Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ultimate science book

In my recent blog post entitled Wonders of the world [display], I evoked the 58-year-old Israeli-born Oxford scientist David Deutsch.

Deutsch has presented several excellent TED talks, which can be found by means of the Google argument "david deutsch ted". Well, his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity, has just been published.

The first book from Deutsch since 1997, it's a precious event. I only received my copy a few days ago, and I've started to read it slowly, savoring each page, seated under a giant linden tree, looking out over the sunny valley, with my dogs lounging on the grass alongside my deck chair. While weighing my words, but without having had enough time to step back and reflect upon this claim, I'm already starting to wonder whether Deutsch might have possibly written the ultimate science book… at least up until somebody produces a challenger.

Deutsch—whose specialty is the quantum theory of computing—has a dazzling capacity to look out upon the world, detect the presence of a small number of fundamental principles, and then employ these principles to explain to us what our existence is all about. The verb "explain" is basic in Deutsch's approach. Besides, the subtitle of this masterpiece is Explanations that Transform the World.

The themes of The Fabric of Reality remain intact. The essential approach is still based upon the four celebrated strands represented by Karl Popper, Hugh Everett, Alan Turing and Richard Dawkins. Deutsch still hits back constantly, fiercely and profoundly at the infamous words of Stephen Hawking (1995 interview): "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies." And Deutsch's readers are certainly not invited, in the bibliographies of the two books, to read anything from Hawking. Incidentally, I agree entirely. The otherwise brilliant theoretical scientist Stephen Hawking has never been what I think of as a significant general-science author. In Deutsch's latest book, the Hawkings statement is referred to as the Principle of Mediocrity: There is nothing significant about humans.

Deutsch evokes the so-called Spaceship Earth phenomenon, which is a reflection of popular current ecological and environmental thinking and actions: The biosphere is a limited life-support system for humans. When confronted simultaneously with Hawking's "chemical scum" allusion ("We're less than nothing") and the Spaceship Earth metaphor ("The planet Earth is the only way out"), what the hell can we do? With our trash boarding passes, should we nevertheless try to scramble aboard the Spaceship Earth?

Hold on a moment. There's a reassuring surprise. David Deutsch explains that these two syndromes—"chemical scum" and "Spaceship Earth"—are both demonstrably false. Instead of trying to navigate between the Scylla of scum and the Charybdis of the Earth's limited resources, Deutsch's book offers us—as it were—an extraordinarily positive way out of this enigma. There's a new kid on the street: knowledge. Through knowledge, we are anything but scum, for we humans can indeed imagine the universe, almost as if we had created it. And through this same knowledge, we do not have to depend exclusively upon the poor little planet Earth, for we can think our way to the stars. In a nutshell: knowledge is the beginning of infinity.

Needless to say, in my humble blog, I can only scratch the surface of Deutsch's exciting and beautifully-written book. For the moment, I find it too early to say whether or not this is indeed the ultimate science book. Let's say that I've short-listed it as a most likely candidate.

POST SCRIPTUM: In a recent blog post entitled Happiness is a great science book [display], I evoked the latest book by Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality, in which the famous string theoretician embraced massively the multiverse theme, so dear to Deutsch. In fact, I was a little overwhelmed by the highly speculative nature of Greene's otherwise excellent book. Without claiming to understand the subject at a mathematical level, I have the impression that all the string-theory stuff remains, for the moment, totally hypothetical… and that it might not even be good science in the Popperian sense. In any case, I was intrigued to discover that Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity makes no mention whatsoever of strings. On the other hand, Deutsch's remarkably short bibliography includes Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (certainly one of the most mind-boggling books I've ever read), the fabulous Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, and a couple of well-known books by Douglas Hofstadter, not to mention Plato's Euthyphro and the Funeral Oration of Pericles. When I look upon this exotic bibliography, I have the nice impression that I'm browsing through the required credentials for becoming a member of a highly-exclusive club: the David Deutsch Society.


  1. You might be interested in this discussion forum about the Beginning of Infinity, which is probably the closest thing to a 'David Deutsch society': (He posts there from time to time, too.)

    The Meme Machine didn't really have a lot of explanation about how memes actually work. I've only read a bit and watched some of her talks, but what I've seen from her has strands of pessimism, anti-human sentiments (like that we don't really create knowledge, it's just the memes/'temes' controlling us), and so on, which are pretty contrary to BoI's themes of optimism, understanding, why humans are special, etc. The Evolution of Culture chapter in BoI (and the Evolution of Creativity) is much better to actually understand how memes work -- I'm not sure how much more you'd get from her book.

    The best thinkers to look into for understanding the BoI outlook include Popper, Godwin, Bronowski... and his own books of course. :)

  2. Hi. Nice review.

    You may be interested in the DD content I gathered on my site such as links and my interview with him:

    I'd also like to invite you to the discussion group:

    - Elliot Temple

  3. Lulie Tanett: Thank you for pointing me to the Google group on The Beginning of Infinity. I was interested in your comments about Susan Blackmore's handling of the meme concept.

    Elliott Temple: Thank you for including a link to my blog post in the reviews section of your interesting website on The Beginning of Infinity, which I shall certainly be following.

    After referring in my blog to a recently-published article or book, I usually send a link to either the author or the publisher. In the case of The Beginning of Infinity, I was delighted to receive by return email a friendly thank-you reply from David Deutsch.

  4. Just this evening I've stumbled upon your blog. I teach English, including a critical thinking class, at a community college in Livermore California, so I'm especially enjoying posts such as this one.

    (I'm retired from banking after 30 years and I now devote most of my time as an adjunct professor.)

    Thanks for your posts. You've given me a new crop of books to explore.