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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World

by David Deutsch
Penguin Group USA, New York, NY, 2011
496 pp. Trade, $30.00; paper, $18
ISBN: 978-0-670-02275-5; ISBN: 978-0-143-12135-0.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous  Iconoclast

ubiq_icon@hotmail.com

In fairness to the author, publisher, and all collaborators in this ambitious undertaking, this review is of the US edition of the book. Whatever differences may exist between this version, the presumed original published in London and others published in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and India are unknown to me as this review is being written.

The above disclaimer is made, in part, to provide context for a minor personal complaint over the often-jarring hodgepodge of seeming inconstancies observed in the process of localizing orthography. While the "Z"s have been put into the spelling of such words as "realize", "theorize", "specialized", "customizes" and "categorize", other words have not made the "trip across the pond" such as "analysing", "realisation", "analogue", "defence", "megatonnes", "coulour", "behaviour" and "favourite". Another minor annoyance is what, in the US, is rendered as a single word "forever" but, in this US edition, seems always to be two words "for ever". The traditional French spelling of "programme" has given way to the US version, "program". How these and other words are handled in other editions I have no idea. Will perturbed readers demand those responsible for lapses in localizing of UK-isms do time in "jail" (not "gaol"?) for driving them, however briefly, to distraction?

The seeming digression (of the previous paragraph) was merely a mini-reply of sorts to a brief riff on meme evolution by the author where differences in phrases between UK/US English are cited: ("in hospital" / "in the hospital", "learning to play the piano" / "learning to play piano" but never "learning to play the baseball"!).

Now, at last, to the substance of this book. Readers familiar with Gödel, Escher Bach, Ton Beau de Marot and I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter, will find much of the same material (even an update of sorts on the Turing Test, Incompleteness Theorem, Achilles racing the Tortoise, etc.) covered in this newest book by David Deutsch. Indeed, his bibliography lists two of the three named works above under the heading of further reading.

Where GEB may be best synopsized as a shrug-of-shoulders look at the question of what is so special about human thought and Ton Beau as a similar survey of what, exactly, is "spirit" or "soul", The Beginning of Infinity seems "merely" an astrophysicist's explanation, in "near-Hofstadterian" style, of "everything new under [over, through, beyond, wa-a-a-a-y beyond, etc.] the sun" combined with a brief course in "Quantum Physics for Dummies" and a dollop of most delightful discourse on, among other things, how highly hostile to human life nature is and how only our ability to acquire and pass along knowledge has enabled us to survive and prosper.

The title, Beginning of Infinity, comes from Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity and a beautiful snippet from that serves as epigraph for the final chapter titled "The Beginning". The book is replete with "beginning of infinity" definitions as they relate to the subject matter of almost every chapter.

Probably the most wonderfully enjoyable part of this book, especially for those of us who have seen almost every page of Leonardo since 1968 and think about the interfaces of art, science, and technology, is the chapter titled "Why Are Flowers Beautiful?". There a quote from Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Impossible is interwoven with a strand from Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and a reminder of the passage from John Archibald Wheeler, used at the start of the first chapter:

"Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it -- in a decade, a century or millennium -- we will all say to each other, 'How could it have been otherwise?' "

Another equally pleasurable bit, not too long after that metaphorical tapestry, is the juxtaposing of Beethoven's seemingly sloppy cross-outs on manuscripts with the remark by Feynman, "the only equipment a theoretical physicist needs is a stack of paper, a pencil, and a waste basket." Others are thrown into the mix including, Bronowski and Keats' assertion "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" along with dissenting opinion by Thomas Huxley.

Throughout this book reference is made to Einstein's axiomatic impossibility of anything exceeding the speed of light. In LIGHT of the hoopla over CERN's recent faster-than-light neutrino announcement, Deutsch replied, when interviewed by Wired.co.uk:

"This question is being asked the wrong way 'round, both by the press and, as far as I can tell, by many physicists. This is not a matter of 'likelihood' or any other subjective concept. Science is objective. And in my view we cannot take any experimental results seriously except in the light of good explanations of them. So we need explanations first. Where we have good, testable explanations, they then have to be tested and we drop the ones that fail the tests.

"The neutrino results do make existing explanations unsatisfactory, but that is not very exciting in itself because that includes all sorts of parochial explanations about things like the properties of the outgoing detectors, the accuracy of the GPS, and thousands of other such things. So, those who wish to explain the results by questioning the accuracy of GPS now need to produce good, testable explanations of what is going wrong with GPS, or with the way that the experiment used it, etc. Those who wish to question the theory of relativity need to do exactly the same in regard to the structure of spacetime. As far as I know, there exist no good explanations of the latter type at present. The closest I've seen are ideas about neutrinos taking shortcuts through higher dimensional space, but those seem to be refuted by observations of supernova neutrinos, so they won't work as explanations.

"The implications for science broadly cannot be known until we have an explanatory theory that explains the results. If it changes fundamental theories, the change may or may not be big." [1]

No can-kickin' down the quantum continuum for Deutsch!

Notes:

[1] http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-09/26/david-deutsch-qa . See also Charles Krauthammer, "Gone in 60 Nanoseconds", Washington Post, Page A- Friday, October 7, 2011 [ www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/gone-in-60-nanoseconds/2011/10/06/gIQAf1RERL_print.html ]


Last Updated 1 December 2011

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