Tag Archives: Gleick

James Gleick again

I’ve been trying to read James Gleick’s latest book Time Travel: A History. I say trying because I’ve had great difficulty in recent months focusing on books. (I’ve had great difficulty focusing on almost everything since the lockdown, but that’s another story. Pandemic brain.)

I take a book from the library and then don’t read it. Sometimes I read a few pages and put it down and never come back to it. I’ve done better with Gleick for some reason but I still haven’t finished it and I am afraid the library is going to repossess it soon.

One problem is that Gleick, like Stephenson, is such a deep thinker that he requires good concentration to extract value from the book. with

Stephenson’s novels it’s a lot easier because there is a plot. Gleick is a science writer. One reason I liked his book Chaos so much was that it had a narrative. Time Travel, perhaps deliberately, does not.

Gleick shows that time is a concept that humans both understand and do not understand. Even the measurement of time, which we in Western civilization like to think is straightforward, is dependent on consciousness, which leads to memory, which for me today leads to Zach. Nowadays, I think of Zach as being in the past but his memory is with me in the present. In a way he is as alive in my memory as he ever was before when I was not in his presence.

The future we tend to take on faith. After Zach was killed I remember telling people in grief sessions that I had to rewrite my future without him. There was a hole where I had expected him to be. So the future we expect is not assured. This is hardly profound but Gleick presents it engagingly.

I haven’t finished the book yet but I think there is some humor in reviewing a book about time before finishing it. Gleick even comments on how books are time machines themselves in that the reader can go back and forth through the pages if s/he desires.

Of course, the memory of Zach is not the same as having Zach alive in our now world. I can experience Zach by reading his journals and getting wisdom from them, but experiencing his living presence would generate different wisdom. So, I am sad to not be able to experience Zach’s different wisdom in my now. I take comfort in doing my little part in transmitting his now static wisdom into the future.

The Information

I’ve posted about James Gleick before. His book Chaos was fascinating to me. I ended up reading it several times before I felt I understood it all.

I just finished another of his books, titled The Information. I had seen it before but don’t remember reading it. Honestly, I’m sure I would remember reading such a book. I don’t think I’m capable of writing a real review. It’s been out for a while so it’s unlikely I could add anything useful.

I just wanted to say that I made it through the book. I felt that I understood each word as I read it, but that Gleick was giving his readers the opportunity for a deeper understanding than I was getting. I hope I can go back in a year or so and revisit his themes.

And a technical note. I’ve always loved a real book. You can look at it and make some judgements about it before you even pick it up. In the last few years, I’ve developed the habit of going to the library and just browsing the stacks in some subject area. Now that the libraries are closed, I’ve learned more about e-readers. My local library recommended one called Libby. It works well, syncing across my phone and tablet as I go back and forth. After a year or so of not reading much at all, I’ve gotten going again.

Day 43.

writing

Writing is mysterious and beautiful. Good writing is hard. From somewhere I remember a quote from a 18th Century writer of a letter. At the end of a 20+ page letter to a friend he apologized for going on so long. He said he didn’t have time to write a brief letter.

Or something like that. The point is that it takes a lot of time to arrange the chaotic ideas running through one’s head into organized sentences that someone else has a chance of understanding. In this blog, I try to think before writing, thus most of my entries are relatively brief. 20 page letters will not be read by 21st Century readers. Now in the forums sometimes I see ‘tl;dr’. Too long, didn’t read.

I found one previous reference in this blog to the American writer James Gleick. His book Chaos has been a long time favorite of mine. At Mom and Dad’s the other day, I spotted another Gleick book: Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, and filched it. I had read it before, some years ago, but I thought it was worth another reading.

This morning I opened it and almost immediately I was struck by the quality of the writing. In the Prologue, Gleick tells of a meeting in 1948 of the world’s best physicists:

In the annals of science it was the last time but one that these men would meet in such circumstances, without ceremony or publicity. They were indulging a fantasy, that their work could remain a small, personal, academic exercise, invisible to most of the public, as it had been a decade before, when a modest building in Copenhagen served as the hub of their science. They were not yet conscious of how effectively they had persuaded the public and the military to make physics a mission of high technology and expense.  . . . Next year most of these men would meet once more . . . but by then the modern era of physics had begun in earnest, science conducted on a scale the world had not seen, and never again would its chiefs come together privately, just to work.

chaos

I finished my library books, so this morning I needed a book to read while I ate my cereal. My eye fell on Chaos, by James Gleick. My copy is from those heady days in the late ’80s in San Francisco when I was buying science books often. It’s one of the few that have survived to stay with me and I’m glad it has.

I remember reading it several times and feeling that each time I understood a little further into the book. It’s not technical, in fact it’s written with a high sense of drama. Today, with fractals and Mandelbrot sets seemingly old hat, it’s fun to go back and feel some of the excitement that accompanied the discoveries of non-linear systems, or chaos.

Gleick’s writing is beautiful. Here’s one quote from the Prologue that struck me today: ‘ . . .  chaos is a science of process rather than state, of becoming rather than being.’

Every once in a while, I go looking for a book that updates the state of chaos science but there aren’t any. You can find dozens of theoretically non-technical books that try to explain string theory or quantum mechanics but nothing on chaos. Hmmm . . .