Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch

This is a really interesting book to read, more as a phenomenon than the content. I can’t find a better way to describe the book than the feeling of listen to a drunken rant by a really brilliant person, and I mean that in a good way. It is like listening to a really upset person during a dinner who spins out of control. A lot does not really make sense, even more is just driven by anger and makes him lose focus. Particularly frustrating is that the anger makes him invent straw men of important issues like the precautionary principle (a very difficult and important issue) and then engage in emotional battles with them. But don’t let this scare you off.

You will have to suffer through the first two chapters and listen to an upset voice that is so frustrated with the religious fanatics in he US that he lost the ability to see nuances. At the same time it is easy to feel sympathy for David as he tries to fight the religious fanatics that arguably been the source of the most suffering though human history. At the same time I was hoping though the book that he should take a step back and say: “see how I now turned into the thing that I criticized, letting anger and frustration drive you will not create the open society we need. The fact that I don’t agree with someone is not a reason to simplify things.”.

After the two initial chapters discussing different kinds of ways of philosophy and ways to approach science (without much nuance as I said, but still important) he all of a sudden starts discussing Star trek. He almost lost me there as it felt bizarre to read someone, who was criticizing a lot of people in very important areas, all of a sudden take transporters in Star trek very serious. The funny thing is that it leads to the best description of quantum computing I have ever read. Only this part make the book worth reading.

It highlights that people who are not really capable of coherent thinking in many important areas can help move the knowledge in society forward. How can we allow these people to work, while at the same time keep an open and wise society where questions about education, environmental degradation, energy systems, democracy, etc can be discussed in an educated way?

After the chapter about quantum computing, where he demonstrate that he knows something really well and can describe it in a way that indicates many lectures and discussions in the filed, he falls back to the ranting again. This time however it is easier to read as it becomes that this is not a book that should be read as a contribution to any larger issues in society. This is a book that should be read to understand how really good scientists feel when their innovation and right to do what they want.

David is a smart guy, but not as smart as he thinks he is. He is like a more angry and less brilliant version of Richard Feynman, a person who also thought he was more clever than he was, but fun and while he could be arrogant he never came across as this angry to me. Beside the very good quantum computer description I think the book is best read as a call for a more humble approach for scientists. Scientists should take on the challenges in society, but I think it would help if those thought about the need for a dialogue and clearly state what their focus is.

Taking a step back I’m happy that David was published as so many of the books today are written by journalists/entertainers that don’t know the subject they write about (beyond google searches) and treat their audience as if they can’t read a sentence with more than ten words.

As he is so personal it would be interesting to know next time what he is doing to help reduce global poverty, develop solutions that 9-10 billion people can use, reduce natural resource consumption, increase dialogue between different cultures, address the threat of pandemics, demographic changes, etc. Is he a vegetarian, what car does he drive, what energy does he use? What are the choices he thinks are important?