Friday, January 17, 2020

"Einstein's Cosmos," by Michio Kaku--Nonfiction Review

So we’re shaking things up today, I know, the third review, already shaking things up? Almost like you don’t have a plan, Kevin. I just want you to know dear internet strangers, I don’t have a plan. It’s pretending to have a plan until genius strikes, maybe, definitely.

Anywho, I’m reviewing a non-fiction book today, and the whole spoiler, no spoiler sections don’t really work for nonfiction. Unless it’s a narrative of some sort—which this one kind of is because today we’re talking about “Einstein’s Cosmos” by Michio Kaku. Spoiler! Albert Einstein was a physicist and a damn good one too, and if you feel cheated by that revelation before having read the book—well, then write me a disgruntled comment. …please write me a disgruntled comment. I’m so lonely here alone in the Obscurity dome, where I write my reviews. 

Michio Kaku

What I love about this book:

I’ve read a few books about Albert Einstein, I believe I’ve mentioned my status of being a bit of a nerd in an earlier review. I picked this one because I feel it’s the best overall look at the man and his work, and I really like Michio Kaku. A close second is a book called “Light Falls: Space, Time, and an Obsession of Einstein,” which is an audible exclusive that features Paul Rudd as a narrator, yes Antman, who does an amazing job, but this book, “Einstein’s Cosmos,” is narrated by Ray Porter and I’m a Ray Porter fanboy. Sorry, Antman.

Since the book starts at the beginning of Einstein’s life and describes his journey until his death, toward the end of the book, it addresses early on a couple myths we normals like to tell each other about the great scientist. You know the one, it goes something like: when Albert Einstein was a boy, he flunked math. I hate to burst your bubble if you held to that one, actually, no, I don’t, I’m a disappointment incubi, and I feast on anticlimax to grow stronger, but it isn’t true. Einstein did struggle in school. That part isn’t a lie, see how I’m building up your hopes here, but he only struggled because he was bored and found his course work to be too trivial to do—in other words, he was already so smart that he couldn’t relate to the task at hand. Right back down to unsatisfying un-relatability, and now I live another year for having taken you on this journey, ha-ha!  So—I like that it takes the time to bust that myth.

The book also mentions that he had trouble memorizing things by rote, which was all the rage in german schools when he was a child, which I can relate to because I also can’t remember things that way either. Where we differ though is, he’s the most important scientist to ever live, and I’m a person who struggles at a blog, he had a fantastic ability to visualize abstractions in his head, and I tell myself little stories to remember things, like a child.

Finally, what I love the most about this book is: yes, it describes tough theoretical principals in an accessible way—as Einstein would have liked—but it does so step-by-step as Einstein discovered them by telling the story of his life.  It’s fascinating to consider the perspective of the man on the train racing the light beam, and all that, but it’s also neat to find out that Albert Einstein also loved the violin and was at one point considered a talented musician when he was young. Details of the man’s life woven as a narrative, married to his work, is what makes this book such a compelling vehicle. It’s hard to relate to a concept such as space-time, but it’s far easier to connect to and admire a young father trying to keep his baby alive in a shitty apartment while struggling to find work, who then elucidated the concept of space-time.

What I don’t love about this book:

The introduction by the author is really the only thing I don’t like, not because it isn’t informative or interesting—it is—but it doesn’t set up an accurate expectation of what the rest of the book is like. The impression I get from the introduction is this book is going to be a “just the facts” sort of experience about Einstein’s work. Mainly, I get this impression because Dr. Kaku jabs at how in popular culture, Albert Einstein is often remembered as the man or the myth of the man. However, understanding of his actual contributions to science are thin, which is a salient point, but science—especially topics such as relativity and quantum mechanics—are abstract concepts by their nature. So of course, people gravitate to remembering that inspirational quote—probably misattributed—of Einstein’s more so than understanding why time literally flows at different rates in a valley vs. the top of its neighboring mountain. Which inspirational quote might you ask? Pick one. Most of them are dubious. So it’s an odd effect when you get into the book and find out that yes, it is a lot about Einstein’s work, but it’s all done within the context of the story of his life, which I really love. Yes, I realize that statement screws up my subject headings, invisible friend.      

Parting thoughts:

So one of my principal interests is outer space, and the idea of space travel, you’ll get to know this about me, if you existed, and I wasn’t talking to myself, writing to myself, whatever.

Full disclosure, though, physics and math, don’t come naturally to me, and I’m a bit of a knuckle dragger on this topic. I think it may stem from a realization I came to as an adult, that I am, and always have been, slightly dyslexic. Before recognizing that about myself, I allowed that to hamstring my early education. This is something I’m trying to work on and improve in myself now that I realize the problem. Why I’m going on about this, is you may have looked at what this book was about and thought, “a book about Einstein, the theory of relativity, and quantum mechanics, that sounds like a lot,” and I’m not going to lie to you, it is, these are mind-stretching abstract topics. That being said, I would encourage you to read about these topics anyway and fail, and then fail again if necessary.

I’ve read a little more than a half dozen books that are similar to this one, and the first one I completed I may have said at the time I understood it if asked. But if I was more honest with myself, I would have owned that it was nearly incomprehensible to me. So why did I read another one? Because one thing stuck out to me. When physicists and scientists talk about eye-wateringly abstract math or theoretical models that describe our universe on scales we can’t even perceive, they speak of it as if it were the sweetest symphony—or more beautiful than the most golden dawn to ever crest the horizon. That there is knowledge worth wanting, to rage against the shadows of ignorance that keep you from it—even though it’s hard.

As a child, I wasn’t bad at math because I was stupid or incapable. I was terrible at math because some public educators, who I’m sure did their best by me—but even still—were too stressed and taxed to realize that I wasn’t getting it because I was a kid who lacked confidence, and mixed the numbers up in my head. It’s no mystery why I prefer audiobooks to actually reading. I say I’m an auditory learner to everyone, and that is true, and it’s true because I’m a notoriously slow reader—not just with numbers but everything. I want you to take in the full irony of that, I’m a guy who writes a blog about books, who wants to write books for a living, and I have a tough time reading.

All that aside, when it comes down to it, why should any of that keep from me the language that describes the very stars in the heavens? What I didn’t realize until recently is; it didn’t have to. Just because you fail today, or the next day, or the day after that, doesn’t mean you’re a failure, or that you will always fail. It’s about getting back up, trying again—maybe start a blog nobody will read.

What I can tell you is that after sticking with it and consuming book after book on this topic, in my mind's eye, I can dimly see what all those scientists and mathematicians were talking about. Sure, it’s still blurry, like someone smeared peanut butter over the lens of my mind’s eye—I also really like peanut butter, almost as much as space, I know off topic—but I don’t think they were exaggerating when they describe things like atoms smashing together in colliders or supernova in distant galaxies as music. It really is beautiful.      

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