Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The easy access of information through the Internet has made some books smaller. These are the popcorn books, with large fonts and big colorful pictures. On the other hand, the Internet has allowed some types of books to grow larger and better, taking in more with their more expansive view brought in by artful integration of all this easy information. The Fellowship must be one of the latter category, and it pulls off some tricks of intellectual breadth that I didn't think were possible.

 The Zalekskis weave a narrative from four strands that meet in mid-20th-century Oxford: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. My book reviews include numerous examples of all of the above. Of these, Tolkien and Lewis are preeminent and the obvious draws. Barfield and Williams are the ones you discover because of their association with the better-known duo. Barfield's story is more active near the beginning and end (he lived until 1997!) and Williams only gathers the equivalent of a chapter or two in the middle, fitting with his firework-like entrance and exit.

It's a lot of ground to cover, but I read it in just a few days. This book succeeds because it takes the Inklings' orientation toward story to heart. The narrative is told as stories that make a single story, at times even with suspense-building tactics on the part of the Zaleskis. I stayed up late reading it even though I knew the ending.
Much must be edited out, but what is kept in is what most Lewis and Tolkien fans want to know. What did Lewis and Tolkien really believe? How did they sharpen each other? This provides the deep connective tissue of the narrative.

Only real flaw I can put my finger on at present is that of proportion: there's too much bio that can be gleaned elsewhere, and too little of the interaction between the Inklings. So little is recorded about the actual meetings that this is completely understandable, but I focused on anything about who influenced whom and what came from where -- the chemistry. I think that some factual detail could have been sacrificed for more conjecture about the connections between, for example, Middle Earth and Narnia, or Williams and That Hideous Strength.
For example, the Zaleskis mention tentatively that Tolkien may have been influenced by Barfield. and quote Vernon Flieger. In my mind this is such a proven, sensible, and foundational connection that it underlines the importance of Barfield to the group -- but here, it is mentioned as peripheral. I don't mind such speculation; it's what makes a book like this sing! This book is about the connections, not the nodes, and a shifted focus more toward the connections would have allowed more integration of the minor Inklings as well. As it is, many works are mentioned with little speculation on possible cross-influences. However, I have already read several books on and by each of the authors here, so a more general approach may fit the audience this is really for.
On the whole, the juxtaposition of the authors allowed me to glean some of the connections that I crave, and to relate it to my own work and writing, so I must highly recommend this unique and highly readable book to anyone with any interest in how creativity works, or how faith works, or how Oxford worked in the mid-20th century.

A World From Dust (Plus): Why Pepto-Bismol Kills Bacteria but not Humans

Chapter 2 of A World From Dust explains how Pepto-Bismol works. That pink stuff kills ulcer bacteria because of its chemistry -- the bismuth in it is so sticky that it sticks to and jams up proteins in bacteria.

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that a key part of this story is left out. Human and bacteria proteins have the same basic chemistry, being made of the same CHON atoms. If bismuth is sticky to bacterial proteins, it must be just about as sticky to human proteins. So if bismuth kills bacteria, it should kill human cells as well. So why is it that we can drink the stuff? Why is there a novel titled Arsenic and Old Lace but Bismuth and Old Lace doesn't scare anyone?

Human cells can survive a dose of Pepto because they have an extra layer of chemical protection. Our internal chemical shield is built from sulfur, in the form of the molecule glutathione, mentioned in another part of Chapter 2. How this shield works is shown in a 2015 PNAS paper titled "Glutathione and multidrug resistance protein transporter mediate a self-propelled disposal of bismuth in human cells" (which, incidentally, is so well done that other scientists would do well to pattern their metal-life investigations on it).

As shown in the diagram above, purple bismuth (Bi) approaches from the left. It crosses the cell membrane and sticks to yellow glutathione's (GSH's) sulfur atoms. Bismuth is so sticky it collects multiple glutathiones, then the cell takes the assembly and tucks the dangerous metal away into a small sulfurous bubble (or vacuole) shown in gray on the right. This is what glutathione is for -- to preemptively stick to the sticky things before they can stick to something else.

The really nifty part of this is that as this process depletes glutathione, the cell senses that and turns on the machinery for making more glutathione. The more bismuth abounds, the more glutathione super-abounds to fix it. Excess glutathione is then available for sticking to other toxic metals as well, so that Pepto may incite a more general protection.

The bacteria killed by Pepto-Bismol don't have a complex glutathione system like this, so its stickiness turns their insides to solids, and they die. Human cells can resist internal petrification because of the chemistry of sulfur as corralled by glutathione's structure. Our cells sweep the sticky bismuth into a side chamber and our proteins remain nice and fluid.

This has implications for cancer therapy. Some forms of chemotherapy kill cancer cells with sticky, toxic metals like platinum. Cancer cells resist the chemo by turning up their glutathione production. Understanding how that system works should allow us to find a way to turn it off, which would make metal-based chemo much more effective. More details can be found in this summary article related to the research article above.

This is also why understanding the chemistry is so helpful. Bismuth-sulfur chemistry may lead to more effective chemo. So support your neighborhood chemist -- you never know what she'll find next.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A World From Dust (Plus): As Predictable as a Warm-Blooded Fish

This is a body-temperature scan of a fish. It should be dark blue because most fish are cold-blooded. Some have evolved biological spaceheaters next to strategic tissues that would show up as orange dots above. But the opah (Lampris guttatus)spreads its warm blood around, even keeping its heart warm, resulting in warm blood throughout its body, shown as yellow and light blue. This allows it to eat at depths other similar fish can't reach.

This expands on the narrative of A World From Dust in two important ways:

1.) The problem with being warm-blooded is not just making the heat, but keeping it. To insulate its precious heat from the cold waters around it, the opah pumps its blood through intricate and efficient blood vessels in twisted hairpin shapes. This structure is called a rete mirabile and can be built using Adrian Bejan's engineering theories for how heat flows. This hairpin structure is optimal for insulating a circulating fluid, so it is found repeatedly in warm-blooded animals. Bejan's Constructal Law could have been used to predict that a warm-blooded fish would have a complex rete mirabile structure before that structure was found in the fish -- it is a consequence of how heat moves. The opah is generating more heat, so I believe it would have a higher Energy Rate Density and Chaisson's ideas may apply, too. It has a more complex internal structure to match its higher energy throughput.

2.) Other fish that look like the opah and have genes like the opah are not warm-blooded, but a few very different fish (for example, tunas and lamnid sharks) have the biological spaceheaters that are halfway there. These fish obviously have different shapes and different genes, but they have independently developed similar systems for heat generation and insulation. In very different species, evolution has converged to produce similar and predictable warm-blooded temperatures and structures. Which species get it may depend on random rolls of the dice at the gene level, but that some species will get it and fluorish, that is predictable, given enough time.

So, not only is a warm-blooded fish very cool (see what I did there?), it also shows that evolution solves similar problems with similar features (warm blood) and similar structures (rete mirabile), in tuna, lamnid sharks, and opah, repeatedly producing predictable complexity.

Book Review: Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War

I picked this up to see if I should recommend it to my early-teen kids and ended up engrossed for myself. The basic idea is of seeing the Civil War through the lens (in one case literally) of ordinary objects. The graphic novel medium is used incredibly well, with the only problems coming when more exposition is needed to connect the dots, or in the case of the second episode, when trying to cram 100 years of legal history into a dozen pages. You won't get a bird's-eye view of the war from this, you'll get snapshots -- but some of the snapshots are incredibly moving. A graphic panel is worth 1000 words. One episode in particular uses the triptych style to tell three stories in parallel and accomplishes what no other medium can. It's a slight mixed bag, and if you're familiar with Civil War documentaries and movies, some of the episodes essentially recapitulate those. But a large majority of the episodes are creative, insightful, and tragic. I can only hope that the makers of this can return to the era and fill in more episodes based around other objects in the future. This is a fantastic way to teach and learn.

Book Review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Even though it's essentially a self-contained story, Finders Keepers suffers from the mid-trilogy blues. It's still a cracking read and finely crafted, as King weaves together several stories with nice parallels just on the right side of coincidence and characters that seem just a touch more human than other writers' characters. The motivations in this case are literary, as a reclusive writer's Moleskin notebooks play the MacGuffin. But Mr. Mercedes was better: more happened, with more twists, the evil was scarier, and the setup more unusual (just read the blurbs and tell me which story you're more interested in reading). A few foreshadowings of the third book, End of Watch, interested me more than the present story did. When all three are out, the shortcomings of Finders Keepers will probably fade and the trilogy should be considered as one big book. For now, it feels a bit too much like running in place, but I have a feeling King will make it pay off in the end.

Note: The audiobook reader is really excellent, changing tones to indicate different characters artfully, and throwing himself into King's over-the-top dialogue with gusto. I recommend listening to this rather than reading it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Book Review: Coming Out Christian in the Roman World

This is one of those rare books that convinced me of the opposite of the author's thesis. There's some interesting historical examples but they don't connect, possibly because the author explicitly rejects the idea of explaining history through a narrative. If you don't think history forms any kind of narrative, then the narrative you present in your book will probably not be very engaging or cohesive. One chapter takes Constantine to task for being confused in one of his pivotal speeches, but I don't think it's Constantine who's confused here. I also don't feel like there's much of a window on the ancient psyche here -- the author protests against Manichean dichotomies, then turns around and sets a dichotomy between the firebrands preaching Christian separation from the world and the average Christian trying to figure out a balance. This is an issue Christians have always dealt with but I don't see additional insight beyond a list of the various historical pressures. How are those put together in the process of "Coming Out Christian" as in the book's title? I still don't know. I very much wanted to learn from this book, but it just has too many problems.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest is the Pacific Coast Trail of books. Incredible scenery, but still, it's so much to do that many have turned off the trail before it's done. Since I've been on sabbatical I figured it's now or never for this half-a-million-word book. I'm very glad I did, but I was surprised by which parts I liked best.

There's three basic plot lines: a tennis academy of high achievers (including a flawed but fascinating family at its center), a halfway house of addicts and ex-addicts, and political/sci-fi satire of where we're going as a society. Before reading, I would have thought I'd prefer the poli-sci-fi most and the halfway house least, but it was precisely the opposite. It's the halfway house through the story of Don Gately that was compellingly horrifying and hopeful in all the right ways. In the other storylines the satire occasionally stepped so far out of reality that I laughed but with a smirk rather than the laugh of recognition (and/or the shudder) that I got from Gately's desperate circumstances.

For this reason, I actually look forward to The Pale King. Given what I like most about Infinite Jest, DFW writing about boredom and the IRS is going to be amazing.

DFW is a generous writer. Perhaps too generous at times. But on every page there's a well-turned phrase or touching insight, and since there's more than 1000 pages, that adds up to a unique experience.

Some of the plot turns on a movie that is more compelling than it should be, somehow reaching into your soul and changing you, narrowing you and reducing you to a mindless addict. The book itself is also more compelling than it should be, but it changes you to broaden your perspective and take in more than you saw before.

In the halfway house especially, the story descends to the bottom and also goes the farthest, and though the resolution remains at a distance, from the top of the mountain the veil lifts, and it (the resolution) can be glimpsed even if, for now, it can't be touched.