Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: "The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness" by Rick Bass

The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997)
Rick Bass (1958-)

190 pages

In three beautiful, often haunting novellas Rick Bass transports us into the lives of people intimately connected to the natural world. For his characters in these stories nature seems close and deep and bristling with energy that draws their focus, and often their lives, away from the encroaching modern world. They may find nature cruel and hard, or mystical and awe-inspiring --- or even all of these in turns --- but they relish their place in its seemingly limitless mystery.

The Myth of Bears tells the story of a hunter and his wife who have left the desert south-west for the snowy, stark wilderness of Alaska, where they live in a small cabin far from the nearest town, and hunt and trap animals, selling the pelts. Fearing her husband’s increasingly erratic behavior, the woman has bolted through a window in their cabin and disappeared into the winter night. But her continued love for him keeps her from leaving completely, and she sets up a simple camp in the woods from which she watches over him, daily hovering on the edge of his apprehension, balancing her fear of his ability to track her with her continued love for him. For his part, the hunter can sense her presence, and desperately wants her back with him, and so she becomes one additional prey that he tracks as he goes about his work. Thus, the two play a high-stakes version of hide-and-seek, with Nature becoming a third party in the game, as it both helps her to conceal her whereabouts and provides him clues to her presence.

In the second novella, Where the Sea Used to Be, a man has gone into business for himself, leasing property on which he drills for oil, competing against former colleagues who work for the oil leasing firm he had left some years before. He discovers that he has a special knack for knowing where oil is buried, far beneath the surface: every lease he drills produces oil, and he finds the right spot to drill even on properties that had come up dry for his former employer. Understanding that oil is found where ancient shallow inland seas had once existed before being buried under thousands of feet of earth, as he flies over the countryside in his small plane he finds himself able to read the millions of years of history of the land and pinpoint the deposits of oil. For his nature-blind rivals he has a shamanistic connection to the natural world that they cannot fathom.

The final novella takes up the last half of the book, and shares its title. Bass has a lead-in quote as preface to each of the three stories, and though he chooses fittingly in each case, the preface quote for the third story stopped me in my tracks: a wonderful, visceral homage by the writer John Graves to the desire to know what our natural surroundings were like before mankind re-shaped them to fit its needs. Graves achieves a pitch-perfect mix of poignant regret and pragmatic realism, and I read and enjoyed it several times (it is reproduced here) before continuing on to the novella it introduces.

Bass’ narrator in the third novella tells the story of her love for the land of her ancestors, a 10,000 acre homestead where central Texas gives way to the west Texas desert. Her mother having died young, she has grown up with her younger brother, father, grandfather and a Mexican farmhand who has settled in as part of the family. As a young girl, she and her brother explore the land around her family’s home, and she paints for us an intimate and vivid portrait of the river, the hills, the plants and the animals that come to have a deep hold on her. As she brings the story to the present, and the modern world begins to intrude on her beloved land --- even 10,000 acres cannot provide isolation from the forces of economic expansion --- the reader aches with her for the impact on the natural beauty she cherishes. Bass’ writing style and language make the feel and smells and sounds of the land come alive for the reader, allowing us to revel in it as the narrator herself does. A more beautiful and moving appreciation of the natural world and its ability to enlighten the soul would be hard to find

Together the three stories introduce us to people who live close the land, who strive to understand what the land can tell them, and who remain engaged in and enthralled by the mysterious beauty and variety of the natural world; a perfect book of stories to read on a hiking trip at your favorite park or during breaks from working in the garden out back.

Read quotes from Rick Bass' writings here.

My review of another collection of short stories from Rick Bass, For a Little While, is here.

Used as a story preface in The Sky, The Stars, The Wilderness, find a beautiful quote from John Graves reproduced here here.

Other reviews / information:
Michael Gorra, in The New York Times

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Ideology of Austerity

In an article in the 28 November 2011 issue of The Nation magazine (Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist) Marilynne Robinson examines the drive in the United States (and elsewhere) to address the current economic crisis through austerity programs that focus on rolling back many of the public institutions that have come to play such important roles in our lives, and that came about as our society developed a greater sense of community and recognition of the common good.

Though I highly recommend following the link above to read the complete article, I have include below some selected passages from it.  (The bold emphasis and text in brackets are mine.)
 Over the years we seem to have become habituated, even addicted, to the notion of radical threat, threat of the kind that can make virtually anything seem expendable if it does not serve an immediate, desperate purpose of self-defense --- as defined by people often in too high a state of alarm to make sound judgments about what real safety would be or how it might be achieved, and who feel that their duty to the rest of us is to be very certain we share their alarm.  ...  In this climate of generalized fear civil liberties have come under pressure, and those who try to defend them are seen as indifferent to threats to freedom.  The world is indeed dangerous, an for this reason the turning of our society, and of Western society, against itself is flatly contrary to any rational strategy of self-defense.  But this is highly consistent with a new dominance of ideological thinking, and very highly consistent with the current passion for austerity, which gains from it status as both practical necessity and moral ideal.
At best there are two major problems with ideology.  The first is that it does not represent or conform to or even address reality.  It is a straight-edge ruler in a fractal universe.  The second is that it inspires in its believers the notion that the fault lies with miscreant fact, which should therefore be conformed to the requirements of theory by all means necessary.  To the ideologue this would amount to putting the world right, ridding it of ambiguity and those tedious and endless moral and ethical questions that dog us through life, and that those around us so rarely answer to our satisfaction.  Anger and self-righteousness combined with cynicism about the world as he or she sees it are the marks of the ideologue.  There is always an element of nostalgia, too, because the ideologue is confident that he or she is moved by a special loyalty to a natural order, or to a good and normative past, that others defy or betray.
... America, an abstraction called capitalism has truly begun to function as an ideology.  The word is not included in the 1882 edition of Webster's Dictionary, and in the latest Oxford English Dictionary "capitalism" is simply "a system which favours the existence of capitalists," as systems like the self-declared social democracies of Western Europe have always done.  In contemporary America it has taken on the definition and the character that Marx ... gave it.  This despite the fact that Marx did not consider the united State of his time essentially capitalist.  This despite the fact that the United States as a society is structured around any number of institutions that are not, under this definition, capitalist.   Suddenly anything public is "socialist," therefore a deviancy, inevitably second-rate and a corruption of, so to speak, the public virtue.  If I could find any gleam of intelligence or reflection in all this, or any sign of successful education, I would be happy to admire it, so passionate are my loyalties.
This brings me ... to the subject of competition, great ally of austerity. ... In need of the focus {of competition} that comes with having an alien and threatening government to contend with, an appreciable number of Americans choose to consider their government alien and threatening, and, for good measure, socialist.  Again, this kind of thinking is eminently compatible with austerity, as the redistributive activities of government are exactly what they choose to be austere about.  Other alternatives include returning tax rates for the very wealthy to historically typical levels and cutting subsidies to oil companies.  Or there could be a candid admission that the responsibilities of the government involve it in great expense.  None of these options ignite populist zeal.  This is reserved for attacks --- call them "austerities" --- directed toward public schools, Social Security, national healthcare, the laws that protect air and water quality.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"to have known the land when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh"

Rick Bass, in his book of novellas The Sky, The Stars, and The Wilderness (which I will review in a later blog), prefaces the same-titled third of the stories with the following wonderful citation:

"Of all these passers-through, the species that means most to me, even more than geese and cranes, is the upland plover, the drab plump grassland bird that used to remind my gentle hunting uncle of the way things once had been, as it still reminds me.  It flies from the far northern prairies to the pampas of Argentina and then back again in spring, a miracle of navigation and a tremendous journey for six or eight ounces of flesh and feathers and entrails and hollow bones, fueled with bug meat.  I see them sometimes in our pastures, standing still or dashing after prey in the grass, but mainly I know their presence through the mournful yet eager quavering whistles they cast down from the night sky in passing, and it always makes me think what the whistling must have been like when the American plains were virgin and their plover came through in millions.
To grow up among tradition-minded people leads one often into backward yearnings and regrets, unprofitable feelings of which I was granted my share in youth --- not having been born in time to get killed fighting Yankees, for one, or not having ridden up the cattle trails.  But the only such regret that has strongly endured is not to have known the land when it was whole and sprawling and rich and fresh, and the plover that whet one's edge every spring and every fall.  In recent decades it has become customary --- and right, I guess, and easy enough with hindsight --- to damn the ancestral frame of mind that ravaged the world so fully and so soon.  What I myself see to damn mainly, though, is just not having seen it.  Without any virtuous hindsight, I would likely have helped in the ravaging as did even most of those who loved it best.  But God, to have viewed it entire, the soul and guts of what we had and gone forever now, except in books and such poignant remnants as small swift birds that journey to and from the distant Argentine and call at night in the sky."
--- John Graves, Self-Portrait with Birds

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review: 'The Sun Over Breda' by Arturo Perez-Reverte

The Sun Over Breda: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste (1998)
Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1951-)

273 pages

In the fog, rain and mud of Flanders, far from their homes in Spain, soldiers of King Philip IV fight to retain control of the land for their country and for the “true religion,” against “heretical” and “Calvinist” rebels. The Spanish soldiers, often going without pay for many months at a time, fight on wearing disintegrating clothing and eating scraps of food, taking what they can from the occasional sacking of a larger city, or from what little the Dutch of the countryside still have left after many years of war. But then, as Arturo Pérez-Reverte makes clear throughout his novel The Sun Over Breda, these Spanish soldiers fight not so much for riches as for honor --- their own and their country’s.

The novel is one of a series written by Pérez-Reverte chronicling the adventures of the fictional Captain Diego Alatriste. Alatriste fights in the Spanish army during the tumultuous years of the early 17th century, as Spain, after over a century as the strongest, wealthiest and most influential country on earth, was beginning to slowly lose its grip on power. Though still strong, its army suffered the effects of too many widely dispersed commitments; though still wealthy, the country watched its riches disappear at an alarming rate to support those commitments; and though still wielding significant influence, it saw England and France begin to gain the upper hand in conflicts throughout Europe and the New World.

Captain Alatriste’s young, teenage aide Iñigo Balboa narrates the story, presenting it to the reader from some future point, as he looks back and tries to explain the events leading up to the surrender of the Flemish city of Breda to the Spanish in 1624 after a long siege, and the lives of the soldiers with whom he had shared the experience. Captain Alatriste, ever at the center of the Iñigo’s recounting, stands as an icon of the brave soldiers who fought for their homeland, and yet in many ways were homeless and on their own. A skillful fighter whose heroic engagement for the Spanish on far-flung battlefields carries much weight with his squad, Alatriste’s title of ‘Captain’ is actually honorary, not official, bestowed upon him by the men of his squad and even acknowledged by his immediate superiors. Thoughtful and taciturn, Alatriste is hard but fair, the epitome of the honor-bound soldier who follows orders without complaint, but understands too when he must stand with him men and his principles against an injustice.

The novel opens with the bloody sacking by the Spanish of a smaller city near Breda, and continues through a sequence of clashes up to the end of the siege of Breda itself. Pérez-Reverte, however, does not simply present to the reader an action-adventure story of hard-fought battles. Though plenty of swordplay and fighting occurs along the way, The Sun Over Breda stands out as true historical fiction, as the author goes into detail about the difficult conditions in which the soldiers (as well as the Dutch of the war-torn countryside) live, how the years of war have worn them down, and how and why they continue to carry on in the face of nearly unending hardship. Not just a novel of soldiers fighting bravely for their cause, Pérez-Reverte allows us to feel the cold, wet, stitched-together clothing the soldiers continuously patch together, the taste of the dried out bread and then soup they survive on as they wait to fight, and the chaos of hand to hand combat along foggy dikes and in dark caves barely wide enough to pass through.

Other reviews / information:
To my mind, Viggo Mortensen plays an excellent Captain Alatriste in a film version of the series, Alatriste.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book Review: 'The Witch of Hebron' by James Howard Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron: A World Made By Hand Novel (2010)
James Howard Kunstler (1948-)

334 pages

In this sequel to his novel World Made By Hand, James Howard Kunstler continues his vision of a post-apocalyptic America, as seen through the lives of the residents of the small, fictional town of Union Grove in upstate New York. The novel opens in mid-October, just a month or so after the events in the first concluded. (My review of World Made By Hand outlines the causes of the downfall, and its effects on America in general and Union Grove in particular, so I won’t repeat that here.)

An unfortunate accident in the first few pages of the story leads to a willful act by the son of the town’s doctor that drives the rest of the novel’s plot, and carries the action out of Union Grove and into the surrounding countryside as well as nearby hamlets and towns. The tenuous relationship between the original citizens of Union Grove and their new neighbors of the New Faith order continues its fitful development as events lead the two sides to work together, though at times with ulterior motives. The supernatural events that arise near the end of the first novel (somewhat surprisingly, as discussed in the earlier review) are expanded on in this one, as is intimated by the title.

Unlike the startling freshness of the first book, however, in which the dramatic effects of the all too realistic slide of American economy and society into a state of chaos maintain a firm grip on the reader’s attention, this sequel is a coming of age story in a by now familiar environment. Though the action does lead to glimpses of what life has come to in other nearby communities, this serves mostly as a reminder of how fortunate the citizens of Union Grove have it.

And, the story seems mostly focused on character development in preparation for future stories in the series. For example, very near the end of the novel, when the drama of the story has resolved itself, one of the main characters meets another, and “the man he had known pretty well for more than a decade took on a fiendish glow in the flickering candlelight” --- the foreshadowing here is about as subtle as a hammer.

The result is that, although an entertaining read, the story moves somewhat slowly towards its conclusion.

Other reviews / information:
A strong negative review at Casaubon's Book.

A more positive review by Lance Foster in the NY Journal of Books.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review: 'World Made By Hand' by James Howard Kunstler

World Made by Hand (2008)
James Howard Kunstler (1948-)

317 pages

Terrorists have exploded nuclear bombs in Washington DC and Los Angeles, severely disrupting both the government and transportation of goods, and quickly leaving the US economy in taters as confusion and security concerns paralyze the country in fear. A war in the Middle East shuts off a significant amount of the oil supply, destroying what is left of both the US and world economies. Appliances and other electronic equipment sit gathering dust as the electricity has sputtered out, cars and trucks that have not been melted down for metal gather rust in the weeds for lack of gasoline and communication even between neighboring communities has become rare in James Howard Kunstler’s vision of the near future.

All this has occurred several years in the past as World Made by Hand opens. The novel follows the lives of the citizens of a small town in upstate New York, as they come to grips with the new world in which they live. They hear of the violence that has swept through the bigger cities and more populated areas, though their relative isolation from the rest of the country saves them from much of its worst effects; they have less luck when the flu and other diseases spread quickly through the population leaving many dead, as medication now in short supply or out completely.

The residents who have survived find themselves returning to the lifestyles of their ancestors. They learn how to make use of what grows naturally or can be raised in and around their community; how to make the clothing and furniture they used to buy and the now vacant and crumbling stores on the outskirts of town; and how to entertain themselves in a world without the electrical distractions of the past. In Kunstler’s telling, many of the people of this small community, once the turmoil of the transition has been overcome, gradually embrace the new, slower world they have inherited. They may occasionally long for particular aspects of their past, eating a favorite food from a far-away place or throwing clothes in a washing machine, but in general they find that the peace and serenity of their new lives more than makes up for the additional hard work of the highly localized and completely de-electrified new world.

But their isolation is not complete of course, as the townspeople discover when a religious group called the New Faith arrives from Virginia seeking a quieter and safer corner of the country. Taking advantage of the lack of any functioning government in the community, the group buys some buildings and land, and settles in. Although the new settlers bring additional talents and capabilities into the town, their tendency to remain separate from the community, their religious fervor and their distinct manners and habits lead to an on-going, low level tension between the them and the original townspeople.

The New Faith order as a kind of foil for the townspeople. While the New Faith members are tightly organized in their work and their goals, the townspeople have settled into a kind of apolitical and secular stagnation --- they help one another for the common good, but they remain focused primarily on their own lives, no one taking the initiative to create order or structure in the town as a whole. The arrival of the New Faith group forges a sense among the townspeople that they need to pull together to at least meet this new ‘other’ from a stronger position, and thus new leaders to begin this work.

Kunstler builds the plot slowly, introducing the townspeople and their changed world, and then slowly adding in elements that serve both to build tension for the reader, and to shake the characters out of their settled existence. From the sequence of disasters that pre-date the events of the story, to the description of the new life the people build for themselves and the challenges they face, the author keeps the novel grounded in a realism that actually adds an unsettling quality for the reader, as it becomes easy to imagine oneself in the new world he has created. The one false note for me then, comes very near the end, when the author introduces a bit of the supernatural into the story; it seems to come out of nowhere, and feels out of place. (Having now later read Kunstler’s follow-up novel, The Witch of Hebron: A World Made by Hand Novel, it becomes clear that the introduction of the supernatural in World Made by Hand serves as a set-up for a storyline that will apparently be followed in a series of sequels to this opening novel.)

In World Made by Hand James Howard Kunstler presents a startling vision of an all too easy to imagine future. Unlike other apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse here comes from events that could be ripped from today’s headlines --- no world-wide nuclear war, or asteroid slamming into the Earth, just a relatively isolated series of events that jam the gears of our extremely complex modern society.

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: 'A Philosophical Investigation' by Philip Kerr

A Philosophical Investigation (1992)
Philip Kerr (1956-)

 330 pages

Written in 1992, A Philosophical Investigation is a detective novel set mainly in London of the near future. Philip Kerr imagines a world in 2013 in which the financial separation between the poor and the rich has continued to increase even as the two groups live more tightly packed into the city. Parts of London built in hopes of rejuvenating its downtown have deteriorated into areas dangerous even for the police to enter, and deteriorating economic and cultural conditions have led to a rapid increase in crime --- in particular an epidemic of serial killers. Governments have turned to ever more drastic measures to provide security, with budgetary pressures both constraining and guiding the approaches taken. A possible future not difficult for a reader to identify with.

In the world of the novel, scientists in the recent past have discovered a part of the brain (the ‘ventral medial nucleus’, or VPN) which when removed reduces the self-control of aggression in males. Further research has shown that some people are born without this critical, regulating part of the brain, and that men born without it are more likely to become criminals. And, through a not-unrealistic sequence of events, the government and eventually corporate and insurance programs have led to a large group of men in the United Kingdom being tested for its presence, with promises that the results are anonymous.

The novel turns on the crimes of a killer who has managed to compromise the anonymity of the program, and is killing off those men who have been found to be VPN-negative. Assigned to the case is a tough, no-nonsense detective, Isadora ‘Jake’ Jacowicz, who works in a department of Scotland Yard responsible for investigating serial killers; in addition to her day-to-day detective work, Jake writes and presents lectures on patterns in serial killer behavior at conferences on criminal behavior.

The chapters of the novel alternate between the voices of Jake and the serial killer as they play an increasingly personal game of cat and mouse. As the case proceeds, each begins to recognize in the other a formidable adversary, for whom they develop both a fear and a grudging respect.

Philip Kerr’s placement of the novel in 2013 put it 20 years into the future when he wrote it. Reading it in 2011, with 2013 just on our doorstep, gives an interesting twist to his original setting. The general drift in his world to increasing extremes between rich and poor, and government struggles to provide security, are recognizable aspects of our present world, even if some of the details he imagines (video-phones still have not become commonplace) have not materialized.

More challenging for the reader is the ‘Philosophical’ aspect of A Philosophical Investigation; for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses, the names of famous philosophers of the past become relevant to the story, as do in some cases their theories and writings. Not having a strong background in these philosophers’ histories leaves one struggling at times to see the connections characters are drawing. One is left with the desire to go back and learn more about the philosophers mentioned, and then re-read the book to catch what might have been missed on the first reading.

Even without that background, however, the novel captures the reader’s attention in the way a good detective story should. The tension mounts rapidly as the two protagonists become more and more tightly bound together in what becomes a personal battle between them. Different from so many detective stories though, the novel does not present an easy contrast of good and evil. The reader is drawn into the conflicted complexities of Jake’s feeling about the killer, for whom she develops a kind of understanding, one that does not forgive the killings being perpetrated, but that has some sympathy for the mental struggles that have led to them.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Review: 'The Lords of Discipline' by Pat Conroy

The Lords of Discipline (1980)
Pat Conroy (1945-)

499 pages

Flawed characters one and all populate Pat Conroy’s novel The Lords of Discipline. He sets the story in 1967, in Charleston, South Carolina, at the fictitious Carolina Military Institute (CMI), and uses the setting to examine two small, proud, closed societies in the United States: the aristocratic families of east coast cities with historical roots going back to the nation’s founding, and the few remaining military institutes in the country. In the Author’s Note that precedes the novel he writes that he has modeled CMI on his experiences at Citadel University, in Charleston, which he attended in the 1960’s, as well as on the experiences of graduates from other military institutes, military high schools, and military academies --- though he states that the specific events in this novel are fictitious.

The story centers on cadet-student Will McLean, who has come to Charleston from Georgia to attend CMI and so fulfill, if reluctantly, a deathbed promise to his overbearing father, a former marine and CMI graduate. During his freshman year, McLean befriends and eventually becomes roommates with the son of one of Charleston’s oldest families, and finds himself seemingly taken in as part of the family. Having arrived at CMI with a half-formed but stubbornly held set of beliefs and attitudes born out of his middle class upbringing and his consistent rebellion against anything his father stood for, his life at CMI as well as his interaction with the Charleston elite force him to re-evaluate his motivations and outlook, his strengths and limitations, and make the transition to manhood.

From the moment he arrives on campus, McLean bucks against the harsh plebe system and more generally the military formality of the institute. But his rebellion is at the same time tempered by his unwillingness to be seen as a failure, either in his mother’s eyes, or those of his classmates. So he spends four years fighting the system, ever on the verge of insubordination to his higher ranking fellow students and professors, but never fully crossing the line in a way that would get him dismissed from the school. In a system where the cowering freshman who survive their plebe year often become the brutal disciplinarians of the following year’s freshman class, McLean’s attempts to take a more humane approach only mark him as an outsider to his classmates.

In the aristocratic world of Charleston’s upper class, McLean also confronts a society that he finds unacceptable by his standards, but one that at the same time he finds seductive with its highly cultured lifestyle --- an antidote to the single-mindedness he rails against at the school. In this rarified setting his humanist tendencies again undermine him, though now in a different way: he begins to lose sight of his initial understanding that he can never be a fully accepted part of the insular society to which an accident of circumstance has given him entrance.

The plot of the novel turns on the enrollment in McLean’s senior year of the first black student at CMI, Pearce. A member of the school administration asks McLean to keep an eye on Pearce, to try and prevent him from being run out of the school by an array of forces that want to keep the institute all white. But for large swaths of the story Pearce is not present and rarely if at all mentioned, as Conroy focuses on the impact on McLean of the complex emotional landscape of both the harsh military institute, and the genteel and proper, if aggressively self-centered, aristocratic Charleston society. McLean may dislike the military aspects of the institute and the uncritical approach most of the student-cadets take to the institute and their instruction, but he at the same time learns to cherish the camaraderie and selflessness that comes with it for his classmates. And, he may have an outsiders disdain of Charleston’s high society, but he at the same time appreciates the cultured and educated family he becomes a part of through his roommate. By having McLean work through his often contradictory feelings about these complexities, Conroy makes more convincing the events that conclude the book, when the focus comes squarely back to McLean’s struggle to save Pearce’s position at the school --- as well as his own.

Conroy leaves little to the imagination in his presentation of the physical and psychological brutality of the plebe system, which makes for many challenging moments for a reader; this is particularly the case for students whose weaknesses are discovered and harshly exploited to run them out of the school. However, by also demonstrating the camaraderie that is generated in part by surviving the brutality together with classmates, Conroy tries to provide readers unfamiliar with the setting a way to understand how some boys can withstand the violence inherent in the system, and use the experience to become men.

Read quotes from this book

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Book Review: 'Storms of My Grandchildren' by James Hansen

Storms of my Grandchildren (2009)
James Hansen (1941-)

320 pages

In writing Storms of my Grandchildren, James Hansen makes a clarion call for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, concluding that “continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself --- and the timetable is shorter than we thought.” (p. IX).

Hansen is a physicist with a background in both space and earth sciences. Starting in the late 60’s as a graduate student he spent a decade studying the planet Venus and its climate, before turning his focus in 1978 to Earth, curious about what impact the rapidly changing composition of our atmosphere would have on our climate. He has worked at both universities and as director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In 1988 he testified before the Senate that “with 99 percent confidence … Earth was being affected by human-made greenhouse gases, and the planet had entered a period of long term warming.” (p. XV)

Over the past few years, Hansen has become convinced, based on an increasingly accurate understanding of Earth’s historical climate, the accelerating rate of increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today, and the changes observed in Earth’s biosphere, that we driving the Earth to a climate tipping point even more rapidly than previously thought, a point which, once past, we will be powerless to return across, and which has the potential to make the world a dramatically more difficult place to live in as short a time as the end of this century, and even uninhabitable in the not too distant future beyond that. Seeing no urgency to action among politicians or the general public, and fearing for the future of his, “and all the world’s grandchildren” (p. 5), Hansen wrote this book, to tell, as he says in the subtitle, “The truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.”

In a never dull, often entertaining and occasionally scary 320 pages, Hansen fills in the details around a simple chain of observations: greenhouse gases are changing the Earth’s atmosphere; historical data from over many millions of years give clear indications of the disastrous effects the increase in greenhouse gases will have on Earth’s climate; the only way to avoid the currently inevitable disaster is to phase out coal burning by 2030, starting immediately; and the only way to replace coal-based energy in the short-term, until renewable forms of energy can fill the void, is to use nuclear energy.

In between fleshing out the details of each of these observations, Hansen also describes his role in the political and scientific discussions on the topic over the past couple of decades. He makes clear throughout the book his distaste for having to become involved in the political aspects, preferring to stay focused on the scientific work. Climate change contrarians often accuse scientists who support the idea of global warming as ‘in it for the funding’, but it is clear from Hansen’s book, as well as coverage in the media over the years (e.g., Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him, in The New York Times), that Hansen, particularly in his role as a NASA administrator, has had a more difficult time of it because of where the science has led him in his views. Describing himself as politically conservative, he displays no partisanship in his disappointment with politicians of both parties. The insights he provides into what occurs in the interactions between scientists and politicians makes for interesting reading --- though there are no shocking revelations to anyone having followed the debates in the media over the years.

What Hansen does particularly well in the book is describe the science of climate change. He begins by defining climate forcing agents, changes that can cause Earth to have an energy imbalance: a negative climate forcing agent causes the Earth to radiate into space more energy than it absorbs (= cooling), while a positive climate agent causes Earth to absorb more energy than it radiates into space (= heating). He then describes the significant, known climate forcing agents (natural and man-made, positive and negative), scientists understanding of the magnitude and uncertainty of each of them, and the mechanism by which they act on the Earth’s energy balance.

Climate forcing agents and the mechanisms by which they affect Earth’s energy balance are relatively well-understood, even if the precise magnitude of each is not known, as shown in the error bars in Figure 1. Less well-understood is climate sensitivity, which Hansen defines as the amount of global temperature change in response to a specified climate forcing agent. For example, greenhouse gases are a climate forcing agent --- an increase in their amounts causes a known amount of heating of the Earth --- but how much temperature rise will a given amount of Greenhouse gases ultimately cause?

Hansen lists two methods of estimating what the climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases and other climate forcing agents might be: 1) Global Climate Models; and 2) the Paleoclimate Record. He spends little time discussing Climate Models, characterizing them as having some useful applications, but as not accurate enough to be effective at estimating climate sensitivity to forcing agents. His preferred method, the one that he spends much of the book describing, is the Paleoclimate Record. Ice core samples allow researchers to estimate temperature and atmospheric composition going back over 400,000 years, while ocean floor core sample allow researchers to look back even farther, tens of millions of years into the past. How these core samples reveal Earth’s climate history, and what that history tells us about the potential impact of the changes we are making to Earth’s atmosphere are a fascinating story that Hansen manages to present at a level that an interested layman with a little background in science can understand. (For those less interested in the scientific details he at times conveniently suggests points where a reader can skip ahead a few paragraphs or pages).

As he lays out the findings from the past couple of decades of analysis of the Paleoclimate Record, he ranges over a variety of topics, some interesting, some scary: our understanding of why the ice ages occurred and why another one can never occur again as long as mankind survives; how scientists estimate the potential effects of man-made climate forcing agents of the present day based on the effects due to the same forcing agents occurring naturally in the past; and the threat of the melting of frozen methane in a (geologically) short time and its potential to make the Earth uninhabitable. These topics and more Hansen discusses at length and with a level of scientific detail that provides the reader a decent level of understanding of the science as it stands today. One finishes with an appreciation for what is known more precisely, and where there is still uncertainty in the science.

Not just focusing on the problems, Hansen also suggests solutions that can reduce the risk of reaching a dangerous tipping point that could lead to the ‘climate catastrophe’ to which he believes our current course is leading us.

He repeatedly writes that the world must move to zero coal burning emissions by 2030, decreasing linearly from 2010 --- a goal that as of the current year 2011 we are already falling behind --- and that we must not exploit all of the potential gas and oil reserves. To encourage the transition from coal, oil and gas as sources of energy, he suggests the need to make them more expensive, both as motivation to improved levels of efficiency in energy use, and to make other sources of energy friendlier to investment. He spends several pages describing the ineffectiveness of cap-and-trade as an approach to do that, and states his preference for what he describes as a much simpler approach, a fee-and-dividend system. In a fee-and-dividend system, coal, oil and gas are taxed at their point of entry into this country (whether from underground or by transport), and the collected funds are then divided equally in checks to all the country’s legal residents.

Hansen also makes a strong case for nuclear power, while acknowledging the current antipathy of many in the environmental movements to this form of energy. He is convinced that without nuclear power, there will be no possibility of reducing our use of coal to zero. He makes a pitch for what he calls fourth generation, fast breeder reactors, a technology that he states has been proven in the laboratory, is safer to operate and produces waste with much shorter lifetimes than current reactors (a couple hundred years instead of 10,000 years). He defends nuclear energy as an approach to allow us the time to make the long transition to ‘green’ energy sources, by countering that the alternative --- continuing to burn coal --- will lead to certain climate catastrophe. He also makes the interesting point that it is estimated that many more people die each year from pollution due to coal burning, than die from radiation due to nuclear power plants and their waste.

Some of the details of the science aside, the book is a comfortable read. Hansen takes a conversational approach, sounding throughout like the grandfather scientist he is, apologizing to the reader when he fears they might find him too harsh in his condemnation of a particular person, and at times wearing his exasperation with politicians and others on his sleeve. A small quibble with the book is that Hansen mixes the discussion of his political experiences right in with the scientific picture he builds. This does spice up the story a bit, keeping it from becoming a dry, extended scientific research paper, but it can be a little frustrating at times, to have the building of a scientific explanation suddenly put on hold for several pages as he describes yet another example of his interactions with politicians who at best can’t, and at worst won’t, understand what the scientific consensus tells them. Overall, however, Storms of my Grandchildren represents a fascinating introduction to the current state of climate change science --- if also a scary, wake-up call as politicians discuss the exploitation of tar sands, and countries world-wide continue to build more coal-fired power plants.

Other reviews / information:

Hansen maintains a website with updated figures from the book.

Up one level at the same website leads to links to other data on climate science.

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Comment on Kumi Naidoo editorial in The Nation 'The Safe Bet: Renewables'

I mostly appreciate and agree with the points Kumi Naidoo makes in his editorial 'The Safe Bet: Renewables' [July 27].  Certainly it is important to continue to support the further development and implementation of renewable sources of energy.

However, he undermines his argument by not acknowledging several fundamental scientific barriers that must be understood and addressed.

One is in regard to his statement from a UN report that '[renewable energy] dominates nuclear power globally by a ratio of six to one'.  It is true that the report indicates that renewable energy is a larger source of energy than nuclear energy, 12.9% to 2%.  But Mr. Naidoo leaves out two important points: 1) 10.2% of the renewable energy is listed as 'biomass', which still generates greenhouse gases; and 2) 2.3% is hydropower which leaves 0.4% of energy coming from wind, solar and geothermal.  So, true sources of renewable energy that do not create greenhouse gases (unlike biofuel) and are broadly expandable (unlike hydropower) still trail nuclear energy by an order of magnitude.  There is much development still needed before they become significant factors.

Another important point that Mr. Naidoo ignores in his article is that oil, gas and coal provide something that wind and solar in particular cannot provide: a stable energy supply available day and night.  Aside from the obvious problem that the wind is not always blowing nor the sun always shining, battery technology is not currently developed to a point were the necessary amounts of energy can be stored for use during these 'down' times.  He should clearly acknowledge this as a fundamental area of technology development that is needed to make wind and solar power more broadly feasible energy sources.

Finally, he trumpets the current shift in Japan and Germany away from nuclear power.  But, despite the significant gains that Germany has made in implementing solar panels and solar water heaters (in a trip there earlier this year it was surprising how wide-spread these were in the area I visited), both Japan and Germany are expected to need to turn to increased use of coal, oil and gas to replace the energy that is being given up by nuclear power.  (Germany actually may also need to turn to nuclear energy from France.)  The reality is that there is an immediate need for an energy source that will produce 24 hours a day and that will allow us over the next couple of decades (i.e., very quickly) to reduce to near zero the generation of greenhouse gases.  Renewable energy sources today satisfy neither of these criteria.  It is hard to see at this point a source of energy other than nuclear power that will allow us the time to make the transition to clean energy while avoiding the approaching climate disaster.

To be clear, I largely agree with Mr. Naidoo's goals.  I would like to see subsidies for coal, oil and gas companies ended, a carbon tax implemented, investment in renewable energy increased and the phase-out of particularly coal as a source of energy.  But it does a disservice to these causes to ignore the reality of the scientific challenges facing us in working toward these goals. 

Better to be upfront about the challenges, and point out feasible path to a solution: end subsidies for coal, oil and gas companies and use these subsidies to invest in the further development of renewable energy technologies.  Implement a carbon tax (the income from which is directly turned over to people) to drive efficiency improvements through the market.  And, though possibly unpalatable, but critical, invest in the nuclear power plants required to allow us to end our need to burn coal before we pass a dangerous tipping point in our climate.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: 'Night of the Golden Butterfly' by Tariq Ali

Night of the Golden Butterfly (2010)
Tariq Ali (1943-)

 275 pages

Night of the Golden Butterfly is the final novel in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet. Each of the five novels has been set in a different period in the history of Islam and a different location in the Muslim world. (A list of the first four, along with brief descriptions, is included at the bottom of this posting.) This final work of the quintet is centered in Punjab province of modern day Pakistan, though significant time is spent among Pakistani ex-patriots in London and China as well.

The narrator of the novel, Dara, is a Punjabi writer from Lahore; as the story opens, he has agreed, in re-payment for an old favor, to write the life story of a long-time friend and fellow Punjabi, nicknamed Plato. To tell Plato’s story, Dara finds that he must also tell his own and that of a circle of friends who had first come together as regulars at a café in Lahore during their student years in the 1960’s, discussing their lives, as well as the social and political situation in Pakistan and internationally. Through an unusual event Plato, at that time in his mid-thirties, became part of this group. The novel develops as a mix of Dara’s own life story, its intersection with the lives of his other friends including Plato, and what he experiences and learns as he gathers the information he needs to complete his task.

The resulting story spans the Eurasian continent, as Dara and several of his friends have emigrated out of Pakistan to Western Europe and China. It also reaches back in time to mid-1800’s China, and the history of a revolution begun by a group of Muslim Chinese and their Han sympathizers in the southern province of Yunnan against the ruling Qing dynasty (who were of the Manchu minority), that led to almost two decades of tense independence for the province. The plot itself evolves fundamentally around a series of misunderstandings --- small ones between friends and large ones between societies, in which politics and social prejudices lead to poor assumptions and decisions with often destructive long-term consequences.

Where the earlier novels in the quintet provided a window into a very specific time and place in the history of Islam, in Night of the Golden Butterfly Ali highlights the similarities of the cultural elite in modern Muslim countries to their counterparts in the non-Muslim world. Dara and his well-off friends display a mixture of worldliness and provincial attitudes, a willingness to travel, explore and understand new places contrasted with a preference for the familiar, that the author seems to want to make clear is no different from people of similar station anywhere in the world.

In contrast to the first four novels in the quintet, this latest one has a much more direct style: Governments, corrupt in the east and hegemonic in the west, along with theocratic fundamentalists, constitute the enemy; most journalists settle for and report the easy answers given by governments; and the majority of people in all countries are unwilling or unable to see past the hypocrisy and misinformation presented to them. These messages are often delivered with a hammer in this novel, compared to the much more subtle approach Ali took in the earlier ones, though the effect may be a result in part of the modern day setting, which makes the political situations and actors more familiar to the reader. But the resulting story has the feel of being built around a strong frustration with the current state of the world; given the events of particularly the last ten years, it could be considered an understandable frustration.

Similar to the rest of the quintet of novels, however, Night of the Golden Butterfly provides western readers with a look into a complex Arab world and history that can often appear in simplified stereotypes in the press and movies. The series, taken together, provides a reader with not only a set of wonderful stories, but also a deeper insight into the history of a part of the world that can often feel remote and mysterious, and realization of the shared human values and desires on both sides of this apparent cultural divide.

Related information:
The other four novels in Tariq Ali’s Islam Quintet:

Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree (1992): In Spain shortly after the fall in 1492 of Granada, the last part of the Iberian Peninsula to be controlled by the Muslims, a Muslim family struggles to adapt in a now Christian dominated society.
The Book of Saladin (1998): In the Near East of the late 12th century, the Muslim leader Saladin unites the Arabs in resisting the Crusades.
The Stone Woman (2001): In a gradually disintegrating Ottoman empire, in 1899, a family reflects the growing divisions of their country.
A Sultan in Palermo (2005): In Palermo, Sicily, in 1153, the Normans have re-taken the island from the Arab, but the Christian king rules as Sultan, preserving much of the Arab culture and many of its practices.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Career Counseling for Paul Wolfowitz from Maureen Dowd

From Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times today:
Even now, with our deficit and military groaning from two wars in Muslim countries, interventionist on the left and the right insist it's our duty to join the battle in a third Muslim country.
"It is both morally right an in America's strategic interest to enable the Libyans to fight for themselves," Wolfowitz wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.

You would think that a major architect of the disastrous wars and interminable occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq would have the good manners to shut up and take up horticulture.  Bu the neo-con naif has no shame.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Review: 'Death With Interruptions' by Jose Saramago

Death With Interruptions (2005)
José Saramago (1922-)

238 pages

A simple enough premise for a story: beginning from the stroke of midnight ringing in the New Year, no one in the country dies. José Saramago bestows this gift upon the residents of an unnamed country --- and then imagines for us the result.

It would spoil the reader’s pleasure of discovery to provide even a single example of the many and often interconnected consequences of eternal life that Saramago’s friendly narrator describes in the first half of the novel. Suffice it to say, however, that it quickly becomes apparent to both political leaders and ordinary citizens that a finite life expectancy is integral to proper functioning most if not all aspects of daily life in society. Not unexpectedly there are some who adapt more readily to the new situation, and even find opportunities they can exploit to their advantage, but for most it is far from clear whether this new state of affairs is a blessing or a curse.

In the second half of the novel Saramago introduces the cause of the sudden change in the people’s fate, death herself. The narrator from this point in the story focuses on death and her occupation, and allows her to explain her decision to grant eternal life in the country in which normally she is responsible for killing those fated to die. And, when she tinkers again with her procedures, death unexpectedly meets her match, in an aging musician who is unaware of his imminent fate.

Death With Interruptions is written in much the same style as Saramago’s recent novels Blindness and Seeing, an omniscient narrator in conversation with the reader, reporting on the actions and conversations of everyday citizens, politicians and others as they cope with the unprecedented situation they face. As in these earlier books, Saramago writes all dialogue without quotation marks or even line feeds, setting off a change in speaker with simply a comma and a capital letter; the technique serves this story well, as it underscores the confusion and uncertainty of the characters by pulling the reader pell-mell through their conversations. And, in another similarity to his earlier writings, while the common people show for the most part a calm forbearance as they adapt to the sudden change in their world, most political, institutional and business leaders concern themselves more with the protection of their position and power than with the public they ostensibly serve.

Aside from the dark humor in Saramago’s view of society’s many and varied adaptations to the gift of eternal life, it is his damning description of the mediocre and self-centered leadership of the country that sticks with a reader after finishing the novel.

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A review in the New Yorker that includes more discussion about Saramago's writing style.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: 'One Second After' by William Forstchen

One Second After (2009)
William Forstchen (1950-)

350 pages

Although a work of fiction, One Second After is also William Forstchen’s attempt to bring more awareness to what he sees as an imminent threat that too few Americans recognize: a terrorist attack using a few atomic bombs to create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that destroys not only the US power generation and distribution grid, but also most electrical devices, from modern cars, to household appliances.

The basic concept (as explained in more detail in the novel, as well as in an afterward by a military expert) is that the explosion of an atomic bomb creates an EMP, which is picked up by nearby electrical equipment and, essentially, overloads their circuits, like a lightning strike. If such an explosion occurs above the atmosphere, then the atmosphere can act as an “enhancer” to the effect, and the area affected and the impact of the EMP becomes significantly larger.

The story takes place in a small town in the western hills of North Carolina, near Ashville. Early on the residents suddenly lose power; their appliances go silent, their cars --- except for older models that don not have electronics --- stop running, and even the telephone system dies. The main character in the novel, having left the military to come teach in this, his wife’s home town, soon realizes that an EMP has most likely been the cause, that much of the US has been affected, and that life will be a long time, if ever, in returning to ‘normal.’ What follows is Forstchen’s vision of how American society would slide in the aftermath of such an event, and how principled groups of people would struggle to survive and resist the loss of, as the characters mention several times, the American Dream.

And the vision presented is frighteningly realistic. Aside from the immediate impact of the loss of most all of the electrical devices we take for granted, the sudden collapse of the distribution network of food, medical supplies and all other goods dramatically reduces the sustainable population. Add to that the elimination of the complex social structure that guides --- and enforces --- civilized behavior, and the result is a chaotic struggle to survive. Forstchen tells a compelling and often moving story of good people fighting to maintain their personal principles and belief in the American way of life even as they face both personal loss as well as the potential destruction of the community they love.

The story, however, also tends to be heavy-handed in some way. For one, a wide current of American uniqueness runs through the story: the main characters repeatedly arguing that something must or must not be done a certain way not because it is the proper way for human beings to behave, but because it is the way Americans behave, and to do otherwise is to slip into communism, socialism or totalitarianism --- by implication to become like the rest of the world. One example is that of an Arab shopkeeper in the town, who plays no significant role in the overall story, is given a lengthy introduction apparently to make the point of how the town rallied around him when he was suspected by the FBI of terrorist activity: his presence in the story seems to be mainly to establish the goodness of true, small-town Americans. It is possible for a reader to believe in, as President Reagan put it, America as the “shining city upon a hill” without having it quite so unsubtly hammered home.

Perhaps more concerning is Forstchen’s intent with the story to stake out the EMP threat as the critical threat that faces the United State today. Early on, one of his characters complains: ‘Global warming, sure, spend hundreds of billions on what might have been a threat, though a lot say it wasn’t. This [the EMP threat], though, it didn’t have the hype, no big stars or politicians running around shouting about it…’ Having the main character, who is the intellectual, moral and philosophical center of the town and the novel, agree with the idea that ‘a lot’ of people saying global warming is not a threat shows how misguided support for it has been, only undermines his credibility and so, to an extent, the author’s claims about the threat of an EMP attack; at the very least it calls into question the thoughtfulness of his argument. Would the author accept that ‘a lot’ of people not seeing the EMP attack as a threat constitute proof that money would be wasted on preparing for it, or would he rather that decision be made on a scientific analysis of the facts? It is possible to claim that an EMP attack is a more immediate and even a more important danger than climate change, without misstating so blatantly the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

Forstchen, through his characters, also implies that intellectual and budgetary effort has been wasted on protecting against other threats, such as direct nuclear attacks on cities, rather than the EMP threat. But again, the story feels too adamant in making this point. The basic premise of the story is that the distribution system of the country collapses, along with the communication systems that allow a comforting sense that the larger society (and its protections) has remained intact, and so the country descends into a chaotic fight for survival. But, in another recent novel, World Made by Hand by James Kunstler, the country follows a similar descent into chaos, in this case after nuclear bombs are exploded in two major port cities, Los Angeles and Washington DC. The destruction of the cities not only shuts down functioning government, but also leads to panicked rules being put in place that cause major disruptions in transportation of goods around the world --- most critically the distribution of oil. And without oil, there is ultimately little electricity, because oil is at the heart of the distribution of not only food and medicine, but also coal. The full impact takes somewhat longer to play out, but Kunstler ends up in the same place as Forstchen: many people die, small communities struggle to survive, larger cities devolve into chaos. The same result, but no EMP involved.

Add to this the pure fantasy in One Second After that the rest of the world somehow survives well (at least sufficiently well to be able to have the US receive aid from other countries and allow them even to take advantage of the situation to invade US territory), the world economic situation apparently not significantly affected by the 100% loss of the American market; hard to imagine when the recent recession of 2008 in the US has left the world economy deeply struggling --- a recession that is minor relative to what the US faces in the novel.

Despite these shortcomings, Forstchen’s novel presents a fascinating though disturbing vision of the effect, due to whatever cause, that the collapse of the US economic and political structure would have on all of our lives.

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The author’s website, including a page on how to prepare for an EMP attack.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: 'Girl by the Road at Night' by Dave Rabe

Girl By The Road At Night: A Novel of Vietnam (2010)
David Rabe (1940-)

230 pages

She’s a complete f**king mystery, like the weather in some far-off part of the world changing the weather where he is. Like the planets and their shifting in a horoscope, and you read it in the newspaper and say, “What the f**k?” (p. 194)

Pfc Joe Whitaker, having drifted through life with little in the way of a plan, his aimlessness leading to frustration that can quickly turn into anger, finds himself a few days away from the hard certainty of deployment to Vietnam, as David Rabe’s new novel Girl By the Road At Night opens. Half-a-world away, Quach Ngoc Lan earns money for herself and her family as a prostitute at a small roadside business area in South Vietnam, trying to make sense of her separation from her family and the traditions she grew up with, and looking for some consoling connection to another person, even as she tries to remain disengaged from the physical and emotional traumas that come with her work. When their paths finally cross, each becomes dimly aware of having found a kindred soul in the turmoil of the war that surrounds them. But mystifying cultural differences and the written and unwritten rules of the soldiers on both sides make the relationship that develops between them a struggle at every step.

Along the way, David Rabe, a Vietnam Veteran himself, provides stark images of the chaotic situation the American soldiers stepped into in Vietnam. They are able to mix freely with the civilians in the towns and cities around their bases, but certain areas remain off-limits to them, dangerous for no clear reason; they find the civilians and South Vietnamese army dependent on them, but distrustful and fearful at the same time; they walk nightly patrols guarding a camp carved out of the jungle, not allowed to arm their weapons, and not sure who might be waiting in the dark on the other side of the fence as they pass by. And, what for me drove home the disconcerting nature of the war, the cognitive dissonance it must have caused, was the description of Whitaker’s meals at several points in the mess hall; for example, “He downs two cheeseburgers with tons of catsup and piles of fired potatoes, piles of pickles, some orange juice, and several cups of coffee” (p. 209). It is as if Whitaker has been able to pass from the jungles of South East Asia, into a diner on any street in the US, before passing a short time later back into the chaos outside. It somehow brings home too, more clearly than a description of all the equipment of war, the monumental undertaking of moving essentially a community, its people and material and structure, up out of one country and dropping it into another.

Rabe also brings references to Vietnamese cultural and literary traditions into the novel, making the story more than that of simply an American soldier in Vietnam. As Lan tries to make sense of her place in a Vietnam turned upside down by war, and her troubled relationship with Whitaker, she considers them in the light of the traditions she has grown up with, and the stories she knows from her youth. For an American reader, this can be a fascinating part of Rabe’s novel --- the reason for reading, really, to learn about some other people and their history.

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A video of Dave Rabe discussing the book.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: 'The Grand Design' by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design (2010)
Stephen Hawking (1942 - ) and Leonard Mlodinow (1954 -)

199 pages

“Why is there a universe, and why is the universe the way it is?” (p. 123)

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go right to the big picture in their new book The Grand Design. In a quick 200 pages they provide an overview of the development of theories to describe the natural world, from the creation stories of early civilizations, through the thought experiments of Greek scientists and philosophers, to the growth of the scientific method in the work of Newton and others, leading finally to the focus of their book, the modern theories that physicists are working on to try to unify the behavior of everything, from the very small to the very large.

The authors introduce the concept of models --- which are developed to describe observed behavior in nature --- and the role of the scientific method in evaluating these models. A physicist will study physical behavior through experimental observation and develop a model in order to describe that behavior and to predict future behavior. Over time the model will be subjected to tests that either support it as an accurate description of the physical behavior, or that demonstrate it is inadequate. When a model is contradicted by experimental observation, it must then either be enhanced, to account for the new observed behavior, or replaced by another model that more accurately reflects the behavior.

As an example, over many years Newton’s laws were found to accurately model the interaction of objects seen in nature; around the beginning of the 20th century, however, as physicists explored the behavior of particles at the atomic level, it was found that Newton’s laws no longer accurately applied. New, more accurate, models (quantum mechanics) were eventually developed to replace Newton’s laws at this tiny scale. Hawking and Mlodinow point out, however, that physicists "are still working to figure out the details of how Newton's laws emerge from the quantum domain" (p. 68). So, two models end up being used: the familiar Newton’s laws for the behavior of larger objects, and the models of quantum mechanics at the atomic scale.

The difficulty of reconciling these two different models for the interaction of objects into a single model is a part of the larger challenge described in the book of creating a single, unified ‘theory of everything’: a single theory that will describe all observed behavior between objects (that is, the four known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force). One such theory that the authors introduce is the so-called ‘M-Theory’, which rests on string theory, and represents one of the principal paths being followed by today’s physicists in their current search to find a unified theory.

Hawking and Mlodinow in fact conclude the book by arguing that “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” (p. 181). Their claim rests on the apparent (though still to be conclusively demonstrated) characteristic of M-theory to be fully consistent with the strong anthropic principle, which “suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves” (p. 155). Thus, the strong anthropic principle states that if the fundamental laws of nature were much different than they are observed to be, life would be impossible. (The weak anthropic principle is based on the idea that “our own knowledge of our existence imposes rules that select, out of all the possible environments, only those environments with the characteristics that allow life.,” (p. 154) for example, the distance of our planet from the sun.)

As interesting as the final chapters are on how M-Theory could be the unifying theory that describes how the universe came to exist, it is the authors extended discussion of models, and the scientific method used to develop and confirm them, that may be the most interesting aspect of their story. The authors’ discussion of the models of quantum mechanics drives home a critical point: a model is not a description of how a set of objects interact, but rather a way of describing the outcome of the interaction, and predicting the outcomes of future such interactions.

At the macro level of everyday experience it can be easy to conflate these two ideas. We throw a ball and, taking into account the forces that act on it --- friction and gravity --- we can predict where the ball will land. It is easy to begin to think that we can ‘see’ the pull of gravity on the ball, and to imagine, because we can accurately predict the effect of gravity on the ball, that we have any understanding of how gravity is actually exercising its effect on the ball. In reality, and as made clear by the authors, what we really have is the barest idea how gravity physically carries out its work; we only have a very accurate description of the result.

For me, although I have little understanding of quantum mechanics, this makes more palatable the idea that much of the models of quantum mechanics deal with probabilities. As the authors state it, “according to quantum physics … nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized.” (p. 72) The idea that nature might not be deterministic is a difficult one to accept, and it is some consolation to remember that quantum mechanics is a model of the behavior observed in nature --- a very accurate model based on much testing, but still only a model. And I have the consolation of being in good company: “It is, to paraphrase Einstein, as if God throws the dice before deciding the result of every physical process. That idea bothered Einstein, and so even though he was one of the fathers of quantum physics, he later became critical of it.” (p.72)

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