Popular Science and the Blimey Effect

Every so often, after a period of sinking into literary fiction, I suddenly feel a strange urge for some refreshing science reading. Indeed the cornerstones of my private library – the first books I’ve ever bought for myself, sometime around middle-school – are of the popular mathematics genre. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (William Poundstone) and The Code Book (Simon Singh) really are two of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read, respectively concerning Game Theory and the history of code cracking. Later came some mathematician biographies, and soon I turned my interest towards fiction. Some years later, upon considering what it is I wish to study for my B.A., I went back to the non-fiction shelves, this time reading about language, neurology and society (I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language) and later popular psychology, evolutionary psychology and psychiatry (if you want to be astounded by just how weird our brains are, read anything by Oliver Sacks. Then put the book down and go: “wow.” Then read the rest of his books). Soon after that I started my studies at the university, not surprisingly in the faculty of humanities, and have been knee deep in fictional characters and plots ever since. And then, suddenly – not two weeks ago – I suddenly felt like reading something radically different.

It started, perhaps logically, with biology – a topic which I encounter every once in a while in my studies. More accurately, it started with evolution. Since Charles Darwin has been dead for quite some time now, he can hardly defend his work himself. The scientist who is currently doing most of the work in the field of popularizing Darwinism is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is somewhat of a hero of mine; not only for what he says but also because of the way he says it (oh how girlish of me). Dawkins goes well beyond explaining evolution and far into promoting it – and scientific teaching – and rational atheism – all issues which I find important. Sadly, in his work against organized religion he sometimes looks like a modern Don

Richard Dawkins preaching to the choir, it would seem

Quixote*, full of good intentions but fighting against an indestructible force. (I should point out that only some people see him that way: a frighteningly large amount of people see him as the devil). As I was saying, it’s not only about the content but also about the presentation. Dawkins is a very gifted writer with a rich and poetic language, and more importantly, with seemingly endless patience. I’m ever amazed by the way he argues his point of view in various televised interviews. Sitting in front of him is usually a creationist or another, whose words are soaked with hatred and contempt. But Dawkins never loses his cool: he waits patiently for his turn, and then presents his side ever so politely. It’s inspiring just how NICE he is. The books I’ve been reading of his lately are The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, and I’m awaiting the arrival of The Greatest Show on Earth (how I love online shopping!). I can’t say I was converted by his work – simply because I was on the same side to begin with, long before I knew these books existed. Still, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Well written, concise, humorous and all in all a great read.  Be warned that reading and watching Dawkins begins to repeat itself after a while; but until that happens, there’s a lot to enjoy.

The next step, having realized that the beauty of evolution lies in its simplicity, was to search for the opposite: something so terribly complex that would provide a challenge in the very attempt to understand what the hell is being said. The most complex thing I could think of was modern physics. Unfortunately, it was even more complicated then I had thought, and I am forced to admit that I just couldn’t get through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, despite it being a classic and considered very easy and light. Therefore I had to result to… documentaries. Blasphemy, I know. This is a blog about the written word! Well, you know what? Someone wrote down the scripts for those documentaries, and did it very well. (Also, some of them are based on books, if that helps at all). I watched the very informative The Fabric of the Cosmos, a four-part series based on the similarly named book by physicist Dr. Brian Greene, who also presents the program. This fun (I’m not being sarcastic) show goes from Einstein’s time-space continuum and black holes through quantum mechanics and string theory, and even discusses the notion of multiverse, which is how I discovered the the “Family Guy” episode on that subject wasn’t kidding. It sounds heavy but it is explained very well, with plenty of demonstrations, jokes and special effects. Sometimes even too many, I admit (upon demonstrating time-travel: “I’ll see you later Mr. Greene…” -“Yes… A lot later!” Oh, come on). But still, a great intro to a subject which should be looked into by anyone with the slightest interest in the deepest reality of our world. Personally, I find modern physics extremely hard to grasp. It’s not the numbers and calculations that bother me – well, those too, but they can easily be avoided by just not dwelling on them – but how radically different the ideas are from our daily perceived reality. The most disturbing

The Multidimensional String Theory

part of quantum mechanics is that the information is all pointing to the randomness and instability of life at its most basic part(icle)s. I have a sort of gut feeling that things are not really random, and in fact they have a very strict order – it’s just one the we haven’t yet been able to wrap our heads around. Then again, you are listening to a student of literature, so what the hell do I know. It is also worthwhile asking whether my inclination to expect a final straightforward solution is the most human reaction there is, and whether the reason that quantum mechanics is so hard to grasp is that it defies exactly that human kind of thinking. The humanities-oriented thinker in me cannot help but think about it in these terms. What does this uncertain and uncomfortable view of nature do to us as people? Learning that we exist only as a (luckily conscious) byproduct of evolution is bad enough for our sense of meaning. Now this too? The cold reality of science is difficult to take in. Personally I find that rather than being depressing, this view of the world is wonderfully freeing. If no greater purpose exists, and my actions do not have a “grander-scheme-of-things” meaning, then I am free to produce meaning myself. I have no higher power to impress and I am completely free to do whatever I want (within reasonable humanistic values, such as never hurt anyone if you can avoid it). But that’s just me; I can definitely see how heartbreaking such realizations can be at first. As for this chaos that quantum mechanics seems to be providing: I have not yet been convinced that behind the atom – behind the electrons – behind the strings – there is no logical set of rules that puts it all together. It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of world, when I see how well the real world stays within its known set of rules (Newtonian laws etc). But I’m still waiting to be proven wrong. Either way it’s all fascinating and mind-blowing like nothing else I’ve ever read (OK, OK, like nothing else I’ve ever watched a documentary about). Here’s another great documentary – only one part long – precisely about how modern math and physics defy our human need for order, and how it is all linked to the great social and emotional turmoil of the 20th century: High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos. Enjoy!

 

* He is like Don Quixote in the sense of fighting a battle you have very little chance of winning, not of hallucinating enemies and being overall a bit pityfull. Just making my stand clear, if it wasn’t so already when I used the word hero.

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Recent Readings: A Sweet-Talking Murderer and a Perfect England

On the one hand, I hate classicistic snobbery. “Oh, nothing good has been written since Austen”, or, “modern art will never compare with Caravaggio” (or whatever). On the other hand, there’s something very convenient about sticking to the canon. Works that survived the test of time – at least according to critic such-and-such – you rarely go wrong with. The average bookstore display, stacked with all the latest titles, has, just like anything else in life: a few masterpieces, several complete time-wasters, and mostly a lot of mediocrity.  So much that is written is just Okay. You pick it up, you read it, and you conclude that it was fine.  And how could you have possibly known it wouldn’t be? Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20. That – and mandatory reading for class – is the reason I don’t get to read a lot of new fiction. Truth be told, I spend quite a lot of time reading ‘for myself’, i.e. not for an upcoming paper; still, I tend to go for the safe choice (though looking back I see that it is hardly reflected that way in the blog). Except recently I chanced on a couple of those dangerously new books, and they completely and utterly restored my faith in the contemporary novel. Coincidentally, both books were shortlisted for a Man Booker prize, and both authors won one for another book of theirs. Also, both authors’ last names begin with a B. (Side note: I was going to write: “…dangerously new books – fresh from the print!” or something like that when I realized that 1989 and 1998 are not as recent as I think. How is it 2012 already? I feel like I’ve overslept!)

The first book is John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. It is basically one long monologue from the mouth of Freddie Montgomery, standing on trial for murder and theft: he had killed a maid who happened to catch him in the act of stealing a painting from a neighbor’s house. The painting used to belong to his own family, you see, until his mother sold it without realizing its value to Freddie. The plot is foreseeable in that he tells you from the beginning what is about to happen; it is a book to be read not for the mystery of the murder but for the mystery of the strange calmness and detachment of its thief-and-murderer narrator, a fascinatingly amoral being. The Books of Evidencehas a heavy literary

A worthy use for a book if there ever was. Banville

background, which is something I always love thinking about. The first reference that came to my mind is to Nabokov’s Lolita – the narrator, being an all around Bad Person (so to speak) is extremely charming and clever, and you cannot help but liking him. He never for a second denies his actions or their severity and yet… An interesting addition here, though, is the strong sense of vagueness and detachment. The murder itself is an almost dissociative episode. He remembers it to detail but doesn’t feel like he was actually there. It’s a very interesting – and quite convincing, to be honest – point of view to take. It also made me think of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, who’s protagonist stars at the reader with similarly empty eyes. Evidence has, too, a strong mother-issue, just like The Stranger. Then there’s the inevitable reminiscence of Crime and Punishment (except in size, thank god). For both Banville and Dostoyevsky’s texts, the material motive for the murder is so important and yet so unimportant at the same time. Freddie, just like Raskolnikov, gets rid of the plunder by drowning it. But the feeling that you get from this book is different. Again, this detachment – it gives the whole story a very strange atmosphere, a dream-like state. Freddie mentions towards the end of the novel that blurry feeling that everyone gets in prison. He calls it a defense – drowsiness that allows him to sink into numbness. Since the narration is from within the prison cell – after the murder – it is impossible to tell whether that drowsiness is what makes the narration so detached or an innate quality of the protagonist, who’s just a run of the mill psychopath. There are several smaller references that came to my mind which I have decided to spare from you, seeing as how this post is starting to turn into a name-dropping pageant. The bottom line: it’s a superbly written book, with great psychological depth, which is busy with very intelligent questions of meaning (there’s hardly any), morality (seems to be pointless) and on occasion, true emotion (but even then, directed to nature, not people).

Another book I picked up recently from the B shelf is Julian Barnes’ England, England. I’ve only just started it so I can’t say much about the plot, or about anything really. But I was so taken with the beginning that I felt I just couldn’t NOT write about it. Already in the first 30 pages Barnes makes so many beautiful insights about memory and perception. About how untrue and tainted our memories are, how shaped by the events that since happened to us. About sticking religiously to meaningful moments from our childhood. About how much it hurts when we find out that a parent doesn’t even remember that event, though he took crucial part in it. About our tendancy to make symbols out of everything all around us, and about how maybe that’s good for us. In one especially endearing moment, we are told about the puzzle the protagonist used to play with as a child, piecing together the different counties of England, and always having one middle piece empty – hidden by her father in their usual game. “What was Staffordshire doing in his pant pocket?”. After the existential heaviness of The Book of Evidence, how nice it is to be back in childhood (albeit someone else’s). The process of sobering is painful (said father leaves her and mother; when she meets him, years later, he has no recollection of the puzzle whatsoever, and instead he goes on and on about his son from his new family), but the telling of those early memories is just so, so sweet. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Primo Levi and the Elements of Literature

1. Neon.
I’ve always been ambivalent towards Holocaust writings. As a kid I learnt a lot in school about the Holocaust and WWII; indeed I feel that it has a prominent place in culture still today, almost 80 years after it took place, whether you have a personal and family connections to it or not. I think the reason lies in its uniqueness. No, the Nazis did not invent genocide, and neither was Hitler a pioneer in the field of racism; and yet the unparalleled magnitude – the cold-hearted execution of the ideology – the sheer evilness – has no match in human history. That’s why movies are still being made and watched and books are still being written and read about it. Nazism’s specific style of evil is so pure that it makes the subject of the Holocaust somehow very readable and easy to connect to. It’s human suffering at its extreme, and nothing could be more emotional.
Which is exactly the cause for my ambivalence. I am automatically suspicious of anything that makes people so emotional, and in this case so emotional so easily. Make no mistake: I strongly support the notion that discussing the Holocaust is of great human importance, that there are endless lessons to be learned, and that sharing one’s story as a survivor is an amazing way to deal with one’s experience. At the same time, sometimes there’s something almost ‘too easy’ about it. You are guaranteed an emotional turmoil without any effort on your side as a reader. What’s more, our automatic classification of Holocaust writers as nothing but that assigned role leaves little room to appreciate the writing itself. That is not to say that books about the Holocaust are bad – not at all – just that even when they are excellent, it is sometimes hard to see past their classification and understand the other qualities of the text.
2. Helium
Primo Levi had first hand experience with the Holocaust. He was in Auschwitz for eleven months during 1944. He went on to write several books on the subject, most notably If This is a Man, which is indeed a very well written book with a very deep discussion of the human (or rather, inhuman) condition. Here’s what I like about Levi: his strong insistence on being more than just a Holocaust survivor, or a Holocaust writer. In the way he describes himself, he is first and foremost a chemist. His most famous book, The Periodic Table, is an autobiography told through elements of Mendeleev’s chart, each chosen element relating to a different part of his life: from childhood, school, studies of chemistry – and then, suddenly, adulthood and the financial difficulties of post-war Italy. The story skips entirely his time in Auschwitz without so much as a reference. Description of his life as a Jewish man in Italy are vast: the difficulty of finding work, the need to remain below radar… There is also a brief retrospect of life as a prisoner, when he encounters by chance a familiar (German) name from the camp. But where is “the big H” itself? For first time Levi readers this might sound like the second-generation syndrome: growing up with parents who went through the Holocaust meant, for many people, not uttering a single word about it. A complete silence from mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts who were so traumatized and scarred that they could not even bring themselves to explain their feelings to their confused children. However, this is not the case with Primo Levi. He has told his story many times and in great detail, and is in no way being scared into silence in the matter. Instead, it is a brave statement: there is more in me than a Holocaust survivor. It represents a strong need for individualism – ever present in us as people, and even more so for those who were classified to death, quite literally. And so, besides enjoying the book for its language and storytelling, I feel I must firstly acknowledge this creative choice.
3. Oxygen
Every chapter in The Periodic Table is named after a certain element, which connects to the chapter’s theme; sometimes in straightforward ways (“Nickel”: “The final data was written in fire on the slide rule: 6% Nickel”) and sometimes in deeper, more philosophical ways (“Argon”, literally meaning inactive: “The little I know about my ancestors draws them near to these [noble/inactive] gases”) . But chemistry is not only in the names; it is all around. Levi sees and responds to the world through his fascination with chemistry and his belief that it is the best tool at our disposal for understanding life and reaching the Ultimate Truth. Levi’s is a very poetic

A beautiful Italian version of "The Periodic Table"

interpretation of a scientific process, one which brings back the romantic notions of learning which society held before this modern cost-and-effect ideology killed our curiosity. It is science for the sake of science, which happens to correspond very well with my annoyingly childish and naive world view. Personally I am more into the humanities and the liberal arts, but any learning for the sake of learning is to be admired in my eyes. True, we need income, we need economy and profit-makers, we need money (as a student I know that only too well! there is no money to be made with my upcoming diploma). But if we want to stay human, if we want to stay mentally alive, we need learners too. And we could definitly use more people that can say things like “there is beauty in distillation […] it involves metamorphosis: from liquid to (invisible) fume, and back to liquid; but in this double journey, upwards and downwards, we achieve purity, a charming, ambiguous state […] you produce out of an imperfect matter its essence, its spirit” (“Potassium”).

Well. Who knew I was this sentimental?

Shouts & Murmurs (And The Non-Fictional Life)

I’m in the mood for non-fiction today. (I wonder if that says anything about my upcoming year). The blogwise advantage of discussing nonfiction pieces is that I can link them here in full, thus making the blogging experiences that much more communal, which is apparently what everyone is striving for these past few days, if to judge by the amount of posts about co-reading challenges. Incidentally, the other popular headline these days is “books I’ve bought/read/used as a doorstop in 2011”, which only goes to show how much of an order-freak we all really are. Lists galore.

New Yorker cover. Inside: J. Franzen waiting to tell you all about Masafuera

Here’s a nice piece of nonfic writing to get us started: an essay (“reflection”) by Jonathan Franzen, called “Farther Away: “Robinson Crusoe”, David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude”, published in the New Yorker in April 2011. It’s a tad long – well, let’s face it, it’s a lot long – but definitely worth it. I’ve shared my fondness of Franzen before; his characters are always very round and interesting. Well, this time there are no characters, just musings on the time he went to the south-pacific island called Masafuera, where Robinson Crusoe takes place, to mourn the death of his close friend and famous writer in his own right, David Foster Wallace. The piece is well-written and certainly brings up important thoughts on Foster Wallace’s suicide. I did, however, have a problem with Franzen’s description of him. Somewhere in the middle Franzen complains about how “people who had never read [Wallace’s] fiction, or had never even heard of him, read his Kenyon College commencement address in the Wall Street Journal and mourned the loss of a great and gentle soul”. This, I had thought, was the beginning of a very candid and poignant observation of our constant need to idealize the dead (would Cobain, Lennon or James Dean be the symbols they are today had they lived to see 60?). Instead, Franzen seems to have fallen into his own trap, describing his personality as “more complex and dubious than he was getting credit for, […] more lovable—funnier, sillier, needier, more poignantly at war with his demons, more lost, more childishly transparent in his lies and inconsistencies”. I mean, this might very well be a very accurate description of the man – I wouldn’t know – but this whole thing about ‘being at war with your demons’ etc. reads very romantic to me. Oh, the poetic soul, and so on. Not that I have a more fitting adjective to suggest; I guess my point is that every attempt to describe someone with a list of adjectives is doomed to fail. Franzen then goes back to share his insight, which turns out to be authentic and personal after all: ” …still [ it was] hard not to feel wounded by the part of him that had chosen the adulation of strangers over the love of the people closest to him.”

Staying with the New Yorker, but moving to the funnier ha-ha rather than the funnier hmmm, wait, no, I don’t think that was meant as a joke, here are a couple of pieces by Andy Borowitz. “Alarm Bells” is a useful guide to first dates you should steer clear of. “New Year’s Resolutions, Seven Months Later” is somewhat older (2004) but feels super relevant today of all days. Though it’s hilarious any day, to be sure. Also, look what a great cover that issue had:

I was going to discuss some poetry too but I think I’ll save it for another day and stick to articles for now. Here’s a cute list from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, just so it wouldn’t look like I go exclusively to the New Yorker to get my giggles on: “Famous Opening Lines from Novels Updated to the Modern Age.” by Sean Ryan. Personal favorite: “Call me Ishmael_65”.