Mobius Dick

Truth is hope. Hell is the place where all truth is abandoned.

—–Andrew Crumey, Mobius Dick

Kindle
Call Me Ishmael

I have been a fan of the little-known, but known, author Andrew Crumey. He mixes fiction with science, perversity with quantum physics – in a unique and, to me, entertaining and sometimes enlightening way. British, with a PhD in theoretical physics he looks at the world from a different point of view than your run-of-the-mill hack typist. I’ve read Pfitz (1995), D’Alembert’s Principle (1996), and Mr Mee (2000) in the distant past. If I had time I’d re-read them a bit, my memory is fading fast, but I do remember a lot of science, a little history, and a shitload of very unreliable narrators.

There was another book of his that I really wanted to read, if for no other reason than its genius title, Mobius Dick, published in 2004. I searched the bookstores (mostly used) for a copy and never came close. So finally I broke down and bought a Kindle version, put it on my reading plan, and rolled a die. It came up second, after Desperate Characters. Desperate Characters only took a day to read – so then I dug into Mobius Dick. Life intervened and it took a month, longer than I had planned – but today I finished.

I was not disappointed – the book was as complex and as odd as I had hoped. Though it was written almost two decades ago – it is of this time in that it is something of a multiverse oriented piece of fiction. A physics professor named John Ringer receives a mysterious text on his Q-phone that says, “Call me: H.” He has no idea who “H” is… maybe an old lover named Helen?

Chapters alternate between his story, historical episodes from various fictional books that include or involve historical characters such as: Robert Schumann, Erwin Schrödinger, Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Brahms, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Nietzsche, Jung and even Goebbels – to name a few. It’s great fun to track the relationships and the name dropping.

The over-arching plot is of a secretive group attempting to generate power from nothing using a giant vacuum tube and a careful arrangement of nickel-tantalum mirrors. This will also enable them to operate a quantum computer and develop instantaneous long-distance communication methods using quantum entanglement. The only fly in the ointment is John Ringer’s paper that implies that at the energies the thing will operate at – the quantum wave-function may not collapse – leading to multiple realities occurring. Schrödinger’s cat would be both dead and alive – forever.

Not good. Sort of a Moby Dick and the Multiverse of Madness… and the end of everything.

I know this includes many more spoilers than I like – but the book is complex and I wanted to give a flavor. I did have to take notes and do some research on some of the more obscure historical characters and verify everything – it all checked out.

At least in this universe.

So on to the next… let me see… Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. So many books, so little time.

What I learned this week, October 24, 2014

iam1

12 DALLAS NEIGHBORHOODS, RANKED BY THEIR FOOD AND DRINK

Bishop Arts District, Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

Bishop Arts District, Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas
(click to enlarge)



Lee Harvey's

Lee Harvey’s

The Finest Dive Bars in Dallas, Mapped For Your Drinking Pleasure

Oh, man – a list of Dallas Dive Bars… and a map! I feel a bike ride coming on – planning the route in my brain.


Sheaffer Triumph Nib

Sheaffer Triumph Nib

When Buying Fountain Pens, Splurging (a Little) Is Totally Worth It

pfm


10 American Authors’ Homes Worth Visiting

Cool list… including one I think I’ll check out next week in New Orleans. Still, my favorite isn’t on the list – I love Robert E. Howard’s modest home in Cross Plains, Texas.


New outdoor concert venue debuts in downtown Dallas Friday


15 Tiny Texas Towns That Are Totally Worth The Trip


Review: “Fortress,” an Homage to Brooklyn Gone By, Opens at The Public

Lee and I saw this musical when it premiered here in Dallas at the Wyly. It’s fun to watch it work its way toward Broadway.



8 TIMES PHYSICS BROKE

Periodic Tales

From the Telegraph Review of Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams:

Chemists have long had to put up with the condescension of physicists. In one especially egregious case, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb – informed his colleague George Kistiakowsky that he was no longer classed as a “first-rate chemist”, but as a “second-rate physicist”. This, Oppenheimer assured him, was a promotion. The project’s chemists thought this insulting; the physicists thought it hilarious.

Those pesky physicists….

I remember a physics professor extolling the ultimate virtues of his science (I’m not sure if he was aware that I – a lowly chemist – was sitting in front of him… he probably was) saying that physics is the most noble of sciences because it is the most pure – the basis of all other science. I simply nodded though I thought that, using his logic, mathematics would rise high above his craft. Now, the way I looked at it, without chemistry physics is only a bunch of squiggly lines on paper.

At any rate from both these disciplines, along with the various flavors of engineering and production, computer science, marketing and what-not…. comes e-ink, and from e-ink comes e-readers.

And from e-readers come Amazon’s periodic sales, which I peruse carefully. And from one of those periodic sales, came the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc – delivered through the ether for only a couple bucks right into my hot little hands.

That’s the book’s name in the US – in Europe it’s called Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – a better title in my opinion.

To you, I’m sure the book would seem to be the most boring pile of useless words imaginable – but I thought it fun and interesting. The author has had the lifelong hobby of collecting examples of the elements. He obviously also had the hobby of collecting engaging tidbits and stories about same. One day he had the bright idea of combining the two and coming up with a book. From the way the story is laid out – he used his publisher’s advance to travel to some of the more obscure locations where some of these elements were discovered or can still be found.

So, to extract a sample of phosphorus the author started out – as the early chemists did – by collecting a large amount of pee and letting it evaporate.

Each element’s discovery is spelled out as an adventure tale – many coming on the obscure transition from Alchemy to Modern Chemistry. Many great discoveries came from very odd places. For example, Ytterby – an obscure village in Sweden that gave birth to a slew of new rare earth elements – yttrium, erbium, terbium, and ytterbium.

I’m always getting yttrium and ytterbium mixed up.

I read the book through – though I wanted to slow down and take notes. You never know what interesting conversational anecdotes you may need to impress beautiful women in bars.

  • Dried blood is slightly attracted to magnets because of its iron content.
  • At one time radium was added to many products, especially those that supposedly had a therapeutic effect: Radium Butter, Radium Chocolate, Radium Beer, Radium Condoms, Radium Suppositories, Radium was put in Chicken Feed in hopes of producing Self-Incubating if not Self-Cooking Eggs.
  • The French Scientist Vauquelin isolated chromium by crushing emeralds and rubies. He proved the same element colored both.
  • Jezebel, from the Bible, used compounds of antimony as dark eye makeup.
  • Extremium and Ultimium were proposed as the name of a new element – Plutonium was used instead.
  • In Jean Cocteu’s 1949 film Orphee, Orpheus enters the underworld by passing through a mirror. This shot is achieved by having the actor push his hands into a pool of mercury that is disguised as glass.

 

from Orphee - the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

from Orphee – the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

Every page is chock-a-block with interesting tidbits like these.

The only letdown of the book was at the end, when the author tried vainly to sum up and leave the reader with an emotional connection with the periodic table. He should have simply run out of elements.

Now, again, I’m a chemist, not a physicist. But I do know physics. I was able to pass three semesters of physical chemistry… which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. With that knowledge, I realized that the author also left out one of the most interesting, if technically challenging aspects of his subject. He treats the very periodicity of the periodic table as a great mystery, one that was figured out by long scientific research but never completely explained.

He doesn’t talk about the electron shell model or atomic orbitals. That’s a shame. When you understand this concept, even without the daunting math involved, suddenly it all makes sense. A handful of simple laws are what define the outer-shell electron configuration of every element and that is what makes our world possible. It’s really amazing – if you do the work to understand it.

There are a surprising number of books on the periodic table and I have read a few in the past (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sachs is a favorite) – but Periodic Tales is among the most entertaining and readable.

Finally, as a chemist, a book on the elements ignores the most fascinating aspect of chemistry. It will be, almost by definition, limited to describing Inorganic Chemistry. Carbon is given short-shrift in the book. He talks about it mostly in terms of charcoal and the carbon oxygen cycle.

But it is Organic Chemistry that most people find so fascinating. I still remember the thrill I felt when I was first learning how to manipulate matter, not by the elements it contained, but by arranging the shape of a compound made of a single element (with a few other contaminants maybe thrown in for variety) – how the pattern made by its versatile bonds could give rise to an unlimited cornucopia of new compounds, with wild and outlandish properties….

But that’s a whole ‘nother book.