books

Karen Armstrong’s book is a potted history of the Bible and its interpretation, starting around the time of the Babylonian exile and continuing up to the present day. Armstrong’s writing is succinct: the book is short (229 pages in the main text of my copy) and easy to read.

Armstrong sees both the Christian Gospel writers and the Judaism of the first and second centuries CE as profoundly influenced by the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Their conflicting ideas on the future of Judaism can be seen in the attitude of the Gospel writers to the Pharisees as it became clear that the future of Judaism did not lie in a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but in a revitalised Judaism which the party of the Pharisees would lead.

The parts of the book which deal with interpretation were most interesting to me. Armstrong interweaves chapters on Christian and Jewish interpretation. Later texts start out as reactions to earlier texts, drawing on them to find something useful in the writers’ times. The later texts may eventually come to be seen as scriptures themselves. Armstrong applies this idea to the Christian New Testament and to the Jewish Mishnah, as well as to modern commentaries like the Scofield Reference Bible, the source of much of fundamentalist Christian theology on the End Times.

Armstrong discussion how later commentators draw out meanings which they believe are hidden within the text, a process which she describes as pesher, referring to the commentaries produced by the Essenes. The methods of interpretation are often quite strange to modern readers, but reflect the belief that scripture was infinite, containing a variety of meanings. Sometimes passages are re-interpreted in the light of the Golden Rule, as in the case of Rabbinic punning on scripture to show God’s compassion, or Augustine’s statement:

“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.”

Some Christians, such as Origen, viewed the Old Testament as a commentary on the New, rather than vice versa, and produced detailed allegorical interpretations of OT events, which were taken to refer to Christ or the church (a tradition they could claim was started by the apostle Paul, in letters like Galatians).

The book contains some uncomfortable facts for someone in the modern evangelical wing of Christianity (as I once was). If evangelicals insist their approach is the only correct one, they must conclude that the church has been doing it wrong for most of its history. Worse yet, for evangelicals who claim to use only scripture to interpret scripture, is realisation that the New Testament writers would be seen as terrible exegetes by modern evangelical standards.

As I said, these are not comforting thoughts for evangelicals. While I was writing this, I found an interesting review of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. Enns has written a book which, if the review is anything to go by, talks about these exegetical problems and tries to address them, still remaining within a reformed Christian theology. Enns does this by drawing an analogy between the humanity of Jesus and that of the Bible. For this, he is well on the way to being drummed out of the seminary where he holds a professorship.

Back to Armstrong. As her story moves closer to the present day, she writes about modern scriptural interpretation with dissatisfaction, albeit tempered with some sympathy for fundamentalists who feel threatened by, well, practically everything that’s happened since about 1800. In the book’s epilogue, she calls for a return to Augustine’s principle of charity as the means of interpretation, arguing that “hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit”, and that rather, the entire Bible should be interpreted as a commentary on the Golden Rule. She rejects criticism of the Bible by “secular fundamentalists”, presumably in the knowledge that in the past both Christians and Jews have seen the violent or otherwise “difficult” passages as an invitation to look deeper rather than as an invitation to imitate God or Israel’s bad behaviour.

I’m a little sceptical, because I think the horse has bolted, at least as far as Christianity is concerned (I’d be interested to hear what Jewish people think). Since Luther, the authority of the church to interpret the Bible has diminished. Everyone is their own pope, vigorously defending their interpretation and eager to anathematise the people closest to them (as Enns’s case illustrates), even more so as believers feel threatened by modern developments and batten down the hatches. I’d like it if Armstrong’s vision became reality, but I’m not sure how she intends to bring it about. More people reading her book might help. I recommend it.

Terry Pratchett has been diagnosed with “a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s“. Damn. As minnesattva says, “Even more than it’s excruciating for any person to “lose his/her mind,” it would — will — be a tragedy to lose the specific and wonderful mind that calls itself Terry Pratchett.”

At the end of his statement, he writes:

I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as ‘I am not dead’. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think – it’s too soon to tell. I know it’s a very human thing to say “Is there anything I can do”, but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.

I’ve recently finished reading Between Silk and Cyanide, The Atrocity Archives and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Between Silk and Cyanide is Leo Marks’s memoir of his time working as a code-maker for the Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE agents were parachuted into occupied countries with the job of organising the resistance to the German occupation and of carrying out assassinations, sabotage and the like, “setting Europe ablaze”, in Churchill’s words. The agents communicated with Britain using enciphered messages sent in Morse code on their portable radio sets.

The ciphers used by SOE were keyed by words chosen from poems memorised by the agents. Marks instituted the use of original compositions, to prevent the enemy cryptographers from deducing which poem was in use and hence breaking all future messages. The book is peppered with his poems, including The Life That I Have. Eventually, Marks instituted the move to random keys printed on silk (so that keys which had been used could be cut away and burned), which, while they still keyed a weak transposition cipher, gave the agents some more security. He also independently invented a way of using one time pads to encipher text.

Marks narrates a story of brave men and women let down, in some cases fatally, by incompetence, bureaucracy and infighting among those who notionally had a common aim. His description of his struggles to improve the security of agents’ message is by turns funny and tragic, with passages which might have been taken from Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall alongside brief but nonetheless horrifying descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by the Gestapo. Between Silk and Cyanide is a fascinating and moving book.

Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives deals with a fictional successor to SOE, an organisation known as “The Laundry”. Stross draws his inspiration from the idea of a Platonic universe where mathematical reasoning can change reality (familiar to readers of Greg Egan) or break your brain (as in David Langford’s short story, Blit). In a stroke of genius, Stross combines this with the horror trope of “things Man was not meant to know” to create a universe in which Cthulhu lurks in the folds of the Mandlebrot set. National governments know about this, but it’s all hushed up, of course. The Laundry is Her Majesty’s Government’s thin grey line of civil servants, who keep the rest of us safe from unspeakable horrors who want to eat our brains. From there we get the book’s other influence, the spy novels of people like Len Deighton and John le Carre, where, as in Marks’s factual story, infighting and petty malice mean the people on your side can be worse than the enemy itself.

The book contains The Atrocity Archive, as well as the follow-up short story The Concrete Jungle (link to the full text) and an essay by Stross on the links between Cold War spy fiction and horror. The Atrocity Archive itself is darker than The Concrete Jungle, being closer to A Colder War, Stross’s earlier work along similar lines. There are some some nasty set-pieces among the geek references and spycraft. The story takes its time introducing the world before anything much happens, but when things get going it’s gripping stuff.

The Concrete Jungle is more of a romp from the start, where the truly sinister is absent, and instead we get a spy action story combined with Dilbert in a universe where magic works, a world in which Bond might check out a Hand of Glory from Q while worrying about whether he’s filled in his TPS report. Stross has done his research, from the code-word compartments on secret documents to the name Dansey House for the Laundry’s HQ.

I enjoyed both stories. A follow-up, The Jennifer Morgue, is out soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

Medium-sized Potter spoilers coming up…

<lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I’m not a huge Potter fan, but I think the books are fun. The final book was a good read, wrapping things up nicely. As the darkness deepens, Rowling continues the theme that the people we think are the gods in our youth are actually morally ambiguous (I’m sure I’m supposed to say bildungsroman at some point, so that’s that out of the way). The middle of the book bogged down a bit with mopey New-Age-Traveller Potter camping out in the woods (hope he cleaned up after himself, bloody crusties (ETA: offensive slang term corrected to right one for New Age Travellers), but things bucked up after a while. Some of the major character deaths seemed a bit perfunctory, but the ones we did see were quite affecting.

The epilogue has attracted some criticism, but if you read this excellent bit of fanfiction you might wonder whether Rowling has been very clever after all (or you might think that tkp is pretty bright herself).

Rowling has created a series which has held its interest over seven books, got kids reading again, and deservedly made her richer than God. Hats off to the author.

I recently finished Andrew Hodges’s Alan Turing: the Enigma. The book is a definitive account of Turing’s life and work. In some places I found the level of detail overwhelming, but in others I admired the way Hodges uses his obviously extensive research to evoke the places and people in Turing’s life. The book is well worth reading for the perspective it gives on Turing, something which is absent from other, purely technical, accounts of his work.

Hodges portrays Turing as a man ahead of time, conceiving of the Turing machine as a thought experiment before the invention of the general purpose electronic computer, and inventing the Turing test when computing was in its infancy. Turing’s naivete was reflected in his refusal to accept what other people said could be done, but also in a lack of interest in the politics of his post-war work on computers and of his own homosexuality. A proto-geek, Turing was prickly, odd, and seemed to expect that the facts alone, when shown to people, would lead them to the same conclusions as he found.

Turing’s suicide is placed in the context of a move from regarding homosexuality as criminal to regarding it as a medical problem, and an increasing suspicion of homosexuals in classified government work. Hodges seems to conclude that Turing felt he had nowhere else to go.

You can’t help but wonder what else Turing might have accomplished had he not committed suicide. Greg Egan’s short, Oracle, is an entertaining what-if story, which also features a character very obviously based on C.S. Lewis. What if Turing had received help from a friend? It’s a pity that in reality there was no-one to lead him out of his cage.

Happy New Year to you all. December was busy. We visited my family in Yorkshire, saw gjm11, Mrs gjm11 and the new sprog, went to the CDC Christmas Dinner Dance, and to Safi and Mike’s wedding. We had 9 people over to ours on Christmas Day, and I spent New Year showing people how to tie a bow-tie.

<lj-cut>The Christmas Dinner Dance was fun. As well as the ex-student hangers-on like me, there was a contingent of people who I’d guess were about my parents’ age. It’s always nice to see the old people enjoying themselves 🙂 Wolfson did good food and there were plenty of people to dance with. unoriginal1729 took some pictures, but I’ve not seen them yet: did any of them come out?

The wedding was lovely. Always nice to see the bride make the “obey” vow: the old ways are the best, I’ve never seen the point of this picking and choosing from the Bible you get these days. There was a ceilidh during which I managed to fall over on scribb1e (the basket is a dangerous ceilidh move) but she didn’t break.

scribb1e volunteered to cook Christmas dinner this year, for 9 people (my parents, her parents, her grandmother and my sister and brother-in-law). I helped by peeling several kilograms of vegetables and by getting out of the way. The turkey was called Sidney, apparently, and he tasted very nice, although the cook herself refused to sample him. scribb1e got me Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, among other things, so expect a review of that at some point. We had a sing-song around the piano in the evening, which made a change from watching whatever tat they’d put on TV.

Between Christmas and New Year, I mostly sat on the sofa and ate After-8’s while reading Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorized Version, which is a classical historian’s take on the Bible. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Biblical texts. A fuller review might follow at some point.

gjm11 had an open house, at which there was an impromptu meeting of the LiveWires ex-Christians society in the kitchen. I don’t know what they put in the water at LiveWires: if I did, I could extract it and sell it to Dawkins or Harris.

I was at a James Bond themed party on New Year’s Eve. I was the only man present wearing a real bow-tie, so demonstrations of how to tie it became a party-piece. Sadly, it looked better on the girls than me. Alas, the blokes’ demands for the girls in the full bunny-girl outfit went unheeded. I have vague, now suppressed, memories of cha-cha’ing with dab13, but luckily there are no photos of that.

Back to work tomorrow.

Boingboing pointed out that Peter Watts has put another novel on the web. I liked his previous two, and enjoyed his presentation on the biology of vampires.

I’ve just finished reading Blindsight. It’s a first contact novel, but ultimately the aliens are secondary to the interplay between the humans, and to the book’s take on evolution and consciousness (which, unlike the result of Strictly Come Dancing the other week, I won’t spoil for you). Readers who bought Watts’s books also liked Greg Egan, as Amazon might say (they probably liked autopope too), so it helps if you don’t mind the exposition and are conversant with your Searle, Penrose and Dawkins (or at least, not worried by having to look stuff up). At least one reviewer I’ve seen totally failed to understand what was going on, it seems: it’s the SF writing Singularity again.

The book is bleak, hard science fiction, full of ideas, and leaves you with that slightly altered-state aftertaste you get from the best science fiction. Plus, you know, vampires in space. I liked it.

It seems the right way to respond to Dawkins if you’re a believer is to claim that he’s not actually talking about the God you believe in, but rather the God that only people who don’t have theology degrees or Americans might believe in, laughable simpletons that they are. I’m thinking of Giles Fraser in the Church Times and Terry Eagleton in the LRB.

As I mentioned previously, gjm11 has responded to the Giles Fraser review, so I thought I’d write about the Terry Eagleton review. Both of these are postings to uk.religion.christian, a surprisingly sane Usenet newsgroup (surprising because most other Usenet groups with “Christian” in the title are full of nutters), which you can look at most easily via Google.

I’ve not seen any reviews by evangelicals yet. It’ll be interesting to see what they say, as they can’t really pull off the “not my God” argument.

I’ve read a couple of Richard Dawkins’s books recently, namely his latest, The God Delusion and A Devil’s Chaplain, an earlier book.

A Devil’s Chaplain

A Devil’s Chaplain is good holiday reading (just as well, as we took it to Venice with us). It’s Dawkins in bite-size chunks, a collection of articles on his favourite subjects: evolution, science, pseudo-science, and religion. Most of the articles have been published elsewhere, but enough of them were new to me to make the book interesting.

<lj-cut>With the current publicity for Dawkins-the-atheist, one might forget that Dawkins-the-explainer is remarkably good at his job, and well deserves deserves his Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He writes clearly and engagingly, and explains complex ideas with flair. His passion for science is shines through in his writing.

Dawkins dispatches the pseudo-scientists while showing that their sideshow tricks are nothing to the wonders of real science. Crystalline truth and crystal balls is a workmanlike example of this, where he mocks the New Age crystal energy nonsense before launching into a description of what crystals really are.

The Information Challenge was particularly interesting to me because of the discussion robhu and I had about evolution and information, back in 2004. In that thread, I linked to the article and suggested that Dawkins hadn’t clearly distinguished between storage capacity and Shannon information. I suppose I must have been skim reading when I read it on the web, because on reading it again in the book, it’s obvious he does make that distinction, and also talks (in the “The Genetic Book of the Dead” section) about information acquired from the environment in the sense of the paper by MacKay we were talking about.

Dawkins also provides the reader with some moving eulogies, notably one to Douglas Adams, whose pathos again gives the lie to the caricature of Dawkins-the-unfeeling-atheist.

The book is certainly worth reading, but don’t expect the depth you’d get from a full length work on a single topic. As I said, it’s bite-size chunks.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion must be the book that Dawkins has been wanting to write for years. It’s well timed. People like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have prepared the ground, and in this country we’re in the middle of a debate about the role of religion in public life (not to mention that any passenger who is parched on a UK to USA flight might find themselves fondly imaging nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too).

Dawkins lines up his definition of theism and then proceeds to knock it down. He’s carefully not to fall into the trap of claiming he has proved that God does not exist, but rather, he argues that God’s existence is overwhelmingly unlikely.

<lj-cut>Dawkins has has no sympathy with Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (the old idea that science answers “how?” questions and religion answers “why?” questions). As he says, any religion worth its salt (so, excluding deism or the extreme liberalism of people like Cupitt) makes claims that God affects the material world, and these claims are susceptible to scientific inquiry. Giles Fraser, writing in the Church Times objects to definiteness and wants Dawkins to recognise that his God is vaguer than the one Dawkins attacks, an objection which gjm11 dealt with in a posting to uk.religion.christian.

Turning to his area of expertise, Dawkins shows that evolution invalidates arguments from design, and for an encore deals with a host of the other arguments for God with his customary panache.

The book is bracketed by chapters arguing that wonder at the universe need not die with theism. Dawkins is keen to divorce what he calls Einsteinian religion from the theistic sort (Einsteinian because Einstein often referred to “God” as a sort of shorthand for the mystery of the universe, although he wasn’t in fact a theist). It’s obvious to me that non-theists retain that sense of wonder which might be described as spiritual, but I suppose it’s one of the things that theists worry they might lose if they gave up on God.

Dawkins has something of a reputation for being outspoken, not to say arrogant. That’s partly down to the special privileges religion gets, as he mentions in the book. We don’t consider it impolite to disagree with someone’s political views, yet as a society we are extremely careful to show respect to religious behaviour, however outlandish. This is part of a defence mechanism to protect religion, as Douglas Adams has pointed out. It’s not surprising that Dawkins’s decision to ignore this social convention makes people uncomfortable.

The writing is less formal than his earlier works. In some places, Dawkins develops a stream-of-consciousness style, at one point breaking off into a paragraph about how much he misses Douglas Adams (something even the theists can agree with, I guess). He also uses humour to good effect, with some wickedly barbed remarks (he seems to especially dislike the Templeton Prize). scribb1e read the book after me, and laughed out loud at the jokes. I’m not sure this style helps when people are so ready to accuse Dawkins of arrogance, but on the other hand it probably makes the book accessible to a wider audience, which is certainly something Dawkins is aiming for.

There are a few clangers in places where Dawkins cites specific examples of things from the Bible and early church history and gets it wrong (St Paul didn’t, as far as we know, write the Letter to the Hebrews, and to argue that Paul invented Christianity is over-doing it). Proof-reading by someone who knew about that sort of thing wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Nevertheless, the book largely achieves what it sets out to do, and, as I said, it’s about time.

Dawkins is currently promoting the book all over the place. His interview with Jeremy Paxman was particularly good.

The Foundation

Dawkins has also established The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. This looks like it’ll be a lobbying and educational body, both in the UK and the USA. You might not think we need such a thing in the UK. If so, I suggest you read rosamicula‘s recent posting, and remember, it’s describing a British college. But at least such colleges aren’t teaching nonsense as a matter of policy, unlike the government-funded Emmanuel College in Gateshead, who hastily removed their science teaching policy from the web after Dawkins pointed it out in the Telegraph.

One thing Dawkins doesn’t address is the way societies remain religious despite the advances of science. As Andrew Brown puts it:

Some people may ask why, if I am so pessimistic about religion, and believe so much in its destructive power, I am then so rude about Dawkins. Sam Harris, and similar atheists. Don’t they agree with me? Yes. But they’re optimists. They hold out the hope that there can be democratic, peaceful societies committed to the (costly) effort of reason and self-criticism even when this has no obvious benefits, and irrationality no obvious costs. Actually, their assumption is stronger than that. They believe this is the natural, equilibrium state of any society that has discovered science. And it seems to me that this is one of the beliefs that has been completely exploded since about 1950. Or, as Housman put it, the love of truth is the weakest of all human passions.”


I keep thinking there’s a need for a grass-roots movement to do what religion does for people on the small scale. I’m not sure whether it’s a realistic, given that the only thing atheists have in common is the lack of a belief, but it sounds like a nice idea. We could call it the Culture, say.

This is mostly a link dump of the stuff I’ve been reading lately, but I’ll try to say something interesting while I’m about it.

The Post-Evangelical

In the pub on Friday, my spy in the ranks of the enemy told me excitedly that she’d read a book I must read also. It turned out to be Dave Tomlinson’s The Post-Evangelical. So I went and read it again to see whether I agreed with what I thought 6 years ago, when I liked the bits about evangelical sub-culture but thought his epistemology was crap.

I still think Tomlinson is at his best when he is describing the pressure towards conformity in evangelicalism and pointedly remarking on the astonishing similarity between evangelical mores and those of middle-class society. There’s nothing wrong with being middle-class, in my book, but to elevate the most caricatured aspects of it to the status of a religion is probably taking things too far. Tomlinson’s thoughts about that weren’t new even in 2000, as Pete Broadbent pointed out (apparently Pete’s a bishop these days, so there is something the Church of England got right).

I still don’t know quite what his proposed alternative to both evangelicalism and liberalism actually is. It might be something which takes those parts of evangelicalism which aren’t the middle-class bits and uses them as guidelines rather than as axioms. For example, Tomlinson tells us that post-evangelicals don’t believe in Biblical inerrancy, but do retain the belief that God will speak through the Bible.

Or it might be an attempt to make the whole thing fuzzy, using, in Tomlinson’s terms, “poetic” rather than “scientific” language. Regular readers will know that anyone who behaves like a scientist and starts asking questions about what their religion actually means and whether it’s really true must end up an atheist. In that case, perhaps the best way for religion to survive is to avoid finding the answers to questions. If evangelicals are caricatures of the middle-classes, are the post-evangelicals and emerging church people caricatures of arts students, as holyoffice tells us (you’ll need to search for “The Emerging Church”)? I suppose I’d need to ask a real live post-evangelical to be sure: is there one in the house?

While I was looking around the web to see what other people had said about the book, I came across Maggi Dawn‘s blog. She’s currently the chaplain at Robinson college, but was one of the people who worked with Tomlinson in setting up a church in which meets in a pub. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the archives of her blog. A couple of things which caught my eye were an evangelical critiquing the idea of a personal relationship wtih Jesus, and the story of how the Christian Union at Birmingham University fell foul of Student Union rules.

Textual criticism

Rev Dawn also linked to the Washington Post story on Bart Ehrman, a university lecturer on the New Testament. Ehrman’s a former evangelical Christian who became an agnostic after studying the history of the Biblical texts. The Post does a good job of evoking what it must feel like to be in his position.

The comments on the article on Rev Dawn’s blog rapidly dissolve into the standard liberal vs evangelical slanging match (“by this all men will know you are my disciples, if you flame one another on the Internet”, as Jesus once put it). There is an interesting question she poses there, though, which is why people who have left Christianity devote so much time to criticising it instead of moving on.

LOL furriesChristians

There’s something in Tony B’s comment, I suppose: even if you’ve decided it’s not true, there’s an intellectual fascination there, and the feeling that it’d be nice if all manner of things really will be well. But there’s also something like the stuff Sam Harris talks about. Even moderate religion gives cover to fundamentalists by making belief in an invisible friend strangely more respectable than believing in alien abduction or that Elvis is alive, and by propagating the idea that criticism of a person’s religious beliefs is taboo in a way that criticism of any other belief strangely is not. The latter is a defence mechanism evolved by religions, as Douglas Adams rightly says. People who’ve left a religion have already broken stronger barriers than that, so it’s not surprising that they’re occasionally a little outspoken (who, me?)

The Fabric of the Cosmos was given to me by one of the many ex-physicists at work. I’d previously read Greene’s The Elegant Universe, and found it interesting but perhaps a bit long: I suspect that attempting to get a whole book out of explaining string theory without using mathematics might have been a bit ambitious.

The Fabric of the Cosmos is lovely to read. Greene takes a couple of questions as his theme: Are space and time a “thing”, or merely about the relationship between things? Where does our perception of an “arrow of time” come from? He begins with Newton and Leibnitz and works forward through Special Relativity, General Relativity, quantum mechanics and modern attempts to unite the latter two, introducing concepts like entropy and inflation theory along the way.

Greene has a gift of explaining technical concepts clearly. Sometimes he chooses an appropriate analogy, but more often it’s a straight explanation written with the clarity of someone who has a deep understanding of the subject themselves but still retains some idea of how hard it was to learn it. I learned some things which I’m pretty sure were new to me rather than things I knew and then forgot (for example, I don’t think anyone ever explained that a flat, Ω=1, universe can either be spatially infinite or have toroidal topology).

Personal digression into “when I was at Cambridge” nonsense: My own, somewhat limited, success as a physicist relied mostly on my ability to do really evil calculus: given some likely looking equations, I’d just dive in and emerge, gasping, with the answer. My supervisors were always writing remarks like “more words, please!” on my work (oddly enough, these days my code is pretty well commented). Nevertheless, I did OK on the Cambridge course, which was basically about testing your ability to do this stuff really fast in an exam and to think on your feet in supervisions. This was fine until the later years when they started to ask questions which tested actual understanding, and I hit my head on stuff like the Feynman path integral like Asimov hitting calculus and realised I couldn’t just do the maths anymore. I don’t really have a physicist’s intuition, but in my defence, I mostly didn’t have people like Greene as lecturers (with some notable exceptions), but rather the “101 Great Moments in Calculus” sort. They almost certainly had the deep understanding, but they weren’t so good with the the words either. I’ve no idea whether it’s still like this, and it’s probably my fault for not reading around the subject in the stupidly long vacations that Cambridge undergraduates get. Nevertheless, there should be more educators like Greene.

Greene also conveys something of the wonder and strangeness of the universe. Space is big, as someone once said, but it’s also odd. Its constituents behave in ways which are so different from everyday objects that it’s hard to believe these objects are built up of such stuff.

I was reminded again that the majority of the universe is so unlike Earth that it beggars belief that some people could believe it was all put here for our benefit (“He also made the stars”, apparently) or that an entity who could create the whole thing would be concerned with the inhabitants of an insignificant little blue-green planet.

Rant over. Green writes engagingly. I’d recommend the book to people who want to know the secrets of the universe.

Continuing my theme, there was story a little while back about a quantum computer that can do calculations without actually running. I was annoyed that nobody in the popular science press seemed to get further with an explanation than “ooh! quantum! straaange!”. Luckily Sean Carroll rides to the rescue, with an explanation involving puppies and lettuce. Great stuff.