Archive for March, 2011
Recently I’ve seen a few news reports in which several people have claimed they have an IQ greater than Albert Einstein. Einstein is a sort of benchmark, a point to compare yourself with. (If you want.) If your IQ is greater than his, you can consider yourself a member of a rather elite group. One girl, 11 years old, in England, claims an IQ of 162; a French woman claims 175; a 12-year-old boy says his IQ is 170. I have no doubt that other claims of similar IQ levels are floating around out there, but my concern in writing this essay is not that these people exist (that’s not in question), and not that their claims are false, but that their assertions are not necessarily what they say they are.
IQ tests are legion. IQ testing has been around for a hundred years or more, but I’m not sure that IQ testing actually measures what it was that made Albert Einstein great. In fact, I would go so far as to state that Einstein’s abilities had little to do with intelligence per se, and more to do with an undefinable aspect of the human brain, that, for a lack of a better term, I’ll call insight, or perhaps, creativity. The presence of a high score on an IQ test doesn’t necessarily correlate with either of those two. The IQ test is largely a test of memory, the ability to recall facts and figures and regurgitate them by marking a piece of paper or a computer screen. Many people without a high IQ can be very creative, though having the ability to remember a lot of information helps.
Einstein almost certainly had a good memory, and his mind allowed him to visualize, and later put down on paper in the form of mathematical equations things the rest of us couldn’t see at all. He understood how light worked, how gravity interacted with matter, and how matter and energy were interrelated. These are not so much an aspect of intelligence, though that’s an important part of it, but more they are an aspect of creativity and his ability to form associations between two or more seemingly unrelated concepts. That’s what made Einstein unique and set him apart from the rest of us.
We’ve got a lot of creative people in this world who aren’t necessarily going to solve problems of high-energy physics, or evaluate the question of the interconversion of the three types of neutrinos, or whatever. Composers, writers, artists–they’re all creative to one degree or another even though most of them aren’t working on a theory of everything (which Einstein failed to accomplish before his death). But it’s these people who look at the human condition and illustrate aspects of it that resonate with all of us. As a writer, I try to do the same thing. I’m nowhere near the intelligence of Einstein, but I can do my part. I try to write novels that reflect a little of humanity in a way that no one has thought of before, and by so doing, give my readers an entertaining story that will move him/her/them/it in an infinitesimal way toward a better state of mind. If you read, say, Dickens, or listen to, say, Tchaikovsky, or look at a painting by, say, van Gogh, don’t you feel something? Isn’t that what the arts are all about? Isn’t that all we ask?
As a writer, I’m curious. What is it about writing that drives us? Why do we sit in front of a computer or a pad of paper or a typewriter, whacking away at those little black keys or scribbling black words on a piece of paper, developing words and phrases and sentences, many of which no one else will ever see? Is it enough to say, as many have, “I can’t not write?” For me, no, it isn’t enough. That little aphorism with its double negative [if you remove the double negative, it says “I can write,” which is ludicrous] doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard with me. There’s more to writing than can be expressed by a ditzy little proverb.
I sit in front of a computer (I have graduated to a laptop now) 7 to 8 hours a day, writing, revising, checking email, getting caught up on the news, communicating with friends, making new friends, and so on and so on. It’s like a full-time job, except that I do it at least 6, usually 7 days a week. I’d do it 8 if I could fit it in, I enjoy it that much. Through my writing I am adding my voice to the vast crowd in the universe. I’m adding to my basic knowledge of life and history, and I’m projecting my self and my opinions to those who care to listen. (I could get cynical about it and say that I blog because those who claim to know say that I’ll never get anything published if I don’t have a blog or a website, but that trivializes the process of writing.)
Clearly there’s more to writing than not being able to not do it. (Damned double negative.) Most everyone writes to one degree or another. It’s just that a “writer” is someone for whom the act or process of writing represents a substantial part of their life, even a profitable part. Before I became a “writer” who put fictitious characters and their lives and activities down on paper for others to read, I wrote scientific stuff as a part of my job for 40+ years. Mostly scientific papers that summarized what I did in the lab, but it also included grant proposals, press releases, talks that I gave in seminars and scientific meetings, weekly and monthly reports at some of the places I worked, notes at the end of each day in a lab book or in a computer, and so on and so forth. Scientific work requires a lot of writing. Clearly, “writing” encompasses a large number of different activities that are as varied (almost) as the number of people who do them.
In other words, I write because I have something to say. I’ve become a full-time writer now because I believe I have stories to tell, stories that will be original, imaginative, and entertaining. Stories that will illuminate some particular and personal aspect of the human condition, an aspect that only I can express. I became a scientist because I wanted to find out new things. I became a writer because I wanted to say old things in new ways. I do it to say something. You do too. “Nuff said.
What is “Life?” Have you ever thought about it (outside of high school biology class)? I’ve been thinking about it lately, and a new concept has occurred to me. I’d like to look at “life” in a slightly different manner.
If you look up the word “life” in a dictionary, you’ll find a rather long and complicated definition having to do with the difference between living and dead organisms, with the ability to grow and reproduce and metabolize, and so on. I looked up the word in two different dictionaries and both definitions were similar. “Life,” it becomes obvious, is not a simple concept to grasp. There’s no real solid definition that’s universally agreed upon, and we’re forced to use vague generalities which may or may not suffice for everyone. Let’s try something else.
Much has been made recently about planets orbiting other stars. Several hundred have been found, though none so far have been shown definitely to be similar enough to Earth for “life” to develop on them. All so far have been either too hot or too cold, or gigantic balls of gas, or hard rocky bodies too close or too far from their sun to allow life to develop, at least the type of life we know here on Earth. But let us suppose, however, that somewhere a planet does exist on which are the proper conditions for life. Temperature, atmosphere, gravity, etc., are similar enough to Earth that we would feel comfortable there, were we to travel to that planet. Would we find “life”? I think we will, though we may not recognize it right away.
Planets orbit stars. Or, if you will, suns. Suns, by virtue of their thermonuclear core, produce light, heat, radiation, cosmic rays, neutrinos, and a whole bunch of other stuff. For the purpose of this essay, we need consider only the heat and light. Our sun produces vast quantities of light and heat, which, if we were able to capture with high-efficiency, would solve the world’s energy problems overnight (pun intended). But that’s another blog and I won’t get into that now. It’s the light and heat from the sun that drives life here on Earth. Without that energy output from the sun, life would never have gotten started and wouldn’t exist at all. Without that light and heat we’d all be feckless wads in the wilderness, as a friend of mine was fond of saying.
It was the sun that started everything, and the sun that kept it going. Thermodynamically, life would be impossible without some sort of energy. There had to be a source of energy to get the phenomenon of life started, and the sun provided it. No one really knows how life got started (it may have even come from outer space), but it is relatively easy to see how small inorganic molecules, readily available on the newly formed Earth could, with energy supplied by the sun, begin to combine and coalesce, forming the first organic molecules which under still more heat and light, could continue the process until some sort of self-replicating molecule is formed, perhaps a protein, perhaps RNA, maybe something we don’t know about. Exact details are not essential here, we need be aware only of the basic concept, driven by the sun. Thermodynamically, that is as likely as that which would happen if you put a pan of water on the stove and turned on the heat. The water will eventually boil; it cannot do otherwise.
The same concept applies to life on another planet. Given that the sun around which that planet whirls is bathing the planet with light and heat, the probability of life developing is high. Granted, the precursor molecules must be present, (carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, whatever) and some sort of solvent in which those molecules are dissolved must also exist (on Earth that solvent was water but it could be liquid ammonia), but given the influx of heat and light from the sun, something will happen. Just like that pan of water on the stove, it must. Given the right conditions, life must develop. It cannot fail to. It is thermodynamically bound to.
Now, of course, on any given planet, the “life” that develops may not be recognizable to us as Earthlings, and it may take some doing to uncover it and may require some rearrangement of our prejudices to accept it. Therefore, I propose that we re-define “life” as that which arises on any planet under the influence of energy from its sun, over and above the naturally occurring milieu, regardless of what it looks like or how it developed or reproduces, regardless of whether it is capable of metabolism or adaptation to its environment, or any of the other factors we insist on for “life” here on Earth. Our definition of “life” is based on what we find on Earth; it does not necessarily fit that which we may find on other planets, and with our sophistication about the presence of life on other planets increasing at an almost exponential rate, we need a definition which will encompass all forms of “life” everywhere. Where’s Noah Webster when you really need him?
Ian McEwan is not one of my favorite writers, but that’s because I’ve read only one of his books, Solar. On the other hand, if all his books are written like Solar, he may never be a real favorite, though he has a lot to recommend him.
Solar is all about Michael Beard, a Ph.D. physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his “Beard-Einstein Conflation,” a rather esoteric though significant advance that describes the interaction of light with matter. As the Nobel committee member who introduced him put it, it’s a “subtle symmetry that greatly simplifies calculations … his theory revealed that the events that take place when radiation interacts with matter propagate coherently over a large-scale comparable to the size of atoms.” In other words, it extends quantum mechanics from the subatomic to the atomic level, a tremendous achievement, fictitious or not. The introducer also drops Richard Feynman’s name into the mix. (Have you noticed we seem to like to drop Feynman’s name almost as much as Einstein’s lately?)
But Solar is much more than the dry, tiresome details of Beard’s Nobel acceptance. Michael Beard is a VIP. He’s rich, well-to-do, and well-known in the physics community. He addresses groups all over the world, frequently on his favorite subject, the use of solar power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But his fifth marriage (this one is to Patrice) is falling apart, and he takes it badly. His wife is having an affair with Rodney Tarpin, the builder who is remodeling their house, and she’s been blatant enough about it that Beard doesn’t have to guess at it. Tarpin is muscular and fit, but Beard is “bald, short, fat and clever.” His wife has been compared to Marilyn Monroe (!) by friends of his, though, of course, Beard’s convinced she’s even better looking than Monroe. You get the picture.
In the middle of this, Michael Beard takes a trip, a “fact-finding” trip to the north polar region, and when he returns, he runs into one of his post-doctoral fellows, Tom Aldous, who, in the meantime, has also had an affair with Patrice. Almost catches him in the act. Aldous is in the living room wearing Beard’s dressing gown, and in the confrontation, slips on a polar bear rug and hits his head on a glass table and dies, pretty much instantly. A terrible tragedy? Call the authorities? Not Michael Beard, he goes to work and arranges for the death to look like Aldous had been intentionally bludgeoned by Tarpin. Tarpin goes to jail, and the stage is set for retribution.
I found the book readable, but overly detailed. It’s virtually all narration, with little dialogue. In fact, the first dialogue of the book doesn’t come until the 23rd page of the novel. (If I, as an unpublished novelist, sent a manuscript like that to an agent or editor, they’d throw it back at me. That’s not the way things are done, nowadays. Gotta get dialogue right up front.) Though we come to know Michael Beard in intimate detail (even to the level of how he masturbates), we’re left with little interaction between him and other characters. The book is all Beard. I found myself, about half-way though the book, thinking seriously about putting it down because I couldn’t tell where the massive detail was leading me. Page after page of minutiae almost drowns the book, and much of it has little to do with the actual outcome of the story. I’ve never read a book that was so good that “I couldn’t put it down,” and this was far from it.
Yet, on the other hand, I kept reading, hoping that McEwan knew what he was doing and would wrap all this up. He does a reasonably good job of that, and I must say I liked the ending. It was consistent with the convoluted plot line, but surprising enough to hold my interest.
Do I recommend it? Yes, but be advised that this isn’t light reading.