Tag Archives: literature

Frankenstein; or, In the Pale Moonlight

27 Sep

This is my very favorite type of story:  the type of story that lets me pretend, for the 20 minutes or so it takes to read it and write about it, that we do in fact live in a scientific utopia in which all major practical problems have been solved to the satisfaction and benefit of all humanity, and billions of happy and healthy philosopher-scientists spread over the safe green lands of this Earth and the cold scientific outposts established on its nearest neighbors can settle down in well-funded laboratories to explore the most pressing questions left to them by responsible and forward-thinking previous generations.

Questions like, “Based on Mary Shelley’s account of the moonlight over a period of time, can we use astronomical data to confirm or deny the chronology she provides for the process of writing Frankenstein?”

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part V: Words, Words, Words

16 Sep

Numbers are excellent. As long as something is expressed in numbers, it seems rational, sane, comforting. Like NASA in the 1960s — basically, it was all brains and slide rules. Numbers have power, but it’s a reasonable, understandable power.

Words, on the other hand, are terrifying. They do all sorts of ridiculous, unpredictable things for no reason. Maybe the psychologists think they know, but I sure don’t. And I should. I’ve used far more than my lifetime allotment of semicolons already, and I have used them correctly. And I am downright Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone about books.

Two words: College. Libraries.

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Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part IV: Nature vs. Nurture

15 Sep

No, this isn’t another biology post. This is a post about family — specifically, my family, and what they’ve taught me about being a nerd.

Let me start with a story. When I was around 8 years old, my grandpa lent me his copies of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. I guess in and of itself, that wouldn’t be much of a story, but the real point is, I didn’t see anything at all unusual about that. Reading mid-twentieth-century science fiction was just what you did, whether you were 8 or 70.

My mother and father, they taught me that reading is fun. I know. It’s ridiculous. In other words, I had no choice in the matter: I was always going to be a nerd.

That baby will be a neuroscientist someday. Also, a major nerd.

It took me a long while to realize that not everyone reads for fun. (High school, to be honest. And even now, sometimes I think it might all be a hoax. I mean, what do you do in those spare hours that you’re not reading? Just stare at things? Watch youtube videos? But if that’s the case, what did people do in the 90s? I sincerely want to know, and I’ve always been too embarrassed to ask.)

Being a nerd means being passionate about things. My parents may have missed out on a few life lessons (“how to change a tire” and “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” stick out), but they did teach me that when you care about something, care about it. Even if it’s not cool, even if it’s not important — what matters is that you care.

And on that note: Happy birthday to the only Dad in the universe who is cooler than Rory Williams & Bill Adama combined.

Bertrand Russell

9 Sep

You could say that staying up reading Bertrand Russell until 2 in the morning for a few weeks during the summer between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college made me who I am today. Of course, you could say a lot of things — but few of them would be so obviously causally true as the above.

The following quote by Russell (source) manages to say approximately everything I have ever intended to say about life, better than I could have done.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

What else is there to say?  “With equal passion I have sought knowledge.” “A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.” There are no better words.

I found especially relevant the lines on pity:  “Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth.” This is the common and fallible argument against investing in space exploration and other scientific research — that the money would better be spent here on Earth, on everyday problems. I love that Russell acknowledges that it’s all right to sort of exist in both planes, to acquire knowledge in your ivory tower, as it were, but still to be fully engaged in the social injustices of your time (as Russell himself certainly was). For me, at least, there is this sense that I’m privileged not only economically and materially, but really privileged over anyone who has ever lived in my ability to study modern neuroscience, considering the advances that have taken place even in the past 10 years.

On the flip side, of course, an optimist would have to conclude that I am to be hopelessly pitied by future generations who feel the same about the neuroscience of my generation. It is certainly the best that can be hoped for. But still, discounting possible futures, Russell hits the nail on the head when explaining the balance between the elevation of love and knowledge and the way in which suffering diminishes even those who do not themselves suffer.  (Although I have spent years learning, as another great philosopher once wrote, that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.)

Anyway, there is nothing more to add, except to suggest that you scroll back up and read the passage again.

Literary Science Fiction

14 Aug

There are only a few phrases in the English language more beautiful than “literary science fiction.” Perhaps “the results supported our hypothesis.” Or “We are go for launch.” Anyway, “literary science fiction” is up there. NPR just released their not-very-scientific (which they have repeatedly admitted to) list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. First of all: Yay! Here it is. (I love the robot graphic at the top.)

Seriously, love this robot.

I’m really excited about all of these book recommendations, but obviously, this is mainly interesting for its implications about the voters. This being NPR, they actually have an article about precisely that. I, like the author, would have loved to have separate science fiction and fantasy lists. But I’m also interested in the fact that this seems to reflect the reality of who’s reading what, purely as a popularity contest. Personally, I have read 7 of the top 10, but only 33 of the total top 100. I made you a graph!

Percent of books I've read by placement level on NPR's list.

Since the whole thing’s based on popularity, here are my favorites:

Dune (#4). Reading Dune was sort of my final step in allowing myself to embrace full and public nerdiness. If I can reference the Kwisatz Haderach without flinching, then everything else must be easy by comparison.

A Song of Ice and Fire (#5). This has consumed such a significant percentage of my summer this year. The show also happens to be one of the best things currently on television.

The Foundation Trilogy (#8). My grandpa lent me his old copies of these books when I was about 8. I remember reading and enjoying them, but I couldn’t remember them very well plot-wise, so I reread them last year–the ending still shocked me. Whether that says more about the quality of the story or me, I can’t say.

The Martian Chronicles (#27). Ray Bradbury’s writing is, in my book, about the closest that fiction comes to the emotions of the real-life Moon landing.

Contact (#50). Carl Sagan writing science fiction: what could go wrong? Plus, a strong, realistic female protagonist! Thank goodness.

And on the strength of repeated recommendations, I’ve picked up the Mars Trilogy (#95) and Something Wicked This Way Comes (#79).


5 Aug

I love when NASA announces that they will be making an announcement. The end result is always a day or so of predictable emotional tumult:  wild-eyed hope (“Aliens? It’s probably aliens. No, can’t be. A manned Mars mission, then? Must be.”), followed by self-deprecating mockery of that selfsame hope (sarcastic tweets along the lines of “Tomorrow, we leave for Mars.”), then bargaining (“Well, it could be liquid water, couldn’t it? Oh please let it be liquid water, I’d be okay with it not being a manned mission as long as it was water.”), waiting and speculating (“Geologists, eh? That’s got to mean liquid water…  Or maybe like, lichen? Just because they don’t have a biologist there right now doesn’t mean it’s not lichen….  Well, yes it does.”), and finally acceptance (Decent evidence for liquid water.)

Needless to say, I’m pretty excited about this. I believe I’m on the record as saying that Elon Musk is going to fly us to Mars and everything will be fine, la la la (most recently in response to either excessive and ultimately unnecessary GRE studying or perhaps the debt thing).  But I’m also really happy that the announcement happened precisely when it did.

Have you ever found something at exactly at the right moment in your life? I don’t mean the right year, the right season–I mean the right minute of the right day. For instance, I’ve never read any Virginia Woolf. Whether or not this makes me a sad excuse for an English major is up to you. Way back in May, I borrowed my brother’s copy of Mrs. Dalloway (apparently added to our high school’s curriculum after my departure). Then I was distracted by reading all of A Song of Ice and Fire, and there was something else in there, too….

Oh, right. That.

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