Sunday, March 11, 2007

E = mc2 (David Bodanis)

Yes. It's been a while. But I do have good excuses. I ran a half-marathon (and spent that afternoon eating ice cream and brownies while sprawled on the couch, then spent the next week hobbling around because my feet hurt so badly), started two other books and decided not to finish them (more on that below), started taking an online course on marine biology through UC Berkeley Extension (did you know that the pufferfish itself is not poisonous, its the symbiotic bacteria living in it that are?), and had to prep for my fantasy baseball league (I'm already looking at the Yahoo! baseball headlines with dread---will the $140 pillow Carlos Delgado bought help his stiff neck? Will Ordonez be okay after being hit in the head with a pitch during Spring Training on Saturday?).

The first book I started and put down was Ball Four, by Jim Bouton. Ball Four apparently caused quite a scandal when it was published in 1970 as it exposed the behind-the-scenes world of locker rooms and big league ball. It's written in a journal style, with a matter-of-fact tone by Bouton, a player at the time. I think I may give it another try some time in the future because I think it's probably a good book, and a historically important one for major-league baseball. But I got about 50 pages into it (of 500) and felt a little overwhelmed at the time that I was never going to finish it or get to my other library books before they were due (poor planning on my part). And I wasn't hooked enough to keep reading.

The second book was The Best Thing I Ever Tasted by Sallie Tisdale. The beginning was great, filled with poetic narrative about Tisdale's childhood memories of food, casseroles made from cans, faux-apple pie kind of food. But then as I kept reading, I thought, wow, there are some bold claims being made here---where are the footnotes? Where are the sources to support these arguments? And the poetic narrative stopped being so pleasant for me. I think my problem was that I wanted a bit more journalism than she provided. And I thought, you know, there are books out there that are saying similar messages that I connect with better, so I put this book down, too.

But finally I did manage to both start and finish a book. E = mc2 by David Bodanis, which was recommended to me by my good friend who is known in the blogosphere as ADoD (thank you!). Bodanis decided to approach the equation by giving a history and analysis of each individual part of the equation before discussing it as a whole. When I read about this approach in the preface, I was worried the discussion would either be too simplistic (and boring) or too complex (and boring). But Bodanis's own excitement about his subject matter comes through in the book, and while I couldn't discuss the technicalities (or the hard science) of the equation, I have a much clearer understanding. For example, Bodanis explains what would happen if the pilot of a space shuttle tried to go faster than the speed of light:

"Think frat boys jammed into a phone booth, their faces squashed hard against the glass walls. Think of a parade balloon, with an air hose pumping into it that can't be turned off. The whole balloon starts swelling, far beyond any size for which it was intended. The same thing would happen to the shuttle. The engines are roaring with energy, but that can't raise the shuttle's speed, for nothing goes faster than light. But the energy can't just disappear, either."

Much of the book focuses on Einstein and the history of the nuclear bomb (but Bodanis stays mainly on the science side). There are also other discussions of scientists integral to parts of the equation (he discusses Cecilia Payne, who was the first to discover the sun mainly comprises hydrogen, not iron as the current researchers believed) and current applications of E = mc2 in our everyday lives (smoke detectors and red-glowing exit signs). I thought this book make the subject accessible, and will definitely read more of Bodanis's work.

Next book up: Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century by Laura Shapiro

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Blindness (José Saramago)


I haven’t made much of an effort to seek out Nobel Prize winners—my (probably incorrect) impression is that they tend toward Ultra-Serious, Humorless Social Novels about topics such as The Continuing Injustices of Post-Colonialism and The Tragedies of the Poor. I blame this on unfortunate early exposure to plodders like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, as well as the fact that Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t have one and probably never will.

But José Saramago’s Blindness (alongside Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera) may force me to reevaluate. It starts from a simple premise—an epidemic of “white blindness” spreading through a city—and follows what happens next to its logical conclusions, with the majority of the book taking place in an abandoned mental asylum where the government sets up a quarantine for the afflicted blind, a place that quickly devolves into a hellish prison ruled by a pack of blind thugs.

You won’t find the deep insights into individual characters of a García Márquez—no one in Blindness even has the distinction of a name, and the people are often little more than sketches passing through the decimated, chaotic city. (“Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters,” a character says at one point.) He differentiates them by role and description—the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses—and in his dialogue eschews quotation marks, paragraph breaks, and even most punctuation other than commas, lending a surreal sheen to the narrative. The technique is superbly handled, and seemed particularly well suited for this book, dissolving as it does the barriers between direct description and the increasingly auditory world of the blind, although it turns out that’s just how Saramago likes his dialogue in general.

But the power of the book is in the almost tactile realness of its world, in the demented and irresistible logic of its failing society, and in its relentless, unblinking exploration of human nature, both bad and good—people’s selfishness, opportunism, and indifference, but also their capacity for empathy and endless perseverance. A writer hasn’t grabbed me this hard since Haruki Murakami with After the Quake and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I even bought another of Saramago’s books, The Stone Raft, when I was little more than halfway through this one. Whether it’ll be as good as Blindness, I can’t say, but I’m guessing it’ll be pretty good. (After all, he did win a Nobel Prize.)