Tuesday, July 3, 2012

What I've Been Reading

Now that I'm done with grad school, I've been ODing on the reading.  Here's my current reading list.

"The Elegant Universe" by Brian Greene
I love science.  While some may argue that science is merely another religion, science in its nature uses empirical methods to prove its findings--as opposed to religion, which is more backed by faith.  Yes, even science and mathematics have postulates that cannot be proven; but at least once they get past the postulates, the rest all follows logic.  For this reason, I am more partial to science than I am to any organized religion out there.

Of course, most books I have read on cosmology were almost as spoon-bending as the Holy Books themselves!  For example, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time did bring to my awareness what contemporary scientists believe.  However, there were still plenty of questions amiss.  After all, Dr. Hawking was painting in very broad strokes about 200 years worth of heavy research.  So some of the sections of that book--especially subatomic particles, black holes, singularities, quantum mechanics, et al--raised my eyebrows a-plenty.  Having not read the studies that yielded these results, I had to resign to blind faith--faith that these scientists know what they're talking about and I am merely a boorish ignoramus.

I then tried reading "A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion", or Dr. Hawking's compilation on Einstein.  Holy Red Heifer!  Now this book made me even more confused.  First of all, I do not have the requisite background in mathematics to be able to comprehend the workings that Einstein did.  I could parse on a philosophical level the problem he was trying to solve: James Clerk Maxwell proved that a beam of light moves at a constant speed, so if one were to ride on a beam of light, what would happen to time?  But then, the math he did TOTALLY lost me.  I wasn't even up to Special Relativity and I already threw my hands in the air.  Like I could understand the Cliff Notes version of General Relativity as explained on Wikipedia, but the math behind it?  Fuhgedaboudit!

Enter Brian Green.  I've seen him speak at the World Science Festival.  I've watched a few of his NOVA specials.  He is a brilliant scientist, but extremely charismatic.  I would describe him as resembling Gene Wilder with a Midwestern accent.  He's a bigshot Physicist at Columbia, but still able to explain even the most daunting of concepts to non-scientists/mathematicians like me.

So this book, The Elegant Universe, is his persuasive argument for String Theory.  For those unaware, String Theory is one of several attempts to come up with a TOE (Theory of Everything)  to explain all natural phenomena.  Right now, we have GUT (Grand Unified Theory), which unites the Electromagnetic Force, Strong Nuclear Force, and Weak Nuclear Force.  The odd-man-out here is the Gravitational Force, which does not behave like the other forces.  This has troubled scientists for a long time.  In fact, Green claims, Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life trying to reconcile this, but failed.

And so, this book as an attempt to persuade readers that String Theory is the future.  There are others out there, but String seems to be the one that is the most mathematically sound (so far).  But what I like about this book the best is that Green does an excellent job explaining why scientists believe in things like subatomic particles and why they are necessary.  Reading this book, I find a refreshing reaffirmation of my faith in science.

From the opposite spectrum:
"How to Read the Bible" by James Kugel.

This is not the most heretical thing I've ever read.  However, if you can seriously read this book with an open mind and still believe that the Torah was written by Moses all at once, then your faith is more unwavering than Job!

The most interesting thing about this book?  The author, James L. Kugel, identifies himself as a fully observant Orthodox Jew.  That's right, this man, who sometimes abashedly/tongue-in-cheekly tears a hole in Biblical Monism still is a man of faith!  One day, I hope to ask him how he reconciles this (I'm sure it's out there on the interwebs....)

I will be visiting and revisiting things Kugel has taught me throughout my bloggings.  There is much to say.  Some I already came across in my readings.  Much of it was in passing--such as Documentary Hypothesis, which states that the Torah is a tapestry of at least 4 different strands (J,E,P, & D), each of which was written at a different time and by different authors (or sets of authors).  Of course, the theory is not incontrovertible, as we may never know who exactly these authors were.  My rule of thumb: if you are shooting down a popularly believed theory, at least make sure the one you replace it with is more plausible!  For example, the mystery of who really shot JFK:  Now the Warren Commission clearly glossed a lot of things over and left a lot of holes.  But some of the alternative theories are simply ASININE!  I'm talking about aliens, citizens of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, massive conspiracies that are so intricate that we might as well just throw our arms up and give into a lone gunman, etc.

Here's a taster.  When Uncle Moishy sang "Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere..." was he talking about the God of the Old Testament?  Sure, from the time I was a kid, this is what I was taught about God.  He is incorporeal and the anthropomorphisms of the Torah are meant to be taken euphemistically (i.e. "and God saw", "His outstretched arm", "and the Lord heard").  But Kugel argues that perhaps this was not always the dominant belief.  Like why did Moses have to climb a mountain with a burning bush to speak to God?  Why did the Israellites have to go to Mt. Sinai to receive the law?  And why then did they have to build a tabernacle?  I can't do justice to Kugel's arguments:  but he argues that at some point, it was believed that YHWH had his corporeality: he did "dwell amongst the people", he did "walk in the Garden", and he absolutely did "descend upon the Egyptians" and "pass over the houses of the Israellites".  That is, God had a finite spirit that did move around, and the tabernacle really was a place where he "lived".  Only later authors hint toward an incorporeal deity as currently believed in.


  1. Fun fun fun! Kugel's book was a big eye-opener for me . . . not because I believed in the Bible - I never have-, but I put it down wondering how anyone possibly could . . especially Kugel himself. Anyway, he does answer your question here: http://www.jameskugel.com/read.php (scroll down to "Orthoprax or Orthodox
    by DH".

  2. sounds like you got a fantastic collection :-) btw somewhere in "a stubbornly persistent illusion" there is a section where he describes his theories for the layman (the am ha'oretz) it is not an light read and you will need to pay attention, but there is almost no math.