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Review 223: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

LL 223 - Kavalier and ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I have long been a reader of comic books, as you probably know by now if you’ve been following my reviews. Ever since I was a kid, comic books have been there, reliably giving me my costumed heroes and world-beating wonders, storylines that wrapped themselves up in a few issues or less. I could – and still can – recite the secret origins and backstories for hundreds of characters at the drop of a hat. [1] The comics universe was a place where I would gladly live, assuming the powers and physique came with it.

What I didn’t know anything about, during those formative years, was the actual creators of comics. It wasn’t until I started to really pay attention that I noticed who the writers and artists were, and names like John Byrne, George Perez, Dick Giordiano, John Ostrander and their colleagues came to have meaning for me. I was soon able to see a little better the work that went into making comics, and the art that doing so required.

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

What took me longer to learn, however, was the history of comic books, and how all of these wonderful worlds came to be. The history of comics, as it turned out, is a fascinating story full of brilliant characters, amazing achievements, jaw-dropping betrayals, and vast shifts in cultural and literary attitudes. Names like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster – these were not the names I grew up with, but they are the ones who made my childhood possible.

Michael Chabon has managed to give us a glimpse into that history through his book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a history of comic books from a slightly different point of view.

The titular characters, Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, are cousins from opposite ends of the world. Kavalier, a young Jew from Czechoslovakia, has escaped certain death at the hands of the Nazis and come to America to seek his fortune. Sam Clay is a young man of great ambition, but few means. Apart, they are lost and wandering, but together they become a force that changes culture as they know it.

Stan "The Man" Lee

Stan “The Man” Lee

Armed only with a few ideas, bravado, and a good helping of talent, Sam and Joseph break into the newborn world of superhero comic books, creating a character that catches the imagination of readers all over the country. Soon, the Escapist – a master of the art of escapology – is popular enough to rival Superman, and has the potential to make Sam and Joe very rich men.

What follows is a complex, interwoven dual biography as the team of Kavalier and Clay find fame, break up, find love, risk death, and eventually settle into something resembling happiness over the course of several decades. Along the way, the complicated and adventurous history of comic books is a constant in their lives, from the heady days of wartime superheroes to the dark era of Senate hearings and Frederic Wertham’s crusade against the comics.

As one might expect from Chabon, it’s a narrative that covers a lot of ground. It wanders and moves about, going off into places that the reader might not expect, from an Antarctic military base to a men’s retreat on a posh Long Island estate. In that sense, you would think it would be heard to pin down what this book is actually about. It’s about family and friendship, it’s about art and creativity and risking everything for the one big chance at success. It’s about facing your fears and accepting your choices. It’s about so many things, all at once.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

But what it’s most about is freedom. With the character of the Escapist as the book’s central metaphor, we watch a cast of characters search for freedom. It might be political freedom as Joe tries to get his family out of Europe, or creative freedom as Sam looks for a way to make the ideas in his head into real things. It’s freedom from the restraints of a publisher, and from the responsibilities that come with being a friend and a partner. Everyone in this book is searching for freedom at one time or another, and those searches are neither easy nor short.

There is a certain quality to Chabon’s writing that I wish I could emulate, and the problem is that I can’t say exactly what that quality is. Perhaps it is the way he selects details that so perfectly illustrate a character. Perhaps it’s turns of phrase that linger in the mind, or moments of natural emotion that might have you smiling or worried or – if there’s some dust in the room perhaps – wondering where you put your handkerchief. The characters are vivid and real and interesting, as is the world they live in. His use of detail, his manipulation of both time and space through the use of flashback scenes, make the book great entertainment.

250px-Michael_Chabon_Presents_the_Amazing_Adventures_of_the_Escapist_01It’s not perfect, certainly – there are places where the book slows down, and you want the focus to return to one of the other characters, to examine a new question, but those moments of clear beauty make it all worth it to me. What it all amounts to is a group of wonderful characters who are all looking to find a place where they can settle down and stop escaping from themselves.

—-
“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
– Kornblum, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
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[1] The Boyfriend has learned to be wary of asking me about comics. If I’m not careful and very, very succinct, he’ll just walk away while I’m still talking…

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Filed under adventure, alternate history, comic books, family, friendship, Michael Chabon, super-heroes

Review 222: Sourcery

LL 222 - SourcerySourcery by Terry Pratchett

Yes, I know – I’ve gone on a Discworld bender. Just one, I thought to myself – I’ll just read Lords and Ladies and that’ll be it. But then I saw Small Gods just sitting there… looking at me. Next thing you know I’m halfway through Sourcery and I don’t know how I got there. I may need professional help…. What am I supposed to do, though? They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re entertaining! I promise, though – after this, I’ll leave the Discworld alone for a little while.

If I can.

The Discworld, being a flat world that is carried through space on the backs of four elephants, who in turn are standing – rather patiently, I think – on the back of a great turtle, is, understandably, a world awash in magic. There are magical creatures on the Disc – trolls and dwarfs and elves – and people who know how to use the magic that infuses the world. People like wizards.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they're not recommended.

There are other ways to be a wizard, but they’re not recommended.

If you want to be a wizard, there are ways to get there. The best thing you can do is to be the eighth son of an eighth son – that type is almost certainly destined for the more arcane arts. Once you’ve become a wizard, you dedicate yourself to one thing: magic. And late lunches, comfortable robes and your pointy hat, but mainly to magic. Wizards don’t marry. Wizards certainly don’t have children.

Except for one wizard. Ipsalore the Red, the eighth son of an eighth son, broke this law of wizardry. He fell in love, ran away from the University, and had sons of his own. Eight of them. His youngest son, Coin, was the carrier of a great power. He was the eighth son of the eighth son of an eighth son. Wizardry squared.

A Sourcerer.

Back in the old days, when the magic on the disc was much wilder, there were sourcerers everywhere. They built great castles and fought horrible wars of magic, the effects of which still scar the Disc to this day. Modern wizardry is a pale reflection of those days, and for good reason. If wizards continued to battle as the sourcerers did, the disc would be broken beyond recognition. Every wizard knows this.

And yet, when young Coin comes to the Unseen University of Ankh-Morpork, bristling with power and holding a staff possessed by the ghost of his father, the wizards are more interested in the power he can give them than the responsibility they have. A sourcerer has arisen, and a new age of magic has come, with all of the terror that implies. Coin reminds them of what wizards used to be, and the power they used to have. Through him, old men who could barely manage a simple illusion are now able to re-shape the world with their wills. With a sourcerer behind them, there is nothing these wizards cannot accomplish.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Not quite Hogwarts material.

Only one man can stop them. His name is Rincewind, and he really, really doesn’t want to get involved.

Rincewind is a wizard (or, if you go by his pointy hat, a “Wizzard”), although he is so deficient in magical talent that it is believed that the average magical ability of the human population will actually goup once he dies. He wants nothing more than to be left alone to live a boring, mundane life. The universe, it seems, has different ideas. Together with Conina – the daughter of Cohen the Barbarian – and Nijel the Destroyer, Rincewind has to figure out how to stop a sourcerer from destroying the world.

This book is one of the early volumes of the Discworld series, and so it doesn’t quite have the depth that later books do. Oh, there’s certainly a message to be found in it – mainly on the subject of identity. Rincewind identifies himself as a wizard, despite having all the magical talent of a lump of silly putty, and cannot conceive of being anything else. The sourcerer Coin, on the other hand, has been told who he is to become, mainly by the spirit of his dead (and rather monomaniacal) father. Conina has the blood of heroes in her veins, but her dream is to wield nothing sharper than a pair of beautician’s scissors. And Nijel the Destroyer – who looks almost exactly the way his name sounds – desperately wants to be a barbarian hero, despite being about as muscular as a wet noodle.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Yes indeed. Be yourself. Whatever that may be.

Despite all of this, however, the characters succeed when they decide for themselves who they want to be. The ones who suffer the most are the other wizards – the ones who allow Coin to tell them who they are. They invest their entire sense of self in the inflated image fed to them by the sourcerer – an image of power and strength – and when it all comes crashing down around them, they are only left with shame and disappointment. In the end, they remain who they always were, and that is the tragedy of their downfall.

So if there’s a lesson to be had in this book, that’s it: know who you are and be it, as hard and as loud as you can. Other than that, it’s a rollicking little adventure. Enjoy.

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“It’s vital to remember who you really are. It’s very important. It isn’t a good idea to rely on other people or things to do it for you, you see. They always get it wrong.”
-Rincewind, Sourcery
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Filed under Discworld, fantasy, identity, Terry Pratchett, wizardry

Review 221: We Learn Nothing

LL 221 - We Learn NothingWe Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider

While I was reading this book – in a faculty meeting, I have to confess – my colleague looked over, looked at the title and remarked something along the lines of, “That’s completely against what we do here.” I just shrugged, flicked to the next page, and went on reading, as it would have taken too long to explain right there, to say nothing of outing me as someone who wasn’t paying what might be called “strict attention” to what was being presented at the time.

Book Release InvitationIt is true that, as teachers, we might recoil from the idea that we learn nothing. After all, if that is true, then what are we even doing here? It might seem that some of our students have chosen this motto as the guiding principle for their years of secondary education, but still and all, we like to believe that they come out of this school having learned something – if only how to bullshit the teacher into thinking you’re smarter than you really are.

Kreider isn’t talking about book learnin’ here, though. He’s not talking about learning how to do math or why the sun shines or how to make a delicious pie. Those are indeed things we can learn, and should learn. What he’s talking about are the things we fail to learn in life, the big-scale decisions about love and family and politics, where no matter how badly we screw up, we always seem ready – eager, even – to stand up, brush ourselves off, and screw up again.

He begins the book with a statement that not many of us can make: “Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds.”

Past TimKreider goes on to say that there is an expectation that getting stabbed in the neck and nearly dying is the kind of thing that should make a person re-evaluate his life. Perhaps gain some perspective on the things that are important and those that are merely trivial. And while there was a time where he looked at the world anew, eventually he reset back to where he was before his brush with death. Yelling in traffic, getting impatient with other people, fixating on things that were in no way good to fixate upon.

In short, after the ephemeral nature of life was made clear, he eventually went back to living as though nothing had changed, simply because one cannot live in a constant state of gosh-wow bliss all the time.

Through this collection of funny, touching, and thoughtful essays, Kreider looks at the lessons he just doesn’t seem to want to learn. He talks about the women who have broken his heart, and how given the chance, he’d let them do it again. He reminisces lovingly over his extended youth of drunkenness and adventure, knowing that it wasn’t the best way to spend so many years, but at the same time knowing he wouldn’t trade them in for a more conventional life. He lets us in on the dark secret of the crazy, pathological uncle that he tried to help despite his mother’s insistence that he stay as far away as he can, about his attempts to infiltrate the Tea Party just to find out if it was crazy as we all thought it was, and about letting his anger and frustration have free rein as he drew cartoons during the Bush Years.

We Could've Had the MoonIn short, Kreider is just as aware of his flaws as he is unable to correct them. But it’s not his fault, really, as these are flaws that we all have. They’re glitches in our reasoning and gaps in our self-knowledge that we couldn’t fix even if we wanted to. They’re part of the human drive towards self-destruction – potent in some, less so in others – that cause us to make irrational decisions that we know we’ll regret in the fullness of time. While my life may not have been quite as exciting and turbulent as Kreider’s, I could still see in his stories the same kind of willful ignorance of shortcomings that has sabotaged many a good thing in my own life.

But as bad as all that sounds, they make us who we are. Kreider wouldn’t be who he is and do the things he does if it weren’t for the events that shaped him. The decisions he made throughout his life – the bad and the good – molded his personality, gave him purpose, and made him the person that he is. The same can be said for all of us. We have our weaknesses, our foibles, our neuroses, many of which are prime impediments to having what we imagine to be a good life. What we can change, we should. But those things that we cannot change about ourselves are perhaps the things we should embrace. They are the things that keep us humble and human, and as long as we know they’re there, well… maybe they won’t do too much damage.

——-
“The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.”
– Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

The Pain Comics (not entirely work-safe)
We Learn Nothing on Amazon.com

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Filed under essays, humor, memoir, Tim Kreider

Review 220: Towers of Midnight (Wheel of Time 13)

LL 220 - WoT 13 - Towers of MidnightWheel of Time 13: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

This is it, folks. We’re nearly done. Hang in there….

I’m finding this book tough to review for a few reasons. Firstly, reviewing it is kind of like preaching to the choir – if you’ve read this far into Wheel of Time then you really don’t need me to tell you that you ought to read this book. You probably already have, maybe more than once. If you haven’t started the series, there’s so much information you need to know in order for this book to make sense that this review will have no real significance for you. So I’ll just have to tell you what I thought and hope that’s enough.

Be warned: Spoilers ahead. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but they’re there.

As with all the Wheel of Time books, a lot happens in this volume. Some of the events have been anticipated by the fans for more than a decade, others are wonderful surprises. Either way, they’re setting us up for what I expect to be the Mother of All Finales when A Memory of Light comes out.

They do say Two Rivers folk could give lessons to mules in stubbornness, so...

They do say Two Rivers folk could give lessons to mules in stubbornness, so…

Let’s begin with Perrin, since he gets the most page time in this book. He has rescued his wife from the Shaido Aiel, along with a city full of refugees and former prisoners. Despite what he wants, these people look to him to be their leader, something he wants no part of. He just wants to send everybody home, forget that he was ever called the Lord of the Two Rivers, and go back to leading a normal life. But the Wheel won’t let that happen. Perrin Aybara is ta’veren, one of those individuals who both shape and are shaped by the Pattern, and what he wants doesn’t much figure into it.

One of the issues I’ve had with Perrin, actually, is this steadfast, stubborn ignorance of what and who he truly is. For many books now, he’s been going through this whole “I just want to be normal” phase, when it’s obvious to everyone else – his wife, the people traveling with him, the dead wolves he talks to, to say nothing of the readers – that Perrin can never lead a normal life again. As with real people, it’s frustrating to see them deny what’s so clearly true, and that was one of the reasons why Perrin has never been my favorite character.

He turns around on that in this book, however. He does finally start to make peace with who and what he is, and understands his duties to the people who follow him. With that understanding comes strength – the strength to win over his greatest enemies and to master the abilities available to him in the World of Dreams. Perrin is finally coming into his own as both a leader and a warrior, and it will be good to see him look forward to the future instead of long for a past he can’t have anymore.

At this point, Mat would probably say, "It's all part of the plan!!"

At this point, Mat would probably say, “It’s all part of the plan!!”

Mat is another who has been getting under my skin. While I love the way that Sanderson writes him – much funnier, more sarcastic, more modern than Jordan wrote him – he also wants nothing more than to opt out of the role that fate has decreed for him. Through his travels, he has been granted centuries of knowledge about battle and war, he has gone toe-to-toe against creatures that literally defy human understanding, and has a power over luck and fortune that has saved him more times than he can count. Yet he still resists the destiny that is clear to everyone else – to be a leader in the Last Battle.

And that battle is definitely coming soon. Vast armies of Shadowspawn are overwhelming the northern defenses, turning whole cities into killing grounds. Food is rotting at a rapid rate, sometimes as soon as it is prepared. The very fabric of space and time is twisting, moving things around randomly. Rooms, streets, entire villages might shift and vanish in the night. The Dark One is nearly free, and there are very few options open when it comes to stopping him.

Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, has one idea – to break the seals of the Dark One’s prison so that it may be re-sealed. Rand’s opinion, however, is not very well regarded at the moment. Despite being the prophesied warrior on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests, he’s been kind of an unpredictable nutjob of late. In an attempt to be ready to save the world, Rand tried to distance himself from all emotion, all ties to the world, so that he could be hard enough to do what must be done when the End Times come. He has done terrible things in the name of What Must Be Done, which has led some to fear that the world would be doomed regardless of who won the final battle.

He’s feeling much better now, though. He has come to a state of understanding that should allow him not only victory against the Dark One but also peace. Unfortunately, it’s going to take some time to convince others of that, especially Egwene – formerly the Girl Next Door, now the Amyrlin Seat, leader of all Aes Sedai.

This is gonna be AWESOME! (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

This is gonna be AWESOME! (art by dem888 on DeviantArt)

Having ended the internecine feud within the White Tower and begun the process of reconciliation, Egwene finds herself at odds against Rand and those who follow him. She agrees with his ends – victory over the Dark One – but not his means. If necessary, she will stand against the Dragon Reborn all the way to the end of the world.

There’s so much more, too. There are action scenes between Mat and the vicious gholam that made me wish I had an animation studio at my disposal. A heartbreaking reunion between father and son. A terrible vision of the future of the Aiel, should things continue the way they are. Ragtag armies barely holding their own, people who we thought were dead revealed to be alive, sons reunited with their mother, battles against the forces of darkness, mislaid messages, a daring rescue, a growing army, and so, so much more.

The complexity of Wheel of Time is understandably off-putting for a lot of new readers, but I think Sanderson is doing a very good job at putting all the pieces together. We are now on the brink of the end, ready to dive into the Last Battle and the much-anticipated Fourth Age. Questions will be answered, people will live, nations will die, and the Wheel of Time will turn.

Stick with me folks, it’s only going to get better.

——————————————————————-
“After what we went through together, it turns out that she’s Morgase Trakand. Not just a queen – the Queen. The woman’s a legend. And she was here, with us, serving us tea. Poorly.”
– Alliandre, Towers of Midnight
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Robert Jordan at Wikipedia
Robert Jordan at Tor.com
Towers of Midnight at Wikipedia
Wheel of Time at Wikipedia
Towers of Midnight at Amazon.com

Wheel of Time discussion and resources (spoilers galore):
Theoryland
Dragonmount
The Wheel of Time Re-read at Tor.com
The Wheel of Time FAQ
Wheel of Time at TVTropes.com

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Filed under adventure, Brandon Sanderson, epic fantasy, fantasy, Robert Jordan, war, Wheel of Time, wizardry

Review 219: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

LL 219 - The Pleasure of Finding Things OutThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman

Here’s the problem with having high expectations: they’re so often dashed.

In my years trawling the web and being a science nerd, I heard a lot about Richard Feynman. There are legends about him, that he was the Puck of physics – brilliant, untamed, and really, really funny. I read another book of his, Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought that this book, with a title that appealed to me and by an author-scientist whom I respected, would be as much fun.

When I got the book, I was expecting to read a lightning-quick volley of ideas that would set my mind alight with the wonder and infinite possibilities contained within a lifetime’s pursuit of science.

Yeah, that didn’t quite happen.

"Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And do you know where he put it?"

“Robert Oppenheimer kept formulas in this watch, son. And let me tell you – Feynman never found it”

Don’t get me wrong – Feynman is indisputably brilliant, and far from the classic mold of the physicist. He had no patience for titles or honors, and in fact couldn’t give a damn about them as long as he had science to do. He would tell Nobel laureates – men whose names were bywords for scientific brilliance – that they were wrong, without hedging or worrying about their egos. He liked to play the bongos, loved a good party, and delighted in playing tricks. One of his more irritating hobbies was safe-cracking, and by the time he left Los Alamos labs after the Manhattan Project there were no places left to hide secrets from Feynman.

So Feynman was no doubt a really cool guy, the kind of scientist you would want to invite to your party without hesitation. His first interest was science, and as scientist go, he was one of the best.

That doesn’t mean that reading him is always entirely entertaining.

The book is, for me, not very readable for two reasons. The first is that it goes get terribly technical at times, and while I love science, I am not educated enough in it to grasp a lot of the technical details. Indeed, it broke my heart when Feynman said that, when it comes to physics, if you don’t know the math, you don’t know the science. True, yes. Humbling, yes. But still….

Were I editing a collection of Feynman’s work, I would have started with the Big Ideas, defenses of science as an integral function of humanity’s ultimate progress. Then, having made the reader comfortable with how Feynman thought, they could have gotten into what Feynman thought.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

The pitcher of ice water was an integral demonstration item, by the way.

But no, the book starts off with highly technical lectures on quantum electrodynamics and the difficulties in getting parallel computers to work. If you don’t know a lot about how computers work, or you don’t have a detailed awareness of atomic theory, you’re going to be a little lost. Or a lot lost. Even his minority opinion on the Challenger accident, something I was especially keen to read, was far too dry to be as enjoyable as I wanted it to be.

The second reason why I didn’t really enjoy this book is because a lot of it is transcripts of speeches and interviews. Very few people are able to speak in a readable manner, and someone with a mind like Feynman’s – always moving, always active – isn’t one of them. There are a lot of asides and false starts, wandering thoughts and truncated paragraphs. Even his more structured speeches aren’t structured very well for the reader.
I think it would be different to listen to him, to sit in the audience and watch the man speak. Indeed, if you go to YouTube and look around, there are a lot of videos from interviews that he gave, and he’s great fun to watch. He had the kind of infectious energy and enthusiasm that would make it easy to gloss over structural problems and really enjoy the speech. When you listen, you easily get the passion that he has for science and for physics in particular. Turning speech into print is always dangerous, however, and here I think it fails.

The first image in a search for "Feynman Acolytes." Tell me this man couldn't have been a cult leader.

The first image in a search for “Feynman Acolytes.” Tell me this man couldn’t have been a cult leader.

For different people – people who are deeply involved in physics or who are Feynman acolytes – this book is probably a fascinating look into the mind of one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists. For the rest of us, we’re going to have to find other things to enjoy from the text, and it is there. One of those is, indeed, the title of the book – the pleasure of finding things out.

For Feynman, science wasn’t a rigor or a job, it was a joy. He attributes a lot of that attitude to his father, an unlikely fan of science. As a uniform salesman, Feynman’s father was not a scientist and had no scientific training. But he raised his son to think about the world. Rather than tell him why, for example, a bird picked at its feathers with its beak, encouraged Richard to observe the bird, to form a hypothesis and then see if observations confirmed it. His father taught him to question everything, to form his own opinions about the world, and by doing so, made him into a scientist from an early age.

It is that attitude which should be the dominant theme of this book, rather than Feynman’s technical genius. He says, over and over, to doubt everything. Ask yourself why things are the way they are, rather than just relying on what other people tell you. Observe, experiment and test, and you’re doing science.

He has some disdain for social sciences, and a pretty healthy dose of misogyny in a couple of places, but if he is arrogant, then it is probably deserved. Feynman was a man fascinated with how the universe worked, all the way down to its smallest components, and that was his passion. Not awards, not titles, not praise – just the work, the discovery and the pleasure.

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“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”
– Richard Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
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Filed under essays, memoir, physics, Richard Feynman, science

Review 218: Why does E=MC2?

LL 218 - Why Does EMC2Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Way back in the mists of ancient time, when I was a college drama student, we all went down to New York City to see Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. I don’t remember much of it now, but I remember it had to do with math and fractals, time and space, and that when the play was over and we all went outside for a smoke, I had a moment of what could only be called sublime clarity. I stood out there with my cigarette, staring off into the middle distance, and – for just an ever-so-brief time – I understood everything.

Not the play, mind you. Everything. It all made sense. It was nothing I could have put into words or explained in any period of time shorter than a lifetime, but it all worked. It all fit together, and I knew what the universe was and what my place in it was. It’s probably how Fenchurch felt in The Hitchhiker’s Guide right before the Earth was demolished.

It... it all makes sense now.

It… it all makes sense now.

And that feeling was wonderful.

It passed, though, because no one can be allowed to hold on to that kind of clarity of understanding. We’d never get anything done. By the time I got on the bus, I was trying to claw my way back to it, understanding but not caring that this was a place you couldn’t find the same way twice. The fine, crystalline perfection of the universe had once again been hidden from my mind, and all that was left was the memory of what it had felt like to know that everything was as it should be.

Reading this book was kind of the opposite of that experience. On every page, I knew that if I would be able to hold on to these ideas just a moment longer, if I could just put the pieces together a little faster, then I would have true understanding of the elegant beauty of creation. But I couldn’t, and I was left with the feeling that it was my own shortcomings that were at fault, rather than those of the authors.

Cox and Forshaw have set a very interesting challenge for themselves in this book. They want to explain one of the most famous equations in human history, and to do it in such a way that the non-scientist reader can understand not only what it means, but where it came from and what its implications are. This is no mean feat, of course, on any front. For all its simplicity, E=mc2 contains within it some of the most important and fundamental understandings about how the universe works. To truly understand this equation is to understand time and space, matter and energy, existence in four dimensions and at scales both vast and tiny.

They begin with what looks like a very simple question: where are we? Galileo pondered this question for a while, and came up with an answer that was probably both enlightening and horrifying for his time.

We don’t know.

Very helpful, thank you.

Very helpful, thank you.

Oh sure, we can know where we are in relation to something else – between a pair of arbitrarily numbered latitude and longitude lines, for example, or at a position around the star that we orbit. But a moment’s thought reveals that we still need to explain where the reference point is, and that we can only explain that in relation to something else, which can only be positioned by yet another relative measurement. In other words, there is no such things as an absolute location in space. There is no universal “there” there by which we can understand the position of anything.

Man, that must’ve freaked him out.

The next insight is that if there is no absolute place, then there also cannot be any absolute motion. As I type this, I am sitting in my comfy chair. As far as I’m concerned, I’m motionless. But I’m not. To an alien on the moon, I’m moving with the Earth’s rotation, whipping past at a breakneck pace of about 1,600 kilometers per hour. On top of that, the Earth is moving around the sun at over 100,000 km/h. which is in turn dragging the whole solar system around the center of the galaxy at roughly 220 kilometers per second, and the galaxy itself is moving through intergalactic space at over 600 km/s, and space itself is expanding at what can only be Ludicrous Speed.

So questions that seem like they should be simple turn out to be really hard to answer. But what comes next is even worse: if there is no absolute place or motion, then what about time? How can we have an immutable, fixed time if there is no such thing as an immutable, fixed place?

Look, I don't know how to make it any simpler than this.

Look, I don’t know how to make it any simpler than this.

Cox and Forshaw proceed to lead us by the hand through the discoveries and realizations of scientists such as Faraday and Maxwell, with a little bit of Pythagoras and Galileo, before bringing us to Einstein and beyond. Through the use of lightspeed trains, mirror-clocks, and a whole variety of illustrative analogies, they take us step-by-step through the process of moving from our understanding of three-dimensional semi-Euclidean space to a four-dimensional spacetime. They guide us through physics and geometry, on scales both large and small, and show not just what E=mc2 means, but how Einstein got to it, and how we’ve proven it so far.

In that sense, this book is a great success. The popular vision of Einstein is that he came up with Relativity because he was bored at work, and that it popped into his head fully formed. But without the work of countless scientists before him, Einstein wouldn’t have had a place to start. E=mc2 is built on the foundations of meticulous science, and is supported by a logical structure that is both elegant and simple. What’s more, his theories of relativity have been tested again and again in all kinds of ways, and they have stood up to those tests. And not for lack of trying, mind you – there isn’t a physicist alive who wouldn’t be thrilled to prove Einstein wrong and propose a more accurate version of reality. But so far, it seems to be the best explanation there is.

For all their care and meticulousness, however, the book is still a bit tough to get through. One of the things that got in my way was how they constantly apologized for using math. I understand why they did it – a lot of adults have a hate-fear relationship with math, and especially equations that start using letters. Math still has an element of mystery and wizardry about it, at least if you’re not very proficient in it, and I get that they didn’t want to scare off any math-phobics from their book.

Wau!

Wau!

But at the same time, I think I would rather they had said, “Okay, follow along with us – it’s about to get MATHTASTIC!” Well, maybe not those words, but I started to get a little tired of being talked to like a timid child as the book went on. They said over and over that I could skip the math parts if I wanted to, and sure enough that’s what I ended up doing. But I think I would have come out of this book with a much better sense of understanding and accomplishment if Cox and Forshaw had said, “We’re going to do math and you’re going to understand it.” As it is, they talked to me like I was a slightly dim child, and I still didn’t fully understand. So what, then, does that say about me?

That I seriously overthink things, for a start.

In any case, even if I didn’t get the math, and didn’t see where all their conclusions came from – especially when they started going over the Master Equation of particle physics near the end – I at least came away with a better understanding of both the chain of reasoning that led to E=mc2 and the ramifications it has on our understanding of the universe. I don’t understand everything this time, at least not yet, but I know more. And that will have to do.

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“Science at its best is driven by inquiring minds afforded the freedom to dream, coupled with the technical ability and discipline to think.”
– Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw, Why Does E=mc2?

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Filed under astronomy, astrophysics, Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, mathematics, physics, science

Review 217: The Secret Life of Words

LL 217 - The Secret Life of WordsThe Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way – following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that’s certainly a valid way to do it, it’s a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens – the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided to look at history through the rise and spread of the English language – once an agglomeration of angry noises from a few small tribes in what would eventually become Europe, now a tongue that dominates the world. The English language is used by billions, studied by millions more. It’s the language of business, commerce, politics, law, entertainment and news, and has spread like no other language before it.

Hmmm... What other advantages does English have? It'll come to me...

Hmmm… What other advantages does English have? It’ll come to me…

The big question then becomes, How did this happen? How did English become what it has become? What is the history that led it to span the globe, and what qualities does it have that other languages don’t? In this book, Hitchings looks at the history of English – and by extension the Western world – through the growth of its vocabulary. Where did our words come from, and what does their journey into English tell us about our own history?

A modern English speaker, equipped with a time machine, could probably go back about four or five hundred years and still be confident that she would be able to converse with people. Maybe not with perfect clarity, and it would be an entertaining thing to watch, but it would certainly be possible. Before that, the conventions and lexis that we are all so familiar with will start to be more and more scarce, and by the time of Chaucer, our time traveler would have a hard time indeed. So, as far as languages go, modern English is a fairly young tongue. Over the last half-millennium or so, the sheer number of words available to English speakers has exploded, mainly due to what some would call the language’s “whorish” qualities – English will take up with any other language that comes along, accepting its words and making them its own. By following the spread of English, and the changes that it has made, we can see how people and cultures intermingled in the last thousand years or so.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Alcatraz also had Sean Connery, which should not be overlooked.

Hitchings begins at, more or less, the beginning, with the Anglo-Saxon roots of English and its almost immediate conflicts with Norman French and the languages of the invading and pillaging Norsemen. He follows the political swings of English, as the rulers of the British Isles alternatingly embrace and shun the language, until it finally becomes the tongue that defines that tiny island on the edge of the North Atlantic. He looks into Arabic and Latin, Japanese and the languages of the Native Americans. We see the wellsprings of the language of food and music, science, military and law. He introduces us to words that came into English through long and winding roads (one of my favorites is Alcatraz – from the Spanish word for “pelican,” which in turn comes from Arabic’s al-qadus for “machine for drawing water,” which is turn comes from Greek’s kados, meaning “jar” – quite a journey for such a miserable place.) The history of the English language is a fractal history, meaning that in order to understand it you also have to understand the histories of a dozen other languages and then the languages that came before them. To try and put it all down on paper is a monumental task indeed.

The study of English words is fascinating, though. I have recently become enamored of the “Way With Words” podcast, which dedicates itself to unraveling questions about English usage. The hosts are funny and engaging, and manage to give a brief history of words and phrases and all the little tics of English that make you annoyed enough to have to call a radio show about it. It’s a pleasure to listen to, which is probably why I listened to that show a whole lot more than I read this book.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Another stellar example of English in use. Heh. I met a pronoun once. She totally wanted me.

Mr. Hitchings has done an admirable job with this book, trying to cover all the different avenues by which words came into English. The paths that they followed are fascinating, and the stories behind them are the stories of Western culture and civilization. The trouble is that Hitchings doesn’t do all that good a job in making it interesting to the lay reader, i.e. me.

By and large, each chapter deals with a different source of vocabulary or a different time in history, but the narrative that he sets up tends to… wander about. There’s no real narrative to focus on, and while I know this isn’t supposed to be one, Hitchings is trying to tell us a story. It’s a long and complicated one, but it’s still a story, and as such needs to flow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

I can’t fault him for his research or his dedication, but I think he could have given more thought to the organization of the book. Instead of trying to cover as many sources as possible, perhaps he could have narrowed his focus. Instead of throwing out a dozen or so words at a time, he could have given us an in-depth narrative on just a few. Each chapter could probably have been expanded into its own book on the Arabic/Spanish/Latin/German/Greek/African origins of words, and so in reading it you get the feeling that there’s so much more that he’s glossing over. By trying to follow all the twisted paths of the history of English, it’s very easy for the reader to get lost.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

WARNING: Do not read this book while operating heavy machinery.

All I kept thinking as I read this was that I had much more fun reading Bill Bryson’s book, Mother Tongue, which covers the same topic but is much more enjoyable to read, and perhaps that was my mistake. By the time I got to the end, and was more or less just scanning pages so that I could legitimately say I’d finished it, I realized that this is not the kind of book that you settle down with and read all the way through. It’s a piecemeal book – pick it up, read a chapter, put it down and leave it alone for a while. When you’re in the mood for more language history, pick it up again and read another chapter. Give yourself time to mull it over and digest, and finish it when you finish it.

However you decide to get through it, you will certainly have a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of the English language, so regardless of how interesting it was narrative-wise, Hitchings has achieved his goal. English is an amazing language, and it behooves all its speakers to learn a little bit more about the amazing confluence of cultures that produced the sounds that you speak every day.

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“A new word is a solution to a problem. It answers a need – intellectual, experiential. Often the need is obvious, but sometimes it is unseen or barely felt, and then it is only in finding something to plug the gap that we actually realize the gap was there in the first place.”
– Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words
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Filed under English, Henry Hitchings, history, language