Category Archives: autobiography

Autobiographies of famous people.

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

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“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
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Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

—–
“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
Supergods on Amazon.com
Grant Morrison’s homepage

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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 165: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is awesome. At first glance, you might not think so – she’s a short, squeaky-voiced New Yorker who has a driving phobia, gets motion sickness and is allergic to damn near everything. She fits into the category of “nerd” with remarkable appropriateness. So if you’re the kind of person who dismisses the Nerd as someone without consequence or someone you should just disregard, then, well, you’re missing out.

Vowell used to write rock music reviews, loves Abe Lincoln, and thinks that it’s the height of fun to go to Places of Historical Interest on her vacations. She’s an unapologetic nerd, deeply cynical and not afraid to assume that other people are as interested in esoteric matters of history as she is. She’s a self-confessed history nerd, and she makes you want to become one with her.

There's nothing about this man that doesn't say, "I'm nuts enough to shoot a President."

I read another of her works a while ago, Assassination Vacation, about her journey to learn more about our assassinated Presidents and the men who’d done them in. It was a fascinating trip through three out of the four major assassinations that happened in this country, and far more interesting than one would think. Especially with regards to the lesser-cared about presidents Garfield and McKinley.

This book is a little different – it’s a collection of essays on a wide variety of topics. It starts, of course, with Lincoln, but goes off in all kinds of directions from there. For example, she talks about her time working for one of the world’s foremost antique map collectors, Graham Arader, and the persistent myth, up until about the middle of the 18th century, that California was an island. As part of this job, she was able to look at how the way we saw the world changed over time, and how maps become a part of the historical record of a civilization.

In the essay, “Pop-A-Shot,” she talks about her uncanny ability to shoot baskets in the Pop-A-Shot arcade game. While most of us would scoff at someone taking pride in a game where all you have to do is shoot balls into a hoop for forty seconds, Vowell shows us why this peculiar talent means something important to her, ties her to a sense of greater meaning and accomplishment and, more importantly, gives her something to lord over her male friends.

She talks about why she thinks she’s secretly a Canadian, given how generally polite and non-confrontational she is. And then there’s how much she and her sister have in common with Johnny and Luther Htoo, the twins who were the child leaders of God’s Army in Thailand. She talks about the incredibly painful feeling in her gut while she attended the inauguration of George W. Bush and the irritation she feels whenever someone compares someone else to Rosa Parks. And then there’s the advice to Bill Clinton on how to handle his Presidential library.

"Look, I'm not being a nerd here, it's just that there is NO way Han didn't shoot first. None. Seriously."

It’s a rather covert style of writing. She is funny enough and light enough that you don’t really think you’re in it for any useful information or heavy thought. But before you know it, you’re wondering to yourself, “Yeah, what is the media’s responsibility to the truth, and why do we let them charactature our leaders?” Not something you would normally think about, but the longer essay “The Nerd Voice” takes a look at the way Gore was misquoted and misrepresented during the 2000 campaign because the media had decided that he was the arrogant nerd and Bush was the homespun dummy. What’s more, she suggests that Gore might have had more success had he embraced his inner nerd and, like Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, made the jokes about himself before anyone else could.

Vowell is a thinker, and most definitely a nerd, and she lets her thoughts go off into strange and interesting places. She has a kind of temporal persistence of vision, where she looks at how the past and the present intersect. “I can’t even use a cotton ball,” she says, “without spacing out about slavery’s favorite cash crop.” And, above all, she’s funny, which is a rarity in those who write about history. Check her out.

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“I wish that in order to secure his party’s nomination, a presidential candidate would be required to point at the sky and name all the stars; have the periodic table of the elements memorized; rattle off the kings and queens of Spain; define the significance of the Gatling gun; joke around in Latin; interpret the symbolism in seventeenth-century Dutch painting; explain photosynthesis to a six-year-old; recite Emily Dickinson; bake a perfect popover; build a shortwave radio out of a coconut; and know all the words to Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Two Sleepy People,’ Johnny Cash’s ‘Five Feet High and Rising,’ and ‘You Got the Silver’ by the Rolling Stones.”
– Sarah Vowell, The Partly Cloudy Patriot
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Sarah Vowell on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Wikipedia.com
The Partly Cloudy Patriot on Amazon.com

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Filed under american history, autobiography, culture, history, humor, memoir, nonfiction, Sarah Vowell

Review 88: Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!


Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

A while back, I read another book by Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. It was kind of disappointing at the time. I knew that Feynman’s fame came not only from his scientific brilliance, but from the fact that he was a genuinely interesting, funny and mischievous person. I had hoped that I could find some of that in the book, but to no avail. And so I gave it away so that someone else could get the pleasure from it that I could not.

Still, I was not completely turned off Feynman. There are videos of him around the internet that really show his vibrancy, his energy and the passion with which he approached the world, and I knew there would come a time when I would have to give him a second chance. Thus, this book.

Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! is the story – or rather a collection of stories – about what can happen to a person with immense confidence in his own abilities, an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to make mistakes, all topped off with a generous helping of genius.

First, as Feynman calls them at the beginning of the book, some vitals.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He was also one hell of a bongo player, an accomplished artist, and a self-taught safecracker. He was a joker and a prankster and a ladies’ man who could bluff his way into pretty much anything he wanted to do, and was often surprised that people believed his bravado. He had a passion for mysteries and puzzles and figuring out how things worked, from combination locks to the movements of electrons to why water curves the way it does when it comes out the tap, and he didn’t give a good goddamn about what the rest of the world thought of him.

In other words, Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy.

This book is a collection of Feynman’s stories, the kind that he might tell at a party or with a bunch of friends traveling. They’re the variety of story that might begin with, “Did I ever tell you how I joined a samba band in Rio?” and just go on from there. He starts with his youth, how he was the kind of boy who just loved to tinker with things. He would take electronics apart and put them back together, and then go to junk shops to buy parts that he could build into better radios. He did experiments with ants to find out how they communicated, and dedicated himself so hard to solving puzzles that eventually all he needed was the first line, and he could immediately come back with, “He starts by chopping every other one in three parts.”

He was one of those kids whose curiosity was boundless, and who never even imagined that there was anything “better” he could have been doing than exploring how the world worked. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if young Feynman were around today, he’d be medicated to the eyeballs just to stop him being so “weird.” But you know me. Cynic.

We follow him through his days at MIT, pulling pranks with friends and discovering those interesting weaknesses in human thought processes that allowed him to get away with murder when he was young. His habits of wondering how things work carried him through his participation in the Manhattan Project, his travels to countries like Brazil and Japan, and led him through a life that was never without fascinating and entertaining discoveries.

Long story short (too late), Feynman is – or at least should be – a model for young people today. While the book isn’t pitched towards young people, there are several lessons in it that should be taught to every child.

The first is that the world is infinitely interesting. Any kid who whines that she is bored needs to be shown the million and one ways that you can combat boredom just within a ten-foot radius of where you’re sitting. Look at something – anything and ask yourself, “I wonder how that works,” and then go find out. The possibilities are endless, and the potential exists that you may discover a passion you never knew you had. Feynman didn’t start out wondering how electrons work – he fixed his neighbors’ radios just because he could. One thing led to another, and next thing you know – BAM! Nobel Prize.

The second point, and it is connected to the first, is to never say No. In his essay, “But Is It Art?” he talks about how he learned to draw. It started when an artist friend offered to teach Feynman how to draw if he would teach the artist about science. While Feynman believed that he would be an absolutely atrocious artist, he still agreed to the challenge, and he stuck with it. Eventually he became well-known as a decent artist, even managing to sell some of his works. Now obviously, there are limits and caveats to “never” – there are times when saying No is the right thing to do. But when you find an opportunity to expand your abilities, to learn new things and face new challenges, the automatic “No” may deprive you of a joy that you never knew you could experience.

Third, you must know who you are. One of the problems inherent in living in a society is that there’s always someone trying to tell you who you are, or at least who you should be. Your parents, teachers, friends, all have an image of you in their heads, and are all trying to mold you into that image, consciously or unconsciously. Add to that the government, media, corporations, advertisements, shysters, preachers and other deliverers of hokum and propaganda who are also trying to tell you who you really are, despite having never met you and being pretty sure that you don’t already know yourself. And many people, sadly, don’t. But Feynman did. He knew who he was, and that was all he needed. He occasionally let people think differently about him, but the thread that runs through this book is a rock-solid self-awareness that allowed him the self-confidence to pick up showgirls or try to turn down a Nobel Prize.

The caveat to this, and a corollary to the second point, is that you can always discover new things about who you are. All through the book, we see Feynman faced with a new opportunity that he thinks he can’t do because it’s just Not Him. Drawing, playing music, learning languages – those skills didn’t fit into the mental model of who he thought he was, a flaw that all of us possess. A lot of us, without even giving it a try, might immediately discard something by saying, “Well, that’s just not me.” Maybe it could be. It takes courage, and the willingness to fall flat on your face, but if you can discover a new talent or a new passion, isn’t it worth it?

Finally, remember that everyone else around you is just as human as you are. Don’t be impressed by titles and uniforms, fancy suits and impressive business cards. Don’t assume that just because someone wears a soldier’s uniform or a thousand dollar suit that they are somehow “better” than you. Feynman not only resisted authority in so many of these tales, he actively worked to subvert it. Whether it’s trying to sneak codes past military censors or breaking into the safe that held all the secrets of the atomic bomb, he never let a title get in the way of learning or growing.

One of my favorite Feynman stories related to this last point isn’t actually in this book, but I’ll mention it anyway. After the Challenger disaster back in 1986, NASA was called on the carpet to explain to Congress why their shiny new space shuttle went Kaboom. The NASA managers went on and on about the O-rings, filling their talk with supercilious jargon and doublespeak, hoping that their haughty attitudes and impenetrable explanations of why the cold weather made the O-rings fail would be comprehensible enough to satisfy the committee, yet obtuse enough to avoid actually admitting that they had done anything wrong.

While they were doing this, Feynman put a piece of the O-ring material into a glass of ice water and let it sit there for a while. Then he took it out, stretched it, and showed that it had lost the pliability that it needed to do its job. With a simple demonstration, he not only showed the fault that led to the Challenger explosion, but at the same time put a bunch of self-aggrandizing stuffed shirts in their places.

I love that story.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a Feynman book to read – and who isn’t? – this is the one to start with. There’s not much hard talk about science in it, just lots of stories about a really interesting guy. Even if it doesn’t make you want to get into quantum electrodynamic theory, I hope it still makes you look at the world in a different way.

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“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!
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Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Wikipedia
Richard Feynman on Wikipedia
Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! on Amazon.com

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Filed under autobiography, Richard Feynman, science