Stephen Hawking Posts

Books read during the lockdown, April 2020

It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.

Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)

Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.

The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.

The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.

And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.

Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women is about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.

The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!

14 May 2020

Book Post 13: 30 September – 13 October 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 13 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

15 October 2018

Stephen Hawking “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”

Our future is a race between the growing power of our technology and the wisdom with which we use it. Let’s make sure that wisdom wins. 

Renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking in his posthumous publication Brief Answers to the Big Questions addresses some of the questions he must have been asked perennially. “Is there a God?”. “How did it all begin?”, “Can we predict the future?”, “Is time travel possible?”, “Will artificial intelligence outsmart us?”, or “Will we survive on Earth?”

With a calm tone he makes it very clear that he is only interested in finding a rational framework to understand the universe. It is this rational tone with which he contemplates the big questions. When he discusses time travel he makes it seem like a perfectly acceptable question to answer. His logical explanation that just nudges the boundary of the known does not rule out the possibility of time travel according to “our present understanding”. He is unafraid to challenge knowledge as known today and to be constantly curious — a trait he attributes all humanity with. But he does caution humans with the exponential growth that technological advancement has brought, much of which he had never dreamed he would witness in his lifetime! Every chapter in this book is a crisp attempt at answering these questions.

It is befitting that a scientist and a thinker like Hawking is now buried in Westminster Abbey between two of his heroes — Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.

Brief Answers to the Big Questions is a stupendous book for it will make one think — a lot! Don’t miss reading this book.

To buy on Amazon India

Print 

Kindle 

18 Oct 2018 

Michael Chabon “Moonglow”

Apart from so-called hard science fiction, which he read ( as with The Magic Mountain) for its artful packaging of big ideas, my grandfather regarded most fiction as a “bunch of baloney.” He thought reading novels was a waste of time more profitably spent on nonfiction. ( p.248) 

Michael Chabon’s Moonglow is a story that is based on a series of conversations the narrator has with his dying grandfather. The nameless grandfather has bone cancer and is on a cocktail of drugs to keep him comfortable in his last days. As the narrator, Mike Chabon, says that he heard about 90% of his grandfather’s life in the last few days. It is quite a heady mix.

A small example.

By page 45 of the book the grandfather’s reminiscences have included his meeting with a “hermaphrodite”, blowing up a bridge during World War II, meeting the founder of CIA — Wild Bill Donovan, a walk-on part of Russian spy Alger Hiss, introducing the character of Wernher Von Braun — brains of the nuclear missile technology V2 and later known as father of space programme,  free love, Carmellite nuns in Lille, an unwed mother, a grandfather who had trained as a piano tuner and tried killing his boss, a rabbi who ultimately gave up religion to become a professional hustler. And this fantastical achronological landscape is only in the first few pages of this extraordinarily crafted story. There is more to come!

The “Author’s Note” in the preliminary pages of Moonglow are revelatory.

In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it. Wherever liberties have been taken with names, dates, places, events, and conversations, or with the identities, motivations, and interrelationships of family members and historical personages, the reader is assured that they have been taken with due abandon. 

In the Acknowledgements too Chabon mentions a list of names adding “if they existed, would have been instrumental to the completion of this work”.

Moonglow on the surface of it is a memoir of a dying man, his life as a businessman, his tender love for his wife even though she was mentally fragile and needed institutionalisation, his love for his stepdaughter whom he adored and who reciprocated it lovingly in his final days and his obsessive passion for the space mission. In fact his unit in the Jewish retirement home was unlike any other crammed with models of rockets everywhere such as the French Arianes, Japanese Mus, Chinese CZs, an Argentine Gamma Centauro.

The expanse of wall that carried from the living area to the dining area beyond, which in Sally’s unit was taken up by a large hutch full of china, which … in other units  was often occupied by family photo galleries or earth-toned batik prints of Israeli and biblical scenes, was here taken up by four glass shelves mounted on metal brackets from just above the terrazo floor to within fifteen inches of the ceiling. These held models of known Soviet launch vehicles, from the early R-7s that had put Sputniks aloft to the Proton. On another, relatively small shelf on the wall over the television was a collection of American rockets: the Atlas, the Aerobee, the Titan….It was all very impressive, but …not necessarily admirable. 

The grandfather also has absurd moments of a comic superhero who gets ready for a mission except it is to locate a python which may have eaten his neighbour’s cat.

In an interview with the Guardian Michael Chabon while discussing the art of creating a memoir comments:

…this blurring of fact and fiction goes way beyond a device; there is something unusually, provocatively committed about it, not least that Chabon constructs the narrative “to allow for the interpretation that the story I’m telling in Moonglow is the source of at least two or three of my other books”. Moonglow’s “Uncle Sammy” works for a cheap novelty company, which is exactly how his namesake in Kavalier & Clay got his start, “so the reader might wonder …

But why? “There are a lot of elements of my experience as a reader and as a writer that inclined me to try to push this fake memoir thing out there and see what it felt like to write a memoir knowing it was entirely invented,” Chabon says. “And one of those things is the prolonged, mounting feeling I’ve had as a novelist contemplating the rise of the memoir, of the literary memoir; and the kind of apotheosis of it, the apparent claim that literary memoir makes – that we seem to be willing, culturally, to grant it – to some greater truth, to some greater value, because of its supposed truthfulness.”

He has a specific example in mind: James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the controversial memoir-that-wasn’t of addiction and recovery. “So he writes this novel, he can’t sell it, so he changes the word novel to memoir, sells it for a ton of money, it becomes an Oprah book, a huge bestseller. And it turns out that he made it all up, and there’s this big scandal and he has to apologise, on television. We’re so upset with him because he lied to us, right? I mean, it betrays a great naivety about memoirs and how true they are, which is to say, they are not true. They are works of fiction. They may be scrupulous attempts by the memoirist to be as truthful as possible, with no intent to deceive or defraud or get anything wrong at all; nonetheless, they’re works of fiction. Because that’s how memory works; memory is a tool of fictionalisation.”

Far more than by Frey’s actions, Chabon is offended that a piece of work pretending to be true was prized more highly than one proudly proclaiming its untruthfulness. “What annoyed me was that earlier part of the story where he went to 37 publishers with this thing and they all passed on it, and simply by changing the word novel, not changing a word of the text, just changing the word novel to memoir, suddenly it acquires value. Monetary value, cultural value. And that’s something they want. Same book! This one they want to publish. This one they don’t want to publish. Why? Because it’s true? We all know it’s not true. We ought to know it’s not true.”

Moonglow can be read at the superficial level for what it is purported to be — a memoir by a dying old man. But there is more — it can be read as a supreme example of literary experimentation at its finest by a master craftsman, Michael Chabon. While at the same time it is a sharply told chronicle of modern Jewish history. Chabon’s soft spot for Norse mythology is not too far too. His grandmother’s hallucinations involving the Skinless Horse is reminiscent of the nuckelavee (pronunciation: /nʌklɑːˈviː/) or nuckalavee is a horse-like demon from Orcadian mythology that combines equine and human elements. It has its origins in Norse mythology, and is the most horrible of all the demons of Scotland’s Northern Isles. In fact Michael Chabon records in the introduction to the beautiful new edition of D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths ( published by NYRB) that what bound him forever to this book as a child was the “bright thread of silliness, of mockery and of self-mockery”. A technique that is employed well in Moonglow

It can be quite challenging to read a novel with an achronological structure but after the first few pages the fantastically imaginative storytelling grips one and it is impossible to put the book down. Moonglow is a book which will be talked about a great deal in 2017. Even though Michael Chabon is an award winning writer including having won the Pulitzer, Moonglow will catapult him into a different league of writers. It is bound to feature in many literary prize lists in the coming months. It’s preoccupation with the space programme is also timely given Stephen Hawking‘s acceptance of Richard Branson’s free ticket with Virgin Galactic.

Moonglow is a must read.

Michael Chabon Moonglow 4th Estate, an imprint of  Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2016. Pb. 

Stephen Hawking, “My Brief History”

Hawking( Stephen Hawking’s memoir  A Brief History is a slim volume, expensively produced, lavishly illustrated and a pure delight to read. Based upon this was the Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything, where the lead actor Eddie Redmayne won the Best Male Actor Award 2014.  I am reproducing an extract from the book.)

Since a Brief History of Time, I have written other books to explain science to the wider public: Black Holes and Baby Universes, The Universe in a Nutshell, and The Grand Design. I think it is important that people have a basic understanding of science so that they can make informed decisions in an increasingly scientific and technological world. My daughter, Lucy, and I have also written a series of “George” books, which are scientifically based adventure stories for children, the adults of tomorrow. ( p.101)

I have had a full and satisfying life. I believe that disabled people should concentrate on things that their handicap doesn’t prevent them from doing and not regret those they can’t do. In my case, I have managed to do most things I wanted. I have travelled widely. I visited the Soviet Union seven times. The first time I went with a student party in which one member, a Baptist, wished to distribute Russian-language Bibles and asked us to smuggle them in. We managed this undetected, but by the time we were on our way out the authorities had discovered what we had done and detained us for a while. However, to charge us with smuggling Bibles would have caused an international incident and unfavourable publicity, so they let us go after a few hours. The other six visits were to see Russian scientists who at the time were not allowed to travel to the West. After the end of the Soviet Union in 1990, many of the best scientists left for the West, so I have not been to Russia since then. 

I have also visited Japan six times, China three times, and every continent, including Antarctica, with the exception of Australia. I have met the presidents of South Korea, China, India, Ireland, Chile, and the United States. I have lectured in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and in the White House. I have been under the sea in a submarine and up in a hot air balloon and a zero-gravity flight, and I’m booked to go into space with Virgin Galactic. 

My early work showed that Classical general relativity broke down at singularities in the Big Bang and black holes. My later work has shown how quantum theory can predict what happens at the beginning and end of time. It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. I’m happy if I have added something to our understanding of the universe. 

(p.122-126)

Stephen Hawking My Brief History Bantam Press, London, 2013. Hb. pp.130 £ 12.99

27 May 2015