the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
photo

As Far As Her Eyes Can See

written December 2011 | comments (4)

A review of Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Ecco, 2011).

LISA RANDALL HAS BEEN JUSTLY APPRAISED by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world” for her work in theoretical particle physics. From her position at Harvard University, she often travels: to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN, in Switzerland, where her theories are being put to the test in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC); to speaking engagements with professional and public audiences about her work in particular and the awe and wonder of science in general; and to rock formations where her chalked fingers can find ways to defy gravity. On the side, she writes popular books, such as her acclaimed Warped Passages1.

In Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Randall picks up the story from where she left off when the LHC was years away from first collision, expanding her horizon from, as she poetically puts it, “what’s so small to you is so large to me” to “what’s so large to you is so small to me.” In other words, the book ranges from the smallest known particles to the entire bubble universe, from 10−35 meters (the Planck length, where quantum gravity rules) to 1027 meters (the entire visible universe, 100 billion light-years across, where dark matter and dark energy dominate), a stunning 62 orders of magnitude. (Randall correctly notes the age of the universe at 13.75 billion years, clarifying her apparently paradoxical figure of 100 billion light-years thusly: “The reason the universe as a whole is bigger than the distance a signal could have traveled given its age is that space itself has expanded.” She unpacks that sentence in the book.) (continue reading…)

topics in this review: , , , , ,

Faith Healing

written February 2008 | comments (4)
A torrid tale of quackbusting in 1920s America
sheds light on modern medical scares
book cover

A review of Pope Brock’s Charlatan. America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.

Human cognition has a problem — anecdotal thinking comes naturally whereas scientific thinking does not. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism illustrates this barrier. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine’s ingredients. On the other are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms appeared. (continue reading…)

topics in this review: , , , , ,

The Einstein Enigma

written May 2007 | comments (3)
book cover

A review of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe.

In the final weeks of his life Albert Einstein learned of the death of his old physicist friend Michele Besso from his Zurich student days six decades before. “He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote to the Besso family. “That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.”

What did Einstein mean by “us believing physicists”? Did he mean belief in the models of theoretical physics that make no distinction between past, present, and future? Did he mean belief in some impersonal force that exists above such time constraints? Was he just being polite and consoling? Who knows? Such is the enigma of the most well-known scientist in history whose fame was such that nearly everything he wrote or said was scrutinized for its meaning and import; thus, it is easy to yank such quotes out of context and spin them in any direction one desires. Without a rich personal context in which to situate Einstein’s thoughts and theories it is hard to know for sure how to nuance his words. Until now. (continue reading…)

topics in this review: , , , , ,

Arguing for Atheism

written January 2007 | comments (2)
book cover

A review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (Bantam Books, 2006, ISBN 0618680004). This review was originally published in Science, January 26, 2007.

There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me … that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?

Such stirring words, spoken with such moral conviction, must surely come from an outraged liberal exasperated with the conservative climate of America today, and one can be forgiven for thinking that in a review of The God Delusion these are the words of Richard Dawkins himself, who is well known for not suffering religious fools gladly. But no. They were entered into the Congressional Record on 16 September 1981, by none other than Senator Barry Goldwater, the fountainhead of the modern conservative movement, the man whose failed 1964 run for the presidency was said to have been fulfilled in 1980 by Ronald Reagan, and the candidate whose campaign slogan was “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” (continue reading…)

topics in this review: , , , , , , ,

Deities for Atheists

written March 2006 | comments (2)
book cover

A review of George Basalla’s Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials.

On February 8, 2000, the New York Times science section featured a newly published book, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe1 by the paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee, (continue reading…)

topics in this review: , , , , ,
next page »