Monday, December 07, 2009

Cannonball Read II - #2 - "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." (Why Does E=mc2?, by Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw)

I make no bones about the fact that I'm a complete and utter physics nerd. It really shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given that I have a pesky little physics degree (and given that my friends continually amuse themselves by calling me a rocket scientist because of don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it stint working at NASA). But I realize that I'm in the minority. Most folks can't stand physics. Fewer still would actually call physics beautiful. But it is. Take Maxwell's equations (in their simplest form):

Most look at those and have grim flashbacks to to those heinous math and science classes they took in high school and college. But have no doubt that these four little suckers are a thing of absolute beauty, elegantly summarizing and explaining pretty much the entirety of classical electromagnetism - without these four little equations, our world would be a much colder and darker place, without whatever gadget you're using to read this review right now. Physics is the art of our universe.

Many people enjoy revisiting pieces of art with which they are already intimately familiar, be it paintings, books or media. I'm one of those people. But for me, the same is also true of physics. This is particularly the case given the fact that: (i) it's been over a decade since I've done any real work or study in the field; and (ii) I have a piss-poor memory. As a result of both of these factors, especially the later, I may remember and still have the ability to speak to some very basic things, but the vast majority of what I learned in college is long gone from my head (to be replaced with "Simpsons" quotes, fantasy football stats and legal mumbo-jumbo). So I love reading new physics books, even if they're already on topics I studied once upon a fortnight ago. Because I sorta get to rediscover the beauty of physics.

There are many good physics books for laymen. Books designed to give the average reader at least a basic understanding of some of the cooler things that exist in the study of physics. While E=mc2 tries to be one of those books, it fails on almost every level. Essentially, the book's goal is to first teach the reader how Einstein's famous equation came into being, and then show some of the implications of that very famous equation. And it does actually do both of these things, but you have to follow along, very carefully, with a relatively mess of a narrative.

There are two primary problems with E=mc2 (the book, not the equation). First, early on, the authors tell us they are going to steer clear of pretty much all math beyond the Pythagorean theorem (think back to your school days, and you'll remember it: "for a right triangle, the sum of the square of the two sides that meet at a right angle equal the square of the hypotenuse ... i.e., a2 + b2 = c2"). And it's possible to break a lot of these ideas down in a way that relies on very little and uncomplicated math. I've read several books that do it well. But Cox and Forshaw clearly love the math too much and can't help themselves, so they bring little bits in here and there, and talk around other bits of math here and there telling you, the reader, simply to trust them. But the whole thing does more harm than good.

Particularly when coupled with the book's other major problem, which is its structure. Cox and Forshaw cover a wide range of topics often covered in many of these types of books (with the major exception that there's not a single reference to string theory): special relativity, general relativity, the Standard Model, the Higgs boson (and, thus, the Large Hadron Collider), the derivation of Maxwell's equations, the formation of stars, how we all come from stars, the death of stars, etc. Point being, they cover a lot. And because their book is centered on Einstein's little equation, they go about a way of covering all these topics in an order a bit different from the standard way one might present these topics. Which may have worked in a book twice this one's length (242 pages). But in such a small space, they have to jump around and take diversions so often that it just reads as a mess. I was able to follow it all, because of an albeit-faded familiarity with the topics. But I suspect that many readers, with no real physics background, could find it a little overwhelming and, more problematically, just plain confusing and convoluted.

Point being, the book's just a bit too scattershot. Coupled with writing that attempts to be too flowery at times (in discussing the violent forces at play with pulsars: "We have discovered wonders beyond imagination." ... yes, I realize the irony in calling this quote out, given my "Physics is the art of our universe" above, but still ... blech), it all adds up to a big disappointment. By the end, I couldn't wait to just be done with the thing.

(The quote used for the title of this review is courtesy of Richard Feynman a favorite physicist of myself and many, many others. In fact, the book actually provides a great Feynman quote explaining the simplistic beauty of the scientific method:
In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to Nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is - if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. That's all there is to it.
Seriously, Feynman rules.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cannonball Read II - #1 - What Happens After Harry Potter's Balls Drop (The Magicians, by Lev Grossman)

"We need some unicorns or something up in this piece."

Turns out, we really don't need some unicorns or something up in this piece, but I'll come back to that in a bit....

From a one-line plot standpoint, Lev Grossman's The Magicians isn't anything new. The story of a kid whose mundane life goes down the proverbial rabbit hole thanks to Magic School is a logline that, of course, brings to mind the Harry Potter series, and a host of similar stories before it (Books of Magic and So You Want to Be a Wizard being two personally-cherished takes on this idea). But Grossman wisely doesn't pretend to be reinventing the wheel - in fact, within his book's universe, Harry Potter is as popular as it is in ours, and there are a few references to the popular series dropped in the book (including one about Hermione having some fugged-up British teef). But nobody ever asked Harry if he was too drunk to fuck and, therein, lies the difference between this book and that series.

Grossman has essentially written a more grownup version of the boy-goes-to-magic-school tale. The story's protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a smart but disenchanted New York teenager who winds up at Brakebills, a hidden-in-relatively-plain-sight magic school, after a college interview winds up taking a bit of detour. This is a dream come true for Quentin, whose only true love in life is the Fillory series, a set of five Narnia-type novels about young children traveling to a magic realm (a series which ended on a disappointing note with The Wandering Dune, apparently, which included a ship run by large bunnies - "the Wandering Dune-haters always compared them to Ewoks"). But Brakebills isn't a place of talking rabbits, nor is it Hogwarts. In Grossman's world, performing magic is a more rudimentary, almost scientific process, requiring painstaking studies and repetition. This becomes most clear during Quentin's fourth year, when he is faced with an important "exam" which isn't a bullshit pen-to-paper test like Harry Potter's O.W.L.s but, instead, is true test of magical fortitude, finding Quentin dropped buck nekkid in Antarctica, with only his magic to help him traverse 500 miles.

The first two-thirds of The Magicians focus primarily on Quentin's five years at Brakebills, and this is where the book is at its strongest. Grossman's writing is not Pulitzer-worthy, but it is competent. He's created an interesting world and some interesting characters (though, perhaps intentionally, Quentin becomes more myopic and slightly less interesting as things progress, and I found myself wanting to focus more on a few of the other characters). One of the parts of the Harry Potter series that I enjoyed the most were the magic "lessons," so I particularly enjoyed the portions of The Magicians focusing on how folks learn to utilize and employ magic. There's no "realistic" way to approach how one might perform real magic, but Grossman does a god job of presenting the rules of his world's performance of magic in about as realistic a way as one can. It's more than just learning to focus while uttering "impervius" to be impervious. There's both an art and a science to the process, requiring focus and creativity and an excessive amount of studying and repetition.

The school years were by far the highlight of the book, although when Quentin returns to the "real world" of New York, things looked they were going to keep going in a good direction. In fact, in a recent interview, Grossman had the following complaint about Harry Potter, one which it's hard to disagree with:
I felt the problem she failed to solve was the question of, “here’s a young man who can do magic, who has defeated the enemy of humanity when her was 18 – what’s the rest of his life look like?” And the best she can imagine is that he marries his high school sweetheart and puts on a big gut and lives in the suburbs. What a disaster!
Grossman opts to keep things more realistic and dark, with a bunch of twenty-something magicians unleashed in NYC doing what you'd expect - slightly abusing their powers and drinking and drugging and fucking. A lot. But then, Grossman essentially brings some unicorns up in this piece, and that's when the book lost it for me. The book telegraphed from early on that it was going to take a more fantastical approach at some point, so this turn wasn't a surprise, nor was it a surprise that its fantasy-bend was dark, without unicorns or happy, Christ-like lions. But here is where I found Grossman's writing to falter, as the book felt much more like the "Forgotten Realms" books I read as a nerdy D&D youth. Walk and talk. Battle. Walk and talk. Magic. Quest. Battle. Etc. While I really enjoyed reading the first two-thirds of the book, this last third was a bit of a chore to get through, and I found myself racing just to be done with it.

In that same interview linked above, Grossman says that there's a sequel in the works:
Yeah, I originally intended it as a standalone book. But I’ve gotten preoccupied by an idea that would involve some of the same characters in the same world...I don’t know why I’m avoiding calling it a sequel. Yeah, it’s a sequel. [laughs]
I can't say for sure yet whether I'll read the sequel. If "the same world" means the world of the first two-thirds of the book, which another quote from that interview at least hints at, I'm definitely in. But if it means the world of the last third of the book, which the novel's ending absolutely hints at, I think I'm out. In the meantime, I guess I'll just work on trying to figure out a spell that will help me read and review fifty-one more books in the next forty-nine weeks....

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cannonball Read II - #0 - An Exercise in Futility

I used to read books all the damn time. Like they were going out of fashion. But particularly in the last two years, not so much. I want to read more, but I work so much that when I come home, all I want to do is veg. And watching the TV or surfing the internet is generally more mindless for me than reading, and so I just don't wind up reading very much. I probably average about four or five books a year and I'm like six months behind on the two magazines I subscribe too. S'fucking sad.

But screw it - for the next year, I'm going to try to read more. And my motivation is the impending Cannonball Read II: In My Pants. Read fifty-two books, write fifty-two reviews, one year. So not only do I think I'm gonna read the books, but I also think I'm going to write the reviews. ...I'm an idiot.

Nevertheless, I'm resurrecting the old Time Sucker blog, something I haven't posted on in over four years, since right before I quite the law to go make my fortunes on the internet. (That worked out fucking splendid). I expect that pretty much nobody will be reading this - except for poor Nicole, who decided that tracking 70+ bloggers' rambling book reviews for a year was a good thing - and that's probably a good thing, because Vegas has officially set the over/under for the number of books I read and review at 8.

Get busy reading or get busy dying!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Happy Anniversary Tricky Dick!...

Monday, August 08, 2005

New Nine Inch Nails video...

I've always been partial to David Fincher's visuals, and his new video for Nine Inch Nails' Only is pretty nifty. Take a gander.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Sucking your time like it's 1999...

A'ight fools, you want your time suck? Then stop reading this blog and go find out what's for lunch today by calling the Lunch Lady - 510.351.7654.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Supremes...

The Supreme Court Grokster opinion just came down and they overturned the lower case, meaning that the file sharing companies may be liable. I haven't read the opinion yet, but having read the lower court opinions and having done some work in this area, I can already say this is a bad decision, and I'm curious to see how they handled the Sony-Betamax issue.

At least they sort of got the Ten Commandments thing right.

Mars needs religion...

Very interesting article over at Salon about Tom Cruise's apparent new role as a Scientology missionary, and the possible relation to his elevation in rank over at the Church of Scientology.

You know, I'm very libertarian in the sense that, as long as your beliefs don't impinge on others, I'm all for you believing whatever you want to believe. In fact, that's my one big beef with organized religion as a whole, is the general ground swell to get nonbelievers to "see the light." So even though I'm not a religious guy, I can understand where people's beliefs in most of the major religions come from. But this whole Xenu thing is utterly mindboggling to me.