Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My physics fantasy

I want to be a physicist! Physics is so cool! Why am I not a physicist?

Oh, yeah. For two reasons.
  • One: I was always very, very nervous around numbers. Also symbols, like sigmas and such. I took calculus in high school and again in college, and did OK, but the very thought of those classes (particularly the college one) causes my esophagus to seize up. Actually a secondary fantasy of mine is to take calculus again but in some setting where there are no tests. Or no-pressure tests. Like, I would take a test if I knew that if I screwed it up I could take it again till I got it right, because isn't the point, really, in the great scheme of things, to learn math, not to be made to feel like a moron who will never understand anything just because you didn't catch on the first time?

  • Two: I forget what two was.
But anyway, at some point during high school (it had to be), some enlightened teacher--and I'm terribly sorry, I've forgotten who you were, sir--took us to a lecture on cosmology, which I think was at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Out came this guy with a bushy brown beard, who paced back and forth on the stage for an hour and showed slides of curved space with grid marks on it, and a little picture of a spaceship riding the curve. And he said that ship could travel to a whole new universe, or our universe at another time, or... And that was SO COOL! And then in college I took Astronomy for Non-Majors (or whatever it was called) with Robert Kirshner, and that was SO COOL TOO!!

So I've always gobbled up books and TV programs about physics and astronomy in particular. In a way, I can't understand why anyone thinks of anything else: this is what the universe is made of. Where it came from. What it is. Why would a person spend their time, I don't know, writing stories and fucking around on the Internet when there is physics??

My favorite popular physics writer, as of about three weeks ago, is Brian Greene. Greene as a writer is a recent discovery. I was not a huge fan of the TV version of The Elegant Universe. Now, it's not awful. There are far, far worse things on television, even on PBS. But it seemed to be aiming a little too hard for the attention-impaired brains of adolescents. Lots of CGI thingies zipping and zooming around, and--worst of all--every scientist interviewed appears in front of a strange assortment of glowing, blinking panels, which seems to suggest that what they're saying is too boring just to, you know, listen to, so you must instead be flashed and strobed to the brink of epilepsy. If you are looking for the successor to Cosmos as the awesomest intro to the universe ever, I recommend Brian Cox's shows--the recent Wonders of the Solar System, and a couple of earlier Horizon shows, both from the BBC. Cox tends to eschew CGI and create models using rocks and lines drawn in sand, which is both more charming and more effective. (Of the physicist-Brians with one-syllable last names, we must mention in passing Brian May, who, like Cox, is a [former] rock star.)

But back to Greene. I just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos, and in terms of explaining really complex stuff, really clearly and engagingly, this blows away everything. Sorry, S. Hawking et al! I now *get* why nothing can travel faster than light speed, why time slows down when you travel close to that speed, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've heard before but had to just accept, because there was no explanation forthcoming. Greene's particular gift is for anticipating exactly what the non-expert reader will be wondering about after an initial explanation, and then filling in the gaps with really effective analogies (though his fondness for The Simpsons is maybe a bit too cute).

I'm almost done raving, but I'll just say that somehow I came upon this book at exactly the right moment for my new novel. I wanted to say some things about time and order and uncertainty, and this book just poured itself into all the gaps. I'm now making my main character a physicist--though a troubled one, of course.

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