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Posts Tagged ‘physics’

the-universe-in-100-key-discoveries-by-giles-sparrowThe Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)

Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on astronomy: text and images complement each other perfectly. Even the solidness of the book was right. It’s a heavy book about heavy ideas, from the beginning of the universe to its possible endings, with everything astronomical in between.

And everything is astronomical, if it’s looked at right. The elements vital for life were cooked in stars before being blasted out by supernovae. We are star-stuff that has the unique privilege – so far as we know – of being able to understand stars.

Or trying to. This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there. And when mysteries are solved, they sometimes create new ones. Even the behaviour and composition of a celestial body as close as the Moon is still impossible for us to explain. But sometimes it’s easier at a distance: the interior of the earth can harder to study than galaxies millions of light years away, as I pointed out in “Heart of the Mother”.

In every case, however, understanding depends on mathematics. Astronomers have been building models of the heavens with shapes and numbers for millennia, but the models had to wait for two things to really become powerful: first, the invention of the telescope; second, the development of modern chemistry and physics. Whether or not there is life out there, celestial light is full of messages about the composition and movement of the stars and other bodies that generate it.

But visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and modern astronomy probes the universe at wavelengths far above and below it. The more data astronomers can gather, the more they can test the mathematical models they’ve built of the heavens. The best models make the most detailed predictions, inviting their own destruction by ugly facts. But when predictions fail, it sometimes means that the observations are faulty, not the models. Cosmological models predicted much more matter in the universe than we can see. Is the gap accounted for by so-called “dark matter”, which “simply doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiations at all”? (ch. 98, “Dark Matter”, pg. 396)

Dark matter is a strange concept; so is dark energy. Astronomy may get stranger still, but the cover of this book is a reminder that human beings inhabit two kinds of universe. One is the universe out there: matter and radiation, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae. The other is the universe in here, behind the eyes, between the ears and above the tongue. The cover of this book offers a vivid contrast between the swirling complexity and colour of a star-field and the sans-serif font of the title and author’s name. But the contrast is ironic too. The stars look complex and the font looks simple, but language is actually far more complex and difficult to understand than stars.

Consciousness may be far more complex still. In the end, is the value of science that it expands consciousness, offering new physical and mental sensations of discovery and understanding? The powerful and beautiful images and ideas in this book could only have been generated by science, because the universe is more inventive than we are. But without consciousness, the universe might as well not exist. Without language, we’d never be able to try and understand it. Then again, the universe seems to have invented language and consciousness too.

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restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

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The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

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Physics in Minutes by Giles SparrowPhysics in Minutes: 200 key concepts explained in an instant, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2014)

In Borges’ story “The Book of Sand” (1975), the narrator acquires a heavy little book that has an infinite number of pages. When he opens it, he can never find the same page twice. The discrepancy between its finite size and its infinite contents begins to prey on his mind. He decides the book is a monstrous thing and wants to get rid of it: “I considered fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book might be similarly infinite, and suffocate the planet in smoke.”

It’s a good story, but the central idea doesn’t work, unless you assume magic is at work. A book with an infinite number of pages would be infinitely heavy. In fact, it would instantly become a black hole and start swallowing the universe.

So I assume, anyway. I’m interested in physics but I don’t know much about it. This book is aimed at people like me. It reminded me of Borges’ Book of Sand, partly because it’s small but heavy, partly because of the density of its ideas and the weight of history behind those ideas. Each page of explanation could easily become a hundred or a thousand: physics is daunting in its scope and complexity. Some of the greatest minds in history have put centuries of effort into understanding the behaviour of matter and energy.

That’s how we got astonishing things like electronics, X-rays and the atom bomb. Physics is an intellectual over-achiever, the super-star of the sciences, the most spectacular, powerful and difficult of all. But it’s the most difficult science because it’s also the simplest. Stars and steam-engines are much less complex than societies or brains, which is why you can’t get away with talking nonsense in physics. And although mathematics governs everything, it’s the simpler things – pendulums, light-rays, atoms, stars – that we can mathematize first.

Or some of us can, at least: the highly intelligent and obsessive men, like Galileo and Isaac Newton, who began modern physics by finding ways to extract abstract mathematics from concrete realities. If they’d tried to find maths in psychology or culture, they would have failed, because those things are too complex. They had to look at much simpler things like falling objects, planetary motion and light-rays. Galileo and Newton laid the foundations and later physicists have built on them, so that physics now towers into the scientific skies, the envy and awe of those working with more complex and intractable aspects of existence.

Giles Sparrow takes his readers on a tour of the tower. I suppose you could say he’s operating an express elevator, stopping briefly on the floors and offering a brief explanation of what it contains: elastic and inelastic collisions on one floor, fluid mechanics on another, mass spectrometry, electromagnetic induction and quantum electrodynamics on more. Then the doors snap shut and the elevator shoots up another floor. But one thing is found everywhere: mathematics. Sparrow quotes a lot of equations and uses a lot of numbers. If you want to understand physics, you have to know the maths. If you don’t, there’s no way to disguise your ignorance.

The maths is beyond me, so until brain-modification arrives I won’t be able to understand physics properly. Until then, this book is a good way of glimpsing the glories of the science. It’s also the closest you’ll get to handling Borges’ Book of Sand in real life.

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Volcanoes A Beginners Guide by Rosaly LopesVolcanoes: A Beginner’s Guide, Rosaly Lopes (Oneworld 2010)

My first introduction to volcanoes was fictional: Willard Price’s Volcano Adventure (1956), which stands out in his Adventure series because it centres on something inanimate, not on animals like lions or gorillas or elephants. This book by the NASA scientist Rosaly Lopes is factual but equally enjoyable. And some of it would fit well into Volcano Adventure anyway:

[V]olcanoes come with different sizes, shapes and temperaments. It is fascinating to study what causes these differences and understand that, while generalizations are possible, each volcano has its distinct quirks, just like people. We could also compare volcanoes to cats: with few exceptions, they spend most of their lives asleep. (ch. 1, “What are volcanoes?”, pg. 1)

When a volcano wakes, look out. They’ve slain cities, devastated eco-systems and shaped landscapes. They’re also shaped cultures. Like a thunderstorm or earthquake, an erupting volcano raises a big question in the minds of human observers: What caused something so powerful and impressive? Our explanations began with myth and moved to science. And they moved a long time ago: the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras “proposed that volcanic eruptions were caused by great winds within the Earth, blowing through narrow passages” (pg. 5) and becoming hot by friction. Two-and-a-half millennia later, scientists are plotting “silica (SiO2) content” against “alkali content” as they classify “different volcanic rocks” (ch. 2, “How volcanoes erupt”, pg. 15).

But Anaxogaras’ principles are still at work: seek the explanation in mindless mechanism, not in supernatural mind. Classification is another essential part of science. In vulcanology, the scientific study of volcanoes, magmas are classified and so are eruptions, from subdued to spectacular: Icelandic and Hawaiian are on the subdued side, Peléean, Plinian and Ultraplinian on the spectacular, with Strombolian and Vulcanian in between. Some eruptions are easy to understand and investigate. Some are difficult. Volcanoes can be as simple or complicated as their names. Compare Laki, on Iceland, with Eyjafjallajökull, also on Iceland.

Laki is an example of an eco-slayer:

Although the eruption did not kill anyone directly, its consequences were disastrous for farmland, animals and humans alike: clouds of hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide compounds caused the deaths of over half of Iceland’s livestock and, ultimately, the deaths – mostly from starvation – of about 9,000 people, a third of the population. The climatic effects of the eruption were felt elsewhere in Europe; the winter of 1783-4 as noted as being particularly cold. (ch. 3, “Hawaiian and Icelandic eruptions: fire fountains and lava lakes”, pg. 31)

Lopes goes on to look at city-slayers like Mount Pelée and Vesuvius, but they can be less harmful to the environment. A spectacular eruption can be over quickly and release relatively little gas and ash into the atmosphere. And death-dealing is only half the story: volcanoes also give life, because they enrich the soil. They enrich experience too, not just with eruptions but with other phenomena associated with vulcanism: geysers, thermal springs, mudpools and so on.

And that’s just the planet Earth. Lopes also discusses the rest of the solar system, from Mercury, Venus and Mars to the moons of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The rocky planets have volcanoes more or less like those on earth, but the moons of the gas giants offer an apparent paradox: cryovolcanoes, or “cold volcanoes”, which erupt ice and water, not superheated lava. On Neptune’s moon Triton, whose surface is an “extremely cold” -235ºC, cryovulcanism may even involve frozen nitrogen. The hypothesis is that under certain conditions, it’s heated by sunlight, turns into a gas and “explodes” in the “near-vacuum of Triton’s environment” (ch. 11, “The exotic volcanoes of the outer solar system”, pg. 138).

Hot or cold, big or small, on the earth or off it, volcanoes are fascinating things and this is an excellent introduction to what they do and why they do it.

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The Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories by John BuchanThe Strange Adventures of Mr Andrew Hawthorn & Other Stories, John Buchan (Penguin Books 2009)

“How the devil could one associate horror with mathematics?” A Lovecraft fan will answer: easily. But that question was asked by John Buchan in a story first published in 1911. Buchan is most famous for the character Richard Hannay, hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), but just as there is much more to Doyle than his detective, so there is much more to Buchan than his battler.

As you’ll see in this collection. Like Doyle, Buchan ranged from horror to humour, from realism to romance, from outdoors adventure to indoors introspection. He could write vivid descriptions of everything from dinner with the Devil to a storm at sea. Doyle was obviously an influence on him; so were Kipling and Stevenson. He doesn’t always match their quality, but that’s hardly surprising: writing formed only part of his very full and active life. According to the chronology here, he trained as a barrister, became President of the Oxford Union, worked as secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa and served in the Intelligence Corps during the First World War, then became successively a director of Reuters, a Conservative member of parliament, President of the Scottish Historical Society, Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Governor-General of Canada and Chancellor of Edinburgh University.

During all that time, he was also hunting, fishing and tramping the wilderness of Scotland, South Africa and Canada. And he was reading in several languages on many subjects: there are quotes here from Suetonius, Shakespeare, the Bible, Burke, A.E. Housman, Verlaine, Pascal and Poincaré. The last two supply the seed for “Space” (1911), his proto-Lovecraftian story of mathematics and menace:

All Hollond’s tastes were on the borderlands of sciences, where mathematics fades into metaphysics and physics merges in the abstrusest kind of mathematics. Well, it seems he had been working for years at the ultimate problem of matter, and especially of that rarefied matter we call aether or space. I forget what his view was – atoms or molecules or electric waves. […] He claimed to have discovered — by ordinary inductive experiment — that the constituents of aether possessed certain functions, and moved in certain figures obedient to certain mathematical laws. Space, I gathered, was perpetually ‘forming fours’ in some fancy way. (“Space” in The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies – in this online version of the story, the opening quote is by Tertullian)

Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Holland is doomed by his discovery. So is the antiquarian Dubellay in “The Wind in the Portico” (1928). He is visited by the narrator, who is “busy on a critical edition of Theocritus” and wants to see a rare codex owned by Dubellay:

I had made a portrait in my mind of a fastidious old scholar, with eye-glasses on a black cord, and a finical Weltkind-ish manner. Instead I found a man still in early middle age, a heavy fellow dressed in the roughest of country tweeds. […] His face was hard to describe. It was high-coloured, but the colour was not healthy; it was friendly, but it was also wary; above all, it was unquiet. He gave me the impression of a man whose nerves were all wrong, and who was perpetually on his guard. (“The Wind in the Portico” in The Runagates Club)

He’s right to be: having excavated an “old temple” in the woods, he’s foolishly renewed worship of a “British god of the hills” called Vaunus. What happens to him seemed startlingly Lovecraftian when I first read the story, but when I read it again the Lovecraftian charge was muted. It’s hard to be startled twice and a story with powerful images can be disappointing when you return to it.

Buchan uses a similar theme in another story, “The Grove of Ashtaroth”, but in that case the story holds its power when I read it again. It has a different ending too: the doom is averted and the deity is ambivalent. Baleful or beautiful? Grotesque or glorious? It depends partly on one’s race and the story is about atavism and the way ancestry can overthrow environment. Or rather: can re-emerge in the right environment. Like Doyle, Buchan accepted some shocking and long-exploded ideas about the influence of genetics on brains, bodies and behaviour. They’re shocking to modern sensibilities, at least, but they might prove less exploded than some suspect.

Buchan himself may be evidence for them, because he’s another example of the disproportionate Scottish influence on English-speaking culture and literature. He died in Montreal but he was born in Perth near the east coast of Scotland. This background means that some of the strangeness in this collection is a matter of perspective. If you’re not Scottish, it will be strange. If you are, it won’t be. Take “Streams of Water in the South” (1899) and the apparent tramp who suddenly appears and helps a shepherd get his flock across a deep and dangerous flood. The shepherd asks the narrator of the story if he knows who the tramp is:

I owned ignorance.

“Tut,” said he, “ye ken nocht. But Yeddie had aye a queer crakin’ for waters. He never gangs on the road. Wi’ him it’s juist up yae glen and doon anither and aye keepin’ by the burn-side. He kens every water i’ the warld, every bit sheuch and burnie frae Gallowa’ to Berwick. And then he kens the way o’ spates the best I ever seen, and I’ve heard tell o’ him fordin’ waters when nae ither thing could leeve i’ them. He can weyse and wark his road sae cunnin’ly on the stanes that the roughest flood, if it’s no juist fair ower his heid, canna upset him. Mony a sheep has he saved to me, and it’s mony a guid drove wad never hae won to Gledsmuir market but for Yeddie.” (“Streams of Water in the South”)

The mixture of formal literary English and broad Scots heightens the richness and earthiness of the Scots. But perhaps “earthiness” is the wrong word. Language is like water: fickle, fissile, rushing over the landscape of history and culture. So Scots runs through southern English like the streams after which, via the Bible, the story is named.

The tramp Yeddie is named after them too: his real name is Adam Logan but “maist folk ca’ him ‘Streams of Water’”. He both loves water and gains power from it. As he carries fifteen sheep, one by one, across the dangerous flood, he stands “straighter and stronger”, his eye flashes and his voice rings with command. He reminds me of Kipling’s jungle boy Mowgli, who’s at ease with natural forces in a way most people don’t understand and are disturbed by.

The power of this story is Kiplingesque too: it will stay with you, partly for its strangeness, partly for its sadness. Unlike his beloved streams, Logan can’t defy time and where he was once familiar, he will one day be forgotten.

Politics and the May-Fly” (1896) also involves water and also uses Scots. It’s memorable in a different way: not sad, but sardonic. It’s psychological too, involving a battle of wits between a Tory farmer and his radical ploughman. High-born Buchan, the future Governor-General of Canada, could understand and sympathize with all stations of men. But there are things common to all men: “Politics” is a Machiavellian tale in miniature and not something that Lovecraft could have written.

Lovecraft didn’t like fishing or the great outdoors, after all, and he couldn’t explain their appeal as Buchan can. Nor could he have written “Basilissa” (1914), a story that involves both life-long love and rib-cracking wrestling. You’d have to look to Robert E. Howard for a story like that. And this, from a story with a Lovecraftian title, is like Clark Ashton Smith:

Sometimes at night, in the great Brazen Palace, warders heard the Emperor walking in the dark corridors, alone, and yet not alone; for once, when a servant entered with a lamp, he saw his master with a face as of another world, and something beside him which had no face or shape, but which he knew to be that hoary Evil which is older than the stars. (“The Watcher by the Threshold”, 1900)

So Buchan could write like all of the Weird Big Three. I think he must have influenced them too. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic, but it doesn’t reveal Buchan’s full range, erudition and intelligence. This collection does. I don’t think all the stories are good, but at his best he isn’t so far behind Kipling, Doyle and H.G. Wells. With a less strenuous public life, perhaps he would have matched them. But if he’d had less appetite for work, he might have had less appetite for landscapes and ideas too. There are lots of them here, from Scottish hills to Canadian forests, from mathematical pandemonium to the “Breathing of God”.

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The Secret Footballer's Guide to the Modern GameThe Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game: Tips and Tactics from the Ultimate Insider, The Secret Footballer (Guardian Books 2014)

Who is the Secret Footballer? I don’t know. But he’s definitely a Guardianista. You can tell this by two things: 1) he’s passionately committed to the fight against “homophobia, sexism, racism and everything in between”; 2) he uses “in terms of” a lot. Interviewing another concealed component of the crypto-community, The Secret Physio, he asks this:

TSF: So would players need to train differently from one another in terms of the weights they lift and the core work they do? (ch. 1, “Getting Started”, pg. 14)

“Core” is also Guardianese and maybe he’s really interviewing himself, because the Secret Physio uses “in terms of” too. I didn’t spot the incendiary slam-dunk of a mixed metaphor anywhere, but he does claim that Wayne Rooney is “one of quite literally only a handful of players” who matter a lot to Manchester United’s profits (ch. 4, “It’s Football, But Not As We Know It”, pg. 116). So case proven: he’s a Guardianista.

But he’s also worth reading and this is his most interesting book. He talks about world football and the game in general, not just his life in the Premier League, and he seems to know his stuff. I don’t. To me football is like music: I appreciate it without understanding it. I know what players, teams and matches I like, but I don’t have a clue about tactics or formations.

The Secret Footballer combines appreciation with understanding, so it’s gratifying that he praises three of my favourite players: Glen Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and Dennis Bergkamp. He says that Hoddle proved that “an entire football nation did not know what to do with skill and finesse” (Epilogue, pg. 218) and lists Le Tissier and Bergkamp among the scorers of “The goals that influenced me most”. This is Le Tissier’s:

…his finest goal, in my opinion, came against Newcastle in 1993. It is so skilful that it deserves to grace most lists. The three touches he takes to get the ball under control while beating a defender at the same time are by no means easy and all have to be perfect. I later read that the slightly scuffed finish had taken the gloss off it for Le Tissier himself, but, for me, it serves as a lesson in composure for every kid who wants to be a striker. (ch. 1, pp. 52-3)

This is Bergkamp’s, against Newcastle in 2002:

Almost every other player I have seen would try to control the horrible bouncing ball that comes into him. But Bergkamp, with his back to goal, flicks it to one side of the defender and runs the other, using his strength to outmuscle the defender and find the calmest of finishes. For a long time, some people debated whether or not Dennis had actually intended to do what he did here. Like so many others, those people don’t truly understand football. (Ibid., pg. 54)

But what does it mean to “truly understand football”? Ultimately, it means using mathematics. There’s maths everywhere in football and everywhere in this book, from the topspin on a free kick (ch. 1, pg. 41) to 4-2-3-1, “the most in-vogue formation in modern football” (ch. 6, “Formations”, pg. 158). A good footballer has to be both an athlete and an expert in reading and responding to patterns. The movement of players on the field sets constantly shifting problems in combinatorics, for example. There’s no entry for “Mathematics” in the index, but then there’s no entry for “English language” either. This book is written in English and is talking about maths, implicitly but intensively.

That’s as true in the section about diet as it is in the section about using spin in free-kicks. One is physiology, the other is physics, but they both involve the interaction of entity that is the essence of mathematics. The spin of the ball affects its interaction with the air. Chemicals in the body affect its interaction with play: its strength, stamina, flexibility and so on. That’s why diet is so important. But chemicals are important in other ways. To physiology and physics you can add physiognomy, as a recent scientific paper shows:

The structure of a soccer player’s face can predict his performance on the field – including his likelihood of scoring goals, making assists and committing fouls – according to a study led by a researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The scientists studied the facial-width-to-height ratio (FHWR) of about 1,000 players from 32 countries who competed in the 2010 World Cup. The results, published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, showed that midfielders, who play both offense and defense, and forwards, who lead the offense, with higher FWHRs were more likely to commit fouls. Forwards with higher FWHRs also were more likely to score goals or make assists. (Facial structure predicts goals, fouls among World Cup soccer players, ScienceDaily, 12/xi/2014)

Facial structure is influenced by testosterone, which also influences competitiveness and aggression. And testosterone itself is influenced by genetics. Football was invented and is still dominated by men. That won’t change until the human race changes. And it will be men who invent the means for the human race to change.

Or rather: the human races, because there are a lot of them. The big ones – Europeans, Africans and Asians – are all represented in this book and the Secret Footballer writes a lot about genetic differences, even though he doesn’t know it. And would be horrified by the claim that it matters. As a Guardianista, he knows we’re all the same under the skin and that environment is responsible for the way blacks contribute little to science and mathematics. Blacks contribute a lot to football, but not as managers and not as certain types of player: goalkeeper, for example.

Why not? The Secret Footballer would say it’s racism and lack of opportunity. I would say it’s lack of intelligence. But lack of intelligence is due to racism and lack of opportunity too, isn’t it? No, I’d say it’s due to genetics. Why is the performance of the brain less influenced by genes than the performance of the muscles? It isn’t. Sadly for Guardianistas, hateful stereotypes like this are based on a hateful genetic reality:

Speedboat, no driver: Refers to a player who has blistering pace but no clue where he is supposed to be running or when. Controversially, this phrase is typically used for young black players. There are lots of managers who do not trust black players with the disciplined side of the game and just tell them to run instead – I even had a manager who did not want to play black centre-halves because he was convinced that they had tunnel vision and didn’t read the game well. I can’t disprove it one way or another, though it sounds ridiculous to me. However, I’m here to tell you that lots of managers feel this way and I’ve lost count of managers, coaches, academy coaches and players who describe young black players using this term. It’s even been said to me on the pitch by an opposition player when we brought on a young black player in the second half. (“Appendix: The Guide to Modern Football Language”, pg. 228)

Genetics at work, in my opinion: the environment of Africa selected for athletic ability but not high intelligence. Football is not just a beautiful game. It’s a bountiful one too, because it offers so many patterns to analyse: patterns of play, of history, of culture, race, human behaviour and biology in general. The Secret Footballer discusses all of them, sometimes without realizing it. He’s interesting, opinionated and obsessed with the game. I’m not and never have been, but this book woke memories of the days when I cared much more about twenty-two men chasing an inflated sphere around a rectangular field.

Perhaps I should care more now, because the game has never stopped evolving and improving, as the Secret Footballer will show you. There are some exciting names in his list of the “ten best players of the last twenty years”: Lionel Messi, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi Hernández, Ronaldinho, Paul Scholes, Paolo Maldini, Thierry Henry, Ryan Giggs, Andrés Iniesta (ch. 6, pg. 186). He also offers his “ten best players of the future playing now” (ch. 7, “Coaching”, pg. 206) and lists the “best young players you probably haven’t heard of… yet” (ch. 3, “Fashion in Football”, pg. 104) And where does he stand on one of the great questions of our time? Here:

Cristiano Ronaldo once said that God put him on this planet to play football. We’ll just have to ask Lionel Messi if he remembers doing that. (ch. 8, “Whatever Happens, Never, Ever Give Up”, pg. 215)

There’s also Nike vs Adidas, Mark Viduka singing Monty Python in Middlesbrough and an explanation of why England are so bad. And for once a good popular book isn’t spoilt by a bad literary omission, because there’s a detailed index. I don’t like the Guardian, but it occasionally comes up with good things and this guide is one of them.

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Book in BlackBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

Critical Math – A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, John Allen Paulos (Penguin 1996)

Rude BoysRuthless: The Global Rise of the Yardies, Geoff Small (Warner 1995)

K-9 KonundrumDog, Peter Sotos (TransVisceral Books 2014)

Ghosts in the CathedralThe Neutrino Hunters: The Chase for the Ghost Particle and the Secrets of the Universe, Ray Jayawardhana (Oneworld 2013) (posted @ Overlord of the Über-Feral)


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon SinghThe Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, Simon Singh (Bloomsbury 2013)

I don’t like The Simpsons and I don’t think Simon Singh is a very good writer. But there is some interesting maths in this book. As the Emperor Vespasian said when criticized for taxing urinals in Rome: Pecunia non olet – “money doesn’t smell”. And simple sources can yield riches in other ways. There’s a good example of that in chapter 9 of this book, “To Infinity and Beyond”, where Singh looks at the mathematics of pancake-sorting. It was first discussed in 1975 by the geometer Jacob E. Goodman of the City College of New York. Suppose there’s a pile of pancakes of different sizes. You can insert a spatula at any point in the pile and flip the block of pancakes above it. Goodman posed this question about sorting the pancakes into order of size:

If there are n pancakes, what is the maximum number of flips (as a function of n) that I will ever have to use to rearrange them? (ch. 9, pg. 110)

It sounds simple, but isn’t. As the pile gets higher, the problem gets harder. The answer is 20 flips for 18 pancakes and 22 flips for 19. And 20 pancakes? Surprisingly, mathematicians don’t know: “nobody has been able to sidestep the brute computational approach by finding a clever equation that predicts pancake numbers”. The best mathematicians can do is find the upper limit: pancake(n) < (5n + 5)/3 flips.

This limit was proved in a paper “co-authored by William H. Gates and Christos H. Papadimitriou” in 1979 (pg. 112). The first co-author is better known now as Bill Gates of Microsoft. The Simpsons enter the story because David S. Cohen, a writer for the series, extended the problem in a mathematical paper published in 1995: the pancakes don’t just come in different sizes, they’re burnt on one side and have to be flipped both in order of size and with the burnt side down. Now the number of flips is “between 3n/2 and 2n – 2” (pg. 113). The source of the problem may seem trivial, but the maths of the solution isn’t. Pancake-flipping has important parallels with “rearranging data” in computer science.

Cohen has degrees in both computer science and physics, but his expertise isn’t unique: “the writing team of The Simpsons have equally remarkable backgrounds in mathematical subjects” (ch. 0 (sic), “The Truth about the Simpsons”, pg. 3). They have degrees and doctorates in tough subjects from colleges like Harvard, Berkeley and Princeton. And they’ve been engaged, according to Cohen, in a “decades-long conspiracy to secretly educate cartoon viewers” (back cover). They haven’t had much success with that, but they’ve succeeded in other ways: TV is no good at education, but very good at propaganda and manipulation. That’s one reason I dislike The Simpsons, which is obviously inspired by cultural Marxism, despite its occasional un-PC jokes. Another reason is that I think the characters and colours are ugly and dispiriting. Or is that cultural Marxism again? But I have to admit that the series is cleverly done. To appeal to so many people for so long takes skill, but explicit maths has been low in the mix.

It had to be, because The Simpsons wouldn’t have been successful otherwise. It has a lot of stupid fans and stupid people aren’t interested in Fermat’s Last Theorem, strategies for rock-scissors-paper or equations for pancake-numbers. That’s why you need to freeze the frame to find a lot of the explicit maths in The Simpsons. Or you did before Singh wrote this book and froze the frames for you. The implicit maths in The Simpsons is everywhere, but that’s because maths is everything, including an ugly cartoon and its science-fiction offshot. Singh discusses Futurama too and the “taxi-cab numbers” inspired by the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920). I’ve never seen Futurama and I wish I could say the same of The Simpsons. I certainly hope I never see it again. But it’s an important programme and this is an interesting book.

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The Devotee of Ennui #1: Hymn to Hermaphrodite, Alan Moore with Kegsey Keegan (Polypogonic Press, 2013)

He has arguably done more than any other living writer to prove to the world that comix are not just for adults. Now Northampton’s non-pareil neo-gnostic normativism-nihilating neuro-naut Alan Moore has a new project and a new passion: boredom. Yes, you read that right: boredom. The thing is, boredom is actually interesting, see? That is the paradox at the heart of Moore’s latest work, the first instalment of which has just been issued through his private publishing company, Polypogonic Press. But be warned: this is not going to be the most immediately accessible exemplar of his œuvre, because it’s based partly on a transcription of DNA from a follicle mite in Moore’s own beard. Nevertheless, my first of what doubtless will be many, many reads of Hymn to Hermaphrodite suggests to me that the completed serial will take its place among Moore’s best work. One day it may even be seen as better than Watchmen or 23-gNosis – yes, it really is that good.

How does it raise such high expectations? Well, thanks, inter alia, to that follicle-mite DNA, things aren’t as clear in the actual text as they might be, but Moore has written a comprehensive introduction in which he explains what he intends to do with the serial and where he intends to go. He begins by discussing a phrase commonly used to describe boring things: “as dull as ditch-water.” He points out that the simile doesn’t actually work:

Ditch-water is positively pullulating with wonder and weirdness, at a microscopic level: protozoa, algae, microbes, viruses, the works. I’m going to try – with no guarantee of success, I freely admit – to teach people to see boredom as they should see ditch-water: as something that is bloody interesting! When you look at it right, boredom is not boring at all. Among a lot else, it’s frightening. Hell as eternal torment is one thing, but what about hell as eternal boredom, boys and girls?

Moore then describes how, as a teenager, he first read about tiny sub-atomic particles called neutrinos, which are so small and so ghostly that they barely interact with ordinary matter. For example, they can breeze unaffected through light-years of lead. That image stayed with him – light-years of lead. He asks us to ignore the physics and imagine, per impossibile, being trapped in a small, cubical cell for all eternity in the middle of light-years of lead. You don’t suffer any pain or physical discomfort, but there’s nothing to do and no way to get out, either. “After a few hours of that,” he concludes, “you’d be begging for the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched!”

He then goes on to posit that an up-to-date Satan would be experimenting with sensory deprivation, because that seriously messes with your head. And he explains how his meditation on these themes led him to devise a new academic discipline: ennuology – the scientific study of boredom. Antonia Baccio, the protagonist of the serial that he has now begun, is a hermaphroditic physicist whose mother was the Canadian ambassador to Belgium and whose father was the Belgian ambassador to Canada. It’s a kind of seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son thing – s/he gains all the ennuo-potence of both parents and both nationalities. S/he’s also a self-proclaimed “Devotee of Ennui”, consciously dedicated to celebrating and exploring the world of boredom. Fans of Weird Fiction will recognize a tip-o’-the-hat to Clark Ashton Smith’s short-story “The Devotee of Evil” (1933) and Smith looks as though he’s going to play a central role in the serial. Anyway, in this first instalment, Antonia, who’s obviously as crazy as a box of frogs, is trying to create a critical mass of ennui with these particles (s/he thinks) s/he’s discovered called “ennuons”, which are responsible for creating boredom and for making people and things boring. Canada and Belgium have an unusually high b.e.c. (background ennuon count) and Antonia begins work on two machines to collect and concentrate these particles and their sinister psycho-activity, one machine based in Brussels, the other in Ottawa.

S/he’s calculated that, if s/he collects enough ennuons, s/he can achieve a critical mass and a giant ennuonic explosion will ensue, bathing the entire earth in hyper-powerful boredom radiation. Moore doesn’t say what effects this will have, but he hints that they’ll be pretty nasty! The full horror of what Antonia’s up to will no doubt be explored in later instalments. In a (possible) tip-o’-the-hat to himself, Moore also (maybe) hints at some kind of alien race lurking in the background, either overseeing Antonia as s/he conducts her experiments or assisting her with them. And he hints that Antonia may even be alien herself, or maybe a new species of human. Readers will be left lots of other conundra to contemplate and puzzles to ponder. One of those puzzles will be Kegsey Keegan, Moore’s new artistic collaborator. He – or she – is a new name both to me and to the internet, which makes me suspicious. Why? Quite simply, because the talent and maturity on display in the art are worthy of a veteran of the comix scene. I suggest, for what it’s worth, that the name may be a disguise for Moore himself, working with graphics software to distort and develop his own drawings.

Whatever turns out to be the truth, Keegan perfectly realizes Moore’s ennuological visions, working with a lot of gray and a lot of detail to capture both the dedication and the lunacy of Antonia Baccio, the Devotee of Ennui who isn’t ennuyeux/se at all. In fact, s/he is one of the most disturbing comix characters I’ve ever come across. I’ve already had nightmares – literally – about being trapped in her/his “Cell-o’-Hell”, where s/he focuses ennuonic rays on unsuspecting experimental subjects and bores them out of their skulls. As all members of his fan-community will recognize, Moore has always been sui generis. Other celebrities issue their own perfumes or aftershaves: he’s issued his own psychedelic drug (now banned in all E.U. countries and large parts of Asia). But I think he’s surpassed himself here. In my opinion, no other comix writer in the world, living or dead, could do what Moore is doing with the most (apparently) unpromising of subjects. And after episode one, I’m both dreading and drooling over what will appear in episode two. It’s about boredom, but it’s interesting, see? So be there AND be square, futility fans.

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