Friday, April 8, 2016

Don't Read the Whole Thing



John Rawls, introducing his influential A Theory of Justice, does a remarkable thing for an author. “This is a long book,” he writes, and then proceeds to explain how you can get the theory he presents along with explanations of terms and pertinent examples by reading sections of the book that amount to only about a third of his 600 pages! It would be churlish not to take this advice, I thought, choosing the 200-page option. Plenty of other books, in my opinion, famous ones, classics, and supposed must-reads, should be preceded by Rawls-like advice about how to read them without reading all of them.
            According to Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be hewed and digested.” Yes, even the classics may need some selective tasting. Read every word of The Odyssey, the master narrative of Western literature, because it will entertain, and, if you are a storyteller, train you as well. But The Iliad is another matter. When Homer describes encounters between Paris and Hector or Hector and Andromache, still more when he turns his merciless attention to Trojans and Greeks killing each other, he will keep anyone’s interest. But if you read every item in his catalogues of which country sent how many ships to Troy, only if you have a map of ancient city-states before you and a passion for ancient geography will you stay awake. By all means, skim Homer’s lists as you would the begats in Genesis. Just keep in mind that Homer’s catalogues really did interest his first readers and still command the attention of students of the ancient world.
            The Aeneid requires cutting on a different plan. Here it’s pretty much a matter of checking out after the councils of the gods in Book 1, the escape from Troy in 2, Aeneas’s travels in 3, the romance of Dido and Aeneas in 4, and the trip to the Underworld in 6. In 6 we get a prophecy of what happens until the founding of Rome, but we don’t have to actually live through the enactment of the prophecy.
            Authors may not be as helpful as John Rawls, but they do sometimes signal where your attention can wander. When a shepherd in Don Quixote begins to tell a story peopled by no one we’ve yet met but rather folks with conventional Romantic names, it’s safe to skip the rest of that chapter and possibly the next; the chapter titles will tell us when the main narrative resumes.
The point is that life is short and some books—even some very good books—are too long. A lot of selective reading is just taste, of course. At the halfway point in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich I realized that Hitler’s monomaniacal hobbling of his generals’ freedom to act and other aspects of the war’s progress were going to be far less interesting to me than the story of Hitler’s complicated and politically astute climb to power had been, and I just stopped reading. It’s your reading life, after all, and no one else’s; find the good parts and leave the rest unread.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Reading Science Books



            In college, as a result of some indecision and major-hopping, I ended up with more hours in science—mostly chemistry but also some physics and zoology—than I had in the major I finally settled on: English. I’ve retained an interest in science and my reading reflects that. I don’t care for the hyper technical, but there are people who do math and science and who are capable of writing clear and fascinating books about them. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed.
            Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), to give it its full title, is one of those books that often prompts the response, “I don’t have to read that; I know what’s in it because it’s a part of current common knowledge.” That reaction is almost always mistaken. When I picked up the book and read it through several years ago, what struck me first was how readable it is. My second thought, developed over the course of my reading, was how carefully Darwin structures his book-length argument. Everyone can observe what the plant or animal breeders do in the way of encouraging the passing on and enhancing of traits they want in their stock, and so this is the place Darwin begins: with man-made selection. From there he moves to natural selection. Every species would flood the earth except for predation and competition for food and mates; any favorable variation will, by a degree, move toward a new and more successful species. Darwin anticipates and answers objections: for example, why don’t we see transitional forms? (They have usually perished in the same competitive process that gives the new form its advantages.) Had Darwin been aware of how geological processes work, and had he known about chromosomes, genes, and DNA, he would have made a more complete argument, but the wonder is how well he argued without those advantages.
            Aside from Darwin, no one in the last several centuries has so shaken up our view of things as Albert Einstein, who has conveniently given us in one volume, Ideas and Opinions (1954), some biographical information, his opinions about nuclear war, religion, and the emerging State of Israel, as well as his scientific work in his own words. You’re going to have to give up “the doctrine of a personal God interfering with natural events,” he lectures his audience at the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1939. At the same time he concedes to them that science doesn’t give absolute proven laws of nature, but operates as if they are true, so that its successes give a continual, but never an absolute guarantee that science has those laws right. Einstein thought there had to be an organization with supranational authority to prevent nations from starting nuclear war, and he was wrong about that, so far. The last 150 pages of the book are the scientific papers and speeches Einstein gave on his own work and how it fits with the history of physics. Some of it is heavy going, and I don’t pretend to have understood it all, but it is useful to have it in his own words.
            If you need a primer to get you up to speed for reading the technical parts of Einstein’s book, read Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces (1994). Feynman worked in quantum electrodynamics, and he also taught a wildly popular introductory course at Caltech from which came The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963). He selected and revised six chapters from the larger book for Six Easy Pieces, which takes us through atoms, molecules, physical states of matter and laws of thermodynamics; atomic structure, electromagnetism, and the failure of the laws of thermodynamics to operate at the atomic level; the changing of conventional ideas of space and time into Einstein’s combination of space-time; the success of quantum electrodynamics in describing the behavior of some subatomic particles and our relative ignorance of what goes on in the nucleus of atoms; and the proliferation of subatomic particles and the consequent attempts to find an overarching theory of their nature. Feynman discusses the relation of physics to other sciences, walks us through the theory of gravitation, and introduces us to quantum behavior. I followed him about 90% of the time, which is better than I did for the middle B I got in two semesters of college physics. I believe all the Feynman lectures can now be found online.
            Another huge figure in the science of recent centuries, along with Darwin and Einstein, is Sigmund Freud. Freud wrote a great deal, but there are a couple of short works, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), and On Dreams (1901), that are very accessible and do a good job of treating Freud’s main contributions to psychology: his description of the unconscious (perhaps his single most important insight), his division of the individual psyche into ego, id, and superego, and his ideas about sexual development beginning in infancy. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud points out that culture/civilization necessarily curbs some of the sexual energy of the individual as well as the aggression that Freud believes is part of one’s instinctual makeup. This book showcases a lot of the most characteristic features of Freud’s writing: his tendency to relate adult psychological phenomena to infantile development, his quick move into interpretation (the motive for behavior is often not just what it seems but points to something else), and his basically non-clinical, metaphoric/classical/humanist way of developing his argument. On Dreams is a shorter version of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), in which he first introduced his theory of the unconscious. Much of the puzzling aspects of dreams—their strange images and non-logical trains of events as well as the way one’s memory of them dissipates so quickly after waking—Freud argues can be explained by realizing that dreams are the main way our unconscious talks to us about things our conscious mind represses, hence we push most of these revelations back into the unconscious by quickly forgetting them when we awake. These revelations of the unconscious are given symbolic representation in the dream, hence the strange images and odd progression of events.
            Another important figure in psychology is William James, whose most interesting book is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Here James studies, not religion, but the “relation of individuals to what they consider the divine.” He looks at conversion experiences, asceticism and mysticism, and the sense of a “divided self” that so often precedes a religious experience, which in its turn is often perceived as being born for a second time. Concluding, he finds that religious experiences have to be seen as real events and that “not God, but life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.” God must exist since he has real effects, though God may be reducible to an effect of the subconscious and “the conviction that what is coming from there is really coming from something larger outside the self.” James was of course aware of Freud’s writings and in fact knew him.
            James Watson described how he and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA at mid-twentieth century in The Double Helix (1968). Watson admits that it was Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction image that gave them the hint that it was a double helix with pairings of chemical bases across the strands. Admittedly, Franklin had earlier dismissed the idea that the structure was helical, and in fact the search for a helical structure might have been seen as a fad following Linus Pauling’s discovery of a single helix polypeptide protein structure. With the discovery of the structure came the insight into how DNA reproduced: complementary pairs of bases (Crick and Watson realized that the adenine-thymine pair had the same shape as the guanine-cytosine pair) split when the two strands of the helix separated, and each strand’s base picked up its complementary pair from the cell’s nourishing medium, forming two DNA double strands where there had been one. The sequence of bases does the encoding of genetic information.
            Working astronomers and astrophysicists cannot always write easily readable books about their work, but several books pass the test. Robert Jastrow’s Red Giants and White Dwarfs (1967), though written before many important discoveries about star formation and life cycles, is still a useful and interesting book about how stars form from hydrogen clouds, ignite and transform hydrogen into helium, and then eventually run out of fuel and collapse, in their last stages forming all the remaining elements. The only way we get the elements we need to form us is from what’s left from stars that have died: “We are star-stuff,” as Carl Sagan was fond of saying. Of Sagan’s many books, I would recommend The Cosmic Connection (1973), written early in the period of planetary exploration. Sagan was a planetary astronomer very active in that exploration. In this book he wrote about the planets and their moons, emphasizing how connected we are to events in the stars, repeating his theme that we are star-stuff and pointing out that many of the mutations that drive evolution may be caused by cosmic rays from distant supernova explosions or neutron stars striking genetic material. In a chapter titled “Venus Is Hell,” Sagan makes it clear that Earth is fragile enough to be ruined by human effort. A large-scale nuclear war could obstruct the atmosphere with dust and smoke, causing a years-long winter that would kill much of our plant life, and of course, the animals who depend on it, including us. Moreover the greenhouse effect that has taken place on Venus—massive quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere blocking the normal cooling effect of infrared thermal emissions into space and therefore raising the temperature of the surface to 900 degrees Fahrenheit—is a cautionary tale for earth dwellers.
            Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988) makes the provocative assertion that what we have discovered about the universe in our long effort to understand it from Aristotle to the present puts some limits on our notion of what God can do. An expanding universe that began with the big bang may still accommodate the idea of God creating the universe at the instant of the big bang, but precludes the idea that he could have done it earlier, “placing limits on when he might have carried out his job!”
            There are dozens of books on natural history that make good reads. Stephen Jay Gould has written many of them, but his Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) is notable for the way it corrects common ways of thinking of Darwinian evolution. Gould shows us several dozen well-preserved soft-bodied fossils from the Cambrian Period half a billion years ago—creatures that all could have thrived very well in their environment and had many descendants but were snuffed out not by any battle with competing species but by an accident. Evolution does not only work by slow change through adaptive mutations; sometimes the competition gets suddenly eliminated by a small underwater mudslide (as in the case of the Burgess Shale fossils) or an asteroid hitting the earth (as in the now generally accepted theory of the extinction of the dinosaurs). The point is that history—and evolution—isn’t some march toward “higher” forms and perfection; history is contingent, chancy, more like a lottery than a directed process.
            Some books about biology written for popular audiences nonetheless contain truly revolutionary ways of thinking about life. Lewis Thomas’s award-winning collection of essays, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), invites us to revise our thinking about what constitutes an individual organism. Hives or swarms of insects can act like a single entity, and Thomas suggests there are human situations where a society—a scientific group, for example—may act like one organism. But he also shows in detail how it is possible to look at one human body as a commune or assembly of semi-autonomous parts, or one cell in that body as a congeries of parts that were originally independent creatures and only got put together as an evolutionary expedient. As evidence he offers the mitochondria present in every cell; their DNA is unrelated to the genetic makeup of the rest of the host cell. And related to this way of looking at living things is the idea put forward by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), that since the genetic material of an organism sometimes replicates itself even though the individual (some male spiders, for example) may die in the process, it may make more sense to say it is the species’ genetic material that is selected by evolutionary pressure rather than the creatures that make up the species.
            To add to this baker’s dozen one more book, consider Marcia Bjornerud’s Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth (2005). Geology doesn’t inspire a lot of books for popular consumption. John McPhee’s five-book series on the geology of North America, collected in 1998 as Annals of the Former World, is a notable exception and a Pulitzer Prize winner. But Bjornerud’s book will actually teach you some fundamentals of geology while entertaining you. She talks about the way Earth’s systems have worked to keep it alive while other planets went too cold or too hot to support life. A little history lesson about previous views of Earth’s history leads her into the classifications of rocks according to their origin as molten lava, slow deposits, or products of the smashing and grinding of the Earth’s crust. That crust is segmented and moving, causing much of the geologic action currently happening, but other forces like Earth’s magnetic field, the movement of water, and radioactive decomposition are also actors in geologic change. The origin of the Earth and its moon, the formation of the atmosphere, and the beginning of life are all topics she treats, her thesis being that all of the life of the planet can be read, like a book, in her rocks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Quaint Stretch of Road



The last stretch of road into my wife’s hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska is the eventful little two-lane State Highway 136 that leads from I-29 north of St. Joseph, Missouri into Beatrice. Beatrice, by the way, was the birthplace of the actor Robert Taylor (though the locals knew him as Spangler Arlington Brugh) and the poet Weldon Kees (whom the locals called Weldie). When I say the locals I mean my mother-in-law, who has lived in Beatrice all her life.
            Turning west from I-29 onto 136, you come almost immediately to a bridge that will take you into Brownville. (If you are coming from St. Louis, this will be the third time you cross the Missouri River.) Often the center of these little towns is worth the out-of-the-way few blocks you must go to reach it, and Brownville is no exception. Technically a village of fewer than 150 souls, Brownville boasts some fine historic buildings on Main Street, and on the river, a floating bed and breakfast. A few miles farther west is Auburn, which always calls to my mind the opening couplet of Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village”:
                        Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain,
                        Where health and plenty cheer’d the laboring swain….
Unlike Brownville, Auburn is not a village but a city of 3500. Its first sign is an airport where are there are two intersecting turf runways, the only one of its kind I’ve seen. Auburn’s graveyard is on the highway and called Sheridan Cemetery, but as we leave the city we find its annex: on rolling turf easy to mistake for a golf course a very few headstones are visible, and gates that proclaim this as “Sheridan West.”
            Not much farther, at Spring Creek, you’ll see a working bison farm, with its feed lot and pasture wrapped around a house on the south side of the road. The last time I passed there were dozens of buffalo within a few yards of the highway, a startling sight more common on these plains two hundred years ago. The next creeks form an interesting contrast of names. The first is Brewer’s Branch, calling up for me southern associations of “branch water” that always seems to be linked to alcohol—paired with bourbon or used for brewing. But the next crossing is Yankee Creek.
            Almost immediately we are in Tecumseh, where we do one of those mysterious ninety-degree turns followed by another ninety-degree turn back to course a few blocks later; this is a fairly common occurrence in Midwest driving where roads avoid a parcel of land some farmer resisted giving up to the right of way. And the next town is Beatrice.
            What strikes an observer about the streets of this town is the number of trees throughout the city. They are more numerous than in any other of the towns spread across southeastern Nebraska. Yet the locals will tell you (my mother-in-law again) that before the advent of Dutch Elm Disease that killed almost all of the fine American Elms in Beatrice, there were twice as many trees here. Beatrice boasts the very first homestead, applied for shortly after midnight on the day Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act went into effect. The Homestead National Monument is on the other side of town. To the north is Beatrice’s airport, where you can depart on its runway 36 and fly straight without a course change the thirty-three nautical miles onto runway 36  at Lincoln. I know; I’ve done it.