Curiosity, Imagination, and Science: A Personal Journal by an Unusual Mind

The alas now deceased humor author Douglas Adams in The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy describes an alien civilization bound and determined to answer the ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. A supercomputer was constructed, and after 10 million years of computation they had the answer, the answer was 42!

Douglas Adams wrote to entertain, not educate.

David Strumfels has essentially taken Adam’s question in a different direction, he walks us through many of life’s most puzzling dichotomies. This genre of book can be a hit or miss event. I was only a couple of pages into the preface when I knew this book would appeal to me. The author stated that a major influence on him came from the wonderful Jacob Bronowski documentary series and book The Ascent Of Man (1974). Although it is now more than 35 years later, this is still a seminal work. A few paragraphs later David Strumfels mentions another of my all time hero’s Carl Sagan and his Cosmos series. With these two giants as his guiding lights how could I possibly not enjoy Wondering About!

I enjoy books that set out to ask questions about the world we live in. There is so much that we take for granted, yet we have so little understanding of our world.

David Strumfels and I are about the same age, we are both in our fifties. I do wish that I had grown up with him. I suspect we could have gotten ourselves into some real trouble!

Although the subject matter is somewhat different, I have to admit that the style reminded me of David Hofstadlers 1979 classic Godel, Escher, Bach – The Golden Braid. Somehow I just feel that at some point David Strumfels has read it.

Wondering About is like sampling from the best Dinner Buffet ever created. Rather than Lobster, Shrimp, and Prime Beef, his menu is science, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and our relationship to ourselves, our world, and in fact the universe.

I will be the first to admit that my Grammar School education is a little rusty, and I did get bogged down in a couple of chapters early in the book. However, once I had cleared those hurdles, I found some really interesting concepts and a deft way of dealing with them.

A great example is the age of the Universe. I know that some believe it was something like 10,000 years ago. But they are most certainly in the minority on this one. Most scientists put the age at about 13.7 billion years. This is a number that is meaningless to most people. There is no way to comprehend a number this large.

I have seen various attempts to explain it in simple terms, but most do not work, Some have tried converting the time scale to a distance, lets say San Diego to New York, that’s 3000 miles, but how many people have driven that distance? Others have attempted to simplify the concept by using a clock, 24 hours, and try and explain when events happened. Alas the 24 hour idea does not work either. People still have little concept of the time scale.

Davis Strumfels has taken a unique approach, his readers are mostly adults, so David has compressed the life of the universe by a factor of one billion. His time frame is now 13 years and 7 months. Using this scale we find that what we call ‘man’ popped up in the two hours! Even stranger, what we call ‘the industrialized world’ happened right before that last TV commercial ended!

One of the parts in Wondering About that really caught my attention was the reprint of an article from the Woman’s Home Journal dated December 1900. It is a series of predictions about what the world would be like in the year 2000. I am not quite as cynical as David Strumfels, some of the predictions are quite accurate. Some are not, and actually quite far from the truth.

The point that he was making by including this article was to show how difficult it is to predict what might happen in the future. We are an ever growing and evolving (some might say devolving) society.

The author also mentions two other classic pieces of media predictions from the 20th century, George Orwell’s very grim 1984, and Stanley Kubricks cinematic opus (best watched after ingesting recreational pharmaceuticals) 2001 A Space Odyssey.

I actually disagree with David Strumfels as these being examples of bad predictions. George Orwell might have had his timing off by three decades. But it sure seems to be an Orwellian world we live in today! Every telephone call I make, every email I send, and virtually every store I enter, there is an electronic footprint left.

Much of Kubricks 2001 remains unrealized, but that does not mean it is unreal.Artificial intelligence has not yet reached the levels that this movie predicted. But, IBM’s Deep Blue did in fact beat a Chess Grand Master. Is that a real sign of AI? Maybe not. Back in the 70’s I was involved (very loosely) with a computer program to do just that. It was possible to remove intuition and replace sheer brute force into the equation.

Oops, I have digressed, a bad habit of mine, but one that I am very good at.

If you share my interest in just wondering about stuff, I can pretty much guarantee you will enjoy wondering about David Strumfels Wondering About.

I do plan on interviewing David in the very near future, and I am looking forward to it. I think he makes for a great sparring partner!

To order your copy of Wondering About, just click on the Amazon link above, or wander into your local book store and ask “I am wondering about Wondering About, do you have it in stock”?

Simon Barrett

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