Tag Archives | Leonard Mlodinow

Subliminal | Leonard Mlodinow

Mlodinow has a knack for delving into specific fields of science that do not receive a lot of attention and popularizing them. He did this with randomness in The Drunkard’s Walk, and now he’s back with Social Neuroscience in Subliminal.

The strength of Mlodinow’s writing lies in the way he’s able to make scientific studies accessible. There are experiments galore recounted in his latest book. Here are a few of the ideas that expanded my mind:

  • In the Southeastern United States, people with the most common surnames tend to marry people with the same surname (“Smiths marry other Smiths about as often as they marry people with all those other names [Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown], combined”) (19).
  • Shares on the New York Stock Exchange with easily pronounceable names are funded better (27).
  • 1 in 5 average students whose teachers were informed that they were gifted gained 30 or more IQ points eight months later (114).

In addition to the fascinating experiments, Mlodinow uses compelling stories from his own history, laced with his witty sense of humour.

Unlike The Drunkard’s Walk, however, the structure of this book let me down. Despite the two-part organization in the Contents (“The Two-Tiered Brain” and “The Social Unconscious”), this book didn’t develop along any logical lines I was able to follow. While almost every chapter was interesting, they didn’t flow together or develop any overarching thesis.

In the end, Subliminal is a good popular introduction to the topics studied in the quickly developing field of Social Neuroscience.

The Drunkard’s Walk | Leonard Mlodinow

The Drunkard’s Walk is science writing at its best.

You start with someone who knows what their talking about. Mlodinow has a PhD in physics from the Berkeley and teaches at Caltech. If that’s not enough for you, he co-wrote A Briefer History of Time with Stephen Hawking.

The second element in good science writing is an interesting topic. Randomness fits the bill perfectly since it permeates every area of our lives. This allows Mlodinow to tell interesting stories about everything from Let’s Make A Deal to the track record of investment bankers.

This book is well structured, too. Rather than follow some text-book method of teaching, Mlodinow has organized the chapters around the history of this field of study. As you continue through the chapters, you encounter all the major theorists who have led the study of randomness.

The last element in a good science book is simply good writing. The quality of Mlodinow’s prose is excellent. Don’t expect flat technical writing here—he composes his sentences artfully.

This was the first book I’ve read by Mlodinow but it won’t be the last.

The Grand Design | Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow

Physics is one of those fields where you can’t rely on information you learned a decade ago. In The Grand Design, Hawking & Mlodinow lay out the current state of physics with an eye towards the holy grail: the Theory of Everything.

Unless physics is your field, you’ll need to concentrate while reading this book. That said, it’s remarkably readable. Three or so quiet hours is all you need to be appraised of the current state of (our understanding of) the universe. There’s enough humor mixed in to make your education more of a joy than a chore. (For example, apparently the answer to the question of life, the universe, and everything isn’t 42!)

Hawking and Mlodinow took a couple of frustrating pot-shots at straw-man Christianity. When they offered the odd side-remark, I found myself agreeing with them—and disappointed that they perpetuated some of those irritating stereotypes about Christians.

The climax of the book is an overview of M-Theory, the leading candidate for the Theory of Everything. For Hawking and Mlodinow, if M-Theory is tested and accepted, the universe needs no designer—it’s self-replicating. That’s where I have to disagree on logical grounds.

Christian apologists have often offered the question, “If our universe began at the big bang, what or who came before it?” Hawking and Mlodinow rightly turn that logic back by asking, “If God came before the big bang, who came before God?” That response cuts both ways, though. If the idea of a self-running universe with no beginning or ending is proven true, the question still exists, “what or who came before?” In the end, that’s a question that neither science nor theology can answer. Your worldview will determine your answer: where does your faith (trust, belief) lie?

I should make it clear that the last few paragraphs about the intersection of science and religion are far from the centre of The Grand Design. The book is a brilliant example of popular scholarship that should be read by any human being who looks into the sky at night and asks questions.

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