Sun in a Bottle
Charles Seife , 2014 and 2008
I also skimmed "Zero" and "Proofiness", and a cheap used copy of "Decoding the Universe" awaits.-
Seife, a 40ish journalist, can write some interesting essays for Edge, but the principal theme of his books seems to be "People are stupid." Journalists, working towards ever-shorter timelines, perhaps don't take the time to notice when they themselves are stupid, as individuals or as a group.
Virtual Unreality is a compendium of stupid things on the internet, grouped by category of complaint.
Wikipedia is stupid because some of the articles are trapped in self-referential loops, and fixing them requires great effort (though a tiny fraction of the effort required to correct printed matter - which never actually happens).
Corporations manipulate their image on the internet. If nonprofits and governments do so, Seife neglects to mention that. The manipulation that pervaded the print era isn't mentioned either - perhaps Seife is too young to remember that.
Copyright is assailed, journalists are overworked and underpaid; nobody, it seems, wants to buy Seife's journalistic product. Indeed, the old model has disappeared, since it relied on a massive duplication of effort and produced little variation; a big city newspaper in Des Moines prints the same national and global and specialty news that Seattle and Sacramento and Boston prints. Seife notes Pariser's "Filter Bubble" - people can surround themselves in an echo chamber, compared to the big three TV network era that produced a uniform product that is supposedly mainstream and appealing to everyone. When a ideologist defines themselves as everyone, watch out.
Seife makes explicit the journalistic dodge of not striving for facts, but quoting the statements of experts. Experts are, of course, those who agree with the same people that journalists agree with. A filter bubble can be very big, but being too myopic to see its boundaries does not eliminate them. What the filter bubble misses is that the internet allows us to participate in many bubbles at once, and that individuals and bubbles connect us all, globally, through the internet. Nobody may read this essay - it is mostly a personal memorandum - but essays like this have connected me to people all over the world. The internet removes journalists, priests, politicians, and managers as sole arbiters of our interconnectivity.
We are still groping our way through this world, and we still have far too many arbiters - Google search programmers prefer that I search for the precomputed templates they've chosen, rather than my own - but they are one click away from irrelevance, and my own search avatars may someday roam the web finding answers to my questions and providing answers to others. Seife's own filter bubble provides him what he wants, but his ego-massaging contempt for the needs of the rest of us blinds him to the profits and possibilities of better serving those needs.
Yes, the internet is broken, like every other human creation. The fun is in unbreaking it, and lots of us are working on that. We will build new tools from the rubble of the old ones.
Sun in a Bottle is about stupidity in the pursuit of power-producing nuclear fusion. Again, there is a lot of it, and Seife dwells on that, rather than what works, how it works, and what remains unexplained. Yes, Edward Teller was a Commie-hating zealot. Yes, laser fusion is mostly a matter of training bomb designers and calibrating their design tools. Yes, plasmas have instabilities in magnetic fields. And yes, tabletop fusion makes energy-costly neutrons, or indeterminate results. It's easy to find flaws, and hindsight quotes about them. That is what journalists do.
What the book does not do is teach us about how the processes behave, what the unknowns are, and (the most interesting part to me) what the people who work on this stuff actually do, day to day. Seife picks people to write about that I would not want to spend time with. And I do not, between the covers of a book. Nothing new here.
Claims of new fusion systems emerge often. A compendium of past failures (described as ideas, not perjoratives) might help us compare new claims to them, and stop wasting precious time reinventing the flat tire. All technological breakthroughs are the rare survivors of a ruthless selection process, hundreds of failed attempts and thousands of daily disappointments until we find a path through the minefield. Obviously, fusion is very hard, because there are no fusion power plants. But that does not make them impossible. Transistors have only been possible for a few decades, even though life evolved on a silicon-rich planet.
We learn more by venturing into the unknown. I want to read a book about fusion's unknowns.