Tag Archives: science

Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake

Ostensibly a natural history of the kingdom of Fungi, this volume achieves its highest interest and greatest value when biological knowledge is extended outward like mycorrhizal hyphae to enrich other fields of thought.  It was, for example, during the study of lichens, those unbelievably prolific and durable partnerships between fungi and algae, that the word ‘synergy was coined, leading both author and reader to ruminate upon the ubiquity of synergies in human activities and the value of opportunism in finding new ones.

Fungal networks are exposed as ancient precursors to the Internet (Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter to what he has dubbed the ‘Wood Wide Webs’, and their contributions to the natural environment and its unnatural derivative – agriculture).  Darwin’s theories are subjected to reinterpretation as cooperative relationships in nature are seen to outnumber competitive ones by geometric factors. (Though Sheldrake does not specifically go there, this particular insight bodes ill for American society’s preoccupation with win/lose ball-sports as training ground and philosophical oracle – how much better off might our politics and civics be if we had chosen a cooperative paradigm, geographic explorations, perhaps, than the winner-take-all destroy-your-opponent-at all-cost strategy of pro football?)

And how many of us, among the general populace, knew that plants themselves do not actually capture water or nourishment from soil, but rather must rely on fungi both on and inside their roots in order to exist at all?  That those fungi cannot survive without feeding off products of the plants’ photosynthesis seems less striking, though Sheldrake reminds us it is so only because of our plant centric (and animal centric, mammal centric, primate centric, human-centric) way of viewing the universe. Another worthy insight.

Beyond even those, there is the chaos concept of intelligence – how organisms without brains can yet engage in problem solving and deduction  Whether finding their way through a maze or creating a web to find food and then pruning back the unproductive branches to concentrate energy and resources where they will have  most effect, fungal networks suggest ways in which many human phenomena actually operate, and in which others might be made more effective.    A fungal contribution likely even more valuable to future generations than say, penicillin (molds being a subset of fungi). 

At times reading too much like a graduate compendium of current research (the chapter on ‘Mycelial Minds,’ focusing at great length on the effects and mechanisms of psilocybin – Magic Mushrooms – and with them LSD, went on far too long, for my taste), Sheldrake at other times comes across as geekily lovable, as when relating early childhood experiences that led him to this field of  study.    Cleary capable and erudite, he is a worthy PR rep for this too-oft overlooked and underpublicized part of our natural world. (which we learn is the ‘life kingdom of fungi’, independent of the kingdoms of ‘plants’ and of ‘animals,’ all of which are within the Domain of Eukaryota – who would have guessed?),   

Truffles may be the most highly-prized variety, but this volume makes clear there’s plenty more in the fungal kingdom worth biting one’s teeth into than just those stinky delicacies.

The Three Body Problem

Geek fiction of the sci/poli sort. Set within the landscape of China’s autocratic-socialist movements and brigades, this first of a three volume series considers the possibility of ‘First Contact’ with alien life as a matter of existential fear and conviction. Fear, on the one hand, that an advanced civilization will take over and obliterate us,  and conviction, on the other, that we ourselves have devolved so much we’ve become a malignancy on the earth and the universe – or, to quote a current political figure about an invasion of a different sort – “what have you got to lose?”

Liu is a citizen and resident of the PRC, not an ethnic Chinese educated or residing in the west, which may explain why the events and rhythm of the book feel so plodding and academic; one suspects they reflect expectations and tastes shaped by decades of bureaucratic media and arts.   His detailed and historicist attention to the physics behind the story is informative, but similarly derails a central tenet of what one normally expects in a popular novel – drama. Add to that characters whose individuality is expressed only in the very narrow and internalized manner allowed by their society’s emphasis on conformity, obedience and reticence, and you end up with something rather challenging to get through, despite what seems a fluid translation from the original Mandarin.

Still, Liu is intelligent, knowledgeable and original, so one is very curious to see where it all will go (as well as whether the pace will pick up in future volumes). Maybe worth the time…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘For people in a hurry,’ in the sense that it this is a tiny volume, pocket sized with barely 200 pages and not small type; and also in the sense that a universe of complex ideas are treated briefly and with concision. Perfect for those who want a general sense of what terms like multi-verse, dark energy and Boolean Algebra mean, without the years of schooling and boggled-brains it would take to really ‘know’ this stuff.

For those folks (of which I count myself one), Tyson does a great job, leading us in somewhat random-feeling steps from the relatively-intuitive astronomic understandings that give us a map of the nearby (solar system, asteroids) to the tougher concepts that make up our current best understanding what the entire universe consists of, how it was formed and how it behaves, at levels from the molecular to the quantum. Along the way he delivers plenty of staggering numbers such as:

the portion of all matter/energy which is visible vs that which is totally invisible except through its effects – that being ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ accounting, for if memory serves, some two thirds of all there is!

The number of molecules in a single cup of water – which is greater than the total number of cups of water in all the oceans of earth!

The number of bacteria in one inch of a human colon – which is greater than the number of all the humans who have lived through all time!

And many, many, more

Of particular appeal are passages recounting a few great miss-understandings which even great minds have labored under, and how those very mistakes eventually led them and others to new discoveries, an essential part of the scientific method which is sometimes lost in the shouting matches of reactionary culture wars.

 

Once all that knowledge has been disseminated, a final summation touts the intellectual and moral benefits of these concepts being understood widely, partly to cultivate the skills of thought that will lead to success in other pursuits, but more importantly  to instill the awe, wonder and humility that enable us to better appreciate and manage our environment and culture. Some of that falls flat, as when he suggests the absence of atmosphere in space means we should not engage in ‘flag-waving’ about space exploration – a very tenuous stretch of analogy. For the most part though, Tyson is an inspiring democratizer.

All in all, a worthy volume to read, and perhaps a good tool to raise the level of conversation at cocktail parties and Covid-lock-down video calls. Thanks NdGT!

(which now that I’ve typed it out, looks like an algebraic designation of some great import…if I assign the value of G as 27 to tenth power, and T as the length of time since the big bang, and d as the cosmic constant, can I solve for the value of N?  Hope your not holding your breath!)