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Fri, Jul. 25th, 2008, 12:20 pm
Reading List 2008 (6/184)

This week’s reading:

In the Teeth of the Evidence, Dorothy L. Sayers
The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter
New England White, Stephen L. Carter
A Bait of Dreams, Jo Clayton
Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris
The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin

What a terrific reading week! First, I found a collection of non-Wimsey Sayers short stories, which helped ease me back into reading other things. (Otherwise I might have just started the series again. No. Seriously.) They weren’t nearly as good as the Wimsey books, but still totally delightful. I particularly liked the one about the hairdresser who must deal with a criminal client ….

Next I plowed through the two Carter books, which were somehow immensely dense without being boring. I was particularly impressed with Carter’s ability to flesh out realistic characters in the context of legal mystery-thrillers. The Emperor of Ocean Park made Julia Carlyle human and compelling and flawed and totally believable; more, she reminded me profoundly of women in the community where I grew up, and I found reading about her to be an exercise in empathy and understanding.

I also thought Carter did a wonderful job conveying the nuances of the different worlds he describes: academic culture, high-end law firms, upper-class black society, politics, you name it. I found myself recognizing things about my own (religious Jewish) upbringing reflected in the black culture he describes, and it made me wonder about all the different pockets of culture that are outside what we portray as the American mainstream. Just to choose an example, everywhere his heroes go, they look for evidence of the “darker nation” - in the same way I grew up with a profound consciousness of where Jews go and where they don’t, where we’d be accepted and where we’d always be outsiders, where our achievements counted and where they didn’t matter. Is this the way that wealthy, respectable, powerful but not-quite-assimilated minorities function in general? I’d love to read (or hear!) about how this works for other groups, too.

Jo Clayton is someone I fell in love with in middle school, and I picked up a bunch of her books for cheap at a yard sale. A Bait of Dreams is the only one that wasn’t part of a series; it was okay, but especially by comparison to the rest of this reading week, not extraordinary. Three misfits must go on a quest in a science-fantasy world … but I felt like the story didn’t really get interesting until the end of the book, when the characters make a major change to the political balance of the world. I would have liked the story to start there - not finish!

Finally, there are the two books I was really looking forward to talking about, and ones that I absolutely must recommend to all of you.

Then We Came To The End is one of those books that I was avoiding reading, because I expected it to be self-absorbed, overblown, I-must-justify-my-MFA crap. (The jacket blurb from Nick Hornby did NOT help.) When I picked it up, though, I got a wonderful surprise! It’s by turns hilarious, insightful, depressing, surprising, disturbing and profound. He uses office culture to reflect on the Big Questions - what we live for, how we deal with death, what it means to know another human being, what it means to be human in the first place - and the first-person-plural writing was actually very effective rather than just gimmicky. I especially loved the stories-within-stories structure of the novel, as the office is driven by rumor and gossip that nonetheless has the collective effect of a cut-rate Scheherazade. Read this today.

The Trouble with Physics isn’t a novel at all; it’s a science book about, well, the trouble with physics. Smolin is a bit of a bomb-thrower, using his book to question the received wisdom of string theory and to explore where exactly it’s gotten us. However, he manages to explain the Big Questions facing physics today in a surprisingly understandable way, and to show why string theory hasn’t been nearly successful enough at answering them.

The really important part of the book, though, is his last few chapters, where he talks about why the problem is not string theory but rather the larger social and cultural structures around the study and practice of physics. If you’re intimidated by sentences like “M-theory must be background-independent because the five superstring theories, with all their different manifolds and geometries, are supposed to be a part of M-theory,” you can skip straight to chapter 16 and still follow his argument. (Though personally, I found his overview of bizarre physics results that demand investigation, in chapters 13-15, to be really compelling!)

In any case, he tackles the sociology of physics, and tries to use it to explain why string theory has a) become immensely popular, to the detriment of other approaches and b) has not been successful in answering the fundamental questions of physics. According to Smolin, there are really two kinds of scientists: craftspeople, who are good at doing normal science, and seers, who are visionaries and go off in new directions. With the increasing professionalization of science, he argues (and I’d agree) that craftspeople are disproportionately favored in terms of getting hired, getting grants, getting published, and generally getting ahead. Someone working on the big questions may apparently do nothing for ten years, and then invent something brilliant. In an academic system that rewards consistent publications and relies on the approval of one’s superiors to get ahead, seers have to find other paths to success.

I also like his frank assessment of the continued role that flat-out discrimination plays, not only in keeping women and minorities out of physics, but also in keeping out people whose intellectual opinions don’t agree with the received wisdom of the time.

Smolin clearly writes from a place of love for science, and he doesn’t let science’s human messiness drive him away from believing in it as a worthwhile enterprise. I found his arguments compelling and his call to action inspiring. Although I’m not a physicist, I’m a woman and, maybe, a seer. I can take Smolin’s lessons into my own domain in trying to support people doing good work, and in doing seerific science myself.