Phi (Very Beautiful Book Acquired, 8.08.2012)



Giulio Tononi’s Phi—remarkable, beautiful, strange. Sort of a novel, sort of philosophical text, sort of a history, sort of a science book . . . I don’t know. Here’s the blurb:

From one of the most original and influential neuroscientists at work today, here is an exploration of consciousness unlike any other—as told by Galileo, who opened the way for the objectivity of science and is now intent on making subjective experience a part of science as well.

Galileo’s journey has three parts, each with a different guide. In the first, accompanied by a scientist who resembles Francis Crick, he learns why certain parts of the brain are important and not others, and why consciousness fades with sleep. In the second part, when his companion seems to be named Alturi (Galileo is hard of hearing; his companion’s name is actually Alan Turing), he sees how the facts assembled in the first part can be unified and understood through a scientific theory—a theory that links consciousness to the notion of integrated information (also known as phi). In the third part, accompanied by a bearded man who can only be Charles Darwin, he meditates on how consciousness is an evolving, developing, ever-deepening awareness of ourselves in history and culture—that it is everything we have and everything we are.

Not since Gödel, Escher, Bach has there been a book that interweaves science, art, and the imagination with such originality. This beautiful and arresting narrative will transform the way we think of ourselves and the world.

The comparison to Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach might be apt. The book also recalls The Rings of Saturn to me. I’ve put it in a “read this” pile.

More to come, but here are some shots at random from its interior:





Turing’s Cathedral — George Dyson Explores the Origins of the Digital Universe (Book Acquired, 2.17.2012)


George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral looks pretty cool. Here’s some copy from publisher Pantheon:

“It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence,” twenty-four-year-old Alan Turing announced in 1936. In Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson focuses on a small group of men and women, led by John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who built one of the first computers to realize Alan Turing’s vision of a Universal Machine. Their work would break the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things—and our universe would never be the same.

Using five kilobytes of memory (the amount allocated to displaying the cursor on a computer desktop of today), they achieved unprecedented success in both weather prediction and nuclear weapons design, while tackling, in their spare time, problems ranging from the evolution of viruses to the evolution of stars.

Dyson’s account, both historic and prophetic, sheds important new light on how the digital universe exploded in the aftermath of World War II. The proliferation of both codes and machines was paralleled by two historic developments: the decoding of self-replicating sequences in biology and the invention of the hydrogen bomb. It’s no coincidence that the most destructive and the most constructive of human inventions appeared at exactly the same time.

How did code take over the world? In retracing how Alan Turing’s one-dimensional model became John von Neumann’s two-dimensional implementation, Turing’s Cathedral offers a series of provocative suggestions as to where the digital universe, now fully three-dimensional, may be heading next.

I spent an hour with the book this morning and found it engrossing. (It was also a reminder that I don’t read enough nonfiction).

Regular readers will know I despise dust jackets—I’d rather see publisher’s put their efforts into handsome but simple hardback covers. Three out of the last four hardbacks to come in have done so, including Turing’s Cathedral:


Still, the design concept for these books (Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and Thomas Mallon’s Watergate are the other two) still involve an integration with the dust jacket. I’d like to see the dust jacket dusted, done away with, expired.

Some cool pics from the Dyson: