Book Review: Calculating The Cosmos

Calculating The Cosmos is a book about the history and current practice of physics, astronomy, and cosmology by British mathematics professor Ian Stewart. The book gives the reader an overview of many topics, including gravitation, the solar system, spacetime, extraterrestrial life, and quantum mechanics. The book is divided into nineteen chapters, as well as a short prologue and epilogue.

The prologue begins with the mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, then gives a brief recounting of previous space missions. The role of mathematics in astronomy is discussed, followed by its role in cosmology. The first chapter takes us through the history of gravitational theories, from the ancient Greeks to Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, and onward to general relativity and quantum mechanics. More detail in the path toward relativity would have improved the book here. With the second chapter, Stewart begins discussing the solar system, starting with its formation. The nebular hypothesis of a collapsing gas cloud that forms stars and planets is the main focus, along with previous theories and why they were rejected. These are used to illustrate the importance of physics concepts like momentum and angular momentum. The chapter ends with a discussion of possible futures for the solar system, some of which involve planetary collisions and ejections.

The third chapter is devoted to the theories for the formation of the Moon. These include the giant impact hypothesis, as well as several other ideas that fail to explain the Moon’s composition, tidal locking with Earth, and angular momentum. Much of the chapter concerns the nature of constructing simulations for events like an impact between Earth and a Mars-sized object, or the formation of a solar system. In the fourth chapter, Stewart examines the Titius-Bode law, then expands to power laws in general. Their use in discovering Uranus comes next, followed by the use of perturbation techniques to find Neptune. The chapter ends with the accidental correctness of perturbation techniques concerning Pluto and their failed prediction of Vulcan, a hypothetical planet closer to the Sun than Mercury. Oddly, no mention is made here of the hypothetical Planet Nine, and Stewart does not note that Neptune is out of place by the Titius-Bode law.

The fifth chapter is called Celestial Police, in reference to a group of astronomers at the turn of the 19th century, though most pages have the chapter name “Number of Asteroids.” Stewart gives the history of discovery of the asteroids, then explains how resonances with Jupiter’s orbit explains gaps in the asteroid belt. This leads into a discussion of the 2½-body problem and the five Lagrange points of such a system. The chapter concludes with natural examples of objects in Lagrange point orbits, such as Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and Saturn’s moons Tethys, Telesto, and Calypso. The next two chapters concern the moons and rings of Saturn and Jupiter, respectively. The discovery of Saturn’s rings and the path toward discovering their true nature comes first, then Stewart shows how resonances with Saturn’s moons explain both the gaps in its rings and how the F ring stays in place. Resonances appear once more in Chapter 7 to explain conjunctions between the moons of Jupiter and Pluto. The chapter ends with facts about some of Jupiter’s and Saturn’s major moons.

Comets are the focus of the eighth chapter. The comet 67P and the effort to land a space probe on it are examined in greater detail. Better known comets, such as Halley’s Comet, are discussed to illustrate the predictive power of mathematics. The origin of comets leads to sections on the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt, then the chapter concludes with the 1994 impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter. The ninth chapter gives a basic overview of chaos theory, and does a good job of clearing up common misconceptions in popular culture about the subject. After this, Stewart returns to the asteroid belt resonances to discuss a possible origin for the object that likely caused the Cretaceous extinction event.

The tenth chapter discusses various types of orbits and how they can be used to send spacecraft from one place to another with varying degrees of efficiency and travel time. In the eleventh chapter, Stewart brings optics into the discussion to write about stellar composition and classification, illustrated by the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. The nuclear fusion reactions that power stars, as well as the ultimate fates of stars of various masses comes next. The role of stars in producing all of the heavier elements is explained, from supernovas to newer stars. The observation of sunspots is the subject of the next section, as well as a possible explanation for their cycles. The last subject of the chapter is the means of measuring cosmic distances, from the distance from Earth to the Sun to the distances of various stars. The chapter ends with a few pages of color illustrations, the only ones in the book.

Chapter 12 is devoted to galaxies. Stewart begins with the Milky Way, observed since antiquity but only explained relatively recently. Hubble’s empirical classification of galaxies is cited, then attempts to explain the various shapes are discussed. The failure of galactic rotational speeds to match predictions is left as a puzzle for a later chapter. In the thirteenth chapter, the methods for discovering exoplanets are examined, along with possibilities for extraterrestrial life both elsewhere in the solar system and elsewhere in the universe. The chapter concludes with Stewart’s inventive imagination concerning a hypothetical alien world. The fourteenth chapter begins with the historical steps toward current theories about black holes. The difference between a static black hole and a rotating black hole are explained, as well as their possible role as a link to other universes and hypothetical white holes, which function as expellers of matter and energy that cannot be entered. Alternative explanations for black hole geometry, such as gravastars, are considered at the end of the chapter. The Penrose diagrams here could use more explanation, as they can be quite confusing to a lay reader.

The fifteenth chapter is about the distribution of matter in the universe, as well as the topology of the universe. Stewart does as well as he can without resorting to complex mathematical equations, but doing so would greatly aid the reader’s understanding of the subjects involved. In the sixteenth chapter, the discoveries and interpretations leading to the Big Bang theory are discussed, as well as the various proposals for how the far future of the universe may play out. The next two chapters deal with inflation, dark matter, and dark energy, which are correctives to make the Big Bang theory agree with experimental results. Stewart criticizes this standard cosmological model for its large number of unobserved conjectures, then discusses some alternative theories. The final chapter waxes philosophical about the unlikely combination of physical constants that seem fine-tuned to produce life, then Stewart critiques some of the more outlandish claims regarding this. The epilogue recounts many subjects from the book and points out the difference in procedure between science and mathematics.

Overall, Stewart does a good job of both exploring past and present scientific theories while stressing that science is always tentative, subject to new theories and empirical evidence, unlike his native mathematics. He helpfully notes the scientific jargon so that the lay reader can look up the relevant topic to learn more. However, there is relatively little mathematics in the book, and this can be disappointing for people who cannot see physics without the mathematics. Even so, Calculating The Cosmos is a good read for an intelligent layperson who wants an introduction to cosmology.

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: The Science Of Selling

The Science of Selling is a book about how science can improve the field of sales by American sales trainer David Hoffeld. The book explains what research in psychology says about each aspect of the sales process, as well as how to sell in accordance with how the brain makes buying decisions. The book is divided into ten chapters, which comprise three sections that focus on different aspects of the business of sales.

Hoffeld begins by discussing some of his background and what made him decide to use science to improve his sales performance. He then explains why sales is not an obsolete profession and why science works to improve sales performance. The remainder of the introduction lays out the framework of the rest of the book.

The first chapter explores why salespeople are struggling. The suggested remedy is to adjust sales techniques to conform to the manner in which the human brain makes buying decisions. The second chapter covers the functionality of influence. The peripheral route is explained first, in terms of building trust and understanding the heuristics that most people use when making decisions. The central route is explained next, which involves the actual message of the salesperson. What this message should contain is the primary focus of the third chapter. Hoffeld uses a proprietary method called the Six Whys combined with attending to the buyer’s emotional state in order to address a buyer’s questions and get the buyer to feel like buying. These questions allow a salesperson to understand a buyer’s needs and convince a buyer to purchase a good or service now from a particular company. The fourth chapter focuses on the role of emotions in decision making and how salespeople can alter a buyer’s emotional state away from negativity.

The second section, composed of the next five chapters, begins with a study of questions. Many types of questions are analyzed, along with their role in the course of securing a sale. These are used to gain a basic understanding of a subject, then prompt potential buyers to think through an idea, then get potential buyers to disclose their dominant motives. The sixth chapter delves into primary buying motivators to explain why buyers buy from particular providers, then turns to buying requirements. Advice for dealing with decision makers and those who influence them come next, followed by how to learn a buyer’s decision criteria concerning what they need, how soon they need it, and how much they can pay for it.

Hoffeld deals with value creation and countering obstacles to making a sale in the seventh chapter. He uses social exchange theory to explain how a salesperson can help buyers to see value in the product being sold. Next, inoculation theory as a means of neutralizing competitors is discussed. After this, Hoffeld returns to the Six Whys and positive emotional states when considering how to address objections. In the eighth chapter, Hoffeld shares his approach to closing a deal. The Six Whys factor in again, as he views the close as a commitment that follows from a series of commitments throughout the sales process. This is supported by evidence from psychology that shows the power of the desire to be consistent. The use of trial closes to guide buyers into making a decision to purchase are covered next. Hoffeld suggests handling non-commitments by addressing objections and reinforcing the commitments that the potential customer has already made. With that done, the only thing left to do is to make a closing statement or ask a closing question to finish a deal.

The ninth chapter is about the design of sales presentations. The experiment Hoffeld mentions with jam selections in a grocery store to show that more choices can reduce sales is illuminating in the field of sales and far beyond. The strategies of setting anchors that portray one’s product as superior to an alternative, activating a customer’s mirror neurons by exhibiting their body language, using visuals instead of words only, and the use of stories and testimonials are recommended for effective sales presentations.

Hoffeld closes with a final section/chapter concerning the future of sales and what changes he believes will occur in the coming years. The prediction that a scientific approach will take over an anecdotal approach almost has to be correct, as all of the incentives mandate it. This necessarily validates his second prediction, that sales research will blossom. The final prediction that sales hiring practices will improve is probably true, but likely to take longer.

The Science of Selling is an excellent resource for salespeople, as the strategies therein are more effective than the trial-and-error and guesswork that is commonly practiced today. However, I must admit to reading this book at three levels in addition to face value: how a jobseeker may sell oneself to employers, how a philosopher may persuade the public of one’s ideas, and how a political activist may succeed in advancing one’s agendas. At the jobseeker level, this book explains why certain people fail to get job interviews and/or fail in job interviews. At the philosopher and political activist levels, this book explains why certain people are unpersuasive, why certain political systems are constructed as they are, and why logical fallacies seem to work in the real world. Thus, this book is useful not only to its intended audience, but far beyond it as well.

Rating: 5/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

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The Case For Bringing Religion Into Politics

In a July 23 interview with Scott Pelley of CBS, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was asked about internal Democratic National Committee emails which had been released recently. One of the email chains included a staffer’s suggestion that they ask questions about Sanders’ religion in an attempt to undermine him with religious voters. Clinton said in response, “I am adamantly opposed to anyone bringing religion into our political process. …That is just absolutely wrong and unacceptable.” But is it? Let us make the contrary case that the religious beliefs of a candidate should be part of the political process.

In the philosophical sense, a religion is a set of principles by which an adherent is supposed to live. As these principles are supposed to be the guiding precepts by which a believer makes decisions, it is especially important for people who are going to choose who will wield state power to know about the stated religious views of each candidate. Knowing this will allow voters and rival candidates to detect hypocrisy, anti-empiricism, and aggressive tendencies, none of which are desirable in a person who wields state power. It also allows people to consider whether any heretical views held by a candidate are for good or ill.


It is in the nature of politicians to say one thing and do another, or to espouse contrary principles when pandering to special interest groups or demographics which are at cross purposes. This is understandable, given the perverse incentive structures which are invariably present in democracies. But some engage in more blatant hypocrisy than others, doing so out of internal corruption rather than merely as a reaction to the prevailing political system. One indication of this is for a politician to claim a certain religious affiliation while acting in contradiction to the teachings of that religion. This can be a sign that the candidate will flip-flop on important issues, as those who lie to voters about one thing will be more likely to lie to them about something else.


Religions are frequently a source of anti-empirical beliefs, as most prominent religions were founded long ago when current scientific knowledge was unavailable. In the absence of reason and science, religion offered people what they thought were answers for phenomena which eluded their understanding. But accepting answers on faith is dangerous on two counts; they are probably incorrect, and it keeps people from searching for a proper understanding of the correct answer. When politicians take answers on faith rather than seeking rational, scientific explanations, the policy results can be disastrous. As such, it is important for a voter or rival candidate to know whether a candidate believes, for instance, that the Earth is flat and/or less than 10,000 years old just because an ancient text tells them so. This is an important indication that the candidate can be made to believe almost anything without asking for proper evidence.

It must be noted that not all anti-empiricism is undesirable. There is nothing wrong with opposing the entry of empiricism into fields of study in which it does not belong, such as mathematics or economics. And because empiricism requires rationalism in order to be used, it cannot overrule pure reason. As such, logic overrules experience and a priori truths are not subject to empirical study. But religions do not generally offer such strongly rational truth; instead, they rely upon divine revelation, which believers are taught to accept without evidence.

Aggressive Tendencies

When most prominent religions were founded, the world was a more violent place. Punishments for behaviors which aggressed against no person or property were commonplace, as was genocidal behavior toward neighboring people of different faiths as well as conquered peoples. But understanding of moral principles (if not their practice) has advanced since then, and most people have come to rightly condemn such behavior. When a candidate espouses a fundamentalist or literalist interpretation of a religious text which calls for such behavior to be practiced throughout the society, it should give voters pause. This can require some study on the part of voters and other candidates to detect, as openly supporting wars on religious grounds is no longer fashionable in the West, but such tendencies can still be observed among religious neoconservatives.

Many religions also include content which is opposed to free markets, private property, and freedoms of thought and association. If such content influences a candidate to support such policies as high taxes on the wealthy, expansion of common spaces and/or welfare statism, restrictions on activities which do not aggress against any person or property, or policies which discriminate in favor one’s own religion and/or against other religions, voters and rival candidates should be aware of this.


Some people claim to be an adherent of a particular religion but have a different understanding from most people of the meaning of the teachings of that religion. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if such heretical beliefs lead a religious person away from hypocrisy, truth denial, or aggression. But those who define terms differently in one aspect of life will almost certainly do so in other aspects, and this is important information for voters and rival candidates to know. Whether this is for good or ill depends upon the particulars of each case, but it is an indicator that a candidate must be given more than a cursory examination in order to be properly understood.


For the above reasons, it is entirely appropriate to bring religion into the political process. It is a tool that voters can use to examine a candidate for flaws, as well as legitimate grounds for one candidate to attack another for character traits unbecoming of a person who would wield state power.