Dewey Decimal Project: 530 FEY The Character of Physical Law

When NewImageI was a college student, I read Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. It was a breezy fun read (and I was young and dumb enough not to notice the misogyny and other problematic aspects of Feynman’s personal life). Feynman has a reputation for presenting challenging topics in an accessible way, so with that plus my experience of reading his autobiography, I thought I’d give this book a shot, despite its unpromising title.

As I expected, it was an accessible yet challenging read. The text is taken from a series of lectures Feynman gave at Cornell University and uses the idea of what constitutes a physical law as its organizing principle and gives a decent overview of physics starting with Newton’s law of gravitation and considering a number of topics including relativity and quantum mechanics. There have been a number of significant discoveries in physics since Feynman gave these lectures in the early 60s (notably the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson and the detection of gravitation waves), but Feynman’s lectures seem to anticipate these reasonably well given the state of what was known at the time. 

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Beautiful Sentences: Sigrid Nunez

In the news: Thirty-two million adult Americans can’t read. The potential audience for poetry has shrunk by two-thirds since 1992. A “rent-burdened” woman worrying how she’s going to survive in New York City decides to try writing a novel (“and that’s going well”).

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 523.1 ALE The Jazz of Physics : The Secret Link between Music and the Structure of the Universe

Continuing NewImage through sciences in the Dewey Decimal system, I decided that this would be a good option for something to fill the Astronomy slot since I’m a musician and for a year or so of college I was a physics-English double major.

The book itself is what I would call the academic memoir, in which the author’s area of study and autobiography are presented together. I’d read a couple books with this structure earlier when I was in language and linguistics during the 400s and as I think about it, a case can be made for some writers’ autobiographies also following this schema for presenting the contents of the book.

Alexander’s life is fascinating and he’s an example of a surprisingly common class of academics, the physicist-musician (just looking at my own circle, I can point to one friend from my undergrad days with a PhD in physics who just finished his DA in music and another undergrad friend who left physics to pursue music, which is not to consider the physicists who do music on the side as an avocation). The physics is presented reasonably well, although there’s a tendency for him to occasionally dip into a bit of vocabulary or concept without explaining it (I noted, for example, that he uses parsec without ever giving a definition of it and given the famous misuse of the term in Star Wars, it might have been a good idea to be sure to explain, at the least, that it’s a measurement of distance.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 510 BEN The Magic of Math: Solving for x and Figuring Out Why

As I was NewImagescanning the bookshelves filled with math books, this caught my eye because I knew Arthur Benjamin back when he was a brand new professor at Harvey Mudd College. I spent a summer working in the college’s math department computer lab, some of it paid by the department, some, assorted freelance TeX-related projects. A couple other student workers and I spent a lot of time playing backgammon and Professor Benjamin (who we called “Benji”) taught us some strategies and techniques for backgammon (mostly the other students) and I went from being the best backgammon player in the group to the worst.

This book teaches an assortment of mathematical techniques and ideas while conveying Benji’s personality in the writing. I can see this being a good book for a bright high school student or a semi-mathematically-inclined college student. Back in the ’00s I taught a class called “Mathematics for Liberal Arts Majors” and I could see, after creating a set of exercises to accompany the book, using this as the text for that class.

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Beautiful Sentences: Tommy Orange

She presses the Home button and for a second, just for a small moment, thinks she should open her other Facebook feed. On that other Facebook, she’d find the information and media she’d always been looking for. On that other Facebook feed, she’d find true connection. That is where she’d always wanted to be. Is what she’d always hoped Facebook would turn out to be. but there is nothing else to check, there is no other Facebook, so she clicks the screen off and puts the phone back in her pocket.

Tommy Orange, There There.

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Dewey Decimal Project: 509.2 YOU The last man who knew everything: Thomas Young, the anonymous polymath who proved Newton wrong, explained how we see, cured the sick, and deciphered the Rosetta stone, among other feats of genius

The title of this book NewImageoverpromises a fair amount. I’d argue that Young is far from anonymous given his prominence in the history of physics for his demonstration that light must be a wave from the two-slit experiment (although I imagine “anonymous polymath” may refer to the fact that he published a number of his works anonymously during the 1810s). Proving Newton wrong is a bit of an overstatement in that Newton (a) wavered between the wave and particle explanation of light and (2) Newton wasn’t wrong to believe that light was a particle, as later physics revealed (all of which is not to deny the significance of Young’s experiment and the significance it had). His explanation of the eye explained not so much how we see but how we focus at different distances (and was not quite correct in the end). He had all the limitations of medical doctors at the turn of the nineteenth century and their powers as a rule did not extend to actually curing the sick. His decipherment of the Rosetta stone was only partially correct, although a strong argument can be made for his critical role in opening the mysteries of the stone and an even stronger case can be made for his work on understanding the demotic script.

But even so, a polymath’s life can make for fascinating reading, especially given the essentially polymathic enterprise underlying my Dewey Decimal project. Alas, Robinson’s writing tends a bit towards being a little dry and wasn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.

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Writerly resolutions, May status

I madeProgress graph on the novel for May significant progress on the novel (the graph at the right shows the progression of my word count over the month). A first draft of chapter 11 is done and I’m nearly finished with the rewrite of the chapter. I think that this might be a chapter that can stand on its own as a short story, although it’s a bit on the long side (the first draft was 7,333 words). There are some obvious cuts that can be made, but I don’t think I can get it under 6K without damaging the narrative.

Speaking of short stories, revision of the long story is finished and it went into submission along with a piece I workshopped this month. I’m heavy on revisions for another story which got a ground-up rewrite which made for a better story, I think. Progress on the other story I have in the works is slow but steady. I don’t really know where the story is going so that makes it a little challenging to write and I suspect at least half of what will be in the current draft will end up getting tossed, but with any luck the remaining half will be decent enough to get published.

I also received my contributor’s copy of Steam Ticket with my short short, “Persistence of Memory” in it. Always nice to get the occasional reminder that not everything I write is crap.

Beautiful Sentences: Sigrid Nunez

If reading really does increase empathy, as we are constantly being told that it does, it appears that writing takes some away.

Sigrid Nunez, The Friend.

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“Persistence of Memory”: The Story Behind the Story

“Persistence of Memory” has its origNewImageins in a visit to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St Petersburg, Florida. During a tour of the exhibits, there was a painting from the same series as Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory” and the guide said that this was about Dalí attempting to portray time flattening to a single instant. 

I had previously encountered second-person future-tense narrative in the “You Will Be Born” section of Jane Siberry’s  “Oh My My” on her album Maria. It seemed an ideal way to flatten time to a single instant in prose.

Dewey Decimal Project: 491.843 ALB Teach Yourself Slovene

At this point, I’ve been throughNewImage a number of language texts, enough to get a sense for what works for me and what doesn’t (I’d like to think that in a visit to a bookstore, I’d be able to flip through a text to get a sense if it’s worthwhile). This is definitely not a worthwhile text.

The problems are numerous: There was little or no proofreading done so the book is rife with typographical errors (I marked a number of corrections in the library’s copy in just the first couple of chapters), including most egregiously, in the model conjugation of verbs. In at least a couple of instances, the answers in the back of the book are incorrect (as in having no discernible relation to the question asked) or missing. The Slovene-English vocabulary at the end of the book is missing numerous words used in the text. Vocabulary is introduced haphazardly, in some cases in examples for unrelated texts. The exercises reinforce only a surface understanding of the language and in many cases are answered by simply copying word-for-word an example from the unit under examination, and in other cases, expect vocabulary which has not been introduced in any form that I could locate.

I don’t often get angry at a book, but this one enraged me. Its sole redeeming feature is its brevity, insofar as it permitted me to complete the book without investing too much time (while simultaneously preventing me from gaining much knowledge of the Slovene language).

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