The Very Ordinary Person’s Grasp of Stephen Hawking

I am somewhat amazed that ‘The Grand Design’ was a bestseller in Amazon within days of being printed because…I find it hard to believe so many people understand it.

(of course, that feeling might be pique at being one of the minority who didn’t get the theories he expounded on in his previous book. i was pretty hopeless at string theory too when i studied mathematics.)

Title of Book: The Grand Design

Author(s): Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow


[Take Amazon’s word for it because I certainly cannot summarize this. Wait, apparently, no editor at Amazon understood the book either because Hawking himself wrote the editorial review, part of which I quote here.]

“In The Grand Design we explain why, according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously. We question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a “model-dependent” theory of reality. We discuss how the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence, and show why quantum theory predicts the multiverse–the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature. And we assess M-Theory, an explanation of the laws governing the multiverse, and the only viable candidate for a complete “theory of everything.”

The book generated a fair amount of controversy because Continue reading

freakonomics and the not-so-superfreakonomics

(or why is a blogger different from a researcher?)

I liked Freakonomics. Like. Levitt and Dubner seemed to be part of a make-the-social-sciences-accessible-to-all movement (besides these books, see the Undercover Economist, The Tipping Point etc.) and were definitely one of the most creative.

I like the quirky questions that they asked (why do drug dealers stay with the mothers?), the insightful ways to interpret data (see the chapter on cheating teachers), the interactivity in the book (see the chapter on trends in baby first names). By stripping away the jargon, these books foregrounds the humans in humanities.

So, I bought Superfreakonomics without even browsing through it.

And promptly regretted my $29.95 when I read it.

Synopsis: ‘Rogue’ economist Levitt and journalist Dubner continued to examine unusual questions using the economics approach. Among the questions are – how is a street prostitute like a department store Santa? What caused the 1960s crime explosion? Why should terrorists buy life insurance?. Although these seem rather random, there is an underlying unifying theme that is the same as the underlying assumption in economics. In their own words, that theme is- people respond to incentives.

I think what bothered me about the sequel was that it felt Continue reading

the symbol of a symbol

19 people dying might not seem like a lot compared to the thousands who had died in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but when they are aid workers/unarmed activists, they take on a new significance. If civilians on either side die, there is little ripple on the news media – the victims are culpable because they are on a side, because they voted for Hamas or Netanyahu, because they happened to be born there and they didn’t get out etc.  With outside humanitarian aid workers, even allies feel obliged to condemn the attack. I find it someone ironic that the innocent, so to speak, can only be represented by the outside, otherwise, death becomes another day in a troubled region.

I am reminded of one session in Mainland SEA class where the topic of discussion moved to Aung San Suu Kyi and Dr. I posed the question “What if she wasn’t female? Would she have the same impact?” I thought it is interesting that gender – and in this case, its connotations of gentleness, innocence and being nurturing – plays a part in building someone who portrays hope more as a symbol than of concrete action.

Everyone matters but some people matter more than others because they represent more than just one individual.

My sister comments on the foolishness of executing the strike in international waters; why not wait until they enter non-neutral waters. To me, it is more alarming that foolish because it shows an indifference to world opinion that only the very secure can adopt. (To carry on the Burma parallel, it was just like the way the military junta treats its dissidents, they can behave with impunity because they are in an unassailable position.) Only people who are confident can sound angry that they are even being questioned on their ‘right to defend themselves from the evil Iranians and Hamas’ in the media. World leaders, nations all over the world will make a lot of noise and then look away. When you can afford to ignore the symbolic significance of an action, I think its a sign of arrogant strength.