"A great shock, and a great, great joy": James Gleick's CHAOS: Making a New Science.

Review: Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. (Penguin: 1987/2012) 384 pp.  


The humble, fractal cauliflower. Its fractal structure is evident in the way that its structural patterns repeat over and over again on ever-smaller scales. 


There are two ways of looking at it. From one perspective, the fact that I was stunned and shocked by a 26 year-old book subtitled "Making a New Science" was depressing; I mean, why hadn't I learned this stuff 26 years ago? From the other, the fact that James Gleick's magnificent book Chaos: Making a New Science (Penguin: 1987, 384 pp.) still had the power to blow my mind merely reinforces the book's central thesis: Chaos theory can be overwhelmingly obvious and invisible at the same time. Like gravity, it was always a central fact that governed everything we did, it just took a genius like Isaac Newton to "discover" it.  I'm grateful and humbled to finally have discovered this book.

I was already a huge fan of his most recent book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Vintage: 2012, 544 pp.) so I was ready to like Chaos. But he does something different in each book. In The Information Gleick starts with something we're all familiar with, the World Wide Web, and lifts the screen to reveal how it got there. Along the way it becomes the story of the alphabet, the "talking" drums of Africa, Morse Code and a million other forms of communication. It's a masterpiece.

In Chaos Gleick goes in the opposite direction, taking seemingly unpredictable phenomena -- global weather, long-term stock market pricing, the timing intervals of a dripping faucet -- and revealing that "within the most disorderly realms of data lived an unexpected order." Chaos theory, which applies to dynamical systems, is a bizarre mix of predictability (when a dynamical process involving three or more initial variables is set in motion, we can predict that certain patterns will eventually emerge) and unpredictability (although patterns will emerge, we cannot precisely predict what outcome will happen at what time, if ever).

The rules of chaos (that's not a contradictory statement) result in similarly confounding realities. Gleick quotes mathematician Arthur Lorenz, one of the founders of chaos theory and the person who coined the term "the butterfly effect," saying: "We might have trouble forecasting the temperature of [this cup of] coffee one minute in advance, but we should have little difficulty in forecasting it an hour ahead." That is, we know the coffee's temperature will eventually equilibriate with the room and air temperature. But between now and then, the forces of convection, cooling and friction are so complicated and chaotic, it's impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the first minute.

It would take thousands of words to adequately describe all the features of chaos that Gleick manages to illuminate in the book. But his most profound contribution is in helping the reader understand something intuitive: "Our feeling for beauty is inspired by the harmonious arrangement of order and disorder as it occurs in natural objects--in clouds, trees, mountain ranges, or snow crystals. The shapes of all these are dynamical processes jelled into physical forms," explains physicist Gert Eilenberger, and those dynamical processes are chaotic, with all the beautiful fractal patterns associated with them. The structure of snowflakes, of seashells, of the Milky Way, of whirlpools and fingerprints, all these owe their beauty and form to chaos theory.

Very few writers can translate difficult science into readable and fascinating prose like Gleick. As far as I can tell, both the scientists he interviews and the reading public feel he is on "their" side and I think they're both right. Like the mathematical foundation of the theory itself, Chaos is a beautiful and profound book that helped me reconsider physics, philosophy and the universe itself.

Gleick captures both the concrete details of this science along with the revelatory and emotional resonance the discovery of chaos theory has had on the people who work in the field. "It's an experience like no other I can describe," said physicist Leo Kadanoff, "the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that's happened in his or her own mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It's startling every time it occurs... A great shock, and a great, great joy." Which was exactly my experience of reading this book.

At a distance of a thousand miles: Isaac Asimov and "The Last Question" (1956)


(Is that a terrific book cover OR WHAT?)

It was probably my dad, Jon A. Jackson, who introduced me to the work of Isaac Asimov. I dug it right away. Not just Asimov's imagination and the thrill of wondering what the future would look like, but the direct style of Asimov's writing: concise and clean. No matter how far-out his ideas were, the story itself was always grounded in a pragmatic, conversational style that to me still feels like midcentury America, full of average Joes and Janes drinking coffee and solving problems, whether on Earth or in a spaceship orbiting Mars.

Last year my nephew Jack was turning 13 and I wanted to introduce him to some classic science fiction, so I sent him a copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Asimov's I, Robot (1950). But when I read the synopsis for I, Robot, I wondered if it was the book I really had in mind. I remembered a series of stories about the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI), beginning with early computers and robots and ending somewhere in deep space where a vast computer brain floats, holding the fate of ongoing life in its circuitry. I, Robot fit some of those criteria - it does trace the development of AI and introduces Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which were influential in actual robotic technology in the real world. I wondered if I'd just mis-remembered the book and then I moved on to other important issues such as, What am I going to make for dinner tonight?

[SPOILER ALERT: If you want to know which Asimov story I was really remembering but don't want the rest of it spoiled, just skip to the bottom.]

That was about a year ago. A few months ago I decided to reread I,Robot myself. I enjoyed it but it wasn't the novel I remembered. So a few days ago I thought about it again and I had that brilliant thought I have once every few days: Why don't I just ask the Internet? So I Googled: "Asimov story let there be light."

And yes, there was light. See, in my memory the Asimov book ends with this super-advanced computer solving the problem of how to reverse entropy by uttering the phrase "Let there be light." Trust me, it makes sense in context. What the Google search revealed was the Asimov story "The Last Question" (1956) and an entire Wikipedia page devoted to it, which included the following comment from Asimov in 1973:

Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably "The Last Question". This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, 'Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember – ' at which point I interrupted to tell him it was "The Last Question" and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

Here we are, over 50 years later, and the story is still having this effect. On me, for sure. I reread "The Last Question" and was once again floored by Asimov's mix of pragmatism and imagination. It still holds up. At less than 5,000 words it is so totally realized that I remembered it as a novel, not a story. There's a reason the desperate man on the phone - and I - still remember it: "The Last Question" is a story not only about the fate of mankind but the fate of the entire universe. In under 5,000 words! It handles the issues with humor and seriousness and radical economy. And with what we now know about climate change and the Great Extinction period in which we're now living, the story is relevant in a new way.

Sometimes when we go back to the science fiction of the mid-twentieth century it can seem quaintly retro with its man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conversational styles and the gee-whiz of it all. Then again, in 1956 Asimov and his readers were only thirteen years away from a man walking on the moon. As of 2013, it's been forty years since the last moon walk. Makes you wonder what happened to the Space Age future we were all supposed to be living in.

Read it for yourself: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov (1956)



Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk (Doubleday: 2013), 822 pages.

“There aren’t any secrets about the world of nature,” Robert Oppenheimer told journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1954. It had been nine years since the bombs he’d helped develop as leader of the Manhattan Project’s secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ended the Second World War, and by now Oppenheimer was almost as well known for the fact that the US government had withdrawn his security clearance (because of suspected Communist sympathies) as for his achievements in physics. Secrecy had become a major aspect of Oppenheimer’s public persona—and he had strong opinions on the subject. “The trouble with secrecy is that it doesn’t give the public a sense of participation,” he told Murrow. “The trouble with secrecy is that it denies to the government itself the wisdom and resources of the whole community… There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men. Sometimes they are secret because a man doesn’t like to know what he’s up to if he can avoid it.” [658] That last comment reveals something profound about Robert Oppenheimer: How well did he understand himself—or want to?

Ray Monk faces this problem repeatedly in his massive and detailed new biography, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Oppenheimer sought meaning in the universe not only through the practice of science, but through spiritual study, poetry, and the contemplation of nature. His Los Alamos colleague Hans Bethe believed that Oppenheimer “worked at physics mainly because he found physics the best way to do philosophy.” [419] Surely he was the only scientist at Los Alamos who counted Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal as his favorite book. [676] In his early twenties, Oppenheimer confessed: “The kind of person that I admire most would be one who becomes extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but maintains a tear-stained countenance” [113] – a pretty close description of the man Oppenheimer became.

Monk portrays Oppenheimer as an outsider who was constantly striving to reach “the center,” whether in his scientific work, which explored neutron stars and black holes in which the centers of massive stars collapse and fold into themselves; as a Jew at Harvard and Berkeley (both were wary of admitting “too many” Jews); as a political leftist with (as Albert Einstein remarked) “an unrequited love for the United States” (xvi); and as a scientific researcher whose appreciation for the value of collaborative work inevitably put him at odds with the security restrictions of the United States military.

Born in 1904, great things were always expected of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (named after his father, he dropped his first name early on) and he was raised in spectacular isolation in the luxurious New York City apartment of his wealthy parents. A boyhood interest in chemistry ultimately led him to the University of Gottingen in 1926 where his advisor Max Born became a lasting and profound influence. He was an outsider in Europe, but Oppenheimer’s work in quantum chemistry nevertheless managed to impress his colleagues.

After establishing UC Berkeley as a center for theoretical physics, in 1943 Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the secret weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, a job requiring all of his varied skills, a job at which he excelled. Yet as soon as the atomic weapons he’d helped develop at Los Alamos were deployed, Oppenheimer began to lobby for ways to mitigate their danger—primarily by sharing information with other countries to achieve international arms control. The Los Alamos scientists argued that the so-called “secret” to the atomic bomb would soon be unlocked by other developed countries. Yet most in the US government, “to whom the physics of fission was an utter mystery,” Monk reminds us, “regarded [this argument] as a treasonous plot.” [503] “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands,” Oppenheimer told President Truman when they met shortly after the end of the war. Truman recoiled. “I told him the blood was on my hands,” Truman said later, “let me worry about that.” [494] After Oppenheimer left, Truman told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch ever again.” [493] It was the beginning of the end for Oppenheimer’s status as an American hero.

Although he continued to work on behalf of the United States in the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1949 he was accused of having Communist ties and his security clearance was revoked. The American scientific community was outraged. Drawing on many independent studies and testimonies, Monk demonstrates that Oppenheimer was never a security threat.

Oppenheimer died of cancer at the age of 62. He had been under surveillance by the FBI for the previous nine years. The diplomat George F. Kennan spoke at Oppenheimer’s funeral. “The truth is that the US Government never had a servant more devoted at heart than this one,” said Kennan. [694] The “secret” of Oppenheimer, Monk reveals, was not Soviet sympathy but rather, as his friend and fellow physicist Isidor Rabi observed, a “spiritual quality… He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.” [694]

This review originally appeared in the Boston Globe, May 19, 2013.

The Still Point of the Turning World.

Book Review: Emily Rapp, The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguing: 2013), 260 pp.

In Emily Rapp’s powerful new memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” the “worst possible news” arrives right in the second sentence: “our son, Ronan, then nine months old, had Tay-Sachs disease, a rare, progressive and always fatal condition with no treatment and no cure.”

But you should keep reading. Rapp has written a beautiful and passionate elegy for her son, a book that offers deep wisdom for any reader. In poetic language that is always grounded in the reality of her family’s day-to-day effort to cope with unimaginable pain, Rapp journeys through the terror of hearing Ronan’s diagnosis — “his death sentence, really” — to the slow, painful acceptance of death:

“Tucked inside the moments of this great sadness — this feeling of being punctured, scrambling and stricken — were also moments of the brightest, most swollen and logic-shattering happiness I’ve ever experienced,” Rapp writes. “I realized you could not have one without the other, that this great capacity to love and be happy can only be experienced with this great risk of having happiness taken from you — to tremble, always on the edge of loss.”

Part of Rapp’s initial shock comes from the fact that she had been tested for Tay-Sachs while pregnant and her results came back negative: not a carrier. She later discovers that only the nine most common mutations are covered in the standard Tay-Sachs screening; Rapp and her husband were unknowing carriers of a different, more rare mutation. “Never having been one to believe that statistics were on my side,” Rapp writes, “. . . I did everything to cover all the bases, get the results, to know.”

She reflects upon “our hopeful delusion that being good people might keep chaos at bay. But chaos finds everyone.” Fewer than 20 children are born in the United States with Tay-Sachs per year; like Ronan, most of them are “born to parents who didn’t know they had anything to worry about.”

The book is not a day-by-day account of Ronan’s demise but instead a series of meditations on life, death, and acceptance. “How do you parent without a future?” she wonders, a theme she returns to several times in the book. “For parents of terminally ill children, parenting strategies incorporate the grim reality that we will not be launching our children into a bright and promising future, but into early graves.”

Although “[t]his was absolutely depressing,” she writes, “. . . the experience of being Ronan’s mom was not . . . without wisdom, not without . . . a profound understanding of the human experience, which includes the reality of death in life that most parenting books and resources fail to acknowledge.”

Rapp finds that “parenting without a future” is a radical act, focused not on improving one’s child or preparing him for adulthood, but simply being with him, loving him. “Sitting with Ronan on the couch I often thought, How can I make this moment more precious? and then I’d realize with a sense of panic that no additional meaning needed to be sought or found. This was all there was.”

This wisdom is something she began to intuit when she was just a child. Rapp was born with a congenital disorder that led to the amputation of her left leg when she was 8, an experience chronicled in her previous book, “Poster Child.’’ She coped by pushing herself to achieve and be an inspiration to others.

As a young girl she was quoted in her local newspaper saying, “If you believe in yourself, you can do anything,” and she did: She skied, she biked, she swam. But eventually all the striving began to wear on her psyche. As an adult she began to question the “pursuit of happiness” itself, the never-ending, rarely questioned American quest for improvement. “People get sick with this idea of change; I have been sick with it,” she admits. In Ronan’s presence, the hollowness of this hunger for perfection finally becomes real to her.

There’s no avoiding it: “The Still Point of the Turning World” is a heartbreaking book about every parent’s worst nightmare. But it is very much worth reading. It’s neither a horror story nor a trite tale of triumph over adversity. “What can be learned from a dying baby?” Rapp asks at one point, as if daring the reader to answer. There are no tidy lessons here, but instead a dark, beautiful sky full of possible constellations of meaning, threads of resonance on the subjects of life, death, healing, illness, friendship, family, grief, and love.

Ronan was almost 3 when he died on Feb. 15, after the book went to press, but it’s clear the lessons he left behind came from his life and not from its end. “Ronan taught me that children do not exist to honor their parents,” she writes, “their parents exist to honor them.” Emily Rapp has done that and much more in this beautiful tribute to Ronan’s rich and meaningful life

The Lemon Juice Robber; or, "We're not very good at knowing what we don't know."

Good old Errol Morris. His ongoing series for the NY Times exemplifies the benefits to simply following one's tangential interests to their strange, winding, sometimes banal conclusions. In this (5-part!) series he investigates the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which describes the depressingly common phenomenon in which incompetent individuals believe themselves to be much more competent than they are - because they lack the ability to comprehend their incompetence.

I'm not going to name names here, but if you've ever wondered why certain apparently dim public figures keep on charging ahead, convinced of their own brilliance... well, that's the Dunning-Kruger effect. As Morris puts it, "knowing what you don't know... is the hallmark of an intelligent person."