A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

This is the fourth Haruki Murakami novel I’ve read. I’ll rank it 2nd, behind Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World only because I like the more cyberpunk narrative of HB.  A Wild Sheep Chase is full of the mystical, detective elements that Murakami is famous for. And, I was glad to see the Sheep Man again, who is in Dance, Dance, Dance (1988).  NOW I understand a little bit more about who the Sheep Man is, though it’s still not entirely clear.

I love it when I read something AFTER that helps me understand something I’ve already read. I have the same sentiment about Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey because I read it after watching Kubrick’s film and the novel (and the rest of the quadrilogy of books) helps make the final scenes of the film make a lot more sense.

I will honestly say that I didn’t realize A Wild Sheep Chase was part of a trilogy before I read it, but apparently the first two of the series are hard to find and maybe not even translated into English or something. That’s okay.

Once the protagonist finds his way to the Rat’s country house, I think we have Murakami at his finest: isolation, mysticism, trust in friendship.  Sometimes Murakami puts his characters in holes to exemplify the isolation, but in this case, it was a pastoral scene with no one for miles and an harsh and isolating impending winter to attempt to escape from before it was too late.

I’m interested in Murakami because, like some of my other favorite writers, he writes about regular people with regular problems that somehow turn out to be connected to otherworldly things. Muriel Spark frequently does this and it is one of her most endearing qualities as a writer, besides all the blackmail she writes about.

I think I will have to read the rest of Murakami’s translated literature before I will ever come to a determination about what his cryptic endings mean. I have struggled with the same with Muriel Spark, and keep coming back for more too. There are worse things to spend time doing.

As a side note, I wrote about this novel in relation to Twin Peaks on my film blog.

The Stranger, Camus (1942)

I haven’t updated this blog with my readings lately. For what reason, I know not, because I have been reading a lot since my last post.

So we’ll start with the most recent. I just finished The Stranger. It reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, although Spark’s novel was published in 1970.  So I should say that now that I’ve read The Stranger, The Driver’s Seat reminds me of it!  I’ll get to that more in a bit.

I was impressed with the poesy of Matthew Ward’s translation of The Stranger. His introduction states that he maintained the integrity of Camus’ short sentences. This tactic speaks well against the curtness of Meursault’s character because he gets to the point and merely says what’s on his mind in the shortest way possible, because that’s natural. 

Meursault reminds me of Lise (or Lise reminds me of Meursault) from The Driver’s Seat because both are apathetic to the world around them, and seemingly detached from what the reader would perceive as the real world, or a more fitting perception of reality. I sometimes think that we all assume that everyone has the same basic sense of reality but it is the great authors who remind us that is not the case.

In Lise’s case, she is an automoton; she works in an office, keeps a meticulously sterile apartment, and seemingly has no “life.” She would not be classified as a loser, per se, but she is definitely not on the high end of the scale of those who relish life, or even pay attention to it, on a daily basis.  Meursault is the same, he seems to go through his life without ever stopping to smell the roses. His interactions with Marie, his girlfriend-fiance, are indicative of this. When she asks him to marry her, he says okay, but that if someone else was to ask him, he’d be just as likely to marry that girl too; he told her he didn’t love her but if she wanted to marry him, he would be fine with that.  His utter detachment from all emotions creates a major problem for him that he does not realize until he is in his cell for months.

The same for Lise: she is so detached from the world around her, from her own emotions and the emotions of others, that the reader has to wonder what is the point of even living. Well, that’s the point Spark is trying to make because Lise goes on a trip and her goal of this trip is to find someone to murder her. She finds someone to do it and the novel ends.

There are many literary characters that fit this m.o. of detachment and/or apathy toward life.  Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment comes to mind, but he is an intellectual in a bind.  Meursault and Lise are not intellectuals at all. They are part of the uber-mundane class who never tried to learn anything because they were so un-preoccupied with life.

Is it sad, the predicament Meursault is in? Not really. As he says, it’s normal. You kill someone, you go to jail and get your head lobbed off.  So what is the point?  Besides all of the existential mumbo jumbo you read about this novel, what else is happening? Sure, it’s about the potential for the non-existence of God and all that, but somewhere in the novel someone says to Meursault (I think it was the Magistrate) that even if you don’t believe God exists, you still believe in God. For to believe he doesn’t exist is to at least have considered he did.  Therefore he does. 

I’m going to consider this novel as a reminder that life should be appreciated and savored. Meursault and Lise did not do either, and they lost out.

I would also like to mention that it is clear that characters like HBO’s Dexter Morgan, possess the same detachment and feigned emotion as Meursault does in this novel.  Part of Dexter’s training as a child was to feign emotions and to act normal. Meursault does the same thing, and his inner monologue gives him away throughout the novel.

By the end, Meursault has come to look forward to his moment of execution, and he hopes that the crowd of spectators will spew chants of hate at him for what he’s done.  I suppose it is because he lacks such emotion in his real life that he has come to at least appreciate the capacity for emotion in others. Ironically, the final scene is the only instance of emotion for Meursault (when he rages against the Chaplain), and that was an emotional outburst against an insistence that God exists. At least he feels strongly about something.

Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

What I like about Arthur C. Clarke’s writing is that his narratives are so diverse.  By that, I mean that there will be periods of narrative description or dialogue without much action, then he will hit you with the good stuff:  the stuff that gets your heart pumping and makes YOU want to get the heck out of whatever predicament his characters are in.  Its those moments of heart palpitations that keep me reading his books.  And those are some of the greatest moments of this novel.

So after reading Clarke’s 4-book 2001 saga (see my Cinematophiliac blog posting on it, and other related posts), I couldn’t resist Rendezvous with Rama, if not for the cover’s flaunting of its Hugo and Nebula awards.  Okay, enough of the build up.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT!!! (though you’ve had since 1973 to read this…. 😉

It’s ironic that Clarke ends this book mentioning the triple redundancy of the Ramans because of the quadruple-plus redundancy of his books I’ve read so far (2001, 2010, 2061, & 3001), and the other three left in the Rama series. Anyway, that’s an interesting side note.

Rendezvous with Rama ended before I thought it would, but clearly it ended primed for a sequel.  That’s good and I wasn’t disappointed.  I read books much like I watch films:  with little to no understanding of their backgrounds.  I never read film reviews, and I’d certainly never be caught reading a book review.  It’s just not my style.  And, that way I am surprised by what unfolds, like not realizing there were sequels to this book.  It sounds naive, but really it’s much more pleasurable that way.  And, if I knew there were 4 books, I might not have read the first one!  Large volumes intimidate me.  For instance, I took almost an entire summer to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  It was like 500 pages!  Great book though.

Sometimes the beginning of Clarke’s story is a bit tedious (i.e. my mention above of the diversity of his narratives), with a lot of background information before you get into the meat of the action.  I realize, after reading his books, that I really like narrative action.  I like feeling connected with the situations the characters are in:  the danger, the clock ticking away.  It’s exhilerating.  I think of the books on narratology I read in grad school. Mainly Mieke Bal’s On Narratology.  I learned a lot from that book.

One of the things that stood out for me in this novel was the insistence by Captain Norton to do the right and ethical thing at ever moment possible.  In fact, there weren’t any situations in which he acted out of fear or impulse.  He always took into consideration the way their actions would affect the Ramans and he went to extremes to make sure that they did not adversely affect the temporary world they were exploring.  I think that’s great.  He was even open minded to one of his crewmen’s (Rodrigo) “religious” explanations and thoughts on Rama, and eventually let him disable the bomb sent by the Hermians on Mercury.

(I just now get why they called them Hermians…obviously Hermes, the Greek god of the forge!  Ahh…Thank God for The Iliad and The Odyssey!!!  They’re the gifts that keep on giving! I love it!  And this is what’s so wonderful about writing on this blog:  it helps so much with comprehension and retention of what I’ve read.  Mission Accomplished!).

Captain Norton reminds me of Captain Jonathan Archer from the Star Trek: Enterprise TV series (2001-2005) because Captain Archer ALWAYS took the most ethical route possible.  That was a great TV series, by the way, and I can’t believe it went off the air. 

At a time when a lot of uncertainty was barreling through the solar system, and a lot of people were afraid of the unknown, Captain Norton kept his head on straight and didn’t react out of fear.  This says a lot about the type of character that Clarke was developing:  someone level-headed who could take in all of the data from a lot of different directions, and make the right decision.  His compassion for the reasonableness of his “religious” crewman (Rodrigo) showed perhaps the most about Norton’s character: that he didn’t jump to conclusions and assume the guy was a whack-job. 

I think we all need to learn some lessons from this:  we might be surrounded by people we think are whack-jobs, but aren’t we being just as fanatic by not being open to their ideas? 

I’m wondering what Rama II has in store for Captain Norton, or future generations’ captains.  I assume it’ll pick up with the NEXT Rama ship (because there will be 3 if we read the triple redundancy correctly) and will help prove why it’s best to NOT bomb things we don’t understand, but rather observe, relate, and let them go on their merry way.  And, who knows how many years it will take for ship #2 to get there….

I finish with this:  In our day and age, can “we” refrain from bombing things and people “we” don’t understand?  Or is there a Captain Norton or a Rodrigo out there brave enough to stand up to the “Hermians,” and their political influence, savagery, and xenophobia, for the good of not only us, but for the good of those we don’t know, can’t see, and certainly don’t understand? 

That’d be nice.

When Things Fall Apart: The rest of the book

It’s nice when you find a book that you can sit down with and read the last half of it in one sitting, and learn a heck-of-a-lot in the process.

I want to briefly summarize what I learned from reading this book because it has been extremely helpful.  Thanks, JD!

Accept that life is ever-changing; therefore, accept that you cannot maintain stasis because it is impossible.  Therefore accept that life is groundless and you are groundless.  Therefore accept that change is inevitable and do not struggle against it.  When you find yourself struggling, remember that life is supposed to change and it is a good thing, but do not rely on habitual patterns of behavior to deal with the ever-changing state of life.  In other words, do not react the same way every time. We do this out of fear of the unknown or fear of failure or fear of something else.  The best thing to do is to face your fears head on, do not rely on old ways of dealing with things, push through it, and move past it.  Do not let your old way of doing things (including old ways of perceiving your identity) get in the way of true growth.  You cannot grow up if you stay in stasis. Your sense of reality will always be false if you never face your fears or rely on habitual behaviors. 

You must have unconditional compassion for yourself before you can have unconditional compassion for others. We put limitations and restrictions on others because we struggle with things ourselves. We pass judgments and create barriers to unconditional compassion because of our own insecurities about ourselves.  We do not give unconditionally because we do not give to ourselves unconditionally.  This is important, and difficult to overcome. 

Ultimately, we need to let go and move on. We recreate our identities so that we can keep from moving on.  We have to accept that we change as the world changes.  And that’s okay. 

We have to slow down and live in the present, and enjoy the present moment because it’s the only thing we have.  That makes a lot of sense to me because we cannot time travel either direction so clearly it is the present that matters. Yet we so easily get caught up in the past or future:  what we did or what we want to do. Or worse, what we wish we would have done.  It’s too much. We have to move on.

And most importantly, “Sometimes you just have to let everything fall apart” (170) so that you can reconnect with yourself, your groundlessness, and a clearer sense of reality.

There are a lot of things in this book that I found helpful and relevant to myself at this present moment.  I’ve gleaned a lot of strength from the words of Pema Chodron:  some of it I already knew, some of it I didn’t.  It’s just nice to “hear” it again, and again, and again….

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron, Ch. 1-8

A very good friend of mine, JD, recommended and gave me this book because it’s always reassuring to read things like this when you’re at a liminal moment in your life.  It’s written by a Canadian Buddhist “nun” and contains many insightful thoughts on dealing with fear, uncertainty, suffering, and compassion, among other things.    It’s interesting reading this at the same time as Hawking’s book because of some overlap.

Here is the bibliographic reference for the book: 

Chodron, Pema.  When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  Boston: Shambhala, 2005.

Here are some of Chodron’s insights, which I feel are most applicable:

  • SUFFERING is an inevitable part of life if we keep on believing that life is everlasting; therefore, if we give up the idea that things don’t eventually “disintegrate” or die-for-good, then we reduce or eliminate our suffering (11).  In other words, we suffer because we assume things can and should be better (tomorrow, in the afterlife, etc.). She later discusses our fear of death and I will get to that a little later.
  • She advises us to relax in the midst of chaos and UNCERTAINTY(13).  This is ironic because of the other book I’m reading (Hawking) and its discussion of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  What I take from this connection is that uncertainty is in everything and we must embrace it and be satisfied with it.
  • We should seek to lose our “EGO” by seeking neither to INDULGE or REPRESS; therefore, if we remove that “ego-balance” from between the Id and the Superego, neither will exist and all will be in balance naturally (18).
  • By seeking a state of ego-lessness, we allow all of our thoughts to arise and simply go away without indulging or repressing them (19).  This is a common theme in the book:  to embrace your thoughts (and fears) and meet them head-on, then let them melt away and not bother you.  But the main thing is to face your fears, your obsessions, your addictions, etc.
  • She talks about MEDITATION and how difficult it can be to truly clear your mind.  A way to face this dilemma is to literally  label your mid-meditation thoughts as “thinking” when they come into your mind, and then once you’ve acknowledged those thoughts, let them go and return to an empty mind (27).  In other words, acknowledge the thoughts, let them go, and relax.
  • COMPASSION is the root of Buddhist philosophy.  Chodron writes a lot about praticing GENTLENESS & LETTING GO (32).
  • ENLIGHTENMENT is attaining a wakeful state of no more DELUSION(35).
  • Chodron advises to PAY ATTENTION to life more (37).
  • MINDFULNESS is “a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see” (39).
  • REFRAINING is an important concept that she reviews.  She says: “Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path” (39). 
  • We avoid things out of fear.  We tend to want to “[fill] up space just because there’s a gap” (40).  In other words, we can’t sit alone with ourselves because perhaps we’re afraid of what thoughts will pop into our minds so we try to fill the spaces of our lives in order to avoid GROUNDLESSNESS.
  • Chodron says we FEAR GROUNDLESSNESS (41).   But we have to face that fear head-on and be okay with the groundlessness.  The method to do this is to REFRAIN from reacting to the fear and restlessness (41).
  • Pausing helps us connect with fundamental RESTLESSNESS and SPACIOUSNESS (42).  I think this is especially important in regard to our desire to seek an answer to our questions about the universe (c.f. Hawking).
  • Chodron wants us to respect the jitters, and learn to pause and not be impulsive or react negatively; therefore move toward less compulsiveness (42-43). In other words, face things head-on without fear of being groundless. 
  • This reminds me of another book (recommended by JD), Ethics for the New Millennium, in which one of the major points the Dalai Lama focuses on is the importance of PRACTICING to be more compassionate.  It’s not about reacting perfectly every time, but rather practicing reacting more compassionately, and eventually you won’t have to “fake it til you  make it.” 
  • Ultimately Chodron wants us to refrain from reacting (emotional chain reactions or anxiety) and therefore become more clear (44-45).
  • HOPELESSNESS is a necessity.  We must give up HOPE in order to relax about where and who we are (46).  We must give up HOPE that the world is to blame for our own situation and that thinking that way brings us satisfaction (47).
  • SUFFERING dissolves when there’s nowhere left to hide; therefore, when there’s no more HOPE (47).  Ultimately, attaining lasting security in our lives is impossible (47).
  • In other words, if we sit around being HOPEFUL that our situation will eventually get better, we DENY reacting in the PRESENT to those emotions and dealing with them properly.  If we allow the idea of HOPELESSNESS into our lives, we will eliminate our SUFFERING.   
  • You really have to think about that one:  Chodron says that lasting security is an hopeless endeavor  (48).  One can never be ultimately secure because nothing in the world is permanent or doesn’t change.  Even Hawking says this about the universe because it is ever-expanding, ever-reproducing.  Therefore, if you give up HOPE that your SUFFERING will end (i.e. from ever suffering again), you will be living in a state of HOPELESSNESS, which is a good place to be because you won’t be sitting around expecting your life to never encounter any more suffering.
  • Chodron says that NONTHEISM (versus THEISM) allows for the individual to relax with the idea that life is ambiguous and uncertain and that we cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING (48).  This is true. We cannot protect ourselves from SUFFERING, so why not just resign ourselves to the fact that it will happen and when it does happen, take it in and then let it go.
  • DHARMA is a total appreciation of IMPERMANENCE and CHANGE (48).  Life is a constant coming-and-going.
  • Chodron says that SUFFERING is not inherently bad or wrong, but our ADDICTION to HOPE leads us to the idea that SUFFERING is BAD (49).  This leads to the HOPE/FEAR dichotomy.
  • Chodron writes: “In an nontheistic state of mind, ABANDONING HOPE is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.  You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”” (50). 
  • This is an especially profound statement and it reminds me of another text in which “Abandon Hope” is used:  Dante’s Inferno!  Inscribed on the wall of the entrance to Hell is a phrase: “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”  Now, this is used in a different way than Chodron intends it but they do overlap.  Chodron advises us to ABANDON HOPE in order to END our SUFFERING.  Dante tells those who journey into Hell to ABANDON HOPE because they will SUFFER greatly with NO END.  But, in both instances, HOPE is unnecessary and should be abandoned.  Very interesting!
  • According to Chodron, HOPE leads to a sense of lacking and when we CONFRONT and EMBRACE our own SUFFERING, we don’t resort to HOPE (50).  Even in Dante’s Hell, this rings true because the souls in Hell, in fact, EMBRACE SUFFERING and want it badly because they do not want God’s love, they want the exact opposite!
  • Chodron writes that because INSECURITY and PAIN cannot be exterminated, we must embrace HOPELESSNESS and GROUNDLESSNESS in order to resolve ourselves to the fact that when INSECURITY and PAIN occur in our lives, we meet them head-on and then move on (51).
  • FEAR OF DEATH is a profound state of being.  Death occurs whether we like it or not.  We are all aware that we will die and we fear it. We DENY that TIME is passing. Reminders of DEATH cause us to PANIC.  If we RELAX with the PRESENT MOMENT and see that everything CHANGES over TIME, that HOPELESSNESS is the preferred state of being, that DEATH is inevitable and not to be feared, then we will END our own SUFFERING (52-55).
  • We must become HOPELESS in terms of the PRESENT MOMENT and not expect it to be better, to suffer less, etc.  Becoming HOPELESS helps rectify our FEAR OF DEATH because the PRESENT MOMENT is what matters and dealing with things in the PRESENT helps END our SUFFERING in the PRESENT.  The PRESENT MOMENT is what matters.
  • If we practice our REACTIONS to our preconceived notions about these things, we will SUFFER less. If we pay attention to how we REACT when moments of PRAISE occur, we will better understand how to deal with moments when CRITICISM occur. Chodron says to be CURIOUS about your reactions to the EIGHT WORLDLY DHARMAS, and not HABITUAL (61).
  • Chodron advises us to ENJOY in the PRESENT without clinging to our preconceived/prepared REACTIONS to things, then let those MOMENTS dissolve: this is the ultimate NONATTACHMENT.

So far, Chodron’s book has given me a lot of interesting things to ponder.  Much of it I’ve read before in works by the Dalai Lama, but I think lessons like these need to be reinforced a lot because our minds can sometimes forget the obvious lessons of life.

A Brief History of Time (Ch. 3 & 4)

Chapter 3 is entitled “The Expanding Universe.” Here are a few things I learned from it:

  • it is projected that there are 100,000 million galaxies in the universe, each with 100,000 million stars (37).
  • the color of light is the only observable aspect of distant starts, and temperature is measured by spectrum of light (37).
  • the SPECTRA OF LIGHT that have shifted toward the red-end of the spectrum indicates a star is moving away, a SPECTRA-BLUE SHIFTED star indictes it is moving closer to us. most galaxies are SPECTRA-RED SHIFTED; therefore most galaxies are moving away; therefore the universe is expanding (39). Also all galaxies are moving directly away from each other, and speed is proportional to distance between galaxies (42).
  • The DOPPLER EFFECT is the relationship between frequency and speed:  BLUE light has a higher frequency and moves faster than RED light that has a lower frequency and moves slower (38-39).
  • Einstein’s COSMOLOGICAL CONSTANT is an ANTI-GRAVITYforce that balances gravity in a tendancy toward stasis (40).
  • The universe is the same in all directions. Interesting! (40).
  • Apparently “Gravity is so strong that space is bent around onto itself, making it rather like the surface of the earth” (44).  Therefore the universe is finite in extent. Hawking gives this to clarify: “The idea that one could go right round the universe and end up where one started makes good science fiction, but it doesn’t have much practical significance, because it can be shown that the universe would recollapse to zero size before one could get round” (44).  A problem I have with this is that in Chapter 2, Hawking said that gravity doesn’t control the orbits of the planets/solar bodies, but rather it they follow a GEODESIC.  Perhaps GRAVITY holds the universe itself together, while the orbits are held in place by the GEODESICS.  Perhaps I do not fully understand the dynamics between GRAVITY and GEODESICS in the universe quite yet.
  • The universe is expanding “by between 5-10% ever thousand million years” (45).
  • DARK MATTER cannot be seen directly but “the influence of its gravitational attraction on the orbits of stars in the galaxies” can be “felt,” so to speak (45).  Though I don’t know exactly what DARK MATTER is yet.
  • There is talk about the BIG BANG THEORY and how TIME began at the BB because EVENTS that occured beforehand had no consequence (46).
  • The STEADY STATE THEORY states that as galaxies move away, new ones are forming in their place; therefore the universe always appears the roughly the same (47).  That seems illogical because if the universe is ever-expanding and ever-producing new galaxies, then it would never look the same because things were “constantly” moving, growing, shifting, etc.
  • a BLACK HOLE is a star that collapses to zero size and zero volume (49).  How, I don’t know.

Chapter 4 is entitled “The Uncertainty Principle.”  Here are a few things I learned from it:

  • SCIENTIFIC DETERMINISM means that if you know the complete state of the universe at any given time, you can predict anything that will happen in the universe (53). Certain early 19th century scientists believed in this doctrine.
  • a QUANTA is a packet of waves emitted from a HOT BODY; a QUANTUM is one wave emitted (54).
  • German Scientist, Max Planck (~1900) determined that rather than the idea that all HOT BODIES radiate an infinite amount of energy (54), due to the finite capacity to hold energy in a QUANTUM (due to high frequencies), the radiation lost from a HOT BODY would be finite (54).  This has to do with being able to measure velocity and frequency of energy.  Hold on…hopefully it will make more sense in a second (maybe not!).
  • Around 1926, another German scientist, Werner Heisenberg, came up with the UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE, which stated that “in order to predict the future position and velocity of a particle, one has to be able to measure its present position and velocity accurately” (54).  Now, this takes into consideration the earlier-mentioned idea of SCIENTIFIC DETERMINISM, that measuring the “now” can help predict the “future” of the universe, etc.  Well, what Heisenberg determined was that “the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa” (55).  Therefore, you can’t measure the present state of things accurately. 
  • QUANTUM MECHANICS is “based on the UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE,”  and a QUANTUM STATE considers the “combination of position and velocity” (55).
  • QUANTUM MECHANICS is POSSIBILISTIC and doesn’t predict a single, definite result from an observation (55).  QUANTUM MECHANICS deals with randomness and chance (56). 
  • According to QUANTUM MECHANICS, Particle A reaches Particle B by every possible path, not just by a straight line or a single path(60).
  • All is predictable in QUANTUM MECHANICS provided the UNCERTAINTY PRINCPLE sets the limits (60).

I think the idea of QUANTUM MECHANICS is an interesting one. It definitely lends much to the idea that certainty in our measurements or interpretation of the universe is up for debate.  Being left with the POSSIBILISTIC is always a good thing!

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (Chapters 1-2)

Two of my favorite subjects in high school were, ironically, Physics and Geometry.  This is ironic because since high school, I have not pursued those subjects at all. Quite the opposite.  But, my love of Science Fiction I think has always kept my interest in those subjects piqued, especially lately since I’ve been reading a lot more SF than in years past.  

I decided to read Stephen Hawking’s book because I am doing research for my own writing, and because I generally want to understand the universe better.  Well, let me clarify that a little:  I want to understand a little more about what others THINK they know about the knowable universe.  I will admit that reading this book, despite Hawking’s clear attempt to make everything palatable for the layman, it is still difficult to wrap my brain around.  But, that’s the point of this blog:  to read it, to write about it, and hopefully to understand it better as a result of that process.  So, here goes.  I’m going to do a little summarizing, a little analyzing and referencing, and probably a lot of questioning.  A reminder that the point of this reading blog is for digestion, not necessarily for pontification.

For all posts on this book, I am referencing the page numbers, where applicable, in order to avoid any semblance of plagiarism, etc.  The bibliographic reference for the version of the book I’m using is this and it applies to all posts related to A Brief History of Time

Hawking, Stephen W.  A Brief History of Time:  From the Big Bang to Black Holes.  Intro. Carl Sagan.  New York: Bantam, 1988.

In the first chapter, entitled “Our Picture of the Universe,” Hawking starts out slow with a little history. I learned that we see some stars and not others because the others’ light hasn’t reached us yet.  He continues this further in chapter 2 by going into detail about the bending of light from distant stars around the sun, whereby stars look as if they are in different positions than they really are because of how their light is bent around our sun. He brings up Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (which, interestingly enough, I bought when I was in high school, no joke) and the concept of ANTINOMIES, which are contradictions like the “THESIS that the universe had a beginning, and the ANTITHESIS that it had existed forever” (8).  Apparently the thesis and antithesis are based on the same assumption:  “that time continues back forever, whether or not the universe had existed forever,” though according to St. Augustine, time didn’t exist before God created the universe (8). To me, this says that God is therefore outside of time AND the universe.  Interesting.  

Chapter One ends with a discussion of a unified theory of the universe, which is a goal of scientists:  to unite the GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY (gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe (11)), and the THEORY OF QUANTUM MECHANICS (phenomena on a small scale (11)) in order to make sense of the big and the small, and therefore the whole lot.  Hawking also points out that theories aren’t provable but that a good theory “ACCURATELY DESCRIBE[S] a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must MAKE DEFINITE PREDICTIONS about the results of future observations” (9) [EMPHASIS MINE].  I think this is a good point because if we go on Herr Kant’s concept of antinomies (i.e. embrace the possibilistic in terms of explaining the how, why, when and where of the universe), I feel much safer knowing that (at least some of) those scientists aren’t out there assuming their difficult-to-comprehend theories are actually provable.

Chapter Two, entitled “Space and Time” gets a little more difficult.  In this chapter, ABSOLUTE SPACE and ABSOLUTE TIME are disproved.  Absolute space cannot be validated because the earth is in constant motion, and you are never where you were a second ago due to this; therefore, there is no absolute, stationary position in space.  Absolute time cannot be validated because time “depends on where [you are] and how [you are] moving” (33).  Hawking gives the example of the TWINS PARADOX: one twin living on the top of a mountain will age faster than one closer to sea level, or the twin that leaves on a spaceship going near the speed of light will age less than the one on earth; or the example of two highly accurate clocks: one placed at the bottom of a water tower, which ran slower than the one placed at the top of the water tower (32).  The observation I make here is that many-a-SF-plot has been based on these ideas of the slowness of time from different vantage points.  The example I can think of right now is Arthur C. Clarke’s Odyssey quadrilogy, where Dr. Heywood Floyd lives well beyond the natural earth-bound life expectancy–so long, in fact, that he gets to go on another mission to Jupiter. Awesome!

So, apparently time runs slower around a massive body (32), and this is one of the reasons navigation systems work today: because they are based on time signals from satellites (33).  Coincidentally, I saw a Discovery-Channel show the other day about the importance of the accuracy of the multiple clocks used to triangulate positions using GPS–that the satellite-bound clocks had to be programmed to make up for the slower clocks on earth. According to Hawking, this relates back to the theory of GENERAL RELATIVITY (33).

I suppose the most difficult aspect of Chapter Two is the talk about time, space, and space-time.  I learned that distance is measured by time; that time is more accurately measured than length; that a POSITION in SPACE can be described by three coordinates (e.g. latitude, longitude, and height above sea level); that an EVENT, which is something that happens at a particular POSITION/point in SPACE and at a particular TIME, can be described by four coordinates (3 for position, 1 for time); that where & when an EVENT happens is called SPACE-TIME, which is a 4-dimensional space:  in other words, if the EVENT occurs at a particular POSITION in SPACE (i.e. needs 3 coordinates to describe its location), at a particular TIME (i.e. needs 1 coordinate to designate time), then it is 4-dimensional.  

I also learned that there are such things as FUTURE LIGHT CONES and PAST LIGHT CONES.  When an EVENT takes place in the present (Hawking uses the example of our sun dying, on earth we will not see the loss of the sun’s light for 8 minutes), there is a three-dimensional cone (i.e. 3 coordinates to designate POSITION) that expands out from the event in an ever-increasing conical shape (i.e. smallest at the point of the EVENT, and getting bigger as it progresses out into space and time).  This three-dimensional cone also exists in the 4-dimensional space of SPACE-TIME because time is always progressing forward.  Okay, so imagine the sun dying as the EVENT; if it takes 8 minutes for the loss of light to reach the earth, then for 8 minutes, we will not be in the FUTURE LIGHT CONE of the EVENT called the Death of the Sun.  But, at the 8+ minute mark, we will be within the FUTURE LIGHT CONE of the Death of the Sun because eventually that loss of light will be reaching us.  I would like to point out that I wrote very briefly about a film called Sunshine, in which this was a concept presented:  if their mission succeeded, the sun would shine brighter in 8 minutes….)  

The thing called the PAST LIGHT CONE is merely all the possibilities of light (or, I suppose, other things) that will reach the Present time after some EVENT has happened in the past.  For instance, there are stars in the  sky that burned out millions of years ago, whose light is just reaching earth. By the time we see their light, we are witnessing a PAST LIGHT CONE.  I was confused about this because the PAST and FUTURE LIGHT CONES seem to be the same thing on first thought because it would seem like all EVENTS are technically in the past relative to us in the present so why distinguish between PAST and FUTURE LIGHT CONES?  But what I realize now is that, if we take the Death of the Sun scenario and how 8 minutes after the EVENT (in the past) we see the loss of light because we are in the FUTURE LIGHT CONE of the EVENT, at the “Present” moment of the EVENT (that technically occured in our past), we are in the FUTURE LIGHT CONE, but at our own “Present,” we see the PAST LIGHT CONE’s past EVENTS. Anyway, I think that’s how it works out.  

The way I am trying to conceptualize these PAST and FUTURE LIGHT CONES is by imagining William Butler Yeats’ “perne in a gyre” concept (especially from his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”), which very exactly matches the diagram in Hawking’s book of two cones, touching each other at the tiny base points, with the big ends radiating up and down (or out).  All of this cone discussion comes from pages 22-28.

The last thing I want to bring up is the concept of the GEODESIC which is basically the “shortest (or longest) path between two nearby points” (29).  Rather than GRAVITY being the reason that the earth moves in a curved orbit around the sun, Einstein theorized that it was rather a GEODESIC that the earth was following: “the nearest thing to a straight path in curved space” (29).  Einstein theorized that space-time was not flat, but curved or warped (29), and this curvature of space-time causes large bodies to follow these GEODESICS, rather than the attraction of GRAVITY to pull or repulse the large bodies and keep them in the same space.  So apparently the earth merely moves forward in space-time in a circularly-straight line along a GEODESIC, rather than being in a GRAVITY-related orbit around the sun (30).  Interesting.

That’s about it for now.  Throughout this process I have actually clarified a few points, hopefully correctly, for myself.  So far, mission accomplished.