Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Tolkien, in Nature, on Science

Nature recently published an editorial on the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but it was the quote at the end by J.R.R. Tolkien that really got my attention. Then I noticed that the quote was about science, and I realized I had just read my favorite Nature editorial of all time. Tolkien gives some very good advice about writing, stories, and magic:

"Perhaps the most surprising critic of such technological fixes was the great hobbitmonger himself, J. R. R. Tolkien, as revealed in his unfinished story The Notion Club Papers (published posthumously in 1992 in Sauron Defeated, edited by his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien). Much of the story is a discussion between academics and writers on the dishonesty of using scientific-sounding MacGuffins to get one from here to there. If one insists on doing such a thing, one might as well dream oneself to Mars or wave a wizardly wand. The story centres on criticism of H. G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901), in which the protagonist, one Dr Cavor, invents a material, cavorite, that provides insulation against gravity. “Gravity can’t be treated like that,” complains one of Tolkien’s characters. “It’s fundamental. It’s a statement by the Universe of where you are in the Universe, and the Universe can’t be tricked by a surname with ite stuck on the end, nor by any such abracadabra.” Which suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that even if time travel and warp drives are impossible, the world’s best-selling fantasy author knew a thing or two about the general theory of relativity."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Book Review: Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

With Cat's Cradle I expected a satire about science but I didn't expect religion to be an equal target, as well as island nation politics. I was pleasantly surprised. Vonnegut covers a lot of ground.

I found the science to be most entertaining and detailed of Vonnegut's targets. The idea of ice-nine is an excellent foundation for a book like this and Vonnegut's fast pace and occasional poetic interlude among the hilarious-depressing events that follow keep this book going. The visit to the American research lab set a high bar for the rest of the book, and I thought at that point that this might be one of my all-time favorites.

The more he got away from science the less I cared about the story, and the less biting his satire seemed to me. Maybe that's because there's so few writers that really stick it to scientists the way Vonnegut does, yet with a deep understanding of what science really is and (mostly) how it works. Lots of writers satirize voyages and prophets (ever since Jonah?). I have read/seen many island nation satires as well.

Now, I know in satire the characters are supposed to be a little ridiculous, but I found some of the science stereotypes (and the religion stereotypes, for that matter) to be too simplistic and the broadsides a little too broad to really illuminate the topic. I would take the real-life Oppenheimer (or Langmuir) over the fictional Hoenikker any day, and the real person is much more interesting than the caricature. For that matter, the fictional scientist Gale Boetticher in Breaking Bad is more interesting (and realistic) than Hoenikker -- he felt like someone I might meet in a lab, while Hoenikker did not.

The same for the way faith is dealt with. The people with faith that I know are more interesting than the characters in this, when I'd expect that the freedom satire provides could make them more interesting and ring more true, given the outlandish things that the author could contrive for them and their stories. From a classic beginning, the end fell a little flat for me.

The reader may start out thinking Cat's Cradle is about science, but at its heart, it's really about God. And on those grounds I do wish Vonnegut's critique had been just a touch more trenchant. The faith he's satirizing is not recognizable as faith to me, and the science, too, is close but ultimately does not resonate. Job provides a sharper critique than Vonnegut.

Both the science and religion in this book are too broadly drawn. More cutting details would have turned it from a very good book into a great book. But, again, I realize that satire is very much a matter of taste. I'm just surprised that this book wasn't more than the sum of its parts for me. Rather, it was less. Still, it's a classic, and a must-read. Just an "I liked it" rather than "I loved it" must-read.

A 3-D Supernova

The Cassiopeia A supernova remnant has been reconstructed in 3-D. It looks like a big, big explosion, with purple lines that might be "surprise lines" in a comic strip, but here must be some superheated jets of matter and radiation. If we can't travel to the stars, through astronomy we can bring the stars to us. (The rotatable version above doesn't work on IE but does work on Chrome for me.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How to Hack Where's Waldo

Slate has a nice article about how to use an objective method to determine the optimal search pattern for Waldo. There are certain places where Waldo will be more than half the time, so you look there first. I can't wait to try this out on my kids. It also may be a good teaching exercise for a stats class ... or even a psychology, or design class? Are there other methods of analysis we can apply to Waldo's xy coordinates?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Flannery O'Connor's Inspiration

Marilynne Robinson reviews Flannery O'Connor's recently published journal and, as usual, makes connections that cross time and space, pointing out how the patterns of thought that gave us the Muses as literal inspiration have been lost, evoking some of Barfield's comments to my ear:

"O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”
"... I would be curious to know what story or part of a story by O’Connor should be attributed to the Lord. It can seem self-aggrandizing or simply bizarre to ascribe any thought or work to a seemingly external source, named or unnamed. Nevertheless, ­Hesiod, Pindar and any number of poets and prophets before and after them have declared indebtedness of this kind. If they, and O’Connor, were na├»ve, sophistication has made language poorer."

The Periodic Table of Storytelling

Here's a periodic table that's more periodic than most, although even this could be rearranged. For example, I don't see fandom as noble gases. But the "chemicals" that make up various stories are appropriate, I'd say. (And here's where I got it.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book Review: Apt Pupil

On the whole, this story comes together to be more than the sum of its parts, although at the halfway point I wasn't sure it would. What is essentially a character drama between an old Nazi war criminal in hiding and the golden boy who discovers his secrets (and keeps them secret) is an interesting start, and it's where the focus is for the first two-thirds. Near the middle the excesses of the evil spiral between the two added up to be almost too much for me -- I was ready to resign this story to the "old Stephen King" more-or-less-what-you'd-expect-from-King file rather than the "new Stephen King" surprised-by-meaning file (see: 11-23-63, Joyland, etc.). The real depth comes from the additional characters who are not caught in the descending spiral, and those don't really come out till the last third of the book. I do think some of the scenes in the middle are unnecessary but there are just some things about psychology that King and I don't agree on. Getting past those was indeed worth it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Review: Of Mice and Men

I experienced this book as an audiobook from the library, and when it came I found it was read by Gary Sinise of all people. This made for an experience that may have felt more like a movie than a book, but then again, all the interior action described so well by Steinbeck would be very difficult to put onto a screen, so it felt more like a one-act monologue than anything else. As for the story, I tried to experience it fresh, and it built slowly to a devestatingly sad series of events. It surprised me in how much it felt like Junot Diaz, not necessarily in direct topic but in indirect emotion and style.

Book Review: Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

Both Flesh and Not is a posthumous collection of essays by David Foster Wallace. This collection translates well to audiobook and, well, actually exists on audiobook, which is why I listened to/read it rather than Infinite Jest. This collection spans decades and is uneven, yet Wallace's alchemical style (in which he can take a mundane subject like an editorial introduction to a collection of essays and turn it into clear gold) makes every topic worthwhile, even the long pair of essays about tennis. Wallace's most outstanding feature is not his intelligence or breadth of interest but his underlying compassion that shows through in almost everything he writes. Don't miss the editorial introduction that is reprinted as "Deciderization 2007" -- it is the best of the bunch.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Today's Writing Quote by David Foster Wallace

Loce this quote, courtesy of David Foster Wallace in "Deciderization 2007 -- A Special Report" (this pretty much nails it as far as non-fiction is concerned; I would not know about fiction!):

"Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc."