Many authors read far beyond their own area of writing expertise. This is because most authors just love to read, but it can be surprising from where inspiration springs. Some of the books listed below had a direct influence on Virtues of War, but most just provided the author with delicious food for thought.
The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene, 1999)
The leading theory by far in modern physics is the mysterious “string theory” which, in short, purports that the fundamental building blocks of our reality (even smaller than photons, electrons and quarks) are 1-dimensional “strings” that create everything based on how they vibrate. The theory is a massive array of convoluted, mainly-unsolved mathematical constructs that consume the efforts of most theoretical scientists and mathematicians who work in astrophysics, cosmology and quantum physics. If it can be fully resolved, it promises an ultimate answer to the fundamental questions about the nature of the Universe. Brian Greene is one of the leading lights in this field, and his book is a beautiful exploration of string theory that speaks in a language easily understandable by any layman with an interest in physics.
Warped Passages (Lisa Randall, 2005)
This is an engaging and readable exploration of 5-dimensional warped geometry theory, which suggests that the Universe actually exists in 4 spatial dimensions (plus time as the 5th dimension), and not the 3 that we perceive. Our 3-dimensional spatial “reality” is a membrane or “brane” perched at one end of the Bulk. This theory tackles several major questions that bedevil modern physics, particularly those surrounding the nature of gravity and why gravity is so much weaker than the other three fundamental forces of nature. It is a bold, innovative break from the current research trends in astro and particle physics and provides an elegant hypothesis to explain the nature of the Universe. It also provides the perfect setting for the stealth warfare of Virtues of War.
The Trouble with Physics (Lee Smolin, 2006)
String theory has dominated theoretical physics for two decades, with the vast majority of funding available to the field being poured into its construction and resolution. However, after so many years it is still unresolved, and criticized by some to indeed be unprovable. Lee Smolin’s investigation into the state of modern physics research is an intriguing, and sometimes bitter, criticism of how one unproven theory has come to completely dominate an entire field of science. He is not opposed to further research into string theory, but he laments not only the lack of support but also the outright dismissal of any researcher brave enough to investigate alternate theories. While he at times perhaps overstates his case, Smolin is to be commended for his courage in exposing the truth that real-world scientists do not always live up to their own myth of the unemotional, neutral observer of evidence, but can indeed display all the prejudices and irrationality of typical human beings. Advice from this book: don’t necessarily believe everything you hear or read, even if a scientist says it.
Science and Philosophy:
A History of Knowledge: Past, Present and Future (Charles Van Doren, 1991)
In a relatively short 412 pages, this book lays out with remarkable clarity and insight the journey of knowledge that humans have made over the past 6000 years. Van Doren compares the knowledge and societies of major ancient civilizations, and discusses in detail once-revolutionary ideas such as “zero” or alphabets. He reveals just how much Western culture owes to the Greeks of the last few centuries BC, as well as the additions of their Roman successors. The “great social experiment” of the Middle Ages is presented in a fascinating light, as well as the complete world-view shift of European thinkers as they created the Renaissance. The impact of European expansion, the rise of science and the development of modern political systems are all studied in their historical context, and Van Doren concludes the journey with an examination of the world today and his predictions for the future. While the journey is interesting in its own right, Van Doren’s remarkable strength is his ability to write without judgement or modern prejudice. He presents the world views of people from different ages as they were at the time, not as ignorance waiting for enlightenment or lies doomed to failure. He never suggests that our knowledge has improved in any moral sense over the millennia, only that it has evolved and grown; the only exceptions to this are his unflinching revulsion to both slavery and human sacrifice. He goes to some length to try and educate the modern reader about how a person in ancient Egypt, say, or 19th Century France would have seen their world, and he cautions strongly against imposing our own assumptions and prejudices on our ancestors. Although it is primarily Euro-centric, A History of Knowledge is an excellent summary of the growth of human knowledge.
Finding Darwin’s God (Kenneth R. Miller, 1999)
The subtitle of this book is “A scientist’s search for common ground between God and Evolution” and it is a balanced, intelligent look at the strange war that has evolved between science and religion over the past 150 years. It is important to note that science and religion were not always opponents in the field of knowledge, and for many centuries they were considered two aspects of the same search. Miller’s analysis breaks down some of the more ridiculous arguments put forth, as well as some of the very clever ones, and his ultimate conclusion is that there really shouldn’t be an argument at all. It is pointless trying to prove or disprove science without using scientific method. But it is also pointless trying to prove or disprove philosophic assertions with scientific method. Science, as a way of thinking, cannot provide the answers we seek in religion or philosophy. And more importantly science - as a way of thinking, as an approach to examining the world - cannot even form the questions of religion or philosophy. They are different aspects of the same quest for knowledge, and should be viewed as complementary rather than competitive. Miller’s book is a must-read for anyone on either side of the science versus religion debate.
Open World: The Truth about Globalization (Philippe Legrain, 2002)
Globalization has been a buzz-word for over a decade in our society, for some it is the shining light of progress and the key to a better world while to others it is a cruel, soulless monster that will destroy cultures and enslave millions. Legrain addresses the arguments on both sides, and reveals many of the lies and half-truths that have been paraded in the propaganda of fanatics. He also takes an insightful look at the more intelligent arguments and places them next to facts on the ground to see how they stand up. He recognizes that globalization is as much a philosophical debate as an economic one, and complex by any measure. While not the last word on the subject, Open World is an excellent examination of this global phenomenon.
The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World (Paul Roberts, 2004)
As environmentalism gains momentum in our society, and Big Oil is cast ever darker as the villain of the piece, Paul Roberts takes a critical look at the realities of energy economics and the possibilities we face. Never questioning that the world cannot continue with its growing addiction to oil – for economic, social or environmental reasons: take your pick – Roberts explains how the alternatives that currently exist are far from the perfect solutions they are often touted to be. He examines in intricate detail hydrogen full cells, solar power, wind power and others, demonstrating their merits but also exposing their weaknesses. He does this not to deride them as solutions, but rather to give an honest assessment of the challenges these technologies still face before they truly become acceptable alternatives. His analysis of the geopolitics of oil and the importance of the emerging economies of developing nations like China lay out in stark clarity the sheer scale of what must change – socially, politically and economically – to break the oil addiction. The End of Oil is both optimistic and pessimistic, and above all it is a realistic look at perhaps the most important and far-reaching issue on our planet.
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (Chris Hedges, 2002)
As a war correspondent in some of the nastiest conflicts of the past few decades, Chris Hedges understands well the simultaneous thrill and horror of being in the middle of a combat zone. His book, however, is a rejection of this most devastating addiction, and it is an insightful attempt to explain why people go to war, both as individuals lured into combat, and as societies seduced to the cause. Drawing upon various theatres of war he experienced, he tells sad, sometimes shocking tales of how human beings can descend into savagery, cling to a “just cause” and rewrite history afterward. He speaks to the deepest parts of our psyche, to the aspects of our being that are so often dormant in civilized society but which can be awakened by war’s siren call. And he tells of how these dark parts of our body and soul can take over, fueled by the intensity of combat that is absolutely unmatched in any other human endeavour. This book is a brilliant analysis of the political and social traps that can use our own human nature to ensnare individuals and societies alike, and it offers great insight into the oft-posed question of why we seem determined to destroy ourselves.
Virtues of War is a straight-shooting non-stop tale of military adventure in a troubled future.
Author of "Fire with Fire"