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Monday, 11 August 2008

Physics and Poetry

Yes, it's another Nonbelieving Literati post [Edit: This one's about Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino. How could I forget to say that?] . I'm late again, but, as I posted on the Exterminator's contribution, this one did sort of look like one that I should make the effort on. John Evo, responding to the comment, was kind enough to characterise me as a poet, specifically by saying "I'd definitely like to hear what a poet has to say about this". But did I read this book as a poet?

I started out reading as a physicist. What can I say? When I was younger I used to love the slide and switch of reference frames, the pure and perfect mechanics of Galileo, Newton, Einstein. The characters' names in this book even sort of look like arcane mathematical expressions with symbols incomprehensibly juxtaposed: Qfwfq, (k)yK, Mrs. Ph(i)Nko. So when I read Qfwfq babbling away like an old man about how the Moon used to be closer to the Earth in those days, I started mentally checking the details. "She rolled around the sky like an umbrella chased by the wind". Well, the Moon would have to go fast. To be in orbit is to cross the horizon before you can fall to the ground. If the ground is closer, the Moon must reach the horizon more quickly! Indeed, the necessary speed bothered me a little.

This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon . . .

What's wrong with this picture? I kept finding myself imagining the Moon falling until I realised that, at the distance I was imagining it, the Moon would probably have to be travelling a lot faster than the average rowboat. Ah, but isn't it fun to imagine that you could climb to the Moon on a ladder? Poetic license. Never mind.

Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realised this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwin your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon's surface. Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.

I was skeptical of this one at first. It is, however, true that the closer you get to the Moon, the stronger the Moon's pull. The question is, how close do you have to be? If the Moon is that close to the Earth, might not the point at which the Moon's attraction becomes stronger actually be inside the Moon?

A quick calculation informs me that I was wrong, however. As the distance between the Earth and the Moon increases, the point of equal gravitational pull becomes outside the Moon before the distance becomes greater than the Earth's radius! So that's all good.

"Cling together! Idiots! Cling together!" the Captain yelled. At this command, the sailors tried to form a group, a mass, to push all together until they reached the zone of the Earth's attraction: all of a sudden a cascade of bodies plunged into the sea with a loud splash.

Okay, this is not poetic licence. It's not my fault for being picky either. This isn't something I could fail to notice. It's blatantly wrong. In fact, there's a nice thought experiment due to Galileo that tries to disprove the above using basically that example. You see, bigger things do not fall faster than smaller ones. Not unless the smaller one is a feather, in which case the key phrase is air resistance. Without air resistance, all objects would fall at the same speed. With air resistance, well, the air resistance does not have to be as big in order to affect the fall of a small thing as it would need to be in order to affect the fall of a large thing. This is what creates the disparity. However, I can assure you that tying the lace of one shoe to the lace of the other will not make your shoes fall faster; it affects neither the air resistance nor the gravitational pull on each shoe. Similarly, coming together in a group will not make each person fall faster. Gravity does not check whether you are holding hands before deciding how hard to pull each of you!

Thus began an uneasy balance between science and poetry. The delight of these stories is in the way that they take a snippet of science and build around it an absurd flight of fancy, an almost narcissistic reflection of human foibles created around a simple detached fact. Moreover, although the science may sometimes be bent or broken, the humanity never is. Who cannot sympathise with the narrator of 'The Light Years', suddenly realising that the inhabitants of other galaxies have been watching him and worrying desperately about what they must think of him, but knowing that they are so distant that they will not see any improvement he makes to his behaviour for millions of years?

As with all stories that have an allegorical component, there is always a temptation to try to find the more commonplace 'meaning' behind the fantastical description. I suspect that, having begun my reading thinking like a scientist, I was slightly more prone to this than I might otherwise have been, and spent a certain amount of time reminding myself not to try to decode. The stories are sympathetic in their own right, and their meaning is in their sympathy. A reader should not need more.

Ah, but I loved the final story! I had settled down into poetry far enough that I could dispense with the science by means of a mere 'of course evolution couldn't really have this sort of purpose' and enjoy the pretty story of how we create beauty -- the beauty of a spiral, no less! How very mathematical. This book is not all true, but it is clearly truthful.


C. L. Hanson said...

With most of the incorrect/impossible science, I didn't see it as "poetic license" so much as joking. Particularly for the one with the Moon. He's playing with ideas about what one might imagine would happen if the Moon passed so close to the Earth, not attempting serious speculative fiction about what would really happen.

Lynet said...

Well, of course I know it's not serious. I still think it would be more fun if it stayed closer to the physically realistic, but maybe that's just me.

Actually, you're right to some extent -- if you get into the habit of not expecting more science than is in the initial quotes, it does read more easily.

John Evo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Evo said...

Lynet, you scared me the way you started this post. But the last paragraph saved it, and prevented me from screaming: "Lynet - you killjoy! Are you having troubles in your love life"? :)

I agree with you that if you want to include the science, you should get it right. I think he largely TRIED to do that (though you reminded me that the first chapter REALLY missed the target)! A lot of his other inaccuracies were based on some of the known science of the early 60's. It's been greatly improved upon since then, but there are many foundational truths.

Stop being so serious. When are you coming to California?

L.L. Barkat said...

To me, it sounds like pure fun with words. And that's something I really enjoy from time to time. (The other night, around a campfire, we told the most ridiculous stories. Talk about a flight of fancy. The stories became less important than the sheer fun of mind play.)

Unknown said...

I agree with Lynet. I found it a little off-putting as well, although it didn't destroy my enjoyment of the book.

Lynet said...

Evo, don't worry, it's just a scientific fussiness that comes over me sometimes. Moreover, you don't seriously think that I didn't enjoy picking holes in the physics, do you?

I really don't want to think the author was trying to get the science right, though. I'd rather imagine that he didn't care. Otherwise, I'd have to keep caring, rather than gently setting it aside.

The Exterminator said...

Reading cosmicomics as if it were a discussion of physics is the same as reading Moby Dick as if it were a lecture on marine biology.

Lynet said...

Hm. You may have a point there. I guess I just started from the wrong angle. There's many a good thing that you can fail to enjoy by expecting it to be something else. Tomatoes, for example. They look as if they should be sweet, but they aren't.

I still don't like it, though. I mean, I like bits of it (I like bits of it very much) but sometimes it pales beside the physics, you know? I realise there is something paper-dry about thinking that the cold nonliving universe can be more beautiful than the humans who inhabit it, but I can't help myself. To look at the music of the spheres and see only humanity reflected there is narcissistic. It differs from ordinary narcissism in that it is nonselfish and, indeed, perhaps better for humanity as a whole than the alternative, but I guess I'm just weird enough for it to bother me.

The trouble is, the book looks as if it is trying to borrow from the awe we have for the universe. Indeed, I get the impression that it had that effect on several of you (and that's fine). For me, though, placing all that stuff next to the big wide universe just made me expect the same (Oh, what shall I call it? There isn't a word, there really isn't. Complexity. Logical twist. Miracle. I don't know) whatever-it-is that science has. And this doesn't have it.

Lynet said...

If I may double-post on my own blog, allow me to point out that Moby Dick would probably be harder to enjoy if you were a whaler. You'd be all interested in the details (some of which would annoy you by being wrong, and wrong for reasons not essential to the story). Because whaling is something real to you, it would be harder to view it as merely a way of conveying something more universal. If you were a whaler, you might just be better off reading great literature set safely on dry land where stuff like that won't distract you.

The Exterminator said...

So if you've ever looked at a map of the world you can't read Gulliver's Travels without being bothered by the bogus geography? If you're a specialist in English history, you should probably steer clear of Shakespeare's Richard III or Henry V? If you're a real-life detective you'll be troubled by inaccuracies in Raymond Chandler's novels? If you're a zoologist you can't enjoy Bambi?

That's a very shallow view of art, and, frankly, I'm surprised at you.

John Evo said...

Ex, 7 out of 10 whalers like Moby Dick, while 9 out of 10 thought Cosmicomics was great, so Lynet might have a point. Anyway, what are you going to do? Send her to bed without supper? Give her a 10 PM curfew? Take away her free subscription to Another Goddamned Podcast?

Anonymous said...

Since I know zilch about physics, such misrepresentations didn't bother me. I enjoyed the fact that the characters were neither human nor stereotypical space aliens; they were something entirely, imaginatively unique. It was fun trying to enter into their "mindsets."

Lynet said...

Gulliver's Travels is meant to be bogus geography! Why would it bother anyone?

If you're a real life detective, well, inaccuracies in mystery novels might or might not bother you. It might even depend what sort of inaccuracies they were. For instance, you might find that Patricia Grace is usually so accurate that small inaccuracies stand out more, whereas you'd be silly to expect accuracy from Agatha Christie; accuracy is not really where the fun of the stories comes from.

I forgive Doctor Who all sorts of glaring science errors. I'm not saying you can't enjoy literature that clashes with something you know a lot about, because I know for a fact that you can. However, in this particular case I find it more difficult. There is something about the style that makes me confuse it with books like, say, Godel, Escher, Bach, which are fanciful to some extent, but written by people who really do know what they are talking about and who are trying to convey some actual science. Indeed, I'm still ambivalent about whether Calvino can be said to be trying to convey some actual science or not.

This book gives me genre confusion. Part of my subconscious reacts to the style by putting it in a genre that it really doesn't belong in. As a result, it's much harder for me to read. I cannot simply chuck it into the back of my mind and see what I make of it, because I'll get it wrong.

Alon Levy said...

Sometimes the inaccuracy is glaring because it suggests something pathological about the author. I mean, take The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen. There's a part that takes place in Lithuania, which is presented as a tin-pot country that was destroyed as part of the post-communist economic reforms.

Now, ordinarily I might not mind that in fact, Lithuania has emerged very well from the post-communist reforms, and has none of the problems of countries to its east, on which the book's Lithuania is clearly based. But the complete bungling of Lithuania is a symptom of a bigger problem: Franzen is a provincial New Yorker. Against that background, the presentation of Lithuania tells me that he doesn't give a damn about it except as a prop for a New York-centric tale. More importantly, the Lithuanian portion doesn't naturally follow from the plot or the characters, and even if it did, there'd be no reason to get it wrong.

In contrast, I ignore similar inaccuracies in books that don't cry for deconstruction of the author's motives, and have a generally coherent plot. In 1984, Oceania would've clobbered Eurasia and Eastasia within five years of the Ingsoc revolution, but who cares? The book isn't about the balance of power; it's about the way the totalitarian state is destroying the individual. Foucault's Pendulum's treatment of Agliè's conspiracy is ridiculous, but the whole point of the book is to poke fun at medieval conspiracy theories and the way they promote self-fulfilling prophecies.

Anonymous said...

very interesting!!