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The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe Paperback – 6 Sep 2007
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'A witty examination of the ways in which so many of our beliefs about reality slip through our fingers when we attempt to seize them.' -- Sunday Times
'Anyone who thinks philosophy boring should try Michael Frayn, a novelist and playwright, on the subject here. His sense of wonder...never leaves him and his prose shines throughout.' -- Sunday Telegraph
'Crackles with humour, erudition and wisdom. In an age of increasing specialisation, his polymathy is a protean delight.' -- The Times
The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe is a fascinating search for an understanding of philosophy, cosmology, language and the big questions of life, from Michael Frayn, the award-winning author of Spies, Skios and Headlong.See all Product description
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The doubts began when he started to discuss how the discovery of imaginary numbers had subverted the Law of the Excluded Middle. Another reviewer has covered this point very clearly so I will not repeat the arguments here.
The book started well with considerations of cosmology, the laws of nature and causality. Soon, however, we are into rather arid territory looking at actions, motivation, words and language. The book did rally a little towards the end. I woke up briefly for the section on dreaming. I also felt he had an interesting perspective on the artificial intelligence debate.
My suspicion is that the author started with the laudable intention of making difficult subject matter accessible by adopting a chatty, conversational style. I'm afraid that I soon just found it rather hypnotic and soporific. I can understand why other reviewers gave up before reaching the end of the book. A terser style and a book of half the length may have been a better option.
In summary, it is a book which had so much potential and which had such ambitious aims. I'm sorry to say that it fell well short of my expectations.
He talks about "imaginary" numbers without seeming to realise that all numbers, even the so-called "real" numbers are imaginary. And despite the erudition in his play "Copenhagen" I am suspicious that he doesn't really grasp the implications of The Uncertainty Principle.
My overriding thought as I read manfully on - (don't like not finishing books!) was - how long did it take? He obviously did a huge amount of research, carefully documented. So it took truck-loads of time that this massively talented author could have devoted to another "Headlong" - or to editing collections of his hilarious short pieces from the Observer in the 60's.
I bought it after reading a positive review of it in the Sunday Times. According to the review, the book is about philosophy and cosmology (among other things) - two areas in which I am interested. And the book does cover all these things - but in a ploddingly slow, ponderous, repetitive way. Frayn knows his stuff but he exemplifies each point in painful detail - page after page of ponderous, wordy examples.
Three hundred pages into the book I gave up. It has sent me to sleep one time too many. What could have been an interesting 200-page short read has been stretched into a 500 page cure for insomnia.
Pity, it touches on genuinely interesting topics.
Secondly, and much more damaging, is the author demonstrating CP Snow's two cultures: he's an artist and he really, really, fails to understand basic points from the sciences. I read sentences in this book that I thought he'd come back to explain how wrong they were, but it appears they're written in all seriousness. If you do venture between the covers, I highly recommend reading more widely to get perspective from wiser authors, especially on subjects such as cosmology and fundamental physics.
I don't really know, even having read it very carefully, what the story is about, but I do know that it deals with important and difficult problems in a delightful way. He asks me: What do we know about the world? How do we know it? What does the act of knowing tell us about the world?
I think every young theorist - in any field whatever - should read this book. You will experience the lightest human touch - Frayn's touch - and find yourself given greater understanding about your insights and more insight into your understanding, and into its limitations.