Sunday, March 23, 2008

Breakdown

I am almost ashamed to admit that I have failed - for, perhaps, the first time ever - at finishing a book. But I have my reasons.
I intended to read Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis as part of a fair and unbiased survey of the religion/anti-religion debate. I had just completely Wolpert's book (see my earlier post), and was ready to delve into the next project. I started reading. I found myself often disgusted and putting the book down, leaving it for days on end (this in and of itself is odd for me, as I read the Bible in four weeks). As a physicist, I looked up my supposed colleague; turns out, aside from his PhD, he hasn't actually been doing physics. His faculty appointment is in the philosophy department. His faculty webpage says nothing of class schedules, office hours and homework solutions, but instead is just a paraphrased outline of his anti-religion books. His last scientific publication was years ago, and only as part of a large international collaboration (meaning he probably wasn't directly involved). Ok, fine. I can deal with a non-practicing physicist calling himself a physicist. It's a shaky connection, of course; one wouldn't claim to be a professional homemaker merely because one had a baby. But I granted him the benefit of the doubt and attempted to continue reading his book.
When I had made it a mere couple dozen pages into the book and had already witnessed Stenger reference himself and his earlier books a dozen times, I grew more and more weary. His pretentious and egotistical manner was barely masked. His physics references grew more and more unsteady. I forced myself to sit down and continue reading, but found that I desired reading about the upcoming election on CNN more than I wanted to deal with the mounting idiocy I found. Lest you accuse me of choosing sides, I'd been upset at authors on the other side as well; stupidity seems to know no bounds. But this man was supposedly my peer. And then it happened. The proverbial back-breaking straw.
Stenger - a man who calls himself a physicist - referred to beryllium-8 as stable.
A breakdown ensued. An honest-to-God breakdown. I nearly cried. I physically hit the book. I screamed at it, "you're wrong!" My head hurt from the sheer disgust at such an obvious and glaring error. This isn't something that someone in the specific field might not know. This is common knowledge. This is Hoyle's famous work. This is why we exist. Because beryllium-8 isn't stable. It's not even bound. As a well-known physicist at the University of Surrey once said, "the meaning of life isn't 42. It's 92. The 92 keV by which beryllium-8 is unbound." I had to sit down in my bedroom with my copy of Jackson E&M (in case you're wondering, I flipped to a random page and read aloud the equations for electromagnetic wave scattering in inhomogenous media) in order to calm myself.
So that was it. I put the book away, half completed, never intending to pick it up again. I stepped out into the sunshine, wiped my eyes and walked down to Books-A-Million. Bought another Kathy Reichs novel. Hoped that, if sensible, reasonable human beings didn't exist here in the real world, at least they'd exist in fiction.
So my apologies to anyone out there who cares. I intended to read another book and give another book review. But I couldn't do it. I set out hoping to learn something, but instead I lost my faith in humanity.

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