Apr 142005

To understand alpha theory, you have to learn some math and science. To learn math and science, you have to read some books. Now I know this is tiresome, and I am breaking my own rule by supplying a reading list. But it will be short. Try these, in order of increasing difficulty:

Complexity, by Mitchell Waldrop. Complexity is why ethics is difficult, and Waldrop provides a gentle, anecdote-heavy introduction. Waldrop holds a Ph.D. in particle physics, but he concentrates on the personalities and the history of the complexity movement, centered at the Santa Fe Institute. If you don’t know from emergent behavior, this is the place to start.

Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches, by Marvin Harris. Hey! How’d a book on anthropology get in here? Harris examines some of the most spectacular, seemingly counter-productive human practices of all time — among them the Indian cult of the cow, tribal warfare, and witch hunts — and demonstrates their survival value. Are other cultures mad, or are the outsiders who think so missing something? A world tour of alpha star.

Men of Mathematics, E.T. Bell. No subject is so despised at school as mathematics, in large part because its history is righteously excised from the textbooks. It is possible to take four years of math in high school without once hearing the name of a practicing mathematician. The student is left with the impression that plane geometry sprang fully constructed from the brain of Euclid, like Athena from the brain of Zeus. Bell is a useful corrective; his judgments are accurate and his humor is dry. Lots of snappy anecdotes — some of dubious provenance, though not so dubious as some of the more recent historians would have you believe — and no actual math. (OK, a tiny bit.) You might not believe that it would help you to know that Galois, the founder of group theory, wrote a large part of his output on the topic in a letter the night before he died in a duel, or that Euler, the most prolific mathematician of all time, managed to turn out his reams of work while raising twelve children, to whom, by all accounts, he was an excellent father. But it does. Should you want to go on to solve real math problems, the books to start with, from easy to hard, are How To Solve It, by Pólya, The Enjoyment of Mathematics, by Rademacher and Toeplitz, and What Is Mathematics? by Courant and Robbins.

The Eighth Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson. A history of the heroic age of molecular biology, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. Judson does not spare the science, and he conveys a real understanding of biology as it’s practiced, as opposed to the way it’s tidied up in the textbooks. A much better book about the double helix than The Double Helix, which aggrandizes Watson and which none of the other participants could stand. Judson’s book has its purple passages, but on the whole the best book ever written on science by a non-scientist, period.

A Universe of Consciousness, by Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi. A complete biologically-based theory of consciousness in 200 dense but readable pages. Edelman and Tononi shirk none of the hard questions, and by the end they offer a persuasive account of how to get from neurons to qualia.

Gödel’s Proof, by Ernest Nagel and James Newman. Undecidability has become, after natural selection, relativity, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the most widely abused scientific idea in philosophy. (An excellent history of modern philosophy could be written treating it entirely as a misapplication of these four ideas.) Undecidability no more implies universal skepticism than relativistic physics implies relativistic morality. Nagel and Newman demystify Gödel in a mere 88 pages that anyone with high school math can follow, if he’s paying attention.

Incidentally, boys, for all of the comments in the alpha threads, one glaring hole in the argument passed you right by. It’s in the Q&A, where I shift from energy to bits with this glib bit of business:

Still more “cash value” lies in information theory, which is an application of thermodynamics. Some say thermodynamics is an application of information theory; but this chicken-egg argument does not matter for our purposes. We care only that they are homologous. We can treat bits the same way we treat energy.

I think I can prove this, but I certainly haven’t yet, and my attempt to do so will be the next installment.