Sunday, December 13, 2009

Applied math, the bomb, the road

I've just started a very good book on applied math, Logan's "Applied Mathematics". It starts out with one of my favorite subjects, dimensional analysis. But...

Logan's very first worked-out example follows:

"...we consider a calculation made by the British applied mathematician G. I. Taylor in the late 1940s to compute the yield of the first atomic explosion after viewing photographs of the spread of the fireball."

I read this within a few hours of finishing Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", his moving post-nuclear holocaust novel. The world after a nuclear war would be bleak indeed, with nearly every living thing dead. Yet in Logan's book (and some other books I've read) atomic weapons are just another interesting technical example. Why is it so hard to look at evil for what it is, when it's technically interesting?

Is this why we (and that means me) can read crime fiction, and be fascinated by the cleverness of the criminal's plans, even as we find solace in the eventual triumph of the detective (spy, policeman, etc.) who sorts things out and delivers justice?

We need to be as clever as serpents, I suppose, but there is a difference between understanding the darkness of human nature, and finding the darkness interesting. Thinking about the mechanics of how fast an atomic blast travels distances us, just a little, from thinking about what it does to women, men, and children. And we shouldn't ever give in to that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Postcard from My Father-in-Law

My life trying to push me into action: yesterday I received a postcard from my father-in-law. It's much more personal than an email, and has cool stamps. Even better, it will still be readable when gmail is a dim memory.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Escape Velocity, and Slowing Down.

Continuing my concern with escapist SF reading, it seems to me that reading and "commenting" on blogs on the 'net is the same thing. Yesterday on NPR there was an interview with a Granta editor who has written a book on the evils of email, and the virtues of the old-fashioned handwritten letter.

There are so many people in my life who would like to get a letter.

(ps re-reading this post, I realize that I meant reading and commenting on controversy blogs... like the various political blogs I'm addicted to. I think commenting on personal blogs is ok for me, because they don't seem to feed my internet monster, if that makes sense. But I still need to write letters.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Why (this) Quaker Should Not Read (some) Novels

I've been reading an 1806 book on Quakers, at A Portraiture of Quakerism. While at first it sounds as though Quakers at the time were against having any fun at all (music, dancing, reading novels, drama, gambling) the arguments there are more nuanced than I expected.

While I'm right there with the author on gambling, I didn't expect to find myself convicted on the reading of novels. Namely, that reading novels makes it harder to read nonfiction:

Their [novels'] structure is similar to that of dramatic compositions. They exhibit characters to view. They have their heroes and heroines in the same manner. They lay open the checkered incidents in the lives of these. They interweave into their histories the powerful passion of love. By animated language, and descriptions which glow with sympathy, they rouse the sensibility of the reader, and fill his soul with interest in the tale. They fascinate therefore in the same manner as plays. They produce also the same kind of mental stimulus, or the same powerful excitement of the mind. Hence it is that this indisposition is generated. For if other books contain neither characters, nor incidents, nor any of the high seasoning, or gross stimulants, which belong to novels they become insipid.

Thomas Clarkson, "A Portraiture of Quakerism".

I've been noticing recently that my reading has been dominated by science fiction with a "thriller" element, that absorbs me and seems to make my nonfiction reading "duller". Much of the nonfiction I read would already seem dull to most people, so this is serious! Also, it pushes me away from spending that time with my family, a much more serious problem.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The ER and the cosmos

Like most people, I worry about the end of the universe. OK, most people don't. But I read lots of popular science, and I know we're in for a cold, lonely universe eventually, as it all spreads out. When I was a kid, it was the heat death of the universe we had to worry about.

A neighbor's boy is in the ICU. (Please keep his family in your thoughts). The doctors and nurses in the ICU don't worry about the ultimate fate of their patients; like all the rest of us, they will die one day. But the doctors and nurses work all the time to heal them right now. That's what we are all called to do.

(This is a paraphrase of a message I shared at Meeting a few weeks ago).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Need for more silence

I have given up the internet for Lent (well, the time-wasting part).