Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Like all Mark Helprin books, this is a mix of lyrically soaring passages describing emotion and place with loving detail, with occasional clumsy exaggerations or outbursts of ugliness that seem deliberately added in precisely to highlight how well-proportioned and lush the rest of the writing is. Of Helprin's books, Winter's Tale with its magical realism still has the best overall combination (which makes it one of my top 10 books), but Paris in the Present Tense is in most places just as satisfying if more subdued.

What Helprin did for New York City in Winter's Tale, he (almost) does for Paris in this book: he makes it a character in its own right, and in a sense the book is not really about the aging cellist Jules, but about the 21st century City of Lights.

Sometimes I'd literally catch my breath at Helprin's descriptions, especially of music. This is a beautiful story about a musician at the end of his life, who has lived for music, not fame or fortune, and the best kind of unheroic hero.

Despite the fact that I like the bigger story in Winter's Tale more, I actually think this may be a better book if it was even more subdued and interior: a detective subplot comes across as needless overplotting, and there's more than a little time spent decrying anti-Semitism, with an anxiety about its widespread nature that seems more like old people worrying than an accurate depiction of Europe today.

But then again, I'm not there so I don't really know. What I do know is that Helprin is a welcome throwback, and he is such a generous author that the reader is inclined to be just as generous back and to forgive him all dissonances. Let this book wash through you like the symphony -- and the worthy successor to Winter's Tale  -- that it is.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My Answer to "Is Design Detectable?"

The Henry Center's Creation Project just asked a bunch of scientists and philosophers a simple question: "Is Design Detectable by Science?". My answer starts like this:

As a chemist, I turn naturally to the evidence of the past that is amenable to geochemical or biochemical analysis, and integrate that with other lines of evidence. This evidence tells a story with order and even direction.

Geology, Biology, and the Story of Data

The rocks give a timeline showing how the environmental chemistry of the planet has changed radically over billions of years. In the oldest layers, geologists detect rocks that can’t exist in today’s world with its high oxygen levels: rounded, previously exposed pebbles of iron pyrite and uranium. Those rocks went away as time elapsed, and then, we detect rust-orange iron-oxygen compounds worldwide, called “Banded Iron Formations.” These formations tell a story with a direction: the oldest earth was oxygen-free, then oxygen filled the air and reacted with the rocks. Eventually, after the rocks had reacted, oxygen could fill the ocean. The geologist Robert Hazen has threaded these data into a story of “mineral evolution” over time in his book The Story of Earth.Robert Hazen, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet (New York: Penguin, 2013).

These pieces of data from the geological environment coincide with other pieces of biological data, which show that oxygen can increase biochemical complexity. In old genes, at the time of the first great oxygen increase, DNA sequencing detects a burst of newly invented oxygen-using genes.Lawrence A. David and Eric J. Alm, “Rapid Evolutionary Innovation During an Archaean Genetic Expansion,” Nature, 469 (2011), 93-96. Biochemical models project that oxygen metabolism allows the most complex biochemicalOnce enough data are collected, the question becomes whether the story being told about the data is true—that is, whether the story is something real that we are uncovering, or merely a collection of arbitrary dots connected by imaginary lines like so many constellations. networks, so that increased oxygen supports increased metabolic complexity.Jason Raymond and Daniel Segrè, “The Effect of Oxygen on Biochemical Networks and the Evolution of Complex Life,” Science, 311 (2006), 1764-67. In the presence of oxygen, life could build more complex things.

The end of this essay can be found here:

Book Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find

Upon completing my Flannery O'Connor reading/listening tour, I can state with confidence that O'Connor's writing got better as she aged. These stories are fantastic but in general pale in comparison with her second published collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. The exception is the title story, which is as good as anything she's written. Also, a few of the stories deal with themes like race and immigration better than the later stories (although I'm always a little ambivalent when she writes about race -- this may be my biggest problem with her writing -- she critiques racism, but she doesn't seem to critique it enough and is too resigned to it). O'Connor writes characters like the grandmother in the title story that are absurd and oblivious to their own absurdity, and you can never escape the fact that you yourself are caught up in the same mess. The shortcoming of this collection may be that most of her targets are easier and more distant from the reader, and easier for this reader at least to rationalize as "them" rather than "me." Regardless, even if this was all we had, it would still be clear that O'Connor is a great writer. The good news is she gets even better.