Biologist E.O. Wilson has won two Pulitzer Prizes for Non-Fiction, including one for, of all things, a textbook on ants, along with numerous other awards for his lengthy bibliography of popular and scholarly works on evolution, sociobiology, ecology, and conservationism. His 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life falls into the last category while drawing on multiple fields of expertise to make his case that we should preserve half of the area of the planet for conservation to maintain biodiversity and fight climate change, but for a work by a great scholar and professor, Half-Earth feels half-hearted, as if Wilson knows what he wants to argue but couldn’t be bothered to support his side sufficiently to sway the unconvinced.

The idea of preserving half of the planet, land and sea, for conservation isn’t new nor is it Wilson’s; he credits Tony Hiss with coining the term “half-earth” to describe the concept in a Smithsonian magazine article in 2014. And there’s little doubt that man’s impact on the planet – its environment and the millions of other species on it – has been a net negative for everyone but man, with the pace of change only accelerating as we continue to alter the compositions of the planet’s atmosphere, soil, and water supply. Wilson does well when describing what we might lose or have already lost as a result of our mere presence or our industrial activities, talking about habitats we’ve razed or species we’ve driven to extinction deliberately, through the introductions of invasive species, or through other changes to the environment. But he assumes that the reader will see these losses as significant, or even see them as losses, without sufficiently detailing why it matters that, say, we’re wiping out the world’s rhinoceros population, or various island birds and rodents have been exterminated by the introduction of non-native snakes.

What’s missing even more from the work, however, is a consideration of the costs of an endeavor like the one Wilson is proposing. Man is fairly well distributed across the planet, and setting aside 50% of its land mass for conservation would require resettling hundreds of thousands of people, possibly millions, many of them members of indigenous populations who live in the least-altered environments on the planet. Crowding the planet’s seven billion people (and rising) into less of the space will trade some environmental problems for others, as various forms pollution rise with population density, and many large urban areas already struggle under the weight of their people, with third-world megacities paralyzed by traffic and its attendant problems. Relocating people is expensive, difficult, and traumatic. There’s also the very real question of feeding those seven billion people and supplying them with fresh water, which we’re already struggling to do; if you reserve half of the world’s land and half of its oceans for conservation, those tasks become more difficult and likely more expensive – a cost few people will be willing to bear directly. It might be necessary, but Wilson glosses over the practical problems his solution would create.

There is, however, one good reason to read Half-Earth right now, at least in the United States, where the current federal administration is rolling back environmental protections left and right, including cutting funds for wildlife area acquisition and management. But I thought Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning book The Sixth Extinction made the same general case more powerfully and thoroughly, describing the current, anthropogenic mass extinction that could rival the K-Pg event for sheer number of species exterminated if we don’t do anything about it. Kolbert goes into greater depth with more concrete examples of how man’s activity has altered the planet and moved species around to extinguish some species and threaten others, including a lengthy discussion of chytrid fungus, a thus-far incurable ailment that is killing off tropical frog species with alarming speed.

I think Wilson also fell into the trap that William Easterley (among others) has identified in charitable and other “good intentions” efforts – aiming impossibly high, so that you can never meet your stated goal. You want to end world hunger? That sounds great, but it’ll never happen, and the only outcome will be the creation of a giant organization that absorbs donations without ever accomplishing much of anything. Micro-efforts yield more tangible results, and increase accountability for workers and donors alike. So while saying “let’s reserve half the planet to save it” is an admirable goal, and may even be the right strategy for the long term, it ain’t happening, and talking about it doesn’t get us any closer to solutions. If you want to help save the planet, work towards small, achievable goals. And right now, that probably means working for change in Washington.

Next up: Nina George’s 2013 novel The Little Paris Bookshop.

The Last Days of Night.

Graham Moore won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 for his work on The Imitation Game, particularly impressive for a first-time screenwriter with just that and one novel under his belt at the time. His second novel, The Last Days of Night, came out last August and just appeared in paperback this spring, and is about as good a work of popular, contemporary fiction as I’ve come across.

Moore takes the term historical novel to a new extreme here, creating a coherent narrative around the War of Currents of the late 1800s – the public dispute over whether the nation’s power grid should run on direct current, favored by Thomas Edison, or alternating current, favored by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse – by relying on the historical record as much as possible for descriptions of characters, scenes, and even dialogue. This type of novel typically makes me uncomfortable because it potentially puts words and thoughts in the mouths of real-life personages, potentially coloring or distorting our impressions of them; Moore includes an appendix explaining source materials for many of the depictions in the book, even explaining the origins of some of the dialogue, and also delineating which events and timelines in the book are real and which he created or rearranged to fit the narrative. I’ve read “non-fiction” books that played faster and looser with the truth than Moore does here in his work of fiction.

The War of Currents was kind of a big deal, and a lot more public than you’d expect a scientific debate to be, largely because the two figures at the center of it, Edison and Westinghouse, were both famous and powerful at the time – Edison the revered inventor and showman, Westinghouse the successful businessman and an inventor in his own right, the two embroiled in a public dispute over whether DC or AC was the safer choice for the nation’s emerging electrical grid. (AC was the inarguably superior technology, and eventually won out, but not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons.) Moore wraps this battle, including the bizarre entrance of one Harold Brown, inventor of the electric chair, into the debate, in the larger one over who really invented the incandescent light bulb, spicing things up a little bit with some fictional details like the firebombing of Tesla’s laboratory and a hostile takeover of Edison’s company.

Told from the perspective of Paul Cravath, a young attorney who handled Westinghouse’s side of the various lawsuits back and forth between him and Edison and later founded the Council on Foreign Relations, The Last Days of Night manages to turn what could have been dry history into a suspenseful, fast-paced novel (aided by lots of short chapters) populated by well-rounded characters. Edison’s depiction might be a little too on the nose, but Westinghouse, Cravath, and even the enigmatic Tesla – whose Serbian-accented English is recreated in clever fashion by Moore, who explains his technique in the appendix – come to life on the page in three dimensions even with the limitations of their roles. Moore relied largely on historical information to flesh out the characters, with the main exception of Agnes Huntington, Cravath’s wife, on whom there was very little documentation, leading Moore (or perhaps simply allowing him) to create her backstory and eventual romance with Cravath out of whole cloth. The trick allows Moore to give the book its one proper female character, since the War of Currents was fought entirely by men in domains – science and the law – that were closed to women until the last century.

I found the pace of Last Days a little frenetic, definitely aimed more at the popular end of the market than the literary end; events move quickly, as Moore compressed almost a decade into about two years, and the book has short chapters and tons of dialogue to keep up the velocity. That meant I tore through the book but found it a little balanced towards action over meaning; there was just less to ponder, especially after the book was over, but I also never wanted to put the book down because there are so few points where the pace slackens. That makes it a rarity for me – a book I could recommend to anyone who likes fiction, regardless of what sort of fiction you like.

Next up: Still playing catchup with reviews; I’ve finished Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle) and Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

I Contain Multitudes.

You are currently covered in bugs.

That’s the fact that drives Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, his highly acclaimed 2016 book about the microbiome, a relative neologism that refers to the interconnected world of microorganisms that exist in, on, and around all other life on earth. Without these bugs, we almost certainly wouldn’t exist, and the best estimates Yong has have bacteria and other microbes in and on our bodies outnumbering the cells of our actual bodies by a margin slighter over 1:1. You do not just contain multitudes, Yong quips (borrowing a line from Walt Whitman), but you are multitudes.

Yong spends as much time dispelling myths as he does explaining the new science of the microbiome because everyone who reads this has probably grown up believing one of two things about bacteria and other microbes: They’re dirty and bad and cause illness and death; or, some bacteria are good and we want lots of them but not the bad ones. Yong says neither is accurate; there aren’t “good” or “bad” microbes per se, but that the effect a microbe can have depends entirely on where it lives and thus what it’s able to do.

Microbes make the complexity of life on earth possible, sometimes serving as the difference between life and not-life, as in creatures that live in inhospitable, lightless environments at the bottom of the ocean near steam vents that bring geothermal heat out into the water. Scientists discovered creatures there that seemed to have no business existing in the first place, such as a worm that had no mouth or digestive tract. It turned out that the worm in question plays host to bacteria that provide it with all of the energy the worm needs by converting sulfur compounds found in that dark environment into chemicals the worms can use.

He also explains how evolution works differently – and apparently faster – in bacteria than it does in multicellular organisms, thanks to something called HGT, Horizontal Gene Transfer. (As opposed to, say, the Mariners moving Segura to second base if Cano is hurt; that would be a Horizontal Jean Transfer.) Bacteria have the ability to swap genes with other bacteria in their environment, meaning they can alter their genome on the fly while still alive, as opposed to humans, who are stuck with the genes that brought us to the dance.

Perhaps most relevant to the lay reader are the two chapters near the end of the book where Yong talks about how probiotics don’t work and how we might use bacteria, including their HGT superpowers, to fight diseases like dengue and Zika. Probiotic products are all the rage now, but there’s no evidence that swallowing these bacteria – which appear in tiny amounts even in products like yogurt – alters your microbiome in any way. Your gut flora are largely a function of what you were born with, meaning in turn what you got from your mother in birth (vaginal delivery exposes the infant to the bacteria in the mucosal lining) or via breast feeding (which contains more bugs plus compounds that encourage the growth of helpful bacteria in the cut), and what you eat now (more fiber, please). So skip the kombucha and eat more plants.

Mosquitoes that spread disease often do so with the help of bacteria they host, but there’s an effort underway in Australia – a country far less hostile to science than the United States is – to release mosquitoes of the same species that carries viruses like dengue or chikungunya, A. Aegyptes, that have been infected with a Wolbachia bacterium that renders the critters immune to the viruses. These mosquitoes would then move into the environment, mate with other mosquitoes, and thus spread the bacterial ‘infection’ through the population, thus dramatically reducing the number of bugs flying around with the disease in the first place. A separate but related endeavor aims to do the same with the mosquitoes that carry the parasite that causes malaria in people, a disease that has proven particularly obstinate to the development of a vaccine (in part because it’s neither viral nor bacterial).

Yong’s book seems comprehensive, although I came into it knowing extremely little about the subject. He gets into fecal transplants, including why they’ve helped people with deadly C. dif infections where traditional treatments failed. He discusses antibiotic resistance, of course. He provides copious examples of symbiosis and dysbiosis in the wild, and how many species, including animals, deprived of their normal microbiomes fail to thrive. And he gets into how climate change is altering microbiomes worldwide, leading to mass deaths on coral reefs and the spread of a fungus (also highlighted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction) that has already wiped out numerous species of tropical frogs.

Most important, however, is that Yong keeps this all so accessible. I find the subject interesting anyway, but his prose is readable and his stories quick and quirky enough that the audiobook held my attention throughout, including during some rather dreadful trips between spring training sites in Florida. Granted, it might make you think very differently about shaking hands or touching various surfaces, but I Contain Multitudes might also encourage you to eat better, get a dog, and throw out all your triclosan, while giving you a new appreciation for germs.

Gödel’s Proof.

My latest Insider post covers eight top 100 prospects who took a step back this year. I’ll also hold a Klawchat here at 1 pm ET.

I read Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Kurt Gödel, Incompleteness, last summer, and I believe it was within her book that I read about James Newman and Ernest Nagel’s book Gödel’s Proof that attempts to explain the Austrian logician’s groundbreaking findings. The 114-page volume does a great job of building up to the final proof, but I have to concede that the 19-page section near the end that reveals the fatal blow Gödel delivered to Bertrand Russell, David Hilbert, and others who believed in the essential completeness of mathematical systems lost me in its nested language and ornate symbols. (The newest edition includes a foreword by Douglas Hofstadter, who wrote about the proof in Gödel, Escher, Bach, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction.)

Gödel was himself a fascinating figure, a philosopher, mathematician, and logician who wrote a paper with two theorems at age 25 that stunned the world of mathematics in their method and conclusions, proving that any axiomatic system of arithmetic that is consistent cannot be complete. Completeness here means that every true formula that can be expressed within the system can be proven within the system. Gödel’s trick was to create an entire system of expressing logical formulas via what is now called Gödel numbering, and then to craft a formula that says itself that it is unprovable within the system. His proof further stated that even if you could add an axiom to this system of mathematics to cover this new exception, the formula could always be rephrased to pose a new exception, and thus the system is essentially incomplete.

Nagel and Newman do a great job of getting the reader – or at least in getting this reader – to the edge of understanding by building up the history of the question, giving a lay explanation of Gödel’s basic method of numbering and delineating what a simple axiomatic system like that of Russell’s Principia Mathematica (the system Gödel targeted in his proof) would look like. Russell and other logicians of the time were convinced that systems of mathematics were complete – that we could define any such system in terms of a finite number of axioms that would cover all possible formulas we could craft within that system. Any formula that could be proven true at all could then be proven true using only the axioms of that system. Gödel’s proof to the contrary was scarcely noticed at first, but when it spread and others in the field realized it might be true, it blew apart a fundamental assumption of number theory and of logic, while also making Gödel’s name as a major figure in the history of mathematics and logic.

All of which is to say that I just couldn’t follow the nested statements that constitute Nagel and Newman’s explanation of Gödel’s proof. I haven’t read Gödel’s original paper, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that you’ve got to have some serious math background to understand it, so I will accept the claim that Nagel and Newman made it much easier to grasp … but I still only get this at a superficial level. When the authors compare this to Richard’s Paradox, an earlier device that Gödel cited in his paper, I could understand it; these are all descendants of the “This statement is false” type of logical trick that causes an inherent contradiction. Gödel appears to have done the same thing for arithmetic. I just couldn’t quite get to the mental finish line on this one. I guess you could say my understanding of the topic remains ….


Next up: I finished and will review Laurent Binet’s HHhH, and have begun Clifford Simak’s Hugo-winning novel Way Station.


Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World is less a history of math (although there is quite a bit) than a history of the people and institutions who fought a protracted philosophical battle over something we now consider a trivial bit of precalculus. The idea of infinitesimals, at the time of their development called “indivisibles,” sparked vociferous opposition from the supposedly progressive Jesuits in the 1600s, becoming part of their vendetta against Galileo, leading to banishments and other sentences against Italian mathematicians, and eventually pushing the progress of math itself from Italy out to Germany, England, and the Netherlands.

If you’ve taken calculus at any point, then you’ve encountered infinitesimals, which first appeared in the work of the Greek mathematician Archimedes (the “eureka!” guy). These mathematical quantities are so small that they can’t be measured, but their size is still not quite zero, because you can add up a quantity (or an infinity) of infinitesimals and get a concrete nonzero result. Alexander’s book tells the history of infinitesimals from the ancient Greeks through the philosophical war in Italy between the Jesuits, who opposed the concept of indivisibles as heretical, and the Jesuats, a rival religious order founded in Siena that included several mathematicians of the era who published on the theory of indivisibles, including Bonaventura Cavalieri. When the Jesuits won this battle via politicking within the Catholic hierarchy, the Jesuats were forced to disband, and the work involved in infinitesimals shifted to England, where Alexander describes a second battle, between Thomas Hobbes (yep, the Leviathan guy) and John Wallis, the latter of whom used infinitesimals and some novel work with infinite series in pushing an inductive approach to mathematics and to disprove Hobbes’ assertion that he had solved the problem of squaring the circle.

Wallis’ work with infinitesimals extended beyond the controversy with Hobbes into the immediate precursors of the calculus developed by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, including methods of calculating the area under a curve using these infinitesimals (which Wallis described as width-less parallelograms). Alexander stops short of that work, however, choosing instead to spend the book’s 300 pages on the two philosophical battles, first in Italy and then in England, that came before infinitesimals gained acceptance in the mathematical world and well before Newton or Leibniz entered the picture. Hobbes was wrong – the ancient problem of squaring the circle, which means drawing a square using only a straightedge and compass that has the same area as that of a given circle, is insoluble because the mathematical solution requires the square root of pi, and you can’t draw that. The impossibility of this solution wasn’t proven until 1882, two hundred years after Hobbes’ death, but the philosopher was convinced he’d solved it, which allowed Wallis to tear Hobbes apart in their back-and-forth and, along with some of his own politicking, gave Wallis and the infinitesimals the victory in mathematical circles as well.

Alexander tells a good story here, but doesn’t get far enough into the math for my tastes. The best passage in the book is the description of Hobbes’ work, including the summary of the political philosophy of Leviathan, a sort of utopian autocracy where the will of the sovereign is the will of all of the people, and the sovereign thus rules by acclamation of the populace rather than heredity or divine right. (I was supposed to read Leviathan in college but found the prose excruciating and gave up, so this was all rather new to me.) But Alexander skimps on the historical importance of infinitesimals, devoting just a six-page epilogue to what happened after Wallis won the debate. You can’t have integral calculus without infinitesimals, and calculus is kind of important, but none of its early history appears here, even though there’s a direct line from Wallis to Newton. That makes Infinitesimal a truncated read, great for what it covers, but missing the final chapter.

Next up: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1966.

The Elegant Universe.

My latest column at ESPN looks at five potential callups for contenders.

Brian Greene’s 1999 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory is more like two books in one. The first half to two-thirds is a highly accessible history of the two main branches of physics, the macro world perspective that culminated in Einstein’s discovery of general relativity, and the micro (I mean, really micro) perspective covered by quantum mechanics. The two theories could not be unified until the advent of string theory, which Greene lays out in still somewhat easy to follow language. The last third of the book, however, delves into deeper topics like the nature of spacetime or the hypothesis of the multiverse, and I found it increasingly hard to follow and, unfortunately, less compelling at the same time.

String theory – more properly called superstring theory, but like the old basketball team in Seattle, the theory has lost its “super” somewhere along the way – is the prevailing theoretical framework in modern physics about the true nature of matter and the four fundamental forces. Rather than particles comprising ever-smaller subparticles that function as zero-dimensional points, string theory holds that what we perceive as particles are differing vibrations and frequencies of one-dimensional “strings.” String theory allows physicists to reconcile Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity with the explanations of three of those four forces (strong, weak, and electromagnetic) provided by quantum mechanics, resulting in a theory of quantum gravity that posits that that fourth force is the result of a massless quantum particle called the ‘graviton.’ Gravitons have not been observed or experimentally confirmed, but other similar particles have been, and all would be the result of those vibrating strings, open or closed loops in one dimension that, under the framework, are the most basic, indivisible unit of all matter and energy (which are the same thing) in the universe.

Strings are far too small to be observed, or to ever even be observed – you can’t observe a string with a particle, like a photon, larger than the string itself – but physicists believe string theory is accurate because math. And that’s one of the biggest challenges for Greene or anyone else writing about the topic: the proof isn’t in experimental results or great discoveries, but in equations that are too complicated to present in any text aimed at the mass audience.

In fact, the equations underlying string theory require a universe of not four dimensions – the ones we see, three of space and one of time, which Einstein treated simply as four dimensions of one thing called spacetime – but ten or eleven. These “missing” dimensions are here, at every point in the universe, but are tightly curled up in six-dimensional forms called Calabi-Yau manifolds, as if they exist but the universe simply chose not to deploy them. They must be there, however, if string theory is true, because the calculations require them. This is near the part where I started to fall off the train, and it only became worse with Greene’s discussions of further alterations to string theory – such as higher-dimensional analogues to strings called 2-branes and 3-branes – or his descriptions of what rips or tears in spacetime might look like and how they might fix themselves so that we never notice such things. (Although I prefer to think that that’s where some of my lost items ended up.)

The great success of this book, however, is in getting the reader from high school physics up to the basics of string theory. If you’re not that familiar with relativity – itself a pretty confusing concept – this is the best concise explanation of the theories I’ve come across, as Greene uses simple phrasing and diagrams to explain general and special relativity in a single chapter. He follows that up with a chapter on quantum mechanics, hitting all the key names and points, and beginning to explain why general relativity, which explains gravity in a classical framework, cannot be directly coupled with quantum mechanics, which explains the other three forces in an entirely different framework. Building on those two chapters, Greene gives the most cogent explanation of superstrings, string theory, and even the idea of these six or seven unseen spatial dimensions that I’ve come across. We’re talking about objects smaller than particles that we’ve never seen, and the incredible idea that everything, matter, energy, light, whatever, is just open and closed one-dimensional entities the size of the Planck length, 1.6 * 10-35 meters long. To explain that in even moderately comprehensible terms is a small miracle, and Greene is up to the task.

This was a better read, for me at least, than George Musser’s book on quantum entanglement, Spooky Action at a Distance, which covers a different topic but ends up treading similar ground with its descriptions of spacetime and the new, awkwardly-named hypothesis “quantum graphity.” Quantum entanglement is the inexplicable but true phenomenon where two particles created together maintain some sort of connection or relationship where if the charge or spin on on of the particles is flipped, the charge or spin on the other will flip as well, even if the two particles are separated in distance. This appears to violate the law of physics that nothing, including information, can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. How do these particles “know” to flip? Musser’s description of the history of entanglement, including Einstein’s objection that provided the title for this book, is fine, but when he delves into new hypotheses of the fabric of spacetime, he just completely lost me. Quantum graphity reimagines spacetime as a random graph, rather than the smooth four-dimensional fabric of previous theories, where points (or “nodes”) in space are connected to each other in ways that defy traditional notions of distance. This would provide a mechanism for entanglement and also solve a question Greene addresses too, the horizon problem, where disparate areas of the universe that have not been in direct physical contact (under the standard model) since a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang currently have the same temperature. I didn’t think Musser explained quantum graphity well enough for the lay reader (me!), or gave enough of an understanding that this is all highly speculative, as opposed to the broader acceptance of something like string theory or absolute acceptance of quantum theory.

Next up: Back to fiction with Eowyn Ivey’s Pulitzer Prize finalist The Snow Child.

The Unfinished Game.

I’m still playing a bit of catchup on stuff I read during March (and just finished Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War over lunch today), but one title I definitely want to bring to everyone’s attention is the delightful, short book by mathematician (and NPR’s “Math Guy”) Keith Devlin called The Unfinished Game, which explains how one specific letter in the correspondence between Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat opened the door to the world of probability and everything that this branch of mathematics makes possible.

The unfinished game of the book’s title was based on a common, popular controversy of the time surrounding games of chance, which were largely seen as incalculable – our modern, simple way of calculating odds of things like throws of the dice just did not exist at the time. Pascal and Fermat discussed the question of how to divide winnings in a game of two or more players where the players choose to abandon the game before any one player has won the requisite number of matches. (So, for example, they’re playing a best-of-five, but the players quit after three rounds, with one player having won two times and the other one.) The controversy in question will seem silly to any modern reader who’s taken even a few weeks of probability theory in high school math, but Devlin is deft enough to explain the problem in 1600s terms, so that the logical confusion of the era is clear on the page.

The confusion stemmed from the misunderstanding about the frequencies of subsequent events, given that the game would not always be played to its conclusion: You may say up front you’re going to play a best of seven, but you do not always need to play seven matches to determine a winner. If you quit after three games, in the situation I outlined above, it is possible that you would have needed just one more match to determine a winner, and it is possible that you would have needed two more matches. Pascal’s letter to Fermat proposed a method of determining how to split the winnings in such an unfinished game; the letter was the start of modern probability theory, and the problem is now known as the problem of points. (You can read the entire surviving correspondence on the University of York’s website; it also includes their conversations on prime numbers, including Fermat’s surprising error in claiming that all numbers of the form 2(2n)+1, which is only true for 0 ≤ n ≤ 4. Those five numbers are now called Fermat primes; Euler later showed Fermat’s hypothesis was wrong, and 2(25)+1 = 4294967297, which is composite.)

Fermat realized you must count all of the potential solutions, even ones that would not occur because they involved playing the fifth game when it was made unnecessary by the first player winning the fourth match and taking the entire set, so to speak. (The problem they discussed was slightly more involved.) Pascal took Fermat’s tabular solution, a brute-force method of counting out all possible outcomes, and made it generalizable to all cases with a formula that works for any number of players and rounds. This also contributed to Pascal’s work on what we now call Pascal’s triangle, and created what statisticians and economists now refer to as “expectation value” – the amount of money you can expect to win on a specific bet given the odds and payout of each outcome.

Devlin goes about as far as you can when your subject is a single letter, with entertaining diversions into the lives of Pascal and Fermat (who corresponded yet never met) and tangents like Pascal’s wager. At heart, the 166-page book is about probability theory, and Devlin makes the subject accessible to any potential reader, even ones who haven’t gone beyond algebra in school. Given how much of our lives – things like insurance, financial markets, and sports betting, to say nothing of the probabilistic foundations of quantum theory – are possible because of probability theory, The Unfinished Game should probably be required reading for any high school student.

Next up: I just started Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Beyond Einstein.

Some great boardgame apps still on sale, including Splendor for $0.99 (iOS or android) and Ticket to Ride for $2.99 (iOS or android).

I enjoyed physicist Michio Kaku’s book Einstein’s Cosmos, a biography of the founder of relativity theory that didn’t skimp on details of Einstein’s work, so when I spotted another of Kaku’s books, the 1995 work Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (co-authored by Jennifer Thompson) for half price at Changing Hands in Tempe during my annual AFL trip, I picked it up without a second thought. The book covers a little of the same ground as the Einstein bio, but is primarily a history of superstring theory and the search for a “grand unified theory” (up to 1995, of course) that would bring together the four fundamental forces of physics, building the reader up from the mid-19th century forward through various stops and starts that included the proposal, discarding, and resurrection of string theory from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Strings, in particle physics, are theoretical subparticles that would constitute all types of matter and energy in the universe: the hundreds (or more) types of subatomic particles known to physics may all be manifestations of strings, with different vibrations of the strings showing up to our devices as different subatomic particles. String theory would solve a large number of problems with our current understanding of the nature of matter and energy, from the existence of the aforementioned four forces (gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism, although the last two have been shown to be the same thing) to the origins of the universe itself. Most theoretical physics has rested on the assumption that the universe is orderly; the complexity involved in having hundreds of fundamental particles, or even in having four independent forces, has in and of itself led physicists to try to unite these under a single umbrella, with string theory the leading candidate and quite possibly the only game in town.

Where Kaku and Thompson succeed is in guiding the reader to a basic understanding of string theory by gradually working their way through the various milestones in physics research over the 120 or so years before string theory became widely accepted as a serious candidate for the “theory of everything.” That means we get our fill of Maxwell and Einstein, but we also get Feynman diagrams (which apparently are rather a big deal, but were new to me as a lay reader) and the best concise explanation of Schrodinger’s cat paradox I’ve come across. Kaku also explains symmetry and supersymmetry, the suspected nature of dark matter, and the connection between Lie groups (from group theory) and quantum field theory, without ever drowning readers in math unless you go to the footnotes. I wouldn’t say that the book taught me enough about string theory – I think I’ll have to get Brian Greene’s best-selling The Elegant Universe for that – but it gave me more than just a superficial explanation along with plenty of the mind-bending stuff that makes theoretical physics seem fun to someone like me.

There are some sections at the end of the book that seemed to me to go beyond science and into the highly speculative, although some of you may be able to tell me that my impression is wrong. Some of it is just strange, like the argument that the universe was originally in ten dimensions but collapsed into two separate universes, ours with four dimensions and another, minuscule universe that held the other six (are dimensions really additive?). Some seemed borderline metaphysical, like the argument that the universe came from nothing in a sort of quantum leap, even though sudden state shifts like that don’t occur … well, ever, or wouldn’t we stand in constant risk of winking out of existence (or perhaps into another, parallel universe)? Kaku’s book leaves lots of questions unanswered, but I suppose it fits, since theoretical physics has yet to answer many of those same questions.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, another Hugo Award winner.

Ada’s Algorithm.

My top 50 free agent rankings went up Friday for Insiders, following by the “deleted scenes” post with capsules on four guys whom I wrote about before their employers picked up their club options. I’ve also got buyers’ guides to catchers and to corner infielders up, with middle infielders due on Tuesday.

Everything seems to be coming up Ada Lovelace lately; largely overlooked in her own time because she was a woman in the early Victorian era and was better known as the one legitimate offspring of the rake Lord Byron, she’s now widely recognized as the creator of the first machine algorithm, the primary ancestor of the modern computer program. The Department of Defense named a programming language (Ada) after her in the early 1980s, and she’s appeared in numerous works of fiction (such as William Gibson’s The Difference Engine) and non-fiction (including a brand-new short work aimed at schoolchildren called Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine) over the last 25 years. Since my daughter was working on a short presentation on Lovelace – all the kids were asked to pick a scientist, and she was pissed off because there was only one woman (Marie Curie, of course) on the original list of assignments – I picked up James Essinger’s 2014 biography, Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age, which had most of the key details but is padded with a lot of less critical material.

Ada Lovelace’s place in history comes from her friendship with Charles Babbage, who designed (but never built) the first computers, one called the Difference Engine, of which he built one-seventh, and another called the Analytical Engine, which he never built at all due to the prohibitive cost and lack of manufacturing facilities capable of building all of the cogswheels the device required. Babbage was a bit of a mad scientist, prone to emotional outbursts and self-destructive arguments that cost him any shot to gain the funds necessary to build even part of either Engine beyond what he built. He also lacked Ada’s communications skills, and when the Italian mathematican (and later Prime Minister of Italy) Luigi Federico Menabrea wrote a paper describing Babbage’s Analytical Engine, Lovelace translated it into English and supplemented it with her own Notes, the latter of which ran more than twice as long as Menabrea’s original article, and included the algorithm that earned her posthumous fame. She saw the potential of Babbage’s machine that even Babbage did not – that programmers could use it to solve all kinds of mathematical problems beyond mere arithmetic, as long as the programmer could conceive the necessary series of steps for the calculations.

Lovelace died of uterine cancer at 36, and much of the detail of her life is lost both to time and, it’s believed, to her mother’s decision to destroy much of Ada’s correspondence after the latter’s death. Even many of the letters she exchanged with Babbage are gone, leaving any biographer with relatively meager material from which to construct a story of her life. Essinger barely makes it past 200 pages, and even to get to that point he has to fill with material that’s not all that relevant to the reader primarily interested in Ada’s Notes and the algorithm of the book’s title. For example, we don’t need two chapters on Lord Byron, and I was certainly glad I got the book away from my daughter (who found it boring anyway) before she got to the mentions of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta or the story of how his nanny would take him into her bed, masturbate him, and then later turn around and beat him, often doing both things in the presence of her friends. (That material would seem essential in any biography of Byron himself, though, since it probably explains his later promiscuity and other “immoral” behavior relative to the mores of the era.) Byron was out of Ada’s life for good while she was still an infant, and including such details on his life seems more than just out of place but almost pandering.

Essinger gives us too much of the text of some of her less relevant letters, and inserts his own speculation on things like whether she might have met certain personages of the era, like Charles Darwin, or whether Babbage was in love with Ada, for which there’s no tangible evidence. The first hardcover edition also has numerous typos and minor errors in the text – for example, using “inconceivable” when he meant “conceivable,” which is kind of a weak word anyway – that further added to my impression that I was reading Essinger’s thoughts and opinions rather than a narrative rendering of her life. It seems that we don’t know enough about Ada Lovelace for a full biography, but that doesn’t quite justify surrounding what we do know with speculation or tangential details.

Next up: Speaking of Gibson, I’m reading Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in his Sprawl trilogy, which began with the Hugo-winning Neuromancer.

The Sixth Extinction.

My annual column on players I got wrong is up for Insiders.

I was feeling okay until I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, winner of the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction, an unbelievably well-written and thorough accounting of the history of mass extinctions with a particular emphasis on the current one that is the first to be caused by another species – us.

The various scientists who work on the history of life on earth and of the planet itself agree that we’ve seen five mass extinction events since life first began, including the one we all learned about in school, the massive impact of a foreign body on earth that ended the Cretaceous period, killing all non-avian dinosaurs and three of every four species extant on the planet at that time. That wasn’t even the most damaging to life on earth – the end Permian event wiped out over 90% of extant species – and other extinction events had differing causes, including widespread glaciation or gradual oceanic acidification. But these events did occur, along with numerous smaller extinction events, which is why the current biosphere looks like it does, with our species the dominant one … and causing the current mass extinction event, which could lead to the loss of half of the biodiversity on the planet by the end of the century.

Kolbert has a lot of what could be some very dry paleontological and geological research on the history of mass extinction events, but instead weaves them into numerous narratives around specific species that we’ve lost or are trying to protect. She flashes backward into historical research to discuss long-vanished species like graptolites, which were wiped out in the ice age that ended the Ordovician period roughly 444 million years ago, or to discuss the various natural environmental phenomena that caused previous mass extinction events. In many of these chapters, she traveled to conservation sites, to zoos, or to natural habitats to follow scientists attempting to stave off extinctions or learn the causes of population losses. She travels to Panama to witness the desperate attempts to save various golden frog populations from the chytrid fungus, which eats away at amphibians’ skin, and to a cave in upstate New York where the native bat population was decimated by “white nose syndrome,” caused by another fungus called Pseudogymnoascus (formerly geomyces) destructans that thrives in the cold temperatures the bats favor.

By the end of the book, Kolbert has devoted a chapter to each of the major effects of human development on the biosphere that are now factors in the ongoing mass extinction event, including climate change, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, geographic fragmentation, spreading invasive species, and hunting/poaching. It’s utterly horrifying, not least because there’s so little we can do at this point: Our very existence, and our (temporary) supremacy atop the evolutionary pyramid, has led to numerous extinctions, from our hunting the great auks out of existence to deforestation that has wiped out numerous bird and amphibian species. Global warming is a dire threat to marine life in particular, and ocean acidification, climate change’s “equally evil twin,” is killing the world’s coral reefs. We’re bringing pathogens to ecosystems where the native species haven’t evolved any resistance, and bringing invasive plant, insect, and reptile species to environments where they lack natural predators. We suck.

Of course, we are also the only species in the history of the planet to actually care about stopping extinctions, although our efforts tend to focus on single species and to come very late, rather than trying to stop massive factors like climate change that threaten thousands of species simultaneously. Kolbert can’t even muster a high note on which to end the book, not that she should sugar-coat the truth, and concludes with the open question of what consequences these environmental catastrophes and the consequential loss of biodiversity might have for us.

Kolbert goes into the suspected causes of the mass extinctions, four of which are more or less tied to the current event. The end Permian “impact” event makes for a fascinating story because the hypothesis is so recent (first proposed in 1980) and was so widely derided at the time, including a famous New York Times editorial from 1985 titled “Miscasting the Dinosaur’s Horoscope,” which concluded with the line, “Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of earthly events in the stars.” While it’s the one kind of mass extinction event cause we’re not currently putting in play ourselves, it makes for a compelling side story as Kolbert explains both the discovery of the evidence that backs it up and the scientific establishment’s resistance to the idea when it was first proposed.