Thursday, November 24, 2016

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and other related books

This blog post is a different exercise. Free writing all my thoughts after reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and then supplementing it with Stephen Hawking's lectures (The Theory of Everything).

I read Rovelli's book twice in the same day. It is a tiny, 70 page book. A series of newspaper articles. The book beautifully simplifies the complicated concepts for a layperson - boiling them down to essentials. Hawking's book helped me in further understanding some of the questions raised by the first one. But I have not completed it yet. Read through most, and got a big list of things to look up further and ended up reading a lot of other science sites/ books and wikipedia.

I often start reading science books. As they say, they are good for the soul. To instill and reignite that sense of wonder, awe and humility. To realize that how tiny a speck we are in the grand scheme. I start reading these science books with high aspirations and then at some point, when the things I do not understand become greater than what I do understand, I end up giving up the book, instead looking up the not understood. My bookshelf is full of tomes which have been lovingly collected, but never fully read. Carlo Rovelli's is a finish in a long time.

After every such full/ partial read, I come away brimming full of ideas and notes, and following is the spillover. Indulging myself and putting them here. Bear with me

~ The concept of  'here' relates to space. The concept of 'now'  is similarly related to time. Carlo Rovelli notes that past is different from future because of heat. Only because of heat. If you take heat out of equation, one cannot figure out the arrow of time. Or something on those lines.

~ Space is made of quanta of space. Joined together. Einstein's second relativity paper - the general one, not special.

~ Bulges in the space-time fabric because of mass. Earth makes a bigger bulge than moon. And sun even bigger. So the space is bulged and curved because of the mass of so many different bodies. And so is time. For a moment, I can grasp space being curved, the same way that even though all around us we see flatness, we know and can understand that we live on a curved earth.

~ As someone said, we learn the unknown in terms of the known. Or the new in terms of the known.

~ Gravity is part of the fabric. The space time fabric. The bulges are the reason things move. Sun bulges the fabric majorly, and teeny-meeny earth is sent on a forever kind of roll around the sun’s bulge's funneling incline - what we call the pull of gravity. (There is no up and down since we are already in 3D, and all this bulging is happening in 4 or 5D) So it is up and down both.

~ So space being curved means what we see is not straight out there, but somewhere on a wavy thing, bobbing up and down if the waves move swiftly, or just hanging there if the waves move slow. And as the bulges curve the space, what does it mean? And now, trying to picture time being curved.

~ I once saw negative space chessmen. Where the chess pieces are cuboids. And the emptiness inside them is the shape of the chess piece - a pawn or king. It is the void which defines, not the substance. So gravity is akin to negative space. What we think is empty and pulls, is full of space quanta and is bulged hence the pull!

~ And now, coming back to time. Time passes much more slowly near the surface of earth.

~ They say time inside a black-hole will pass in an instant (a black-hole being a rebounding star), the time outside, or as for us, as observers, it will take forever. Because the space-time near and at singularity is fully curved. Nothing escapes, no light, no time?

~ Another interesting fact – the bigger the star, the shorter its life.

~ And a speck of dust is to Earth as a subatomic particle is to speck of dust!!! I still can't get my head around it.

~ Are blackholes some kind of punctures in the universe?

~ Everything swooshing out of them. Going where?

~ The universe is somebody’s big tyre.

~ And blackholes are the puncture.

~ Coming back to time. How does ‘now’ relate to 'here'? When I go away from 'here', I am the one gone, ‘here’ still stays as such. I can come back to 'here'. And I’ll find it so, at least what is perceptible to me. The placement of atoms and quarks may be different.

~ When I go away from ‘now’ can I come back to now? Will 'now' still remain as 'here'?

~ Or the 'here' is the planet

~And 'now' is the time scale of this planet

~ To a bug, a full life is a day. The timescale for a bug. 

~ To humans, life is several decades. Still, nothing.

~ To human species, life is a few million years?

~ To the sun, life is 10 billion years. Middle aged Sun.

~ To the universe that we know, since the big-bang, life is 14 billion years so far. Young or old?

~ Expanding, wavy, rippling away.

~ What we see is there and not there.

~ We move through space, and time moves through us?

~ Another amazing fact: All elements are possible solutions to a single equation. The whole periodic table.

~ And that is what all the reality that we see is made up of.

~ Different possible solutions to a single equation!

~ And at the heart of the solidity of what we see, the predictability of interactions of these elements that we have based our lives on, there is a probability function.

~ An electron can be there or not there. It ‘manifests’ itself doing quantum leaps

~ So we are probability manifestations. So there'll be a probability manifestation where the non happening events exist. Or it doesn't matter. We are all hypothetical.

~ How does this differ from the old Hindu philosophy, that everything that you see and understand is some sort of illusion, Maya. You need to step up and away from the manifestation of the form, to see the content.

~ Like the 'ineluctable modality of the visible'  as James Joyce notes in Ulysses (my other current aspiration read), so in our life, we are forever doomed as a species to see form over content - the illusion?

~ In universe, in a way, everything is super simple. There are just a few basic alphabets. And they combine and manifest in myriad ways to form this book. This saga of universe? Or this little Koan?

~ So are we some kind of expression for someone with multidimensional capabilities. Here, Exhibit A is Universe, Exhibit B Black Holes, Exhibit E Earth and here be consciousness in living matter.

~ Should we meditate on this, and wonder, or keep trying to push the boundaries of our understanding. May be that is the purpose of consciousness. Do you ever get to fully comprehend what is it that you are?

~ We understand the new in terms of the known.

~ So there were times, when Earth was thought of as flat. Then times when everything moved round and round the earth,

~ And now we do understand that we are in some far flung arm of a mediocre galaxy

~ And we are just one set of representation of chemical equations

~ Have we, as human beings ever tried to form something as elegant as this universe? Basic few blocks, a beautiful equation with multiple solutions and then each solution so different from the other?

~ Or the difference is just a small block on spectrum? Like visible light on electromagnetic spectrum. We think we see everything, until you see the wavelengths that are visible. It is a revelation. A humbling experience

~ And so the chemical solutions of equation, is it all we see because that is what all we can see?

~ Coming back to the slippery slope of fathoming time. How do you figure it out?

~ Imagine a big massive ceiling fan, with really long blades. We are on one blade, at the very far end, towards the edge. And a blackhole is in the centre. In one second, say (or what? I thought one second is one second wherever it may be). But say for a recorded period, we move the arc a particular distance, since we are tracing a bigger circle, and for the same period, someone at the centre, moves a lesser distance since they are tracing a smaller circle. Now suppose the distance we are covering is that of time. Then does it make sense? The time we cover is more for the same recorded measure as the centre traveller.

~ But then how can we measure time both for marking the experiment and for the distance!

It is frustrating. What constraints does human mind and lifetime have! So much, so much, out there to understand, and we get limited by our visible spectrum and whatever chemical elements made us and left us floating in this bubbly bulgy space quanta ocean of time where the ladder of the known leads us only a little bit further, to larger and bigger unknowns.

The supreme perversity of the ineluctable modality of the visible!

This doesn't even make any sense.

I know we have come far from the days of flat earth. It is just another sand particle worth of distance covered on a mile long beach. Here's wishing with all my heart that we get to understand some more of this amazing wonderland that we live in!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Collected Stories by John Cheever

Like a kaleidoscope running through suburban America of mid 20th century. Like Revolutionary Road, or Rabbit Run or Updike’s stories. What is described as the American way of life. Interesting stories, but dysfunctional families. Most stories have the man going out to work on the morning train, and wives at home, their suburban lives, them picking up their husbands from the station in the evening. Their lives not happy. But the stories do not showcase angst the way Yates did, these stories are more matter of fact.

I took my time reading this 900 page tome - a couple of months. 50 stories or so. One can read them for the description. Or read them as good stories, short, contained, well sketched out characters, straight narrative. Or read them to get transported to the place where the author places the story and empathize with the characters. Do not read seeking epiphany.

Not sure whether I’ll read any more of Cheever in the near future.Even though well written and enjoyable, somehow, they leave me with an unhappy aftertaste. They leave me with some unease, some sort of discomfort, wondering how much of ourselves do we lose in the humdrum of everyday. And that for some, the humdrum becomes the mainstay! (And when this happens, there is little left in life). 

And may be that is where the author succeeds - creating that discomfort.  However, for the time being, pushes me away.


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

For Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf notes that hers was the only writing she (VW) was perhaps jealous of. I had heard the name often, but never read anything. Finally, I got to read this small collection of stories in a beautiful Bloomsbury Classic bound pocket size book.

Born in NZ, she studied in England, and lived in France. And her stories seem to be based there (in France, and Europe). I loved the writing - charming is the word that comes to mind. Flowing, transporting you to the time and place where the characters are.

In terms of subject, she deals with those that seem non-conventional in her time. Or modern, then. The settings seem Victorian, but what happens is not. In that sense, she is more modern or further ahead of her times than VW or other contemporaries.

Emotional. Some of the stories just capture a span of few days or moments. But they present an undercurrent, or the view from very new angles (one which I am not used to reading). The power of surprise, in terms of content (not twists). The stories seem to hold a moment or two in the characters' lives as we hold a bauble, and examine it closely, minutely.

Engaging read.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen


What do I feel about Leonard Cohen’s book? Dream-like, poetic, restless.

Listening to his music, and reading his words, you see him flashing through. Is it fiction, or is it part of him? His deep spring of ideas which flows through in his songs, his book, his poetry. The book is lyrical, rhythmic, poetic, slow, invoking rich images. Still, not heavy, light.

Had started reading this first book of his after reading his profile by David Remnick in New Yorker last month. Since then his songs are on a loop (Apple music playlist - Leonard Cohen Essentials). 

When I first began reading the book, was not very sure whether I wanted to continue it. It felt different than my other readings. It seemed raw, unpolished, dark in certain places, restless, and hence a bit ruffling. I realize, consciously or unconsciously, I avoid dark, loud, or ruffling – something that bothers, questions too much, is uncomfortably unfamiliar or shows scars. And this one felt a bit like that. Was going to leave it alone,...but then I heard about him passing away.

I began it again, with his music in the background. The book is episodic, building up scenes and scenes, dream-like sequences and lots of space to breathe. And you recognize his turn of phrase, his countenance and attitude. Divided in four books, and almost 20 chapters each over 250 pages, it is a delight to read.

The book seems autobiographical. It is not the kind of work I would read often, not a subject matter I would pick up. Also, it is not the kind of person I would read often about. But somehow, in this book, Breavman (the lead) does not come across as revolting. He comes across as a poet, a singer, Leonard Cohen in making. You can almost sympathize. It is not the world view you may have grown up with or approve of, in fact it may be something to be regarded as reproachful in people, but somehow, in an artist, in him, in someone in spite of themselves, it is forgiven.

I have always felt that books by poets are somehow better than those by non-poets. Be it Sylvia Plath or Joseph Brodsky. Or here, Leonard Cohen. The way they use words is lighter, more precise, how to put it best? They say much more in far fewer words. 

Enjoyed reading the book. 

RIP Leonard Cohen. Love your music – and for last few weeks, it has been the background music to my days. I can almost break into ‘Like a bird…’ in supermarkets, in libraries, while K and I have breakfast, while driving, while writing this and while not writing this, gazing out at the clear blue sky and the far away blue sea and mini clouds. It makes everything slower, richer, more peaceful.

‘…I have tried in my way to be free’

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

For this one, find my notes, here, on my other blog.

Contact by Carl Sagan

Nice well-rounded science fiction after a long time!

Written in 1985, the book is a long time behind the current world. But that does not hinder the development of the key plot in the book. The story pursues a scenario of contact by other intelligent beings in the universe.

Things that I love about the book -


  • Its premise - it is not outlandish or fantastic as some of the other sci-fi books tend to be, but a hypothetical probability explored; one element of contact from extra terrestrial intelligence explored while being fully grounded on Earth and recognizing human capabilities and constraints.
  • The lead - There is a strong protagonist, Ellie, sort of a rebel, searching for intelligence and decoding the message when one is encountered. One of the few books which have a strong female lead in non-conventional roles. There are many beautiful books with female leads but very few who have strong, rebellious female leads. My other recent read, Mill on the Floss had one, but her rebelliousness was constrained by the times she lived in. 
  • Balance - Despite it being science/ imaginative fiction, there are enough snippets of history/ culture, stories and information on the key scientific principles, which leave you with a lot of things to think about. It was a well balanced read - giving the pleasure of fiction showing the interplay of characters set in the context of science and all the other extra-terrestrial elements. And most of all, it had a positive, hopeful tone. (Which I felt so lacking in Rama II).

However, as all such future focused/ speculative books and movies end up doing, you expect to be marveled, but they end up falling short (the end). Like Interstellar, the movie. Or Rama II. Even though the journey, the reading through, the watching is fun, the end somehow does not live up to the build-up. It falls short, feels silly. But then, isn't it bound to happen? It's not the author's fault. We are talking about the most existential questions we face as humans and hoping to find answers in scenarios. If somebody could or would have shown the answers, explained the universe, this life, then they need not be bound to earth. And in such cases, 42 (Hitchhiker) is as good an answer as somebody falling in black holes and sending messages to their family (Interstellar) or finding a circle in value of pi (Contact).

I haven't read Cosmos or Broca's Brain or haven't yet seen Contact, the movie. Will look them up. I like reading such works, for the feelings they leave me with. The questions and the sense of wonder which can never  be satiated in this lifetime.

What thoughts do I end up with? That we are so, so insignificant, and the time we have this consciousness is so little, the magnitude we live at is so tiny, compared to the vastness and the hugeness of this space-time. How would we ever decipher any part of this, or ever find out any answers? I just wonder while looking out at the dark blue evening sky full of early stars, and sometimes amuse myself with a hypothesis, that perhaps all the old stories we remember and retain in various cultures, at least a few of them happened because there was some contact from somewhere else (some other intelligence) ....and the collective memory retains some of those episodes, worshiping and mythologizing what could not be explained, ascribing powers to them which were perhaps not their's. May be, it was so. And may be, not so. Who is to tell?

Along these lines, one of the stories told in Hindu mythology/ Gita is about Brahma's age (a google search will present a lot of similar sources). Ignoring the part about what needs to be done to escape the cycle of creation-annihilation, it is quite fascinating to fantasize about the quantum of time represented in each day and night of Brahma (the creator) or his lifetime. At least, something I read on this planet which talks of scales comparable to this universe.