Sunday, June 10, 2012

Matthieu Ricard + Thinh Xuan Thuan's "The Quantum and the Lotus": Book Review

Over two decades ago, inspired by Galileo's "Dialogue on World Systems" between a poet, a politician, and a scientist, Fritjof Capra (oddly not mentioned in this book) the systems theorist who gained attention for his "The Tao of Physics," co-wrote a film, "Mindwalk." Although the three talking heads bored some viewers, I found the film engaging at least for its ideas, enhanced by its Mont St. Michel setting. Reading this dialogue between a French Buddhist monk resident in Nepal, trained as a molecular biologist, and a Vietnamese astrophysicist raised as Buddhist and now teaching in America, I found a similar meeting of minds, enriched by the depth three hundred pages can offer for such wide-ranging explorations into the infinitely small and infinitely large, as Heisenberg and Bohr meet Einstein or Plato before all bow to the Buddha.

So Ricard would have it. Fifteen topical chapters progress through the Big Questions as science tries, for Thuan, to live up to the Platonically inspired models that appear to underlie the visible realm for many physicists and mathematicians. He articulates this worldview eloquently, as when citing Einstein's vision of viewing the watch's face, watching its hands move, and hearing its ticking without ever being able to open up the mechanism inside. Ricard counters this doggedly with a dual vision of impermanence underlying all existence, and interdependence on the quantum level linking all the universe. This precedes the Dalai Lama's 2006 "The Universe in a Single Atom" but compliments it well. In fact, it betters it, for the back-and-forth between monk and scientist pushes both farther; also see Ricard's spirited discussion with his father, political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, in 2000's "The Monk and the Philosopher".

Both Ricard and Thuan explain their concepts energetically, and I was never bored, even if this took me awhile to finish, as many pages merited close attention. I found clear presentations of Bohr's Compatability and Heisenberg's Uncertainty principles, as well as astutely delivered summations of astrophysics and time-space from Planck measurements onward. Thuan insists it seems on a Big Bang and leans towards a Big Crunch, but he accepts a Big Expansion as also possible--as of the writing of this book ca. 2001 it appears the data's still debated. Ricard defaults often to Buddhist cosmology not in its classical sense, but in the manner in which nothing's inherently existing, and no steady states endure. He tends to get the upper hand in the dialogue, and I wondered if he had final say over the book--it felt as if tilted towards his stance.

The chapters do roam about, and some topics such as the beauty of mathematical theories or the structure of mathematics vis-a-vis Godel's Incompleteness Theorem appeared underexplored. Some chapters end a bit suddenly, and I was curious if the authors were discussing this and making a transcription, or if, given the heavy use of quotations, sending each other drafts of talking points that they edited into one document. However produced, as they note, we are limited in what we conceive to how we perceive, and one closes this thought-provoking exchange wondering if Ricard's "dharma" itself is but a limited creation of the human longing for meaning, compared or contrasted with the laws that Thuan values in his everyday analysis as a scientist, far from Ricard's Asian monastery. (Amazon US 5-20-12)

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