Category Archives: Books

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson

With a title like that, how can you go wrong? It’s one of the oddest titles I’ve come across. And the story itself matches that oddness, though it doesn’t quite come to fruition, as I would have liked.

Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set in an apocalyptic future, where the earth’s environment has degraded to such an extent that people have been forced underground. At the time of the story, this happened quite some time ago, and only “now” are humans coming back up, thanks to engineers and scientists that engineer whole ecosystems to enable humans to survive on the surface. There are a few such enclaves around the world, such as Calgary, where much of the story centers.

The crux of the story is a new opportunity for a small group of scientists to learn about an ancient river system. I won’t say exactly how, but this is where the “lucky peach” comes in.

The world that Robson has created is interesting, but it doesn’t feel fleshed out. More, we get glimpses of what happened to make the world what it is, of how people live in their new reality, and of the exoticness of the world. For example, the main character Minh has robotic octopus-like legs, but her back story is only barely touched on. Most frustrating to me, however, is that the book ends when it just gets going. The whole book feels like a set up for the main event, but the main event fizzles out and doesn’t really deliver.

I have to admit that I might be interested in reading a follow-on story, but not if it had the same pace as this one. The characters are developed, but the setting and the story are not as much. The ending felt like a let down. While I find the world intriguing, it isn’t worth investing so much for so little gain, in my view.

Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley

It might be hard to imagine now, but at the end of the 1800s, the scientific community was beginning to think it had more or less wrapped up all-things physics. Newton’s mechanics were well understood and Maxwell had recently shown how light behaved as a wave, giving a unified theory of electricity and magnetism. Little could they all imagine that everything would be turned on its head in just a few short years.

Presaging this transformation of physics was Ludwig Boltzmann, who was one of the leading figures of what we now call statistical mechanics. He showed how we could move beyond treating individual particles and think about them as large groups, think about their average properties. This allowed him to consider the properties of solids and liquids and gases on a scale that more directly connects with every day life. Maybe most importantly, he showed how the properties of these groups, or ensembles, of particles connected to the concept of entropy, which was a fairly vague concept before him. His impact to physics is immeasurable, and is enshrined in various concepts that bear his name, not least amongst them being the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and the Boltzmann factor.

However, during his life, his ideas were not so quick to catch on and were, in particular, challenged by people like Ernst Mach (yes, the one who devised the Mach scale of speed), who exposed a view that physics should only describe what is directly observed, that there was no room for theorizing what caused those observations. That, combined with Boltzmann’s relative isolation in a small university and his own near-schizophrenia with his status, led to a relatively slow acceptance of his ideas. Boltzmann’s ideas had, at their core, the concept of atoms, a concept that was not at all widely accepted during his time. As late as 1897, leading scientists such as Mach could exclaim “I don’t believe that atoms exist!”

Of course, there were theories of atoms before Boltzmann, dating back to the ancient Greeks. Lindley traces the development of our theories of atomic particles and Boltzmann’s contributions to those theories. Boltzmann’s own theoretical advances made predictions, based on the assumption of atoms, that were later validated and helped conclusively show that atoms do indeed exist (Einstein also played a critical role with his theory of Brownian motion). That Boltzmann’s assumptions were fundamentally correct was not a given, and that they led to predictions that agreed with observation did not prove them to be true. As Lindley notes: “You make an assumption and explore the consequences. This is exactly what scientists continue to do today, and the fact that a certain assumption leads to all kinds of highly successful predictions and explanations does not, strictly speaking, prove that the original assumption is correct.

Lindley’s portrait of Boltzmann is both the story of a man who had some very profound personal issues and the history of a branch of science that presaged the quantum revolution. The story of the advancement of science is fascinating in its own right, as generations of scientists tried to tease out what, at the microscopic scale, was driving the macroscopic observations we make every day. Lindley describes the scientific environment of the time, in which a few big heavyweights dominated the discourse. A single scientist, working in relative isolation, like Boltzmann, could make huge impacts on his field. This isn’t as true today, where we seem to be delving more into details than bigger swaths of truth. Not that there aren’t any new big truths to discover, but rather that the kinds of technological advances that are rewarded demand digging into the details. And, the democratization of science — the shifting of science being a rich-man’s hobby to a true profession pursued by large armies of people — have made it so that it is harder to stand out in the proverbial field.

As for himself, Boltzmann was never happy. He always desired more recognition for his achievements and that typically meant moving to bigger and better positions at other universities. However, the moment he accepted such a position, he was riddled with doubts and often tried to undo the appointment. Particularly in Austria, where appointments were at least brought to the attention of the royals, this led to some level of infamy for the poor man. His vacillations were likely a reflection of some deeper level of depression or other mental condition, as he ultimately took his own life.

Finally, Lindley also provides some metacommentary on the scientific process itself. This is both through the continual argument between people like Mach and Boltzmann (Mach particularly disliked theorizing, stating, for example, that “the object of natural science is the connection of phenomena, but theories are like dry leaves which fall away when they have ceased to be the lungs of the tree of science“) as well as his own observations: “Science demands an element of creativity, and an element of faith. The creativity comes in thinking up hypotheses and theories that no one has ever thought of before. The faith comes in thinking that these hypotheses, when shown to be useful or successful in some way, bear a relation to what is loosely called reality.” Late in his life, Boltzmann, spurred on by the attacks by Mach and his followers, turned toward philosophy, in an attempt to understand the nature of truth. However, he never really became a philosopher, telling a colleague “Shouldn’t the irresistible urge to philosophize be compared to the vomiting caused by migraines, in that something is trying to struggle out even though there’s nothing inside?

Altogether, Boltzmann’s Atom is an excellent portrait of a man and of an era in science. It is a lesson in how science advances, not necessarily through the unstoppable march of progress, but in fits and spurts as different personalities come and go. Boltzmann himself is an intriguing figure that bridges two different eras of science. We tend to forget both that science doesn’t always follow an obvious linear path in the search for understanding and that the people that push it forward are human with very human foibles. Boltzmann’s Atom reminds us of both.

Word by Word by Kory Stamper

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer used to work for Merriam-Webster, writing dictionaries. Word by Word is, in some sense, a memoir of her time there, from the point of view of some of the more interesting and challenging words she encountered. It’s both a description of what it means to be a writer of dictionaries, both now and in the past, as well as a vivid reminder of how language evolves. If there is nothing else to take from Stamper, it’s that language changes, that words come and go, and that there is no “correct” way of writing.

Stamper sprinkles Word by Word with stories of words the confound dictionary writers and the dictionary writers themselves. There are brief historical asides on the first dictionaries and how they changed over the years. Stamper loves English and her love shines through in her relationships with words. She throws out quite a few that caught my eye:

  • snollygoster: an unprincipled or shrewd person
  • Why do we call practical and unflappable people “phlegmatic”? Because we used to believe that they were unexcitable because they had an overabundance of phlegm in them.
  • “GI” (originally “galvanized iron,” if you can believe it, but misconstrued by soldiers and others as “government issue”)
  • “snafu” and “fubar” (“situation normal: all fucked up” and “fucked up beyond all recognition,” brought to you by government bureaucracy)
  • Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find it means “fart goblin”
  • borborygmus: intestinal rumbling caused by moving gas

A key message Stamper emphasizes multiple times: Dictionaries are not meant to be prescriptive, to tell us how to use English. Rather, dictionaries are there to record how the language is actually used. They don’t tell us what is right or wrong, but rather what is actually done. “We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can.”

As alluded to above, the parts I enjoyed the most are where Stamper rails against the so-called grammar Nazis that tell us how words have to be used. A few examples:

  • “Good” has been used for almost a thousand years as an adverb, even though usage commentators and peevers have condemned this use.
  • The fact is that many of the things that are presented to us as rules are really just the of-the-moment preferences of people who have had the opportunity to get their opinions published and whose opinions end up being reinforced and repeated down the ages as Truth.
  • Standard English as it is presented by grammarians and pedants is a dialect that is based on a mostly fictional, static, and Platonic ideal of usage.
  • People rarely think of English as a cumulative thing: they might be aware of new coinages that they don’t like, but they view those as recent incursions into the fixed territory they think of as “English,” which was, is, and shall be evermore.

One interesting bit is when Stamper goes into pronunciation, using the word “nuclear” as an example. I’m a bit sensitive to this one as people who say “nucular” are often ridiculed in my field (of nuclear materials) and I’m always a bit fearful that I say it that way. George Bush got a lot of flak when he pronounced it “nucular,” however Stamper points out that the earliest print records of that spelling come from people in the military, government, and nuclear sciences. She notes that Jimmy Carter pronounced nuclear as “nucular” and goes on to say “Jimmy Carter spent his time in the U.S. Navy working on… nuclear submarines… and actually [was] lowered into a nuclear reactor core that had melted down in order to dismantle it. To my mind, he has earned the right to pronounce ‘nuclear’ however he damned well pleases.

As someone who writes a lot, both for work and pleasure, I found Stamper’s view of the language refreshing. She doesn’t advocate for a right way of doing things, but acknowledges and indeed glories in the fact that English (and all languages, except dead ones) evolve. Every generation seems to think that the language is going to hell, that the kids don’t respect the language of their fathers and mothers. The fact is, neither did they. And that is what makes language so interesting.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry August is a unique individual: every time he dies, he relives his life, with his previous memories in tact. He is not alone, as there are others with his “power.” Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August chronicles, as the title says, the first fifteen lives that Harry lives, describing his brushes with history and with others with his power that have different plans on how to use it.

The idea of reincarnation is of course not new, but the spin that North gives it here — that one might be reincarnated but in their original body to live again — gives this story a different direction. People like Harry can accumulate knowledge through the living of many lives, becoming experts at many different fields. Harry, through his life, studies religion, quantum physics, and medicine, all in an attempt to learn what his place in the universe is. A very cool touch is how people like Harry communicate beyond their own lifetimes to others with their power to understand how the world evolves beyond them. Knowledge from the future can be passed backwards through overlapping lives.

There are two main themes of this story, at least that I picked up on. The first touches on our role in the universe. Do we have any special place, special role that we are supposed to fulfill? Harry has this special ability to relive his lives. Does this mean he also has some special purpose? Is his purpose any more special than anyone else’s? The second theme relates to knowledge, and what knowing does to us. Does it make us wiser? What do we do with that knowledge? If we know Hitler is going to destroy so many lives and we can kill him as a baby, is that overall good? What about unforeseen consequences? What if others learn you have knowledge of the future?

Harry and his kind have great power — they know what the future will hold through their backwards communication. They can essentially experiment with world events and see if things turn out better or worse through the course of several lifetimes. But, they have found that history is too complex to control and thus they have settled into some kind of apathy, justifying any real action because of the complexity of the consequences. How do any of us justify our actions when a seemingly insignificant remark or activity may have a butterfly effect beyond our control or even comprehension? For Harry these questions are exaggerated as he has an even greater ability to understand the consequences of his actions, but this question applies to all of us, to some degree.

North does an excellent job of describing Harry’s lives and his interactions with both history and others like him. She touches on some deep questions and does so with elegance. She brings Harry alive with his internal commentary and his interactions with others. Some bits that resonated with me include:

  • I was out of shape, having never been in much of a shape to get out of, and my confinement had hardly aided the process.
  • He said, “We don’t want to hurt you, Harry. Christ, I’m not that guy, I’m just not; I’m one of the good guys. I’m a good guy trying to do the best. We don’t want to hurt you, but you gotta understand this is bigger than you or me, much, much bigger.”
  • “The most it ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.”
  • “Everyone’s a decent person,” she replied softly, “in their own eyes.”

As I’ve said before, a great story is one that keeps you entertained while also exploring some deep questions. North’s story does just that. There is a strong action/adventure element (that takes place over the span of Harry’s fifteen lives) that serves as the backdrop to discussions on humanity’s role in the universe, the power of knowledge and technology, the consequences of actions, and the nature of good and evil. This is a great story that I highly recommend.

Why I post about the books I read

When my brother found out that I post online about the books I read, his reaction was “Why”. Why would anyone care what you read? Are you some kind of narcissist?

Well, maybe, though I don’t think any more than any of the rest of us. Reading takes some amount of time and effort and sharing thoughts, as brief as they are, is one way of recognizing it. It’s also the new equivalent of the massive bookshelf in one’s home, showing off the wide range of interests and knowledge one accumulates over a life time. Especially in an age of digital books where there is no longer a bookshelf to place them to show off (and gather dust) after they’ve been read, posting about them is one way of showing off what I ready.

So, yeah, I can’t deny that element.

But, really, the main reason is for myself, and to have a record of what I read because, honestly, I have a horrible memory. I can’t recall much of anything and having some record is my way of jotting down what I felt was interesting or important in that book. The very act of writing about a book helps store something in my brain about it. It also gives me a potential place to go back and look at what I thought about the book, gives me some record I can refer to in case I want to revisit what I thought. At the very least, it gives me a record of what I’ve read, so I don’t end up rereading something.

This isn’t unique to me. It is generically hard to remember what we read. Especially when it comes in bursts, like on an airplane, in stead of steady, dedicated reading of a text. We all consume lots of information of various sorts, and this is my way of trying to remember, at least a bit, what I’ve consumed.

That I post my thoughts online instead of in a private diary, well, that admittedly is a bit of narcissism. Maybe someone else will read something because I’ve written about it. Maybe not. Maybe someone will follow up with a great recommendation. It really doesn’t matter. Mostly, this is for me and if anyone else gets any benefit, that is gravy.