The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein

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Continuing my "Reread Heinlein" project. This is pretty minor, "for completists only": a collection of six works that didn't appear elsewhere. A 40¢ Ace paperback I picked up back in the mid-1960s. As I type, I notice someone's trying to get US $8.70 for their used copy on AbeBooks. E-mail me, I'll fix you up for slightly cheaper than that.

But if you find a copy of Expanded Universe, I think all the stories here are also there.

So these are mostly of historical interest:

"Pandora's Box" — an essay originally written for Galaxy magazine, appearing in 1952, about the world of the far future: 2000 AD. With an addendum RAH wrote for this volume. (Mid 1960s, remember.) Anyone wishing to write down their forecasts 50 years into the future would do well to read this, and see how badly some predictions can go embarassingly wrong. (He thought we'd all be cool with casual nudity in 2000. Unless I'm missing something, we weren't then, and aren't now.)

"Free Men" — a tale of Occupied America, kind of like Red Dawn, except with middle aged men instead of high school students. Faced with a comrade who wants out. Things do not go well.

"Blowups Happen" — imagine a single nuclear power plant, just barely stable, the slightest malfunction can send the entire planet into radioactive flinders. The operators invariably go crazy from the stress. What to do? Could a technical fix be found just in time?

"Searchlight" — Heinlein's last short story, so it says. A blind child musician's rocket crashes on the Moon! Can an ingenious method be devised to save her just in time?

"Life-Line" — the insufferable Hugo Pinero invents a gadget that can predict, infallibly, the date and time of anyone's death. Heinlein's first published short story. It doesn't end well for Hugo, but you can't say he didn't see it coming.

"Solution Unsatisfactory" — a pretty grim tale from 1941, imagining that WWII would be ended with the ultimate WMD: not the bomb, but radioactive "dust" that can quickly be spread over enemy population centers, killing anyone there, and rendering the area uninhabitable. The war ends when the "good guys" spread it over Berlin. But proliferation quickly becomes an issue, and the "solution" to that problem is, indeed unsatisfactory. Never thought I'd be grateful that we wound up with nuclear weaponry instead.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 1:00 PM EDT

Freely Determined

What the New Psychology of the Self Teaches Us About How to Live

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Putting my cards on the table: I'm a believer in what the philosophers call "libertarian" free will. And I use the term "believer" because (sigh) I don't have any solid knock-down evidence to throw up against the (so-called) "determinists".

Other than to say: "Hey, if you don't believe in free will, that's OK; that's your choice." And then walk away chuckling at this very cheap shot.

Bur I like to read on both sides of the issue, so when I noticed this book on the new nonfiction table at Portsmouth Public Library, I picked it up. It's by Ken Sheldon, psychology professor at the University of Missouri. It contains an interesting mix: there's a pro-free will argument, but—see the subtitle—there's also a strong component of self-help advice.

I used to think that belief in determinism was essentially one that had no effect on one's daily life. No matter how solid that belief, you still have to make decisions, from mundane ones (what shirt to wear, how much cream cheese to put on that bagel, …) to the life-altering ones (which career path to pursue, who/whether to marry, …). And (I thought) determinists pretty much go through the same mental processes that I do when making decisions. There's no avoiding it, is there? Net result is the same.

But Sheldon cites research that indicates otherwise: free will believers tend to be happier and healthier. (And more honest: one study had participants read a pro-determinism article, then take a math skills test. They were more likely to cheat on that test than the control group.) So even if free will doesn't exist, pilgrim, you're better off believing in it anyway.

Sheldon locates the seat of free will in the "symbolic self": "our sense of ourselves as self-aware agents living a story, playing our roles in the world, and deciding what to do and say next." He locates the symbolic self as an emergent property of human neurophysiology. Somewhat like "life" is an emergent property of plain old unliving molecules arranged into cells, organs, …. And (similar) human society and culture is an energent property of individual human interactions, its behavior unpredictable from knowledge of individuals.

And (to me) that makes sense. His strongest argument (I think) is what he calls "the grand hierarchy of human reality", which has causal arrows working both ways, up and down. (There's a nice diagram on page 45, which I'm too lazy to scan in. Trust me.)

A side discussion of interest, getting more relevant every day: what about AI? Could they exhibit free will? Sheldon says sure, why not. And speculates from there. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is referenced.

As mentioned, there's a strong component of self-help in the book, as indicated by the "how to live" in the subtitle. I admit I found that ("at my age") less interesting; Ken, if I haven't figured out "how to live" by now, it's unlikely to happen at all, sorry.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 1:00 PM EDT


The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

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I was a physics major in college (I suppose I need to keep repeating that for newcomers), but I fell off that holy path a few years later, finding myself more interested in playing with computers than I was in pursuing actual research. But I still enjoy reading "popular" science books every now and again, and this is one of the best: Richard Feynman's four-lecture series on quantum electrodynamics, QED. He won the Nobel (with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga) for his work in this field, so this book is as definitive as it gets.

QED sounds as if it might be obscure, but it's really all about … well, everything: the interplay of photons with matter. Which, for one big example, holds atoms together. (Where would we be without that? Nowhere, that's where.)

Feynman's lecturing style is wonderfully down-to-earth and colorful, with flashes of wry humor. There are videos out there. If that's your thing, check them out. He prefers pictures to math; eponymous "Feynman diagrams" eventually make their appearance, although I don't think he ever calls them that.

At one point he talks about multiplying amplitudes, represented by arrows: this involves (he says) a "shrink" (you multiply the lengths of the arrows, and they're less than one) and a "twist" (adding one arrow's angle to the other's).

And it took me (sadly) more than a few minutes to remember those old math and physics courses, and realize he's just multiplying two complex numbers represented in polar notation.

Feynman draws insightful lessons from something as simple as light reflecting off a glass plate. (Or an thin film of oil on water: see the cover.) He avoids the "easy" explanation of interfering light waves, noting you get the same effects if you crank the intensity of the light way down—this is quantum electrodynamics, after all—and only send one photon at a time. Somehow, that shiny little ball interferes with itself!

Well, see the subtitle: it's a strange theory. Here's what he tells his (civilian) audience in the first lecture:

What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school—and you think I'm going to explain it to you so you can understand it? No, you're not going to be able to understand it. Why, then, and I going to bother you with all this? Why are you going to sit here all this time, when you won't be able to understand what I'm going to say? It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does.

So don't worry about making sense out of QED; Feynman's describing the way it works, not why it works that way. Nobody knows why it works that "absurd" way, and you'll just make your head hurt thinking about it. As he says, it's absurd, but he finds it "delightful", and maybe you will too.

I got an older edition of this book from the UNH Physics Library, in it, Feynman mentions that the mass of the neutrino is zero. I don't know if that's been corrected in newer editions. Get the latest one you can find.

Last Modified 2024-01-13 1:00 PM EDT