The Book I Read

I finally read a book that’s been in the queue. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America

As side note, I’ll mention that I heard about this right after the book won the Pulitzer last year and was alerted to a local-boy-makes-good story in one of the upstate NY papers, sent to me by my mom. The author (Gilbert King) and I were in the same graduating class in high school. That combination was enough of a nudge to get me to buy it.

It’s a horrific tale of the pervasiveness of racism in our not-too-distant past, and the involvement of Thurgood Marshall in the case allows for his compelling story to be told as well, along with others involved in the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund (LDF). I had a little trouble keeping the large cast of characters straight, as the story jumps back and forth between the case and the history leading up to it, but I found it to be a captivating read. One gets a fairly raw look at the atmosphere of the times, including the reality that no person of color was likely to see justice done in any legal conflict that crossed the racial barrier — in a capital case such this, that the defendants would be found guilty was rarely in doubt, regardless of the facts, and it was considered a “victory” if the sentence came back as life in prison rather than the electric chair. The book tells of some truly heinous characters and lays out the LDF’s strategy of establishing grounds for appeal, because the only possibility for a result that came close to fair would only happen in courts far removed from the alleged crime.

It’s hard not to notice the similarities of this case with recent events in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere — that while some of the overt acts of violence stemming from racism have subsided — lynch mobs by people in sheets, as an example — far more behavior has only been masked and still pervades society. I’ll leave to others more eloquent than I to continue to delve in to commentary on all that, save for this: it’s too easy to say that things are better now than they were 60 years ago and leave it at that. To ignore it because for many of us it’s normally out of sight. To not believe the stories simply because we don’t experience it ourselves (a lot of parallels with sexual misconduct here as well). Social media has been a big step forward, as it has allowed for these events to be shared and not contained as a local, isolated incident. Maybe it can galvanize us enough to follow through to the next steps, to change the system and/or the people in the system, as necessary.

I’ve read that the rights to the book have been bought by Lionsgate, and they have given it a high priority. I hope this project doesn’t pull any punches. We got a glimpse of this kind of atmosphere in “Mississippi Burning”, including the collusion and overlap between law enforcement and the KKK, and “Devil in the Grove” shows us that the portrayal was not Hollywood embellishment. (It also shows the FBI wasn’t always so keen or successful in working civil rights cases — that transformation starts in the book’s span of history) There are a couple of story arcs in the book, where the attitudes of a few people are changed by their exposure to the hypocrisy of the situation and to the persuasiveness of Thurgood Marshall, which might lend themselves to some of Hollywood’s weaknesses (that can change “true story” into “based on a true story”). I say read the book — there is only so much a movie can include, anyway — and hope the movie doesn’t disappoint.

A Million Prescient Monkeys

A History of Books that Forecast the Future

As interesting as this is, it’s also an example of selection bias. Also: 2013 is the year for government spying on individuals, like this wasn’t happening earlier? really? But I digress…

Lots of stories appear to make predictions of the future, but are they really predictions or just fanciful things thought up by the author? What sci-fi devices haven’t come to pass? (How many have flying cars or superluminal travel of some sort, etc.?) That’s context that’s missing, because looking only at successful predictions (more on that in a moment) is the wrong way to look at it. If the author is truly a visionary maker of predictions, s/he has to be right more often than chance. It’s tough to measure that in an open-ended medium like storytelling, but one could at least do a systematic measure of it. Regardless, with myriad predictions, some are bound to be right. So what’s the success rate?

Also, how do you define success? For predictions that are vague it’s much easier to argue that it was successful, but of course vague predictions are next to useless precisely because they are vague. This is one element of how so-called psychics and their ilk make their livings – be vague enough that you can throw up your hands and declare success no matter what happens. I’m not familiar enough with the stories to know how much leeway the authors are being given.

The next step and the real trick — much harder IMO — is if the author was able to capture how society exploited the technology.

Getting Real

Guest Post: Is It Solipsistic in Here, or Is It Just Me?

Our first major breakthrough came when we realized that physics can pin down what’s real and what isn’t. It’s one of those things that’s somehow stupidly obvious and yet deeply profound: something is real if it’s invariant. That is, something is real if it remains unchanged from one reference frame to the next. Just look at a rainbow. You’ll see one in the sky if you’re in just the right reference frame with the Sun shining in from behind you, and droplets of water in the atmosphere refracting the light. It’s pretty, but good luck trying to grab it. A rainbow is not a physical object stapled to the sky. It’s a product of your reference frame. Which is to say, it’s not real.

An interesting viewpoint, and one I don’t recall coming across before, probably because I don’t do physics that ventures into this area. One of the stumbling points I’ve observed in discussions about what is real is the definition of real — real as in a physical object instead of a concept, or real as in not an illusion, i.e. not fake? Here it looks like the former: a rainbow is not a physical object, hence it’s not real. But it’s not an illusion, not some bit of fakery. The effect (refraction of light) is real.

There are plenty of not-real (not physical object) things in physics; the author concludes that basically all of it falls into this category, but that’s not the point of physics. Physics exists to tell us how nature behaves, not what it is. Electric fields and phonons and lots of denizens of physics models don’t physically exist. There is no claim that they do. It’s that nature behaves as if they existed, and since that lets us predict and retrodict what happens, that’s good enough.

Stories From New Guinea

Tales From the World Before Yesterday: A Conversation with Jared Diamond

[A]s I got more experienced in New Guinea, I realized, every night I sleep out in New Guinea forest. At some time during the night, I hear the sound of a tree crashing down. And, you see tree falls in New Guinea forest, and I started to do the numbers. Suppose the chances of a dead tree crashing down on you the particular night that you sleep under it is only one in 1,000. But suppose you’re a New Guinean, who’s going to sleep every night in the forest, or spend 100 nights a year sleeping out in the forest. In the course of 10 years, you will have spent a thousand nights in the forest, and if you camp under dead trees, and each dead tree has a one in 1,000 chance of falling on you and killing you, you’re not going to die the first night, but in the course of 10 years, the odds are that you are going to die from sleeping under dead trees. If you’re going to do something repeatedly that each time has a very low chance of bringing disaster. But if you’re going to do it repeatedly, it will eventually catch up with you.

That incident affected me more than anything else, because I realized that in life, we encounter risks that each time the risk is very slight. But if you’re going to do it repeatedly, it will catch up with you.

He has a new book out, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? which, given his prior work, I will probably read at some point.

Paradox: This Title is a Lie

I recently finished Paradox, The Nine Greatest Enigmas in Physics by Jim Al- Khalili (which I got for free! This honor was accorded me because of my character, charm, good looks, and because the medical department contributed four gallons of grain alcohol to the contest I have a blog and said I’d write up a review.)

This is a book, as the title implies, about so-called paradoxes in physics, but the opening of the book actually takes us through logical paradoxes (including the “this statement is a lie” paradox I’ve modified for the thread title) and mathematical puzzlers such as the Monty Hall paradox. The difference between the logical paradoxes and the remainder, as Jim explains, is that a logical paradox is a true paradox — something that cannot logically stand. The mathematical and physics paradoxes he discusses have a resolution, it’s just that the answer is not obvious because you tend to get different answers if you look at the problems in different ways and you aren’t careful enough in your assumptions and analysis.

It was the resolution of the Monty Hall problem that told me I was going to like this book. I had heard it before, but it’s a clear explanation that points out why it’s such a puzzler the way it is usually presented.

In light of “I’ve heard this before” I will offer up my standard disclaimer (standard in the sense that I’ve stated it once before): since I’m a physicist, I can’t tell you that this book made me understand any new bits of physics. All I can tell you is that I found the explanations to be pretty clear. Explaining physics of this sort without equations isn’t easy, and there are times where the explanation has to end up with a “trust me, this is what the math says,” in part because quantum mechanics and relativity are not intuitive.

Al-Khalili takes us through some ancient paradoxes from Zeno, some thermodynamics in discussing Maxwell’s Demon, several paradoxes in relativity owing to the difficulties in simultaneity, and the weirdness of length contraction and time dilation, and into quantum mechanics with Schrödinger’s cat. Also included are some cosmology issues from Olber’s paradox and Fermi’s question and he also covers Laplace’s demon.

In each of the discussions he explains the underlying physics, though you’ll have to be patient, as the paradox is set up and discussed before the physics discussion happens, and I suspect that in some chapters this might cause some confusion as to why there is a paradox. All I can say is to trust that you will get to your destination. However — and this is one of the really enjoyable things about the book — the path to the destination contains many side treks to metaphorical scenic overlooks and other interesting places to visit, and (in my opinion) there aren’t any tourist traps — all of his tangential discussion has some value to it, in explaining some physics or history of physics.

There are a couple of minor nits I’ll mention. A couple of the paradox resolutions weren’t completely satisfying to me (such as one of the time-travel arguments that ends up looking circular: paradoxes aren’t permitted, so there is no paradox), and some details that matter only to a physicist (gravitational time dilation depends on the potential though he says strength of gravity, which is at best ambiguous but I always take to mean the acceleration, g; he also implies that GPS signals go both directions between receiver to the satellite when it’s only a broadcast from the satellite) and one detail that only matters to someone in a job like mine, which is that he associates the famous Hafele-Keating clocks-on-a-plane experiment with the “United States Naval Research Observatory” which sounds like a hybrid of the Naval Observatory and Naval Research Labs. I’m sensitive to that because people mix us up, or think we’re the same place, all the time. Fortunately he gets the attribution correct later in the book.

But, as I said, those are minor things. Overall it was an enjoyable book to read. I definitely give it a “spin up” rating.