Senior ophthalmologists share the best of what they’re reading this spring. Share what you’re reading and send your review to our new book review editor, Robert L. Stamper, MD at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Premonition: A Pandemic Story
By Michael Lewis
Reviewed by Robert L. Stamper, MD
What would American and world history have looked like if during Paul Revere’s midnight ride, everyone shut their windows, and no one listened? There were Paul and Pauline Reveres in the recent past history of the United States who saw a pandemic coming, developed reasonable plans to deal with it and were either ignored, or worse, silenced.
Michael Lewis, a popular investigative reporter who brought us, among other nonfiction hits, “The Big Short” and “Moneyball,” brings us another relatively fast-paced but well-researched and factual thriller that reads almost like a movie script, which it may well become.
Without giving too much away, the author takes us through the first attempt, which started as a high school science project, at computer modeling of an infectious epidemic based on what was known about the 1918 flu pandemic. The heroes and heroines of this story are a small band of epidemiologists, as are most veterans of recent past epidemics like AIDS, Ebola and SARS. We learn not only about their sometimes-heroic activities in warning about and preparing plans to combat a major pandemic but about their personal lives and the sacrifices that were endured for their foresight.
The villains, no surprise, are not so much individuals but general political indifference and bureaucratic ineptitude. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was caught flat-footed since, due to political pressures, they had felt forced to focus on the physical characteristics of infectious agents rather than how they are spread. With little boots-on-the-ground experience with an epidemic, they were unable to be effective leaders when the first SARS-CoV-2 cases appeared in our midst and when action would have been most effective.
Nearly 1 million Americans have died from this disease; it is likely that a significant proportion of these deaths could have been prevented. The COVID-19 pandemic showed the world how poorly prepared the U.S. health system was in dealing with such a disaster. There are many lessons to be learned from this entertaining educational yet depressing book and not just about a pandemic. If we again ignore those lessons, another pandemic or health crisis will surely find us equally unprepared and vulnerable to similar disastrous consequences.
Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime
By Sean Carroll
Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD
Every few years, someone deeply qualified gives his take on the mysteries of quantum mechanics and the true reality of the universe.
Sean Carroll, a professor at the California Institute of Technology (who works mere yards from where I now type), has done a masterful job in explaining something so technical and difficult, yet accessible by the educated layman.
It was Richard Feynman, another Caltech professor and Nobel laureate whom I had a personal relationship with, who said, “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics.” Which was significant since he was the one who did the most to verify the reality and utility of these weird events.
The present book has many ideas, but the nut of the quantum mechanics problem seems to be that it is very arbitrary that when the wavefunction collapses, only one of several realities becomes realized. This is the stuff along the lines of Schrödinger’s cat. And it bothered physicist Erwin Schrödinger a great deal that the unopened box had neither an alive nor dead cat inside but one with the “smeared” potential to be either. It bothered him equally that with opening the box and observation, the waveform collapsed revealing either an alive or dead cat. It bothered lots of others as well, such as Albert Einstein.
Einstein thought that there were “hidden variables” at play, so that we just didn’t know the preordained outcome. Like a coin flip isn’t really random, just hard to predict. Einstein insisted that uncertainty became clarified, but that God did not place dice with the universe. But then John Bell sort of proved that wasn’t the case and maybe worse, that there exist interactions between events that are too far apart in space and too close together in time for the events to be connected even by signals moving at the speed of light. This challenges our very precious notion of causality. Hence physics has been in crises — until another physicist, Hugh Everett, came along with a new idea. He proposed that when the wavefunction collapsed all the outcomes occurred. So how to explain why we only see one? Because the others are in other universes. In Everett’s many worlds theory, each collapse of a wavefunction splits reality. It splits us too. But we only see the one universe; the others, that contain essentially the same version of us, are lost to us forever. But determinism still holds.
Carroll describes, in simple and lucid ways, without equations, the major objections to Everett’s view. And he concludes that they can all be resolved. He stops short of proving that Everett is right. That’s the problem, the Everett theory is fundamentally untestable. But it’s telling that in annual surveys of the American Physical Society, the attendees vote, and it turns out they mostly believe that Everett is right. So, think about it. As you are thinking, many copies of you are being made.
Watergate: A New History
By Garrett M. Graff
Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD
Readers fatigued by the partisan vitriol which characterizes national politics will find Garrett Graff’s voluminous new book, “Watergate: A New History”, a road map of how our country arrived at such a sorry state. A half-century ago, citizens were mesmerized by the media’s attention to a scandal involving the highest echelons of executive power and the most respected sources of national security, the FBI and CIA.
The whole sordid expose´ of government corruption became known as Watergate after an aborted burglary in a posh Washington, D.C., office-apartment complex was discovered. Exactly who had sent the “Keystone Kops” assortment of perpetrators or what they were trying to accomplish has never been established.
This meticulously researched and documented book should now become the definitive source for those who wish to dive into the cesspool of deceit, intrigue, and criminal behavior which were associated with the seemingly innocuous break-in and the cover-up. The scandal ultimately resulted in the resignation of our 37th president.
Richard M. Nixon had been elected for his second term in 1972 by a huge majority of voters. By 1974 he had left his office in disgrace to avoid impeachment. He never seemed to comprehend the character deficiencies which doomed his legacy. He was later pardoned by his non-elected vice-president, Gerald Ford (who had been born as Leslie King Jr. in Omaha).
The impact of Watergate in affecting the public’s perception of the presidency remains significant and to the present day continues to cast doubt on the veracity of any statement by the chief executive residing in the White House. Indeed, adding the suffix “-gate” to any noun immediately implies a vast and nefarious conspiracy. Those who make it through this book will understand that “worse than Watergate” is more than a frayed cliché. Many history-impaired readers may be shocked to discover that Nixon was neither impeached nor convicted of any crime despite the abundance of self-generated evidence available.
Readers who lived through the national ordeal will recall the colorful characters involved such as G. Gordon Liddy, Martha Mitchell, Robert Abplanalp, Spiro Agnew, Bebe Rebozo and even George Steinbrenner. The inclusion of two four-page inserts of black and white photos helps keep the bizarre cast of characters straight. Graff, a writer and commentator for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, PBS, and NPR, for the most part avoids displaying his liberal perspective. He makes a valiant attempt to connect all the disparate threads from the confusing tapestry of multiple investigations, muffled tapes, and self-serving memoirs available. His organization of the book makes the 700-plus pages flow seamlessly as the investigators reach their inevitable conclusions.
In summary, this book should be required reading for any citizen with the faintest interest in how the sausage-factory of Washington, D.C. politics functions and how our country has managed to arrive at today’s dysfunctional impasse. Our present group of politicians should be sent the first copies.
When Einstein Walked with Gödel: Excursions to the Edge of Thought
By Jim Holt
Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD
Jim Holt writes a series of essays, not really related, though they largely pertain to the almost mystical realm of mathematics. Where most of us normal people “see” different aspects of reality in the form of objects, people and other things, mathematicians “see” another realm that to them is as real and much more elegant than the worlds we inhabit.
Each essay has its own take-home message. What makes this all work is that Holt is, himself, a well-respected mathematician as well as writer who understands the subject of abstract and advanced math and also holds it in great reverence. The book surveys several problems in mathematics and physics and touches on philosophy. But the best part is that it gives us a fairly intimate look at the personalities of some of the most interesting thinkers of the last century.
To me, the most interesting question that repeatedly comes up is why does mathematics describe the world so well. It’s actually very remarkable. Every century, some great thinker advances his field by application of sophisticated mathematics. It works so well, it seems like cheating. And it almost always leads to predictions that come true. One can only sense that Galileo was right when he said, “mathematics is the language of God.” Then we must ask ourselves whether mathematics is more reality than what our senses can perceive. We see two apples. But two is probably more profound a reality than the ephemeral sight or smell of the apples.
The 24 main essays were all fascinating and thought provoking. There follows, at the end, a dozen or so very short works that summarize a bit of physics history. These, though informative, are not nearly as deep or compelling. For most of the essays there seems to be a predilection for Princeton-based thinkers. As examples, we learn about Albert Einstein, John Archibald Wheeler and Kurt Friedrich Gödel, who are all colorful and interesting. I enjoyed thinking about why our world must be 3 dimensional and not two- or four-dimensional. I particularly loved Gödel incompleteness theorems and the Riemann zeta conjecture of primes. And lest you say such topics are too rarefied to come up casually, I had a conversation on the Bernhard Reimann conjecture just last week. Anyway, it’s not about whether these things are useful, but whether they give you new perspectives and thus enrich your thinking. You end up feeling, as well as thinking, that we are very small, and infinity is really big.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
By Jung Chang
Reviewed by Samuel Masket, MD
“Wild Swans” provides an historical view of 20th-century China as told via the autobiography of a contemporary woman born in 1952.
Through the lives of her grandmother, sold as a concubine to a warlord, her mother and father who were heavily invested in Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and her own experience as a child of the revolution we learn much about China that was unknown to the outside world during Mao’s ascension. The book became an international best seller, with over 10 million copies in circulation but was banned in China. My sense is that we only came to peek into the arcane world of China in that era after the author emigrated to England in 1978 and became a naturalized citizen.
Writing chronologically, we first learn about her grandmother’s life in feudal northeastern Imperial China shortly after the turn of the 20th century. An interesting tidbit of the day dealt with the desirability of ultra small feet for women. Starting at a very young age, feet were tightly bound to stunt their growth; even more, when necessary, foot bones were crushed in order to prevent further growth, as small feet and shoes for women were considered to be desirable qualities to important men of the day. It’s a remarkable historical perspective on gender inequality!
Her parents’ lives (that of her father in particular) as converted and earnest party members, provide an interesting and intense backdrop to the tremendous upheaval of China’s leadership change from the Kuomintang to Mao Zedong’s communist regime; the latter would become a literal “hell on earth” with multimillions starving to death, other millions brow beaten, starved and physically pummeled into submission of their property to the state, and education and intellectualism highly devalued. Members of the communist party during the Cultural Revolution were all foot soldiers on the path to regulate daily life and control the minds and lives of the populace.
We learn of a fiscal five-year policy, Giant Leap Forward, to convert China’s agrarian society to collectivism. Propaganda abounded to stimulate competition; stories were spread of some producers growing tomatoes the size of basketballs, not unlike the giant bananas seen in Woody Allen’s spoof, Sleeper. The Giant Leap Forward program failed miserably and resulted in hordes dying of starvation.
For a time, the author was a teenage zealot, joining Mao’s Red Guard and carrying the Little Red Book of Mao’s sayings as she traversed China with other youngsters in attempt to carry out Mao’s missions.
As we currently view the possible rebirth and spread of totalitarianism, this book is a must read for those who both cherish freedom and those who question its value.