25 February 2011

Book Review: Cycles of Time by Roger Penrose

This is a very interesting read on Penrose's new hypothesis: conformal cyclic cosmology. Before he gets to this in the third part of the book, he first needs to give the reader the background to his thinking. To that end, the first part of the book looks at the Second Law of Thermodymanics, which plays a pivotal role in this work. So if you don't yet have any idea what this is, I would recommend a little preliminary reading before tackling Cycles of Time.

If you are not familiar with Penrose's writings, then this perhaps is not the best starting point. He jumps straight into the Second Law and doesn't shy away from the necessary maths. For a science graduate, this is relatively easy reading, though those without a formal background in maths or physics may struggle, although Penrose's styles of diagrams are immensely helpful. One thing that is helpful is that even if you haven't grasped all the detail in a given section (and I certainly didn't) then that doesn't mean you cannot grasp any of the later concepts.

No one could ever accuse Penrose of patronising his audience, and though many topics will be familiar to scientists, Penrose's particular style always stretches you and makes you think in a slightly different way; so that which you thought you knew quite well suddenly has a few extra question marks posed against it. One thing that is very praiseworthy in this book is Penrose's modesty and his clearly laying out of what is well evidenced scientific consensus and what is his own minority view, as well as pointing out the drawbacks in his own theory. This style contrasts greatly with the brash optimism that Hawking & Mlodinow put forward in their book, The Grand Design, published within a few weeks of Cycles of Time. The fact that Penrose does this raises some interesting questions. For example, he does state that in order for his hypothesis to be correct, we would have abandon many well-established theories, such as the invariability of rest-masses of fundamental particles.

I could not claim to have fully understand all the nuances and detail of this book at the first, but that does not diminish my enjoyment of it or my ability to get the overall gist of it. I will be re-reading this book, going over each line in more detail in order to get the complete picture.

22 February 2011

Secular, humanist christian

I thought it’s about high time I wrote a little about something that’s been on my mind for a few months and which ought to be said, though I’m not sure if I’m the right person to be saying it. The problem as I see it is essentially a loose understanding of precise terminology. In particular, there are 3 words that banded about (by both Christians and opponents of Christianity) and often intermingled, which often leads to unnecessary upset, nitpicking and a general diversion away from the key issues being discussed; something which I fear is more often less than fruitful and which leaves neither side with a high opinion of the other. So what are these 3 words? Secular, humanist and atheist.

One of the reasons why I feel personally involved in this is because, of these 3 words (when considered as adjectives), I would like to describe myself by 2 of them. However, I am hesitant to do so, for fear of being misunderstood and needlessly ostracised. I shall attempt to deal with them one by one where I shall, out of necessity and brevity, omit some discussion before going on to look at the links between them that cause so many misunderstandings and arguments. To aid the discussion, I would like to draw your attention to two additional words that I think help and which have helped me a lot since I came across them. They are emic and etic. When describing characteristics and behaviours of groups of people, emic is a self-description (i.e. a way that the given set of people tend to talk about themselves). Etic is effectively a third party description used by those who are not part of that group to describe and characterise it.

So, in alphabetical order:

1) Atheism/atheist

The most common definition I hear put forward by Christians is that atheists believe there is no God; in other words this is an etic description. However, this is a positive assertion which is not emically asserted by many atheists that I have come across. They prefer to consider themselves as a-theists; that is, via a negation of the term theist. However, I have then heard many different versions of what defines and characterises a theist. If you want a good laugh, then read through the introduction to John Blanchard’s book, Does God Believe in Atheists, in which his extremely narrow-viewed definition rules out, inter alia, Jews, Catholics and Muslims who are all classified as atheists. I wouldn’t recommend the rest of the book, as it is largely full of creationist rubbish.

So while it may all be very good and acceptable to define oneself as the negative of something, it helps if the thing you are negating is itself well defined, otherwise you’ve made no real progress at all. The way to get around this is for atheists to posit that a theist is someone who believes there is at least one God. The negation of this is then someone who does not believe that there is at least one God. As a side note, I do not agree with this definition as it seems to incorporate deists, pantheists and panentheists, which I regard as belonging to a rather different school of thought to theists. Where people get confused is by equating this definition of atheism to the first statement at the start of this section. But they are not equivalent and for the simple reason of the existence of one further group of individuals: agnostics.

Agnosticism is probably the best defined term, even if it is also the most unsatisfactory philosophical worldview. It is simply the admission that one has not made up their mind on the question of the existence of God. It is this group of people that the atheists want to bring under their ‘envelope’ by definition via negation, thus rendering agnostics a subset of atheists. Under the etic description of atheists as those who believe there is no God, agnostics and atheists are distinguished and the former can no longer be considered a subset of the latter. So it would seem most fair to me to ask this group who is being tussled over whether they prefer to be considered atheists or whether they want to inhabit a space of their own. Now I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to commission any significant research on this matter, so the only evidence I have to hand is my own personal experience and a selection of relevant writings that I have read. Yet of what I have been exposed to in this respect, there is an overwhelming agreement that agnostics do not consider themselves to be atheists and often view atheists and theists with equal contempt, being as they both make assertions which are not backed up by naturalistic evidence. So it is on this basis that, in spite of likely objection, that I believe that defining an atheist as simply someone who lacks a belief in God is not particularly helpful or suitably precise. This would incorporate not only agnostics but also a large swathe of people who just don’t care or think it about it that often.

I am often amused on some forums when I see some atheists say that they never think about the issue of God, yet when you look at their posting history, the only threads they post on are those relating to “religion” and very little else. So it seems somewhat ironic (if not a little dishonest) to pretend that matters of religion don’t matter to them if that is all they talk about. So my working definition of an atheist is someone is someone who has considered the possibility and made a firm decision that they do not believe. This then excludes the agnostics and those who don’t care enough to give it a moment’s thought. Anyway, time to move on to something a little more interesting...

2) Secular/secularist

This is an area in which I feel there is a lot of confusion, but which could be remedied in part quite simply. The first thing to recognise is that there is a broad school of secularist thought and that secularism is not best described as one absolute thing in and of itself. To that extent, you can get mild secularism, extreme secularism and a variety of ideas in between. Now of course, I don’t mind the term being used as a generality, but in some conversations, there can be cross-purposes if one person has in mind a particularly extreme form of secularism and another has in mind a milder form, yet they continue to use the same language.

So what I shall aim to do here is to lay out what I understand by secularism, what is extreme, what is mild and whereabouts I stand. For in general, I would describe myself as a secularist, however I would not consider ever joining or contributing to an organisation such as the National Secular Society (NSS) as their practical mandate seems to overstep the bounds of my own point of view. By practical mandate, what I mean is how their actions, publications and public statements reflect the collective thinking of the organisation. This is distinct from any written statement of principles, articles of incorporation or similar such foundational writings, since the day-to-day realities do not always bear these out. The difference is akin to a company whose motto may be to serve their customers, but whose practice is to extract as much profit from their customers as possible.

In fairly broad terms, I would say that “mild” secularism simply does not invoke any religious maxims in public life. In other words, it’s a case of “carry on as you were,” where no religious institutions or persons are given special prominence solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. One particular proponent of this form of secularism was the German pastor, Martin Luther. His variety was largely a reaction against the political power and deference given to the highly corrupt catholic church. Unfortunately, this particular institution seems not to have learnt any lessons from the Reformation and still today it harbours criminals in its ranks and protects them in what has become a shame that is felt by association by Christians worldwide. A more “extreme” form of secularism is that which attempts to deliberately exclude anything religious from public life, with the subtext “out of sight, out of mind.”

Probably nowhere are the problems associated with a misunderstanding of secularism more apparent than with the multiple-mindedness prevalent in American society. Leaving aside the cranks of the Tea Party and their ilk for a moment, the formalised structure of the US constitution has caused little but trouble since it was first codified. Given that it starts “We hold these truths to be self-evident” it seems ironic that the president has to formally appoint a judge whose job it is to instruct the government as to the interpretation of this document. Anyway, I could go on about how daft the constitution has become but I shall try and restrain myself. What I want to focus on is the 2nd amendment which dictates the separation of church and state. From my perspective, on the east side of the Atlantic, it appears that the Americans have lost touch with the reason this was put in place. At the time, it was state interference in the church that caused the pilgrim fathers to flee England and seek a freer place to worship. Many modern proponents of secularism seem to have forgotten this and act and speak as though it the main worry was church interference in the matters of state. Views of this kind tend to view secularism as the complete opposite of theocracy. Now, I am no advocate of theocracy, on purely practical grounds. Governments have to be administered by people, whether it is in the name of the people they govern (as in democracy) or in the name of God (as in theocracy). The trouble comes with the fact that either way, you are still relying on fallible people – and don’t let anyone you tell you that the pope’s infallible, the evidence simply disproves that!

3) Humanist/humanism

Lastly, we can come on to the term which is probably the least common in terms of modern usage, though I stand to be corrected on that; I speak only from the evidence of my own experience. Similar to the preceding section, there are a variety of different meanings that people hold when they hear the term humanism or humanist. For a brief illustration, please see this, taken from Wikipedia:

Humanism is an approach in study, philosophy, or practice that focuses on human values and concerns. The term can mean several things, for example:

1. A historical movement associated especially with the Italian Renaissance.
2. An approach to education that uses literary means or a focus on the humanities to inform students.
3. A variety of perspectives in philosophy and social science which affirm some notion of 'human nature' (by contrast with anti-humanism).
4. A secular ideology which espouses reason, ethics, and justice, whilst specifically rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as a basis of morality and decision-making.

When many Christians hear the term humanist, I think it is fair to say that they jump to the 4th definition. Unfortunately, this version is the most misleading. One of the clues as to why is the fact that the description of it as a “secular ideology” which, given the discussion above, makes it quite hazy and non-specific. It also smacks of not being humanism at all, but is rather more akin to a Randian Objectivism. Now definitions 1 and 2 are quite specific, but are specialised to particular fields of interest which are not the point of our current discussion. Probably the most accurate would be definition 3, although I still have issues with it. What is a far more fitting view of the heart of humanism is this:

“To recognise that humans occupy a special place within the world, and to celebrate and protect that position, valuing all humans and human life.”

So, for me, to be a humanist is to ensure that human beings are not placed second to anything else within the world. So I do not agree that we should promote animal rights over and above human rights, nor should humans be exploited for profiteering purposes. Now you might think I am being anti-environmentalist, but I am not. The environment is that in which we live, so we have a duty to look after it in order to ensure our long-term survival.

In fact, all of humanism can be summed up in two very short motifs: “Love other people just as you love yourself” and “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

I just wonder if the British Humanist Association would be willing to recognise this or whether they would reject these two statements, given that they would probably be aware of their origin. The fact is, Christianity is a humanist religion. People are at the heart of it, whichever way you look at the matter. So when I see a definition like def 4 from Wikipedia, it is plainly obvious that this definition of humanism has been hijacked.

The changing nature of words.

In all this, I am conscious that words change their meaning over time and that some modern definitions may be quite far removed from what they originally mean. For example, one word that is not often used but which does crop up occasionally is “meek.” Today, it is often interpreted as meaning something that it rhymes with: “weak.” Whenever it is used, it is usually in conjunction with the word mild, as in “meek and mild.” To many modern listeners, this is a form of parallelism whereby two words are used to describe broadly the same thing. However, this is quite different from what the word originally meant. The early meaning of the word was as “strength, contained” or “power under control.” So to describe someone as meek was a shorthand way of saying they were very strong of character but at the same time did not lack self-control. So in this context, “meek and mild” is not a parallelism, but rather a much fuller description using two things that do not always seem to go together. The closest analogy I can think of is “sweet and sour,” although maybe my thinking that was influenced by what I had for dinner last night!

So with that said, what can we say are the “real” meanings of our words in question? I know this is semantics but I think it is important as failure to understand one another is probably the main reason for civil discourse to descend into uncivilised (and unnecessary) argument. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer that last question simply. I do like referring to original meanings, but at the same time to ignore the modern interpretations seems churlish. So when I speak or write, I shall try and define my terms as best as I can. The one caveat in that is obviously that I am not omniscient, and am therefore on a lifetime of discovery. So where I may use some terms there will be times during which I cannot grasp the full meaning of it (e.g. reality). I hope that you will forgive me for this shortcoming and that it does not impinge too much on your understanding.

The links between the three:

There is a sketch I recall from one particular episode of The Simpsons which demonstrates a particular viewpoint which may, unfortunately, not be uncommon in certain sections of American society. The Flanders’ boys are playing some sort of Bible Cluedo and state that the crime was committed “by the secular humanist in the museum with misinformation.” For secular humanist, they held up a picture of a guy with an open-necked shirt and a short, scruffy beard. Misinformation was represented by a dinosaur and the museum was just a museum front. The point was partly about creationism but what struck me was the equating of the secular humanist with an opponent of Christianity.

So where did the notion come from that secular and/or humanist imply atheism? As shown above, there is no logical reason why this should be so, given the core heart of secularism and humanism. It is perfectly possible to be a mild secularist and at the same time hold true to, say, one of the major monotheistic religions. Take the example of the nation of Turkey as an example. This is a secular state with a Islam as the national religion. It is not a theocracy, but is governed on democratic grounds, where any person of any belief may enter into the national politic. No religion is given special dispensation or is specifically discriminated against by the state.

It seems to me that the answer is that which I mentioned above at the end of the section on humanism: these terms have been hijacked by many, though not all, of our atheist friends. The common usage of the terms secular and humanist have been used in conjunction with atheistic overtones so much that an association is built up in many people’s minds so that there is a meshing of the ideas. It is a little like a rather insidious form of advertising, where a corporation wants to associate it product (in this case atheism) with something virtuous and desirable (e.g. secularism and humanism). The same is true, similarly, of the term free thinker, whose hijacking has been brutal so that it now means almost the opposite of the sum of the words that comprise it. Instead of meaning someone who’s thinking is free, it is now taken as a euphemism for an atheist, and specifically that anyone who indicates that they are in any way religious is ruled out as being a free thinker. But does this stand up scrutiny? Well, the hallmarks of those who think freely is that they are able to come up with their own conclusions. These need not necessarily be different from everyone else’s, but they do not accept on blind trust whatever they are told. (For a further discussion on how blind trust plays no part in Christianity, please see my essay, Doubting Thomas And A Scientific Approach To Theology.) But the key is that you will end up with slightly different answers, nuanced by different interpretations of the facts and evidence at hand. So if Christians were not free thinkers then what we would expect to see is a uniform belief across Christendom and complete agreement on all matters. Is that what we see? Of course not. A basic opening of the eyes and of looking through history will inform you that people have not always agreed and that people are free to believe and think for themselves. The only exception to this was the catholic church in the middle ages, which was not so much a church as a political body that was intent on clinging onto power in an authoritarian manner. But this was not enough to limit free thought, as the Reformation showed.

So how shall I conclude? The only way to change the usage of words is by repetition and by being as precise as possible. If anyone talks to you and throws about words such as those mentioned above, ask them what they mean by their usage, challenge them. When you use them yourself, check that your audience understand what you mean by them; don’t leave it for them to misinterpret you. So, with all that said: I think I can now safely define myself, without being grossly misunderstood, a secular, humanist Christian.

21 February 2011

Book Review: Why Men Hate Going To Church by David Murrow

First of all, what is this book about? It is part sociology, part church life. It is not a theological tome. The basic premise is that even though men dominate the pastoral and similar key leadership roles within church, the majorioty of the church is female-dominated and that is driving men away, thus perpetuating the problem.

In a very methodical manner, he then looks at the reasons why men don't seem to want to go to church. That would seem obvious, given the title of the book, but thanklfully he does go further than that. He looks at what it is that fulfills men's needs and contrasts this with what the church provides. Finally he sets about giving some practical advise on how the church ought to change in order to attract men to it.

So this is not the book for you if you think the church is fine and you want to find ways to change men to make them want to go to church. This is stresed from very early on in the book. However, if you look around your congregation and notice a lack of men, particularly those in the 18-35 age group, then this is certainly valuable reading for you. Note that this is not just a book for men to read; this has just as much in it for women to read.

We cannot pass without a few downsides, though these are relatively minor. While valiant efforts are made by Murrow to expand his viewpoint beyond american boundaries, it still retains a very american feel to it, and though, as an Englishman, I can see hints of the issues he looks at, there is a slight disparity between what he sees in american churches and what we have here in the UK. In a few places, he goes a little overboard with the statistics, even though this is not a comprehensive study. It can be easy to be blinded by statistics and at times I felt he made the same point a few too many times in a short space. And in one or two places, he does seem to single out liberals and environmentalists for some unfair criticism, thus showing his slightly right-wing politics where they don't belong.

Practical, engaging and broken down into a very logical, readable structure, it is quite well-written and relevant to many people in many churches, though perhaps not all. As I am myself, one of those perculiar creatures of an unmarried man in my late 20s, I can guarantee I will be a rarity in most churches I set foot in. However, given the strong message promoting masculinity in quite an Ed Cole sort of manner, this is not an anti-feminist book at all. Murrow is very much about recognising an imbalance and restoring that balance rather than promoting a male-dominated church.

14 February 2011

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel is a fantastic work of literature, though not for the reasons you might expect. The start of the novel is nothing particularly special, though as the story progresses, there are vignettes which begin to appear giving insights of extraordinary self-awareness. The main theme that Plath explores is the isolation felt by someone going through depression and breakdown, which is very hard to express to those on the outside looking in. One of the ways in which she does this in the book is by having a variety of secondary characters who often seem to appear out of nowhere and then disappear quite quickly, only to reappear later on with little connection to their earlier cameos. Yet in these, there is the sense that the characters lack depth. This is quite a deliberate move by Plath, not an example of poor writing. When your world is insular and suffocating in an intangible bleakness, other people become two dimensional and plastic.

As the novel progresses, there are seeming gaps in the narrative where you suddenly find yourself in a whole new scene just seconds after having been somewhere else in an unresolved situation. This again is a way in which Plath sees the world, with yawning gaps in memory, something that is very common in people with depression. Once the reader has adapted to this writing style, the work is an utterly moving piece of literature. For the most part, I read this on the train over the course of a week, and at times had to dab the odd tear from my eye and try and disguise it from my fellow commuters.

* spoiler warning below*

As someone who has suffered from depression at times myself, there was much here to identify with, and it brought back some memories from a very dark time in my life. There is a point in the book where it all seems to have to a head and the deepest of fogs is taken to its logical conclusion. Knowing that Plath took her own life shortly after the publication of the book, it reads horribly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, perhaps in an effort to sanitise the book slightly, Plath pulls out at the last minute and gives her character a way out, with renewed hope, albeit with an uncertain ending. This does give the book an air of optimism that feels slightly out of place and I can't help but wonder if it might have been better had the book ended in the coal cellar.

To anyone who has ever suffered with depression, this is an absolute must read, and also to those who have ever had to try to support and understand someone else who has.

Book review: Captive State by George Monbiot

The first thing to note is that this book is out of date now, and is best looked at with historical perspective in mind. Written as a critique of the Labour government, it was written after only 3 years after they were elected in 1997. This instantly throws open one question mark, which is somewhat answered by the text. That question is this: are the criticisms really due to a young Labour government or are they due to hangovers from 18 years of Conservative rule? There is then a motif that runs through the book of “this was initiated by the Tories, but because Labour didn't stop it immediately, they're the villains of the piece.” With this is mind it is no wonder that one of the recommendations on the back cover is from Michael Gove, who is currently (in Feb 2011) the Education Secretary and is in the process of forcing the education system down a cul-de-sac that will inevitably lead to a part privatisation of schools, colleges and universities.

The introduction is a very one-sided polemic which cherry-picks its data and draws rapid conclusions that are not based on sufficient evidence. The general theme is “big corporations are bad and seek to overrule the electorate” This takes no regard of the fact that big corporations are a source of employment which is vital to the economy and that their employees and their bosses ARE part of the electorate.

The structure of the book then looks at 11 main case studies at how the involvement of the private sector into public life has profited companies whilst ripping off the public. The trouble with this is that it lacks longevity. The book was only published 10 years ago (at the time of writing this review, which will be similarly out of date soon!) and already some of the cases are no longer relevant. It might have been good to have a review of the cases in a revised edition, though to the best of my knowledge, Monbiot is not presently working on such a project.

This is not to detract from the validity of some of the cases he makes. Some of them deserve the level of criticism they receive, my point is merely that they lack balance and this reads more as a piece polemic and less like a meticulous study, worthy of serious consideration. Probably the best chapter of the book, which is its most unusual, is a directory of individuals showing how their private roles have conflicted with their public duties. I think it would be quite right to keep this updated as often as possible, in order to be discern who can be trusted and who is compromised.

Where the book really gets unstuck is where it treads my speciality: science. The chapter on genetically modified foods is little more than unevidenced scaremongering. While it is intertwined with some very valid points regarding Monsanto, the core of the chapter doesn't stand up to scrutiny and reads like it was written by a 16 year old who only found out 4 days ago what the term 'genetically modified' actually meant. From here, Monbiot looks at science funding in universities. His key “scare” is that big, scary, evil corporations will dictate the syllabus of university teaching and that by investing in research that is relevant for them, that this is somehow inherently corrupt.

Overall, the book is crying out for an update now that the era of New Labour is over and that of the Con-Dem coalition has begun. There are some really good arguments in here and issues raised that we should be right to get angry over, with PFI probably the biggest problem that is likely to curse this country for the next few decades. However, the lack of balance means that that which is best about this book is hidden amongst pages of rhetoric, polemicism and scaremongering.

Book Review: If You Want To Walk On Water, You've Got To Get Out Of The Boat by John Ortberg

I bought this on a friend's recommendation, although they didn't give me much detail about the book, so I came it relatively blind, and had also not read anything else by Ortberg. My first impression, flicking through the chapter titles, sub-headings and notes at the back, was that this was a self-help book dressed up as pop-theology. Going through the early chapters, however, it did seem a lot better than I had feared.

That said, it is certainly no theological tome. In terms of Paul's spiritual milk/meat analogy, this is pretty watered down milk. The whole premise is on the passage in Matthew 14, shortly after the feeding of the 5,000+ where Peter is said to have got have the boat and walked on water for a very short period of time. It is interesting that the author skips over the parallel passages in Mark and John (it is never mentioned in Luke) where Jesus is said to have to walked on water, but in which no mention is made of Peter having done the same. Nor is there any discussion on the translation from the Greek where the word that is commonly translated as “on” has an equally acceptable translation of “over.”

So, having recognised this as not being a rigorous, comprehensive study, what are we to make of it? Well, it has to be noted that is extremely american in its style. Littered with bad spelling, bad English and inaccurate terminology, (e.g. saying that Winston Churchill “repeated a grade at elementary school”) it did frustrate me, like trying to drive a car whose engine keeps spluttering every now and again. There is also some evidence of flawed theological thinking in it. For example, Ortberg seems to have very little understanding of resurrection theology, stating that we will ultimately live in heaven, thus ignoring scriptural teaching about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Also, he treats the resurrection of Jesus very casually by suggesting that on the third day after dying, “he woke up feeling good.” The last point which annoyed me, and I will get on to the praise shortly, is the questions at the end of each chapter. Again this comes very much from the americanised origins of this book, in that the author gives very leading questions, framed in a manner in which one does not normally think. I felt a little bit like Donnie Darko when he was asked to place certain situations of a scale of fear to love, frustrated that the question did not allow for a nuanced answer, taking into account the complexities of real life.

But with the criticisms aside, there is a good substantial heart to this book. It is mainly about courage and fear and the trepidations we have about making bold decisions. Mercifully, the author is quite sober-minded in that he does not encourage us to pursue all potential callings with reckless abandon, but rather that we take a considered approach to life; but that once that decision is made, our focus has to be on Jesus. Each chapter sets out its stall at the beginning and is well constructed, with all key points highlighted, just in case you'd skimmed over them once already. I was trying to think of who the key target audience are. Certainly it is aimed at the american market, with the cultural-specific references and mildly jingoistic overtones, though I was less sure about the age demographic which seems a little more universal.

So would I recommend it? Yes. It could do with a bit of rewrite, to remove some cultural specific references that are not universal, and also to correct the spelling mistakes and dodgy theology, but overall it is a valued contribution to christian lifestyle literature.

1 February 2011

Book Review: The Three Roads to Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin

First off, I need to explain why I wanted to read this book. I thought the 3 roads of the title would be string theory, loop quantum gravity (LQG) and twistor theory. I have studied both string theory and twistor quite extensively, so was looking forward to a recap of those two with a nice easy introduction into LQG. This is not the case though. The book begins by trying to take the issue of quantum gravity in as broad a scope as possible, before looking at LQG and string theory. After reading it, I was still none the wiser as to what he thought the third road was.

I have to say I was quite disappointed with the start of this book. In chapter 3, Smolin makes the very correct observation that “If one is not careful, [the superposition principle] can lead to a kind of mysticism in which its meaning is over-interpreted far past what the evidence calls for.” However, he fails to take note the irony that the first two chapters contain conclusions which over-step the boundary set by evidence, and so the foundation of the book is based on some unjustifiable assumptions. Along with that, on page 22, there is possibly one of the least helpful diagrams I have ever seen in any scientific literature. Though he acknowledges that he is not the most eloquent of writers, he unfortunately seems to want to emphasise this point with some very hand-wavey descriptions of general relativity (GR). If you have not studied GR at university or even read other popular science literature on the subject, then the introduction will likely leave you completely baffled and clueless. If that sounds like you, I'd recommend going for A Brief History of Time first to get a clearer picture of GR.

From here, Smolin goes on to talk about quantum cosmology and the restrictions it can impose on our worldview. This was quite interesting to read, though probably not for the reasons intended. The book is (at the time of writing this review) 10 years old and it is quite fascinating to see how scientific opinion has shifted in even this short space of time. Smolin dismisses the many-worlds hypothesis as an interpretation of quantum mechanics (QM) though he doesn't really explain QM particularly well. What we are left with is a chapter that tries very hard to explain things in a lively, straightforward way, but which fails in that aim and is quite garbled and confusing, which is a terrible shame.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. The book picks up significantly in terms of quality and clarity when Smolin goes on to give the background to his own speciality: loop quantum gravity. He makes a good case for pinning it to sound and well evidenced basis, even if no direct evidence has yet been found to confirm it. He is also keen to stress that LQG is not necessarily a candidate for a theory of everything, and treats his own subject with a level of humility and healthy scepticism that is very welcome in a science text. There is also a hint at the end of the book of the introduction to his later book, The Trouble With Physics, which details certain sociological problems that surround and inhibit some aspects of research into quantum gravity.

There is a helpful critique of string theory given, though possibly not enough time is spent explaining it properly, and readers interested in that could do a lot worse that Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe.

Overall, it is worth reading but prepared to quite frustrated, particularly early on.