River Out of Eden
Dawkins presents a dispassionate and mechanistic explanation of Darwinism. As always, he can come across as derisive and arrogant, or charming and intelligent, depending on the reader’s predilection. He uses the metaphor of a river to show how DNA flows through geological time, with individual organisms being only the temporary vessels of that DNA at any point. The real force driving evolution is the maximization of DNA replication. Purposeful design is an illusion. In fact, he argues, even biologists are at times altogether too hung up in organisms, their physical structure and purpose. The staggering time scale of life on earth needs to be grasped if one is to avoid the mistakes of anthropomorphising and deifying. Propagation of DNA over this vast time line is sufficient to explain the entire process of evolution.
He ends with another metaphor which he calls a ‘replication bomb’, similar to a stellar supernova. By listing ten thresholds that life will achieve during evolution, he paints a picture of biological history beginning with simple chemical self-copying and eventually achieving space travel. It would have been interesting if he had taken this metaphor a bit further, but that would involve speculation and philosophy, two things that Dawkins prefers to avoid.
Compelling, well written and argued using hard science, rational inference, thought experiments, and empirical examples, this volume serves as a good handbook for those who would take the Darwinian side of a debate on origins.
Was Einstein Right?
Will is that rarest of creatures – a physics professor who can communicate compellingly. He takes us on a journey through the attempts to verify/disprove/modify Einstein’s theory over the last century. In addition, the greater historical perspective of Newton’s laws is referred to often. This provides not only a sweeping view of the evolution of gravitational theory, but also of the nature and power of science in general. Although not a biography of Einstein, this book indeed captures the essence of that unique life and genius. The experiments and observations involving relativity provide for a fascinating ride. Bending of astronomical light, the orbit of Mercury, frame dragging, and gravitational waves are explored in depth. The astonishing technological advances made during the 1960s are a focus. Will’s conclusion is that not only is Einstein’s theory ‘right’ (so far) (an obligatory caveat to any scientific theory), but also how amazing it is that a theory conceived purely in abstract thought withstands such relentless experimental testing.
Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science
This is a difficult book to describe. It is, for the most part, a compendium of serendipitous discoveries made in science over the centuries. In that sense, it’s a resource. The author writes in multiple layers of technical depth, making the stories compelling and meaningful for everyone from layman to expert. Using the storytelling approach works well. This is definitely not a dry text book. The reader often almost feels the presence of author in the same room. The author was an award-winning chemist, but he was first and foremost a teacher. His generosity began with doctoral and masters candidates under his charge, then university texts, then to the lay public, and ultimately he wrote a children’s book with his daughter. Serendipity was an important, even revered concept to him. The recent resurgence of this mid-eighteenth century word was noted in that ‘serendipity’ was absent from the 1939 and 1959 editions of a well-known dictionary, but appeared after 1974.
Not much of the book is spent in abstraction or philosophy. It is rather left up to the reader to further explore serendipity. The author states, I hope that this book will be a stimulus for you. Perhaps a true understanding of serendipity is serendipitous.
A Survey of Physical Theory
In HCI, one of the key topics is the human mind itself of course. Exactly how homo sapiens thinks scientifically is a subject that is simultaneously all-important and little-understood. In this classic 1925 work, Planck, the discoverer of quantum theory, brilliantly explains some of the key aspects of this thought process. In particular, he shreds our predilection for anthropomorphization. He then includes a tremendously illuminating, step-by-step review of his quantization ruminations. How we think is at least as important as what we think.
The Greatest Show on Earth
In this exploration, Richard Dawkins includes a fascinating look at embryology. His intention, indeed his accomplishment, is to show that assembly of complex structure can sometimes work on a very short time scale. This is valuable, since the concept of geological time is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to understanding evolution. It’s a non-starter for young-earth (6,000 year) creationists, but it’s also a big problem for everyone else because it’s well beyond staggering – it’s actually unimaginable.
Dawkins discusses several analogies between natural construction and human activities. One of these is the art of paper folding known as origami. In origami, small steps are taken to achieve intermediate ‘larval’ stages. Emphasis is on the simple folding task at hand, not on the finished design. This is similar to the local rules obeyed by cells during embryonic development, by proteins as they fold into 3-D molecules, and viruses as they ‘self-assemble’. No overall blueprint is ever used, or indeed is ever necessary. Each embryonic cell may have a complete copy of the organism’s DNA, but each cell type will have a slightly different subset of these genes turned on for use. This is how successive generations of cells gradually differentiate. Thus, local, simple rules govern local changes that ripple, augment, and feed back within the embryo. The origami of each small part participates in the eventual production of the finished, complex organism. This complexity is emergent and is very much unlike top-down architecture. Dawkins doesn’t like the commonly used DNA-blueprint analogy. Emergent complexity is not reversible. One could draw a blueprint from a finished building by taking measurements, but there is no way to reconstruct DNA from a finished organism. (Extraction is not reconstruction.)
To his credit, Dawkins honestly and clearly states that embryology is not evolution. Embryology merely utilizes a pre-existing genetic code while evolution is the process that assembled that code over hundreds of millions of years.