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Popular science books are fun

Entry 323 posted in: 1. General Mish Mash, 2. DNA

I've got one called On The Road To Infinity from Dr. A.E. Wallenquist, published by the Bosscha Space Observatory Lembang (Java) in 1934. It is still written in the old school Dutch spelling from De Vries and Te Winkel (1864) so it is even tricky for Dutch speaking people to read (the modern Dutch spelling rules were made in 1946 but it took to 1954 before the new spelling was made official). But Mr. Wallenquist, who was an astronomer, was perhaps too much of a scholar to write gobbledygook so the book isn't as nonsensical as one could expect after 70 years.

I've tried to look up several popular science authors from a few decades ago on the web. The Belgian Jos Van Limbergen, who wrote a dozen book club bestsellers, is even unknown on Dutch Wikipedia. Only some antiquarian sites that have copies of his books mention this author.

Does anybody care for I.S. Shklovskii who wrote Universe, Life, Mind in 1962? This Soviet astrophysicist had to introduce mild communist propaganda and some blatant American criticism in his book in order to see it published. Nevertheless when Carl Sagan received a copy of the book he was so thrilled by it that he asked Iosif Samuilovich if he could translate it into English. Sagan added some of his own comments, sometimes disagreeing with Shklovskii, to the original text, deleted some of the propaganda (but mentioned why and where he did that) and in 1966 the book was presented to the American public under the title: Intelligent Life in the Universe. Sagan and Shklovskii truly believed, or at least suggested, that aliens had already visited Earth. Thus was the political situation in those days that the authors could not meet and had to communicate solely by writing. Shklovskii once commented to Sagan: "The probability of our meeting is unlikely to be smaller than the probability of a visit to the Earth by an extraterrestrial cosmonaut".

Propaganda wasn't always a Soviet thing of course. Jos Van Limbergen's 1961 Conquest of the Moon (Dutch: Verovering van de Maan) contains several anti-communist attacks. The fact that the Russian spacecraft Lunik 2, the first object ever to land (i.e. crash) on the moon, contained a Soviet flag is named a 'chauvinist sin' done by communist 'pub philosophers'. But one has to confess; even today Russians have the flair to plant their flag on undiscovered territory just to call it their own, n'est-ce pas?

Probably the book that has influenced me the most is Adrian Berry's The Next Ten Thousand Years. Now here was a man who separated the science from the fiction. Published in 1973 it deals with matters as Dyson Spheres, Von Neumann self-replicating machines (Battlestar Galactica anyone?) and gives a simple DIY introduction to Einstein's special relativity theory. I took the book out of my library today - it was slowly hibernating between Brian W. Aldiss' Billion Year Spree and James Michener's Space - and it literally broke into pieces when I opened it. Out fell a sheet I once made containing the different ratios for Einstein's mass vs. speed formula

( 1      v 2  ) 
    c 2

So this was the kind of thing I did when I was young, beautiful and a pimpled virgin. One thing struck me though; in 1973 Berry did not write a single word about quantum mechanics, string theory or the 11 dimensions we currently live in.

I experienced nearly the same enthusiasm this week when I read Michael Hanlon's The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. At first I feared it would be another one of those rip-off books, genre The Anthology at the End of the Universe, where a sly editor with Vogon blood running through his veins has invited so-called ‘leading SF authors' to say something witty about Douglas Adams. After you have read all pieces, you are frankly impressed by two of them, annoyed by at least six, and the dozen other are already forgotten.

But The Science Of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is other shit. One of the reviews at the back of the book reads: "An excellent book exploring fundamentally serious matters in a most entertaining way. Rather a shame that many might ignore it because they think it's about the 'Guide'!" And for once a blurb couldn't be more accurate.

Chapter 9 deals with teleportation, and as both Captain James T. Kirk and Arthur Dent have this way of transport in common I dived into the local Bermuda triangle that contains my library and found The Physics Of Star Trek, a book written in 1995 by Lawrence M. Krauss with a foreword by Stephen Hawking (that book is amongst the few that are recommended on Adrian Berry’s website by the way).

According to Mr. Krauss a human being contains about 1 x 10^28 atoms.
According to Mr. Hanlon it is about 7 x 10^27 atoms.
The difference is a tiny 3 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 atoms and an explanation for that could lie in the fact that James Tiberius Kirk is wee bit fatter than Arthur Dent.

Both books come to the same conclusion. There is a huge ethical problem when it comes to teleportation: is the person that has been teleported the same or is it an identical copy? To quote Michael Hanlon: teleportation kills its subject and creates an impostor. Luckily, so concludes Lawrence M. Krauss, it will never be possible to teleport a human as loading the data into a buffer would take slightly longer than the Universe itself. But, adds Michael Hanlon, teleportation of, lets say, a microbe will be done before the end of this century. Already a few years ago atoms have been successfully teleported in different laboratories over the world. Before the next decade is over attempts will be made to teleport several thousands particles in one go.

Add to this the news that parallel universes may well exist, that time travel is no longer a theoretical possibility and that there is a spooky Tiplerian Omega Point where we will all be god it is no wonder that the one and only Guide has these big reassuring letters printed on its cover: Don't Panic.

If you liked this post - you might be interested in this one as well: Gentle Ghosts