Tuesday, February 7, 2017

"Now" for a Book Blurb

In my 2016 end-of-year book wrap-up I briefly mentioned that Richard Muller’s book, “Now” (focusing on the nature of time and entropy) was one popular physics book I was looking forward to reading. I’ve now read it, and generally do recommend it (finding it less inscrutable and more satisfying than most popular physics books)… but with a caveat. While the volume has had mostly positive reviews there have been a few negative ones that are often put off by a couple of chapters near the end of Dr. Muller’s book. Muller is known as a rather independent thinker with a gadfly streak, and toward the end includes significant discussion that some will find too metaphysical (almost supernatural). I actually enjoyed seeing a physicist’s take on such matters, but some won’t. He is especially skeptical of “physicalism,” the approach most physicists take to scientific study; i.e. that everything is ultimately explainable in terms of “physical” elements that we do or can eventually understand. 
One of the examples he uses over and over of something we simply don’t understand is what it means to “see” the color “blue,” nor do we know if other people see (inside their brains/minds) blue the same way we see it. This is one of those profound questions that many children ask (and never receive an adequate answer), and you either get what he means by the query or you don’t. Philosophers have long discussed it at length, with no resolution. He also dives into a long discussion of free will, and why he views it as incompatible with "determinism" (some don't), again a topic too philosophical for many. 
One can get even more abstract by asking what does it mean to feel “wonder,” or “awe,” or “love,” and if these are nothing more than neurons firing in certain patterns (as many would say), then can we construct robots that experience these “feelings.” Also, long amazing to me, as someone with an interest in psycholinguistics, is our lack of real understanding of how everyday speech is either produced or processed, even though all normal humans do it effortlessly. Anyway, I’m going far astray from the discussion Muller has, just as a way of saying I’m not put off by seeing a physicist talk about things he finds inexplicable within a “scientific” framework. But yes, the chapters do stick out a bit awkwardly in an otherwise empirical look at some of the deepest questions faced by physics theorists today.
For an actual review of the volume see here:
…and here, an excerpt from the book:

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