Cycles of Time – An Extraordinary New View of the Universe: Roger Penrose 2010

Cycles of Time

I thoroughly enjoyed the book “Life on the Edge”, by McFadden and Al-Khalili. I especially enjoyed renewing my amateur relationship with Quantum Physics. I therefore decided to choose another science book, and selected “Cycles of Time” by world renown physicist Roger Penrose.

Penrose is a brilliant scientist, and has made very significant contributions to both physics and cosmology, having worked closely with modern pioneers such as Stephen Hawking.

I must confess, however, that I struggled terribly at times to comprehend and appreciate the science which Penrose was presenting. Whereas “Life on the Edge” was clearly written for the layman science enthusiast, “Cycles of Time” took a much more scientifically rigorous approach. Penrose invested many pages and much effort to both explain and mathematically defend his hypotheses. Optimistically, I may have been able to both understand and appreciate this approach 30+ years ago, when both my physics and math skills were at their peak. Presently, I simply found myself overwhelmed and overburdened trying to struggle through difficult and rather dry mathematical analyses.

I found this rather unfortunate, because at its core, Penrose actually was exploring some very interesting concepts and presenting some leading edge insights into the current theories of both the origin of our universe and its likely demise.

Fundamental to the book, serving as almost the heartbeat of the scientific narrative, is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which basically states that entropy always increases. Entropy is a measure of order of a system.

Penrose did a good job of introducing the concept of entropy, by using a bucket containing red and blue paint. Initially, the red and blue paint are separate and distinct, but stirring the paint will result on the mixing of the red and blue paint, the result being a mixture of pigments which will appear purple. Why can’t the paint be “unstirred?” It is the Second Law of Thermodynamics which requires that entropy flows naturally only from order (red and blue) to disorder (purple). Yes, the purple paint could theoretically be separated or sorted. However, this would require energy input, which would effectively mean that by decreasing the entropy of the paint (increasing the order by sorting the paint molecules into red and blue), the total entropy of the system, which would include the source of energy such as hydrocarbon fuel employed to sort the paint, would still have a net increase. The decreased entropy of the red and blue paint would be accompanied by an increase in entropy of the energy source(s), resulting in an overall increase in system entropy.

Penrose uses the Second Law of Thermodynamics to visit the origin of the universe, and to propose an alternate to the “Big Bang” theory. He also explores the end of the universe, as the total entropy of the universe becomes totally disordered as black holes, the greatest source of entropy in the universe, evaporate through “Hawking” radiation.

I persevered through the entire book, but at times I did skim and skip through some of the most technically challenging sections. I frequently found myself academically inadequate to fully understand and appreciate Penrose’s scientific concepts and explanations.

I regretfully cannot recommend “Cycles of Time” to any armchair science enthusiasts. Readers who have a high degree of physics and mathematical literacy will probably enjoy this book, but I doubt that any of these science experts follow my humble blog posts.

Frank T.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology: McFadden & Al-Khalili 2014


Life on the Edge Quantum Biology

I have long had an amateur interest in physics, and in the past couple of years I have read several excellent books on recent developments in Modern Physics, including Relativistic Mechanics (the study of the very large) and Quantum Mechanics (the study of the very small).

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to come across a newly released book “Life on the Edge”, by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim al-Khalili. Though the book is copyright 2014, it was just released on 28 July 2015 in both hardcopy and e-book formats.

Though it has been more than 30 years since I studied physics in university, I have periodically refreshed my basic physics knowledge by reading a variety of relevant books and articles on the subject. However, I have not been very diligent at refreshing my basic knowledge of biology. This book therefore represented a great opportunity for me to again visit Quantum Mechanics, and simultaneously reconnect with the science of Biology.

I believe that McFadden and Al-Khalili have jointly authored one of the most easily understood and engaging science books that I have come across. I was especially impressed by the innovative and patient way that they introduced and explained key concepts in Quantum Mechanics that quite frankly nearly defy explanation, easy or otherwise. Their explanation of Quantum Waves, in which a single quantum particle can exist at multiple locations simultaneously, and can exhibit wave characteristics, simultaneously passing through two slits (the classic two slit quantum experiment), and then interfere with itself to create an interference pattern, was simply fascinating. No less fascinating were the concepts of Quantum Tunneling, Quantum Spin including the ability of quantum particles to spin in two directions simultaneously, and “spooky” Quantum Entanglement.

McFadden and Al-Khalili were no less creative with their descriptions of the biological world. They open their book with an engaging story of the migration of a European Robin, using “magnetoreception” to detect the orientation of the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. They proceed to describe and explain key biological concepts such as DNA, RNA, proteins including collagen, enzymes (the engines of life), catalytic chemistry such as that performed by enzymes, cellular respiration and mitochondria, photosynthesis, etc. Each biological concept was patiently explained in precise but easy to digest (pun intended) language.

The authors then dig deeper into key biological activities such as photosynthesis, enzyme catalytic reactions, respiration, the biological process of smell, magnetoreception, genetic replication, and the operation of ion channels in neuron firing, and explained how each of these processes depends upon the unique features of quantum mechanics to function. Ample experimental evidence from this brand new area of Quantum Biological research is provided to support the assertions made by the authors.  Footnotes, endnotes, and a comprehensive index are provided for the serious scientifically minded reader or researcher.

The authors also explain how biological systems have evolved to create cellular environments which are conducive to coherent quantum mechanics. Today’s physicists are only able to experimentally demonstrate coherent quantum mechanics under very special laboratory conditions including temperatures very close to absolute zero, to prevent environmental “noise” from disrupting very sensitive quantum behavior and causing quantum particles to de-cohere back to their classical mechanical behavior. The biological world uses both “white noise” and “colored noise” resonant molecular vibrations to enable coherent quantum behavior at biology friendly temperatures.

This is a great example of physicists learning secrets from biology, which one day soon may enable amazing quantum computers with almost unimaginable computing power.

As noted by the authors, “the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman is credited with insisting that ‘what we can’t make, we don’t understand.’ By this definition, we do not understand life because we have not yet managed to make it.” After reading this book, I firmly believe that, thanks to cross-disciplinary scientific cooperation, we are closer than ever to truly understanding what is life and how it works.

The author’s love of scientific discovery, and deep belief in cross-disciplinary cooperation and sharing, shines through in this book. At times the book almost achieved a “techno-thriller” type of page-turning suspense. At other times, beautifully crafted descriptions of nature created a deep appreciation for the amazing natural world around us.

If you have any interest in science, I highly recommend this book. Don’t be intimidated by the exotic and brain-bending nature of Quantum Mechanics, or the incredible complexity of biological processes. McFadden and Al-Khalili are excellent and patient guides to host this amazing journey of discovery and understanding.

Frank T.

Physics for Future Presidents: Richard Muller 2008

Physics for Future Presidents

Physics for Future Presidents is a very interesting and entertaining book published in 2008 by Richard Muller. Muller wrote the book in the form of an educational primer addressed directly to a future president.

Muller opens with a quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “The trouble with most folks isn’t their ignorance. It’s knowin’ so many things that ain’t so.” Interestingly, to illustrate the aphorism itself, Muller points out that this famous quote is even from Twain. the quote is correctly attributed to Josh Billings, a humorist from the nineteenth century.

Muller covers a broad range of important physics concepts and principles which are valuable for rendering technically valid presidential decisions. He covers nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, fossil fuels, renewable fuels and solar energy, nuclear radiation and biological weapons, nuclear waste, space and satellites, human and robotic space exploration, global warming.

Muller also spends considerable time reviewing the scientific methodology for establishing and validating scientific facts and principals and differentiating these from opinions and  various forms of conjecture. He provides tools and insights to help the future president to identify various forms of propaganda such as distortions, exaggerations, cherry picked data, news bias, and misuse of statistics.

Muller carefully explains and debunks many myths and misconceptions, including concerns over radiation and the actual prevalence of various forms and concentrations of radiation to which humans are constantly exposed.

He closes the book with a summary of exciting new technologies including biofuels, clean coal, concentrated solar energy, safe nuclear technology, and various forms of renewable energy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am pleased to recommend it to anyone who has a general interest in science and scientific principles and methodology. You don’t need to be either a physicist or a presidential aspirant to enjoy and appreciate this book. This book will provide you with additional tools for your leadership and decision-making toolbox.

Frank T.

The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: Alex Epstein

Moral Case Fossil Fuels

I just completed a very interesting and provocative book, “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”, copyright 2014 by Alex Epstein.

Today’s society, especially western cultures, have paradoxically grown more tolerant of some types of diversity, and completely intolerant of other forms of diversity. We embrace a wide range of sexual preferences, same sex marriages, alternate lifestyles. However, if someone chooses to explore the possibility that the scientific theories and opinions which postulate man-caused global warming and climate change may be subject to alternate interpretations, they are promptly ostracized, labeled “science denier” or worse.

I believe in taking reasonable and responsible steps to minimize human impact on the environment. I also believe that it is both socially and economically wise to extract maximum value and utilization from every unit of energy which we consume. I proudly drive a Prius. I’m sure others can lay claim to more “green credentials”, but my family and I do seek to be responsible consumers of energy.

However, I also seek to understand the broad perspective of energy generation and utilization, and both the risks and benefits of our various energy options.

If you have an open mind, and want to significantly expand your knowledge and appreciation for the role fossil fuels have played in the development and sustainability of our society, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alex is not a science denier. He does not dispute that man has had impacts on the environment. However, as a philosopher, Alex applies a humanistic approach to evaluating risks and benefits. “What will promote human life? What will promote human flourishing – realizing the full potential of life? How do we maximize the years in our life and the life in our years?”

Environmental thinkers hold as their standard of value “pristine nature or wilderness – nature unaltered by man”. Alex holds “human life” as the standard of value. He observes that “fossil fuel use so far has been a moral choice because it has enabled billions of people to live longer and more fulfilling lives.”

Alex explains that fossil fuels have allowed us to create a “world that was not supposed to be possible”. He postulates that there is “nothing intrinsically wrong with transforming our environment – to the contrary, that’s our means of survival. But we do want to avoid transforming our environment in a way that harms us now or in the long term.”

The book is very well researched, and contains a wealth of objective scientific information on a wide range of environmental and energy related topics. At times the book is a bit repetitive. In his quest to comprehensively cover each of his points and arguments, he frequently repeats or reiterates key discussion topics.

“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” doesn’t propose that we give up our quest for practical renewable energy sources. Alex is a champion for continued technological development, increased energy efficiency, reduced emissions and environmental impact. However, he offers wise council that the continued responsible use of fossil fuels, including associated human transformation of our environment, is morally responsible and a rational solution to maximize human potential.

Frank T.