Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hawking: "The Grand Design": Nature allows us to get something for nothing (maybe); why am I "me"?

Authors: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Title: "The Grand Design"

Publication: New York, Bantam, 2010, ISBN 978-0-553-830537-6, 198 pages, hardcover.Amazon link.

Hawking has attracted attention lately with his theories about extraterrestrials, and this book gives his view of cosmology and theology in terms of unified theories of physics.

Essentially, quantum mechanics, combined with gravity as an essential force, according to what we call M-theory, that posts ten dimensions and time, characterize “Nature”. It becomes possible and inevitable for countably infinite universes to appear spontaneously out of nothing. There doesn’t have to be a specific plan from God other than total logical consistency.

In some of them, ours, the other forces (electromagnetic, strong, and weak) and various physical constants are arranged in such a way that the resulting universe becomes non-homogeneous or lumpy, and eventually stars and planets form, and sometimes even life. Toward the end of the book, Hawking explains British mathematician John Conway’s “Game of Life”, in which x-dimensional dominoes set up self-replicating structures that sometimes die out, and sometimes are “reborn”, in theory generating so much complexity that eventually biology develops.

I’m left to wonder then, what makes my train of experience attached to “me”? Why now? Why am I 67 and not 26 (Zuckerberg’s age), or why wasn’t I born at the time of Christ? I think it has to do with “karma”, and that karma is part of Nature. The recent film “Inception” probably demonstrates it.

I think that with our motives and thoughts (our “existential integrity” when we have it), we create “trends” (maybe “gliders”) that play out in such a way as to motivate others. Dreams may be part of this. Suppose you have a dream of an intimate encounter with someone you are attracted to. You don’t know how you got there (Inception), but it seems real when you “experience” it. After waking, you believe you have been with the person (a “brain belief”). It may wear off. I wonder if the other person knows. I think sometimes he or she does. I think that ultimately telepathy will turn out to become as controversial as information sharing on social media, even though the birth of Facebook seems like a process of “Nature” to me. But in this example, the intimate encounter probably occurs in a different universe, with access through worm holes – no, through the other 7 unused “dimensions”. The nice thing is that usually there are no consequences in this universe for the encounter. (You get to “undoredo” the time arrow, something not normally permitted within a particular universe.)

I say usually, but it’s possible sometimes there are consequences, particularly with a REM-sleep dream. You might not wake up. Your heart could go into fibrillation, you could flatline, and you might perceive yourself as staying in that alternate (just different) universe forever.  (You might stay in a specific situation forever, which could be painful or pleasurable; call it the "Bugcrush Effect".) We call it “afterlife.” You might not like what you find. You could be alone forever, or you could be in a situation where you don’t like your emotional reputation with the other beings who know you. Or maybe it does work out, and you get some bearings, and you stay.

Some other sources write that universes compatible with life could exist without the weak force (we call them “weakless”) with life around smaller stars. There would be no elements heavier than iron, so no nuclear weapons.

The book is printed with thick high quality paper and has many colorful illustrations (like a school text book) that would lend themselves to animation videos.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

John Grisham talks about how he became a novelist

I posted a story about John Grisham’s novels back in April 2009, but I thought I would mention his op-ed September 5 in the New York Times “Boxers, Briefs and Books”, about how he went from manual labor to becoming a lawyer to writing novels. He did not start out by wanting to become a writer, but became one anyway. He says that this is the most difficult job her ever had, and worth it. He’s also coming out with a collection “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit”. The link for the op-ed is here.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Chandler Burr: "You or Somebody Like You" (novel, review)

Author: Chandler Burr

Title: “You or Someone Like You

Publication: 2009, Ecco (Harper), ISBN 978-0-06-171565-5, 319 pages, including source notes and acknowledgements, fiction. (Amazon says that the book became available in paperback in June 2010.), link here.

Chandler Burr may be best known for his 1996 book “A Separate Creation”, from Hyperion, building upon a 1993 Atlantic piece “Homosexuality and Biology.” He has described himself in the past as an assimilationist, a moderate “conservative” to not quite libertarian, somewhere in line with Andrew Sullivan or perhaps Bruce Bawer (“While Europe Slept”) in outlook.

His novel strikes me as a meditation. He says he is examining the question as to whether one can be both a progressive humanist and faithful to an established religion (here, Judaism, but the problems are the same with almost any faith). And he clearly thinks the answer is no, as if it were a scientific conclusion, perhaps disappointing, as if to tell us we will never, in our own bodies, travel faster than the speed of light.

The title of the book hints at an essential, or fundamental problem of moral physics: tribalism. That is, when the individual accepts the goals of the group (the “natural family” or tribe or faith-based community) as his own, he gains some security, and some protection for the most vulnerable of selves within the group, at the terrible cost of being able to accept full accountability for one’s own track record and station. Christians will say that’s why we need Salvation by Grace (or existential forgiveness). Jews will saw we need purity, atonement and redemption, and Muslims will say we need absolute loyalty to the Creator. But ultimately there is loss of loyalty to self (or at least a protracted shame and guilt); and sometimes that is fatal. One can cease to be a person.

There’s something else important about identity tied to organized religion: sometimes, group identity, that of a “chosen people” (demanding competitive procreation) sounds downright arrogant.

The presentation of the story seems unusual, if explainable. It is told in first-person by Anne, from Britain, married to Howard Rosenbaum, raised as an Orthodox Jew and now a Hollywood executive. They have a smart 17-year old son, Sam, who is exploring the dualities – religious and sexual – in his own identity. (If all parents had a “Sam” as the oldest son, they should count themselves as lucky; yet Sam will provide an existential challenge to their marriage, just as I did [as an only gay son] to my own parents’.) The narration moves between past and present tense (ironically using present tense for back-stories). Burr does not use Chapter numbers (I think he should have), instead just breaks the 300-pages into small sections, some as short as a paragraph, with many literary quotations (almost as if writing a take-home literature exam in grad school).

A director guides Anne into forming a book club, although “no one reads in Hollywood.” Pretty soon various treatments and screenplay scripts are circulating (in one spot the novel has to emulate the screenplay format like FinalDraft to show a portion of script), some of which seem to be period pieces circumscribed by the consciousness of their characters. Here, I’ll quote Burr on p 299

“Literature shocks not because what it shows us is inherently surprising. It does the exact opposite. It is shocking because it breaks down what we would be and shows us what we know we are.”

The characters encounter most of the Tinseltown players: Miramax, Spyglass, Paramount. (I didn’t see The Weinstein Company.) Various specific people get mentioned (David Geffen). You get a feel for how the movie system (which is somewhat balkanized off of the old studio system, with indie-focused companies like Summit and LionsGate gaining more influence).

I do have a treatment of sorts for how my own “Do Ask Do Tell” ought to be made (I haven’t put it online), and this book has me wondering how it would fare in all the perambulations of submissions. No, the book wasn’t run through an exclusive book club first (and by the way, book clubs should not be social clubs – see the “BillBoushka” blog (Aug. 26, 2010). Yet the concept is open, following an argument hierarchically, and telling a story, rather an “inception”, non-sequentially. There is, however, a beginning, middle and end. That’s mandatory. (I just have to have Meryl Streep as the high school principal, and Leonardo Di Caprio as the Dean of Men.)

I would presume that Burr expects this book to capture the attention of the indie film market – the real Landmark or “AMC Independent” fare, because it is about some of the values of that world. (I don’t see it on imbd “yet”/) Somehow the IFC Independent Film Channel three-note plucked music jingle runs through my mind. Then one has to imagine who the director is, and who is in the cast. I wonder if an actor just fresh from playing Mark Zuckerberg would fit as Sam. Time will tell. I don’t think the novel mentioned the industry’s “third party rule” (that’s how reviewers get scripts to read, always from agents), to preclude copyright and script clearance problems – a rule that breaks down in the age of Facebook and blogs (just as “don’t ask don’t tell” does).

Burr's website for the book is here.