Great Science Writing

If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.

I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.

Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:

Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.

And:

The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’

Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”

And finally this intriguing thought:

If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.

Excerpts From A Few Stories I Read Last Year

Last year I read a few books, mostly science fiction. Thought I’d share with you a couple of passages I liked.

From Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson:

The reaction is instantaneous, quick-witted by Burb standards. This person wants Y.T. gone. The van takes off like a hormone-pumped bull who has jut been nailed n the ass by the barbed probe of a picador. It’s not Mom at the wheel. It’s young Studley, the teenaged boy, who like every there boy in this Burbclave has been taking intravenous shots of horse testosterone every afternoon in the high school locker room since he was fourteen years old. Now he’s bulky, stupid, thoroughly predictable.

He steers erratically, artificially pumped muscles not fully under his control. The molded, leather-grained, maroon-colored steering wheel smells like his mother’s hand lotion; this drives him into a rage. The bimbo box surges and slows, surges and slows, because he is pumping the gas pedal, because holding it to the floor doesn’t seem to have any effect. He wants this car to be like his muscles: more power than he knows what dot do with. Instead, it hampers him. As a compromise, he hits the button that says POWER. Another button that says ECONOMY pops out and goes dead, reminding him, like an educational demonstration, that the two are mutually exclusive. The van’s tiny engine downshifts, which makes it feel more powerful. He holds his foot steady on the gas and, making the run down Cottage Heights Road, the minivan’s speed approaches one hundred kilometers.

I loved this one phrase:

Condense fact from the vapour of nuance.

Two more quotes:

The fringe crowd looks pretty typical for the wrong side of an L.A. overpass in the middle of the night. There’s a good-sized shantytown of hardcore Third World unemployables, plus a scattering of schizophrenic first wonders who have long ago burned their brains into ash in the radiant heat of their own imaginings.

and

All these beefy Caucasians with guns! Get enough of them together, looking for the America they always believed they’d grow up in, and they glom together like overcooked rice, form integral, starchy little units. With their power tools, portable generators, weapons, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and persona computers, they are like beavers hyped up on crystal meth, manic engineers without a blueprint, chewing through the wilderness, building things and abandoning them, altering the flow of mighty rivers and then moving on because the places ain’t what it used to be.

I also swallowed up a few William Gibson novels.

From Mona Lisa Overdrive:

Petal called the city [London] Smoke.

Kumiko shivered on chill red leather; through the ancient Jaguar’s window she watched the snow spinning down to melt on the road Petal called M4. The late afternoon sky was colorless. He drove silently, efficiently, his lips pursed as though he were about to whistle. The traffic, to Tokyo eyes, was absurdly light. They accelerated past an unmanned Eurotrans freight vehicle, its blunt prow sutdded with sensors and banks of headlights. In spite of the Jaguar’s speed, Kumiko felt as if somehow she were standing still; London’s particles began to accrete around her. Walls of wet brick, arches of contcrete, black-painted ironwork stnaduing up in spears.

As she watched, the city began to define itself. Off the M4, while the Jaguar waited at intersections, she could glimpse faces sthrough the snow, flushed gaijin faces above dark clothing, chins tucked down into scarves, women’s bootheels ticking through silver puddles. The rows of shops and houses reminded her of the gorgeously detailed accessories she’d seen displayed around a toy locomotive in the Osaka gallery of a dealer in European antiques.

This was nothing like Tokyo, where the past, all that remained of it, was nurtured with a nervous care. History there had become a quantity, a rare thing, parceled out by government and preserved by law and corporate funding. Here it seemed the very fabric of things, as if they city were a single growth of stone and brick, uncounted strata of message and meaning, age upon age, generated over the centuries to the dictates of some now-all-but-unreadable DNA of commerce and empire.

There was a smell in the house; it had always been there.

It belonged to time and the salt air and the entropic nature of expensive houses built too close to the sea. Perhaps it was also peculiar to places briefly but frequently uninhabited, houses opened and closed as their restless residents arrived and departed. She imagined the rooms empty, flecks of corrosion blossoming silently on chrome, pale molds taking hold in obscure corners. The architects, as if in recognition of eternal processes, had encourage a degree of rust; massive steel railings along the deck had been eaten wrist-thin by years of spray.

She went into the white kitchen and scrubbed drying blood from her face and hands. When she stepped into the living room, she felt as though she were feeling it for the first time. The bleached floor, the gilt frames and cut-velvet upholstery of the Louis XVI chairs, the Cubist backdrop of a Valmier. Like Hilton’s wardrobe, she thought, contrived by talented strangers.

The old New Suzuki Envoy had been Angie’s favorite Sprawl hotel since her earliest days with the Net.

It maintained its street wall for eleven stories, then narrowed jaggedly, at the first of nine setbacks, into a mountainside assembled from bedrock excavated from its Madison Square building site. Original plans had called for this steep landscape to be planted with flora native to the Hudson Valley region, and populated with suitable fauna, but subsequent construction of the first Manhattan Dome had made it necessary to hire a Paris-based eco-design team. The French ecologists, accustomed to the “pure” design problems posed by orbital systems, had despaired of the Sprawl’s particulate-laden atmosphere, opting for heaving engineered strains of vegetation and robotic fauna of the sort ecountered in children’s theme parks, but Angie’s continued patronage had eventually lent the place a cachet it would otherwise have lacked. The Net leased the five topmost floors, where her permanent suite had been installed, and the Envoy had come to enjoy a certain belated reputation with artists and entertainers.

In Brixton, the coral-growth of the metropolis had come to harbor a different life. Faces dark and light, uncounted races, the brick facades washed with a riot of shades and symbols unimaginable to the original builders. A drumbeat pulsed from a pub’s open door as she passed, heat and huge laughter. The shop sold foodstuffs Kumiko had never seen, bolts of bright cloth, Chinese handtools, Japanese cosmetics…

And Idoru:

Anything that might be of interest to Slitscan. Which is to say, Laney, anything that might be of interest to Slitscan’s audience. Which is best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed. Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the colour of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, Laney, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote. Or by voting in presidential elections.

Maybe what she was feeling now was what her civics program at her last school had called culture shock. She felt like everything, every little detail of Tokyo, was just different enough to create a kind of pressure, something that built up against her eyes, as though they’d grown tired of having to notice all the differences: a little sidewalk tree that was dressed up in a sort of woven basketwork jacket, the neon-avocada colour of a pay phone, a serious-looking girl with round glasses and a tray sweatshirt that said ‘Free Vagina.” She’d been keeping her eyes extra-wide to take all these things in, like they’d be processed eventually, but now her eyes were tired and the differences were starting to back up. At the same time, she felt that if she squinted, maybe, just the right way, she could make all this turn back into Seattle, some downtown apart she’d walked through with her mother. Homesick. The strap of her bag digging into her shoulder each time her left foot came down.

Masahiko turned a corner. There didn’t seem to be alleys in Tokyo, not in the sense that there were smaller streets behind the big streets, the places where they put out the garbage, and there weren’t any stores. There were smaller streets, and smaller ones behind those, but you couldn’t guess what you’d find there: a shoe-repair place, an expensive-looking hair salon, a chocolate-maker, a magazine stand where she noticed a copy of that same creepy comic with the woman all wrapped up like that.

I also finally read Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, which contains this brilliant passage:

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all a sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us – that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence – then we don’t like it anymore

And one more SF-ish novel I read was China Mieville‘s The Scar. This sentence describes the scars (not the same as the title of the book) on a woman’s back from a flogging:

It is a breathtakingly ugly message, in a brutal script.

But it’s not all SF. I loved Zadie Smith‘s Permission to Enter in the New Yorker, especially this line:

It was a Caldwell assumption that plumbers did well for themselves. Keisha saw little evidence of this. Either the personal wealth of plumbers was a myth or her father was incompetent.

Ditto for Mohsin Hamid‘s The Third Born:

Cooking for him is a craft of spice and oil. His food burns the tongue and clogs the arteries. When he looks around him in the countryside, he does not see prickly leaves and hairy little berries for an effervescent salad, tan stalks of wheat for a heavenly balloon of stone-ground, stovetop-based flatbread. He sees, instead, units of backbreaking toil. He sees hours and days and weeks and years. He sees hours and days and weeks and years. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.

And:

Gripping the ropes that bind luggage to this vehicle, you witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so, too, can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia.

I also finally read Junot Diaz‘s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, which contains these brief but beautiful lines:

And Indian Benny, a quiet, meticulous waiter who had the sad airs of a man long accustomed to the spectacular demolition of dreams.

And:

My brave Max, who could slip between two bumpers the way a lie can slide between a person’s teeth.

Stay tuned next year for the next instalment.

In Praise of Tokyo

With Wendy and Cam out of town, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I churned through William Gibson‘s Idoru. A passage describing Tokyo was probably the single best summary of the city I’ve ever heard – and it brought back a flood of memories from my 2010 trip:

Maybe what she was feeling now was what her civics program at her last school had called culture shock. She felt like everything, every little detail of Tokyo, was just different enough to create a kind of pressure, something that built up against her eyes, as though they’d grown tired of having to notice all the differences: a little sidewalk tree that was dressed up in a sort of woven basketwork jacket, the neon-avocado colour of a pay phone, a serious-looking girl with round glasses and a tray sweatshirt that said ‘Free Vagina.” She’d been keeping her eyes extra-wide to take all these things in, like they’d be processed eventually, but now her eyes were tired and the differences were starting to back up. At the same time, she felt that if she squinted, maybe, just the right way, she could make all this turn back into Seattle, some downtown apart she’d walked through with her mother. Homesick. The strap of her bag digging into her shoulder each time her left foot came down.

Masahiko turned a corner. There didn’t seem to be alleys in Tokyo, not in the sense that there were smaller streets behind the big streets, the places where they put out the garbage, and there weren’t any stores. There were smaller streets, and smaller ones behind those, but you couldn’t guess what you’d find there: a shoe-repair place, an expensive-looking hair salon, a chocolate-maker, a magazine stand where she noticed a copy of that same creepy comic with the woman all wrapped up like that.

There’s so much in this description and so much of it reminded me of exactly what I saw. For instance, a totally unironic love hotel called the Two Way:

But what I really love is how Gibson hints at Tokyo’s fractal nature. It’s like an endless warren of buildings and streets where each is infinitely complex; you find yourself in an endless labyrinth of details.

And those alleys are where some of the most interesting parts of the cities. Lord knows how many times we walked down an alley only to find an incredible noodle shop, bar, fish market or ancient wooden house – you name it.

Just writing this post makes me want to go back and explore further!

Some Recent Quotes

I recently finished a couple of books and thought I’d share a few quotes.

From The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

And Indian Benny, a quiet, meticulous waiter who had the sad airs of a man long accustomed to the spectacular demolition of dreams.

My brave Max, who could slip between two bumpers the way a lie can slide between a person’s teeth.

And from the subtle, confounding, confusing and ultimately insightful Chronic City:

Perkins held his forefinger to the VCR’s Fast-forward, which apparently needed to be continuously pressed, and not only moved with the speed of a man crawling across the desert but mimicked his groans as he died of thirst.

I mix my metaphors so I know I’m alive.
This was another kind of waiting room. I had no appointment and so it should not be strange that I was left there to wait a while. Yet I was left to wait a long time. It began to appear to seem to me that my appointment here was with the room itself, that I’d been installed here in order that I understand what the room had to tell me, and that I was expected to need a while to absorb it completely.
Perkus’ theories proved themselves ludicrous while demolishing any castles of consolation to which I might hope to retreat. They unmade those as they unmade themselves.

Super Surreal Fiction

I just finished reading J.G. Ballard‘s Super Cannes.  It was an amazing book: I don’t know if I’ll ever again find a book that mixes corporate intrigue, mass murder, psychopathy and architecture in a great read.  For those who don’t know, Ballard narratives tend to involve similar worlds to ours, except that the architecture frequently has an overpowering effect on the characters.

Throw in a dash of great lines and you’ve got rewarding literature.

For your pleasure, here are a few lines that caught my fancy.  For more, read the book:

I began to count the pools, each a flare of turquoise light lost  behind the high walls of the villas with their screens of cycads  and bougainvillaea. Ten thousand years in the future, long after  the Cote d’Azur had been abandoned, the first explorers would  puzzle over these empty pits, with their eroded frescoes of tritons  and stylized fish, inexplicably hauled up the mountainsides like  aquatic sundials or the altars of a bizarre religion devised by a race  of visionary geometers.

Reflections from its disturbed surface seemed to bruise the smooth walls of the house.

Civility and polity were designed into Eden-Olympia, in the  same way that mathematics, aesthetics and an entire geopolitical  world-view were designed into the Parthenon and the Boeing 747.

The strong  sunlight had stirred up an atlas of currents that cast their shadows across the tiled floor…

The mental climate that presided over Eden-Olympia never varied, its moral thermostat set somewhere between duty and caution.

Memories jump the rails and speed off down the wrong track.

They were pleasantly high, but in an almost self-conscious way, as if they were members of a tontine blessed  by the unexpected death of two or three of its members.

The twentieth century was  an heroic enterprise, but it left us in the dark, feeling our way  towards a locked door.

Dust lay over the swimming pool, an overnight veil disturbed by the feeble movements of a waterlogged  fruit fly, struggling against the meniscus that gripped its wings  in a mirror harder than glass.

Ten feet from my kerbside table the limousines moved on towards  the Palais des Festivals between the lines of police and security men.  Helicopters circled the Palm Beach headland, waiting to land at the heliport, like paramilitary gunships about to strafe the beachside  crowds. Their white-suited passengers, faces masked by huge shades,  stared down with the gaze of gangster generals in a Central American  republic surveying a popular uprising. An armada of yachts and motor  cruisers strained at their anchors two hundred yards from the beach,  so heavily freighted with bodyguards and television equipment that  they seemed to raise the sea.