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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hard science segues to Germanic philosophy, May 5, 2010
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This review is from: Laws of the Game : How the Principles of Nature Govern Chance ( Princeton Science Library ) (Paperback)
This unique book, co-authored by a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, has (to my taste) two positive and two negative features. In writing about "chance in popular science", any author faces a problem: use words only (thereby being vague) or put in equations (thereby detering many readers). The unique feature of this book is the invention of a selection of games (in the format of beads on a board, with moves affected by die throws) designed to mimic aspects of science models. The point is that "dice and rules" is a good description for scientific modeling involving probability; writing out explicit rules for dice games makes this point very clearly, compared to other popular science books.

As well as brief verbal mentions of some of the usual "chance in popular science" topics (game theory; quantum theory; evolution and population genetics; entropy and thermodynamical equilibrium and Shannon information) they describe a number of much more specific scientific topics, centered around their own expertize in biochemical reactions and structure. These are interesting and less standard topics, and every reader will be rewarded by learning something new.

An apt description of the book's style comes from a New Yorker review: "Fascinating .... has the character of the deepest sort of discussion among brilliant friends". But to my taste this style has two defects. The first: half the book digresses away from their "hard science" expertize to discuss classical (Platonic solids, Goethe, Marxist dialectic) and 1970s-fashionable (Chomsky, Prigogine, catastrophe theory, "limits to economic growth", Popper's 3 worlds and Eccles neurobiology) intellectual theories, without much coherence.

I was reading with a particular goal -- to learn what they have to say about "how the principles of nature govern chance". Only a small portion of the book explicitly addresses this question, and does so via over-broad, somewhat philosophical generalizations. That is, assertions that make sense conversationally as abstractions of the current topic under discussion, but which fail to stand up to scrutiny when presented in print as generalizations. Two examples. After correctly arguing that "fitness" is not a mere tautology, they breezily conclude (p. 59) "This combination of law and chance suffices to explain the tendency, inherent in evolution, for improvement over time". But the notion that short-term adaptation to succeed in changing competitive environments necessarily leads to long term "improvement" is far from obvious, as Steven Jay Gould and others have argued at length. And as thay say (p. 121) "all the protein building blocks in the entire organic world .... form spirals that turn to the left". As they argue, this (all left rather than all right) could plausibly be just the result of chance, as demonstrated by a simple model. But to equate this with saying "it was the result of chance" is a logical error, like equating "not guilty" with "innocent".

The authors don't address what I view as the central philosophical question. In various specific science fields one can set up "dice and rules" models which are scientifically correct, in the sense that theoretical predictions of the model are borne out by experimental data. Great -- that's part of how science works. But the implicit conclusion, that the natural world works via dice and rules processes, is philosophically naive. To see why: opinion polls can predict (via dice and rules) results of an imminent election, but this explains nothing about the process by which people decide how to vote.

Conclusion: read this book for a variety of interesting science vignettes and a very creative idea of illuminating science models as games; but be skeptical about any big picture conclusions.
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