Author Topic: Book Reviews  (Read 10496 times)

Alice

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Book Reviews
« on: September 08, 2009, 02:58:17 pm »
I'd like to invite any Zooite who'd like to to write a book review of something they enjoyed (or particularly hated!) or would recommend. It doesn't have to be astronomy: you can submit something about your favourite novel, or work of popular science, or even cartoon or video or website if you like. Let's have roughly the same format as the newspapers: don't give away the plot, but give people an idea of what it's about, the level of difficulty if applicable, the general feel of it, and your personal quibbles and appreciations. ;D

Send me or Geoff your book review; please try to keep it to under 1000 words, and include title, author/s, publisher, number of pages, and so on.

You might also enjoy these topics:

Galaxy Zoo Papers
Suggested Reading List & Resources; Reading List Discussion

Library Bookshelves
Astronomy Book Section
Popular Science Lounge
Science Fiction Chat
The Fiction Shelf
Children's Book Corner
Miscellaneous Library

« Last Edit: September 09, 2009, 12:43:57 am by Alice »

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #1 on: September 08, 2009, 03:00:35 pm »
Book Review 1.

BANG! The Complete History of the Universe



Authors: Patrick Moore, Brian May, Chris Lintott
Pulished by Carlton Books Ltd, 2006; ~190 pages
ISBN: 1-84442-552-5
Website: www.banguniverse.com

This lovely book was written to describe how the Universe was formed and evolved, from the first tiny Planck second (1-43 seconds) of its life until the present day, and predict how it will change in the future. It's not a chronology of discoveries, but of our Universe itself.

Much was made in the press at the time of its three authors: one whose life is spent popularising and explaining astronomy; one devoted amateur who also happened to be a world-famous rock star (who got his PhD a little later, before his fans remind me!); and one working professional, who also thought up Galaxy Zoo. Sir Patrick wrote the skeleton of the book within 2 weeks, and the three of them spent the next 2 years arguing over every sentence.

When a copy arrived in the post for me, I was mezmerised. I spent the first several hours just playing with the cover, which has a holographic diagram of an exploding fireball - and which the authors are quick to state is not just "for fun only", but would be impossible to see in reality; we could not see the Universe exploding because we were inside it! After that, I needed another several hours to get over the beauty of the pictures, which are captioned far better than I've often seen, with information a layman can understand and an expert will appreciate. Added to that, it's lively and companionable, with the occasional splendid joke.

The first chapter, "Genesis - In the Beginning", is the hardest work. It deals with the first less-than-a-second of the Universe's life, and addresses bizarre concepts such as inflation and a "flat" universe. I did find myself thinking, "Hang on, where are we in the timeline? What on earth does this mean?" But nature is under no obligation to make things simple, and the authors are very sympathetic. Without going into mathematical formulae, they warn us when something is going to be counter-intuitive, and devote grey boxes to explanations that get too far away from the "story". So the ideas remained, and as the story progressed I felt myself rocketing along with the subsequent, easier chapters.

We get how the Universe "lit up", how galaxies formed, how nuclear fusion works in a star, and some deliciously nitty-gritty scientific concepts such as "handedness" of symmetrical molecules, particularly their relationship to life. There are other books which cover such concepts in much greater depth; if this one had tried to address everything, it would have been very long and off-putting indeed. Indeed, this was my re-introduction to astronomy, after an early adulthood of disillusionment and learning, sadly, to put it away as a childhood toy no longer within reach. The picture of Brian playing with a piece of paper and a telescope to watch the transit of Venus was like a wonderful piece of permission to go back to the stars and play again! On that front, the authors have a lot to answer for; you can partly blame this book that I'm here. I've never looked back. ;D

The possibilities of how life came to Earth are discussed briefly, and that chapter's less exciting than the rest - I had the impression the authors didn't always see eye to eye there. Having dealt with our own little Earth, the book then goes out into the yawning blackness of an expanding Universe. What will happen? Even black holes will not live forever. Even protons don't last always. None are likely to decay in our own lifetime, so we're safe. As they write, "This is sober science - and yet one is bound to have an instinctive, rather eerie feeling that something is wrong." It's clear, once the book has stretched your mind, that however the Universe began or will end, something goes against our intuition and leaves unanswered questions. The beauty, the vastness, and the depth leave you dying to know more as the book ends . . .

And just at that point, they cleverly put in the practical astronomy section, with the words I discovered to be true: "In general, astronomers are sociable folk!" After that there is a short biography of several astronomers who contributed to our knowledge, followed by a nifty timeline of events. It not only overjoyed and exhiliarated me to read this book, but provided an excellent background to start studying heftier ones. Apparently some goon complained in the press that it is comprehensible to an intelligent 11-year-old. Well, our own galaxies are classifiable by 6-year-olds (true!), and provide ground-breaking research data - and Dr Brian responded that he was delighted that the book is accessible far and wide. It's a book to get everybody in, just like Galaxy Zoo.

Alice

« Last Edit: September 19, 2009, 07:44:19 pm by Alice »

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #2 on: September 08, 2009, 03:03:44 pm »
Book Review 2, by EigenState

Nectar of the Gods


Autumn palette of Acer saccharum.  Credit:  Chris Glass.

Were I to believe in the existence of supreme deities, then surely I must believe that among their greatest gifts to humanity is Acer saccharum.  Acer saccharum is a deciduous tree native to the hardwood forests of northeastern North America.  It is a lush shade tree reaching heights of 100 feet that provides comforting shade in the heat of Summer.  During the cold, crisp, bright days of Autumn, its display of vibrant colors rivals the palette of Mark Chagall.  Yet it is in the cold, wet snows of early Spring that Acer saccharum reaches it zenith--for this is the time when the sap runs strong.

********************
Amateur Sugar Maker
by Noel Perrin
University Press of New England, 104 pages (1972).
ISBN:  0-87451-061-9

********************

Acer saccharum is better known as the Sugar Maple and proper concentration of its sap yields pure Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup.  Accept no artificial substitutes!  Do not honor your low-bush blueberry and ricotta pancakes with anything less!  Warm before serving!  Save the thicker and stronger Grade C to pour over vanilla ice cream or even a cupful of freshly fallen snow.  For those raised in New England, Southern Ontario and Quebec, and the states bordering the lower Great Lakes, the Sugar Maple is the king of trees and its syrup is truly nectar of the gods.

In Amateur Sugar Maker, Mr. Perrin takes us along with him on a journey, in the footsteps of Henry David Thoreau, to build and equip a working sugarhouse at minimum cost.  Boards, nails and bricks are to be found, as are spouts, collection pails, a holding tank, and the evaporator itself.  Trade and barter abounds.

Perrin, Professor of English at Dartmouth College and part time working Vermont farmer, is well qualified to lead us on that journey.  There is little science in this book, at most measuring something called specific gravity of the sugar solutions with something called an hydrometer.  No matter, for this is a tale of art over technology; of curious characters over things; of making do with what is available; of the human spirit itself.  

More than anything, Amateur Sugar Maker is a tribute to a way of life.  A way of life founded on deep traditions, and on respect both for the land and for one's neighbors.  A way of life that is sadly in decline.

Those of you who already know the delights of pure Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup will also delight in this short, easily read book.  To those who have not experienced this delicacy, try it--then read the book.  Better yet, eat and read at the same time, being careful not to drip on the pages.  An attractive leaf serves well as a bookmark.

- EigenState


PS. EigenState tells me this picture is also worth a look, though they may prefer it if I don't hotlink it. A beautiful red tree:
http://www.cnr.vt.edu/DENDRO/DENDROLOGY/syllabus/picts/asaccharumform.jpg
Credit:  Virginia Tech University Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.
« Last Edit: October 22, 2009, 01:10:41 am by Alice »

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #3 on: October 17, 2009, 11:41:13 pm »
Book Review 3 by Half65

"Al di là della Luna"/"Beyond the Moon"



This book was fundamental to Half's passion for astronomy. He remembers reading the 1973 edition, borrowed from a school library, when he was a little boy. He now has the 1982 edition, and has discovered that it's also available in English.

It was written, he says, by the great Paolo Maffei who passed away on 1st March 2009; Half wrote a blogpost about him here. He read it, of course, in Italian; but even then, Maffei was an author known outside Italy.

Author: Paolo Maffei

Italian ISBNs:
ISBN-10: 8804333669 or 8804241268
ISBN-13: 9788804333661 or 9788804241263
English ISBNs:
ISBN-10: 0380487446
ISBN-13: 9780380487448

Publisher: various! Pages: 341 in Half's copy.

Paolo Maffei had the idea of writing this book immediately after the Apollo 11 challenge. He had in mind two clear impressions: one, that a modern man had a sort of "space consciousness"; but, on the other hand, he had a very low knowledge of astronomy. For that reason, there are people who believe that science has destroyed science fiction and has left no margin for fantasy or mystery, and that the conquest of the Moon is a great jump in space. To demonstrate that this is not true, in this book he continues the "space voyage" starting from the Moon.

The book is not an astronomy encyclopedia or scientific text, although it contains a lot of information, but aimed at the layman: it is very understandable.

From the Moon we go to the Sun, and various objects of the Solar System. Then the near stars, the variable ones, where stars are born, and to globular clusters. He then describes our Galaxy and other galaxies nearby, from the Magellanic clouds and beyond; from Andromeda to other galaxies. At the end is the limit of time and space.

The book contains plenty of photos and diagrams illustrating many concepts.

It probably now reflects the passing of time, but is still a great trip and a good start to the fascinating world of astronomy.

- Half65

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #4 on: October 17, 2009, 11:42:19 pm »
Book Review 4 by Weezerd

Einstein's Cosmos
How Albert Einstein's Vision Transformed our Understanding of Space and Time

Michio Kaku ISBN 0-75381-904-X published in 2005 by Phoenix.

This fairly short (less than 200 pages pocket size) paperback impressed me as a well-written (in that it was easy reading), brief, but comprehensive biography of this giant of modern physics, written (in my opinion) for the lay-man. In three parts it covers the early years of his life up to the discovery of his Theory of Special Relativity, followed by the development of General Relativity and leading to his quest to find the Grand Unification Theory; a quest in which he, as we all know, was disappointed.

The various aspects of his private life and how they affected his work are covered, along with his academic times in Germany and in USA, and linking up with all those great names of modern physics who we read or hear about, showing how they all slotted into his fascinating life. I was left with a feeling of sadness that.....
(a) he never achieved the completion of his quest and
(b) I never got to meet him!

Michio Kaku has impressed me with his writing style and I would not hesitate to pick up and read another of his books.
I recommend this one for both reasons ~ that it is written by Michio and that it is a pleasant read about "Uncle Albert".

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #5 on: October 29, 2009, 10:17:01 pm »
Book Review 5 by EigenState

Consuming Passion: "Northern Lights" by Lucy Jago

Not long ago I committed the grievous error of failing to charge my book bag with fresh reading material for breakfast.  Breakfast is special--the most important meal at which proper nutrition is critical to set the tone for the remainder of the day.  With dogmatic rigor, I therefore nourish myself with the three basic food groups:  strong coffee, a good read, and the first pipe of the day.

The local morning newspaper was available, yet as I reached for it my hand recoiled as distorted images of Rupert Murdock and Munch's "The Scream" flashed through my head.  Nor was it that my book bag was empty--far from it.  There was the usual jumble of old correspondence and papers--some bizarre mix of physics manuscripts and opinion pieces on politics both global and domestic.  There were books that I had recently consumed.  And there was my trusty copy of Znosko-Borovsky on the end game.  But my sweet tooth craved something new.

I ordered and took my customary corner table, jotted a note to replenish the book bag, steeling myself against the pending ordeal.  My coffee arrived shortly, delivered by the proprietress herself in the well worn large mug that they reserve for me.  Smiling, she pointed to the opposite corner and walked away.  I had suggested that they stock some books both for use and for ambiance.  Eureka!  They had!  I am saved!

Coffee in hand, I browsed the modest collection.  Depressingly sparse, yet one volume eventually caught my eye.  The dust jacket trumpeted the all too typical self-glorifying pap.  I rationalized--it was this or nothing.  How bad could it be for just one morning?  I returned to my table, coffee and book in hand.

********************
The Northern Lights
by Lucy Jago
Alfred A. Knopf, 297 pages (2001).
ISBN:  0-375-40980-7

********************

"The Northern Lights" is a biography of Kristian Birkeland (1867ñ1917), a somewhat obscure Norwegian scientist obsessed with understanding the aurora borealis.  Birkeland was the first to recognize that the auroral phenomena involve interactions of charged particles with the Earth's magnetic field, and that the source of those charged particles is the Sun through what we now call the solar wind.  He was also able to simulate certain of these effects in laboratory experiments that were at times ironically comical.

  Aurora bands over Quartz Lake State Park, Alaska, 6 September, 1996.  Credit:  Jan Curtis.

Our sojourn takes us from the grueling hardships of a winter (1899-1900) expedition in the northern-most mountains of Norway to the arid sands of North Africa.  Along the route we are witness to dismemberment and death, the vagaries of academic politics, the obscenities of the pursuit of funding, and unfulfilled longings for peer recognition.

If we cut away the human side of the story, we find an illustrative example of how science is done.  Casual and unsophisticated observations lead to the fundamental questions of What? and Why?  Some initial working hypothesis is developed and more quantitative and objective observations are made.  Those observations lead to refinements in the hypothesis that afford additional predictions that can be tested for consistency with direct observations.  And so the cycle of intellectual refinement and physical observation goes.  In favorable cases, such as this, the predictions can be further scrutinized under the highly controlled conditions of the laboratory.  The key element is the dynamical synergy of predictive hypothesis with observation and experiment.

  Birkeland and the terrella experiment.

Jago's background was that of producer of documentaries for Channel 4 and BBC television in the UK, and this background shows in her overly narrative writing.  Her brush strokes lack the subtlety and detail that afford real insight.  Those who have suffered the injustice of plagiarism, endured the scheming self-aggrandizement of a corporate charlatan, or witnessed serious injury in the laboratory--you will find no enlightenment here, only the stirrings of memories better left undisturbed.

For others, the saga of Kristian Birkeland may well offer a small window on what it is to be a scientist driven on a passionate quest.  Granted, his was a different era, yet the basics remain unchanged:  hard work, self-discipline, sacrifice.  Moreover, it helps expose the differences between the public and the private faces of science:  the polished lecture or paper reveals little of the efforts that went into its creation.  There is more of the labors of Sisyphus than of the flights of Daedalus and Icarus.   

Yet at singular, fleeting moments we dare risk to mimic Icarus--to soar in the exhilaration of knowing that we alone are the very first to understand!

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #6 on: November 02, 2009, 09:56:21 pm »
Book Review 6 by Waveney

Atoms, Stars and Nebulae
Lawrence H Aller (366 Pages - in third edition)
ISBN 0521310407 (paperback)



I bought this book many years ago (at Jodrell Bank), long before the Zoo.  It was my first serious Astrophysics book.  I have read it since then 4 or 5 times - it must be good, it is a rare book that gets to a second read.  It resides on the special bookshelf next to my computer, along with 3 other Astrophysics books (and computer manuals).

This book is good overview of the use of spectra in all forms of astronomy.  It covers stars, how they form and evolve (and what their spectra look like as the evolve).  It covers how the stellar atmospheres change with time, magnetic fields and temperature (and how this affects the spectra).  It covers nebulae hot and cold (and their spectra), Supernovae and their spectra, Galaxies and their spectra.

This is a very good grounding basic spectroscopy and the physics behind it.  There is a small amount of maths, but very little.  It is not a guide for interpreting the spectra we see on SDSS, but does gives a really good background read.

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #7 on: November 02, 2009, 09:59:03 pm »
Book Review 7 by Waveney

The Road to Galaxy Formation
William C Keel (Aka NGC3314) (262 pages in second edition)
ISBN: 978-3-540-72534-3



A book dedicated to Galaxies.    ;D

Galaxy types, clusters, large scale structure in the universe.  Galaxy distances, star formation, evolution, dynamics, merging, AGNs, the intergalactic medium, galaxy formation, quasars, Lyman alpha, galaxy formation and cosmology.  Lots of light reading.

The last chapter, is more about telescopology than galaxies - Billl's hobby of collecting photons from every telescope now and in the future.  But a fun wind down from the wonders of galaxies.

Maths - very little.

My copy was a gift from the Zooities and has an inscription from Bill.

I have read it twice so far...

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #8 on: November 18, 2009, 04:54:02 pm »
Book Review 8 by Caro

The City and the City

by China Miéville

Macmillan, 2009, 312 pages
ISBN 978-1-405-00017-8 HB


In the dark and crumbling city of Bezsel, a police inspector investigates the murder of a woman whose body has been found in a run-down housing estate. He begins to suspect that the woman has been murdered in another city, the prosperous and exotic Ul Qoma, and her body dumped in Bezsel.

As his investigation progresses, the strange relationship between these two cities is revealed: Bezsel and Ul Qoma occupy the same space. Each city has its own culture and laws and the people of each city do not ‘see’ the other city or those in it, although their buildings and lives overlap and sometimes collide. Unauthorised deliberate contact between the cities is forbidden. Any breach of this law is punished severely and instantly by the shadowy yet all-seeing enforcement agency known, oddly, as Breach.

So, two crimes have been committed: a murder and a breach that has inexplicably escaped the attention of Breach.

To continue his investigation, the inspector must cross the very peculiar border into Ul Qoma, a city he has lived in all his life but never seen.

I have read that China Miéville would prefer his writing to be described as ‘weird’, rather than sci-fi or fantasy. His previous adult novels have dealt with bizarre, fictional worlds; the world of The City and the City is real enough. This is a weird novel – part murder mystery, part allegory – and, according to the cover notes on my copy, ‘an existential thriller’. Whatever it is, I find it to be a strange and wonderful work, filled with interesting if slightly disturbing ideas. If nothing else, it pinpoints the way those who live in cities ‘unsee’ other people; surely an experience familiar to anyone who has travelled on the London Underground or its counterpart in any big city. City-dwellers live close together but have completely different lives; often they have never spoken to their neighbours and, if they recognise them on the street, they pretend not to see them.

For me, this book is about borders: physical and psychological. It is sometimes hard to tell which is which.

Alice

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Re: Book Reviews
« Reply #9 on: April 01, 2011, 03:19:56 pm »
Multiverse!

By EigenState

Yet again, here I sit at my local café.  Not a café really.  Not a coffee house either.  Certainly not by European standards.  More a coffee shop in that rude genre championed by Starbucks:  queues, paper cups, plastic pastries, and that quintessential obscenity the drive-up window.  Not a good quantum number in sight.  Despite these flaws, and neglecting the plebeian wall hangings in puce and lemon, I like the place.  Really I do.  Here the coffee is superb, and the young couple that own and operate the place are exceptional.  We are still negotiating my request for a blackboard and chalk, although I am not overly optimistic.  They are also more than tolerant of my curmudgeonly eccentricities.  Kudos to them!

So here I sit at my preferred table in the corner as far removed as possible--yet still too close--to the boisterous boors, baseball-capped churls, and indulgent mothers with their delinquent toddlers.  The remains of a large cappuccino cool within my personalized mug.  The crumbs of a scone adorn my plate.  Brian Greene sits upon my knee, transporting me to the fascinating realms of cosmology.

For me, Greene is a most welcome breakfast companion.  He is Professor of Mathematics, and of Physics at Columbia University in New York City, and Co-Director of the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics (ISCAP) at Columbia.  He is also the author of two previous successful books targeted at a general audience that discuss some very complex and highly non-intuitive aspects of physics, principally the history and essential features of Superstring Theory [1,2].

********************
The Hidden Reality:  Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
by Brian Greene
Alfred A. Knopf, 370 pages (2011).
ISBN:  978-0-307-26563-0

********************

"The Hidden Reality:  Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos" focuses on the concept of multiverses, or parallel universes.  Most of the discussion treats how multiverses emerge naturally from the mathematical foundations of different physical theories--be those well established or more speculative theoretical frameworks.  The Quilted Multiverse [3] emerges directly from the Friedmann and Lamaître solutions of Einstein's equations of General Relativity.  The Inflationary Multiverse emerges from Inflationary Cosmology.  Everett's analysis of Quantum Mechanics, in which the linearity of the Schrödinger Equation is retained through the act of measurement at the expense of the collapse of the wavefunction as in the Copenhagen interpretation, yields the Many Worlds Multiverse.  The more speculative String Theory leads to Brane Multiverses and collisions of branes to Cyclic Multiverses.  The combination of Inflationary Cosmology and String Theory with its extra Calabi-Yau dimensions (Fig. 1) affords the Landscape Multiverse via quantum tunneling (an established phenomenon).  The Holographic Multiverse emerges from basic thermodynamical considerations.  In each case, Greene provides the bare, background physical foundations that are immediately relevant to the discussions.

Criteria distinguishing the members of any given multiverse set are examined:  for example, the values of the fundamental physical constants differ from member to member; or the fundamental laws of physics themselves differ from member to member.  Greene also scrutinizes the predictions predicated upon the different multiverse models that can, in principle, be subjected to experimental or observational falsification.



Figure 1.  Image of a two-dimensional hypersurface of the quintic Calabi-Yau
three-fold courtesy of Jbourjai and Wikimedia Commons.


The reliance on physical theory is eventually abandoned leading to perhaps even more speculative ideas.  Advances in purely technological capabilities bring forth the possibility that our Universe is nothing more than a simulation being conducted by some higher intelligence.  And finally, purely philosophical considerations lead to the Ultimate Multiverse, in which the Principle of Fecundity, as advocated by Nozick [4], asserts that each and every possible set of mathematical equations corresponds to a potentially real Universe.

Quite clearly, Greene's target audience is yet again the interested layman.  Mathematics is rigorously avoided in the main text, and only provided in brief, yet enlightening supplemental discussions within the end notes.  Constructs are therefore built upon analogies presumably comprehensible within the limited domain of direct human experience.  While certainly understandable given the intended audience, the reliance upon analogies becomes quite tedious, particularly within the discussions of the Simulated and Ultimate Multiverses.  Yet worse were the frequent references to what are presumably popular culture characters, of which I am blissfully ignorant.  A reasonable bibliography of additional reading materials is also provided, although explicit connections between the textual material and the bibliographic citations are unfortunately lacking.

The final chapter, The Limits of Inquiry, is very interesting from the perspective of the potential impact of the existence of some multiverse on the philosophy of science.  If a multiverse of some kind does in fact exist, what are the logically compelling questions that we can ask regarding the nature of our very own Universe?  Does it make sense for us to attempt to explain the initial conditions within our own Universe?  Does it make sense for us to attempt to explain the values of the physical constants and intrinsic properties of the fundamental particles within our own Universe?  Does it make sense for us to attempt to explain the basic laws of physics within our own Universe?

There is much food for thought in this book, including one of the better treatments of the Anthropic Principle I have ever read.  Yes, the physics is both complex and speculative, but the conclusions are certainly intellectually stimulating.  For those who would bring an open mind and sound curiosity, I can recommend this work with only the most minor reservations.

Now if you will be so kind as to excuse me, I do need to queue up for another cappuccino.

References:

1.  The Elegant Universe:  superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory, by Brian Greene, W. W. Norton & Company (1999).  ISBN:  0-393-04688-5

2.  The Fabric of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf (2004).  ISBN:  0-375-41288-3

3.  Greene's nomenclature has been retained for consistency.

4.  Philosophical Explanations, by Robert Nozick, Harvard University Press (1983).  ISBN 0-674-66479-5