Monday, August 23, 2010

Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer

This book explores how quantum theory, mainly electron bonding orbitals, explain larger scale phenomena like colour, conductivity, green house gases and fats. Unfortunately, it reads like a simplified (but not that simple) textbook, with figures and various equations, and it is often a long way to go to get to the explanation provided. Consequently, if the detailed (but still simplified) information itself is not satisfying to you, it is likely you won’t be satisfied about the book in general. An example would be the examination of colour. If you already know that the colour of an object is largely a result of the fact that that object absorbs and reflects certain wavelengths of light, and the wavelengths that are reflected and then hit your eye are what indicate the colour of the object, then you might not get much out of knowing that the energy (wavelengths) that are absorbed and emitted can only occur in discrete amounts because of quantum theory and how electrons exist in certain (probabilistic) orbitals.* Basically, if you really want to know more about the last part of the sentence, then give this book a try.
It isn’t quite the book I wanted, so it isn’t quite fair to criticize Absolutely Small for being what it is. I wanted a greater exploration of quantum theory, challenges to the Copenhagen interpretation, a good explain of the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle and some examination of entanglement (perhaps Physics and Philosophy will do it). Absolutely Small did give me a better understanding of Heisenberg and made me realize just how much of quantum theory relates to chemistry (with memories of what I did in the last years of high school). Additionally, I really did like the molecular description of fats, and to learn (or be reminded of) details about conductivity, black body radiation and wavepackets.
I do appreciate having another level of explanation filled in about why things are the way they are, but it wasn’t an easy read, nor as applicable as I’d hoped.
*There are philosophical issues about exactly what colour is and what is being seen. See Dennett's Consciousness Explained for more detail.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The smartest fiction I have read in some time with excellent character development and the incorporation of interesting ideas into a smooth flowing narrative. I enjoyed this work because it examined ideas in philosophy, literature, art and class consciousness, all the while being entertaining and witty (and not having the density of Sophie’s World nor Zen and Motorcycle). Though not flawless, it is definitely worth reading.
If you are seeking a plot outline: (From Wikipedia) “The book follows events in the life of a concierge, Renée Michel, whose deliberately concealed intelligence is uncovered by an unstable but intellectually precocious girl named Paloma Josse. Paloma is the daughter of an upper-class family living in the upscale Parisian apartment building where Renée works.”

I enjoyed going on Renée's journey and especially her relationship with Ozu, but I really disliked that she died. I'm sure Barbery knows her Wilde ("The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.") but I don't think it was a necessary move. I believe the author did this to more directly communicate how precious life is and how much "nothing" nothing is (i.e., someone truly being gone forever). More troubling would be the argument that Renée had to die because she was trying to transcend class lines. The character goes through an emotional breakdown revealing that class consciousness has restrained her throughout her life, seemingly overcoming this psychological limitation, and being reassured by the kind and wise character that things will be fine... and then she dies. No likely.