipped with calculus and its associated equations—can describe the precise location, speed, direction, and trajectory of any visible object, from airplanes and cannonballs to stars and planets.

If you were to take a snapshot of the solar system at this moment in time, you could measure, using the equations of classical physics, the position and velocity of each planet and could predict the precise location of any one planet at any future time (within a small margin of error up to a limited but significant amount of time). The mechanics of the equations are complex, but the problems are fully soluble.

As Lee Smolin explains in his new book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, this turns out to not be the case at the smallest of scales. When you start asking what matter is made of—atoms, protons, electrons, photons, quarks, etc.—a new type of physics is required, quantum physics. Quantum mechanics was invented in the early twentieth century to explain quantum physics, and seeks to describe how quantum particles behave and interact with each other.

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Infinite Powers by Steven Strogatz book coverCalculus is one of those subjects that is so complicated that most people not only don’t understand it, they don’t even know what it is that they don’t understand. But that’s unfortunate, because calculus is one of humanity’s most impressive achievements, an accomplishment that unlocks the secrets of the universe and delivers our most profound and useful technology, from radio and television to GPS navigation and MRI imaging. Calculus is the main protagonist in the story of science, and is a subject every educated person should understand at least conceptually.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trudge through a thousand-page textbook to appreciate the story and power of calculus. Steven Strogatz, in his latest book Infinite Powers, has provided a clear, concise, and fascinating tour of the subject. In fact, if you don’t understand what calculus is all about after reading this book, then the prospects are not great that you ever will. There is simply no better, clearer presentation of the ideas available. Strogatz uses metaphors, illustrations, stories, and examples to guide the reader through the most difficult concepts. While this is not an easy read, it is as reader-friendly as possible; remember, you’re tackling the most sophisticated branch of mathematics, the underlying logic of all science, and a subject that the sharpest mathematical minds in history had to grapple with for thousands of years.

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Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

Continue reading “Nicholas Christakis on the Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society”