A Detour to The Disappearing Spoon

Disappearing Spoon - book cover pic - PhylI may be doing the “Reading Through My Bookcases” thing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t divert from time to time to read something else interesting. I was almost done my Artemis Fowl books (more on them in a future post), and I needed a break. And my birthday came up, and my mom sent some money, and I happened to buy a book that’s been on my TBR list for a long time: The Disappearing Spoon. So I read it.

And listen up, science buffs! It may be four years since it was published, but The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, is well worth reading, and it’s likely to be timeless. It’s about the periodic table—and yes, you heard me right. This is one of the books that takes the high school foundation of most of our scientific knowledge and actually brings it to life and makes it seem important to our everyday lives.

I’m sure that a lot of us saw the periodic table—that table listing all the known elements of the universe—hanging on the classroom wall in basic science classes or chemistry classes in school. The table organizes the elements in rows and columns that are determined by the things that groups of elements have in common. (Multiples of the same number of protons and neutrons in their nuclei, for example.) But there is way more to that table than just a bunch of lists. When you read Sam Kean describing how these elements were discovered, and then how scientists figured out enough about the elements to organize them into this table, you realize that almost the entire history of science is just sitting there in front of you, calmly waiting in all those rows and all those columns.

I’d always had the impression that most of the elements were just sort of “figured out” while isolated scientists here and there were doing their own experiments. Many of them were, but what I didn’t know was that the science world eventually figured out that there were way more elements out there to discover—there were gaps in the record that indicated that another element should exist between two others, for example—and then the race was on! I didn’t know what jealousies and grudges there could be as one scientist might get credit for discovering an element that another scientist actually discovered first. Oh, the woes of a delay in publication of an academic paper or of its presentation before an august scientific body! There was even a race between famous American and German universities to find new elements, and whenever the Americans found one, the news would make the New York Times.

I suppose we can still distantly relate to that one, can’t we, even though discoveries of new elements are now more theoretical than anything else? Except that we’ve come far enough that we’re now looking for the infinitesimally small particles that underlie those elements. Remember the excitement over the discovery of the Higgs Boson? That sort of thing happened a lot.

Kean gives us many anecdotes that show how fascinating and intriguing the history of the elements has been. Marie Curie got quite a reputation when she used to drag fellow scientists into a closet to show them her experiments with things that glowed in the dark. (The scientists’ wives didn’t take too kindly to this, but you might say that the radioactive elements gave them their eventual revenge by giving Curie aplastic anemia and bringing about her death.) Then there was the story from World War II about the German company (Metallgesellschaft) whose innocent-sounding subsidiary, American Metal, shipped tons and tons of molybdenum from a big mine in Bartlett Mountain in Colorado, to strengthen the huge German guns before the Americans finally stopped the shipments—in 1918.

People have actually hated certain elements, like followers of Gandhi who viewed the government’s requirement of adding iodine to salt (for genuine health purposes) to be just one more colonialist ploy, since common people who mined and sold salt as individuals could not add iodine to their products. People have also loved other elements a bit too much, like those who put toxic mercury into laxatives. What a way to go! And I had no idea that the plentiful aluminum that we easily throw away now used to be the most priceless substance in the world, before Charles Hall figured out how to extract it really cheaply. Put that aluminum tent over your turkey, next Thanksgiving or Christmas, and try to imagine wrapping it instead with a thin sheet of gold. It was like that.

Kean doesn’t deal with each element individually (he’d need 100+ chapters), but he organizes his chapters much a little bit like the periodic table itself is organized. That is, sometimes he deals with elements that are all in the same family, while at other times he talks about elements that all played similar roles. So you get such chapters as, “Elements in Times of War” (molybdenum is in here) or “Political Elements” or “Elements as Money.” The history and the science weave together in a fascinating and—dare I say it?—truly educational way. Chemistry class in high school was never like this! Maybe it should have been.

Oh, and I’m sure you were wondering why the book is called The Disappearing Spoon. You find that out in the chapter where gallium makes its appearance. It’s a silver-looking element that is quite solid at room temperature, but its melting temperature is slightly under 30 degrees Celsius (just below 86 degrees Fahrenheit). Apparently, it used to be a prank in laboratories to mold a teaspoon out of gallium, which would then melt when somebody tried to use it to stir a cup of tea. Oh, those wacky scientists!

I have an advantage in having gone four years since deciding I wanted to read The Disappearing Spoon. Now I can also look forward to reading Kean’s book about DNA, The Violinist’s Thumb, from 2012, as well as his book about how the human brain functions, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons), published just this year. If those books are anywhere near as educational and informative as this one, they’re going to be a real treat!

Reading Through the Bookcase: Pat Barker

Regeneration Trilogy

I’m a bit late in updating, but believe me, I’ve been reading! I switched for a while away from my science fiction/fantasy shelves to go for some historical fiction. Next up on the fiction shelf was British author Pat Barker and her Regeneration Trilogy.

Remember that massive power blackout on the eastern side of North America for a day or two in the second week of August in 2003? My clearest memory of it is lying on my futon on the floor and reading this entire trilogy from start to finish, sweltering. Oddly, though, I didn’t remember a single detail from the books when I picked them up again this time. All I knew was that the story took place during World War I, and with this summer being the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, and all, I was very reluctant to read still more about it.

Silly me. Once I started this trilogy, I could not put it down. It’s been years since I’ve enjoyed a set of books so very much, and I can see why, back on that hot summer day in 2003, I didn’t do a thing except read and read and read.

For one thing, except for some of the final scenes of the third book, none of the story actually takes place in the trenches or on the battlefield at all. Most of the first book, Regeneration, is set in the mental institution of Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, Scotland, where psychiatrist William Rivers treats soldiers who have come out of the war with psychological problems, trying to get them fit to send back to the trenches. I loved Barker’s portrayal of this man and his private thoughts and his relationships with his patients. She portrayed him as a very kind man who had his own faults and struggles–not to mention his own internal conflicts about morality and duty with respect to the war–but who thought and felt deeply about the welfare of his patients and what might be behind their mental difficulties. I’ve been so inspired that I want to find out much more about this man and what he was like in real life.

I love that a great many important characters in this trilogy were real people. I get intrigued by them and usually want to follow up and either read their own work or read what else is written and known about them. Rivers is the main character of the first book, but a very large role is also played by one of his patients, real-life poet Siegfried Sassoon, who is protesting the war and yet feels guilty for leaving his men behind in the field. And we meet another real-life poet, Wilfred Owen, who even I had heard of as a young war poet who died in battle. We even have a brief encounter or two with Robert Graves, Sassoon’s friend. (Yes–that Robert Graves, of I, Claudius and The White Goddess fame.)

The other main character was Billy Prior, who was not a real historical person but who was created, according to Barker, as a contrast to Sassoon and Owen. Dr. Rivers is still very present in books two and three, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road, but not as much as in book one. We follow Billy Prior’s own struggles in book two with what we now recognize as PTSD as he finally overcomes a lot of his own difficulties and, in book three, heads at last back to the battlefield. It’s no surprise, of course, that those war camp/battlefield scenes are the least interesting parts of the trilogy, to me. Just not my thing. See: my reluctance to pick up the trilogy, above.

But the psychology of it all! Now, that’s my cup of tea. It was fascinating to see Rivers beginning to explore ideas and the germs of theories that we now see in full bloom, a century later. It was intriguing to see where the germs of those ideas might have come from, in the depths of a conflict that roiled up every possible type of psychological process.

I might have been reluctant to pick up this trilogy and read it again, but I am so glad that the reluctance vanished and I did so! I remembered hearing an interview with Ms. Barker not long before the 2003 blackout, where she discussed these books. That had been why I had bought them, in fact. I may have forgotten all the details after that first reading, but somehow I don’t think I’m going to forget anything from this trilogy this time around.

Reading Through the Bookcase: Arthur C. Clarke (and Gentry Lee) – RAMA

With some stories that leave you with a cliffhanger, the big question is this: Should you write a sequel, just because you can?

And for many stories, I think the answer has to be no. No matter how popular the story is, no matter how the fans clamour for a sequel, no matter how much even you yourself want to know what came next–no. That’s because sometimes, part of what makes that story a great story is the hanging end itself. The sense of breathless anticipation. The not knowing. Take one step beyond that and remove that veil of not knowing, and the original story’s bubble is popped. Its mystique is gone, and it sinks back into the mundane. It has become just another story. And sometimes, the new story or stories go in a direction that should not have been taken.

That’s what I think happened with Rama.

Two books: Rendezvous with Rama and Rama II, by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama

To say I loved Rendezvous with Rama when it first came out is an understatement. To me, this book was the most precise, pure exemplar of the science fiction “what if” that you could possibly imagine. What if an alien spaceship just happened by, and humans got to explore it without having to deal with the aliens who originally created it? What would be discovered? What would the alien technology be like? Would the human explorers be able to understand anything they found? How would they balance the potential dangers against this stunning chance to explore the gigantic alien ship?

The enacting of this scenario was a thing of beauty. Even though the action moved slowly, you were still on the edge of your seat, waiting for the next discovery by Commander Norton and his crew. The book was full of constant wonder. The very precision of the descriptions of the things the explorers found induced this wonder: your senses were overwhelmed just as the crew’s were as you tried to put yourself in their place in that vast, amazing ship. And you couldn’t wait to see what they found next.

I had only one very slight complaint, at first: there didn’t seem to be much real development of the human characters. The book had the same feature I had always noticed in the earlier science fiction writers, which was that the science and “what if” was more important than the human characters. So the only small flaw I thought I saw in the book was that, apart from Commander Norton himself, the human characters didn’t have much development.

Be careful what you wish for…

Rama II – with Gentry Lee

Spoiler alert! The last sentence in Rendezvous with Rama was this: The Ramans do everything in threes. Talk about breathless anticipation!

So when I heard that there was going to be a sequel, Rama II, I was thrilled. It was co-written with Gentry Lee, a famous NASA engineer, and I was very excited that even more wonderful Raman technology was probably going to be discovered. And I was so happy that we could probably anticipate yet another book after that. Rama III coming up!

I was so young.

My first hint of unease began when I was almost a third of the way through the book, and we weren’t even close to getting to the actual spaceship yet. All of this stuff about the semi-collapse of earth society after the first Rama book, and the politics, and, and, and — I didn’t like it. And talk about character development! There were so many extra characters this time, and we had to learn the backstory of all of them, and it was like every one of them was involved in some kind of secret plot. As though they could all use the second Rama spaceship for some kind of personal advantage.

What the — ?

And even when we finally, finally got into the ship, it was like the characters’ secrets and plots and their machinations even in the midst of exploring Rama overshadowed everything about the ship itself. Rama felt almost incidental to this plot of odd intrigue and personal undercurrents. Excuse me. You are in the middle of a gigantic, incredible, really stunning and advanced spaceship that dwarfs anything you yourself have ever dreamed of accomplishing on earth, and you can somehow step inside that thing and retain any sort of idea that your earthly plots, politics, schemes, and squabbles actually matter?

I found myself thinking again and again, in the midst of the various plots and intrigues, “Yeah, but the ship…?” They’d do a bit of exploring, but those bits would be subsumed under some intrigue between different characters. It was like the story went, “intrigue-plotting-argument-character-character-plotting-oh right, here’s a quick, interesting fact or tidbit about the ship, intrigue-character-plotting-character-intrigue…”

Note that I had not actually read the second book for the first time until this recent reading. That meant that I could read about both the third and fourth Rama books when I was done, to get an idea of what they were about and whether I wanted to get them. And as I read all sorts of confusing things about humans being examined and tested in some kind of social experiment by the “Ramans,” and yet more intrigue and plotting and violence and awfulness in some kind of human colony the Ramans established, I realized that all the wonder of Rendezvous with Rama had sunk into a rather nasty and wretched soap opera that was all about humans behaving exactly as they do all around me every day–and was nothing about the wondrous ship and the exploration of it.

No. I will not be reading any more of the Rama books. I can turn on the news if I want that stupid, small-minded sort of intrigue. I wanted the ship.

Oh, for the clear, pure precision of the exploration conducted by Commander Norton and his crew! From now on, I will only read Rendezvous and I will not (never?) read Rama II again. I will revel in the beautiful scientific study in the first book, pretend the other stuff never existed, and read again in breathless anticipation, with no desire to go beyond those glorious words, full of wonder and the perfect science fiction “what if” —

* * * * *

The Ramans do everything in threes.

* * * * *

Reading Through the Bookcase: Arthur C. Clarke, Part I

Where. to. begin.

When it comes to Against the Fall of Night and Childhood’s End, I love several things and I dislike one other rather big thing. First, in Childhood’s End, I love the way we get to follow through the entire process as humanity evolves to its next, seemingly higher step. I didn’t remember much about the story except how it ended (I first read it long ago), but I did remember Karellen, the Overlord who shepherded humanity through the final years. I remembered how he seemed rather gentle and wise. I might quibble now about the evolution into the next form being so drastic and happening so quickly (surely there would be intervening steps, like humanity gradually becoming a species of telepaths?) But I did enjoy the speculation about what the next stage of human evolution might be.

However, there was a reason I hadn’t reread this book since the first time, at least a couple of decades ago. I really disliked what happened to the children and to the human race in general. More on that in a minute.

I also really enjoyed Against the Fall of Night, for a completely different reason. I absolutely love stories about finding remnants of civilization on a lost, supposedly dead earth. (This was one reason why I loved Edmond Hamilton’s City at World’s End so much when I was a teenager and why I searched for it for years so I could read it again.) I think it’s the disappointed archeologist in me; I love the idea of the melancholy of the lost earth as well as the idea of the descendants of the survivors having forgotten their beginnings but starting to discover the truth about where they came from. Or probably not the entire truth — but finding artifacts and fragments of writings or even ancient machines that they can start up again and try to figure out the original use of — and trying to piece all these things together to recall as much as they can. I also love stories about people who have been sheltered in some kind of scientific or historic refuge, perhaps for centuries, finally breaking out and discovering that the world is out there.

All of that is wound up in Against the Fall of Night. So I read it quite avidly. But…

Two books: Childhood's End and Against the Fall of Night, by Arthur C. Clarke

Childhood and Night – What I Don’t Like

There were two elements that were somewhat similar, between Against the Fall of Night and Childhood’s End, that I really don’t like. In Childhood’s End, it’s considered some sort of good thing that humanity evolves into a type of bodiless, impersonal Unibeing with all sorts of mental powers, but loses the “selfness” of individual, separate human beings. Clarke isn’t alone in portraying this as some kind of “higher state,” but I don’t buy it and never have.

I see this idea both in scientific speculation and in religion. While I got my two degrees in Religious Studies, I spent a fair bit of time becoming familiar with religious world views that teach that being absorbed into a higher being and losing one’s self is a great thing. It’s often referred to as “bliss,” in fact. It’s stronger in some religions than in others, but there are elements of this idea in most of them, western or eastern.

I have always felt that if I had this kind of personal, individual annihilation as my goal, it would be some kind of death wish. I do like the idea of being able to see the universe more clearly and deeply and perhaps have some influence on its material nature. (Though we already have some influence, don’t we? We just use other physical objects to make the changes. In this scenario, we’d use our minds.) But if there is no “me” there, remembering what “I” did in the past and looking forward to “my” future, as an individual — well, “I” am dead. There might be something there, exhibiting some kind of universal awareness, but it’s not me or anything that gives the word “me” any meaning at all.

So I didn’t reread Childhood’s End for all this time because although it was an interesting study, I hate the way it ends. Humanity dies. Those children die. Absorbed/eaten up by something that is not “them.” That kind of scenario has no appeal whatsoever for me.

There are elements of it in Against the Fall of Night as well, though not as strongly. There, at least, it seems to be understood that a disembodied consciousness can be mad or it can be sane, and it can have desires and a sense of self as well. But the thing that bothered me most was not actually in the book as such, but was in the fact that it was rewritten as a book called The City and the Stars.

What I liked about Against the Fall of Night, or most of it, anyway, was that things were not explained. Even when Alvin and Theon got some answers, they only answered broad questions, and many things were left in mystery. There was a feeling that there would be more detailed understanding as the years went by, but that was not in the book itself.

I started to recognize, even in this book, that sometimes a story works better if it doesn’t explain everything or find solutions to every problem or answers to every question. Sometimes the adventure that remains–the fact that there is yet more to discover–is the story itself. Or it is the element that makes you come to the end of the story in a state of breathless anticipation. I was just beginning to realize this when I read this book, but it hit me with a hammer blow when I read my two Rama books.

Next time!


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