stephenpalmersf

Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

Coal by Barbara Freese

Subtitled A Human History, this book surveys coal and its relationship with us and with our various cultures. Opening with a history of its finding and use in medieval Britain, it shows how for centuries coal was a misunderstood, disliked and even feared thing, until Newcomen made his steam engine and the Industrial Revolution came into view. Then, reluctantly, people began using it, though they continued to suffer from the sulphurous smoke. Further chapters look at the industry in America and China.

I liked this book a lot. It’s insightful, well written, fair minded and ends with a warning about global warming. Though written in the early 2000s, its history and message still resonate, and will do for some time, as America and China continue to use this dirtiest and most polluting of fossil fuels.

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The Glass Bathyscaphe by Macfarlane & Martin

Alan Macfarlane & Gerry Martin’s The Glass Bathyscaphe: How Glass Changed The World has to be one of the most fascinating history books I’ve read for a long time.

Starting off with an overview of the origins of glassmaking, the book passes through various periods of history. But this is not just a summary of what is known. These two authors have a hypothesis, which they develop marvellously as the book progresses. Their contention is that glass was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for the Scientific Revolution which occurred in Europe following the Renaissance; and they make a convincing case for counting the Renaissance and the arrival of what they call reliable knowledge as aspects of the same thing. They compare and contrast the situation in east and west, and find many reasons for the difference in the use of glass. They also look at how social and religious conditions changed the perception of what glass could do for a society.

It’s all well written, interesting and engaging – the perfect example of a history book with a ‘bit more.’ Too many history books I’ve read in the last few years have been little more than lists. This one is considerably more.

I got this for a couple of quid at my local Oxfam, so I’m doubly pleased!

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Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

This is a really fascinating book. I picked it up because I wanted to compare what it said with what other authors have written about social media, but, to my delight, it gave me far more.

Kahneman is a psychologist with an interest in decision making, thought processes, and how such things relate to the economic world in particular. Working with Amos Tversky he won a Nobel award for his ground-breaking, often counter-intuitive discoveries.

This book posits two thinking modes, that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, “intuitive” (although see later), easily fooled, and quite often wrong. System 2 is our reflective, slow, rational mode. But, it turns out, System 2 is lazy and only comes into play when System 1 is stuck.

The first two thirds of the book especially are a revelation. We all know we’re not entirely rational or reasonable – we all have quirks and foibles, biases and predilections – but this book shows just how irrational we can be, and how easily we’re fooled by such things as verbal framing, halo effects, cognitive illusions and much, much more. This part in particular has great relevance to our online life, since that – social media especially – has been moulded by the international technology companies in order to put us in their thrall. They know what System 1 buttons to push and they do it mercilessly, exploiting people at will and with almost no regulation. (I used this theme in my novel The Autist.)

A later section on decision making is a bit mathematical and detailed, but overall this is an amazing and very thought-provoking book. Everyone who’s concerned about how social media especially is changing our modes of thought, and therefore our behaviour, should read it. Educators in particular should read it! And although it seems at the outset that Kahneman is worried about how easily we are fooled by our intuitive irrationality, he does point out the evolutionary merits of that system and that, if it is fed with truth and reality, it is right at least as often as it’s wrong. But of course, in the digital world, truth and reality is what is being eroded.

Highly recommended.

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Over The Edge Of The World

Over The Edge Of The World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation Of The Globe by Laurence Bergreen

I really enjoyed this. It’s a no-holds-barred account of the world’s first circumnavigation, written by an excellent author who clearly loves his material.

In the early 1500s Ferdinand Magellan, an arrogant, self-promoting Portuguese out of favour with his own monarch, managed to get himself made commander of a five ship expedition to find a westerly route to the Spice Islands – now known as the Moluccas – on behalf of the king of Spain. What followed is narrated by Bergreen with fantastic relish – a tale of mutiny, daring, violence, survival against the odds, the discovery of the true size of the planet, cloves, nutmeg and much, much more…

The book uses various testimonies, but, given that only 18 men made it back of the original 260, that in itself it quite a feat. But the main testimony is that of Italian Antonio Pigafetta, a Magellan loyalist who made it back to Seville despite the demise of his master. In the meantime, the author spares us nothing of the voyage’s horrors: scurvy, mutual incomprehension between indigenous Pacific peoples and Westerners, madness and fighting… it’s got the lot. The prose is excellent, the background well researched, and the book overall is very readable.

Highly recommended to those who like tales from the so-called Age of Discovery.

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Discoveries by Nicholas Thomas

Discoveries: the Voyages of Captain Cook.

I really enjoyed this one. Relating the events of James Cook’s three voyages of discovery, the book takes a gratifyingly sociological view of events, focusing largely on the interaction between Cook and his British officers, crew, and scientists and artists, and the various indigenous people they met: Maori, Tahitians, Hawaiians etc. This is neither a hagiography nor a bleeding-heart liberal tome. It’s fair minded, well written, and never less than enjoyable. The complex rites and social niceties of, for instance, the Hawaiians – who in the end killed Cook in the surf of their own beach – are explained, but not with such complexity as to reduce the impact of the event. Fair time is given to other officers’ interpretations of events, while much use is made of first hand accounts and other historical sources. With maps, paintings and a simple chronological narrative, this is a terrific read. Highly recommended.

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Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal

In some regards, I found this a frustrating book. On the one hand, it’s important, clear, well written, well argued and timely. On the other hand, I found (as I did with this author’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?) that the book failed in some of its goals.

Subtitled Animal Emotions And What They Teach Us About Ourselves, the book is a brilliant survey of the blurred, perhaps nonexistent, boundary between animal emotions – or more accurately what people have traditionally thought of such emotions – and human emotions. The author, a highly experienced primatologist, knows his subject and has a huge amount of scientific, personal and anecdotal evidence to support his argument, which in a nutshell is that animals do have emotions, from which our own are derived. He sticks the boot in to all those who try to separate human beings from other animals, and in most cases does this with skill and judgement.

Yet, to me, his own assessment of what an emotion might be is incomplete. I agree with his emphasis on the body, on the idiocy of the notion that we have a separable “spirit,” and on his emphasis on the cognitive aspect of emotion. He also notes that physical symptoms are essential, which I agree with. Yet, despite all that, he considers love, and even revenge to be an emotion. Now, even as a child I don’t recall myself ever feeling revengy. Angry, yes. But not revengy.

The other downside to this otherwise excellent book is the final chapter on sentience. As I mentioned in my review of Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, I think this author has a bit of a blind spot caused by over-asserting the similarities between human beings and animals. I myself do think there is a qualitative difference between animals and us; a moot point, of course. As for consciousness, de Waal is quite happy to tell the reader that the question is aeons away from being answered. Obviously he’s never read the work of that other brilliant primatologist, Nicholas Humphrey.

A final criticism. These sentences stood out for me: Our ancestors deviated from the apes by hunting animals larger than themselves, which required the sort of camaraderie and mutual dependence that is the root of complex societies. We owe our cooperative nature, our food-sharing tendencies, our sense of fairness, and even our morality to the subsistence hunting of our ancestors. What is the author saying here? That pre-Agricultural Revolution societies hunted meat? He might as well tell us what bears do in the woods. Or is he saying that hunting was in fact the root of human society? Such absurd theories were touted by male anthropologists in the early part of the 20th century, but they are mocked now for their sheer ridiculousness. And yet this is the same author who earlier in the book namechecks Sarah Hrdy and who clearly has sympathy for feminism and the dire situation of women in science.

Alas, I have spent a lot of time on criticisms and not much on positives. This is a terrific, insightful book, packed full of evidence of many kinds. The sections on animal cognition and grasp of social milieu are outstanding. So I enjoyed most of the book, albeit feeling a little frustrated and disappointed by what, to me, is incompleteness. Still – it is well worth a read.

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Novacene by James Lovelock

James Lovelock was one of my earliest influences when it came to writing fiction. I intuitively grasped the scope and profundity of his Gaia concept, and, although Gaia made no appearance in my debut Memory Seed, themes of environmental destruction and human narcissism implicit in the early reaction to Gaia emerged in my novel. Lovelock’s later work confirmed the man’s exceptional brilliance, in the public eye via his books, elsewhere (and perhaps more importantly) through a continuous supply of extraordinary inventions, not least the Electron Capture Detector, which led to the detection of CFCs throughout Earth’s atmosphere. Lovelock now calls himself an engineer rather than a scientist because he sees the real world as his prime source. (In earlier work he has been scathing about the primacy given to computer models.)

Novacene was written and published to mark his 100th birthday on 26th July 2019. Unlike his previous couple of works, which I found rather lacking in insight (especially the poor A Rough Ride To The Future, in which he speculated about things apparently at random), Novacene is a concise, profound and brilliantly incisive summary of his current thought. I was reminded of the work of Karen Armstrong (A Brief History Of Myth) and Yuval Noah Harari when reading it.

Lovelock covers three main areas: the nature of Gaia and the Solar System, the operation of Gaia, especially its ability to radiate heat and so keep the planet cool, and the arrival of hyperintelligent machines, which he believes we humans will have to work with in order to continue keeping the planet cool. He thinks the Anthropocene is almost over already, and will lead to the AI-managed Novacene. Particular emphasis is given to the Anthropic Principle and the notion that the evolution of the universe is a process of information, with a possible denouement as the universe comes to understand itself in some unimaginable future epoch. He believes we are alone, for reasons related to the Anthropic Principle, though personally I suspect this may be wrong, or at least premature.

In this book, unlike A Rough Guide To The Future, I feel the speculation is informed by Lovelock’s unique insight, which comes not only from his exceptional mind but also from a century of experience in science, engineering and invention. It’s an exhilarating, thought-provoking look at huge themes from the perspective of somebody who has given an enormous amount to humanity.

Highly recommended.

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The Hare With The Amber Eyes

The Hare With The Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

In 2010 the British ceramicist Edmund de Waal told the story of his family, the Ephrussi, once a wealthy and well-connected banking dynasty. His memoir is based in Odessa, Vienna and in Paris, three cities providing the landscape for this fascinating and lyrically written work. But the Ephrussi family are Jewish, and they lost almost everything in 1938 when the Nazis arrived; and these are the most tragic parts of the memoir.

But not everything was lost in those times. The titular hare is a Japanese netsuke, tiny and hidden with 263 other similar objects inside a mattress by Anna, one of the maids at Palais Ephrussi. That collection was passed down through five generations of the Ephrussi family, ending with Edmund de Waal and providing a thread for the memoir.

It’s a fantastic read: compulsive, poetic, sad, with a sense of location that would be hard to beat. The sense of history and of place is palpable, partly through the use of detail, partly through the lyrical prose, which seems to me as if it was spoken before it was set down.

A marvellous, entrancing read.

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Quantum by Manjit Kumar

One of the best scientific histories I’ve read for a long time, this book matches insight into the characters and lives of all the great players in the quantum mechanics debate with the theory itself. Too many authors get this balance wrong, but Manjit Kumar gets it just right. He’s especially good at leading the reader from the character of somebody (Niels Bohr springs to mind here, but he’s also good with Schrödinger and Heisenberg) to their scientific insight. I really enjoyed this book: well written, detailed, insightful, interesting.
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The Prehistory Of The Mind by Steven Mithen

When I first read this book I really enjoyed it, but perhaps didn’t quite ‘get’ it. A second reading has persuaded me that it is a very significant piece of work.

Mithen’s objective is to piece together a viable evolution of our mental abilities from the archaeological (and some other) evidence available to him. This is quite an ambition, given that often it’s quite difficult to piece together archaeology from archaeological evidence… But you have to admire the man’s insight and courage.

This is in fact a remarkable book, whose central hypothesis is that three or four naturally occuring kinds of intelligence – visible in chimps, our nearest living relatives – evolved over about six million years. Using a clever analogy, that of chambers a cathedral, he shows that these separate intelligences could have evolved in social circumstances into something far more complex, which then, perhaps only in the last 40,000 years, but certainly not before 100,000 years ago, came together in ‘cognitive fluidity.’ Mithen follows Nicholas Humphrey’s social intelligence theory, using it with verve and skill to show how consciousness evolved only for the social intelligence of primates, not the technical or natural history intelligences, but then overlapped with the other kinds of intelligences so that all our insight and understanding flowed out into the non-social world.

Quite an achievement then. Certainly a significant and enduring contributing to our understanding of how we evolved.
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