Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Guess Who? (LEGO version)

Can you tell at a glance who this is? Sam could (I'm so proud!). [piclink]

Book Review: American-Born Chinese

Like The Arrival, this is another beautifully drawn graphic novel aimed at young adults, this one not about immigration per se, but about the children of immigrants in junior high. It is a vivid story with three threads that come together at the end quite nicely. One of the threads is about the Monkey King, a Chinese god-character, and it was mostly what I expected until my jaw dropped as four emissaries of the creator show up and surprising (and deep) stuff starts to happen ... let's just say you have to read it. Someday I hope to hand it off to my kids when they're in junior high.

We Have Changed the Chemistry of Our Atmosphere

Reading Theo Gray's Mad Science I found that silver never tarnished before the Industrial Age. Now that power plants have put more sulfur in the atmosphere, silver will react with that to form black silver sulfate. Back in the pirate days (see previous post), bars of silver would sit out and not tarnish. But now we've changed the chemistry of our atmosphere and silver tarnishes.

This doesn't even necessarily say anything specifically about global warming. But it does say we can change the chemistry of the world, which at the very least is something to consider.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: Pirate Latitudes

As a Michael Crichton fiction completist I had to read this, even though it's just a draft found on his computer after he died ... and you know, it was fast-paced and clever enough to be a movie. Which it will be apparently because Steven Spielburg has always wanted to do a pirate movie and he'll be doing this one. I detect elements of Great Train Robbery of course, but also Disclosure and Congo. Not much of the stuff that truly made Crichton amazing ... but part of that might have been the fact that I was a teenager when I read his most impressive stuff. Regardless, better than a movie, longer, and cheaper (at least if you get it from the library).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A New Reason to Go to Canada

In the Seattle Times today, an article about eating in Vancouver, and behold, "Japadog"! On-street vendors selling Asian-themed bratwurst, with radish, soy sauce, rice, seaweed ...


I don't know about this Olympics thing, but let me tell you, I'm trying to figure out how to get up to Vancouver soon to try one of those.

Book Review: Lies My Music Teacher Told Me

How can you turn down a book with a title like that?

My wife gave me this book when I started asking lots of questions about how music works. And for me, who's sung a lot of music but has never had formal training or education in it, it was wonderful on two levels.

On the teaching/pedagogical level, the author Gerald Eskelin is a big proponent of letting students hear sounds first, learn notation second. This is a lot like what my physics colleagues do in the classroom (and what I try to do when possible): let the students experiment and observe, and then and only then teach the theory behind what happened. Students learn better by experiencing it, by singing and relating notes to each other.

On the abstract/theory level, Eskelin shows how there is a "natural", innate music that is based on the fractions that relate notes to each other. This music is best expressed by the major/minor scales because it fits those fractions best. How this works in music is that sounds made from flexible strings can tune better than sounds made my fixed machines (pianos, fretted guitars, etc.). So the piano is only an approximation of "true" tuning and true harmonies .There is a native music to the world (and pianos only approximate it!). And when this music is in tune everything just "pops" together.

I think this is important on pretty much every level. On the choir-singer level, it reminds me of just this Christmastime when we were learning "Rejoice, Rejoice" by Philip Stopford (a.k.a. "the best young choral composer out there right now"). Stopford has the basses sing a melody all alone that suddenly jumps up at the end to a C-sharp. It's strange to hear and practice by itself, but when we were singing "without a net" for the first time (that is, without our lovely and talented pianist (whom I'm married to) playing along), we jumped right up to that C-sharp and I suddenly felt uncertain ... because it DIDN'T feel weird! The reason is that note fits into the music and when you hit it you land right where you relate to the rest of the music and despite the strangeness of the interval, it just feels right. Good music fits together right, and there is a "best" way to do it.

In any case, this is a wonderful book and worth reading if you're interested in how music works, no matter your background, teachers and students. (I'm kind of glad I didn't know the "lies" -- it made it easier to learn the true way music fits together.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Preview of Coming Attractions

With my Weter lecture coming up in less than 10 days (!!), I thought I'd post a handout that I'll be giving out that night as an outline of the lecture. Guess the theme ... :

Order of Program


Introduction: Tuning to the Universe


The New Natural Theology


Song One: From Nothing to Stars

starring “Math”


Song Two: From Stars to Heavy Atoms

starring “Entropy”


Song Three: From Heavy Atoms to Earth

starring “Gravity”


Song Four: From Rock to Sea and Sky

starring “Water”


Song Five: From Sea and Sky to Sulfur

starring “Bubbles”


Song Six: From Sulfur to Oxygen

starring “Photosynthesis”


Song Seven: From Oxygen to Humans

starring “The Brain”


What the Chemical Songs Mean


Tuning Two Stories


Conclusion: Reading the Music

Friday, January 15, 2010

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music

I enjoyed this book enough that I'm sure I won't read the sequel. This is the debut book by Daniel J. Levitin, published a few years ago. Levitin himself worked with music and as a "sound guy" for years before joining a psychology program, getting a Ph.D. and then starting his own lab looking at how brains process music. This book hits all the right chords (sorry) as it passes through basic music theory and biochemistry and then as it talks about the intersection of science and music. Levitin has a particular knack for explaining the basics of whatever field, and since this is his first book he has a lot of basics to explain. Only in the final chapter does it start to come off the rails a little, as he gets into evolutionary explanations for why music is fundamental, and seems to be favoring his own theories rather than a broad assessment of the possibilities. From what I can tell, the minor weaknesses of this final chapter are magnified in his second book (which I glanced through a library copy and my brain has decided it's not for me right now). The way I see it, Levitin's strength is describing the brain, not evolution. Since this book focuses on his strength it's a very strong book. Recommended!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Problem with Christianity

I found two very interesting quotes from a couple hundred years ago about Christianity in The Age of Wonder that struck me as fundamental:

John Adams criticizing orthodox Christian beliefs of British scientists: “They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton’s universe and Herschel’s universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit upon by the Jews. And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.” P. 167.

Percy Shelley writing in a note in Queen Mab:" The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation … It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman … The works of His fingers have borne witness against him … Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth … Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonius, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity."P.391.

Anyone who blames Darwin for the pervasive assumption of atheism in the public sphere should look farther back. What I find fascinating about these two quotes is that atheism (Shelley) and "strong" Deism (Adams) are really not all that different. Both are offended by the idea of the Incarnation. And both quotes specifically mention Jews, as if that's supposed to make the reader recoil more? My response to both of these quotes is, yeah, that's pretty much the offense of the gospel right there. But really, why is it somehow unthinkable that a creator of a vast universe should know the number of hairs on our heads, or the thoughts in our brains? Why is a God of the big somehow exclusive to a God of the small? Why does it make sense to observe the immense power that must have set creation in motion and then to deny a continuance of that power to the present day? I can see where these quotes are coming from, but I just don't agree. Instead of saying "it ain't so" like Adams and Shelley, I see this possibility as an occasion for wonder, that the God who made this would take on flesh and die after 33 short years. Maybe this is the divide of faith.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: The Age of Wonder

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is a fascinatingly incomplete book that is also a little too long. The focus of the book is the time between Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti and Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos, a time after Newton and Hooke but before Faraday and Einstein. The science of the time coincided with the Romanticism of literature, and the genius of this book is to talk about the overlap of science and poetry in the lives of the great scientists and poets. A big subject, perhaps a little too big, and any criticisms I have are just quibbles -- I want to see more books like this. Yet I feel that sometimes pages are spent on details that are not really relevant to the book's thesis, such as exact details of the goings-on on Tahiti. But just when I started to get impatient an amazing connection emerged, like the fact that Samuel Taylor Coleridge did experiments and science philosophy as well as poetry, or that Humphrey Davy was a published poet. Holmes covers the overlap between science and art extremely well. I don't entirely trust his perspective on the overlap between science and theology, which seems too colored (sorry, coloured) by his 21st-century British tired agnosticism so that he never takes a religious statement at face value. A few times he quoted Davy talking about the resurrection, at least so it seemed from the quote, but instead Holmes talked about extraterrestrial beings as if they must be aliens -- not angels, which I think more likely. In any case, just having a book that boldly makes the connections between science and art is enough for now. Hopefully biographers are coming that can make the connections with faith too.

Friday, January 8, 2010

State of the Blog Address

Not really, I just like to use this blog to collect a little data on last year.

Books read: 45 (My goal is one a week! Thank you graphic novels for making that conceivable!)
Posts written: 140
Posts commented on more than a few times: 2
Baby boys born: 1
Number of times I mentioned the Weter Lecture: 5,454

Book Review: The Fires of Vesuvius

I visited Pompeii for a few hours in 2003 during 40C weather (convert it, it's hot) with a 9-month old in a stroller and quickly found that Roman streets were not made for strollers. Because I was following a guide I had no idea where I was and wished I had more of a complete view of what was going on. Six years later I read the book that I should have read before going (although that would have been difficult considering it was just published last year): The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard. Beard is a classicist who summarizes everything we know (and debate) about Pompeii, and it's fascinating. We know incredible details about some things and are blank about the others. What stands out most to me is that we can get closer to what life was like in 70 A.D. but it's still frustratingly far from understanding what ancient minds were like. In particular I'm interested in understanding what people really believed about their gods, about their marriages, about their slaves, etc. And we already have written evidence for a lot of that, it's just complicated with all the usual caveats that go along with written evidence. This book about Pompeii takes you as far as you can go based on current understanding, and I recommend it for anyone interested in classics, or even for anyone who reads Paul's epistles and wants to know what Corinth or Ephesus may have been like: Pompeii is a unique window into that past.