A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life (****)
There are three big questions out there --
* Where did the Universe come from?
* How life started?
* How Consciousness work?
This book explores the history of the second question. Some people call this the missing first chapter in Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin described the process that can build the entire world of living things out of a few very simple living cells, but he didn't have much to say about how the earliest living things came into being. Since then this question plagued many thinkers and scientists, and in spite of great progress, we have not been able to resolve the question.
The book describes the fascinating details of the progresses we have made so far. Like most questions in science, the path was checkered with mistakes, wrong directions, and some big leaps.
It is still an open question. In fact we don't even know whether we can ever find a definite answer about what exactly happened billions of years ago on our planet. Scientists are fairly certain they will be able to show how it could have happened, but we may never know if that is the only way it could have happened. A laboratory experiment may never be able to reproduce what may have taken a billion year to unfold on early earth.
However, one thing for sure, life came about as a natural physical process, and not through any kind of supernatural act.
Girl, Woman, Other (***)
This book had every promise to become a great book, but perhaps my expectations were too high, but in the end it failed to live up to my expectations. The characters and situations look a little too manufactured. The statements too often sounds life a manifesto. Ultimately, it all sounded too contrived to rank as great literature that a Booker selection automatically imply. I wish I could enjoy it more.
The Creativity Code: How AI Is Learning to Write, Paint and Think (*****)
du Sautoy, Marcus
Back in the 1980s I did my PhD in a sub domain of Artificial Intelligence called Machine Learning. Little did I know then that some day it will be much more than an academic curiosity, and there will be billion dollar industries based on it, and people will make lucratively profitable careers practicing it. Now it is almost impossible to find a company that does not claim that they use Machine Learning in their products, even though those claims are too often little more than marketing hypes.
As a result of its spectacular rise, Machine Learning is now a buzzword that everyone likes to use, and most people believe that they know what it is and what it can do. But these popular notions are shrouded in myths and misconceptions. There are now dozens of books that try to explain this technology to ordinary people, but I am yet to see another book that explains the technology better than this book.
However, this is much more than a what-is-machine-learning book. It goes deep into trying to define what we mean by creativity, and then try to show examples where this technology has produced artifacts that we would have called creative if they were created by humans. It is a profoundly thought provoking book, that should be appealing to anyone who is curious about creativity, art, beauty in mathematics, limits of computing, consciousness, and about the near future.
The Secrets of Consciousness (***)
What could have been a wonderful collection of essays on a topic that I am most curious about, it was marred by two small faults, once caused by the editors, and another by myself.
All the essays here are about the broad issue of consciousness, but only seen from a scientific perspective. They were collected from published articles in Scientific American and their special publication called Mind. As a problem and as a mystery Consciousness is as old as human written records. Philosophers pondered about this problem from the earliest days of history, in all the cultures of the world. However all their brilliant efforts did not bring the problem any closer to our understanding. They asked all the right questions, and structured what needs to be asked in beautiful ways, but we were no closer to saying anything about why consciousness evolved, how a lump of flesh makes it manifest, or even what exactly is this thing that we call consciousness.
However, in the last few decades, since people started probing it using the tools of science, the puzzle started to yield slowly. We are far away from a complete theory, but there are a few potential rudimentary candidates. We are understanding some properties of it, we are discovering which parts of the brain are potentially involved in creating this sense of self, and even some possible explanations of why we have such a thing in the first place.
This collection contain essays written by some of the people who are working in the forefront of this effort. There are stimulating arguments and great debates. There are descriptions of beautifully constructed experiments and eye opening results. It gives one a sideline view of what could be the most interesting research we have ever done.
Now back to its defects. The first problem is that the editors mixed up in-depth article with little fact snippets that are often published in the magazine to highlight scientific news. This can be a little jarring as the tone of the two pieces are so very different. I personally feel they could have left out the short pieces altogether, but perhaps could not avoid the temptation to expand the size of the collection.
The second problem was that while picking up the book I did not pay attention to its publication date. These essays were written between 2005 and 2015. That is, the latest pieces are also six years old. For a subject that is moving so rapidly, that is a very long time. As a reader I was keen on knowing the state of the art, but this book left me significantly hungry. This is obviously not the the fault of the book or the editors, but mine alone. It felt like I was watching an exciting game, but before the game was over the TV was turned off. Now I am dying to know the latest score.
A Question of Time: The Ultimate Paradox (****)
A brilliant collection of scientific essays on Time, that covers a wide range of perspectives, from biology to physics. The most interesting of these are the ones that are about how Time fits into physics. Time, as a concept and as a physical quantity, always baffled scientists, especially since Einstein started questioning the absolute sense of time and simultaneity. The debates have become more intense as some physicists started questioning the very existence of it as a fundamental entity.
There are may excellent books on this subject. One book that stands out is Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time, for its philosophical and poetic depth. However, most of them, including Rovelli's, is written from the perspective of one physicist, reflecting that individual's view of Time. This book is distinct in that sense, since it is written by various physicists, looking at the problem from many different and opposing perspectives. I have not come across a better coverage of this complex and enigmatic topic.
We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence (****)
This is one of the best interview collection I have read. The author interviewed a large number of scientists from all aspects of science, including some of the biggest names. They are not superficial interviews, but goes deep into the essence of their respective areas of specialization. Though the interviews are independent and self-standing, there is an underlying philosophical thread that connects them together and raises some deep questions.
First Love (***)
It started with the a flavor of Dostoyevsky-like universality and depth, but gradually it diluted away. Still, it brings back all the emotional confusion and spectrum of our first loves -- those exciting times...
Complexity and Chaos (****)
Here's an excellent monograph about a fascinating topic. The subjects of non-linear systems, chaos theory, fractals and cellular automata, and self-organizing systems are clearly introduced and their connections explained. I am not fully convinced by some of their arguments about entropy and the arrow of time, but still it was brilliantly presented. A perfect introduction to this fascinating subject, but some scientific training would help to get the most out of this short book.
The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between (****)
Hisham Matar tells the story of his father, Jaballa Matar, a political dissident in Qaddafi's Libya. He was picked up from the streets of Cairo and ended up in one of the most notorious prisons in Libya, and vanished from there. It is the story of the son's search for his father and his encounters with his network of friends and family who faced torture and persecution in the hands of the regime. That itself is a gripping and touching story. But what makes the book even more remarkable is the way the story is told. His non-chronological narrative is mesmerizing without sounding pretentious. The language is poetic and touching without getting sentimental. A touching and unforgettable book.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (*****)
One of the best ethnographic book I have read. It opened my eyes to a number of truths --
a) That it is certainly possible to use anecdotal evidence to humanize a social problem, without diluting the scholarly rigor of statistical analysis. We need both in a balanced mix to truly understand any social problem.
b) The mechanism and social factors behind poverty may vary from society to society, from country to country, but at the core they are all the same. It is an infection that digs deep into every aspect of our self, and one cannot understand the effects of poverty without developing a deep respect for the conditions these people live in.
c) What seems like an insolvable problem, is actually entirely solvable for an affluent country like the USA. All we need is to learn from other first world countries that have tackled this issue, and even though they may not have been able to remove the root cause, they have been able to solve for the ugly effects of homelessness. But are we ready to accept housing as a fundamental right, and do we have the compassion to act on it?
Hamilton: The Revolution (***)
Perhaps reading this book would have been a little more meaningful after watching the play first, but haven't had a chance to do so yet. In spite of that, it was an interesting read. It is always interesting to read about any creative process, be it a scientific discovery, a novel, a film, or a painting. The process is always as unique as the final result, and yet one can see some similarities in the random path each creation travels through. At each moment there are many possibilities, and the creator makes a choice. In retrospect we tend to make them sound more deliberate and inevitable, but at that moment it could have gone in one of many directions.
The creation of Hamilton was complex, painstakingly detailed, brutal in its editing, and drawn over many years. Each scene, each dialog, each song, each character, each actor choice is analyzed, tested, reevaluated, and polished until it seemed perfect to the creators. All this is awe inspiring and makes us realize what it takes to create a perfect product.
However, that is what I have always felt about big productions in Broadway or in Hollywood -- in the end they create a "product". The process they use is so meticulous that it dries up all the poetry it may have started with. To me great art must feel a little spontaneous, inspired, and that often results in small imperfections. It is these imperfections through which we can get a glimpse of the artist behind it, with all her human fallibilities and vulnerabilities. Too much polish may make it a perfect product, a blockbuster, but something is lost in the process.
The Origins of Creativity (****)
Wilson, Edward O.
If I have to pick a single area of thought that have intrigued me the most, through my entire life, it is the apparent gap between humanities and the sciences. From my high school days I tried to find a bridge between the two, and I naturally gravitated towards anything that hinted at making such a connection. I always had a deep conviction that they are not two separate worlds, but manifestations of something this is common to them both, and I suspected that it could be the human propensity to be creative. However, I could not find much support for such ideas, and the gap between the two worlds kept getting wider.
During the last couple of decades I started to find many thinkers who have been promoting such ideas, and have made amazing intellectual progress. One such person is Edward Wilson. He is one of the strongest voice who have been trying to find a common thread between the two modes of thinking, and believes this is the only way both humanities and the sciences can make meaningful progress in the future. This is his most recent book on that subject.
Though a wonderful read, and full of amazing insights, I felt that the title is a little misleading. It talks about how human creativity could be the most defining characteristic of our species, and how it is at the root of both humanities and the sciences, and that our creative abilities can be traced back to our biology and our evolution. However, the title made me expect that he would go deeper into it, but he just touched upon it and then drifted away into other areas of evolutionary sociology, which are tremendously interesting, but not necessarily focused on the topic of creativity.
My biggest regret is that this type of bridge building is mostly happening from one side – from the scientists. There is practically zero interest among humanities practitioners to find any common ground, or even to develop any interest in the sciences. I don’t know if it is out of a defensive mechanism, or arrogance, or simple ignorance. Whatever it is, it got to change for either discipline to reach its full potential.
Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (*****)
Ever since I came to know of this book, I wanted to read it, and I finally did. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in the prehistory of the Indian subcontinent, and especially to all my friends who call it their birthplace. The book is particularly timely as the dominant political ideology in that area is trying to rewrite and reinterpret history to paint a picture of our identity that is not only deeply divisive and dangerous, but essentially incorrect.
Prehistory deals with the ancient past, where written records are unavailable. Therefore, the only way to reconstruct the story was to use indirect means such as archeological evidence, geological data, bits and pieces of cultural artifacts, linguistic clues. It is rather surprising how much of the story can be put together from such fragmented evidence. However, since the evidence is mostly indirect, the conclusions often does not look very solid, and remain open to various interpretations.
During the last decade another strong weapon has been added to this arsenal – genetic data. With our ability to read the genetic code of individual human beings, we can now trace many of the ancestry information by analyzing the genetic code of people. This lead to a much clearer view of the ancient migration patterns. Ideas such as the Out of Africa theory, that claims that all of the modern human population came originally out of a small region in Africa through multiple waves of migrations, is no longer just a speculative idea but an undisputable fact. The tool got further sharpened when similar analysis could be done on human remains that can be found through ancient archeological sites.
Tony Joseph has brought all the latest findings about the history of human population in this area, starting from the earliest migration out of Africa about 65,000 years ago, the establishment of the Harappan civilization, to the Aryan migration, all the way up to present day India. The book is extremely approachable, and he did a remarkable job of telling this complex story, that can be consumed by non-experts, but without diluting it so much that it loses its credibility. In fact, I have rarely read a book that can tackle such a complex subject with such clarity.
It also exposed some realities that are unpleasant, but must be accepted and confronted by everyone. Even though there is a lot of genetic evidence that the diverse population of India, that came from many different migration streams, were slowly getting homogenized over time, this process suddenly stopped around 200 AD. Since then, until now, we are a collection of large number of isolated populations who resist mixing. It is not hard to see the correlation between this genetic fact and the establishment of the caste system, that made further mixing of genes very difficult. Another disturbing fact is that while a large percentage of present day Indians carry the Y-chromosome markers from the Aryan stream, very little of that can be found in the mitochondrial DNA. The Y-chromosomal markers are passed from father to son, while the mitochondrial markers comes from the mother. This implies that the new Aryan influx was far more successful in the reproductive competition with the preexisting males. How that was achieved we will never know for sure, but we can perhaps imagine.
Of course this is a scientific study, and as in all matters of science, these conclusions will get modified over time. The important thing is the rational and scientific approach that this book describes will gradually take us closer to the truth.
The Queen's Gambit (***)
An immensely enjoyable book, and for predictable reasons. Who cannot enjoy the progressive successes of a black swan character, a female child prodigy growing up in an orphanage, and aspiring to become a chess champion, especially when she is constantly challenged by her inner demons. However, it does suffer from one weakness that is common to most books of this kind – it is too predictable, and too eager to please its readers.