Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Blurbs

Well, mostly placeholders to remind me that I read these when I look back on the year. All three will be cited in my lecture, I'll tell you that.

Echoes of Life: A book on biomarkers and geology that tries to tell the personal stories behind the scientific stories but is too technical for the normal reader. Which is too bad, because this is fascinating stuff and great examples of chemical reasoning. The problem is the author is a novelist who used to be a grad student in the area. So while it's well written and precisely written, it is not clearly written. Nonetheless it is the perfect book for me at this point, I just hope it sells more than the one copy I got through interlibrary loan ...

State of the University by Stanley Hauerwas: I think I can actually "read" Hauerwas in real time now. Always challenging, and now I'm beginning to see the solid Scriptural basis to many of his arguments I have a harder time disagreeing with him. Reminds me of Scott -- WWSD? And once in a while laugh out loud funny. That reminds me of Scott too.

The third book deserves a "real" review post of its own, it's that important. More on that to come.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Weter Lecture Announced

Click here for the Weter Lecture announcement, proof that yes, this will really happen, February 2, no less. A short synopsis follows. I've been reading, reading, reading, and have found that C.S. Lewis and Stanley Hauerwas are always good at giving me both quotes and things to ponder.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Quick Thought on Infinity for the Day

(From Richard Swinburne's talk at Oxford last June:)

One of the primary reasons scientific atheists are just that (atheists) is that they believe that God is an extra, needless layer on complexity overlaid on the natural order. But in some ways they need to brush up on their philosophy, because they're combining categories. Instead of allowing a God with infinite power, they postulate infinite universes in the form of the multiverse (or something else like that). The problem with this is that infinite power is simple, but infinite universes are complex. Power is filling to a maximum of ability or possibility, but universes are additive in their complexity. This kind of philosophy is why you can say things like God is the simplest kind of "person" there could be. In some ways, infinity is simplicity, if the infinite being is very much "other." If you're reaching infinity by just multiplying the current universe by infinity, that is the truly needlessly complex thing!

Let me quote the question Swinburne started his lecture with:
Q: What do we have that God does not?

Give up yet? It's a related topic ...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Book Review: The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006

Yes, this is one of those anthologies, but I think of it as having a friend who reads a lot of magazines tell you which articles she liked best. Somewhere since 2000 they changed the adjective from "Christian" to "Spiritual," but 75% of the writing is still Christian or general theistic. A few short essays deal with Buddhism or the Norse Gods, and one detailed story describes a traveler in present-day Afghanstan going to the place where the two huge Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Malcolm Gladwell describes Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. John Updike has a haunting poem about the Cathedral at Rheims. I got a few pages here and there to use in my Weter Lecture, and a list of rules given to those who paint icons for "how" to paint. I'm going to put that up next to my desk for when I write.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review: Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun

I was wondering a few things as I sat watching the 18 or so hours of The Ring Cycle recently. I was wondering what the source material was for these stories of heroes, dragons, fallen goddess brides, and betrayals, what Wagner had changed from it, and what someone else with a different worldview would make of that. Especially someone with a passion for Norse legends and a knack for storytelling, say, J.R.R. Tolkien. I'd love to have some of Tolkien's lectures on these stories. Maybe even a translation where he puts everything together.

As I was wondering that, this book was sitting on my shelf. I knew it was some of these things, but in actuality it was all of them.

It was also very dense reading. You have to see it to believe it. Most lines on the page only have four words, and so each page is a column of text with white space on either side. Don't be fooled: every word counts, more so than anything I have ever read. This writing is the neutron star of density. Tolkien follows the Old Norse poetic style of matching up the beginnings of words rather than their ending and is very good at following it.

I liked Seamus Heaney's Beowulf. But I think I actually like these poems more. Tolkien describes the source poetry as "flashes of lightning" and I think he captures lightning in a bottle here.

Just like the Ring Cycle, it's not easy going, but it's very rich and rewarding.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Using Music to Run Your Scientific Instrument

This is a neat one. Many scientific instruments have a complicated setup to move liquid through tangled channels. After all, your house has all these pipes to move water around, most instruments are like that on a small scale. The trick is how to push the water around those complicated paths in the way you choose, on such a small scale. So far the most useful solution has been to make the "floor" of the pipes with rubber and run little air hoses up to the floor, and when you want to close off a pipe, you send air pressure down that hose. It works OK but has it limitations, especially because it's hard to make an instrument smaller than, say, a washing machine with this setup.

So, what if instead of air, you could use music? The idea is to use different tones to move the droplets around the pipes. Say, pipe 1 responds to C natural, pipe 2 responds to E and pipe 3 responds to G. Play a G and the drop will move in pipe 3 only. It's not clear yet to me, but I think you may be able to use chords too. The cool thing about chords is you can superimpose notes and send them across the whole setup, and transmit complicated information that way.

This may allow many scientific instruments to be as small as a handheld, like a Star Trek tricorder. An iPhone that you sneeze into, it moves the drops around and analyzes them to tell you if you have the flu. And they will literally run on music. No word on if the iTunes software will be required.

Click here for a press release with a video of drops of water moving around to the U of Michigan fight song.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Still Ringing in the Ears

Since last Saturday night I have watched a grand total of 2.5+4.5+5+5.5 = 17.5 hours of opera. This was my third time seeing Wagner's Ring Cycle, and my first since finding a complete box set of the operas on LP at the Library Book Sale (for $4!!!!). It gets better each time, and rewards the effort put into it. Not only am I beginning to identify the major musical motifs Wagner uses for different characters or emotions, but I'm also connecting the dots between this and Tolkien (and, a little less, C.S. Lewis and Neil Gaiman). Tolkien's curt dismissal of Wagner's work is often quoted ("Both rings were round and there the resemblance ends" or something like that). But there is an important way in which Tolkien's work is a direct repudiation of Wagner's, each a collection of four stories based on Norse myth. Tolkien writes during World War II and sees a Germany saturated in Wagner's myth, to the point that Hitler killed himself while listening to Gotterdamerung and his death was announced with Siegfried's Funeral March. The importance of pity, and not killing, and not being strong, is perhaps THE underlying theme of Tolkien, and it stands in direct opposition to Wagner's need to end with basically killing everyone.

Yet there is a lot of beauty and genuine emotion expressed in Wagner better than anywhere else. It helps me that C.S. Lewis liked Wagner quite a bit! What's funny is how, as a parent, you project a bit onto what's going on for the sake of your children rather than yourself. And there is a lot of parent-child emotion in The Ring, that's one of the reasons it's better than, say, Tristan und Isolde or Wagner's usual focus on just the romance.

Another interesting connection is, if Tolkien was reacting to Wagner, my favored author Tad Williams was reacting to Tolkien! So things continue ... who will react to Williams?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Parables and Protein Crystallography

[picture link]

To find the structure of a protein, once you purify and stack it up in an ordered crystal, you shoot X-rays through it. X-rays are important because they are spaced the right distance apart that they interact with the electron clouds in the protein. The electrons cause the X-rays to shift and coalesce into discrete points on the other side. By measuring the intensity of the X-rays at each point you can mathematically reconstruct the shape of the electron cloud. The interesting thing about this is that every point in the X-ray pattern contains information about the whole electron cloud, but you have to take tens of thousands of points together to be able to figure out the exact shape of the electron cloud (and therefore of the protein).

So look at that X-ray pattern above. Each point contains information about the entire protein. But you'll get nowhere if you try to draw a protein based on one, or even a few, points. What you'll get will be too fuzzy. The more points you collect the sharper in focus your picture will become.

It's the same way with the parables told by Jesus about the Kingdom of God. Each is a point: a picture, with a lot more texture than the points above, but still, just one picture. To see the Kingdom of God through these parables, you need to take them all together and somehow integrate them (this is the work of the Spirit). By looking at all the parables at once, suddenly the Kingdom of God comes into bright focus. It is a mustard seed, and a pearl, and a woman who finds her quarter. It is all these things and more. The more your thinking is shaped by these stories the more the Kingdom of God will structure your very thoughts.

The Wondrous Spleen

Nice article in the New York Times today about the spleen. It's one of those organs that we didn't know what it was used for, so we assumed it wasn't that important. We just didn't know what it did. It turns out that a specific immune cell type (monocytes) hangs out in the spleen, ready to be injected into the bloodstream and go help out where there's sudden damage, like in a heart attack. The spleen is a staging ground for a "standing army" of monocytes.

Here's a great quote:
“Often, if you come across something in the body that seems like a big deal, you think, ‘Why didn’t anybody check this before?’ ” Dr. Nahrendorf said. “But the more you learn, the more you realize that we’re just scratching on the surface of life. We don’t know the whole story about anything.”

Good news for those of us who scratch that surface for a living!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Book Review: Ender's Shadow

This was a good airplane book. Laurie bought it for our trip to New Mexico (I think) and I took it along on my recent trip to Boston. Basically it retells the story of the classic Ender's Game from another perspective, and the story is retold by an author who's now more than a decade older and has some differences in the way he views the world. A few observations: No one does "ruthless" like Card does; at the same time, it's nice to have several characters who maintain their faith in Card's future world, for example, the book ends with a character quoting the Gospel of Luke; Card's stories are always dense and detailed, yet they flow and draw the reader along as well as any thriller (at least for the ones I've read -- it's possible that some of the books people like less well fall down a bit in this respect). Very enjoyable fiction, and now I'm going to pull some of Card's paperbacks off the shelf to eventually read when I'm ready for fiction again.