Smartness

James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.

Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language.  At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.

I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit.  We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.

Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career.  He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand.  Just say it plain.  If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.”  Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.

But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else.  He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion.  He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex  equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.

What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.

He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics.  He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.

Feynman may have been a genius.  In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields.  What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.

Or a Feynman.  But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.

Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed.  He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core.  Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.

Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.

In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems.  The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration.  In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived.  That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.

 

Dextrous Brilliance

Most of us doubtless have gaps in our reading histories. Books we ought to have read simply because. Long delayed for a variety of reasons, sometimes forgotten, and occasionally remembered in awkward conversations including a surprised “What do you mean, you haven’t read that?”  Shuffle of mental feet, chagrin, a shrug. Never got around to it.

I have finally gotten around to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

There is a danger in so late an experience. One cannot escape, depending on one’s circles, commentary, opinion, even spoilers. Over time a book like this acquires the stature and dimension of the impossibly fine. I remember finally, after hearing about it for over a decade, seeing Citizen Kane. The hype perhaps poisoned the experience. As fine a piece of film making as I can admit it to be, I have yet to watch it without falling asleep. So it is with some trepidation that I approach works long missed and oft told about.

Occasionally one finds the hype lacking. No one ever managed to convey to me just how good this book is. The Left Hand of Darkness, had Le Guin written nothing else afterward—and she did, oh, yes, she did!—would have fixed her importance and justified her reputation. I have rarely had so many moments of having to step back from the page in order to absorb and appreciate what I had just read.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness…Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war.

How apt, I thought, reflecting on our present social and political climate, of the layered and interminable arguments over culture and religion and rightness. (It is, perhaps, the most obvious metaphor that she places the light on the left.)

Le Guin manages to sum intent and meaning and value and hand us back an open-ended equation. The story is that of an envoy from an interstellar association, Le Guin’s Ekumen, to a long isolated former colony of humans, Gethen, also known as Winter. The isolation has been so long that space travel is forgotten and evolution (or perhaps an intentional genetic experiment) has created a different biology for these humans—they are neither male nor female, and yet are both, sex emerging only during kemmer, then sublimating after. One person can be father and mother to several children. As a consequence, their sense of identity is not sex-linked.

Yet they are human. Into this, Genly Ai, what we would see as a “normal” man,  must navigate, learn, and offer and, hopefully, facilitate admission to and alliance with the Ekumen. Among people who find it nearly impossible to believe that he is what he claims. Of course, there is the ship in which he arrived and, more, his evident biological distinction.

As he lives among the people of one of the larger nation-states (which itself is a less concrete concept on Winter than we might be used to) he is taken in hand by the prime minister of Karhide, Lord Estraven. The soul of the novel is their relationship, which swaps ends throughout, from trust and distrust, alliance, treason, and finally friendship. Their relationship is the personal, visceral manifestation of the multi-layered metaphor for civilization Le Guin offers throughout.

There is politicking, intrigue, danger. There is marvel and revelation and epiphany. It is a complete experience (although, in terms of fiction and drama, there is no sex, even as it is a topic much present as a kind of harmonic overtone, and this is curiously satisfying) and is one of the single best examples of why science fiction is absolutely capable of being Literary. I do not wish to detail the plot. Here, plot serves to prepare us for the Key Moment, the sudden understanding, the revelatory nexus. Le Guin is giving us a lesson in perception and preconception.

This is something science fiction can do extremely well, especially in the hands of a master, the Conceptual Turn. We believe we see one thing when, it transpires, we did not see it clearly if at all until the mirror falls and we gaze upon a clarifying distortion. Here, is a question of dialogue. But it is further a question of where we stand when dialogue begins. An further still, a question of whether we will turn to the light or to the dark when we choose where to stand. And so on. Genly Ai and Lord Estraven learn how to talk to each other throughout the book and while it might seem this is not very exciting stuff, it is riveting because we recognize them even as they swap places and the familiar becomes the alien, and finally the alien becomes ourself. This is a novel that reads us as we read it.

I am glad for all those times I failed to pick this book up.  I do not believe I had the wit to see it. I may not now, but I do have the wit to understand that there is much here I do not yet understand, and the confidence to be content with that, because I know it will be there to find when I am ready. At the end, we see—hopefully—that we are all strangers to each other and the value we offer is in the learning. That the precise degree with which we fear the alien is equal to the degree of ignorance we indulge about ourselves.

 

Crossovers

Cross-genre experimentation often produces interesting failures, less often brilliant chimeras.  The novelty seems to open up possibilities.  Steampunk has been one of the most successful in recent years, but it seems to be wearing thin as too much of it tends to be old-fashioned occult or mystery, rather Sherlockian (or more Wilkie Collins) in essence with a thread of SFnal gadget-geekery running throughout.  Often it’s just a new suit of clothes disguising an old set of bones.

One of the things that has rarely been successful but is perhaps the oldest of these mix-and-match tropes is the attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy.  Try as we might, it usually ends up being demonstrably one or the other merely borrowing the trappings of its often unwilling partner.  Roger Zelazny was perhaps the most sucessful at it, but he managed it by bravura sleight-of-hand, or wordcraft, rather than through genuine alchemical mergers.  What we generally find are stories that set the fantasy conceits at odds with science, in a kind of battleground plot where one or the other must prove superior or “right” in some epistemological sense.  Poul Anderson wrote one called Operation Chaos (and a few sequels) that attempted it by a clever deployment of magical “universes” as essentially parallel universes of higher or lower energy states, but in the end it was science fiction in the way it treated the conceits.  The thematic utility of fantasy was sublimated to the SFnal conceptualizing.

The problem is that fantasy, dealing as it does with physical propositions of how the universe operates which run counter to our understanding of the same concepts, develops thematic conceits which have very little if anything to do with the concerns found in science fiction.  They are, at base, about different things.  Attempting to assert that those two worlds (never mind world views) can plausibly coexist and have anything to say together which cannot be said better by one or the other usually ends up as special pleading or simply a fashion statement.

(Example?  The big one is Star Wars, despite Lucas’s belated attempt to shoehorn any kind of science fictional justifications into Episodes 1,2, and 3, which is a full court quest fantasy dressed up like science fiction.  The machinery, the technology, the science never avails against magic, which is portrayed as both physically superior and in fact the true moral battleground.  It’s a fantasy, not a blending of the two.)

All that said, it was only a matter of time before a genuinely successful hybrid would appear. Artists keep working at something long enough, eventually that which one generation says cannot be done, will be done.

Quite happily, I discovered this success in a thoroughly enjoyable novel by Charlie Jane Anders All The Birds In The Sky .    9780765379948

Briefly, Laurence and Patricia are outcasts. Their parents, who are shown as polar opposites of each other, fail to “get” them, and their attempts to “correct” what they see as bad trends or unhealthy characteristics in their children end badly around. Likewise at school, where they meet and become friends out of desperation (they’ll actually talk to each other), their lives are untenable because their peers also do not understand them.  It becomes, at one point, life-threatening for them to hang out together.

Added to this is the appearance of a trained assassin from a secret society who has identified them as the nexus of eventual social collapse and global catastrophe.  His Order does not permit the killing of minors, though, so he is limited to ruining their lives and attempting to keep them apart.

What is special about them is…

Patricia is an emergent witch.  She discovers early on that she can speak to animals, but it may be an hallucination (it’s not).  Her older sister, who spies on her, makes matters worse by secretly recording Patricia in some of her more extreme attempts at revisiting her chance discovery of “powers” and releasing it on social media.

Laurence is an emergent technical genius who sets about building a self-aware AI in the closet of his room.  His parents, who are in most ways failures, see his obsession with staying indoors, reading obsessively, and attempting to gain admission to a science school as unhealthy and insist on outdoors programs and forced social interaction.  They have no clue that everything is against this.

Patricia and Laurence are eventually driven apart and grow up to make lives in their separate spheres, both successfully.  They re-encounter each other and fall into an alliance to save the Earth, which is in the late stages of environmental collapse.  Each in their own way must address this problem and here is where it gets interesting.

As if all the rest isn’t already interesting enough.  Anders has painted fulsome portraits of the outsiders we all knew (or, in some instances, were) with sympathy and understanding that avoids pity and makes for satisfying character study.  Laurence and Patricia could easily have become archetypes, and certainly in some ways they are, but here they are simply people we may well know, and even wish to know.  And the relationship she builds between them is complex and resonant in surprising ways.  In a novel already repleat with strengths, this is a major achievement.

How she makes the merger of magic and science work is also by way of character.  Laurence and Patricia are both in dialogue with the universe.  They use different languages, elicit different responses, but in the end it turns out to be the same universe.  Anders suggests that we still don’t have a firm grasp of how manifold and multifaceted that universe is, but in the end it is all a conversation. Multilingual, to be sure, and compiled of palimpsests sometimes hard to identify.  What is required is an appreciation of the wider concept.

What makes this a successful blending—merging, really—of usually antipathetic concepts is that dialogue and the acknowledgment in the end that both views make for a greater understanding.  The solutions—if any are to be found—come from the combined strengths of the divergent views.  Laurence and Patricia, depending on each other, coming to know that here there is genuine friendship, love, acceptance, and a willingness to understand the other side, make for better answers than they do apart.

I do not wish to spoil the myriad of dialectical twists and turns salted throughout.  Anders has not given us a set solutions, but as series of antiphonal arguments leading to a place where a wider view may be achieved.  Throughout she plays with the tropes, the themes, the assumptions, connects them to human concerns, and manages something greater than the sum of its traditionally antagonistic parts.

Highly recommended.

 

Emerson

Okay, this is hard.  Very hard.

Keith Emerson is dead.  Apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.

That in itself is difficult to square with the pictures in my mind of the epic artist of the heyday of one of the greatest musical outfits of the 20th Century.

It’s tempting to get into the justifications for Keith Emerson’s place as a composer and performer, what his music meant for rock, for classical, for a generation of people who found in his work an uncompromising dedication to a particular aesthetic and a level of quality found in few pop acts. Indeed, to even use that term—pop act—seems to diminish the breadth of the ambition he displayed throughout his career.

Post Sgt Pepper’s, rock music—what then without much hesitation or embarrassment was termed pop music, in the sense of it being “populist” as opposed to “elitist” and embodying an idea that popularity and depth were not mutually exclusive—went into a decade-long period of experiment and innovative “reaching” unparalleled since Romantic music shouldered aside Baroque, or when Be-bop and Cool displaced Swing in jazz.  The “three-chords-and-bridge” format that had dominated rock’n’roll, built often around fatuously insipid lyric content and attempts to mask the underlying restiveness with whitebread presentations, gave way to genuine musical innovation and serious compositional challenges. Strumming guitars and 4/4 backbeat proved insufficient in this ecology, even while they served as the basis for forays into multiple key changes and experimental time signatures.  Blues transmogrified into psychedelia and hard rock and a multiplicity of forms that took on meanings apart from their origins even while labels failed to define what was being attempted.

Keith Emerson began as an aspiring jazz pianist and emerged as every bit the “classicist” composers like Copland, Barber, or Bernstein were.  First in The Nice, which began life as a backing band, and then in Emerson, Lake & Palmer he put out music that tore at expectations and demanded an attention to content unusual in the rock idiom.  Sitting through any of the first five albums from ELP, you simply did not know where Emerson was taking you, but it was expansive, exciting, challenging, and in many ways other-worldly.  For me, this was the soundtrack of the future I wanted to inhabit, the sound that went with the science fiction I was reading.

More, though, it was also a bridge with a past I imagine a great many of his fans did not know, a musical archive encoded in the templates of a new music.  There was Bartok, Sibelius, Bach, Copland, Bernstein.  There, too, were echoes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jellyroll Morton, Dave Brubeck.  Emerson took the past, blent it into a melange of sound aimed at the part of the mind that hungered for the future.

The first concert I ever attended was The Nice. 1967.  I’d heard those albums, that keyboard sound, and then found out about the show, and the first and only time I ever snuck out of my house I went and saw this guy in leather pants and knee-high boots playing multiple keyboards (no synthesizers at the time) and while I have since forgotten the details the impression was amazing.  It sank into my brain and remained, so a few years later, when I finally came upon the wealth that has since been called Progressive Rock it was with instant recognition.

I’ve seen ELP six times.

I could go on about what it is in the music that is so important, but I’ll leave that for other, better equipped commentators.  The subsequent backlash against ELP and all of progressive rock that came into vogue with the advent of Punk and then New Wave is only so much mosquito-noise of people with no patience, no sense of history, and who believe the only function of music is biokinetic.  ELP is pompous and overblown?  Well, so was Beethoven, much of Tchaikovsky, and certainly Mozart was arrogant.  Yet the music does not fade, does not desiccate or dissolve with repeated listenings. Rather, if attention is paid, there is always more.  Such music is not pompous but expansive and it requires a willingness to leave a certain provincialism behind, something many people are unwilling to do or uncomfortable in experiencing.

Keith Emerson opened the possibilities for taking the idioms of rock music and applying them to greater effect and leaving behind work that could be considered in the same breath as Brahms or Grieg or, certainly the composer who most reminds me of Emerson, Aaron Copland.  Emerson was the composer at the center of my life’s musical aesthetic.

He damaged his right hand decades ago.  He suffered a degenerative nerve condition as a result.  There had been operations, he had worked hard to overcome it, but in recent years videos of his performances showed an increasing difficulty in playing.  The last I had seen, he was learning how to conduct since playing was becoming perhaps problematic.  Any look at him performing, though, shows us a man in love with the physical act of making music.  That he might not be able to do that must have weighed heavily.  He was always all about the music. Take that away and you lose what he was.

No one can presume to know what he felt in his last days.  But by all means, go back and listen—really listen—to the music he left behind.  Genius is too slippery and rarefied a term, but for me it applies.  He created a space for amazing sounds and he should be celebrated even as he is mourned.

I’m going to go listen to Tarkus now.  That tough armadillo has left us.  But the music…the music is forever.