Theoretical physics, practical ethics

It would be fair to say Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself is an ambitious work.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist who writes elegantly with clarity and good humour about big questions we probably associate more with philosophy than with physics.

As a physicist Carroll subscribes to naturalism, the view that:

“…there is only one world, the natural world, exhibiting the patterns we call the ‘laws of nature’, and which is discoverable by the methods of science and empirical investigation. There is no separate realm of the supernatural, spiritual, or divine; nor is there any cosmic teleology or transcendent purpose inherent in the nature of the universe or in human life.”

Yet Carroll coins the term ‘poetic naturalism’ to describe his own approach. The word poeticreminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world.’

The Big Picture is not without its own wry humour, mostly by way of parenthetical remark. ‘(As of this writing, Mars is the only planet to be inhabited solely by robots.)’.  I often found myself thinking of lines from Douglas Adams or Gary Larson cartoons that might have complemented the text.

Carroll takes us through a potted history of the naturalist view from Galileo and Ibn Sina to Laplace, Descartes and Thomas Bayes. Bayesian reasoning becomes a major theme throughout the book. The more recent the scientific history gets, the harder the ideas become to grasp. The details of quantum mechanics, alas, escape me but Carroll is a gentle and friendly guide and his main argument is always much broader than the scientific detail.

Emergence is another important theme. In an illuminating passage Carroll writes about Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. The canvas and paint are just atoms in particular locations.

“Van Gogh didn’t infuse it with any form of spiritual energy; he put the paint onto the canvas.” … “But it’s obvious that specifying an arrangement of atoms isn’t the only way of talking about this physical artefact, and it’s not even the best way for most purposes.”

As Carroll points out, the mood the painting evokes, the effect of the colour palette and the swirling sky are ‘emergent properties’.

Carroll gives us a more detailed example of emergence in the discussion of two ways of thinking about the air in the room. Air is a gas which we can think of, usefully, as a continuous fluid, but at the microscopic level air is composed of atoms and molecules. Specifying the state of each molecule at each point in time is one description; describing its macroscopic properties as a fluid is another. Yet both are accurate and describe ‘the same underlying reality’. Carroll’s discussion of these two ways of talking – both valid, useful and mutually consistent – is wonderfully clear, science writing.

The early parts of the book take us through what we know of the universe and how we know it. In his discussion of ontologies Carroll gives due weight to reason and the scientific method as we might expect but he is never dogmatic.

“By its nature, science needs to be completely open to the operation of the world, and that means that we stand ready to discard any idea that is no longer useful, no matter how cherished and central it may once have seemed.”

This reminded me, of Darwin in his Autobiography:

“I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved…as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

In one sense though, all this history of ontologies is but throat clearing before getting to what Carroll really wants to address. It amounts to the challenge of mapping our understanding of the nature of the universe to the very different daily lived experience of being in it.

“Can we make sense of consciousness and our inner experience without appealing to substances or properties beyond the purely physical? Can we bring meaning and morality to our lives, and speak sensibly about what is right or wrong?”

Carroll runs through contemporary theories of evolution by natural selection and the origin of life and how this work helps us understand how complexity emerges. We get a tour of neuroscience and modern philosophy through the work of Alan Turing, John Searle and Daniel Dennett. I kept recalling the Larson cartoon in which one amoeba berates another – “Stimulus response! Stimulus response! Don’t you ever think?”

The final section of the book is titled ‘Caring’ and is more personal. Building on the many ideas of those others he has read and absorbed, Carroll presents us with his own conclusions. He ends with a recollection of his late grandmother which is both perfectly ordinary and very moving.

Indie Book Awards

The longlist for the Indie Book Awards 2017 was announced yesterday.

From the website:

The Indie Awards differ from other literary awards because they are chosen by independent booksellers who are renowned for their love of books and reading, support new and emerging Australia authors and foster a love of quality writing.


The Shortlist will be announced on 16 January 2017, with the Category Winners and the Overall Book of the Year Winner being announced at the Leading Edge Books 2017 Conference on Monday, 20th March 2017 at the Marriott, Surfers Paradise.

The list of previous winners is pretty impressive and includes Anna Funder’s All that I am and M. L. Stedman’s The light Between Oceans.

Classic audiobooks

For some readers, listening to a work of literature seems like a lazy way out. Not exactly like watching the movie instead of reading the book for school, but maybe next door to it.

Quite a few audiobooks though, are recorded by some of the best actors around. Artists with classical stage and voice training who know what they are doing. Combine talent like this with a good book and the result can be wonderful. Here are a few of my favourites.


Middlemarch by George Eliot – read by Juliet Stevenson

I am starting at the top. Stevenson delivers the perfect narration for this classic; no one need ever try again. It is no small undertaking. The novel has a massive cast and takes its time to fully develop the complicated individuals who populate Middlemarch. Stevenson distinguishes the voice of each character only enough for us to know who is speaking, never lapsing into a performance. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic Laurie Winer says of Juliet Stevenson “The lilt of her neutral voice is so close to the soul of Eliot — reasoned, patient, seeing everything, missing nothing.

You can listen to a sample at the Amazon website and catch Stevenson reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 on YouTube.


Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane – read by Stephen Rhea

Seamus Deane’s novel about growing up, and out of, Northern Ireland in the 1950s is realised perfectly by Stephen Rhea’s droll, understated performance. This is a beautiful book, with the intensity of remembered experience and moments of pure joy in the language. For the maths class scene alone – once read, never forgotten – this is worth the price of admission.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – read by Susannah Harker.

There are so many truly bad readings of Jane Austen they (almost) outnumber the bad films. The readings seem cursed by a belief among narrators that one’s very poshest, most English voice must be clearly declaimed for each and every character. Awful. The best audio versions are said to be by Juliet Stevenson and this is probably true. Susannah Harker’s Sense and Sensibility, though, is pretty special. Her measured tone adds little in expression and does not need to, taking, like Austen, the storyteller’s role and keeping up the pace. Harker has a lighter, perhaps more youthful tone than Stevenson, and this suits the lighter material of this novel nicely. Sadly, this appears to be the only of Austen’s novels recorded by Susannah Harker.


1984 by George Orwell – read by Samuel West

All of the Samuel West audiobooks I have heard have been very good but this is his best. West is an actor blessed with a great voice and it is used to wonderful effect here. His Winston is almost always on edge. O’Brien is assured, urbane and menacing. Somehow West gets both Julia’s voice and her pragmatic character just right. Inevitably, this is not an easy book to listen to at times, but a rewarding one nonetheless.


Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds – read by John Lee

And now for something completely different. This is hard science fiction, but there are wonderfully drawn characters here too. Reynolds is famous for creating strong female characters and much of this book follows the growing relationship between two very different women, Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova. John Lee’s gift for accents shines here. His authoritative narration provides both weight and wry wit to the action and much entertainment in delivering the dialog that sparks between the two women. Great fun.

Do not say we have nothing

donotsaywehavenothingWriter Madeleine Thein will be a guest at the upcoming Perth Writers Festival. She is the author of three novels and her latest, Do not say we have nothing, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The novel follows the lives of three musicians and their families through tumultuous events in China’s modern history. You can hear this delightful and informative interview Madeliene Thein recorded with Canada’s CBC Radio.

Costa Book Awards Shortlist

The Costa Book Awards have been running since 1971 for books written by authors based in the UK and Ireland. The prize has five categories – First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s Book – with one of the five winning books selected as the overall Costa Book of the Year.

The shortlist has just been announced. Category winners will be announced in early January with the Costa Book of the Year announced on 31 January 2017.

Designing the library

The architect behind the Perth’s iconic new library gave an insight into its design process at a talk held in the library earlier this month.

720 ABC Perth: Emma Wynne
720 ABC Perth: Emma Wynne

Patrick Kosky of Kerry Hill Architects guided us through the design process in a breeze thirty minute presentation accompanied by sketches, plans and images of the design and build.

Early in the design process, they settled on the basic shape of a ‘truncated cylinder’ – truncated referring to the sloping roof that allows northern sunlight into the plaza behind the library.

For a very modern library there are references – ‘precedents’ – from libraries in other centuries. The circular reading room and the ‘painted’ ceiling recall libraries many of us have seen only in American movies.

Accomodating library services across five levels and making the whole work, seamlessly, and intuitively for the visitor must have been a challenge. Kosky noted that library staff embraced the change, moving the library service beyond a ‘repository of objects’.  Discussions with staff and a library consultant enabled a ‘logical stacking of functions’ across the levels. The Children’s Library – a faintly magical space of light and air with it’s own tall tree growing among the young readers – is acoustically separated from the reading room and other levels below. The space with the fewest books and the most tech is that for young adults – at the top and away from everyone.

The reading room itself looks up through the three-level void to the artwork installed on the ceiling – a remarkable interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest by artist Andrew Nicholls.

Connecting the levels is the winding staircase, clad in ‘fins’ of granite. Through these fins we glimpse views of the Perth streetscape we haven’t seen before. Walking quietly through the library you keep discovering new views and interesting spaces. As a library should be, it’s a place for the curious.

I haven’t mentioned the auditorium, the history centre, the green wall, or the roof terrace with its unique view over Perth Cathedral to the river. If you haven’t visited Perth recently, The City of Perth Library is a reason to make the effort.