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What an enthralling and amazing book!
on 17 July 2002
The Science of Diskworld II: The Globe
What an enthralling and amazing book! My overall reaction is an incredible jealousy for the writing skills that allow the authors expound such deep understanding of the strengths and foibles of both physics and neuropsychobiology in such an accessible way. In my own way, paltry compared to their powers of exposition, I have been attempting to communicate the same information to my graduate students. I bow my head to them in respect for their ability to display and annihilate some of the myths of science without denigrating science.
The art of teaching is to capture the attention of the student, not, as some believe, to anesthetize them with droning recitation that at best transfers information from the notebook of the professor to the laptop of the student without passing through the brain of either. Pratchett, Stewart, and Cohen achieve their goal by contrasting our world with one that runs on magic (Pratchett's Diskworld series), a series with which the authors expect familiarity. If you do not have this familiarity, you have a treat in store. However, the alternate chapters that deal with the underlying science are well worth reading by themselves. The explain the science clearly and punctuate the exposition with hilarious one liners whose meaning
only deepens upon further introspection.
"We are proud we live in the Information Age. We do, and that is the trouble. If we ever get to the Meaning Age, we'll finally understand where we went wrong."
"Technology isn't science. The two are closely associated: technology helps advance science and science helps to advance technology. Technology is about making things work without understanding them; science is about understanding things without making them work." (This is a point that even the leaders of the American Optical Society failed to grasp a few years ago when they tried, mercifully unsuccessfully, to merge an Optical science society with an optics technology society.)
"Many elderly scientists go through what is sometimes called a 'philosopause'. They stop doing science and take up not very good philosophy instead." (Do I need to name names?)
On a different level, leaving aside the one-liners, the book presents a most accessible and cogent description of the human condition, emphasizing the role of pattern recognition and 'stories' in the daily affairs of man, concepts supported by the body of recent research in the neurosciences. Convincing examples from politics, religion, and social customs abound. Stories/patterns are what permit us to extrapolate into the future from present events.
The book concludes with: "The [stories] we've got have brought us a long way. Plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories. That's us Pan narrans. And what about Homo sapiens? Yes, we think that would be a very good idea ..."
To which I can only add, Amen, and urge you to read the book and allow yourself to be entertained while novel ideas infiltrate your mind.
Thomas P. Vogl, Ph.D. , 7/17/2002