Galapagos vs. Seveneves

Somehow I got sidetracked and despite really enjoying Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 novel Galapagos, it somehow took me more than a month to finish the book. It’s a delight, even read in bits and smatters. Along the way, I was reminded of 2015’s Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.

What the two books have in common is that they both deal with the evolution of the human race after a species-ending event. In the case of Galapagos, it’s a financial crisis, followed by a war, followed by a sterilizing virus. The only survivors are some passengers who take a cruise to the islands that Darwin made famous. There, isolated from the rest of the world, and the virus, they mutate over a million years into what reminds me of a walrus — intelligent, ocean dwelling fishers with flippers instead of arms. In Seveneves, the destruction of the moon rains meteorites onto Earth, setting the atmosphere ablaze and killing everybody but the few who escape to space on an ark and some who flee into the oceans in nuclear submarines. Over millions of years these survivors evolve according to their circumstances, guided by natural selection.

In Stephenson’s world, humanity changes but retains its sentience. Vonnegut tells a different tale — humanity saves itself by losing its sentience. The big brains bestowed upon us by evolution turn out to be a hindrance and were the cause of the catastrophes that befell the species. You don’t need a reflexive self conscious to hunt for fish and so we lose it. Vonnegut’s narrator is the ghost of Kilgore Trout’s son, who refuses to cross into the afterlife and lingers on Earth to watch humanity evolve.

Stephenson’s message is that life will find a way. Vonnegut’s is that life will find a way back. All of humanity is reduced to a small population of semi-intelligent walruses living on or around the Galapagos Islands. Without big brains and opposable thumbs, they’re free from common human mischief. They do not even, Vonnegut tells us, know that they will inevitably die, and are spared the greatest anxiety brought to us by our sentience.

A (re)Brief History of Time

While rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I watch the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time (it’s on HBO Max for the moment) and then went right into reading the illustrated and expanded version of Stephen Hawking’s book from 1996. The joke about A Brief History of Time, when it debuted in 1988, is that it was the bestseller that every intellectual had on the shelf but that few have read — kind of a slim Infinite Jest for the set who brought the kinds of dates home who peruse the bookshelves in judgments while you’re in the other room, opening a wine you have a story about.

That’s unfortunate, if true! A Brief History of Time is exceedingly readable, and the prose is, possibly owing to Professor Hawking’s disability, unadorned and economical compared to Sagan’s. Hawking cuts out the flights of fancy in favor of bon mots (Sagan, for example, spends a few pages imagining the internal monologue of a primeval hunter/gatherer while Hawking makes due with one-liners about how reversing entropy would put crockery manufacturers out of business). Visiting Cosmos and A Brief History of Time back to back is like taking in a year’s worth of “physics for poets” symposia and really offers excellent grounding for keeping up with news about quantum mechanics and cosmology.

Particles and anti-particles annihilate each other.

Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole generate particles and antiparticles from the black hole’s mass.

Sometimes the antiparticle falls back into the hole and the particle escapes as radiatiopn

This excellent book is easier to understand than you might imagine.

You don’t need my take on the science but one thing I’ll remark on is that as fast as science seems to be moving that so much of what we know is still rooted in about a century’s worth of work, dating to the advent of General Relativity and The Uncertainty Principle. String Theory started in the 1960s. Hawking and Roger Penrose performed a lot of their black hole work in the 1970s. They’ve been talking about dark matter and dark energy since the 1970s. Everything that seems newfangled to outsiders has origins in our childhoods, if not before, it’s just that nobody was telling us.

Also, while the mathematics behind Hawking Radiation might be beyond most of us, the concept isn’t so tough: Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole manifest as particles and anti-particles, from the mass of the black hole. Particles and antiparticles annihilate each other if they touch. But they don’t touch if the antiparticle falls back into the black hole and the particle escapes as radiation.

Going to take a break for some fiction but I think the next science book will be The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. It intimidates a bit more from the shelf, with its Pynchonian girth. I flipped through and Professor Penrose seems unwilling to spare us the math, so this might take more time, which is finite but unbounded.


Rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as part of a mission to brush up on my understanding of physics, astronomy and cosmology. I also rewatched the Errol Morris A Brief History of Time documentary and after Cosmos will reread The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. I plan to conclude, for now, with a first reading of The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I’m hoping some immersion study in popularized from from 1980 through now (I’d read Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time last year) will at least bring me to some acceptable level of comprehension.

Anyway, it feels like this:

“Infinite Regression” by Jon Lomborg, Cosmos page 266

This painting, which Lomborg made for the book, actually did help me get a sense of what it means for the universe to be finite but unbounded, at least from our perspective as prisoner of three physical dimensions.

Brian Greene’s Thermodynamic Miracles

I don’t read enough popular science, which is too bad because a few writers, like the late Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene elevate the form to art.  Greene has been a hero of mine since I wrote a feature about him for Forbes back in 2002.  Then, Greene told me of his admiration for Carl Sagan, one of America’s most important and effective public intellectuals.

In his latest book Until the End of Time, Greene charts the history of the universe from the Big Bang until today and then forecasts what might become of it all as the “entropic two step” that’s produced ordered forms like stars, planets, DNA and higher intelligence inevitably breaks down.  Now, Greene doesn’t share this conclusion, but along the way he’s almost convinced me that, since in an infinite universe all things are not only possible but will inevitably happen, that we’re all Boltzmann Brains anyway (kind of like Descartes’ brains in a vat).

In his latest book, Greene sets out to explain the fundamentals of physics, chemistry and biology to support a sophisticated materialist view of everything from intelligence to creativity and spirituality and along the way, hopes to give us a path to finding meaning and solace in a necessarily indifferent universe that will not only extinguish all of our lives, but will eventually extinguish all life and thought.

He very much succeeds but does so in the only way available – which is to celebrate the wonder of it all.   His conclusion is the same as Dr. Manhattan’s in The Watchmen – from all this chaos, chance and indifference, each of us has emerged as a thermodynamic miracle that makes it all worthwhile.

Get this book.  It’s ecstatically brilliant.

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