Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of "The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos" by Leonard Mlodinow

For humans to advance from wandering hunter-gatherers to the savvy beings we are today - able to use all kinds of intricate gadgets and even send spacecraft out into the cosmos - there had to be significant advancements in knowledge and technology. In this book Mlodinow talks about the major leaps of mankind and how they came about.

Mlodinow focuses on three areas: evolution of the human mind; discoveries related to astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology; and the revolutionary field of quantum mechanics. The book, which covers a wide array of topics, can't be summarized in a short review...and I won't try. I'd just strongly encourage anyone interested in the topic of human advancement to read the book themselves. It's exceptionally well written, has loads of fascinating information, and (against all odds) is VERY funny. The author has a great sense of humor and includes lots of humorous quips and examples throughout the book.

Just for fun, I'll mention a few things in the book that I found particularly memorable.

One of the most important human discoveries occurred when some cavewoman (or man) - banging a couple of rocks together - accidently produced a shard with a sharp edge....the first knife! This helped early humans, who were mostly vegetarians, expand their diet to include more meat. It made a good weapon as well. In any case, these sharpened rocks apparently helped us get much more clever.

I was surprised to learn that Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the laws of motion, wasn't a nice guy at all. He worked constantly, shunned human interaction, and was very vengeful toward people who disagreed with him or criticized his research. If someone angered Newton he would write lots of nasty letters and viciously criticize them in scientific journals. You wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of this genius!

Charles Darwin, who at the age of 22 bravely undertook his extensive voyage on the Beagle, was a physical wreck by the age of 30. Poor Darwin was so sick that he sometimes couldn't work for months at a time. The biologist visited many doctors and tried innumerable remedies, but nothing helped. (My own theory is that Darwin picked up a parasite on his trip.) Still Darwin married and had lots of children. He also carried on (through the pain) for many years to develop his theory of evolution. (Yay!)

The book's author, Leonard Mlodinow, specializes in theoretical physics but had to learn some applied physics as well. For one such class young Mlodinow had to build a radio from scratch. As the author describes it, the radio only got one unpopular station.... and only worked when he held it upside down and shook it. (Ha ha ha.)

I completely enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to anyone interested in science.

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