• The Science of Can and Can't

  • A Physicist's Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals
  • By: Chiara Marletto
  • Narrated by: Katharine Lee McEwan
  • Length: 7 hrs and 33 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (95 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A luminous guide to how the radical new science of counterfactuals can reveal that the scope of the universe is greater, and more beautiful, than we ever imagined

There is a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. They are central to the understanding of physical reality both at an everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics, yet have traditionally been assumed to be impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explanations. They are facts not about what is (the actual) but about what could be (counterfactuals).

According to physicist Chiara Marletto, laws about things being possible or impossible may generate an alternative way of providing explanations. This fascinating, far-reaching approach holds promise for revolutionizing the way fundamental physics is formulated and for providing essential tools to face existing technological challenges - from delivering the next generation of information-processing devices beyond the universal quantum computer to designing AIs. 

Each chapter in the book delineates how an existing vexed open problem in science can be solved by this radically different approach and it is augmented by short fictional stories that explicate the main point of the chapter. As Marletto demonstrates, contemplating what is possible can give us a more complete and hopeful picture of the physical world. 

©2021 Chiara Marletto (P)2021 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

“Marletto's call to probe counterfactuals is novel and interesting.... Replete with stories from classical Greek mythology and examples of ideas drawn from biology and physics, The Science of Can and Can't is worth delving into.” (Wall Street Journal)

“[A] revolutionary recasting of physics.... Marletto’s contributions to ‘constructor theory’ reconcile what we think of as physical laws with the open-ended possibilities thrown up by biology and information theory. It is a paradigm that, for all its rigor, re-enchants the world and enriches our place in it.” (New Scientist

“[A] cerebral yet intellectually satisfying journey with a simple description of the two kinds of counterfactuals in physics.... Marletto’s style resembles a frank conversation with the reader. Sophisticated concepts in physics, like information and knowledge, are explained using clear analogies to everyday life.” (Booklist

What listeners say about The Science of Can and Can't

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Was Hoping for Depth

I was hoping for the profound but instead got a puddle.

I confess I didn't get past the first chapter. Perhaps the book improves but given the surprising lack of thought in the opening pages, I saw little promise in going forward. If a scientist, from whom one should expect careful thought, presents such haphazard reasoning right from the start, what surety is there that things will improve?

Here is the first example: in chapter one, Marletto introduces the concept of "resilience." In a universe where entropy rules, there are things that resist decay. These are at least temporarily "resilient." To illustrate, he compares DNA to a rock. DNA has essentially remained unchanged for billions of years. Rocks erode. Ergo rocks aren't resilient, DNA is. However, DNA is a constituent part of a greater whole. Rocks are a greater whole of constituent parts. Okay, this is a minor point. But wouldn't it have been more consistent to say the components of a rock, the iron, the granite, etc. are unchanged over billions of years, but rocks erode? The DNA/rock illustration is just sloppy.

Secondly, Marletto presents a theory as fact and then bases his theory on this "fact." This is not science. It is belief. He states emphatically, "there is no (ultimate) designer." Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. I don't claim to know. Regardless, you can't prove a negative. You and I might agree that there is/is not designer, that the preponderance of evidence leans overwhelmingly in one direction or the other. However, this is still belief. Far better would have been if Marletto had simply ignored this "belief" and proceeded with his theory. Instead, he begins with sloppy thinking which portends little hope of improvement.

6 people found this helpful

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Catchy Concept But Not Well Described

The Science of Can and Can't by Chiara Marletto received great press when it was first released and I had high expectations for this book. However, I felt the author was unsure who her audience was. Was it the physical science community or the educated by non-technically schooled public?

As scientifically educated but not in the physical sciences, I found that her explanation of counter-factuals, the point of the book, to be opaque and at the same time overly general. Her attempts to use metaphors from the biological sciences were not drawn from current understandings.

I was disappointed in this book and can not recommend it for those of us who are looking for a better understanding of the physical world.

2 people found this helpful

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an interesting concept, diluted beyond repair

I was thrilled to listen to this book: the glowing reviews, the mention at the WSJ. And I did listen to 3/4 of it, until giving up. The mish-mash of disconnected stories just killed my interest, despite believing the topic is interesting and in the forefront of physics research.

2 people found this helpful

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Foundational philosophy for modern science.

Constructor theory is really ambitious, it seeks to create a unified narrative that gets us beyond mind body duality, and wrap up biological, quantum, computational and mental pictures the world into a single physical framework. I have no doubt that this is the future, and people in the 23rd and 22nd centuries will discuss things in these terms laid out in this book. Also I think what she has done will be part of that. However, the author works too hard to present a pretty picture without error, and so necessarily doesn't offer the listener as much diving in as we would like.
The book is pretty, it has this traditional Japanese feel, of powerful simple expressions and artistic stories alongside. But as important as this topic is and as brilliant as I feel the author is, I wish she would have thrown out on the pages more of the gory mess that a subject this young must exist in, not be afraid to make a fool of herself asking more questions and presenting quandaries. The theory is a baby giant, there are going to be messes that need to be cleaned up.
Still, I recommend reading, the ultimate subject is awesome.

2 people found this helpful

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Great book!

The Science of Can and Can’t is enjoyable to listen to and may prove to be important to the world as a metaphorical torch through the dark and narrow tunnels that many fields of science seem to be stymied. I highly recommend this book and suggest that you may want to listen to The Beginning of Infinity first. Regardless of your impression of that earlier book, I think all scientists should read this book.

1 person found this helpful

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Interesting introduction to science of counterfactuals

Very good attempt at explaining in simple language an abstract topic. In my own experience of teaching science and in particular the concept of information, I’ve struggled to find simple satisfying explanation. Dr Marletto has hit the mark I think here.
The book opens up a lot of topics to follow up on in modern science and especially the science of knowledge and creativity. She discusses the possibility of exploration of these ideas without resorting to references to dualistic and subjective ideas.
I highly recommend this book. But take the time to understand the concepts and definitions as you take the journey

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  • VL
  • 06-29-22

drone performance

Narrator voice and style was too drone like. Inflections of intonation help to keep the listening active instead of falling into a lull.

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Why are good readings so rare?

The book introduces some important new ideas that are well worth listening to, but the voice reading these ideas is so monotonous as to induce either sleep or nausea, depending on your level of interest. A purely computer-generated voice of the same timbre, quality and accent would be easier to listen to than this. At least then one wouldn’t expect it to have some comprehension of the words it is voicing.