Book review

The Upright Thinkers (Leonard Mlodinow)

Science books aren’t supposed to make you cry. But I found myself doing just that at the end of Leonard Mlodinow’s informative and inspiring trek through human history, highlighting the foundations and elaborations of physics, chemistry, and biology and their discoverers.

Mlodinow (pronounced Mel-AH-din-oh) is, like Oliver Sacks, a most humane scientist. But where Sacks aches with compassion for his patients and subjects, Mlodinow has a breezier, more buoyant, humorous, and at times gee-whiz approach. He is an optimist, which he sees as an outgrowth of a scientific bent.

(An aside: Mlodinow, in Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What It Teaches Us about Ourselves, covers similar terrain as Adam Alter in Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave. But where I was in existential despair for days after reading Alter, faced with the grim recognition that “I” don’t really “decide” pretty much anything but am instead in thrall to a part of my brain to whose activities and proclivities I have very little access or knowledge, Mlodinow sees it much differently:

That realization doesn’t bother me; it gives me a greater appreciation of my unseen partner, my unconscious, always providing the support I need as I walk and stumble my way through life.

The Upright Thinkers is a celebration of that bent, and a tribute to those who tirelessly pursue it. But he never loses sight of why he wrote this book: he wrote it for his pragmatic father, a concentration camp survivor with no scientific training and little knowledge of scientific theory, method, and discoveries.

The book is brilliantly structured. The first part — under a hundred pages — is a rich survey of humanity’s efforts since dropping from the trees up to the time of Aristotle to wrest meaning from mystery. Filled with panoramic observations, the part traces an arc from curiosity through culture and civilization to reason. So elegant.

Mlodinow presents a very interesting insight about mankind’s earliest settlements. The common wisdom is that we stopped being nomads because that was a hard and unpredictable way of life and began instead to tend our own gardens, ensuring a stable food source. But Mlodinow debunks this on two fronts, first pointing out the difficulties and ceaseless labor inherent in farming versus an average for contemporary hunter-gatherers of two to four hours’ work each day. (Another aside: This observation made me wonder if the myth of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden is in fact a dim recollection of man’s hunter-gatherer “good old days.”) Second, he builds a case that the agriculture part followed the settlement part. And driving settlement — some 11,500 years ago in southeastern Turkey — was the desire to join together in worship:

the Neolithic revolution was not, first and foremost, a revolution inspired by practical considerations, but rather a mental and cultural revolution, fueled by the growth of human spirituality.

Living in settlements led to villages and then to cities. The specializations, divisions of labor, and overall complexity of life in cities led to a huge breakthrough on the path toward scientific understanding — the invention of writing:

writing enabled us to exchange ideas with people far away in both space and time… In doing so it allowed us to outgrow the limits of our individual knowledge and memories.

It also led to recordkeeping and engineering — which meant the development of mathematics and geometry, first pragmatic, then theoretic.

I really enjoyed part I. But parts II (which focuses on physics, biology, and chemistry) and III (which focuses on quantum physics) are equally fascinating, if not as compendious. Here, Mlodinow tells how the world moved from the Aristotelian concepts of the centrality of human beings and the Earth, of purposeful creation and meaning, to first a Newtonian order of objective reality and a universe of limitless comprehensibility through laws and reason, and then to an upended era — ours — of uncertainty and limits as articulated by quantum physics. He tells this story through a series of miniatures, highlighting the scientists who effected this paradigm shift.

Throughout, he emphasizes two key stumbling blocks to the progress of human scientific inquiry. The first of these is a lack of the proper tools for investigation. For much of recorded history, we simply didn’t have the language or notation or means to be scientific. It wasn’t until the 1300s that the first clock to record hours of equal length was invented; time couldn’t be measured to the second until 1670. The equal sign wasn’t invented until 1557. Ingenuity, intuition, and indefatigibility ultimately triumphed over these deficiencies.

The second stumbling block is more pernicious, more pervasive: cultural bias. As Mlodinow explains:

an almost universal limitation of human thought: our creativity is constrained by conventional thinking that arises from beliefs we can’t shake, or never even think of questioning.

This bias permeates society, hindering and hampering scientific work. Notes Mlodinow:

medieval scholars made surprising progress, despite living in an age in which people routinely judged the truth of statements not according to empirical evidence but by how well they fit into their preexisting system of religion-based beliefs…

(An aside: how eerily reminiscent of our own time…)

This bias keeps breakthroughs and innovations from being recognized in their own time. For example, after Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers on evolution were read at the Linnean Society’s 1858 meeting, the president lamented

that the year had not ‘been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, [our] department of science.’

This bias also makes many scientists play a Moses-like role, leading their colleagues and followers to a certain point but then being unable to cross the threshold of discovery themselves.

science, like society, is built upon certain shared ideas and beliefs… As a result, pioneers from Galileo and Newton to Bohr and Einstein — and beyond — had one foot in the past, even as their imaginations helped to create the future.

Einstein, on whose work quantum theory squarely rests, refused to accept its inherent uncertainty and fundamental notion that “there are limits to what we can know.”

Mlodinow also emphasizes the major strength that nurtures scientific inquiry: collegial communication. He stresses that science is not made in isolation, but requires people working together — not necessarily in harmony, but in tandem. And it is this respect for the human element that makes this book moving as well as informative — enlightening in all senses.

8 thoughts on “The Upright Thinkers (Leonard Mlodinow)”

  1. Thank you, I found it interesting, as always. Still, I probably wouldn’t have commented if I hadn’t read something the other day that your discussion of part I reminded me of: part four of an analysis of the computer game Civilization. It deals with the question of which assumptions about geography and the development of civilization underline the game:
    https://www.filfre.net/2018/04/the-game-of-everything-part-4-civilization-and-geography/
    (I recommend it.)

    1. it is always SUCH a pleasure to hear from you, herr rau; thank you for reading — and thanks even more for writing.

      i did check out that analysis you recommended, and it is both fascinating and well written (and well researched! a rarity on the ‘net). intriguingly, the author’s delineation of and musings on jared diamond’s and other historians’ premises brought to mind an article i was reading just today in the atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/are-we-earths-only-civilization/557180/), positing the idea that maybe there were civilizations millions of years ago, but we have no evidence of such. and that, similarly, there will be no evidence of us…

      1. Thank you for your kind words, I enjoy reading here and it is easy to follow a blog when you still use a feed reader. (I read the article, a bit skeptically at first, but it turned out solid. A comforting thought, for me, as was “The World Without Us”.)

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