Review of “Now: The Physics of Time” by Richard A. Muller

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Richard A. Muller is a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley.  For years, he taught a course entitled “Physics for Future Presidents” to undergraduates.  Much of that course was condensed into a highly regarded and favorably reviewed book of the same name.

Muller has employed his formidable explication skills in a new book, Now, subtitled, The Physics of Time.  In it, he sets forth his theory of why time – the fourth dimension – flows, proceeds, or progresses inexorably into the future.  The extremely elusive concept of NOW is how we perceive time.  Early on, Muller refers to the concept of “now” as considered to be “indescribable.”  He even reprises Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous [to lawyers] bon mot:  “I can’t define [it] . . . but I know it when I see it.”  Stewart was trying to define “obscenity,” but his sentiment aptly characterizes most efforts to define time.

But Muller has a different concept of time that he wants to impart; however, before he does so, he wants to bring the reader “up to speed” with a crash course in modern physics.  He then segues into his personal musings on the “timeless” philosophical mysteries that he thinks cannot be answered by physics.

The first 250 pages of the book might serve as a pretty decent undergraduate Physics 101 course for liberal arts majors who aren’t afraid of a little algebra.  Most of it is very comprehensible, even to those with no affinity for math.

Muller begins by summarizing what physicists know about time before he speculates about the definition of and nature of now and why time seems to flow.  Specifically, Muller argues that, contrary to what most physicists contend, the cause of the flow of time lies “not in the concept of entropy.”   

Generally, entropy has been thought of as causing time to move in one direction only. Entropy is described by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that, in the absence of outside forces, physical systems unavoidably evolve from more ordered states to less ordered states, not the other way around. Think of getting older (alas) or the shattering of a tea cup dropped on the floor. We do not get younger and broken tea cups do not reassemble themselves. Physicists characterize these phenomena as increases in entropy. From those facts, physicists concluded that the second law caused the motion of time in the direction of what is called “time’s arrow.”

Muller contends that physicists got the arrow of time explanation backwards, arguing that time’s ineluctable forward movement is the cause of the Second Law, not vice versa.  In Muller’s view, time is a fourth dimension, expanding right along with the other three.  Now is the leading edge of that expansion — the furthest extent of the dimension of time.

[As science writer Ethan Siegel explains, ordinarily, when we conceptualize how we can move through the Universe, we immediately think of three different directions. Left-or-right, forwards-or-backwards, and upwards-or-downwards: the three independent directions of a Cartesian grid. But time also describes a location: where you are right now, as opposed to an hour ago, yesterday or ten years from now. Thus time is also a dimension that we “move” through, the same as any of the spatial dimensions.]

But as indicated above, Now isn’t only about the physics of time.  [Or even, about the physics aspect of the perception of time. Think of how “fast” time seems to move when you’re having fun, and how slow it seems to go when you are unhappy or sick, for example.]. I’m guessing that in Muller’s mind, his most important points are his thoughts about the incompleteness of physics vis-a-vis the big philosophical questions.

Muller attacks what he calls “physicalism,” a belief that science says all that can be said about knowing.  Physicalism reaches its extreme when it asserts that all non-quantifiable assertions are illusions.

About free will (a preoccupation of physics because of its inviolable laws), he states: “We can’t conclude that free will exists, but we can conclude that nothing in science rules it out.”

Muller ends with some musings about the human soul and personal responsibility.  In his sixth, and final, appendix, he cites several quotations from leading physicists expressing their personal beliefs in God.   

Evaluation: Now can be viewed as two books in one.  The first is an adept presentation of issues in modern physics dealing with the notion of time.  Muller’s writing is comprehensible for the nonphysicist-lay-mathphobe, and in the Appendix he includes real equations (quite a lot of them) for the adventurous who seek a deeper understanding.  This first “book” is exceptionally well done and pretty much incontrovertible.

The second is more controversial.  Muller is highly critical of physicalism, and he argues that physics is an incomplete way of knowing.  Although he is careful not to espouse any religious beliefs in the main body of the book, he sets forth his own semi-religious beliefs, a mild sort of deism, in the final Appendix.   I preferred the first half of the book to the second, but nonetheless the book was good enough to pique my interest in reading Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents.

Rating: 4/5

Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story” by Reem Faruqi

This story is loosely adopted from the author’s own memories about growing up first in Abu Dhabi and then in Peachtree City, Georgia. When in Abu Dhabi, the little girl in the book, Lailah, was too young to join in fasting for Ramadan, but in Georgia, she also feels stymied from participating in the fast; she is afraid to explain her beliefs to her new non-Muslim friends.


Hiding out at lunchtime in the library, Lailah finds the inspiration to be herself from the librarian. (Hurrah for super librarians!)

The illustrator, Lea Lyon (pronounced like “Lee Lion”), uses a loose watercolor style for her children’s picture books, five of which have won awards.


In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, the author explains that Ramadan isn’t just about fasting; rather, it’s about family and community and sharing. As the National Geographic Kids site explains:

“Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, which marks important holidays and events for Muslims (people who practice Islam). During Ramadan people fast, or refrain from eating and drinking, while it’s light out. Once the sun sets, families meet for big meals that may include stew, rice, dates, lentils, and more. People also have a morning meal before the sun rises.

For the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who observe Ramadan, the month is a time to focus on their faith and also perform generous acts. People raise money and donate supplies to help others in need. And many fast to remind themselves about those in the world who don’t have enough to eat.

After the last day of Ramadan, a three-day festival is held. Families and friends gather together to celebrate. They sometimes decorate homes with lights and exchange gifts. As for food, people eat all sorts of things including candies and pastries — and during this time, fasting is not allowed.”


Evaluation: This is a good story about figuring out how to negotiate the world when you are different than other kids. It is also a way for non-Muslim kids to learn about this important culture. To that end, I wish there had been more information about Ramadan and the Muslim religion in general. For example, information of interest to kids might have included the The Five Pillars of Islam, the use of the lunar calendar by Islam, and how Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr are celebrated. There are a number of sites on the web about all this geared to kids, such as this one.


Note: Ramadan in 2017 began the evening of May 26 and continues through the evening of June 25.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Tilbury House Publishers, 2015

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May 25th – National Wine Day

There is, it seems, a “national” day for everything. Whether the excuse just be marketing, or a genuine effort to appreciate an item, it is no reason not to celebrate.


It seems like the biggest (literally) decision one can make today is what size bottle to get. In general, larger wine bottle sizes are well-suited to a longer aging of wine, because of the smaller ratio of SO2 gas, (sulphur dioxide and oxygen) that occupies the space at the top of the bottle between the cork and the wine. The less air the surface of the wine is exposed to, the slower the wine will develop. However, very large bottles are very heavy.

Winemakers carry Britain’s biggest ever bottle of English sparkling wine, produced by the Chapel Down Winery in Kent. The bottle is a unique, 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar of Chapel Down’s gold medal-winning Blanc de Blancs 2007 sparkling wine. Photo credit: Hugo Philpott/PA Wire

Winemakers carry Britain’s biggest ever bottle of English sparkling wine, produced by the Chapel Down Winery in Kent. The bottle is a unique, 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar of Chapel Down’s gold medal-winning Blanc de Blancs 2007 sparkling wine. Photo credit: Hugo Philpott/PA Wire

A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters of wine, supposedly the perfect amount for two people to share (my husband would take issue with that; he thinks “one bottle” means “one person”). But there are other options, including, but not limited to:

The split (187 milliliters) Also known as Piccolo. (1/4 bottle) – 1 glass of wine

Half-bottle (375 milliliters) (2 glasses)

Magnum – holds the equivalent of two standard bottles (1.5 liters)

Double Magnum – 4 bottles (3 liters)

Jeroboam – equivalent of four bottles in a bottle of sloping shoulders (3 liters) for Champagne, or equivalent of six bottles with high shoulders (4.5 liters) for still wine. U.S. regulations limiting larger bottles to even-numbered liter sizes mean some ‘Jeroboams’ are now 5 liters or 6.67 bottles.

Rehoboam – six bottles with sloped shoulders

[Who knew wine bottles had shoulders?!!]

A Burgundy slope shouldered wine bottle

A Burgundy slope shouldered wine bottle

Imperial – eight bottles in one (6 liters)

Methuselah – eight bottles (6 liters) in one in a bottle wth sloped shoulders and usually reserved for sparkling wine.

Salmanazar – 12 bottles (9 liters)

Balthazar – 16 bottles (12 liters)

Nebuchadnezzar – 20 bottles (15 liters)

Melchior – 24 bottle equivalent (18 liters)

Melchizedek – 40 bottles

Who are these people for whom the bottle sizes are named? Most of them are biblical figures.

Jeroboam was Founder and first king of Israel, 931-910 BC.

Rehoboam, a son of Solomon and a grandson of David. Rehoboam himself reigned for 17 years, had 18 wives and 60 concubines. They bore him 28 sons and 60 daughters. He undoubtedly had many occasion to hit the wine bottle.

Bordeaux. The standard “high shouldered”  Bordeaux wine bottle

Bordeaux. The standard “high shouldered”  Bordeaux wine bottle

Methuselah is named for the oldest man mentioned by age in the Bible, allegedly living to the age of 969. He was also Noah’s grandfather. (Some scholars believe Methuselah’s given age is the result of an ancient mistranslation that converted “months” to “years”, producing a more credible 969 lunar months, or 78½ years.)

Nebuchadnezzar actually is a reference to Nebuchadnezzar the Second, who was the King of Babylon from 605-562 B.C. Both the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple are ascribed to him.

Melchizedek is named for the King of Peace in the Book of Genesis. Notably, Genesis 14:18 reports: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine: and he was [is] the priest of the most high God.”

Balthazar and Melchior are names of two of the Three Wise Men from the New Testament. (The third was Caspar – why no bottle for him? Well, at least he got venerated as a Catholic saint, even if he has no bottle.)

Not so much into drinking wine? There are still a lot of things you can use it for, from hot fudge sauce to lemon chicken, cakes, mushroom sauce, and so on. Check out a sample list here!

Happy National Wine Day!!


wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “The Toll-Gate” by Georgette Heyer

This Regency romance by Georgette Heyer employs a great deal of “flash-patter” slang, which apparently actually originated in Derbyshire, a county in the East Midlands of England and the setting for this novel. [There is an interesting history of how flash patter arose in An Analytic Dictionary of the English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman.] Heyer provides no glossary for this slang, but it’s easy enough to get the gist of the dialogue. I also remembered some from the books by Lyndsay Faye set in 19th Century New York, where flash patter was the street argot of the era, especially because Faye did include a glossary with her books.

This story is also unusual in that the focus is on the hero rather than the heroine. Twenty-nine-year-old Captain John (called Jack) Staple is tall, handsome, genial, and honorable. He was a Captain in the Dragoon Guards, but now is mustered out and is at loose ends, and loathe to be bored by the strictures of formal society. He is also bored by women who have no spirit and no interests broader than advancing in society, and so he has remained unmarried. But that is all about to change.

Jack, riding off to visit his best friend, gets a bit lost, and ends up staying at a toll-gate house manned only by ten-year-old Ben Brean, acting for his father, who has gone missing. Ben is scared, and Jack agrees to stay and help out, as much for a lark as anything. But before long he is called to take a toll from 26-year-old local Nell Stornaway, clearly as independent as possible for a woman to be at that time, and with no care for propriety. They are both tall, but Jack is taller. It’s love at first sight.

So Jack decides to stay longer, and soon gets embroiled in “an excellent adventure” related to the disappearance of Ben’s father, that is not, however, without mortal peril for Jack. There are some fun side plots involving the humorous character of Jeremy Chirk, who is a highway robber but a good man, and who is in love with Nell’s former nursemaid Rose. There is also the delightful character of Nell’s grandfather, and the rather less savory characters of Nell’s cousin Henry and his friend Coates. But they are all entertaining, each in his own way.

Jack devises a way to fix everything aright – that is, unless he is killed.

Evaluation: This book, like others I have read by Heyer, is very fun, and reminiscent of the “screwball comedy/romances” of old movies. My only quibble with this book is that Jack’s declaration of love for Nell was so swift I thought he was having another of his larks. Besides being heralded as the true source of “Regency Romances”, Heyer should definitely receive notice for making “InstaLove” a plot feature as well.

Rating: 3.5/5

Originally published in 1954, and published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc., in 2011

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

Image of an 1835 Flash Dictionary from the British Library

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Review of “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock

Hoock aims to tell the story of the American Revolution by using violence as his central analytical and narrative focus. He argues that the story of the revolution has been subject to “whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting.” Americans have chosen to portray the revolution as “an uplighting, heroic tale, as a triumph of high-minded ideas….” But as Hoock ably demonstrates from his well-researched account, the reality was much messier, marked by violence “in ways we don’t remember, and perhaps can’t even imagine, because they have been downplayed – if not written out of the conventional telling altogether.”

Why was this so? In all wars, narratives of one-sided violence (that is, violence by the “other” side) help to mobilize allegiance and support. Having a “moral” claim helps legitimize a nation both at home and abroad. And of course, with Americans averring that their primary interest was freedom, they needed a compelling message to counter the many ways their hypocrisy could be exposed – not only because of their enslavement of blacks and treatment of Natives, but because of the way the Patriots terrorized the Loyalists. Anglican churches and clergymen were singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Some were killed, including one who was lynched by a mob in Charleston, South Carolina with his body subsequently burned on a bonfire. (Hoock writes that different regions in America “specialized” in different types of abuse.)

Lynching of Loyalists

Lynching of Loyalists

One of the worst places to be punished for Loyalist leanings was in Connecticut, where the accused could be taken to an underground prison located in a converted copper mine. This hell on earth (or in earth, as it was 60-80 feet underground) was dark, damp, squalid, with limited air circulation, and exceedingly unsanitary. Prisoners could not stand upright, and the political prisoners were mixed in with dangerous felons. Many of them went mad. As Hoock observes: “Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America’s first civil war than is commonly acknowledged.”

Connecticut's notorious Newgate Prison

Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison

There were also “political” punishments. Hoock reports on extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” that policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence. Other Patriot actions against Loyalists included enactment of treason laws, confiscation and banishment acts, test laws (to test loyalty), and the banning of Loyalists from voting, holding office, practicing their professions, trading, serving on juries, acquiring property, inheriting land, or even traveling at will.

Confiscation of property affected tens of thousands of Loyalists during the war, allowing the states to accrue assets and condemn traitors to a social death without engaging in widespread executions.

But the Patriots in general, and George Washington in particular, were well aware that “in order to win the war on the moral front, with both American and international audiences watching, [they] must out-civilize the enemy.” Thus, not only were stories of American violence suppressed, but stories of barbarity by the British, while rare – particularly at the beginning of the war, became pivotal pieces of the Patriot atrocity narrative: “In their print media, the Patriots presented such atrocities as part of a broader pattern of British excessive violence.”

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

The American Congress published numerous reports of any British atrocity in order to persuade the population of “Britain’s moral inferiority and the righteous urgency of America’s cause.” The most effective propaganda took the form of charges of sexual predation. As Hoock observes, “The high proportion of references to girls and teenagers being raped does not correspond to verifiable data…” But of course, as he admits, “As is the case in most wars, and in most societies, the incidence of rape in the Revolutionary War is impossible to quantify.” Rape victims were intimidated by threats, social ostracizing, and humiliation. They lacked witnesses to corroborate their stories.

Regardless, the “Americans deployed rape as a political tool to discredit the British Empire…” (Sadly, Hoock points out, narratives of rape from the period highlight the injured reputation of dishonored fathers and husbands, and were said to symbolize the violation of the body politic. The abused women themselves didn’t seem to matter as much.)

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Hoock also devotes a considerable amount of time to the problems of prisoners of war. Observing the conventions related to prisoners created a dilemma for the British: if they called captured combatants thusly, and agreed to be bound by conventions re prisoners, they would ipso facto be recognizing the U.S. as a sovereign state. [Lincoln faced the same issue during the Civil War vis-a-vis captured Confederates.] It is estimated that between 16,500 and 19,000 American prisoners died in British captivity – roughly half of all the Patriots under arms who died in the war.

Hoock also shows the way racism fed the violence of the war, not only against blacks, but against Native Americans. America used the mobilization of the war to wage a simultaneous campaign against the Iroquois Confederation. Washington himself laid out the Continental Army’s objective in the campaign against the Six Nations to Major General John Sullivan as “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” ….. As Hoock remarks, “Today we would consider this a form of genocide.”

Major General John Sullivan

Major General John Sullivan

Finally, Hoock reports on the period after the war was over, when treatment of former Loyalists was quite punitive. While 60,000 or so white Loyalists went into permanent exile after the war, several hundred thousand wished to stay in their homes. But animosity ran deep, and violence was often employed against them.

Alexander Hamilton realized that while the physical fighting was ended, the war for hearts and minds was not over. He urged tolerance, warning of “the diplomatic, political, economic, and moral costs of persecuting the Loyalists.”

To that end, Americans “scrubbed” their own Revolutionary war record, which they celebrated as “untarnished with a single blood-speck of inhumanity.” For their part, Loyalists remaining in the States had no choice but to hide their trauma, or there would be severe repercussions. In any event, no American publisher would spread their version of events. The Patriots controlled the history.

The Spirit of '76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

The Spirit of ’76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

Discussion: Hoock uses multiple lenses to ferret out the real story of the American Revolution without the obfuscation of socially-constructed myth. In addition to accounts of American Patriots, he examines those of American Loyalists, the British, Native Americans, Black Americans, and German mercenaries. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of of the American Revolution was interpreted – first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWI, when it became especially important to minimize the legacy of violence between “kindred Anglo-Saxon peoples…”.

Hoock’s emphasis on the historical reconstruction of the war – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – is critical to an understanding of how narrative was used by America to reshape what happened into a suitable foundation story. Not only do “the victors write the history,” but they tend to do so in a way that is more self-serving than accurate.


Evaluation: This book is a much-needed corrective to the many histories of the founding of America that only show the “noble” aspects of the struggle. It contains details of many violent incidents of the war that haven’t made it into other accounts. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” As we now combat the divisions of the country after an election that emphasizes our divides rather than our commonality, we would do well to remember how easy it has been for this country to succumb to violence, discrimination, and cruelty, and then use “alternative facts” to cover it up.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of penguin Random House LLC, 2017

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