Sunday, February 6, 2011

RatCave Book Club—2/6/2011

Last updated 2011.08.24

Superbowl Sunday. It's rather cold for a tailgate party this year. While everyone else is anticipating $6 million per minute TV commercials, I'm sitting here writing installment four of the Book Club...

Death From The Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World by Phil Plait, Ph.D., 2008
Astronomer Phil Plait is the former president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a popular blog author and host of the Discovery Channel series Bad Universe.

From asteroid impacts to gamma ray bursts to the death of the sun, our universe is inevitably going to wipe us out. Plait gives us an exciting laundry list of all the ways it can happen. Fortunately, it probably won't be anytime soon.

LSD: My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann, Ph.D., 1979. English translation by Jonathan Ott, 1983

The book can be read here and here.

In 1943, in the midst of WWII in neutral Switzerland, Sandoz chemist Albert Hoffmann was working on a re-synthesis of a molecule he had first synthesized five years earlier, his twenty-fifth derivative of lysergic acid, lysergic acid diethylamide, referred to in the lab as LSD-25...

Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.
Hoffmann had just experienced the first LSD trip. had I managed to absorb this material? Because of the known toxicity of ergot substances, I always maintained meticulously neat work habits. Possibly a bit of the LSD solution had contacted my fingertips during crystallization, and a trace of the substance was absorbed through the skin. If LSD-25 had indeed been the cause of this bizarre experience, then it must be a substance of extraordinary potency. There seemed to be only one way of getting to the bottom of this. I decided on a self-experiment.
Exercising extreme caution, I began the planned series of experiments with the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect, considering the activity of the ergot alkaloids known at the time: namely, 0.25 mg (mg = milligram = one thousandth of a gram) of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate. Quoted below is the entry for this experiment in my laboratory journal of April 19, 1943. 
By the time the doctor arrived, the climax of my despondent condition had already passed. My laboratory assistant informed him about my self-experiment, as I myself was not yet able to formulate a coherent sentence. He shook his head in perplexity, after my attempts to describe the mortal danger that threatened my body. He could detect no abnormal symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils. Pulse, blood pressure, breathing were all normal. He saw no reason to prescribe any medication. Instead he conveyed me to my bed and stood watch over me. Slowly I came back from a weird, unfamiliar world to reassuring everyday reality. The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.
The book continues with Hoffman's isolation of Psilocybin and Psilocin, and his life-long journey through the world of psychedelic experiences. He avoids the excesses of gurus like Timothy Leary while maintaining a positive outlook on the benefits of the controlled use of psychedelics. He died on April 29, 2008 at the age of 102.

For the record, I'm not experienced. I have enough problems.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow, 2008
The topic of this book is not a new one; the human mind has no intuitive understanding of probability. Mlodinow does a marvelous job of demolishing many myths and misconceptions using probabilistic methodology (see graph). This is the best overview of the basis of probability and statistics that I've read so far.

Mlodinow covers a lot of ground. The misuse and misunderstand of statistics by gamblers, investors and prosecutors. The dangers of false positives and the lack of weighting in HIV testing. Why Bruce Willis and Bill Gates ended up rich and famous and you didn't. By the time he was finished Mlodinow had me understanding more clearly than ever before the relationship between the Fibonacci sequence and the bell curve. This book is an excellent treatise on an important and dangerously misunderstood field of knowledge that directly affects everyday life.

Here's a lecture by Mlodinow.

While I'm on the topic, here's an old trick you can use to con investors out of their money. You start an expensive investment advice newsletter. You sign up 1024 investors. You pick a relatively safe, stable investment and tell half your subscribers that it will rise in the next month and the other half that it will fall. After repeating this for six months you will have been, by sheer random chance, correct every time for approximately sixteen of your subscribers (for another sixteen of your subscribers you will have been wrong every single time). Those sixteen-odd people will be absolutely convinced that you are an investment genius and will pay you large sums of money for further advice. They're hooked. You can keep them going for a long time to come. Every time you're wrong you shrug it off by saying, "I have to be wrong sometime". You make money by doing absolutely nothing.

There's a list of all my books reviews here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's how ya get rich--find the really dumb ones. It requires the Rupert Murdoch type of cynicism about the human condition. You must be a total sociopath to pull it off.