Two Nightmare Scenarios for the Future

During the past few days, I’ve watched a movie and read a book on two major problems that the world is facing today. I am absolutely shocked, terrified, and scared, of the present state of the world. It’s much, much worse than I ever thought. I really feel that if humanity does not do anything towards finding an answer to these problems, our descendants may not live to see the next millenium.
The first of these problems is global warming. I watched An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary by Al Gore, which was very informative and convincing. Everyone knows what global warming is, of course, and knows that it’s happening right now. What you might not know is the extent and severity of the problem. In the movie, there is a graph that shows a strong correlation between CO2 levels and global temperature. And there’s another graph that shows current CO2 levels are the highest in 650,000 years. Think about that. This means that global warming is almost entirely humanity’s fault. In the latest report from the UN Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), it is predicted that global temperatures will increase by 1.8 to 6.4 C and sea levels will rise by 18 to 59 cm by the year 2100. Those who are not scared by these numbers should try multiplying them by 10, and they will see that maybe my prediction about surviving until the next millenium does not seem so far-fetched anymore.
The second of these problems is religious conflict. The book that I read was The End of Faith : Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. Again, religious conflict is a very well-known problem. 9/11 and the India-Pakistan disputes are two of the most familiar cases. Although some may say that most conflicts result from political and/or economical reasons, but even if you remove those factors, conflicts will happen anyway. For example, all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists were college-educated men from middle-class families, but they still chose the path of terrorism. Why? Because they held beliefs that they will be rewarded in the afterlife, beliefs without evidence or reason. Furthermore, we are not allowed to fully criticize their actions because we have been taught to respect other people’s beliefs. There is an undeserved wall of respect surrounding religion that prevents us from discussing it. Were it any other subject, such unreasonable beliefs would be dismissed in an instant. If I say that I believe that unicorns exist, for example, everyone would be right to condemn me as crazy, because there is absolutely no evidence for unicorns at all. However, when you turn to religion, suddenly unreasonable and outright crackpot beliefs are given credit and respect. If you think about it, there is no reason whatsoever to treat religion differently from any other subjects. It is these religious beliefs that breed discrimination ("Our religion is the only right one, all others are wrong and will go to hell"), and ultimately, conflict as is seen throughout history and will be seen in the near future. Of course, I am not advocating that we should erase religions from the world right away, for the simple reason that it’s impossible. I’m just saying that we should stop giving religions undeserved respect, and start discussing religions using reasonable and evidence-based thinking.  
The first step to solving any problem is to become aware that there is a problem. Many people in the world still do not realize the magnitude of these two problems that we are facing. I would like to spread the word as far as I could, that this emergency is urgent and it needs the cooperation of everyone. If we are still ignoring these crises, the question won’t be which one we will solve first, but rather which one will kill us first.

Book Review 5

After taking a long break due to my finals exams, I’m going to continue writing this book review series. Originally, I intended to stop reading books that do not concern my studies, but I just couldn’t help it. I have lots of spare time even during the exams season (long periods on the train, taking a break from studying, etc) and apparently I managed to finish 10 books during the period between the last post and this one. Ten! I’m surprised at myself, because I usually take about 5 to 7 days to finish a regular-sized novel.  Does this mean that I spent less time than I should have on my studies? Definitely. Or maybe not, it depends on my test scores.
Now onto the book.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
There is a community library near my dorm which I like to visit and use as a study room. I just can’t study anything in my own room because of many distractions (TV, computer,…) , and I simply can’t concentrate. So I use the library. Speaking of libraries, Japanese ones are way, way better than those in Thailand. Even though my district is not a large one or even one near central Tokyo, the library for this district is huge and it contains books on a wide range of subjects. I even found textbooks on Statistical Mechanics, which I think no one apart from students would read. There is a small section of foreign books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I found this book there. I think I’ve heard Umberto Eco’s name mentioned somewhere, so I decided to check it out and give it a try.
The Name of the Rose is a novel about a murder mystery in a Christian abbey in medieval times. The telling of the story is done by an apprentice to a priest who travels to this abbey, reminiscent of Watson’s narrative of Sherlock Holmes. While this priest, William, is visiting,  a series of seemingly unconnected murders happen, and the abbot asks for William’s help in finding the culprit. The investigation involves trips in secret libraries, rigorous interviewing of most of the abbey’s personel, and various happenings during the night.
As a novel with a central mystery storyline, this book was quite suspensful and interesting enough for me to finish it without too much effort. However, the murder investigations are spaced with many philosophical discussions between characters. The interpretation of God’s message by using art, the internal conflict of a priest’s vow of celibacy, and the poverty of Christ, among other numerous arguments. There was even a debate on whether Jesus laughed or not! If philosophy is your cup of tea, that’s fine,  and this book can be read just for the discussions. The arguments get more and more detailed, with a character representing a particular sect’s point of view. This is the frustrating part. There are Dominicans, Benetictians, Franciscans, Pseudo Apostles, Minorites, and more sects or groups of sects with their distinct beliefs. How am I supposed to remember the differences among these 500 (a minor exaggeration) sects? I gave up keeping track of them when I got about halfway through the book. As this book was written by a historian, historical accuracy and details are emphasized. While rich, detailed backgrounds are essential to most novels, this one’s details were too much for me to handle.
Rating : 8 out of 10

Book Review 4

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
Although it may seem that I do nothing but read books, I’m doing my studies too, Mom. Really. It’s just that right now I’m really interested in Richard Dawkins. After finishing The Selfish Gene, hugely impressed with Dawkins’ writing, I immediately went out and bought 2 more of his books. I thought I had a lot of time on my hands during winter break, but looking back on it I think I should have spent more time studying. Reading Dawkins is a kind of studying too, it just doesn’t help me with my exams. Maybe next term I’ll take a class in evolution or something.
While the Selfish Gene was about genes and animal behaviour, assuming that the reader agrees with the concept of evolution, The Blind Watchmaker is about evolution itself, assuming that the reader may not agree or be familiar with evolution. Dawkins starts by looking at complex life from a creationist’s point of view. An analogy often used by creationists is that of a watch: each complex organism is like a precisely constructed watch with extremely intricate parts. The creationist asserts that anything this complex could not have happened by nature, and there must have been a designer/maker. Dawkins states that complex organisms could only have happened by a series of slow, gradual, cumulative process of natural selection. Hence the title of the book, nature is the watchmaker himself, who is in fact blind to the future.
Dawkins explains natural selection using many examples and analogies, and it was really, really easy to understand. I think that one of Dawkins’ strengths is his ability to find metaphors and examples that get the point across. He even finds time to explain how analogies should be taken, and how not to take them to far. I really admire Dawkins and his way of writing. Actually natural selection is very easy. In living things, random mutations happen, both for the better and for the worse. An organism with a mutation that improves its chances for survival of course survives more, and then in time that mutation becomes the norm. Repeat that thousands, millions of times, and complex organs will be evolved.
A popular but mistaken view of evolution is held by creationists and those who support the so-called ‘Intelligent Design’ theory.  It is the concept of ‘Irreducible Complexity’ or IC. IC is defined to be something that has a lot of parts and needs to have every part in place to be functional. A true IC organ cannot have developed by slow, gradual evolution because the organ would not be functional before completion and therefore granting no survival benefits to the organism. Often cited examples are the eye, the wing and the bacteria flaggellum among others. "What use is half an eye, or half a wing?" On the surface, this seems to be a strong argument, but after thinking it through you’ll find out that it’s just shallow thinking. Dawkins explained this very clearly. A half of an eye, while not able to see clearly, can still help see rough shapes of potential predators, therefore something with half an eye will tend to survive more than something with no eye at all. Extending that line of thought, 1% of an eye is better than no eye at all, 2% is better than 1%, and so on, making it a process of gradual evolution. Up to this day, no true ‘Irreducible Complexity’ has ever been found. Intelligent design is just a kind of pseudoscience.
Again and again, Dawkins continues to explain evolution in a simple way using many types of examples. However, this book was a bit more difficult to read when compared to The Selfish Gene. More scientific terms are used (all of them were explained beforehand), but there were still some that I was not familiar with and had to go back to read its definition a few more times. Also, Dawkins went on a long digression once or twice, making me lose focus of the point that he was trying to say. Overall, it was still an excellent book, an inspiration for me to try and raise the conciousness of other people about the concept of evolution. Richard Dawkins is the perfect example of a scientist and an intellectual.
Rating : 9.5 out of 10

Book Review 3

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
After a brief hiatus from my usual reading fare, fiction, I returned to one of my favourite authors. I have always loved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and his books are some of the very few that I’ve ever read that can make me laugh out loud. Really. So when I was walking around looking for a nice paperback to read during the holidays, Terry’s name just sort of jumped up from the rows of books, and I bought it with no hesitation. As for Neil Gaiman, I’ve never read his books before, but I was prepared to give it a try.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Good Omens is a humorous story of the Armageddon, told through the eyes of an angel and a demon who are actually on friendly terms. A ‘truly accurate’ book of prophecies, a hellhound named ‘Dog’, the notion that Famine (one of the Four Horsemen) actually invented dieting, are some of the few touches that made this book a simply hilarious read. All the footnotes, Discworld-style, are there as well. Although not up to his usual standards (this was a collaboration after all), Pratchett again manages to make me laugh. I enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward to more of Pratchett’s works.
Rating : 9 out of 10

Book Review 2

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
I first knew of Richard Dawnkins from various news concerning atheism. He is one of the most outspoken scientists who actively campaign against religion. In fact, he is considered a hero and a champion of the atheist cause. Please don’t confuse him with Stephen Hawking (the physicist in the wheelchair). Dawkins is a professor of zoology at Oxford University while also holding the chair of Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. He has written many popular science books, and The Selfish Gene is his first and most famous one.
The Selfish Gene explains Darwin’s theory of evolution from the gene’s point of view. Many millions of years ago, when the earth was just a sea of simple inorganic molecules, a type of complex molecules formed themselves from random collisions and/or electrical stimulus. These molecules had the special property of being able to replicate themselves. The replicators that could copy themselves faster and more correctly would become more numerous. However, the copying process is not always perfect and sometimes an error may occur. If the erroneous copy is worse than the original, it simply dies out and the mutant strain dies with it. On the other hand, if the mutation makes the molecule more efficient at replicating, it quicky spreads and this new mutant strain takes over the old one. This process is called natural selection and this is the fundamental concept of evolution.
Later on in the process of evolution, the replicators began to have walls around them for protection. These became the basis for the first cells and the replicators encased inside are precursors of genes. From the gene’s point of view, cells and other developed organisms are just vehicles for them to reside in. Now for the point of the book’s title, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins asserts that however altruistic the behaviour of the organism may be, the real motive will still be selfish when looked from the gene’s point of view. Dawkins uses game theory to explain how behaviour that seem altruistic (apes scratching each other’s back, for example) all have selfish explanations.
Dawkins writes in a very clear manner. With lots of real-life examples and metaphors, this book is really easy to understand even for those who have no prior knowledge in biology. This is a science book that doesn’t read like one at all, in fact, it was almost like a novel! Dawkins started the book with really the basics and just takes the reader on a fantastic ride through evolution and animal behaviour. It was a marvelous fun to read and it touched subjects that I’ve never even thought about before. I highly recommend this book for everyone, even those who think they are not interested in biology. You will be, after finishing this book. This book should be made compulsory reading for every science major, and it’s made my list of Top 10 Favourite Books of All Time.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Book Review 1

I’m trying to start keeping a record of books that I read, my comments, and my ratings.
Let’s start with one that I’ve recently finished.
論争する宇宙 (Space Science in Dispute) by Yoshii Yuzuru
This type of book is called a 新書 ‘shinsho’ in japanese. These shinsho cover a wide range of subjects and they are written for the layperson. I’ve never read a shinsho before, but my Japanese teacher recommended that I try one.  I picked this one because I’m interested in astronomy, and I took a ‘Space Science’ subject last term and I was pretty sure that I would understand at least part of it.
The book starts with the history of modern astronomy from Hubble’s time, goes through the 19th century and up to the present. The material got more and more difficult the further I read. The only thing that I understood clearly was Hubble’s Equation. Hubble stated that, from his observation of myriad galaxies, the speed that any galaxy is traveling away from us is proportional to the distance from that galaxy. In other words, the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving away from us. This proportion is called the Hubble constant, which tells us many things about the state of this universe including the present age of the universe. Many scientists have fought and argued over the value of this constant using various ways of measurement, and this forms a large part of the book. I felt that the author was trying to explain difficult material as easy as he could; there were some graphs and pictures, and there weren’t many technical terms. Even though, I think I understood about half of the book.
The last chapter was of a different sort from the whole book. It tells the story that the author, Prof. Yoshii, experienced when he tried to build an astronomy telescope. Prof. Yoshii is currently at Tokyo University. He used to be a mainly theoretical type, but he needed a lot of telescope time for a type of special observation. At the time, Tokyo University received a large scientific grant so he asked for a part of it to build a telescope for use by Tokyo University exclusively. He met many obstacles on the way, but at last the telescope was succesfully built. It is call MAGNUM, and it’s situated at Hawaii.
All in all, an interesting read, with some difficult bits. A good book for anyone who’s interested in space or our universe.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10