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Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos

3.0 1
by K. C. Cole

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The universe comes down to earth in K. C. Cole's Mind Over Matter, a fresh and witty exploration of physics, cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, and more. Like no other science writer, Cole demystifies scientific concepts and humanizes the people who study them. Beginning with a discussion of how "the mind creates reality as well as muddles it," she then peeks into


The universe comes down to earth in K. C. Cole's Mind Over Matter, a fresh and witty exploration of physics, cosmology, mathematics, astronomy, and more. Like no other science writer, Cole demystifies scientific concepts and humanizes the people who study them. Beginning with a discussion of how "the mind creates reality as well as muddles it," she then peeks into the stories behind science's great minds and into their playful side, and concludes by illuminating the relationship between science and society. Cole's remarkable work brings science to the reader's doorstep, revealing the universe to be elegant, intriguing, and relevant to politics, art, and every dimension of human life.

Editorial Reviews

San Jose Mercury News

"An absolute delight. Belongs on the bedside bookshelf of every science enthusiast."

From the Publisher

“An absolute delight . . . Belongs on the bedside bookshelf of every science enthusiast and should also be a treat for any reader curious about the universe.”—SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
“Ruminations on every scientific subject under the sun, and plenty beyond it . . . In pithy, three-page bursts, [Cole] tackles particle physics, geometry,Alfred Nobel, and about a thousand other topics, all with graceful, accessible prose.”—THE BOSTON GLOBE

Publishers Weekly
Cole (The Universe and the Teacup) gathers 92 short essays that first appeared primarily in her Los Angeles Times science column. The book's four sections are loosely ordered around the subjectivity of inquiry, the physical world, science in practice and the politics of science. Cole's technique is to set her stage with a scientific factoid or news blip and then ruminate on the unexpected insights, inversions or ironies she finds there. Her themes include uncertainty, the limitations of measure, fragility, illusion, humility before nature, complacency. A solar eclipse "exposes our fragility" and dispels illusion "like turning up the houselights during a movie." The millennium, indeed the notion of time itself, is an artificial concept, and "it's a fine line," the author writes, "between discovering something and making it up." Ever the navel gazer, Cole seeks the wondrous in the stuff we mistake for just ordinary. Her piece on clouds ("wind made visible") segues inevitably to dying stars ("a cosmic-scale cloudburst") and atoms (a nucleus "engulfed by a cloud of electrons"); her piece on wind leads her to the hurricanes on Jupiter and the complicated "weather" of galaxies. Her science is also a foil for left-of-center political commentary on Enron, daisy cutter bombs, the Kansas Board of Education's vote on Darwin and the American justice system, to name a handful of her targets. These light vignettes are doubtless welcome respite for readers of the L.A. Times, but this collection may be too much of a good thing. Readers are advised to take it in measured doses. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this collection of short essays gleaned from her eponymous Los Angeles Times column, Cole (The Hole in the Universe) explores a variety of scientific topics. From the way who we are and how we think both defines and is defined by how we see the universe to the way science connects to the political and social issues we face daily, she takes concepts that are notoriously tough to bend your mind around and reduces them to easy-to-swallow nuggets of information. Of course, this approach can lead to oversimplification, a pitfall Cole addresses directly in one column, but the overall effect is one of accessibility. That quality may initially give avid science fans pause, but Cole's style is insidiously intellectual. These three-page tidbits may not tax your scientific thought processes, but they'll certainly make you think. Recommended for most popular science collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/03]-Marcia R. Franklin, Academy Coll. Lib., Bloomington, MN Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning science writer Cole (The Hole in the Universe, 2001, etc.) offers a "love letter to the universe and those who explore it" in an essay collection culled from her popular LA Times column. Looking at recent scientific discoveries as well as ongoing oddities and conundrums, the author employs a short-take format in which each commentary rarely exceeds three printed pages. Within this framework, merely rendering many of these subjects (barely) comprehensible to lay readers is in itself no mean feat, but Cole has an even more ambitious aim: to reveal the universe as "wholly relevant to politics, art, and every dimension of human life." The wide range of phenomena she covers relates principally to physics, cosmology, mathematics, and astronomy, but the author is almost too adroit in quelling the looming suggestion that higher mathematics might be necessary for more than borderline understanding of the universe as scientists are able to see it today. Instead, Cole puts useful groundings into perspective: humans are able to survive and evolve on Earth, she lectures, only because waves of previous microbial inhabitants have "polluted" its natural atmosphere (carbon dioxide) with enough oxygen to sustain us. Nor should we forget that "everything we sense from the outside world is created in our minds from heavily processed and filtered information." Then there are the carefully strewn factual curios: "About 10 percent of the average human body's dry weight consists of bacteria," for example, or "100 pounds of [material originally from] Mars 'rains' on our planet every year." Her tendency to convey the universe in so many unrelieved, disconnected fragments may be a problem for readersexpecting more organizing insights. Cleverly entertaining "stand-up" science in search of a cosmic punch line.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

The I of the Beholder

The Emperor and Enron

You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but the easiest person to fool is yourself. Especially when the products of your own wishful thinking are also being peddled by higher authorities.

So it struck me as particularly apt that I took a class of UCLA students to the oddball Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City during a week when the Enron mirage was dissolving; when dubious claims for the production of fusion energy got major play in the journal Science; when Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson was trying to turn people's attention to wholesale extinction of life; when military planners were blithely bringing back nuclear weapons as instruments of foreign policy.

The struggle of science has always been somehow to get outside ourselves, so we can see the world objectively. The struggle has always been doomed. "We each live our mental life in a prison-house from which there is no escape," wrote the British physicist James Jeans. "It is our body; and its only communication with the outer world is through our sense organs-eyes, ears, etc. These form windows through which we can look out on to the outer world and acquire knowledge of it."

The windows are cloudy, of course, veiled by expectations, distorted by frames of reference, disturbed by our very attempts to look. Especially when we stand so close that we can't see through the fog of our own hot breath, our own smudgy fingerprints.

This is the sort of thinking bound to trail you like a wake out of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. If you haven't been there, I'm not going to recommend it. It will make you laugh, but it will also upset you. It will leave you wondering if you just didn't get it, or if you got it too well, or if someone was pulling your leg, or if you were pulling your own. You will wonder what thoughts are yours, and which are planted, and why we are so exceedingly well wired to believe official pronouncements-especially when they are obscure, pompous, and make us feel a little stupid.

Probably just as artist/creator David Wilson intended.*

For example, this funky piece of performance art might bring to mind-as it did for one of my students-Enron. How could so many people, so many accountants and investors and regulators and business journalists, believe so completely in so much thin air? At least in part because the "authorities" convinced us it was okay to do so and, worse, convinced each other.

The mind creates reality as well as muddles it. That is how placebos work.

As a friend likes to say, far more insidious than an emperor without clothes are clothes without an emperor. Authorities should always be stripped.

Scientists have thin patience for mere veneers, which is why many physicists complained loudly when the prestigious journal Science prominently touted a breakthrough in tabletop fusion technology-despite the widespread skepticism of the scientific community, despite failure to duplicate the results. Not that there was no there there. Just maybe there was. But tentative truths do not deserve such royal window dressing. The authority of science (or Science) is too powerful to toss around lightly.

Of course, as Jeans pointed out, our view is always partly cloudy. The closer we are, the harder it is to see. The greatest danger is believing we can ever completely separate ourselves from our surroundings. Consider, as E. O. Wilson does, the blatant absurdity of talking about the environment as if it were something apart from ourselves, a special-interest lobby, remote and foreign, like "outer space" or Afghanistan.

Increasingly, we are the environment.

As E. O. Wilson points out in The Future of Life, when humanity passed the six-billion mark, "we had already exceeded by as much as a hundred times the biomass of any large animal species that ever existed on land." We consume and exhale stuff in such huge quantities that we have already changed the air, the water, the continents. By the end of this century, we may well have extinguished half the species of plants and animals that ever lived.

We take comfort in the thought that extinction happens only to exotic creatures-big scary dinosaurs and tiny insignificant fish. Not in our backyards. The truth is, we are in serious danger of extinguishing almost everything, not excluding ourselves. And we can't stop if we can't see.

Self-referential systems are a bear. This sentence is false. Or not.

The authorities aren't helping. Instead, some authorities are telling us that we should be ready to use nuclear weapons-which do not merely destroy cities but vaporize them-to make the world safe from terror.

Somebody please get the Windex.


I didn't understand what a truly bizarre place L.A. was until a few months after I arrived and was invited to a Halloween party. Despite considerable effort, I couldn't find an appropriate "costume": No matter how outrageous a getup I picked, I was informed it was "normal" attire for someone.

A scant year later, a friend visiting from the East Coast kept surprising me by exclaiming every time we passed a thong bikini or a crown of spiked hair.

For her, these oddities demanded attention; for me, they were already wallpaper.

So it goes. What at first glance sets off sirens in your cerebellum, after a while fails to stir up so much as a neuronal breeze.

I was horrified to see my daughter go to school with bra straps showing, only to realize that all her friends were wearing more or less the same attire.

These days, I don't even notice errant lingerie-on myself or anyone else.

We get used to almost anything that comes upon us slowly. The classic example is the frog plopped into a pot of hot water; he promptly leaps out. Place the same frog into cool water and turn the heat up slowly, however, and he'll sit contentedly until he's cooked.*

It can be useful not to notice things, of course. You'd be endlessly distracted if you couldn't shut out constant signals such as the feel of clothes on your skin, the glasses on your nose, the nose on your face. (And when would college students ever sleep if they couldn't tune out professors during lectures?)

Then again, some people become so accustomed to their own bad smells or foul manners that their "normal" becomes unbearable for anyone else.

Resetting "normal" means, in effect, resetting the zero point for sensation. (Physicists even use a version of this-appropriately enough called renormalization-to set unwanted effects to zero.) To register, a signal needs to rise above the background-like a car radio in a convertible. Like the stars over city lights.

It's a now classic L.A. story: After the Northridge earthquake, when L.A. went suddenly dark, hundreds of worried people called Griffith Observatory wondering about those strange lights overhead. So steadily that hardly anyone noticed, we'd been spilling city light into the sky, washing out the stars; and while a nearly starless sky seemed "normal," the sight of thousands of stars was shocking.

Leave it to the Czech Republic (a nation run by a playwright) to become the first nation to pass a law prohibiting light pollution.

Here's a scarier example: Not so long ago, the deadly microorganism known to biologists as Clostridium botulinum was known primarily as the source of a lethal poison found lurking in bulging soup cans-one of the most poisonous substances known. Today, it's a beauty treatment, injected at some expense into foreheads to make wrinkles go (temporarily) away. This has gotten to be so "normal" that Botox parties are today what Tupperware parties were to my mother's generation.

This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. According to the editor of Science magazine, Donald Kennedy, in a recent issue of his journal, C. botulinum ranks right after anthrax on the list of biological weapons terrorists might employ. If the demand for Botox continues to soar, and longer-lasting strains hit the market, as soon seems plausible, "will we be happy to have that many of these hot bugs around?" Kennedy asks.

The key to spinning poison into beauty potion lies partly in the words: "Botox" sounds better than "botulism." It's always the way with normalization: A "daisy cutter" seems so Martha Stewart. "Taking out" is a term from musical chairs, or for taking out the garbage-certainly not somebody's son or grandmother. No splattered blood or melted flesh.

In reality, a daisy cutter is, as everyone now knows, a fifteen-thousand-pound "antipersonnel" weapon. It delivers scarcely one-thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb-which itself is pathetically puny by today's (even mininuke) standards.

What does it mean to scale up by a thousand? Imagine, as a physicist friend did, that you suddenly find yourself serving dinner for four thousand people instead of four. Making do with the same kitchen, same pots, same glassware. This is a fair comparison, he said, because after all, the Earth itself-the people, the homes, the civilizations-does not change even as firepower increases.

The progression from conventional weapons to nuclear ones is not like going from bra straps to tongue piercing. Closer to summing up the situation is Einstein's remark: "I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Good people will differ on choices of action, but you can't see where you're going if you mistake your destination for wallpaper. Be careful what you normalize. It might just take you out.

Copyright © 2003 by K. C. Cole

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Meet the Author

An award-winning writer for the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker, K. C. COLE is the recipient of the American Institute of Physics Award for Best Science Writer. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

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