Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)

Advertisements

Half a year in the life of Arestelle, part ii

I feel like I’ve been going nonstop since January, and last weekend, when I took an extra day off to have a four-day weekend, was the first I’ve stopped for air since New Year’s. It’s not just the conflict with the employer and the Coursera classes and the grad school application, either, though I lost plenty of sleep to those, too.

I’ve been reading, for one thing. So far, I’ve read a novel and its prequel, Blue and Until Again, by Lou Aronica; Dance for Two, essays by Alan Lightman which I reviewed here; The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte, which I cannot recommend highly enough; The Once and Future King; The Hunger Games; Terry Pratchett’s Colour of Magic; H. G. Wells’s Time Machine; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Quiet, by Susan Cain (please read this!); a novella by Bradley Beaulieu, called Strata; Aristotle’s Poetics; and Strunk & White’s classic grammar guide, The Elements of Style. I am currently in the middle of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry; Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man; Beaulieu’s second novel of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh; and a math text, Calculus: A Liberal Art.

I follow several television shows online: Psych, Castle, Bones, White Collar, House (fare thee well), Glee (shut it), Ringer (and I wanted to see what comes next!), Grimm, Once Upon a Time, The Voice, and now Touch. And I’ll probably follow a couple others during the summer, like Burn Notice. In spite of all these shows, which I quite like, the one — the only one — I truly care about is the Sing-Off, which, sadly, has been cancelled. (The petition to save it has over 24,000 signatures, though; check it out.)

I’ve also…

  • taken some pictures here and there (but have yet to edit or post many of them);
  • discovered that the Highline Canal trail south of Denver is gorgeous for biking;
  • replaced my laptop’s old, dying hard drive;
  • spent some time with each of my parents when they visited;
  • given my adorable niece a stuffed owl for her first birthday – a sentimental connection to my grandpa – and am told she rather took to it (which I suppose means something like “she tried to eat Owl’s beak”);
  • had a little adventure in new-glasses-buying that ended with my old optometrist refusing to take responsibility for giving me a bad prescription;
  • nerded out a bit on notebooks & paper (O Clairefontaine!) after buying a set of colorful fineliners and discovering that ordinary paper is no match for a felt-tip pen;
  • battled a non-functional clothes dryer for about two months (it ran but didn’t heat the air);
  • bid good riddance to an alcoholic roommate who believed that grinding coffee beans falls under the category of Things It Is Appropriate to Do While Trying to Be Quiet at Five O’Clock in the Morning; and
  • finally got new windows at my house! (okay, I didn’t do that myself, but it needed done and I’m well pleased now it is.)

I also picked up some music that I found on sale or otherwise needed to have: the Amélie soundtrack, Robyn, A Fine Frenzy, Carla Bruni, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans, Keith Urban, Sara Bareilles, Norah Jones, KT Tunstall, First Aid Kit, Keane, Lauryn Hill, Andy McKee, Scott Joplin/Joshua Rifkin, JS Bach/Jian Wang (cello suites), Beethoven/András Schiff (piano sonatas). I love all the albums I’ve gotten, but especially Tunstall’s “Tiger Suit,” Bareilles’s “Kaleidoscope Heart,” and AFF’s “One Cell in the Sea.” The new Norah Jones is really interesting, too, and on one track (“She’s 22”), Jones & the tune sound exactly like Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley, if you don’t know her as a solo act). I would never have seen that coming; Norah’s always been so smiley, and Jenny is, well, not that.

So, um, I’m a bit tired. I can haz more 4-day weekend?

“The air that they breathe”

Susan Cain wrote a book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking*, on introversion in contemporary society. We reserved types get little respect: students are forced to work in groups rather than independently; office spaces are more and more often based on an open plan (mine is, and I wish it weren’t); and if an introvert doesn’t act like an extravert, she and her ideas will probably be overlooked because others won’t shut up and listen. Cain would put it more politely, I’m sure, but that’s the situation, and she argues in the book that the world is missing out. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s one of the next on my list.

{Rant:} On the point of classroom arrangements forcing kids to always work in groups, there’s another problem that has less to do with introversion, although I wouldn’t be surprised at all if introverts are more often the victims. If you make kids work in groups, and grade them as a group, the “good” students will get stuck doing most or all of the work while the other half watch and get the same grade for doing nothing. This happened to me countless times in school, and since I didn’t want to be labelled a nark and treated worse by classmates who already thought I was (gasp) a nerd, I didn’t complain to teachers most of the time.

There was a project in middle school social studies, for example, where we had to write a report and design a pamphlet about a foreign country (Zambia, in my case). We were put into groups of three or four, and when the other two in my group heard that I was the third, they both exclaimed “Yesss!” loudly enough for the teacher to hear, though she paid no attention. They knew me well enough to know that they had a free ‘A’ on the project just by being in my group, because I cared enough about my own grades to do nearly everything myself, however much I wanted them to suffer the consequences of their laziness. There were no consequences for laziness in group work, if there was one straight-A student, unless she was willing to sacrifice her own grade and get an ‘F.’ I was not willing, and they knew it.

And this didn’t happen just in middle school, it happened at every level of the educational system that graded group work: in a college art class, I and two other freshmen had to let the upperclassman in our group get away with contributing nothing (or worse than nothing–she wasted our time by asking us for the information she had agreed to research herself, before emailing us a one- or two-paragraph write-up that wasn’t worthy of a second-grader, so we had to write that section of the paper from scratch when we should have been putting on the finishing touches). We explained the entire situation to the professor when we turned in our report, and she basically said we had to suck it up because she couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything based on our word (and our copies of the girl’s email and each draft of our paper).

This is why I’m utterly opposed to graded group work at, really, any level of the school system. Working in groups is fine and sometimes useful, especially for talking ideas through, but putting a grade on it encourages cheaters and freeloaders to sit by and get a free grade at the expense of those who, through peer pressure or hopelessness, won’t rat them out. {/rant}

(Sorry.) Anyway, now Cain has given a TED talk, and it’s quite good. Do introverts everywhere a favor and watch (and share!):

From the talk:

“So I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why we were supposed to be so rowdy or why we had to spell this word incorrectly.” 😀

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

“Solitude matters and…for some people, it’s the air that they breathe.”

“I wish you the best of all possible journeys and the courage to speak softly.”

* With a pretty lovely cover design. I mean just look at that ‘Q’! Beautiful. 🙂 (/fontnut)

Science Book Challenge Review: Dance for Two (Lightman)

When I was a junior undergrad, a fellow student–a physics major–recommended Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams as one of his favorite books. Having had a small taste of physics in a mechanics course that fall, I was hungry for more–especially since we stopped just short of an introduction to relativity. I picked up a copy to read over winter break, and that novel became one of my favorites, as well. Five years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading more of Lightman’s work.

Dance for Two is a collection of essays centered on the interplay, differences, and similarities between science and art. “It seems to me,” Lightman observes, “that in both science and art we are trying desperately to connect with something–this is how we achieve universality. In art, that something is people, their experiences and sensitivities. In science, that something is nature, the physical world and physical laws.” And pure science, he believes, offers a kind of immortality akin to that of great art:

“Hundreds of years from now, when automobiles bore us, we will still treasure the discoveries of Kepler and Einstein, along with the plays of Shakespeare and the symphonies of Beethoven.”

The essays are themselves artfully written, sometimes vividly poetic, sometimes almost musical in their composition. The opening piece, “Pas de Deux,” describes the physical forces acting opposite a ballerina with no less delicacy than we imagine of the dance itself. It is as if she dances not alone on stage, but with all of nature as her partner, each move paired in exquisite synchrony.

Lightman balances fictional narratives and beautifully detailed explorations of natural processes with autobiographical essays on his own journey as a scientist. These latter range from a humorous tale about a semester-long lab project gone awry (Lightman, as he learned, was destined for theory, not the lab) to a poignant reflection on the early age at which scientists reach their peak. Above all, he brings a beauty and a human touch to science prose that I can recall seeing in no other author save Carl Sagan.

There are occasional digressions from the main science versus art theme. In one, “Progress,” Lightman expresses his concern about society’s headlong rush to assimilate every new technology we create; he cautions that “we cannot have advances in technology without an accompanying consideration of human values and quality of life.” In another he advocates the pursuit of pure science–science for science’s sake–arguing that what may seem useless entertains, changes our worldview, deals in truth (“there is no greater gift we can pass to our descendants”), and more practically, paves the way for uses we cannot predict. “If we stop paying for pure science today,” he argues, “there will be no applied science tomorrow.”

In all, Dance for Two is a pretty easy read, though the essays do sometimes show their age, as when Lightman writes that the universe is approximately 10 billion years old instead of the current estimate of about 13.7 billion years. Regardless, it is a delight to read, offering interesting comparisons to art and an engaging reminder of what drives us to do science. I would recommend it as readily as any science book I’ve read, and I plan to pick up another of his books soon, myself.

Ratings:

  • Scienticity: 4/5. It’s not all science, but I think there’s more tucked in here than you might notice at first glance.
  • Readability: 5/5. This seems like one of the easiest reads I’ve picked up recently, in the best way–it’s simply clear prose, never oversimplified or patronizing.
  • Hermeneutics: 4/5. Lightman clearly knows his stuff. In one or two of the vignettes, though, I struggled to find his meaning or intent (fun as they were).
  • Charisma: 5/5. If I could give 10/5, I would; his prose is spellbinding.
  • Recommendation: 5/5. Unreserved.

Bookishness manifest

Well, it’s December 31, GRAIL-A (still unnamed?) has just entered moon orbit, and I haven’t written a word about the science books I’ve read this year. Slap on wrist.

I have read a few science or math-related books, namely Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist (yeah, I’m counting that); Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity: A Guided Tour (winner of the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa book award in science); and Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World. Not quite the same, I also worked my way through a GRE math section prep book (Nova GRE Math Prep Course), which I did review…and, after completing it myself, recommended and lent to a fellow alum of my alma mater. (I’d like it back, still… 😛 )

So I still owe the science reading challenge some reviews, but for now, I would recommend any of these books as good to excellent reads. Harford’s is easy (kind of econ-light), Sagan’s is easy to medium and ranges over a broad territory of subjects circling around critical thinking, and Mitchell’s is medium-hard (but as much worth reading as Sagan’s, which is saying something).

Had some good non-science reads this year, too, mostly fiction but including the newly released nonfiction book on typefaces and typographical design, Just My Type (Simon Garfield). The fiction books were The Winds of Khalakovo (fantasy novel by a new author, Bradley Beaulieu), A Game of Thrones (G.R.R. Martin), The Blue Light Project (Timothy Taylor), Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby), War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells), What Is the What (Dave Eggers), Faust Eric and Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett), and an unpublished novel by an acquaintance (I was a test reader–just finished and need to get feedback to him still). This, if you’re curious, is a year in which I did not read nearly as much as I wanted to. Of course, I spent a few months prepping for the GRE, which took approximately all of my spare time, and soon after was selected to attend the GRAIL NASATweetup, which spurred me to read up online about the mission. I also spent a lot of time for a few weeks in between the GRE and GRAIL making Zazzle gear for the SaveJWST campaign (enough of which has sold so far to make $75 in donations to the American Astronomical Society for public policy advancement–much more than I expected!).

I’d like to say what book was the best one I read this year, but that’s an impossible task for a bookworm with wide-ranging interests. I wouldn’t recommend against any of the published books. Pratchett’s Discworld series is endlessly entertaining and frequently insightful. The Winds of Khalakovo surprised me, as I got it as one of Barnes & Noble’s “Free Fridays” selections, which don’t usually appeal; it’s a fantasy novel in a Russian-esque setting, with airships and magic and politics and betrayals. It’s meant to be a series, and I’ll look for the next one when it’s released next year.

What Is the What would have shocked me, coming from the author of Heartbreaking Work… (which I found arrogant and tedious…it oozed false bravado), had I not already seen Eggers’ TED Prize talk. He’s actually a pretty awesome person. What Is the What isn’t a light read; it’s a survivor’s tale, and a good one. So maybe I should give HB another go. I probably don’t need to say much about Game of Thrones; it is incredibly gritty for a fantasy novel, though, and I look forward to reading the second novel (if I can find time to read another brick–that felt as long as Atlas Shrugged, and I’m one of those who say you didn’t read Atlas if you skipped over the 60-page Galt rant). I want to own Complexity so that I can read it again; it covers a lot of different interwoven subjects, and is very interesting, but also quite a bit to absorb.

…And when I do leave my current employer, I might just buy everyone there a copy of The Demon-Haunted World. They could use it–no one batted an eye when an associate gave everyone a copy of the near-death experience story, Heaven Is for Real. But of course they didn’t; the CEO consults a psychic about the business every year and insisted that the office be designed based on feng shui–as a result of which the walls are pretty colors but there’s an extreme lack of functional space and light–and another employee believes in auras and ghosts and “cleansing the energy” of a place, and claims, with encouragement from credulous coworkers, to have some sort of paranormal “powers.” Incidentally, according to the thinking profile the office does, you might expect her to be second in logical bent only to me–she has the “know-it-all”/”I’m-the-smartest” profile. (Her copy should include details on the James Randi prize…)

Anyway, good books this year, though I’d have liked to read more. So here’s to good reads in 2012. And go GRAIL!