review: seven brief lessons on physics

23 June 2016


book info:
on sale: now
copy from: public library
pages: 96
review written: 21.6.16
originally published: 2014
edition read: Riverhead Books, 2016, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre


title: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
author: Carlo Rovelli


Originally published in an Italian newspaper called Il Sole 24 Ore, this series of short lessons is compiled into a tiny book that covers the most interesting developments in physics since the twentieth century. The 7 lessons are: The Most Beautiful of Theories, Quanta, The Architecture of the Cosmos, Particles, Grains of Space, Probability, time, and the heat of black holes, and Ourselves. The author, Carlo Rovelli, is a theoretical physicist who is one of the founders of the loop quantum gravity theory, which he explains "briefly" in one of the chapters. It is only when one truly understands a subject that one can condense it down to the most simple of explanations. Rovelli does just that in this orchestral non-textbook novella. My interest in theoretical physics and astrophysics had mainly been cultivated by the television programmes my brother insisted on watching when we were growing up. Programs on the Science Channel were his favourite and the stunning visual graphics that illustrated complex concepts drew me in, but never really made me stay. On a whim, I decided to see if I could kindle that interest and therefore started with the shortest and most promising book that could explain in layman's terms the math intensive, highly theoretical aspects of a field of science so beyond me that I still can't truly comprehend its subject matter.

I'm surprised it took me so long to read such a short book. Despite the brevity of each chapter, the content material was so rich, it took longer to digest. What I enjoyed most was the literary merit Rovelli deserves for not only explaining concepts in simple terms, but weaving it into a poetry that makes it pleasurable to read for those non-science sort of readers. For example, here are a few quotes that I enjoyed deeply:

" Einstein...soon came to understand that gravity, like electricity, must be conveyed by a field as well: a "gravitational field" analogous to the "electrical field" must exist"
"And it is at this point that an extraordinary idea occurred to him, a stroke of pure genius: the gravitational field is not diffused through space: the gravitational field is that space itself. This is the idea of the general theory of relativity...."
"We are not contained within an invisible, rigid infrastructure: we are immersed in a gigantic, flexible snail shell. The sun bends space around itself, and the Earth does not turn around it because of a mysterious force but because it is racing directly in a space that inclines, like a marble that rolls in a funnel. There are no mysterious forces generated at the centre of the funnel: it is the curved nature of the walls that causes the marble to roll. Planets circle around the sun, and things fall into space because space curves"
"In short, the theory describes a colourful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and swag like the surface of the sea...."

The choice of ordering the chapters was well thought out like the rest of the book. Everything falls into place to make for the easiest comprehension. As I'm reading more books on quantum theory, I've come to understand that choosing what to cover first is a struggle. Physics is like a philosophy within itself, challenging ideas of the creation of the universe and trying to make sense of everything around us. Thus, it's easy to ramble and jump from thought to thought. Rovelli controls this urge and carefully details both history and knowledge giving the sense of time and progression of human history. I almost imagined it was as if I were riding the gravitational waves in the "sea" of space in a sailboat.

While the content of this book may appeal to those of a science background, I have no doubt that the English loving bookish literary readers will enjoy the pure beauty this novel has to offer. For this, I give full marks. I would recommend this to anyone of any age. I implore you to read this brilliant book and if you enjoy it, acquire a personal copy to look back and enjoy whenever you're in the mood.

review: the elementary particles

25 May 2016

book info:
on sale: now
copy from: public library
pages: 263
review written: 23.5.16
originally published: 1998 ("Les particules élémentaires")
edition read: Knopf, 2000, translation by Frank Wynne

title: The Elementary Particles
author: Michel Houellebecq

The Elementary Particles part-story part-metaphysical-rants in an interesting narration from two characters, half-brothers borne of a hippie and absentee mother in the 60s: Michel and Bruno. Michel is an asexual scientist who "expresses his disgust with society by engineering one that frees mankind at last from its uncontrollable, destructive urges" and Bruno is a crass brute driven by sexual desires that lusts after his lost youth. This book follows their stories from childhood to their middle age, spinning around the past and present and major and minor characters in an intriguing narrative that had me reading every single word for fear of missing anything crucial.
(quote from book summary)

When I first began to read, I imagined this would be a monotonous French novel describing the dull, mundane world with distaste and mild appreciation. I was shocked by the blatant narration of Bruno, who's such a brute that I'd recommend mature audiences read this book. Not only that, the metaphysical analyses offered by both the characters took some time for me to digest and full comprehend. While at first it seemed to me that the verbose paragraphs of metaphysics interrupted the story and that the story seemed only to be a canvas for Houllebecq to write a non-essay of his thoughts and opinions, only when I finished the book did I understand that what I'd thought was pretentiousness was actually a carefully orchestrated performance that I was too impatient to hear in the beginning.

I think a crucial peak in the storyline was a conversation between the adults Bruno and Michel in an affordable Chinese restaurant. They were both immensely interested in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and took upon talking not only about Huxley's own life, but his message and his purpose for writing arguably his most famous work.

"The metaphysical mutation that gave rise to materialism and modern science in turn spawned two great trends: rationalism and individualism. Huxley's mistake was in having poorly evaluated the balance of power between these two. Specifically, he underestimated the growth of individualism brought about by an increased consciousness of death. Individualism gives rise to freedom, the self of self, the need to distinguish onseelf and to be superior to others. A rational society like the one he describes in Brave New World can defuse the struggle. Economic rivalry--a metaphor for mastery over space--has no more reason to exist in a society of plenty, where the economy is strictly regulated. Sexual rivalry--a metaphor for mastery over time through reproduction--has no more reason to exist in a society where the connection between sex and procreation has broken. But Huzley forgets about individualism. He doesn't understand that sex....still exists...as a form of narcissistic differentiation.... For society to function, for competition to continue, people have to want more and mor, until desire fills their lives and finally devours them."
- page 133, Michel narrating

Bruno and Michel represent two polar ends of a vaguely similar topic: sex. Bruno is devoured by it, obsessed with it, and indulges himself with it. Michel is an onlooker to the desire for sex, as an asexual being, and instead uses his deep understanding of science to analyse the metaphysics behind sex and, towards the end of the book, discovers an eye-opening research possibility and moves on to pursue it.

This book gave me mixed feelings and emotions. The blatant and crude narration of Bruno made me feel dirtied and depressed, much like the character (pardon me). Michel's narration made me feel depressed as well but his lengthy and often challenging-to-comprehend explanations of scientific concepts proved too interesting to let go. Metaphysics, as defined by Wikipedia, is "concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it." I believe Michel combined philosophy with science with maybe too lofty a voice for my liking. It was still expertly written. I feel that if I read this book over and over again, I'd come to a better understanding of the story.

Therefore, at least for now, I give this book 5 umbrellas. This is because it's been a long time since I've read a book that forced me to read every word, that kept me itching to read more, and that made me think and question not only about the literature but the world.




Welcome Back: My return, The Iliad, French Novels, and more!

19 March 2016

Hello everyone!

Welcome Back to Pages!

It's been almost a year since I last wrote a post and it's kind of shocking. I didn't notice how much time has passed since then and it's kind of tragic for a book-lover like myself to have not read for so long. Thank you all for not unfollowing me (I still have over 500 readers!) I hope I don't disappoint this time around!

As it's only fair, I'll attempt to explain my absence. As a Chemistry major taking a full load of science classes, along with advanced mathematics and other courses, it's been difficult to make time to read. Because of my mild depression, that sometimes swings into full blow like now, I found it easier to just watch films or movies instead of applying myself to read. It's true that when one is depressed, she finds it hard to enjoy the things she once loved. I was never much of a film buff growing up, it was always about the books. Yet somehow, I've turned a full 180 and I've realised it's time to go back to my roots. That's not to say I can't watch films, but when I open up Netflix, I'll think twice about clicking on a film instead of turning to the bookcase behind me. I spent last summer taking Ethics and Calculus and along with family obligations, it all became a bit tedious.
 Part of the reason I haven't been reading as deeply is because I'm finding it hard to find good books. Or at least, books I want to read. This past year, I've felt as if I've read every good book there is and there just aren't any available to me to enjoy. Of course, this is an utterly wrong claim and to ease me back from my hopelessness, I've turned to a text I definitely will enjoy: The Iliad.

The Iliad Quest

 Among the books I plan on reading, I'll be on an ongoing quest to find the perfect translation of the Iliad. I've always been deeply fascinated by ancient Greek literature, art, philosophy, and politics. I grew up on picture books detailing Greek myths and, in a long process, fell in love with The Iliad. I'm not so much a fan of the Odyssey because it lacks the "big picture" context of the Trojan War and focuses on an egotistical King who stupidly sacrifices his entire crew for no good reason. I digress.

Now, what do I mean by "perfect translation"? I mean what I perceive to be perfection. Every translation offers something different, whether one is searching for a text that's true to the original Greek test or that's easy to read. Perhaps even a text that combines the lyrical quality of the original Greek with a more modern narrative. I've gotten mixed advice everywhere I search so I plan on reading as many versions of the Iliad as I can and hopefully journalling key differences, favourite quotes, and, obviously, reviews! My first review will be over a very new translation by Caroline Alexander.
 I understand that I'd get too overwhelmed reading so much of the same story so I don't plan on rushing this quest of mine. I'll read and review several more books in between. Which brings me towards French novels!

French Novels

Those of you who have followed for a while will remember when I love the French existential writers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Yet the whole of French literature is hardly encompassed in these works. So I've decided to at least attempt to read some classic French literature as well as some more of the "intellectual" literature that I so often hear French characters talking about in films (For example, "Adolphe"by Benjamin Constant, mentioned in the film "What's in a Name?"). Or I'll just read a book that interests me. Here are a few on my list:

  • Blindness by Jose
  • The Character of Rain by Amelie Nothomb 
  • Bel Ami by  Guy de Maupassant
  • All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I'll continue to add to the list. They'll be under my "To Be Read" page.
I'd like to admire the humble printing of French novels, even to this day amongst the pieces of art displayed on English/English translated covers. They consist of a beige or white background, the title and author of the book in a simple font, and maybe a garnish of an outline. Take a look of this book that I want to read but, unfortunately, I can't because it hasn't been translated yet. It's such a shame how much we're missing out on in the literary world because of great books that go by untranslated. In an Anglophilic, or at the very least, Anglocentric, world that we live in, we often ignore the rest of what the world writes. It's a stereotype Europeans have of Americans that hold an ounce of truth: Americans don't really care for the rest of the world. Naturally, I'm not like that and I know many of you are not, but this lack of enthusiasm for foreign literature reveals much.

Anyway. Take a look at this covers:
It's a bit bold going for that thick red, compared to other covers. I think, if I ever get published, I'd want my book to look like this. Covers force a view of the text that is entirely based on the artist's perspectives, or at least that of the publisher. Plain covers give nothing away--the only information you can gain for what's inside is the title. This is how it should be because I judge books by their covers. It's a bad habit but it's hard to stop! If every book had these covers, readers could fairly read and judge a book by the written word.

That's my little spiel. I hope you all have been doing well! Leave comments, I'd love to get back in touch. 

Love,
Kirthi
:) 

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