Christmas Reading

The prospect of time off to write and read instills a deep sense of happiness and calm in me.  These are some of the books that I’ll be taking to the mountain village of La Granja to read between wines and writing. Click title links or book cover image for more info.  Reviews to come later on this blogito…

Merry Christmas!

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Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin, whigh the excellent film was based on. After researching the story itself, I found that the book reveals much that the (well done) minimalistic film kept hidden.

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Admittedly, I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I trust Gore Vidal to be reliable and honest in a way most other writers cannot be.  If one can separate the man from the work (his occasional grumps and stupid rants), he reveals a talent for writing that could make a 657-page account of Lincoln worth reading.

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Largely unknown to Americans, P.G. Wodehouse is a treasure for many readers of English. His particular sense of humor is lauded by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, amongst others, and that is all I need to discover a new way to laugh.  This is a collection that is recommended by Fry.

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I discovered Ted Chiang in college, a light of hope for those in the short story field, and I remembered him recently. He has a wonderful way of mixing sci-fi and literary short story. The new film “Arrival,” a truly intelligent alien film (for a change), is based on his story “Stories of Your Life,” and delves into the linguistics of communicating with an alien.

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Christopher Hitchens admired our third President in ways that have been largely forgotten in today’s indentity politics and partisan climate. But Hitchens, of course, was a measured, objective and balanced study, and when writing about subjects that can be politicized and hijacked, there is sometimes little more valuable in nonfiction work.

 

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Miguel Delibes wrote a historical novel on the turbulent time of the late 16th century Castile, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Discovery. Set in Valladolid 4 years after the Junta de Valladolid, and at the time of Martin Luther’s beginning of the Protestant Refromation, this novel will serve to inform.

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I have been wanting to read this one for as long as I’ve been interested in travel and reading (and writing). An essential in the library of any travel writer, in my opinion.

 

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Antonio Machado is a treasure in Spain, one of the greats of the “generation of 1898.”  I have a lasting interest in literature that is engaged with the landscape of a place.  This book is a collection of poetry about Castilla, a place near to my heart and home.  Presented bilingually, as any translation of poetry should be.

 

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Camilo José Cela is another Spanish treasure, and a Nobel Prize winner who is profoundly connected to the landscape of places where he lived and visited.  Another essential read for those interested in the culture of Spain.

 

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From Eternity to Here

img_1036To extinguish your total bank of knowledge on the subject of a book by page 11 can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your self esteem, your habits of curiosity or your attitude about learning.  I try not to read books that I suspect will simply restate what I already know, or ones that I am predisposed to agree with. Rather I enjoy books that are a bit out of my league. I may have overshot a bit with this one.

If you have ever watched Sean Carroll’s Youtube videos, you know that his verbal speed is not much slower than 299,792,458 meters per second, which is also the known speed of light. But a book can be paused, reread, skimmed and scanned, and Carroll is one of those Richard Feynman kind of physicists that perfectly explains complex ideas that are nearly impossible for the layman to retain, much less explain to another layman. And the reader can reread as many times as it takes to get it (the pictures help, too).

The idea of time has fascinated me ever since I sat one day at a bus stop and realized that if there is no matter, there can be no time.  So what is time? In an episode of Brian Cox’s excellent series The Wonders of the Universe, Cox explains that the reason things are the way they are is because it is much more likely that they would become that way than another way. Things change from an ordered state to a disordered state because there are many more different ways to be disordered than ordered.  And this is crucial in the understanding of time and why it is important.

Entropy is the number of ways that the components of a system can be rearranged without a noticeable difference.  As Brian Cox explains above, a pile of sand has high entropy, and a sand castle has low entropy.  There is no law in physics that says the sandcastle could not  be blown by the wind to form another adjacent, identical sand castle; it is only much more likely that it will not. Why is this important in relation to time?  We know now that entropy always increases over time, and the only way that we really know the difference between the past and the present is because of the processes of matter changing from low entropy to high entropy.  It is the reason we can’t remember the future, why we get old, why it’s very hard to unscramble an egg, why there is an arrow of time that goes in only one direction.  We notice change and therefore conceptualize that change with time.

I can now move on with my day, and chapter 2.

This is why I read.

 

From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

By: Sean Carroll 

Dutton, 438 pages

Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).

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                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.

 

 

A Film about Everything

img_0812Terrence Malick’s latest, “Voyage of Time,” appears to be as ambitious as it sounds, a visual journey from the beginning of time to the end of it, and it could be incredible.  Richard Brody describes Malick’s work most effectively, using satisfying scientific parlance–the interstitial scenes of a broken relationship, occupying a rarefied plane of thought–and he seems to value his work in a way few do.

I agree with Brody in that Malick often gets a prompt dismissal from the viewing public because his work operates outside the day-to-day actions of normal life, or framed stage life; it also dwells in the small moments that Hollywood skips over, the moments that people (who think they know what constitutes art or experience) think don’t make good cinema, and he shoots the overwhelmingly beautiful scenery and sounds around us, be it city or desert, or in the living room or in a raging party.  These invariably inarticulate dismissals of Malick’s films, or other serious works, are particularly tiresome to me, but it’s Friday and I’m in a forgiving mood.

Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of Voyage of Time click here

We can now add to Malick’s scope the space between the microcosm and macrocosm, or at least the pleasant struggle to find the difference.  Voyage of Time seems to nurture that small place of comfort that some of us find in the knowledge that the universe operates completely independent of us– the observers– yet our ability to observe, to recognize beauty, to understand natural processes through curiosity and empirical evidence, is really what defines us and what defines happiness.  The preface of the film seems to try to get at truth (see below). And any film that tries to demonstrate the beauty and significance of a cosmos that is indifferent to us, thorough images that do not exist to be seen by us, is unlikely to engender despair. Rather, (I hope) it reminds us of the deep satisfaction in our desire to contemplate and to understand, to make connections and describe what is beautiful.  This is what I understand to be science, philosophy and art, all in one.

 

A Death in Venice

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A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating.  The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film.  There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.

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Death in Venice, novel by German writer Thomas Mann (1921).

Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of  Nietzsche’s Apollo.  Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.

The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.

Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism.  For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.

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The Slow Making of a Language

imageOtto Jespersen (1860-1943) was a Danish linguist, and one of the strongest authorities on the English language.  His Growth and Structure of the English Language is a little volume packed full of practical findings about the history of English, yet one gets the feeling that it only scratches the surface of the study, at times even summary and terse.

He demonstrates in some detail the obvious influence of the Normans and the French language on English, so blatant an influence that the reader is left with the impression that our language would be unrecognizable without it.  The obvious contrast between the vernacular of the higher classes (the Normans) and the everyday language of the humbler rural worker (those occupied by the conquest) is interesting enough, but what is striking is the mystery of how the language of the French was spread to those who undoubtedly found it irrelevant to their lives, and how it influences how we speak today.  Vocabulary, verbs and official names not only relating to but directly describing the law, fashion, cuisine, war and military, skilled labor, art and descriptions of leisure activities come from the French in vast quantities. And it was not a matter of one culture merely borrowing terms from another, the Normans introduced these aspects of culture into a native population that lacked them, whatever the level of intention.

The Danes also gave English some of its most important function words, and they influenced modern day English in a different way that is no less fascinating.  English owes less to the Norse tongues than to French in quantity, but possibly more in functionality.  For example, we received the words get, they, them, the, that, this, as well as the suffixes -by, -thorp, -beck, -dale, and -thwaite.  And they really were received, received from an invading force who introduced both a concepts and the words to describe them.

From p. 123:

“It should be noted…that when once a certian pronunciation or signification has been firmly established in a language, the word fulfills its purpose in spite of ever so many might-have-beens, and that, at any rate, correctness in one language should not be measured by the yard of another language.”  

An essential reference for any English speaker with an interest in why we say the words we say.

And I haven’t even finished the Latin and Greek chapters yet…

Science in the Classroom and Beyond

The Internet is saturated with information, some bogus, precious little accurate and useful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in study of science. I value applicable lessons that explain current events in cosmology (among many other things). These are some examples of real efforts to help teachers and amateurs alike to get kids or curious people excited about the incredible natural world beyond.

Lewis Dartnell has a lesson plan to help kids understand how we detect exoplanets.

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http://lewisdartnell.com/en-gb/2016/08/exoplanets-classroom-worksheet/

Click here for NASA’s list of confirmed and documented exoplanets. It is even more interesting using the information in the lesson plans above.

 

Universe Todayimage is a website that I am on all the time. New Horizon’s Pluto discoveries and photos, Curiosity on Mars (and other landers, probes, rovers, spaceships and satellites) ,  SpaceX news, solar system information, deep space, Hubble and Webb telescope news and info…etc..)

 

Phil Plait’s (Twitter: @BadAstronomer) Bad imageAstronomy blog is now on slate.com. Just click on the health & science tab of the website, or this link.

 

imageHeavens Above is one of my favorite astronomy websites because it is full of real useful information that answers those annoying questions I always seem to have. Think you’ve seen a UFO? It was probably an Iridium flash.  Want to track Saturn, ISS, Hubble, Tiangong 1, or a North Korean satellite? Or spacecraft escaping our solar system? It’s here.

Google for Education has chosen some lesson plans from science teachers, almost all of them are great for younger students. A great collection of physics and science lessons related to the movie Interstellar used to be available there, but I’ve been having trouble finding it. I suspect some IP issue there. But check out this list in the meantime.

This Week in Science from the Richard Dawkins Foundation is a periodic collection of articles and news of what’s happening in science today.  Includes much more than cosmology, and always a good read.

And no list like this would be complete without NASA.gov and Space.com. Loads and loads of real information.

Go outside and look up!