Archive for the ‘books’ Category

This is what everyone seems to be wondering today. Why Mario Vargas Llosa and not Joyce Carol Oates? Why didn’t Nabokov ever get one? What about Flannery O’Connor or Salman Rushdie or Phillip Roth?

Please check this page before you register your own complaint.

Note that Alfred Nobel specified in his famous will that he leaves “one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency…”

Work of an idealistic tendency. Meaning work that deals with politics, with social issues, with matters of conscience.

This is why Mario Vargas Llosa and Jose Saramago and Orhan Pamuk and Herta Muller qualify for the Nobel Prize, but Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth sadly do not.

It’s hard to combine politics with art. You have to strike a very fine balance between the two. If you veer too much in either direction, you fail at both jobs at once.

A good example of this would be Tolstoy. Later in his career when he became very idealistic, his writing suffered a great deal. “Resurrection,” his most idealistic novel, is so filled with social commentary that the plot and the characters sink beneath the weight of it all, making the novel virtually unreadable to all but the most dedicated Tolstoy fans.

That’s one reason why Tolstoy never won the Nobel Prize. “Anna Karenina” is outstanding work, but it’s not idealistic. “Resurrection” qualifies as idealistic, but it’s not an outstanding piece of work at all.

It’s very difficult to combine art with a social conscience. Tolstoy found it so difficult that he issued a manifesto against all art. Shakespeare, Beethoven, his own earlier works, all of it.

Indeed, if Tolstoy had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, given his political beliefs in anarchism and his open disdain toward any form of organized authority, it is highly likely that he would have turned it down, and made such a huge public display of turning it down that those on the Nobel Committee who voted for him would have come to regret their decision deeply.

The Nobel Prize in Literature is reserved for writers who have managed to fight the battle between art and morality and win that battle by producing works of literature that are both outstanding achievements in art and also outstanding achievements in social conscience.

That’s a very difficult job and writers who manage to pull that off deserve to be singled out and honored in their own category apart from other great writers.

That’s what Alfred Nobel decided when he wrote his will and established the Nobel Prize in the first place.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new show on HBO that is reputed to be the new “Sopranos.” I disagree with that praise because it doesn’t go far enough. “Boardwalk Empire” is like “The Sopranos” with Ph.D.s in history, political science, sociology, American literature, and, last but not least, mass media studies.

You don’t just get a gritty gangster drama here, with desperate men making desperate decisions. You get the entire world of the 1920s, complete with traumatized WWI veterans, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, incubator babies, the newly-invented vacuum cleaner, women’s rights, and even contemporary literature.

The story begins on day one of that grand, disastrous American social experiment we now call Alcohol Prohibition. A hungry crew of pimps, racketeers, loan sharks and corrupt politicians has gathered in Atlantic City to carve up their respective territories in the newly-illegal alcohol business and celebrate the idiocy of the good moral folks in Congress who voted for an alcohol-free America.

There are many bloggers elsewhere doing episode recaps and pop culture analysis and so on. I don’t want to repeat their work. But there is one thing I’d like to point out here and that’s the way the American novel has been featured in the show.

The second episode is titled “The Ivory Tower.” It becomes apparent right away that this term refers not to the hallowed halls of academe, but to the novel by Henry James being read by recent Irish immigrant Mrs. Margaret Schroeder in her hospital bed, where she is recovering from a severe beating by her late husband Hans that caused her to miscarry their child.

Hans’s death was ordered by the show’s lead character, the crooked wheeler-dealer with a heart of gold, Nucky Thompson. He ordered the hit not just to retaliate for Hans’s savage act of spousal abuse, but also to throw the police a suspect for a even more savage murder committed during a hijacking of an illegal booze shipment by Nucky’s disobedient protege Jimmy Darmody.

Margaret comes to understand that the huge wad of cash delivered to her hospital bed by Nucky’s sheriff brother Eddie is a payoff for her silent complicity in the fiction that drunken, abusive Hans, a baker’s assistant, was the mastermind of the whisky heist and the murderer of the four hoodlums found dead in the forest.

Margaret quietly plays along with this lie, but in the end, returns the cash to Nucky, quoting George Sand on charity. Nucky, of course, thinks George Sand is a man, but the highly literate Margaret, once the parlormaid to a barrister, quickly sets him straight.

The brilliance that I’d like to draw attention to here is the role played by the novel after which this episode is titled. James’ unfinished novel attacks the corruption and privilege of the wealthy of the Gilded Age. James found himself unable to finish the novel when WWI broke out and brought real tragedy and sacrifice to the gilded selfish world he’d sought to indict as folly.

Henry James died in 1916. If he’d lived into the 1920s, he might have found the inspiration to finish his novel. Margaret certainly seems to find moral inspiration from reading James’ novel, enough to refuse the financial largesse being offered to her by the wealthy and corrupt and gilded Nucky Thompson.

As it turns out, the feds don’t buy the idea that Margaret’s drunken husband masterminded a robbery and a quadruple homicide, so Jimmy Darmody has to leave Atlantic City. Before he leaves, he has a painful argument with his girlfriend. Jimmy met her when he was at Princeton, before the war. They used to talk about books, she complains. What happened?

As Jimmy heads north on the train to Chicago, where he’ll hook up with his new partner in crime Al Capone (who suggested the booze hijack in the first place and did most of the killing), he’s reading “Free Air” by Sinclair Lewis. In “Free Air,” a woman travels by car across America from from New York to the Pacific Northwest, learning through the love of a good working class man to give up the snobbish ways of her upper class family.

“Free Air” was one of the first road trip novels in America, a predecessor to “On the Road” by the late, great Jack Kerouac, which in turn gave rise to road trip TV shows like “Route 66″ and “The Fugitive,” and road trip movies like “Easy Rider” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”

There was no TV back in the 1920s. There was no HBO. People had to satisfy their craving for complex engaging human drama from the printed page in the form of the novel.

It’s very pleasing to see that “Boardwalk Empire” is paying homage to the American novel in such an intelligent manner that both informs us about history and adds layers of subtle irony to plot and character development alike.


I was not surprised by the research described on the sciencegeekgirl blog the other day showing that both male and female physics students systematically rate female instructors more poorly than male instructors regardless of their own success in the class.

She linked to research published here.

The abstract of this article concludes:

Such a bias may negatively impact female students and contribute to the loss of females in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.

I have felt this bias before and I have to say — it certainly did impact me negatively and it certainly did contribute to my fear of teaching physics in a classroom F2F situation.

Back when I was a TA at Caltech, I taught a recitation section of sophomore wave mechanics. Almost every student in this class was a sophomore, and many of them were non-majors — with the exception of three senior physics majors.

These three seniors decided to take this sophomore class not because they needed to learn the material, but because they needed a few extra units to graduate and they wanted to earn those units in the most pain free way possible.

I know this for a fact because they told me this when I advised them that the course, being aimed at sophomores, was not going to be taught at a senior physics major level.

These three seniors didn’t once ask a question in class. They didn’t participate in the solving of any in-class problems. They didn’t speak up to help any of the sophomores in the class who were asking questions and trying to understand the material.

The only thing these three seniors did was sit in class and stare at my breasts and pass notes to each other, every single course session, for the entire session.

But all three of these seniors did show up on the one day Caltech set aside for students to air grievances about their instructors.

What was their grievance with me?

I taught the class at too low a level, they claimed. That was my sin. That was why they got out of bed that morning and brushed their hair and shaved and got dressed — so they could show up just to complain about me.

They were seniors — complaining that my recitation section for sophomore non-majors wasn’t tough enough for senior majors.

Since I was just a TA, I wasn’t even the one to decide the level of difficulty of the course. The textbook, assignments and exam questions were all chosen by the male professor. Yet the students didn’t complain about him. They complained about me. The seniors acted like I was the one who made the outrageous decision that a class for sophomores should be taught at a sophomore level.

This distressing episode scared me away from teaching physics in a university. I learned that people interested in learning physics aren’t always the nicest people in the world.

Some of them have strong prejudices against women and other groups they perceive to be inferior. Sometimes they lack the emotional capacity for understanding how their prejudice impacts the people they target.

What I love about my website superstringtheory.com is that I can teach physics to everyone in the world and I don’t have to listen to any of the people who are out there who might be looking for some easy opportunity to intimidate or devalue a woman.

My commitment to physics education comes from my heart, and I will not have my heart broken by sexism.

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Halde

Left to right: Scott Timberg, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Joe Haldeman

I was a sci-fi fan when I was a little girl. I wish I could say when it all started. Maybe it was the giant pile of comic books at my babysitter’s house that turned me into a Superman co-dependent just like Lois Lane and Lana Lang. Or maybe it was the time I got the flu and someone gave me The Princess of Mars, the first book in the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

All my dolls traveled to Mars, even if I couldn’t.

Whatever it was that got me started, I lived more or less with my nose buried inside a science fiction book from the ages of eight until 21, when I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude
and abandoned sci-fi for magic realism. So I felt like I was coming back home after being away on a long trip when I listened to the Science Fiction: The Grandmasters panel at the LA Times Festival of Books on Saturday.

Writer and blogger Scott Timberg moderated the panel, which included three prodigious producers of prime science fiction dating back to the 1950s era of pulp novels and Amazing Stories: Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison and Joe Haldeman.

Silverberg began his journey as a child in New York City, enchanted first by the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum and then by the stars and galaxies in the Hayden Planetarium.

Silverberg's most acclaimed novel has been restored and reissued


“But not even a New Yorker can say `show me a live dinosaur’,” he said.

After reading The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, he realized that “fiction can take you anywhere.”

He found science fiction listed under “pseudo-scientific fiction” in the library and became a fan.

“Many kids had imaginary friends,” said Robert Silverberg said of his childhood sci-fi fandom, “I had imaginary galaxies.”

When he was 13, he got the idea that he could write science fiction for a living. “It was a silly idea,” he said, “but it turned out to be true.”

Silverberg’s greatest work is considered by critics and fans alike to be Dying Inside. First published in 1972, the novel has just been reissued in trade paperback with a preface by Silverberg. You can read more about the author this recent LA Times article by Timberg.

Harry Harrison’s novel about an overpopulated Earth Make Room! Make Room! made a huge impression on me as a young fan. I appreciated strawberry jam a lot more, for example, despite being allergic.

The film Soylent Green is based on the novel, but changes the story in several important ways. For example, in the novel, “soylent green” really is made from soy.

Harrison remembers being a sci-fi fan before sci-fi existed, when it was just pulp novels. He and his friends lived a “grim and grey” existence until they opened up a book and “light poured out.”

Joe Haldeman reminisced about “books with rocket ships on the spine.” I remember those books! I read every single one of them in the library, just like Joe did.

After he’d read every sci-fi book in the library two or three times, he started buying books from a used bookstore in his neighborhood.

“It was like having a heroin dealer next door,” he said.

Haldeman’s most acclaimed work is The Forever War, recently reissued in a “definitive version” with a large chunk of the story restored that had been cut out before it was published.

I missed Ray Bradbury’s talk because I didn’t get my tickets in time. They went on sale at midnight but I waited until 9am to hit Ticketmaster. Foolish me. The man is popular, let’s just say that.

Bradbury typed up the manuscript of his most iconic work Fahrenheit 451 in the Powell Library at UCLA.

He usually signs books on Halloween at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. He signed my copy of Farenheit 451 there.


I love books like a wino loves wine. So I feel pretty drunk every April when the LA Times Festival of Books rolls around. Critics say we’re all blond and superficial in Southern California. You can see just how wrong this stereotype is when you’re surrounded by bookworms and lit geeks of all sizes, shapes and cultures at the festival.

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

Susskind signs the book he wrote about his war with Hawking

As a science geek, I felt morally obligated to attend the Real Science panel on Saturday morning. The panel was moderated by science writer K.C. Cole and featured her fellow science writer Carl Zimmer, odor scientist Avery Gilbert and theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind.

Susskind’s latest book is The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, his chronicle of the intellectual battles over the meaning of black hole entropy and the ultimate fate of decaying black holes.

Susskind told the audience he was grateful for the extreme intellectual puzzle posed by black hole entropy, given that his generation in physics was too young to have participated in the great quantum mechanics and relativity revolutions on the Einstein era. Instead they were left to “clean up the mess” left behind by their elders, turning the primitive and confusing subject of relativistic quantum mechanics into the elegant theoretical powerhouse of quantum gauge field theory.

Before I heard Carl Zimmer talk about his new book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, I had no idea that the humble and ubiquitous intestinal bacteria E. coli has won twelve Nobel Prizes in science — which is ten more than any multi-celled organism on record.

What scientists have learned about E. coli “challenges our assumptions about life,” Zimmer said. Despite their apparent simplicity, each E. coli cell acts like a distinct individual. If 747s behaved like E. coli, then two identically built planes would exhibit completely different behaviors when you tried to fly them.

Another surprising and philosophically challenging aspect of e-coli is their ability to organize socially into competing tribes that compete for food and make tribal war. I’ve always thought of war as a human behavior that was learned. If even single-celled organisms can organize into tribes and make war, then the instinct for war is an instinct that is basic to life itself.

Panel moderator K.C. Cole

According to the third panelist, fragrance scientist Avery Gilbert, , fresh oysters exude the same chemical responsible for the smell of pinto bean farts. That’just one of the peculiar things you’ll be able to learn in his book What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

Whenever we stress out over nuclear proliferation in the news, we’re feeling the legacy left to us by J. Robert Oppenheimer, our “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” His brother Frank left a more peaceful and enjoyable legacy in San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a “museum of human awareness” that combines science education with art and just plain fun. K.C. Cole, a longtime friend of the non-nuclear Oppenheimer, drew on letters and extensive interviews for her personal portrait Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the world he made up.


Get well soon Stephen Hawking

Me in Woody Creek

Me in Woody Creek

There’s a photograph buried in my closet that was taken in the old days of analog photography and has never been digitized and hopefully never shall be. It shows a much younger me reclining on the sand at Club Med in Marbella, topless, as is the norm in such places, holding in front of me a copy of “The large scale structure of space-time” by S.W. Hawking and G.F.R. Ellis.

The sublime Mediterranean sunshine, the water skiing lessons over the glittering waves, the entwined aromas of salt air and freshly caught fish sizzling on the grill — it all went away for an hour or so while I took a swim in Chapter 4 — The Physical Significance of Curvature.

This is an extremely sexy chapter, and not just because curves are sexy. What’s especially sexy about this chapter is the way it begins with the simple idea of the spacetime paths of massive and massless objects, and ends up laying out the basic mathematical conditions for spacetime singularities and time travel.

Now how does this happen? The key to all this is known as Raychaudhuri’s equation, discovered independently by Indian physicist Amal Kumar Raychaudhuri and Soviet physicist Lev Davidovich Landau. This fantastic equation, also known as the focusing equation, tells us when the spacetime curvature of a given gravitational system will force light cones to collapse and form spacetime singularities and when the curvature will keep them from converging, allowing conditions to develop where time travel is at least theoretically possible.

Time travel, water skiing and grilled fish make for quite a day at the beach.

Here’s to a beautiful man and to all of his beautiful books!

Is quantum gravity an oxymoron?

Quantum mechanics forbids a quantum system from being both knowable and objectifiable. But quantum mechanics and quantum field theory assume that the spacetime metric is both knowable and objectifiable. If the metric is not knowable or not objectifiable, then it’s impossible to define a quantum theory precisely. In that sense it seems like the term “quantum gravity” is oxymoronic. String theory demands that the graviton exist, but so far it hasn’t enlightened us on the ultimate resolution of this apparent oxymoron.

Quantum reality

In classical physics we assume the world is both knowable and objectifiable. In quantum mechanics, we have to choose one or the other. The mathematics behind quantum mechanics will not let us have both at the same time.