books book reviews

Collections of essays

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review

Third Thoughts
Steven Weinberg
Belknap, 2018, 223 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Based on my readings of Steven Weinberg's textbooks, which are among the most skilfully written scientific books I've ever encountered, I had high hopes for this collection of his nontechnical essays, most of which were published in the New York Review of Books.

Weinberg takes what he calls a Whig approach to the history of science, in which past discoveries are interpreted in terms of how they led to modern theories. His political views are unremarkable: America should have built the super­conducting super­collider, and we ought to abandon manned space flight, raise taxes, spend more on particle physics, and vote D.

His more interesting views are the ones about particle physics. Weinberg is known, along with Abdus Salam, for developing the electroweak theory, which explains beta radioactive decay, and for incorporating the Higgs mechanism into quantum field theory. Here he uses non-technical language to explain spontaneous symmetry breaking and the Higgs mechanism.

According to the theory, the Higgs field permeates all of space. The field is not zero in empty space, which is to say it has a nonzero ground state. This is a form of symmetry breaking, which is the reason the W+, W, and Z0 bosons have mass. The Higgs mechanism also gives mass to the electrons and quarks, but bigger composite particles like the proton and neutron actually get most of their mass from other factors.

A reader would need a fair amount of physics background, including gauge theory and its associated mathematics, to understand why symmetry breaking would cause mass. This is a topic that's very hard to explain without mathematics.

Weinberg says particle physics is currently stuck because the Large Hadron Collider is unable to achieve the high energies that could have been attained by the SSC. These energies are needed to detect the particles predicted by supersymmetric string theory. He also discusses his admiration of Stephen Hawking and his disagreements with him, and discusses how to interpret the weirdness of quantum mechanics.

jan 01, 2019

book review

Camille Paglia
Pantheon, 2018, 709 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

The only sure way to get me to watch a movie is to suspend me 35,000 feet over the North Atlantic, tie me to a chair with an unbreakable strap so I can't escape, and force me to eat lettuce and little packs of crackers for six hours.

The last poem I voluntarily read was an academic piece so repellent that I suspected the writer of committing homicide. These days I don't consider something a real poem unless it contains the word “Nantucket” or “Venus” and describes the denizens therefrom.

So maybe it's no wonder that for the first 350 pages of Provocations, a collection of essays from 1998 to 2017, where Camille Paglia talks about movies, pop singers, cultural trivia, and persons of gender, I had no idea who she was talking about. But then she starts talking about things of real import, which is to say feminism and the decrepit state of the modern university. She writes [p.160]:

Are legally enforced quotas and other preferential remedies authentically progressive, or are they reactionary, paternalistic, and infantilizing? Should women, having escaped control by fathers and husbands, now transfer that humiliating dependency onto the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the state? Or should women, as a testament to their own strength and courage, value freedom above all, despite the pain and risk?

This paragraph, where Paglia challenges her fellow feminists to ditch the histrionics, put away their pussy hats, and begin acting like mature, intelligent, free adults, eloquently summar­izes the viewpoint she expresses throughout this book.

For reasons she doesn't explain, Camille Paglia calls herself “transgender,” but she rejects the biology denialism of her peers: she calls giving children puberty-blocking hormones child abuse, and takes note of similarities between her ideas and those of Ayn Rand.

Paglia, who calls herself a member of the “pro-sex wing of feminism,” not only acknowledges the existence of biology, she revels in it as a creative cultural force. Paglia writes in an energetic, colorful, sometimes witty style: in the essay on Roethke, who turned manic and began writing poems with lines like “I become a cabbage,” she asks “Where have all the psychotic artists gone?” About Sarah Palin she writes: “A feminism which cannot admire the bravura under high pressure of the first woman governor of a frontier state isn't worth a warm bucket of spit.”

On page 369 she starts talking free speech, saying that post-structuralism is at the root of our censorship crisis. As post-structuralism took over academia, it produced an insularity that has “little to do with genuine intellectualism and is more akin to religious fundamentalism.” By treating language as the definitive force in the world, she says, post-structuralism set the groundwork for conflating offensive language with physical injury and caused a decline in the quality of humanities scholarship.

Paglia disputes the idea that post-structuralism is a product of 1960s leftism. Few 60s radicals ever completed graduate school, she says, because drug use ruined their minds. Their absence created a cultural vacuum that was filled by post-structuralism and the German Frankfurt School, “devastating the humanities and reducing their prestige and power in the world at large.” She calls Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death an intellectual tour de force and says North Americans like Brown, Marshall McLuhan, and Leslie Fiedler should replace Europeans like Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault, whose European pessimism and sense of futility led academia astray for half a century.

What she recommends is to drop the sterile European-based ideology and revisit the 1960s to reclaim the uniquely American, optimistic, and fertile path we ought to have taken. It's a tribute to her tenacity that conservatives and libertarians make the same arguments today that Paglia was making twenty years ago. It's a tribute to the staying power of foolish ideas that we still have to.

jan 05, 2019