This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

This is a must-read-must-have for every music student, music teacher, wannabe musician (my badly off key neighbour included) and composer, and is a easily readable guided tour through the creative and neurological workings of the human mind.

Daniel Levitin, professional musician and sound engineer turned neuroscientist, is in a unique position to write this fascinating, flabbergasting, entertaining & enlightening exploration of the human mind and the human-created experience that is music.

Levitin’s love for music illuminates each page, and he effortlessly interweaves brain-scan findings with a line-by-line lyrical breakdown that explains exactly why ‘JailHouse Rock” really rocks. His diagrams and explanations of which different areas of the brain are engaged by specific musical instruments are worth the price alone. The perfect gift book for anyone interested in music and its effects on the mind. Start with even a quick skim and you’ll find yourself drawn along, ultimately experiencing music in a whole new way.This is a well documented, thoroughly footnoted and seminal text which is such a great read it’s almost impossible to put down.

Fans of V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain please take full serving of Levitin’s appetizer.

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Three central questions of philosophy and science: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other? Probably the best persons to make a discussion on such matters as the celebrated University of Cambridge cosmologist Hawking (A Brief History of Time). Along with Caltech physicist Mlodinow (The Drunkard’s Walk),

Hawking uses cutting-edge physics to answer those key questions. For instance, why do we exist? Earth occupies a “Goldilocks Zone” in space: which is the perfect distance from a not-too-hot star, with the right elements to allow life to evolve.

On a grander scale, the authors write, “we need to know not only how the universe behaves, but why.” in order to explain the universe. Currently no single theory exists yet to explain this, though scientists are approaching that goal with “M-theory,” a collection of overlapping theories (string theory included) that fill in many (but not all) the blank spots in quantum physics; this collection is known as the “Grand Unified Field Theories.” We could then possibly have an explanation to the mystery of the universe’s creation without recourse to a divine creator. This is an amazingly concise, easily readable yet intriguing overview of where we stand when it comes to divining the secrets of the universe.

This book is both shorter and clearly written by Stephen Hawkings and might want to pick this up if you are interested in physics but don’t have the patience to read something long and detailed such as Roger Penrose’s “The Road to Reality”. A collection of analogies to make intuitive sense of mathematical concepts works quite well here and the authors don’t push them too far.

If you lack patience for mathematical formulas and want a short and sweet, clearly written physics book that minimizes the mathematics while still surveying the basic concepts of physics and introducing the more speculative current topics, one should check out “The Grand Design”.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

What are you optimistic about? (Todays leading thinkers lighten up) Edited by John Brockman

The outcome of a 2007 EDGE question, put by the editor to prominent scientists all over the world:

“As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put. What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!”

There are 153 essays. most with only a half-page to four pages each, not greatly detailed. Certain themes stand out from many contributors:

1. Organized violence is hitting an all time low. One may not believe it by listening/watching the brinwashing happening in the press and on the sensationalized network news channels, but the statistics are clear. In the future, live internet access to anywhere on earth by GPS will cause exploiters of all cloths to have to resort to the Grouch Marx line “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes.”

2. We’re on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance. We will be able to make a self-replicating machine that will absorb energy through solar cells and be working for humanity by the millions. We will figure out ways to harness solar energy more efficiently and not need to use carbon/nuclear energy sources that pollute the environment.

3. Research in physics has been dominated by string theory in recent years which so far is untestable. New technologies will produce astounding insights very soon. The LHC (Large Hadron Collider) will advance the Standard Model and will find the Higgs boson or perhaps something unexpected. The new LIGO detectors may find gravitational waves. Arrays of wide-field telescopes on earth are being programmed to rapidly scan the universe. PLANCK is Europe’s first space mission to study the relic radiation from the Big Bang, cosmic microwave background radiation. The AUGER array in Argentina will collect and quantify this same radiation. The GLAST satellite placed in orbit in May, 2008 to study the extreme universe without having to deal with earth’s atmosphere. All these projects involve multiple nations and are guaranteed to provide astronomers and physicists with a new plethora of evidence to glean over for years.

4. On the many mentions of religion, a few of which are sympathetic, all of them seeing a decrease in the conflict between science and religion: “The number of people who realize how much of religious belief is non-sensical will continue to grow…I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion…a final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions…we will learn to shed the unessential dogmas, rules, definitions, and prejudices that religions have built up over the centuries and millennia…people will begin to see science as a vehicle for mutual understanding and for respecting life. Science will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.”

5. Climate change and its solutions draw much attention. The consensus is that technology exists now to reverse the trend with fairly simple engineering techniques. Unfortunately, getting the politicians to steer the world in the correct direction will be like herding cats. At the same time, the political winds are blowing the right way thanks to tragedies like the BP Oil spill and the onset of the current economic crisis, people are beginning to see the benefit of more efficient systems and once we pass a tipping point, we will solve the problem. Solar power capturing technologies of the future will eventually do away with the need for polluting fuels.

Every reader will undoubtedly find some articles that might seem too optimistic, too unrealistic, too uninteresting, or just wrong. However, most provide good food for thought and every third or fourth one provides a nice “aha!”. The book covers such a wide plethora of topics, I have barely touched the surface in this review. Most anyone should find parts of it fascinating and this book is especially meant for cynics who are in need of a realistic dose of optimism from minds that will shape a better cleaner more thinking future.

Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Large Hadron Collider (LHC)

Beautiful clean energy Solar Array Nellis

Higgs Boson


Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid published initally over 20 years ago debates, beautifully, the question of consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence. It is a must read book that attempts to discover the true meaning of “self.”

The book gives the reader an introduction to cognitive science drawing heavily from the world of art to illustrate the finer points of mathematics. The works of M.C. Escher and J.S. Bach are discussed as well as other works in the world of art and music. The line up for this book ranges from mathematics and meta-mathematics to programming, recursion, formal systems, multilevel systems, self-reference, self-representation and others.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, is anything but a dry and boring book a boring (gasp) topic. Along the lines of Alice in Wonderland, before each of the book’s twenty chapters, Hofstadter has includes a witty dialogue, where Achilles, the Tortoise, and friends discuss various aspects that will later be examined by Hofstadter in the chapter to follow.

With these wonderful dialogues, Hofstadter created and entirely new form of art in which concepts are presented on two different levels simultaneously of form and content. The more obvious level of content presents each idea directly through the views of Achilles, Tortoise and company. Their views are sometimes right, often wrong, but always hilariously funny. The true beauty of this book, however, lies in the way Hofstadter interweaves these very ideas into the physical form of the dialogue. The form deals with the same mathematical concepts discussed by the characters, and is more than vaguely reminiscent of the musical pieces of Bach and printed works of Escher that the characters mention directly in their always-witty and sometimes hilarious, discussions.

One interesting example is of “Crab Canon,” that precedes Chapter Eight. This is a short but highly amusing piece that can be read, like the musical notes in Bach’s Crab Canon, in either direction-from start to finish or from finish to start, resulting in the very same text. Although fiendishly difficult to write, the artistic beauty of that dialogue equals Bach’s music or Escher’s drawing of the same name.

Other topics include self-reference and self-representation. The examples given can, and often do, lead to hilarious and paradoxical results.

In playfully presenting these concepts in a highly amusing manner, Hofstadter slowly and gently introduces the reader to more advanced mathematical ideas, like formal systems, the Church-Turing Thesis, Turing’s Halting Problem and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, discuss some very serious topics and it can be a daunting book to handle and absorb. But it is always immensely enjoyable to read. The sheer joy of discovering the puns and playful gems hidden in the text are a part of what makes this book so very special. Anecdotes, word plays and Zen koans are additional aspects that help make this book an experience that many readers will come to feel to be a turning point in their lives.

A profound and beautiful meditation on human thought and creativity, this book is indescribably gorgeous and definitely one of a kind.

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter