Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Hear No Evil

Matthew Paul Turner grew up in an ultra-conservative Baptist church and eventually became an editor of CCM, the "Contemporary Christian Music" magazine, and this is a book about that. More accurately, it's a collection of vignettes arranged chronologically that are well-written but don't quite cohere -- perhaps coherence is overrated? In any case, I found I had to finish it once I started, and (although I'm biased because of my own background) I found Turner to be much better at the apt turn of phrase and general likability than Steve Almond (author of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life). However, I want more. This book goes out of its way to detail a terrible incident in which the publisher of CCM forced Turner to interrogate Amy Grant about her divorce and not to leave till he extracted an "apology." The thing is, that's about the only story about Turner being an editor. That incident can't be entirely typical -- if it was, I have a hard time understanding why he was even in that job for any period of time and also how he could survive with his faith intact in any form. His faith is intact at the end of the book, although changed to be sure -- but the book never gets deep enough to let us see what and why. There's moments of deliberate vulnerability that make this book special, but I still feel like I have no idea why Turner lives life the way he does, and what the whole CCM thing means to him, if there's anything good in that industry at all. Another area is the whole way youth groups talk about abstinence and CCM singers are almost forced to be white-washed tombs by the system. That's fascinating and tragic, but the alternative system offered by the mainstream media doesn't seem to be more successful. The thing is, the warts-and-all Christianity you have here is funny and right-on with its depiction, but the alternatives are not put to the same test. I'm sure Turner has this in him, it's just the book seems like it was forced to be "funny vignettes like Blue Like Jazz" and it does not feel complete. Well, Turner has other books out there and I will be reading them -- he has a gift as an author. I just think it's better to think of this book as a long magazine article than as anything approaching a "real" book. It's a blog post, not a manifesto or complete philosophy. I'd just like to know, how DO you put it all together then?

Oh, and Turner's blog "Jesus Needs New PR" is great too, possibly suffering from the same incompleteness, but I don't expect completeness from a blog.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sigmar Polke's Agate Windows


Just found these windows designed by Sigmar Polke for Zurich's Grossmunster cathedral. They are made from slices of agates arranged in the window. The colors, the biological fecundity of the agates, pulsing like bacteria growing with life, or stars forming in nebulae, a transcept of creation ... I am blown away.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Instant Easter Eggs

(Idea from Harold B. White published in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education Vol 28 No 1 pp 35-36, 2010.)

If you put eggs under a UV light they will glow scarlet. The same pigment is what makes earthworms purplish, and it is very light sensitive, meaning it's why earthworms fry in the sunlight (say, after a good rain when they come out).

More at this link. I sense a future biochemistry demo!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Book Reviews: Magician's Nephew and Last Battle

Just finished up reading Books 6 and 7 of Narnia aloud to Sam. Just some quick observations:

-- The Magician's Nephew is surprisingly funny.
-- The Last Battle is ... not.
-- There's a point where an animal dies during the Last Battle that is just so sad that it snuck up on me and choked me up. Lewis was walking quite a line here, in that he was writing about death for kids. I tend to therefore give him a break when my own 21st-century sensibilities think he went a little too far one way or another. One thing about the story is that it certainly moves right along, too.
-- Speaking of balance, you shouldn't mention the depiction of Emeth without the depiction of Tash, nor the depiction of Tash without the depiction of Emeth. Either character by itself is incomplete, you need both, and be skeptical of any critic or pastor who quotes one without the other.
-- The Last Battle becomes a lot better of a book if you don't take it as allegory, but if you take it like Lewis insisted you should take it, as a story of God at work in a different world in a different way. In a world in which God's son is manifest as a lion and physically present, then a deception can be built on that manifestation to destroy and corrupt. Interesting to think about what that means for why God seems so invisible/distant (to modernists, at least).

Better Science Through Beauty

I reviewed The Book Nobody Read a little while ago, but there's a point in there that I want to publicize in whatever small way. Gingerich describes the Epicycle Myth and debunks it. The Epicycle Myth is a modern scientific myth that the movement of the planets had, by the time of Copernicus, gotten convoluted and weighed down so that, to match observations, the astronomers had to add little "circles within circles," or epicycles, to their circular depictions of the orbits of the planets. Copernius, so the myth goes, devised a model with the sun at the center that did away with all the extra epicycles. Well, to quote George Gershwin, "It ain't necessarily so"! Turns out there's no evidence for proliferation of epicycles right before Copernicus, and when Copernicus proposed his model, it accounted for data about the same as the old model. So at first there was no immediate gain of simplicity or "better fit" to the data. However, Copernicus had the one advantage that it was a beautiful theory. As Gingerich puts it, "Copernicus' achievement was not something forced by fresh observations, but rather was a triumph of the mind in envisioning what was essentially a more beautiful arrangement of the planets." In this case, truth was beauty was truth and Copernicus was right, but that was only evident after the fact. At the time, all you had to go on is that Copernicus gave you a more beautiful universe to live in. The more beautiful universe was the true universe. That tells me that science, as much as it describes the universe as it truly is, is a beautiful thing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Book Review: The Science of Cooking

Peter Barham, a physics instructor and food science lecturer, describes his hobby of combining cooking with science in this book. It explained quite a few things I did not know, and I've been teaching biochemistry for almost a decade. On top of that, it gave me test questions and an idea for a new lower-division course about biochemistry with labs in the kitchen. The book is straightforwardly written and generally does a good job simplifying complex situations. I especially like the way Barham describes the trade-offs that make certain kinds of cooking (puff pastry, souffles, etc.) so tricky, and then he describes how to avoid those trade-offs. An easy souffle? I think I'll have to try that one myself.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ASA Lecture Audio: "The Chemicals Pour Forth Speech"

Here is a link to the audio of the presentation I did in Washington DC about a month ago at the ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) meeting: "The Chemicals Pour Forth Speech: Teaching Origins with a Biogeochemical Narrative." (I've really got to make some shorter titles ... ) The actual talk starts at the 3-minute mark. Let me know what you think!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Marilynne Robinson is My New Favorite Writer

What I love about Marilynne Robinson is she is capable of writing the most nuanced, delicate, beautiful stories about complicating and interesting human beings, and then she's able to turn around and be all intellectual. Check out this interview in Christianity Today in which she castigates the new breed of atheist Science Writers.

Favorite quote:

"Christianity has abandoned its intellectual traditions, ceding that ground to anybody in a white coat. Where it has tried to muster courage, it has too often tended to become irrational and shrill. Meanwhile, a great age in true science, an absolute catalog of wonders, passes by unnoticed."

She lists some wonders in the last question and mentions cosmology and the microbiology of gut bacteria. I agree!

Friday, September 10, 2010

More Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has now traveled to Greece to report on the economic crisis there. This has more to it than just credit default swaps and questionable profits, because the center of the scandal is a monastery that is a center of Greek Orthodox spiritual life. Instead of interviewing "suits," Lewis interviews "robes." Underneath it all is a spiritual question of why these monks do what they do, and Lewis never quite gets down to his own beliefs beyond his atheism (leading to duplicity needed to enter the holy mountain, but the monks don't really care and seem strikingly hospitable). It appears the monks are using the real-estate windfall they concocted to benefit their monastery and community, not the "elite" monks at the top. The question remains, isn't that a form of selfishness too? What is going on with Greece here? Any American who made money in any way on the real estate bubble (and that includes me) is fundamentally no different than these monks. And why is it the American investment bankers who are EVERYWHERE promoting the irresponsible finances of the last decade? Michael Lewis opens the door on this situation but by no means are all or even most of the questions answered. Something to chew on.

Here's a great quote:

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that. But to see just how peculiar it was, you had to come to this monastery.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Book Review: Great Poems of the Bible

What is fascinating about this book is what I was reading it alongside: Chaim Potok's In the Beginning, a novel in which is formed the kind of Torah scholarship directly evinced in Great Poems of the Bible. In fact, I looked up info on James Kugel to see if he could have inspired Potok in any way, or vice versa, but it's possible the parallels come from both authors simply reflecting reality. Kugel vividly describes the "different way of seeing" offered by the Hebrew Bible and gives his own translation of many poetic passages. I cannot judge the academic quality of these translations but, especially in the cases of Ecclesiastes and Deborah's Song from Judges, the translations make sense of phrases that have previously felt wrong, so I'm inclined to trust his work and keep this book on hand for translation reference. It also gives a clear picture of just what it means to be a faithful Jewish scholar in the late twentieth century, and it's valuable just for that.

In particular, Kugel brings out the A-B sentence form of Biblical poetry, and brings out some of the signficance of this particular form. This surprised me in that it has deep ramifications even for the natural theology that's always on the back burner in my reading. Also, I never realized just how deep "wisdom" literature is, which also has impacts on my writing ideas. So, I'll just say "more to come."

Book Review: Tall Tales

From Chaim Potok to Jeff Smith ... this is a collection of deliberately silly stories set in Smith's Bone universe. The stories are literally told around a campfire and sprinkled throughout with jokes my 8-year-old thought were hilarious. There's a place for that. Unfortunately, I couldn't detect any particular reason to read this unless you've read the entire Bone series and want a little more. It's almost at the level of fan fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with fan fiction.

Book Review: In the Beginning

Only Chaim Potok can take what is essentially an academic and theological interior journey and make it thrilling and meaningful. I don't know how Potok makes his characters so real, especially considering their frequently superhuman intellectual abilities. For a summer thriller, I actually found this more absorbing than Crichton or ... name your novelist here (just don't mention Dan Brown, please, they don't even belong in the same universe). The metaphor near the end about roots is a beautiful, natural symbol for the choice the main character makes. I don't want to review it completely, but I want to note that In the Beginning is an excellent book.