Review of “The Black Cloud”

Cover of "The Black Cloud"

My interest in astronomy and astrophysics comes from childhood and when I was much, much younger I had an (unscientific) fondness for the “steady state” theory of cosmology, which, in the early 1970s was not as thoroughly discredited as it is today (though, of course, many newer cosmologies borrow from it or show similarities to it – for instance Roger Penrose‘s proposal in Cycles of Time).

Part of the attraction of the steady state cosmology was the figure of Fred Hoyle, or at least how I imagined him: blunt speaking, no nonsense, scientific genius. But until I read The Black Cloud I had not read any of his scientific or literary works.

The book is fascinating as a period piece and not a bad read as a piece of science fiction either – though the overall tone and dialogue reminds me of “Journey into Space” – a 1950s BBC science fiction radio serial recently re-broadcast.

But here is a novel with differential equations, computer program listings (presumably in machine code of some sort as it certainly is not a high level language) and a description of the (then) pioneering technology of pulse code modulation.Not all the science is good though, but Hoyle cannot be blamed for that: although it does not use the term, the view of artificial intelligence here is the conventional one of the time, but also one that fifty years of rapidly advancing computing power has failed, thus far at least, to sustain.

Mixed, with that, though is a fair dose of of Little Englandism, enormous doses of sexism and a quite frightening view into how Hoyle thinks society should be organised – namely with politicians, the people we chose, removed and the dictatorship of the scientists instituted. Stalin ruled in the name of science too.

Hoyle’s preface implies it would be a mistake to ascribe the views of Chris Kingsley, the chief advocate of crushing politics, to himself, but the character sounds far too much like him – the man who once exploded with anger when a snotty PhD student called Stephen Hawking pointed out a flaw in his calculations because he thought it would weaken his attempted blackmail of politicians – for the denial to be credible.

It’s a great book and an easy read, so I do recommend it.

The second law of thermodynamics and the history of the universe

Oxford Physicist Roger Penrose to Speak at Bro...
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I had to go on quite a long plane journey yesterday and I bought a book to read – Roger Penrose‘s work on cosmology: Cycles of Time: An Extraordinary New View of the Universe

I bought it on spec – it was on the popular science shelves: somewhere I usually avoid at least for the physical sciences, as I know enough about them to make hand waving more annoying than illuminating, but it seemed to have some maths in it so I thought it might be worthwhile.

I have only managed the first 100 pages of it so far, so have not actually reached his new cosmology, but already feel it was worth every penny.

Sometimes you are aware of a concept for many years but never really understand it, until some book smashes down the door for you. “Cycles of Time” is just such a book when it comes to the second law of thermodynamics. At ‘A’ level and as an undergraduate we were just presented with Boltzmann’s constant and told it was about randomness. If anybody talked about configuration space or phase space in any meaningful sense it passed me by.

Penrose gives both a brilliant exposition of what entropy is all about in both intuitive and mathematical form but also squares the circle by saying that, at heart, there is an imprecision in the law. And his explanation of why the universe moves from low entropy to high entropy is also brilliantly simple but also (to me at least) mathematically sound: as the universe started with such a low entropy in the big bang a random walk process would see it move to higher entropy states (volumes of phase space).

There are some frustrating things about the book – but overall it seems great. I am sure I will be writing more about it here, if only to help clarify my own thoughts.

In the meantime I would seriously recommend it to any undergraduate left wondering what on earth entropy really is. In doing so I am also filled with regret at how I wasted so much time as an undergrad: university really is wasted on the young!

(On breakthrough books: A few years ago I had this experience with Diarmaid MacCulluch’s Reformation and protestantism. People may think that the conflict in the North of Ireland is about religion – but in reality neither ‘side’ really knows much about the religious views of ‘themuns’. That book ought to be compulsory reading in all Ireland’s schools – North and South. Though perhaps the Catholic hierarchy would have some issues with that!)