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10 May 2016

Book Review: We Are All Stardust

We Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our ExistenceWe Are All Stardust: Leading Scientists Talk About Their Work, Their Lives, and the Mysteries of Our Existence by Stefan Klein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often wish that the "Talk" interviews in the New York Times Magazine were longer. Particularly when the subject is someone who might have something of substance to say. But they are short form and because I usually want more when I'm done reading them, I have mostly stopped reading them.

The German newspaper Die Ziet also has a magazine supplement. And, in it, Stefan Klein publishes interviews with scientists. This book is made up of those interviews.

There were a few familiar names in the table of contents--Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, Leonardo DaVinci--but mostly Klein talks with scientists I have not heard of. Scientists who study things I probably could not understand, no matter how hard I tried. The kinds of people I would never find myself at a cocktail party with.

And it was fascinating. And the format made it digestible. And Klein's interviews, focused, as they were, on the weekly newspaper-reading audience, were completely accessible to my mind, a mind that so wants to be able to contemplate the larger issues of science but does not have the tools to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised at how often the conversations bent toward the philosophical. The cultural. The realm of thoughtful questioning without ways of finding real answers. And if I learned anything from this book is that scientists DO think like I do; in a random cacophony of ideas. They just sometimes do something different with those ideas.

All science is dedicated to understanding our world. And our world is populated with our people, so one might be surprised how often these eminent scientists consider theological and philosophical subjects, as related to their specialties.

For example;

Martin Rees, a cosmologist, had this to say about the dangers of the internet--"It not only expands peoples' horizons but also is capable of strongly reinforcing prejudices. Small groups with extreme views can now find like-minded people all over the world, organize themselves, and easily access technical knowledge. And because the mass media exponentially increase the psychological impact of any confused action, a handful of people can now exercise enormous power."

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, on the concept of equitable fairness and the concept of niceness--"We don't like feeling that somebody else is getting away with something. In a country like Britain, where people pretty much will pay their taxes, I don't mind paying taxes. But if I lived in a country where just about everybody gets away with not paying their taxes, I would then feel very resentful of paying my taxes. And so, I think it's difficult to foster super-niceness. You can only foster a kind of slightly limited grudging niceness, because most people would be happy to be nice as long as they feel that not too many other people are exploiting it."

Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran on the nature of truth-"Our brain seems to function so smoothly. But in reality we're hallucinating all the time. What do you see? [makes a cross with his index fingers] Two fingers crossed. Exactly. Yet your retina received only the image of a finger and two finger halves behind it. Your brain supplied the notion that it's two whole fingers. We know much less than we think. More than 90 percent of what we believe we are perceiving we're only assuming. These assumptions are part of our worldview, which our brains construct and palm off on us as reality."

Ramachandran on death--"There's a single divine light that shines through each of us, but individuals are only the windows through which it shines. When someone dies, his window is closed. But the light keeps shining through all the other windows."

Chemist and poet Roald Hoffman on beauty--"Our mind is programmed to look for patterns. It favors simplicity. We feel at ease when we immediately understand something--whether it's a painting, a building, or a molecule. But then the thing quickly becomes boring. We need something more to keep our interest. Beauty comes from tension: between order and disorder, simplicity and complexity."

Neurobiologist Hannah Moyer on fate--"There's this wonderful Greek depiction of Kairos, the god of opportunity. He's bald except for a lock of hair on his forehead. You have to grasp him by it, or else he'll pass you by. We believe that we're in control of our lives. But in reality we can only seize opportunities."

Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese on the power of face-to-face connection--"We communicate more and more by telephone and computer; communities in which people encounter one another in person are increasingly dissolving. But we know from our experiments that it's not without consequences for our capacity for empathy whether we see another person only on a screen or face-to-face. That's why a theater experience is more powerful than going to the movies. And if you communicate with your conversation partners only by e-mail or, like many young people, in electronic chat rooms, your image of them dissolves completely. And that must have profound effects on our social and cognitive abilities. We just don't know yet what they are. In any case, our social skills evolved for direct encounters, not virtual ones."

Economist Ernst Fehr on revenge--"The most unbearable feeling is that someone else got ahead by cheating us. To punish a presumed cheater people will even incur disadvantages to themselves. Here's a thought experiment: everyone can put money in a pot to stick it to those top managers who led their companies to near ruin while enriching themselves. For every euro you invest, ten euros are taken from the managers and then burned." Stefan Klein replies, "Probably a sizeable fund would be collected. But that would be more an expression of revenge than of fairness." Fehr continues, "Revenge is nothing but the dark side of the sense of fairness. It's a defense against the freeloaders in the community."

Fehr on happiness and justice--"Happiness is a private good, justice a public good. Because you as an individual can do something for your well-being, the subject is ill-suited for revolutions. For justice, on the other had, you have to fight together with others."

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik on Feminism--"Feminism has two sides: Along with the struggle against oppression, it's also always been about taking female experiences seriously. After all, women haven't been twiddling their thumbs for the last ten thousand years; they have been raising the entire population of the earth."

And finally, this;
According to an estimate by the United Nations, an additional thirteen billion dollars a year would be enough to establish basic health care for everyone in the world. That's about what Europeans spend on ice cream every year. Encouraging because it shows how much we could accomplish without giving up that much of our own entitlement. Discouraging, as philosopher Peter Singer says, "Because it shows that our declared belief that every life is of equal value is only a theoretical belief. It's not a practical matter--It doesn't influence our actions very much. Psychologists call it the diffusion of responsibility. Because we know that every other passerby could help, and that some are even better off than us, we feel it's not up to us. In the end no one feels responsible. We hide in the crowd. People would rather give money for medical treatment that would save the life of a single child than for treatment costing the same amount that would save eight children. You know that there is one child in need an that you can save this child, and so you feel good that you can make a difference and solve a problem. But if you tell people that for the same amount of money they could save a larger number of children but that there are more children in need--that there are one hundred people in need and you could save twenty of them--fewer people would save twenty than would save the one. Any economist would say that's crazy. You obviously get better value for your money if you save twenty children than if you save one. But at twenty out of one hundred, a lot of people just see the fact that they can't really make a difference, so it's not worth it to bother."

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