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The Millions: The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

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Mind Control: David Eagleman’s Incognito

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In the final chapter of his latest book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, neuroscientist David Eagleman muses on the ultimate dethronement of humankind, the “fall from the center of ourselves.” Just as Galileo plucked the Earth from the center of the solar system, and Darwin relegated us to one twig among many on the evolutionary tree, a century of modern neuroscience has confirmed Freud’s intuition that the vast majority of brain activity occurs at levels of which the conscious “I” is scarcely even aware—much less in control of.  What we call the conscious mind, Eagleman argues, is far from center stage, and the more we try to find out who—or what—is actually in control of our brain, the more we find out there is, as Gertrude Stein said, “no there there.”

Before he considers the broader implications of our fall from grace, Eagleman spends the first half of the book revealing—through experiments, anecdotes, puzzles, optical illusions, and current events—the extent of the neural wizardry operating behind the conscious curtain of the “I.” It is this wizardry, he suggests, that constructs the cognitive illusion we confidently declare reality. Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine, is an agile guide; he is someone who cares about the craft of writing. His bestselling work of fiction, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, a series of imaginative (if somewhat gimmicky) thought experiments about the possible nature(s) of God, was widely praised when it appeared in 2009. In his latest book, he proves himself, once again. Eagleman presents difficult neuroscience concepts in an energetic, casual voice with plenty of analogies and examples to ensure that what could easily be an overwhelming catalog of facts remains engaging and accessible.

Eagleman uses everyday experiences, familiar to each of us, which reveal the hidden machinations of the brain working in unexpected ways. Even an intuitively effortless act such as seeing, he shows us, is not a passive process of observation, but rather the product of a vast subsurface machinery (by some measures, nearly one-third of the human brain is devoted to vision) that uses an arsenal of assumptions to interpret the ambiguous barrage of shapes and colors that constitute any visual scene. Most readers will fail to appreciate any of these processes until we are shown how often—and how profoundly—we get it totally wrong. For example, the resolution of our peripheral vision is so shockingly poor that if you ask a friend to hold a handful of colored highlighters out to his side while you stare at his nose, you may have the vague sensation of a rainbow in the distance, but might be surprised to discover that you’re unable to name or order any of the colors. Since the brain constantly darts our eyes around so that the high-resolution central vision focuses on whatever it is we are interested in—and therefore anything we are paying attention to appears in sharp focus—the brain assumes the entire visual world is in focus. We think we see what we do not.

What optical illusions really point out is that all of vision is, in a sense, an illusion.

One striking optical illusion, in which a dot on the page disappears as you slowly move the book away from your face, demonstrates that a huge region of vision is in fact missing—due to a quirk of anatomy, we have a sizable blind spot. And yet,  no one noticed this blind spot until its chance discovery in the 17th century because the brain fills in the missing information. It is constantly inventing a patch of reality. The lesson of examples such as these, Eagleman points out, is that “you’re not perceiving what’s out there. You are perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” Whether you are in control of your eyes or your eyes are in control of you is the central, unsettling question posed by these chapters.

The extent to which forces that elude introspection influence not only your perceptions but also your behavior is detailed with increasingly bizarre examples. We find out that a stripper earns higher tips when she is at the most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. People are more likely to marry other people whose names begin with the same letter as their own. Those who are born on February 2nd (2/2) are statistically more likely to live in places like Twin Lakes, Wisconsin; those born on March 3rd in Three Forks, Montana; and those born on June 6th in Six Mile, South Carolina. What these interesting but difficult-to-interpret quirks of human nature reveal is that choices which you happily assign to volition—to free will—may in fact be determined by the alien logic of brain processes inaccessible to the conscious “I.”

But does any of this this matter? Is anything in your life going to change if modern neuroscience strips you of the illusion of free will? Isn’t it just fine to go through the course of the day believing what you see, or ignoring the possibility that arbitrary numbers might influence where you choose to live? Unless you are a philosopher, these issues might seem irrelevant, but Eagleman’s book serves as a clarion call to institutions of law and policy, arguing that they need to be based upon a deeper understanding of ourselves.

As director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor University, Eagleman has a thoughtful and considered take on issues of cultural and political power, and his chapter on neuroscience and the law proves to be the strongest in the book. While today’s courts rarely allow such technologies as brain scans into the courtroom, judges may soon deem such scans relevant to arguments about a defendant’s mental state. Many detractors worry moving blame to biology will result in dangerous criminals being exculpated—the “It wasn’t me, it was my brain” defense. Yet the shift is already in motion outside of the courtroom. Most of us believe that diseases such as depression, schizophrenia, and epilepsy have a neurological basis, and that factors such as genes make some of us more susceptible to risky behavioral patterns, such as drug addiction. Similarly, most of us intuitively feel that an Alzheimer’s patient that shoplifts is somehow less guilty of the crime, or that a mentally disabled person who murders should not be sent to prison. How is a legal system that rests on volition and culpability going to address this shifting locus of responsibility?

Eagleman attacks the question head-on:

The heart of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology and to what extent was it him?” The question no longer makes sense because we now understand those to be the same thing. There is no meaningful distinction between his biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.

He seeks not to revise the definition of blameworthiness but to remove the concept from jurisprudence altogether. It is true that the more we understand about brain circuitry, the more concepts like indulgence, discipline, and motivation can be explained by biology. It’s also true that if there is a measurable brain problem—such as the case in which a man committed murders due to neurological changes brought on by a brain tumor—the defendant is viewed as less blameworthy. However, a system of jurisprudence in which blame is based upon the state of current technology is not on stable footing; rather than adjusting the definition of blame to suit shifting technology, perhaps we should eschew blame altogether. “Blameworthiness,” Eagleman writes, “is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.” Instead, he hopes that we can leverage findings in neuroscience to better structure the way we punish, ultimately replacing the notion of retribution with either rehabilitation when possible or humane incapacitation when not.

Almost all of the ideas in Eagleman’s book are well-articulated and entertaining, elucidated with the intelligent, casual tone of an enthusiastic university lecturer. However, it’s important to note that, like a lecture, Eagleman’s book does not constitute—nor claim to constitute—original thinking. He has curated examples from the world of modern neuroscience in support of ideas already explored by writers such as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hoftstadter, or biologists such as Gerald Edelman, packaging them into a highly accessible and energetic work of popular science. Eagleman’s book is rooted firmly in the tradition of scientist-as-explainer, along the lines of Brian Greene’s efforts to bring string theory to a lay audience in The Elegant Universe, or Daniel Levitin’s elucidation of the neuroscience of music in This Is Your Brain On Music.

While we are left, at the end of the book, with the disturbing sensation of wondering who, exactly, it is we are looking at when we look in the mirror, Eagleman assures us that this latest act of dethronement does not leave us disconsolately adrift. Just as astronomy’s revolution invited us to contemplate the gorgeous, vast expanses of the universe, a better understanding of the human brain “tends to open up something bigger than us, ideas more wonderful than we had originally imagined.” Neuroscience can’t weigh in yet on whether or not we house an extrabiological soul, but even if how mind emerges from brain is one day completely described by the laws of classical physics, the threads of causality will be so tangled as to only offer partial insight. So while it is disquieting to ponder the fact that the conscious mind, unaware of the incomprehensible dynamics of multiple neural subsystems blithely chugging away, may be left merely to superimpose meaning on our actions and choices, there is indeed beauty and comfort in knowing that we contain the unknowable.

The Soul of Science: Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality

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Midway through his new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, Brian Greene pauses to consider what he calls “the soul of science.” That phrase (also a chapter subheading) is the clearest signal yet that this is no ordinary work of popular physics. It is, of course, an extraordinary example of that genre, thanks to the detailed analogies, careful contextualizing, and friendly, encouraging voice that Greene is known for. But The Hidden Reality, we begin to realize, is also a manifesto for a particular conception of science—one in which the possibility of other universes is worth investigating to the fullest, even if we can never experimentally detect, let alone visit, those realms. Not everyone agrees, to put it mildly.

Up to this point in the book, Greene’s been showing us why the existence of multiple universes is anything but wild speculation. Over decades, researchers in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, and superstrings have repeatedly found their calculations pointing toward a perhaps infinite number of universes. The “multiverse” comes in a variety of configurations, depending on how one arrives at it. Assuming our own universe is infinite, for example, gives us the “Quilted Multiverse,” as conditions in an infinite space-time expanse will inevitably repeat themselves. The “Inflationary Multiverse” posits an eternally expanding universe, which in turn produces an infinite network of “bubble” universes. The “Brane Multiverse,” derived from string theory, suggests our universe exists on a three-dimensional “membrane,” one of many occupying a higher-dimensional expanse. The “Landscape Multiverse” combines string theory and inflation to give us bubble universes in many dimensions. There are other versions, each more jaw-dropping than the last. The “Holographic Multiverse,” in which worlds are, essentially, projections of fundamental laws existing elsewhere, is probably the most unsettling. The Matrix (though, one hopes, in a less gruesome form) might just be real.

“Might,” however, is the operative word. As of now, there’s no experimental confirmation for any of these propositions. In fact, direct confirmation of some aspects may never be possible. Yet the mathematics tells us (or tells Greene, who tells us) that this mind-blowing notion is likely to be true. All of which leads to a fundamental question: “Is this science?” Attempts to come to an answer have turned the multiverse into “a battleground for the very soul of science.”

Is it scientifically justifiable to speak of a multiverse, an approach that invokes realms inaccessible not just in practice but, in many cases, even in principle? Is the notion of a multiverse testable or falsifiable? Can invoking a multiverse provide explanatory power of which we’d otherwise be deprived?

If the answer to these questions is no, as detractors insist is the case, then multiverse proponents are assuming an unusual stance. Nontestable, nonfalsifiable proposals, invoking hidden realms beyond our capacity to access – these seem a far cry from what most of us would call science. And therein lies the spark that makes passions flare.

Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia, is well versed in defending the scientific pursuit of the inaccessible. He is an influential contributor to string theory, a vastly ambitious attempt to find a unified explanation of the cosmos; The Hidden Reality includes a helpful overview of the theory’s progress according to various measures. Mathematically, it has succeeded in bringing together the previously inimical theories of relativity (which governs the very large, e.g. stars and galaxies) and quantum mechanics (whose purview is the very small, e.g. quarks and gluons). But in its 30-some years of existence—including the 12 years since Greene’s bestselling first book on the subject, The Elegant Universe—string theory has yet to yield a prediction that can be tested experimentally. This may well change with the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which has had some famous problems of its own, but some predictions will still lie beyond its capacity. That’s why many scientists have come out vociferously against string theory, and the multiverse(s) to which it gives rise—going so far as to compare the theory to a religion.

Greene spends the rest of the central chapter answering specific objections to the multiverse as legitimate science. However, his overall point, here and throughout the book, is that you never know where the pursuit of any mystery is going to take you. “[Q]uestions aren’t floating in some preexisting realm in which the role of science is to pick them off one by one. Instead, today’s questions are very often shaped by yesterday’s insights. Breakthroughs generally answer some questions but then give rise to a host of others that previously could not even have been imagined.” In other words, questions—all kinds of questions—are good. Questions that beget more questions, especially about the nature of science itself, are even better. If this isn’t science, Greene seems to say, I don’t want to be a scientist.

Still, it’s audacious to invoke a “soul” to make this particular case. In doing so, Greene is obviously tweaking those who call his approach religious. He’s confident enough in his own view of science’s mandate—to follow mysteries wherever they may lead—that he can borrow an especially nebulous religious term to characterize it. As a scientist he rejects the substitution of faith for rigorous method, the hallmark of religion in general; but his use of “soul” is not merely ironic. Rather, he’s reminding us that science is first and last a human endeavor. And the most human endeavors of all are those in which our reach exceeds our grasp.

Let me now say that by this definition, I am being very human in undertaking this review. Though I’m enthralled by the many possible multiverses Greene describes, as I believe you will be, I have nowhere near the training to evaluate their scientific merits. I’m a writer, reader, and erstwhile scholar of literature—what is sometimes called a humanist. But this does qualify me, I think, to state that the humanity of The Hidden Reality is its most compelling aspect.

In his 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene describes a game he and his father played when he was little:
One of us would look around, secretly fix on something that was happening—a bus rushing by, a pigeon landing on a windowsill, a man accidentally dropping a coin—and describe how it would look from an unusual perspective such as the wheel of the bus, the pigeon in flight, or the quarter falling earthward. The challenge was to take an unfamiliar description like “I’m walking on a dark, cylindrical surface surrounded by low, textured walls, and an unruly bunch of thick white tendrils is descending from the sky,” and figure out that it was the view of an ant walking on a hot dog that a street vendor was garnishing with sauerkraut.
What a great game this is to play with a kid—or an adult, for that matter. It obviously affected Greene profoundly, encouraging him to consider the everyday world from radically different perspectives. It also, I suspect, helped make him a writer. The challenge he undertakes in all his books is to explain something very familiar to him—string theory, the probable existence of other universes—to someone completely unfamiliar with those concepts. It even seems to me (all right, this is a leap) that the voice in these books is some version of the father’s voice in this game. It’s enthusiastic, often playful, encouraging, and never condescending. It’s the way Greene was introduced to scientific thinking, and he wants us, whatever our age or background, to have that same experience.

Greene never forgets that as writer and reader, we are in this thing together. In The Hidden Reality, he makes frequent asides like this one (regarding string theory’s many-dimensional “braneworld”): “You may find it difficult to picture this. I certainly do.” Or: “I’ll now explain [the] final step, but in case you’re reaching saturation and just want the punch line, here’s a three-sentence summary.” This is not just a scientist explaining complicated ideas to a lay person, but a human being talking to another, through the rather marvelous medium of the printed word. It’s true that humans are limited; we get tired and confused, and our minds are hopelessly mired in three dimensions. Yet by considering these theoretical accounts of parallel universes, we prove to ourselves that, like our universe, we’re not as limited as we might think.

It may turn out that the multiverse is the true story of reality. But if it’s proven wrong, or its realms are permanently inaccessible, it may be a species of fiction. Still, let’s not call it “mere” fiction. As humanists know, great fiction builds new worlds that help us ask new questions. It shakes us up, making us rethink the world we build for ourselves every day—which is to say, our assumptions. It makes us pause, not because we’ve reached saturation, but in wonder.

Tuesday New Release Day: Vonnegut, Salinger, Crime-Fighting Victorian Women, and More


Lots of new books out this week: Where Mortals Sleep, previously unpublished short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut, with a foreword by Dave Eggers; A Life, one of what will be several biographies of J.D. Salinger arriving over the next couple of years; Stanley Fish tells us How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One; Brian Greene introduced the masses to string theory with The Elegant Universe, and now he’s back with The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos; Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge is out in paperback; and finally, from Penguin Classics, The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes from the Time of Sherlock Holmes.

Ask a Book Question: The 34th in a Series (Literary Science)


Brian sent me an email asking if we could recommend some books:I’ve been wanting to read some science books lately, anything from pop-science Oliver Sacks type stuff, to the more esoteric… from astronomy to geology to bird-watching to physics, etc… I just don’t know where to start. You have any suggestions?Oliver Sacks is a good author to start with, but there are a lot of other readable science books out there. One of my favorites is Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, which shows how the earth’s geography can explain why civilizations arose where they did. Diamond’s brand new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is getting good reviews, too. John McPhee also has some books that might work for you. Annals of the Former World is a 700 page layman’s guide to the geology of the United States and The Control of Nature is a collection of essays about man’s attempts to tame and make use of natural resources. Brian Greene’s bestseller about string theory, The Elegant Universe rather painlessly delivers complex physics, and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire explains how plants have evolved to use us as much as we use them creating a counter-intuitive symbiotic relationship. Beyond those you can’t go wrong with Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Edward O. Wilson. If please anyone else has suggestions, leave a comment.

I’m Back


I’ve been a bit under the weather lately, but I think I’m starting to get better. I’m well enough to post here anyway. Which is good, because I noticed a couple of books that I thought people might be interested in. Remember a few years ago when everyone was suddenly talking about “string theory?” This was because of a book by Brian Greene called The Elegant Universe, which somehow managed to solve a longstanding dilemma in the world of physics, that “general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” in a book readable enough to become a best seller. Greene proved to be one of those remarkable writers, of which there are very few, who have the ability to make a very boring and difficult topic interesting for everyone. And now he has a new book out: The Fabric of the Cosmos : Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, in which he continues to unwind scientific complexities with a combination of analogy and wit.My friend Edan pointed out another interesting, new book to me other day. Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution by the remarkably named, Alma Guillermoprieto. Edan and I both read an excerpt of this book in the New Yorker a while back. I enjoyed the way Guillermoprieto’s fierce Latin personality was tempered by her lyrical love of dance. This book seems perfect for anyone enamored by ballet and/or Cuba.A NoteFrom the book I just finished: “From his windows at MacGregor Road, he watched the President Polk leave the harbour. He knew nothing of President Polk, but assumed that the shipping company would have checked the record, beforehand, for anything scandalous. Then he did miss Audrey, with whom he could have spoken of such things.”

Surprise Me!