Book Review: Hawkins, Sagan, Zinn and Thompson

I have been tearing through books recently, due to my snazzy iPad Mini. I did a review a couple weeks ago, and I like that type of post, so here goes another one, this time 4 (5?) books and not three.

I will review the first three here, and then do the last two – both by Hunter Thompson, in a separate post. It would be too much to swallow for the four of you who read this, so thank me in the comment section. Also, Thompson’s stuff is so different, so raw and wild and unique, that I think it needs its own little place. Not to take away from Hawking, Sagan or Zinn, they are great minds that have touched mine with their work … I just think that Hunter wouldn’t really fit in and kinda demands his own space. Anyway, it could also be that I just don’t have the back muscles to sit here and type for 3 hours about books I read for an audience of three, 2 of which won’t read past


The Theory of Everything, Stephen W. Hawking

This is actually a series of lectures Hawking gave to his students, and basically mirrors his highly successful books, A Brief History of Time and A Briefer History of Time. I read this one, rather than the first two (I actually read “A Brief History ” a while ago) because I thought the lectures sounded more like what a brilliant professor would tell his students (duh) and not what a brilliant theorist would try to tell a laymen. My grasp of physics is weak, but my imagination is strong, so I figured The Theory of Everything would be good brainfood.

And brainfood it was, without question. There are more in depth discussions of the event horizon in black holes, a lot of loose talk and humor (!) regarding the role of a creator, competition with other scientists, and the power – or lack thereof – of humans to even understand all of this. What I enjoyed the most was the voice of Hawking As Lecturer, and not as the wheelchair bound cripple beating all the odds and thinking deep about things. I pictured him standing at a podium, geeky as hell, and mixing in brilliant expositions on the Uncertainty Principle with sly digs at the capacity of anyone – even himself – to speak of such things with a straight face.

Much more enjoyable, as a whole, than the first two books, both of which seemed to struggle with the need to explain so much to someone who (most likely) knows so little about the subject at hand.

Some notes I took:

On The Theory of Relativity:

“Eddington was an expert on general relativity. There is a story that a journalist told Eddington in the early 1920s that he had heard there were only three people in the world who understood general relativity. Eddington replied, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”

On Euclidean Space Time:

“It may be that Euclidean space-time is the fundamental concept and what we think of as real space-time is just a figment of our imagination.”

On Boundaries

“In the quantum theory of gravity, on the other hand, a third possibility arises. Because one is using Euclidean space-times, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space, it is possible for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge. Space-time would be like the surface of the Earth, only with two more dimen-sions. The surface of the Earth is finite in extent but it doesn’t have a boundary or edge. If you sail off into the sunset, you don’t fall off the edge or run into asingularity. I know, because I have been around the world.”

“… the quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility. In this, there would be no boundary to space-time. Thus, there would be no need to specify the behavior at the boundary. There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. One could say:”The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.” The uni-verse would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would be neither created nor destroyed. It would just be.”

“The idea that space and time may form a closed surface without boundary also has profound implications for the role of God in the affairs of the universe.”

On Real and Imaginary

“In real time, the universe has a beginning and an end at singularities that form a boundary to space-time and at which the laws of science breakdown. But in imaginary time, there are no singularities or boundaries. So maybe what we call imaginary time is really more basic, and what we call real time is just an idea that we invent to help us describe what we think the universe is like. But … a scientific theory is just a mathematical model we make to describe our observations. It exists only in our minds. So it does not have any meaning to ask: Which is real, “real” or “imaginary” time? It is simply a matter of which is amore useful description.”

On The Direction of Time

“In his book, The Go Between, L. P. Hartley wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there-but why is the past so different from the future? Why do we remember the past, but not the future?’ In other words, why does time go forward? Is this connected with the fact that the uni-verse is expanding?”

“The increase of disorder or entropy with time is one example of what is called an arrow of time, something that gives a direction to time and distinguishes the past from the future. There are at least three different arrows of time. First, there is the thermodynamic arrow of time – the direction of time in which dis-order or entropy increases. Second, there is the psychological arrow of time. This is the direction in which we feel time passes – the direction of time in which we remember the past, but not the future. Third, there is the cosmolog-ical arrow of time. This is the direction of time in which the universe is expanding rather than contracting.”

“I shall argue the the pyschological arrow is determined by the thermodynamic arrow and that these two arrows always point in the same direction. If one makes the no boundary assumption for the universe, they are related to the cosmological arrow of time, though they may not point in the same direction. However,I shall argue that it is only when they agree with the cosmological arrow that there will be intelligent beings who can ask the question: Why does disorder increase in the same direction of time as that in which the universe expands?”

“But what would happen if and when the universe stopped expanding and began to contract again? Would the thermodynamic arrow reverse and disorder begin to decrease with time? This would lead to all sorts of science-fiction-like possibilities for people who survived from the expanding to the contracting phase.”

Interesting stuff. Mind bending stuff. I put this book down and then flipped randomly through my iBooks collection until I found Carl Sagan. I had heard a lot about Sagan, but never read anything. All I knew was that he wrote of the stars …

Lord, Thank you for giving me first Hawking, then Sagan, one right after the other.

Contact, Carl Sagan

This may be one of the more beautiful books I have read in recent memory. Sagan opens his story slowly, introducing us to Ellie the Dreamer, the Skygazer, the Prodigy over 100 pages, until we are inside of her, struggling with her, dreaming with her, and, in my case, in love with her. Few male writers write women well, so I hear, and if any women read this and have read this book, I would love to hear what they have to say about his precocious Ellie and her thoughts, desires, frustrations, musings.

Great book. So much really to say about the lead up to a climax that takes place so deep into the story. You know its coming, but you are content to ride along slowly as Sagan fills in every shade and color in the pre-Soviet Meltdown scientific world. His depictions of wormholes and other galaxies, other systems, is sparse and scientific, the way Ellie may have described it (the way she did describe it) and that was something I wish could have been painted as dedicatedly as the characters and their personalities were. The “Aliens” basically present a million questions and no answers, which could be Sagan’s smirking jest, or his nod to clear ignorance and conjecture. Something Ellie would naturally disapprove of.

But the best way to remember this book, for me and for you, is to take a look at my notes:

On Ellie

“Sometimes, she could almost convince herself that she could really see it; a swirl of yellow fog would suddenly clear, and a vast jeweled city would briefly be revealed. Air cars sped among the crystal spires. Sometimes she would imagine peering into one of those vehicles and glimpsing one of them. Or she would imagine a young one, glancing up at a bright blue point of light in its sky, standing on tiptoe and wondering about the inhabitants of Earth. It was an irresistible notion: a sultry, tropical planet brimming over with intelligent life, and just next door.”

“‘Let’s see if I’ve got this right,’ she would say to herself. ‘I’ve taken an inert gas that’s in the air, made it into a liquid, put some impurities into a ruby, attached a magnet, and detected the fires of creation.'”

On Life, Love, and Men

” …The young men, almost without exception, had a penchant for sexual exploitation. At the same time, they seemed much more emotionally vulnerable than she had expected. Perhaps the one caused the other.”

“‘It’s hard to kill a creature once it lets you see its consciousness.'”

“‘Let’s see if I’ve got this straight,’ he returned. It was a phrase of hers that he had adopted. ‘It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there’s this couple lying naked in bed reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica to each other, and arguing about whether the Andromeda Galaxy is more ‘numinous’ than the Resurrection. Do they know how to have a good time, or don’t they?'”

On Earth

“At the very moment that humans discovered the scale of the universe and found that their most unconstrained fancies were in fact dwarfed by the true dimensions of even the Milky Way Galaxy, they took steps that ensured that their descendants would be unable to see the stars at all. For a million years humans had grown up with a personal daily knowledge of the vault of heaven. In the last few thousand years they began building and emigrating to the cities. In the last few decades, a major fraction of the human population had abandoned a rustic way of life. As technology developed and the cities were polluted, the nights became starless. New generations grew to maturity wholly ignorant of the sky that had transfixed their ancestors and that had stimulated the modern age of science and technology. Without even noticing, just as astronomy entered a golden age most people cut themselves off from the sky, a cosmic isolationism that ended only with the dawn of space exploration.”

“Worlds with technical civilizations just beginning to emerge must be spectacularly rare. It was probably the only quality fundamentally unique about the Earth.”

“Zealotry, fanaticism, fear, hope, fervent debate, quiet prayer, agonizing reappraisal, exemplary selflessness, closed-minded bigotry, and a zest for dramatically new ideas were epidemic, rushing feverishly over the surface of the tiny planet Earth. Slowly emerging from this mighty ferment, Ellie thought she could see, was a dawning recognition of the world as one thread in a vast cosmic tapestry.”

On Religion

“Ellie had never seriously read the Bible before and had been inclined to accept her father’s perhaps ungenerous judgment that it was ‘half barbarian history, half fairy tales.'”

“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

“Why’s he constantly repairing and complaining? No, there’s one thing the Bible makes clear: The biblical God is a sloppy manufacturer. He’s not good at design, he’s not good at execution. He’d be out of business if there was any competition.”

On China

“It was upon this passage, Sun Yatsen had said, that his own revolutionary nationalist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century was based: The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in then-thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Thus, Xi believed, the pursuit of knowledge was central for the well-being of China. But the Red Guards had thought otherwise.”

On Japanese Cuisine

“If the custom were to eat the food blindfolded, she would have been content. If, instead, the delicacies were brought out only to be admired and never to be eaten, she would also have been content. To look and eat both was an intimation of heaven.” 

On the Judgment of Aliens

“I think it’s amazing that you’ve done as well as you have. You’ve got hardly any theory of social organization, astonishingly backward economic systems, no grasp of the machinery of historical prediction, and very little knowledge about yourselves. Considering how fast your world is changing, it’s amazing you haven’t blown yourselves to bits by now.”

You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, Howard Zinn

I took a ton of notes reading this book. I read People’s History a long time ago, and I remember the ball of frustration that stuck in my belly for years afterward (and if I think about it, even now). That frustration turned a lot of people away from Zinn, I seem to remember, because facing the truth is hard. Hearing about the real history of America’s war against its own people, of the strikes and protests and jail sentences required to move just an inch forward in a decade … these realities are sometimes too much to bear.

It’s easier to read about how shitty China is on Human Rights than contemplate our own record. It’s easier to sponsor a cute Tibetan girl than it is to sponsor the broke Mexican kid down the block. That’s just how it is. But I picked this one up and read it through, and it gave me another fat ball of anger, but also a bit of hope.

Actually, what it really did was demonstrate what it takes to make change in the world: bravery beyond what any hipster Occupy kid has these days. A willingness to face death. Not just a stern pepper spray to the face, but death or life imprisonment, solitary confinement in a coffin cell for months, or years at a time. Hatred anger and violence; pain and suffering. These are the riders of change, not just great speeches and colorful rallies. Hippies dancing in costumes are so useless it’s hilarious. Getting beaten to death and knowing that it will take a dozen more of those types of deaths before anyone even admits that the beatings are happening … that’s what it takes to change things. And it’s scary. Because no one I know has that kind of balls.

Well. Let’s get to it:

On Taking Action

“The willingness to undertake such action cannot be based on certainties, but on those possibilities glimpsed in a reading of history different from the customary painful recounting of human cruelties. In such a reading we can find not only war but resistance to war, not only injustice but rebellion against injustice, not only selfishness but self-sacrifice, not only silence in the face of tyranny but defiance, not only callousness but compassion.”

On the Black Civil Rights Movement

“What took place in Atlanta was a combination of frontal assaults—sit-ins, demonstrations, arrests—and a persistent, stubborn wearing away of the encrusted rules of racial segregation. In that decade we heard the word “revolution” thrown about. To some people it meant armed rebellion. To me it came to mean just such a combination of daring forays and patient pushing-pushing-pushing as I saw in the South, “the long march through the institutions,” as someone described it—not a completed event, but an ongoing process.”

“As I began to realize, no pitifully small picket line, no poorly attended meeting, no tossing out of an idea to an audience or even to an individual should be scorned as insignificant.”

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”

“I remember driving to the Atlanta airport (much of my truly revolutionary history has consisted of driving to airports) to pick up E. Franklin Frazier, a black man and a world-famous sociologist, author of the classic The Negro Family in America. He had just arrived from France and was coming to speak in the Atlanta University Center. He was a stocky man of medium height, wearing a jaunty beret. When they refused to serve us a cup of coffee at the airport cafeteria, he said, smiling to the waitress, ‘This is interesting. Last week I had coffee with the president of France, and this week I’m refused coffee in Atlanta.'”

On Student Action

“When students begin to defy established authority it often appears to besieged administrators that “someone must be behind this,” the implication being that young people are incapable of thinking or acting on their own.”

On the Federal Government

“A question kept nagging at me: Where was the government of the United States in all this? I taught courses in constitutional law, but that expertise was not necessary for a person to see that the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights in the United States Constitution were being violated in Albany again and again—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the equal protection of the law—I could count at least thirty such violations. Yet the president—sworn to uphold the Constitution—and all the agencies of the United States government at his disposal were nowhere to be seen. Was Albany, Georgia, was all of the South, outside the jurisdiction of the United States? Had the Confederacy really won the Civil War and morally, effectively seceded?”

“At the great March on Washington of 1963, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis, speaking to the same enormous crowd that heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” was prepared to ask the right question: “Which side is the federal government on?” That sentence was eliminated from his speech by organizers of the march to avoid offending the Kennedy administration, but Lewis and his fellow SNCC workers had experienced, again and again, the strange passivity of the national government in the face of Southern violence—strange, considering how often this same government had been willing to intervene outside the country, often with overwhelming force.”

“My experience in Albany had made me especially conscious of the federal role in keeping the institutions of racism going. A systematic failure to enforce civil rights law had marked every national administration since 1877, whether Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative.”

“Bob spoke with a bitterness we were not accustomed to seeing in him. The government of the United States, he said, was willing to send armed forces halfway around the world for a cause which was incomprehensible, but it was unwilling to send marshals into Mississippi, though asked again and again, to protect civil rights workers from inevitable violence.”

On Being Black in the South

“Selma was a slave market before the Civil War, a lynching town at the turn of the century, and by the 1960s still a place where any young black person growing up there had to say to himself or herself, as a Selma-born black attorney living in Tennessee told me, ‘I must get out of this town.'”

“Bob had not been in Mississippi long when he was called upon to examine the body of a farmer named Herbert Lee, father of nine children, who had been shot to death by a white man. They had been arguing. The white man had walked up to him and fired a pistol into his head. A coroner’s jury acquitted the killer after a black witness, afraid for his own life, testified that it was self-defense. Weeks later the witness decided to tell the truth, and he was killed in his front yard by three shotgun blasts.”

“She reflected, ‘You know they said outsiders was coming in and beginning to get the people stirred up because they’ve always been satisfied. Well, as long as I can remember, I’ve never been satisfied.'”

On What It Takes

“So when Bob Moses began to talk to people in Mississippi, starting in the little town of McComb in the southern part of the state, he was at different times jailed, beaten, knifed, and threatened with death. When two eighteen-year-old fellows sat in at the Woolworth lunch counter in McComb—the first such act of defiance in the history of the area—they were arrested and sentenced to thirty days in jail. When six high school students, led by fifteen-year-old Brenda Travis, did the same, they were sentenced to eight months in jail, and she was expelled from school.”

“The war continued, with shotgun blasts into the homes of black people and into parked cars, with thirteen 45-calibre bullets fired into a car in which Bob Moses was riding with SNCC man Jimmy Travis, who was shot in the shoulder and neck and came close to death. When, after one of the shootings, a hundred black men, women, children, singing and praying, marched toward the Leflore County Courthouse, the police appeared wearing yellow helmets, carrying riot sticks, leading police dogs.”

“It was a summer of violence. Three civil rights workers, two white, one black, were arrested in the city of Philadelphia, Neshoba County; let out in the night, they were followed and shot to death. Their bodies had not yet been found when a number of us drove up, on a crazy impulse, to the annual Neshoba County Fair. It was, altogether, an eerie experience. At one point we found ourselves a few feet from the sheriff and deputy sheriff who, we were sure, had participated in the disappearance of the three men.”

“Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zig-zag towards a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

On What Comes After the Movement

“What the movement accomplished was historic, but soon it came up against obstacles far more formidable than the signs and badges of racial segregation. First, an economic system that, while lavishly rewarding some people and giving enough to others to gain their loyalty, consigns a substantial part of the population to misery, generation after generation. And along with this, a national ideology so historically soaked in racism that nonwhite people inevitably form the largest part of the permanent poor.”


“There was only one point during the war when a few doubts crept into my mind about the absolute rightness of what we were doing. I’d made friends with a gunner on another crew. We had something in common in that literary wasteland of an air base: we were both readers, and we were both interested in politics. At a certain point he startled me by saying, ‘You know, this is not a war against fascism. It’s a war for empire. England, the United States, the Soviet Union—they are all corrupt states, not morally concerned about Hitlerism, just wanting to run the world themselves. It’s an imperialist war.'”

“While I was a fellow at the Harvard Center for East Asian Studies in the fall of 1960 (on temporary leave from Spelman), I did some research on the dropping of the atomic bombs, and published an article called “A Mess of Death and Documents.” The most powerful reason given for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they saved the lives of those who would have died in an invasion of Japan. But the official report of the Strategic Bombing Survey, which interrogated seven hundred Japanese officials right after the war, concluded that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender and would “certainly” have ended the war by December of 1945 even if the bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even without an invasion of Japan. Furthermore, the United States, having broken the Japanese code, knew the Japanese were on the verge of surrender. Then why was it done? The research of an American scholar, Gar Alperowitz, pointed to a political motive: to beat the Russians to the punch in defeating Japan, and to demonstrate to them our strength, because they were about to enter the Pacific war.”

On Democracy and Justice

“The courtroom is one instance of the fact that while our society may be liberal and democratic in some large and vague sense, its moving parts, its smaller chambers—its classrooms, its workplaces, its corporate boardrooms, its jails, its military barracks—are flagrantly undemocratic, dominated by one commanding person or a tiny elite of power.”

“I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

On American Communists

“The Soviet Union was this romantic blur, far away. What was close at hand, visible, was that Communists were the leaders in organizing working people all over the country. They were the most daring, risking arrest and beatings to organize auto workers in Detroit, steel workers in Pittsburgh, textile workers in North Carolina, fur and leather workers in New York, longshoremen on the West Coast. They were the first to speak up, more than that, to demonstrate—to chain themselves to factory gates and White House fences—when blacks were lynched in the South, when the “Scottsboro Boys” were being railroaded to prison in Alabama. My image of “a Communist” was not a Soviet bureaucrat but my friend Leon’s father, a cabdriver who came home from work bruised and bloody one day, beaten up by his employer’s goons (yes, that word was soon part of my vocabulary) for trying to organize his fellow cabdrivers into a union.”

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