Stick to baseball, 4/8/17.

I had one Insider post this week, on the most prospect-packed minor league rosters to open the season. I have already filed a draft blog post on last night’s outing by Hunter Greene, with additional notes on a half-dozen other draft prospects, including Brendan McKay and Austin Beck. (EDIT: It’s up now.) I held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I resumed boardgame reviews for Paste this week with a look at the reissue of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, specifically the Jack the Ripper & West End Cases set, but found it more like a solitaire puzzle than a cooperative game.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon, or from other sites via the Harper-Collins page for the book. The book now has two positive reviews out, one from Kirkus Reviews and one from Publishers Weekly.

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And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 12/10/16.

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week to cover all the major transactions before and during the winter meetings, including:

The Cardinals signing Dexter Fowler
The Yankees signing Aroldis Chapman
The Nationals’ trade for Adam Eaton
The Cubs/Royals trade with Wade Davis and Jorge Soler
The Rockies signing Ian Desmond
The Rays signing Wilson Ramos
The Red Sox trading for Chris Sale
The Red Sox trading for Tyler Thornburg
The Giants signing Mark Melancon
The Yankees signing Matt Holliday
The Astros signing Carlos Beltran

I also held a Klawchat on Friday afternoon.

Over at Paste, I reviewed Terraforming Mars, one of the best new boardgames of 2016, and one that will place high on my ranking of the top ten games of the year when that’s published in the next few days.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

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Stick to baseball, 11/26/16.

Chris Crawford and I ranked and wrote up the top 30 prospects for the 2017 draft, with Vandy outfielder Jeren Kendall at #1. I also wrote posts for Insiders on the Segura/Walker trade, on the Brett Cecil & Andrew Cashner contracts and other moves, and on the Astros’ moves last week. I also held a Klawchat on Tuesday, in advance of the holiday.

Over at Paste I reviewed the new Martin Wallace game Via Nebula, a great, family-level route-building game that we found simple to learn and quick to play.

You can preorder my upcoming book, Smart Baseball, on amazon. Also, please sign up for my more-or-less weekly email newsletter.

And now, the links…

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.

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.

Hominids.

Robert Sawyer’s name might be more familiar to those of you who watched the short-lived ABC series Flash Forward, based on his novel of the same name, but his one Hugo Award for Best Novel came four years after that book with Hominids, the first book in a trilogy that posits a parallel universe where Neanderthals won the evolutionary battle over Cro-Magnons and have since become the dominant species on their version of Earth.

The two parallel Earths are joined briefly during a quantum computing experiment gone awry in the Neanderthals’ universe, opening a portal that rather rudely deposits Neanderthal physicist Ponder Boddit in our world, smack in the middle of an underground heavy-water tank at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s real, located in the Creighton nickel mine a bit north of Lake Huron, and the director of the neutrino-detection experiment just won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month. Sawyer grounds everything in the Homo sapiens world in reality, using real place and brand names, although some of them (Palm Pilot? Handspring?) already sound comically out of date.

Boddit’s appearance in our world and sudden, unexplained disappearance in his creates two separate storylines: one here, focusing on the mystery of his arrival and the very short-term impact on him from a substantial shock to the system; and one there, where his coworker and sort of life-partner (sexual orientation in Sawyer’s Neanderthal world is fluid) Adikor Huld finds himself accused of murder because he was the only one present when Boddit left the building. The latter story ends up the more interesting one despite what would appear to be a simpler premise, as Sawyer uses it to explore both the Neanderthals’ culture and the individual personalities of several characters, primarily Adikor himself. Boddit’s adventure on our side – which, it is clear from the beginning, can only end properly with the opening of a new portal and his return to “his” earth – feels rushed and somewhat rote, as if Sawyer had a sort of checklist of things he wanted to cover and felt compelled to hit them all.

For example, Sawyer has made the Neanderthals a nontheistic and nonreligious society, primarily to set up a scene where he attacks the Catholicism of the main female character, Mary Vaughn, who develops feelings for him during the few days they spend together; it feels forced, and a bit unlikely that the entire culture of Neanderthals would be without religion even before it had a scientific explanation for the existence of the universe or of consciousness. Mary’s character herself is also problematic – her first appearance on the pages is as a rape victim, which serves no purpose within the novel as a whole except possibly to make her more open to seeing Boddit as a fellow human because he is, in our terms, more of a “gentleman.”

Sawyer’s Neanderthals fall too much into the “noble savage” cliché, as their universe has no war, pollution, poverty, or even crime, with a global population of just over 150 million and all citizens equipped from birth with a Companion, an electronic device implanted in the wrist that measures vital signs and records locations, movements, and actions for later storage. It’s a crime-prevention device, a walking encyclopedia, and a near-complete abrogation of individual privacy in the Neanderthals’ Marxist society. It’s also terribly convenient because it allows Boddit to communicate with the people who find him on our side of the portal within a matter of hours, as the Companion can “learn” English and translate for him. (Granted, without that, the book would be a very frustrating read and probably quite boring.)

The two plots are so thin, in fact, that Hominids feels more like an extended prologue for another story than like a standalone novel. While Sawyer’s explanations of quantum mechanics and the existence of this second, parallel universe are quite clever and mostly grounded in real science, once he gets Boddit here, not a whole lot happens either in terms of action on the pages or exploration of the many ramifications of such a discovery, both scientific and anthropological.

Oh, by the way: Not that anyone should take my predictions seriously, but I’ll say Mets in 5.

Next up: Graham Greene’s first novel, The Man Within.

Three history of science books.

I have one new post up on ESPN.com, on prep lefty Brady Aiken, the top prospect right now for this year’s Rule 4 draft.

I’ve listened to three history of science audiobooks in the last month, two of which became more relevant in the wake of Monday’s announcement of a discovery of evidence relating to the initial moments after the Big Bang. Of those three books, one was excellent, one was disappointing, and one had a little bit of both.

By far my favorite of the three was Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, a book about the discovery of quantum mechanics and the difficulty the theory’s proponents had in convincing the advocates of the standard model of physics – a group that included Einstein and Bohr – that God does indeed play dice, at least with subatomic particles. The book is thorough, speaking as often as possible through the words of its many characters, while making a complex scientific subject easily accessible to lay readers who, like me, may not have taken a physics class in 20+ years.

The book builds up to Werner Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, and then deals with the massive fallout (pun intended) from the theorem’s introduction and subsequent examinations within a skeptical physics community. The principle is popularly interpreted to mean that we cannot simultaneously know the location of a subatomic particle and its velocity, but that oversimplifies it a bit. Heisenberg actually argued that the more accurately we can measure the position of a particle, the less accurately we can measure its momentum. This is separate from the observer effect, also discussed by Heisenberg, which states that the act of observing a particle alters the characteristics of that particle that the observer is attempting to measure. The uncertainty principle itself is critical to the understanding of quantum mechanics and measuring the behavior of subatomic particles after the demise of the “predictable” model of classical physics. This uncertainty is an inevitable result of the fact that every particle in the universe is also a wave, which is where Herr Schrödinger comes into play.

Uncertainty has to deal with a lot of phenomena that aren’t covered in high school physics classes, and some that are but might be unfamiliar, such as the discovery that electrons do not in fact orbit the nucleus of an atom as planets in the solar system do. The book also has the best explanation I’ve come across of the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, as the physicist himself looms large in the early days of the theory and refinements of quantum mechanics. The paradox was Schrödinger’s response to the seemingly impossible claim of the quantum theorists that a subatomic particle could simultaneously exist in multiple “states.” Schrödinger’s cat existed in a box where a canister of poison would open with the release, at some arbitrary point in time, of a single particle. He argued that if quantum mechanics were true, the cat would simultaneously be alive and dead – at least until the observer opened the box, at which point the cat would clearly have to move entirely to one state (alive) or the other (dead). This paradox sidestepped the question of whether quantum characteristics of subatomic particles do or should apply equally to relatively large objects, but the paradox has led to multiple interpretations, from the slightly insane (the Copenhagen interpretation, where observing the object ends the superposition of multiple states) to the totally insane (the many-worlds interpretation, where observing the object splits the universe into two universes and I can’t even continue with this). I’ve always understood it as a probabilistic model: The cat is only “half alive and half dead” in a mathematical sense, as in 1/2(alive) + 1/2(dead). No one can seriously argue that the cat exists in two superposed states until we open the box, right?

Lindley’s greatest trick here is to present the various scientists involved in the debate over quantum phenomena, particularly Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, and Schrödinger, as full-fledged individuals, capable of insight, humor, doubt, and even pettiness. Heisenberg’s postulate threw a huge wrench into the well-oiled machine of classical physics, where the behavior of particles was thought to be predictable and well-understood. Heisenberg didn’t just say that their behavior was unpredictable, but that it could never become predictable, and that there was an upper bound on our ability to observe and understand the behavior of certain subatomic particles.

The second book of the three, the one on which I’d put a middling grade, was Ray Jayawardhana’s Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe*, about the lengthy and difficult question to understand these particular subatomic particles, ones that seemed to also defy conventional wisdom on how such particles should behave. Neutrinos are almost massless and can pass through an entire planet without touching another particle. They also explain the full process involved in beta decay, where an atomic nucleus emits an electron or a positron as well as electron neutrino (or antineutrino, but hold that thought). Without the neutrino to balance the scales, physicists were left with an apparent loss of momentum and energy from beta decay. As it turns out, the Italian physicist Wolfgang Pauli wasn’t just making stuff up when he posited the existence a previously unknown particle, which another Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, dubbed the “neutrino,” or “little neutron.”

* Subtitles have gotten completely out of control.

Jayawardhana starts off with a brisk history of physicists’ understanding of the atom and radioactive decay, getting us fairly quickly to Pauli and the stir that his hypothesis created in the world of nuclear physics. Undiscovered particles are always good fun in that realm, but Pauli’s subatomic idea was a naughty bit, appearing to have no mass, possibly having no charge (but having “spin,” tying to Pauli’s other great contribution to science, for which he later won a Nobel Prize), and defying decades of attempts to find it. Pauli’s guess was right, as the neutrino did exist, but wasn’t discovered until 26 years after his first paper describing it, and physicists continue to build larger and more expensive contraptions to capture enough neutrinos to try to better understand them, graduating from capturing solar neutrinos (emitted during the nuclear fusion that powers the star) to those that reach us from distant supernovae. Neutrinos also gave rise to our understanding of the weak interaction, one of the four fundamental forces of nature, and are one of the handful of remnants left over from the Big Bang still hanging around the background fabric of the universe.

When Jayawardhana is explaining the “invention” of the neutrino, its formation, and the various “flavors” of neutrinos now known to science, he keeps the material moving and strikes the ideal balance between rigor and accessibility. But the last third of the book bogs down in descriptions of those enormous devices used to try to catch the little sneaks, and the lengthy efforts involved in funding those experiments and waiting for results. The discussion of why neutrinos matter suffers in comparison for its brevity, when in fact that’s the topic that deserved greater explanation. The revelation that neutrinos may actually serve as their own antiparticles is just thrown in near the end of the book, even though that’s kind of a big deal. Jayawardhana also falls into the trap of dismissing the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat by saying, without any explanation, that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead inside of the box, an interpretation that, even if you accept it, isn’t the only one out there.

Unrelated to the book itself, the audiobook was narrated by Bronson Pinchot, so if you’ve always wanted to hear Balki talk to you about double beta decay, here’s your chance.

The disappointment was Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos, a description of Copernicus’s earth-shattering (pun intended) discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, not, as the Catholic Church decreed, that the universe revolves around the earth. Copernicus also pointed out that the stars are much farther away from earth than scientists of his era believed them to be. Sobel’s book paled in comparison to her wonderful debut, Longitude, but also suffers from the paucity of original source material, as Copernicus left little besides his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and after his death the work was condemned by the very church he’d once served as a canon.

To fill in the gap, Sobel resorts to a dubious technique of imagining dialogues between several of the major players in the drama, incorporating a short play in the middle of her more serious work. Historical fiction itself is problematic enough when the author puts words or actions with real historical figures, but Sobel’s device here seems unconscionable. That we know so little of Copernicus’ life beyond his magnum opus is lamentable, but it is no excuse for fabricating an entire personality for him and others involved in the story of his discovery, such as making Georg Rheticus, the mathematician who published On the Revolutions, into a pederast. Expanding the tome to discuss Johannes Kepler, who built on Copernicus’ work and discovered that planetary orbits are elliptical rather than circular, at greater length would have been a better use of the space.

I’ll apologize here for any errors in my descriptions of the physics explained in these books. Please submit any corrections or clarifications in the comments.