Blasphemy by Douglas Preston

blasphemyI have just finished reading this novel that was released a couple of years back. It is Donald Knuth’s favourite science vs religion book, and that’s really the reason that I decided to read it.

In the book, twelve scientists set out to work with the largest supercollider ever built, Isabella, to recreate the events a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The scientists are lead by Gregory North Hazelius, a genius, who has won both a Nobel and a Fields medal! Reverend Don Spates, a powerful Christian televangelist, is the central antagonist who will do anything to stop the project, which he thinks, is an attempt by secular humanists to disprove Genesis. What the scientists encounter during their work is something they cannot tell the world, so they pretend the project is having problems. Wyman Ford, ex-CIA, is hired by the US government to figure out what is going on in Isabella.

So much for back cover material.

The book is a racy, sci-fi thriller, and is likely to be enjoyed by the science/technology enthusiast, the thinking believer and the thinking non-believer.

The book is pretty cynical in its attitude towards religion, showing what Christian fundamentalism is capable of in the 21st century. The character pictures are reasonably detailed, but some scientists are portrayed as in media stereotypes: the mathematician is mostly aloof and has weird hobbies (pet rattlesnakes), the programmer is filthy, unkempt and ill-mannered. The book is fast paced, giving the impression of a racy movie with rapidly moving short scenes. This really put me in a frenzy, reading at a feverish pace.

*** Spoilers Ahead! ***

Scientists are by nature sceptical; the more brilliant they are, the more this is true. The scientists in the book are faced with a malware program in Isabella that purports to be God. The scientists end up believing that God is talking to them via a singularity produced by the supercollider. The whole thing turns out to be an elaborate hoax, a brainchild of the brilliant Hazelius, who attempts to start a new religion in which people are to worship science. To me, the shallowest part of this tale, is the AI program written by Hazelius, the malware in Isabella, that convinces the scientists that it is God. The story hinges crucially on this particular event.

Using AI is one of the most commonest ways to spin-off a sci-fi novel, and has been done repeatedly. However, the portrayal in this book is pretty bad. The AI program manages to throw off a mathematician, using philosophical arguments. I find it intensely unbelievable that an AI program, however good can do this, especially in the time of the events of the book. The program is written in LISP and its author, Hazelius, towards the end, claims that it performed beyond its specs. This is a rather conspicuously bad attempt by the author to make the AI program believable. Gregory Hazelius is described a genius of mathematics and physics, but AI too?!

Despite this weak point, the book paints a good picture of how Christian fundamentalism can be easily be used to incite people to violence and unthinking slaughter. It certainly illustrates the quote, “for a good person to do bad things, it takes religion”.

The main character of the story Hazelius tries to start a religion in the name of science because he believes that religion is required for people and so it would be futile to try to destroy religion with science. In the new religion, (which is incidentally, quite different in many aspects from Scientology!) people are to worship “the search for the truth”. In this way, Hazelius hopes to help the future of the human race, by putting it on the path of science. However, it is still based on a false god, and should be considered as intellectual treason. It is better to help people grow out of religion rather than to reinforce it in this way.


4 Responses to “Blasphemy by Douglas Preston”

  1. 1 Dave Cohn
    July 2, 2010 at 1:59 am

    Yeah the AI in Blasphemy was weak. I liked the book, though – except for my standard D. Preston complaint: the characters always do whatever will increase tension, regardless of how he’s constructed them. It annoys me.

    You should scope out “The God Patent” by Ransom Stephens, he does a much better job with AI, builds it on neural nets (I write code for a living, btw) and has a much better grasp of the science than Preston did.

  2. July 2, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks Dave for the comment. It was my first Preston book, so I see from your comment that the racy-ness is something he builds into all his works.

    I scoped out “The God Patent”, and seems worth reading. The author _is_ a physicist, so I guess the science in it will be better. But the online version can’t be bought from scribd yet because their store is available only for US residents! So looks like I’ll have to wait.

  3. July 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I don’t know the story but I appreciate this, the thinking believer and the thinking non-believer !

  4. July 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    Dunno why, but it reminds me of CONTACT, the film.

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