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Saturday, September 29, 2007

A new site for science discussions

I have started a new site to separate my writing on Science & Society and Green Chemistry from my fiction site. That should make things less confusing.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Friday, September 28, 2007

More missing links now appear

When I started writing on September 1, 2007, I had trouble with certain links. They appear in my composition and HTML windows in blogger but are otherwise invisible. I have addressed this for Sept. 1 by adding a slideshow of recommended books, music, and DVD's (at the bottom of the right-hand column).

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Flatland- the annotated edition: experience hyperspace first-hand






Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, is a pretty famous book, at least in certain circles. It is a book about space, in two and three dimensions, and was published in 1884 by Edwin A. Abbot. This is a great book to read to kids of nearly any age (depending on the details, maybe 4th graders, maybe 7th graders, maybe revisiting the book with 9th graders, or 14 year olds, who are studying geometry).

Flatland describes the world of A. Square and how his two-dimensional world is shaken up by a strange visitor who takes A. to the world of three dimensions, and beyond! The story touches on four dimensions, but also on one- and zero-dimensional matters. It is at once a fairy tale and a math lesson, with geometry being the focus, yet it is written in an accessible and amusing style (many parents will be able to follow it, at least most of the way- your kids might help!). You do have to be willing to handle the hyper-Victorian manner of speech adopted by the characters to enjoy the book.

A. Square's familiar two-dimensional world is similar to the world we see every day on flat sheets of paper, but its society is extremely rigid: class distinctions amongst men are made by the number of vertices their shapes posses: soldiers are triangles (with a vertex count of three) and gentlemen are squares (having a vertex count of four). The more vertices one has, the higher the social class. At one extreme are priests, who are circles: imagine a polygon increasing from square to pentagon to hexagon to ... an infinite number of vertices, and then you have a circle! Women, on the other hand, are all line segments in A. Square's world, though they are of different lengths. Before you get angry, please note that the author was an early proponent of educating women equally to men, so Flatland has to be read as the satire on Victorian society that is was, while simultaneously being a fairy tale and geometry lesson, and even science fiction. In fact, the extreme rigidity of rules for social behavior is pretty funny, but it can make the reader very glad not to live in such a world (I certainly hope you don't!).

It is a shocking but ultimately very pleasing experience for A. Square to learn about "spaceland", where three dimensions exist. We have the fun of accompanying him on the journey. One of the remarkable things about going from a two dimensional world to a three dimensional world is that many of the same techniques are used if one wishes to go from three to four dimensions, or from four to five to n dimensions. This progression is described up to four dimensions and a bit more, at least partly, in Flatland, and a number of modern "sequels" take us well beyond the fourth dimension. One such sequel is Flatterland by Ian Stewart. I had some trouble understanding Flatterland about a third of the way in, which made it difficult to read to the kids- I need to work at it some more.

The amazing thing about mathematics is the ability to treat multi-dimensional shapes with the same ease as their two- and three-dimensional counterparts. So, while it may be difficult to "see" what a 6-dimensional hypercube looks like, especially since we are mostly limited to two- and three-dimensional representations, it turns out to be pretty straightforward to calculate the surface area and volume of that 6-D hypercube (using the equations for surface area and volume of a 3-D cube as a starting point). If you can calculate all of the properties of a hyper-dimensional object, you do understand it quite well, even if this is hard to believe at first. We tend to have a sometimes crippling dependence on what we can see and hold, but math can free us to "see" far more.

Before you click off to another page, just consider that you already know a 4-D world in great detail: the 3-D world with time added as a fourth dimension. In fact, huge numbers of dimensions may be present in problems or hobbies you currently explore, but it may take a few moments with A. Square to realize it.

As I have recently come to learn, Edwin Abbott traveled in exciting intellectual circles, being friends with H. G. Wells, for example. This connection, and others to Victorian life and events, to a certain George Boole (of Boolean Algebra fame), the novel Frankenstein, and other cultural icons, are explained to us in the The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, with extensive notes and pictures provided by Ian Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who wrote the previously mentioned Flatterland, is a celebrated mathematics professor and author, with titles including Does God Play Dice? and Nature's Numbers to his credit. The additions by Stewart include marginal notes, a preface, an introduction, a chapter on the math of four dimensions, and an extensive bibliography, all of which help us to understand better both Abbott's primary tale and his subtext that satirized Victorian society.

The Annotated Flatland is highly recommended!

Note: E. A. Abbot passed away in 1926, in Hampstead (find notes and maps for Hampstead Heath by clicking on the link).


© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Must-read: thriller/murder mystery by Patricia Carlon


The Unquiet Night by Australian author Patricia Carlon (SOHO Press) was originally published in 1965 according to my much more recent Soho first edition. The author is Australian, born nearly the same year as my Australian mother. Enough about me. The point is that the suspense in this murder mystery/thriller is breathtaking- hold onto your chair. In this novel, we do not find ourselves in the big cities so synonymous with a large fraction of crime fiction. Instead, we translocate to a small town in Australia, and the habits and familiar assumptions of small-town life play a big role in nearly all aspects of the story.

The tension of the novel starts out being notable by its absence: even the first words "He didn't mean to kill her" seem to position a killer as just a simple-minded and clumsy young man guilty of manslaughter. However, this is an illusion, in part because the viciousness that the young man's later exhibits lets us see through the facade of his manner to identify him as a true sociopath. Tension accelerates rapidly in the latter half of the book, reaching a finish that should bring your heart to 140 drumbeats per minute or higher.

At the start, a woman named Rachel and her 9-year old niece Ann go out for a picnic that is cut short by rain, and the aunt happens to see, in passing, a young man of no particular note. However, the pitch changes to a note of terror when eventually Rachel realizes that the young man is after her. Unfortunately for our delightful aunt and niece, Martin Deeford, known as "Mart", is quite clever in tracking them down, though he is hindered by some elderly residents who aren't fools. This wise behavior by the neighbors is aided and abetted by sensible family protectiveness, even though aunt Rachel and Ann's parents have no idea what they are protecting against. Something just doesn't seem right about the occasional phone call.

I'm not sure that the fractured cleverness that Mart displays, at least in mid-story, matches the rest of his somewhat stunted persona, though this is a sly character who has always manipulated and tended toward violence. Mart is certainly one smug and cruel young man who is too clever for anyone's good, including his own.

Along the way, any parent will shudder at the manipulations (of school officials, friends, and neighbors) that allow Mart to insinuate himself inside the defenses of the family circle. We can sing the praises of nosy neighbors who care, and who recognize improper behavior when they see it. Small town courtesy counteracts that suspicion in some cases, however, and we wonder if courtesy and busy family life will conspire to doom 9-year old Ann and her aunt Rachel. These ironies are not the greatest ones the story has to offer, but the rest are best discovered by the reader.

Complicating the storyline of The Unquiet Night is the very believable, modern, independent and capable aunt herself, who remains in a noncommittal relationship that provides the space she craves, space that could ultimately lead to her death. The build-up and let-down of false hopes in Rachel's final struggles batter the reader's psyche (let alone Rachel's), so that we reach a point where, for Aunt Rachel, drifting off into that sweet oblivion of death may be our only release.

In the end, this book has a lot to say about fear. Fear of discovery leads Martin from what he thinks of as an accidental death into a web of violence where he plots several murders and tries to save himself from discovery. Normal fear of modern life does its best to keep Ann and Rachel alive. Our fear of what might happen keeps us glued to the page.

With Mart's fear increasing at each step, along with his anger at the intended victims, Mart circles his fate, moving closer with each new version of his plan. All the while, Mart tries to bend that fate to his own end, the end of Ann and Rachel. We hope fervently, and some may begin to pray, that in spite of his planning, Martin never thinks far enough ahead to see the endgame.

Conclusion? This particular Australian crime fiction travels as well the best Shiraz and arrives at its destination with just moments to spare. No superhuman beasts or heroes were required to bring this story to life; great words and small town life did the job.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007



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Sunday, September 23, 2007

No crime at all. Review of "To The Hermitage" by Malcolm Bradbury and The Eight by Katherine Neville




To The Hermitage (TTH) by Malcolm Bradbury is a most rewarding, if occasionally challenging, book. It contains two parallel stories. One story describes the great French philosopher and intellectual Denis Diderot, contemporary of Voltaire's and author/editor of the monumental Encyclopedia, finally making the perilous journey in 1773 from Paris to St. Petersburg. With this trip, he is fulfilling his long-avoided promise to visit Catherine the Great, who had purchased his vast library for her collection. The other story is a modern academic/artistic pilgrimage, The Diderot Project, following partly in the philosopher's footsteps to St. Petersburg on the eve of violent social change in Russia (in 1993).

One odd thing is that I read Katherine Neville's The Eight while reading TTH, and they had many of the same characters, in addition to having the same sort of temporally-split story line featuring contemporary and 18th century settings. The Eight is a thriller that mixes old myths, chess and modern intrigue. It pre-dates The Da Vinci Code by many years (published in 1988) and is quite well written, only losing some taughtness of storyline towards the end. What TTH and The Eight have in common is a large number of real historical characters, and reading them nearly simultaneously helped me recall or learn some history through immersion in Europe before (1773) and during (1789) the French Revolution.

What does one feel on first looking into a 500 page novel about a philosopher and some academics and sundry artistic types? I could admit to a little trepidation, even being a huge fan of Bradbury's. Luckily, the author put me at ease immediately, after a brief introduction, with an uproariously hilarious Chapter One. It begins with the remarkable shell game played on our modern narrator, an English novelist, by a delightful Swedish bank teller, who reduces a decent amount of English money to a tiny number of American dollars by a process of charging tax at every possible opportunity (and some that seem impossible). The bank converts everything to Swedish kronor both coming and going . All of this is done while denying the validity of credit cards (in 1993!) and offering the most cheerful, beautiful, blond, blue-eyed smiling face. The IRS might want to note the deadly tactics.

A series of initially confusing chapters take place THEN, with the great philosopher, but these are sandwiched in between each chapter taking place NOW, where we are treated to the most accessible and frequently funny assemblage of Diderot Project members and their subsequent departure on a ship to St. Petersburg. The events leading up to departure include a continual comedy of manners and errors, starting with

  • A futile search of Stockholm for Ren√© Descartes’ tomb
    • It turns out that Descartes died in Stockholm, but the journey that his remains took outdoes even the Australian Philosophers' Song for Groucho Marxian hilarity (see the link for lyrics or YouTube for audio/video). Trying to trace the remains of M. Descartes could reduce a man to tears.
  • An extraordinarily chilly reception by our English narrator's Swedish hosts, the married couple Bo and Alma Luneberg (Bo is on the committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and it is part of his job to give false hope to writers everywhere, as sincerely as possible).
    • Alma essentially says, "we would have been happy to bring you to our home for dinner instead of to this crummy little restaurant, but in Sweden, we keep our homes for our real friends." Such warmth!
  • The absolute inability of the poor narrator to convince his hosts that, as much as he likes it, he does not want to eat herring yet again on his first day in Sweden.
Then, while we begin to develop a feel for Diderot himself and for the form his story of 1773 will take, we meet gorgeous opera singer Birgitta Lindhorst, Swedish diplomat Anders Manders, skilled cabinetmaker Sven Sonnenburg, hip American professor Jack-Paul Verso (author of The Feminists' Wittgenstein) and other project members. In spite of the battle beginning between Boris Yeltsin and hard-line Russian communists, the group leaves port to sail up the Baltic and into Russia, accompanied by a dazzling assortment of chambermaids, bartenders, exotic dancers, and waitresses, all seemingly named Tatyana.

It turns out that the 18th century was a dangerous time for philosophers: a time when Emperors and Empresses needed the great men as advisers in court, but given the nature of the advice and nature of the men, a time when the philosophers often wound up in prison.

So it is with some justified fear that Diderot allows himself to be delivered, through a painful journey, to the court of Catherine. He proceeds to write a treatise on how to improve Russia, which he delivers once a week in written and spoken form to the Tzarina (I paraphrase):
  • "What, you want me to free the Serfs? Are you mad? They would rise up against me!"
  • "But no, Your Most Imperial Majesty, they would not, because of the extreme gratitude they would owe you. They would be your loyal servants."
  • "They are my loyal servants now, with no option to be otherwise. I think it is better. Let us discuss something else- reform of my police force, perhaps."

So we find in Diderot quite an American sense of Democracy, one might say.

As the modern Diderot Project members travel to and around St. Petersburg, its members become rather dispersed, and the concept of The Project seems to crumble due to the combined and contradictory pressures of, for example, the charming Tatyana from Puskin and the thrilling examination of the remains of Diderot's library. The discovery of volumes signed by Diderot, with extensive notes in the margins, and similar volumes with Voltaire's imprint, is, to our novelist, like discovering the lost library of Alexandria. Jack-Paul Verso's discoveries tend more towards Pushkin, and I don't mean the author!

I find that in trying to capture the book I can only come up with a pale imitation of the original, so, enough with the synopsis! Suffice it to say that there are long discussions, practical, theoretical, and always with a hint of danger, that occupy Diderot and his patron, and Denis is quite happy to depart home for France as long as he doesn't have to worry about being executed for treason when he arrives. He achieves his goal eventually.

At the same time, the apparently disintegrated Diderot Project really ends up providing each member with what (or whom) he or she sought. Plans are already being drawn up for a second Project, if only, Alma reminds everyone, they would write their papers on Diderot before arriving, next time.

So what is the bottom line? This book might not be for everyone, but if you have a love of history, or philosophy, or writing, or language, and a desire to learn a bit about vastly disparate European cultures while laughing quite a lot through the nervous times of the 1770's and 1990's, pick it up right away.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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