...a very smart person wrote this: Who is Mario Livio? We're asking for a reason.
Any sensible answer would start with this—by the norms of our culture and of our world, Mario Livio is very smart.
Who is Mario Livio? In 2009, he published Is God a Mathematician?, his latest general interest book on mathematics.
The book was published by Simon and Schuster, a major publisher; an excerpt was posted by NPR, a very high-end news org. Livio turned 64 that year. On his book's dust jacket, the capsule bio said this:
Mario Livio is a senior astrophysicist and head of the Office of Pubic Outreach at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.Livio isn't quite the apocryphal "rocket scientist," but he comes pretty darn close. At present, the leading authority on his remarkable life offers this overview:
Mario Livio (born 1945) is an Israeli-American astrophysicist and an author of works that popularize science and mathematics. For 24 years (1991-2015) he was an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates the Hubble Space Telescope. He has published more than 400 scientific articles on topics including cosmology, supernova explosions, black holes, extrasolar planets, and the emergence of life in the universe.Livio is an astrophysicist, but he isn't just any astrophysicist. He's an astrophysicst who helped run the Hubble for several decades, while writing scholarly pieces on supernova explosions and extrasolar planets, plus award-winning popular texts.
His book on the irrational number phi, The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World's Most Astonishing Number (2002), won the Peano Prize and the International Pythagoras Prize for popular books on mathematics.
Let's state what's blindingly obvious. By any normal cultural metric, Livio is very smart. Indeed, that's the whole point of what will follow this week. If Livio wasn't very smart; if his 2009 book wasn't published by a major house and excerpted by one of our allegedly smartest news orgs; then what follows this week would be of little real interest.
The person in question is very smart. His book was singled out for special attention by one of our most highly-regarded upper-end news orgs.
That said, conceptual problems already appear on page one of the book, where the NPR excerpt starts.
Starting on page one of his book, Livio alternately claims that mathematics doesn't just "describe" the universe. Mathematics also "explains" and even "guides" the universe.
Already, it seems to us that we might have wandered out over our skis a bit! But by page two, Livio is writing a passage we marveled at, once again, just this past Sunday morning, our last such morning at a local Starbucks as the plague advanced.
The passage in question is sitting right there as part of the NPR except. On page 2 of his book, Livio—an extremely smart person—writes the following passage, and NPR thought we should read it. The italics are Livio's own:
LIVIO (page 2): Millennia of impressive mathematical research and erudite philosophical speculation have done relatively little to shed light on the enigma of the power of mathematics. If anything, the mystery has in some sense even deepened. Renowned Oxford mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, for instance, now perceives not just a single, but a triple mystery. Penrose identifies three different "worlds": the world of our conscious perceptions, the physical world, and the Platonic world of mathematical forms....By any normal cultural metric, Roger Penrose is also an extremely smart person. That said, let's briefly consider the view Livio ascribes to this second extremely smart man.
According to Livio, Penrose "identifies" three different "worlds." (The second set of scare quotes are Livio's own.) He then names these three different "worlds."
We're only on page 2 of the book, but the fog is growing quite thick.
Most of us would have little trouble explaining what a person typically means when he refers to "the physical world." Indeed, as he continues, Livio provides an easy definition of same:
"The second world [in that list of three] is the one we normally refer to as physical reality. Real flowers, aspirin tablets, white clouds, and jet airplanes reside in this world, as do galaxies, planets, atoms, baboon hearts, and human brains."That seems, and is, rather easy. According to Livio, "the physical world" is the one we normally refer to as "physical reality." (!)
According to Livio, the physical world includes all sorts of physical objects—sticks and stones and water and soil and even aspirin tablets. This is the easy part of the muddle which already exists on page two.
We'll guess that confusion rarely arises when people, as part of normal parlance, refer to "the physical world." But according to Livio, Penrose also "identifies" two other "worlds." As you can see if you look at the NPR excerpt, confusion rises around us quickly as Livio attempts to describe and discuss these two other "worlds."
As we continues this week, we'll look at some of the things Livio says as he describes, or attempts to describe, Penrose's belief. In our view, Livio's presentation disappears into the world of conceptual confusion as this point, never to re-emerge.
Livio is very smart; so, of course, is Penrose. But whenever we encounter a presentation like the one Livio offers, a single thought pops into our heads:
Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was finally published in 1953, six years after Wittgenstein's death. It's amazing to think that, some 56 years later, a very smart person could produce the conceptual chaos Livio does, with an upper-end news org like NPR singling it out for special attention and admiration.
Philosophical Investigations appeared in 1953. In 2009, work like this was still being produced and hailed at the upper end of our frequently primitive discourse.
Four years later, Professor Horwich would say that the academy had thrown Wittgenstein away because he'd said that their work tended to be "the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." (See yesterday's report.)
Horwich said the academy had discarded Wittgenstein and his work. As our series continues along, we expect to suggest the possibility that they probably shouldn't have done that.
Tomorrow: As told to us by NAME WITHHELD in the winter of 67-68