books book reviews

Short reviews of recent popular scientific and medical books

reviewed by T. Nelson


The Janus Point: A New Theory of Time

by Julian Barbour

Basic Books 2020, 383 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

Ludwig Boltzmann said that however our brains were constructed, they must work in such a way that we perceive time as whatever direction entropy was increasing. Even if time were flowing backwards we would never know because we would still remember the lower entropy state as the past.

In this book Julian Barbour says much the same thing: at some point in history, two ensembles shot off in opposite directions. In each one, due to the symmetry of physical laws, time flows in opposite directions, toward the point of greater entropy. Barbour's innovation is that a Big Bang with extremely low entropy is not needed.

The idea that entropy (or ‘complexity’ as he prefers to call it) is the arrow of time is interesting but not novel. The book's endless meanderings and asides make this the one of the most aggra­vating pop physics books since Our Mathematical Universe, where Max Tegmark used faulty logic to claim the universe is composed of mathematics. I started flipping pages halfway through; as far as I can tell, if we require a theory of time to explain time in a background-free way without using time itself as a variable, then this theory doesn't succeed. If you want to give Barbour a fair chance to convince you, read his ArXiv paper first. See also the critique by H. Dieter Zeh.

Maybe we should give Barbour some credit. At least now he admits that time actually exists. Or was he only kidding before?

dec 20, 2020


Avoid Boring People

by James Watson

Vintage 2007, 2010, 347 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

James Watson won the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Francis Crick for discovering the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. In this autobiography he gives us his advice for running a lab and how to behave if you win the Nobel Prize. Here's a typical passage:

Behind our house was an alley that separated the homes on the west side of Luella Avenue from those on the east side of Paxton Avenue. The general absence of cars made it a safe place for games of kick-the-can or setting off firecrackers that could still be bought freely around the Fourth of July. When I finally began to grow past five feet, a backboard with a basketball hoop was put up above our garage doors, allowing me to practice my free throws after school. Scarce family funds also purchased a ping-pong table to liven up winter days.

That's from his early life, but the whole book is in this style. If you're interested in what a rather boring biology student who happened to make a big discovery did his whole life, this is the book for you.

One interesting point in this book is his depiction of X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin's work and where it touched on the DNA story. Her work contributed to our understanding of DNA, as did the work of many others.

Watson also gives us some “Remembered Lessons” including “Exaggerations do not void basic truths”, “Become the chairman,” and “Avoid boring people.” About the latter he says “Not boring others, of course, requires that you take pains not to become boring, as often happens when you begin to bore yourself.”

Hmm, I can see how that could happen.

There is no discussion of any philosophy of life, no discussion of his views on speaking honestly on controversial topics, and no mention of why he sold his prize to make money; just a recitation of how academia was sixty years ago. Thus, there's little here that generates either sympathy or antipathy. He says it was written mainly to benefit future biographers, but I suspect its real goal was to dissuade them.

apr 16, 2019; edited apr 18, 2019


Am I Dying?
Should you chill out or freak out? A complete guide to your symptoms—and what to do next

by Christopher Kelly and Marc Eisenberg

Harper Collins 2019, 337 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

Patients don't need to know about pathological mechanisms. Even The Merck Manual (which I highly recommend, by the way) is too much for most patients. No, what they need to know are the symptoms of the diseases they're likely to get, and whether they're going to die, and they need it quick so they can read it while they're still alive, since otherwise they would have trouble turning the pages.

That's where Am I Dying? comes in. It gives what doctors call the classic symptoms of the common things patients come in with, like headaches, heart pain, abdominal pain, skin and hair problems, and problems with their reproductive parts. Each disease has three sections: Take a chill pill, Make an appointment, and Get to the ER, so patients can match their symptoms and figure out what to do.

Yes it's superficial, but it's fairly witty, very accurate, and easy to read. Schools ought to teach this stuff in health class.

feb 24, 2019


When Modern Medicine Goes Too Far

by Paul A. Offit

Harper 2020, 278 pages
Reviewed by T. Nelson

In this book, P.A. Offit, MD, a professor of pediatrics, tries to debunk some common beliefs he says are myths. There are many bona fide myths in medicine. There is also lots of contradictory information. That is one reason why you should take this book with a grain of salt (though not too much, even though recent studies dispute that it raises your blood pressure).

Example: Offit says treating fever prolongs or worsens illness, and antipyretics such as aspirin and Tylenol are harmful. Why, then, is the first thing the 17th edition (2008) of Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine says about fever is this:

[T]here is no significant clinical evidence that antipyretics delay the resolution of viral or bacterial infections, nor is there evidence that fever facilitates recovery from infection or acts as an adjuvant to the immune system.

This is about a strong a statement as you're likely to get, and it directly contradicts Offit's claim. Which one is right? Who knows, but what we do know is that the clinical trial is not to be blamed. Unless a researcher does something technically wrong (such as getting their data from a suspect source or using the wrong test compound), a properly described clinical trial can never actually be wrong. It's simply an observation that something happened, along with an estimate of the statistical noise. The only thing that can be wrong is the generalizations people draw from it.

In the case of hyperthermia, the current thinking seems to be that if the patient is above 106°F—for whatever reason—then something must be done right away.

Offit wonders why it took forty years to implement James Lind's observation that citrus prevents scurvy. One reason might be that he had only two subjects in each group. With such small N, the best he could have hoped for would be a “suggestion” of an effect. Perhaps the British Navy had a better intuitive grasp of statistics than Lind thought.

Much of the book describes how newer clinical trials contradict the results of earlier studies. This raises two questions: (1) Are later studies necessarily more definitive? And (2) what happens when future studies contradict the current ones? It's commonly assumed that newer studies are better and more sophisticated, but this isn't necessarily so: clinical trials haven't changed as much as people think. More often than not, they're done with little regard for the underlying biological mechanism. Sometimes, as with one study claiming that vitamin A caused a 46% increase in the risk of lung cancer, patients were actually given a near-toxic dose of vitamin A (25,000 IU) daily for months. Often they're done in complete ignor­ance of the mech­anism. Usually the biochem­ical mech­anism of the drug under test is simply as­sumed, which is one reason so many clinical trials fail.

In some chapters, as with mammograms and PSA tests, the benefits and risks are fairly described. In others, as in the one on mercury fillings, Offit doesn't consider that the technology for detecting subtle brain dysfunction is not sensitive enough. So while he says mercury fillings are completely harmless, many neurologists would probably say we shouldn't be so sure of our facts, and most dentists now avoid them.

Offit writes “Mainstream dentists don't debate this issue, because it's not debatable.” [p.182] Or maybe, unlike the author, they recognize that we can't be so sure of our facts. My advice: use common sense and be skeptical about anyone who tells you they're 100% sure about anything.

nov 14, 2020


Beyond Weird: Why everything you knew about quantum physics is different

by Philip Ball
Chicago 2018, 377 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Fairly uninteresting book explaining the “weirdness” of QM on a very low level. PC writing style.

nov 02, 2018

Excellent Sheep:
The Miseducation of the American Elite & the Way To a Meaningful Life

by William Deresiewicz
moved to here