Some books I read this year

Nick Lane – The Vital Question: energy, evolution and the origins of complex life

This is as good as everyone says it is – well written and compelling. I particularly appreciated the focus on energy flows as the driver for life, and the way the book gives the remarkable chemiosmotic hypothesis the prominence it deserves. The hypothesis Lane presents for the way life might have originated on earth is concrete and (to me) plausible, and what’s more important it suggests some experimental tests.

Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallet – The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: how the brain created experience

How many organisms can be said to be conscious, and when did consciousness emerge? Feinberg and Mallet’s answers are bold: all vertebrates are conscious, and in all probability so are cephalopods and some arthropods. In their view, consciousness evolved in the Cambrian explosion, associated with an arms race between predators and prey, and driven by the need to integrate different forms of long-distance sensory perceptions to produce a model of an organism’s environment. Even if you don’t accept the conclusion, you’ll learn a great deal about the evolution of nervous systems and the way sense perceptions are organised in many different kinds of organisms.

David Mackay – Information theory, inference, and learning algorithms

This is a text-book, so not particularly easy reading, but it’s a particularly rich and individual one.

My intention in getting it was to get a bit more of a feel about how machine learning actually works, as well as to be reminded of the seductive power of Bayesian inference. Full of profound insights and beautifully clear explanations, it’s a reminder of the brilliance of the late Sir David Mackay, who died earlier this year, tragically young. I’ve still got lots of work to do to master the material.

Tom McLeish – Faith and Wisdom in Science

The debate, if it can be called that, between the new scientific atheists and those who seek to find an accommodation between religion and science, isn’t one I generally find very interesting (except perhaps in an anthropological sense). But in this book my fellow soft matter physicist Tom McLeish brings an interesting and original view to the relationship between science and religion. He finds continuity between the questions asked in the traditional wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible and the approaches that developed into modern science, illustrating his argument with some personal stories of new science he himself has been involved in, together with some nice reflections on the philosophy of science. (I blame myself for this; I once accused Tom in a conference of being an epistemological anarchist, a label he has now taken to heart). At the heart of the book is an enlightening discussion of that most troubling and thought-provoking book of the Bible, The Book of Job. If you accept the premise, you’ll be convinced, if not, you should find it interesting anyway.

Eric Schlosser – Command and Control: nuclear weapons, the Damascus accident, and the illusion of safety

I’m a child of the Cold War: as an air force brat I was literally born under the flightpath of the V-bombers from their RAF Wittering base. Coming of age I worried about Pershings, SS20s and Cruise, I didn’t see the funny side of Reagan joking about bombing Russia, and on those not infrequent occasions when I saw A10s in the East Anglian sky I’d wonder for a moment if they were right then heading to Germany to strafe the incoming Warsaw Pact armour with their depleted uranium shells. At a time when tension between the west and Russia is growing again, it is salutary to be reminded that the technologies of nuclear war were never uninvented and are with us still.

Schlosser’s book concentrates on what happened to the USA’s nuclear arsenal – both the weapons themselves and the delivery systems – after they were invented. It’s a book about how these systems were maintained, how they were controlled, how they were kept safe – and what happened when those safeguards failed and the inevitable accidents occurred.

It’s a sobering read, and of course still horribly current. There are some wider lessons about technologies in there too. And it reminds us, at this time of talk of the need for more “moonshot projects”, that the original moonshot project wasn’t the moon shot, it was the project to be able to drop a tonne or two on any point on the earth’s surface with an accuracy of a km or so, achieved with the Atlas rocket and its Russian counterpart, the R7. The moon shot itself was just a spin-off of this deadly technology, like so many other technologies we take for granted today.

Robert J. Gordon – Rise and Fall of American Growth

I reviewed this influential book at length earlier this year. It’s part fascinating and compelling – as a narrative history of how technology has radically changed life in the USA over the last 150 years and as an argument against the frequently heard claim that we’re now living at a time of technological progress happening at an unprecedented rate. But it’s also part annoying and unconvincing, with a seriously unbalanced view of the origins and nature of modern technological progress, and a neglect of the institutions and systems that underpin innovation and the way they’ve changed in recent decades. In summary, I think Gordon’s diagnosis of an innovation slowdown is correct, but his analysis of its causes is very weak and consequently he is unable to suggest any remedies.

Guy Halsall – Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages

Over the last few years I’ve been slowly reading about what we used to call the Dark Ages – now better thought of as the transition from late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. This began when my VC, prone to occasional bouts of management by reading list, lent me Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine of Hippo (I’m still not quite sure what the message of that was). I found it fascinating, both because of the towering importance of Augustine in our intellectual history, but also because we could know so much about the life of a man who lived through that time as the Western Roman Empire was collapsing, which we were taught in the UK to think of as the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Of course, this is a parochial characterisation, because it’s only for the British Isles that the gap in what we know about this period of history looms so large. Things look somewhat clearer when one puts this obscure part of Britain’s history into a larger European context, so my view of the period has been transformed by reading historians such as Peter Brown, Chris Wickham (particularly for comparative economic history) and Guy Halsall. So I’ve come prepared to this brief and punchy book by Halsall, to learn that everything I thought I knew about the legendary figure of King Arthur is wrong – and that, perhaps, the issue of whether Arthur was a historical figure or not is about the least interesting question about that time. Along the way Halsall presents his own, rather heterodox, view of the English settlements.

T.M. Charles-Edwards – Wales and the Britons 350-1064

One thing that Halsall’s book stresses very strongly is that a lot of history happened between 410 and 950, so anything written in the later part of that period about earlier times will reflect a very different set of preoccupations. This thick and scholarly book summarises what we know about the peoples who started this period as the Romano-British, and ended up as the Welsh. If my earlier reading emphasised the European (and indeed Middle Eastern) dimensions of late Antiquity, this book satisfies my curiosity about local history – both the history of the parts of Wales where my family comes from, and of my current Derbyshire home.

What was the nature of the Irish settlement in South West Wales, still apparent to the visitor in the stones carved in the Ogham script one can see in Pembrokeshire churches? How, in the defining conflict of the 7th century, did the antagonists come to be, not the Saxons versus the British/Welsh, but the Northumbrians versus an alliance of the pagan Mercians and the Christian Welsh kingdom of Powys? What happened to the lost British kingdom of Elmet? Did the post-Roman British speak Latin at home, and why is Welsh a Celtic language, not a Romance one? You won’t find definitive answers to these questions (and many more like them) in this book, but you may be surprised that one can say so much about them.

Songs from Cold Mountain – Han Shan, trans. Red Pine

I first started reading the poems of Gary Snyder when I was a student; I still have my collection “Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems” from that time, and it’s always been one of my favourites. Among the poems in the book are 24 translated from the Chinese, by an anonymous hermit of the Tang era, called Han Shan (Cold Mountain) after the location of the cave where he took up residence. This year my curiosity about these poems got the better of me, so I looked into whether there is a more complete set of translations. There is indeed; this is the full set, together with some other poems by Han Shan’s friends, translated by the American scholar Bill Porter, aka Red Pine.

I don’t know enough (or indeed anything at all) about Chinese poetry or language to judge the quality of either set of translations; what I can say, I think, is that Snyder’s reflect his own voice and its time and place more than Red Pines. But the poems are full of the beauty of the natural world, they’re sometimes wry and funny, sometimes poignant and sad. They’re certainly ideal for anyone who has ever entertained the idea of living in a cave in the mountains. (And which of us hasn’t? I know I have.)

Pearl – Anonymous, trans. Simon Armitage

Pearl is a long medieval poem believed by scholars to be written by the same author as Gawain and the Green Knight. I loved Simon Armitage’s rendition of Gawain into a flowing, driving modern English verse, that retained a sense of period not through conscious archaisms but through echoes of the alliterative schemes of the original middle English. Pearl, though, is a very different poem to Gawain; it describes the dream or vision of a father mourning a daughter lost in infancy. It’s a strange mixture; in part driven by the very immediate and universal themes of love, loss and bereavement, in part a vivid depiction of what is to me the very foreign world-view of a devout medieval Catholic.

No Map Can Show Them – Helen Mort

Moving from translations from past millennia to modern poetry, I start out predisposed to like this latest collection from Helen Mort, because I share her interests in rock climbing and the Derbyshire landscape. Her poem “Dear Alison” (the subject of a great short film) captures the ghosts that are present to many of us in ultra-familiar landscapes; other poems deal with gender politics and body image, in verse that is effortlessly technically efficient yet strongly personal.

Peter Pomerantsev – Nothing is true and everything is possible – Adventures in Modern Russia

Essential reading for an understanding of some of the past year’s weirder political events.

4 thoughts on “Some books I read this year”

  1. > Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallet – _The Ancient Origins of Consciousness:
    > how the brain created experience_
    > . . .all vertebrates are conscious, and in all probability so are
    > cephalopods and some arthropods. In their view, consciousness evolved
    > in the Cambrian explosion, associated with an arms race between
    > predators and prey, and driven by the need to integrate different
    > forms of long-distance sensory perceptions to produce a model of
    > an organism’s environment. . .

    I remember, many years ago when I was a brief participant on
    the Extropians’ mailing list, remarking in a quasi- book review[*]
    that the connection between consciousness and the ancient
    predator/prey arms race provides the most striking imaginable
    science-based analogy to the religious notion of “original sin”.

    Existence in the material world must be a sore trial for the
    tender-hearted and the ethically uncompromising! (Not me.
    I’ll take that Delmonico medium rare, please.)

    [*] These days, I can just Google up my past, uh, sins:

    Original sin, and its consequences

  2. Thanks, an interesting link. Of course, one can imagine radically different conceptions of consciousness and intelligence. Another book on my pile was this one

  3. No, thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look it up.
    You might be interested to know that the reason I first read Gary Snyder was a recommendation from Dennis Gray.

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