Book Review: Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs (Three Stars)


Book Review: Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century by John Higgs

(Three Stars)

“There’s a moment for every generation when memory turns into history. The twentieth century is receding into the distance, and coming into perspective.” Giving charlatans—oops, I mean historians the opportunity to revise and reinterpret with less fear of contradiction.

An ambitious attempt to bring order out of the chaos of the last hundred years. Spanning the gamut from astrophysics to po culture, Higgs finds patterns in the twentieth century which may help us understand how we got where we are, though little help in projecting what’s next.

“The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson

Higgs is English, which will slow non-English readers, as his historic, political and cultural references center on England. Though non-North American English readers have dealt with the self-referential nature of Americans for years; it’ll be a new experience for some. Further, the syntax is verbal; lots of extraneous words which slow the flow and obscure meaning. Perhaps he dictated the text. In either case, it needs a good editing.

“What have the Romans ever done for us? … Apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order?” Monty Python

Like Barney Fife, Higgs is proud of his ignorance. For example, he proudly cites “English astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington with the “stranger than we can imagine,” which is this tome’s title, itself a paraphrase of Ephesians 3:20. He obviously doesn’t understand how sell phones work. (see below)

“The silicon chip inside [a cell phone] utilizes our understanding of the quantum world; the GPS satellite it relies on to find its position was placed in orbit by Newtonian physics; and that satellite relies on Einstein’s theory of relativity in order to be accurate. Even though the quantum, Newtonian and relativity models all contradict each other, the satnav works.”

He got enough right–the correct first year of the 21st century, Schrodinger paradox, and easily checked history – to lend him some credibility; but he also exposed himself ignorant in several areas. His totally misunderstands the working of his cell phone. He doesn’t understand economics, but who does. Not Paul Krugman, whom Higgs cites. The reader is left with the uneasy feeling of being conned, but enjoying it.

“Capitalism was the exploitation of man by man, whereas communism was the reverse.” Old Russian joke

This is a good read. Long, difficult, thought-provoking. But reader beware: you can’t count on Great Experts actually knowing anything. They have opinions, as do we all. Higgs is more likely to force his opinion on the reader as he is to admit it.

“Those of us born before the 1990s should, perhaps, get out of their way and wish them luck. The network is a beheaded deity. It is a communion. There is no need for an omphalos any more. Hold tight.”