A (re)Brief History of Time

While rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I watch the Errol Morris documentary A Brief History of Time (it’s on HBO Max for the moment) and then went right into reading the illustrated and expanded version of Stephen Hawking’s book from 1996. The joke about A Brief History of Time, when it debuted in 1988, is that it was the bestseller that every intellectual had on the shelf but that few have read — kind of a slim Infinite Jest for the set who brought the kinds of dates home who peruse the bookshelves in judgments while you’re in the other room, opening a wine you have a story about.

That’s unfortunate, if true! A Brief History of Time is exceedingly readable, and the prose is, possibly owing to Professor Hawking’s disability, unadorned and economical compared to Sagan’s. Hawking cuts out the flights of fancy in favor of bon mots (Sagan, for example, spends a few pages imagining the internal monologue of a primeval hunter/gatherer while Hawking makes due with one-liners about how reversing entropy would put crockery manufacturers out of business). Visiting Cosmos and A Brief History of Time back to back is like taking in a year’s worth of “physics for poets” symposia and really offers excellent grounding for keeping up with news about quantum mechanics and cosmology.

Particles and anti-particles annihilate each other.

Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole generate particles and antiparticles from the black hole’s mass.

Sometimes the antiparticle falls back into the hole and the particle escapes as radiatiopn

This excellent book is easier to understand than you might imagine.

You don’t need my take on the science but one thing I’ll remark on is that as fast as science seems to be moving that so much of what we know is still rooted in about a century’s worth of work, dating to the advent of General Relativity and The Uncertainty Principle. String Theory started in the 1960s. Hawking and Roger Penrose performed a lot of their black hole work in the 1970s. They’ve been talking about dark matter and dark energy since the 1970s. Everything that seems newfangled to outsiders has origins in our childhoods, if not before, it’s just that nobody was telling us.

Also, while the mathematics behind Hawking Radiation might be beyond most of us, the concept isn’t so tough: Quantum fluctuations near the event horizon of a black hole manifest as particles and anti-particles, from the mass of the black hole. Particles and antiparticles annihilate each other if they touch. But they don’t touch if the antiparticle falls back into the black hole and the particle escapes as radiation.

Going to take a break for some fiction but I think the next science book will be The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. It intimidates a bit more from the shelf, with its Pynchonian girth. I flipped through and Professor Penrose seems unwilling to spare us the math, so this might take more time, which is finite but unbounded.

Why Do America’s Most Vile Companies Associate Themselves With Tolkien?

J.R.R. Tolkien cautioned against reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as simple allegory, as the mythos is meant to speak for itself. But taken as an epic cycle, it’s the story of an innocent Bilbo Baggins who takes a heroes journey and unearths a great lost power when he discovers the “one ring” forged by Sauron, the greatest, most powerful and corrupting evil in the world.

A generation later, Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins, equally as innocent as his uncle, is asked to deliver the ring to the wise and immortal elves. But even they are potentially corrupted by its influence and so Frodo and his friends, including the deposed king of men, a representative from the elves, a representative from the dwarves and Frodo’s hometown friends undertake to destroy the ring by hurling it into the fires of Mordor. Along the way, they are stalked by a pitiful creature corrupted by the ring’s influence and all are twisted by a plant engulfing war that spares no one and allows for no neutral parties.

In the end (spoiler alert?), Frodo and his best friend Samwise succeed at their task, but at the painful loss of their innocence and childhoods. There are themes of heroic sacrifice and, yes, the notion of seemingly powerless people accomplishing great things against the forces of history.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have occupied significant space in western popular culture, from Leonard Nimoy singing The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins to two film trilogies by genius director Peter Jackson that redefined the Hollywood blockbuster. Nerds love it.

Nerds name their businesses after it.

The most prominent example is Palantir, a global surveillance and big data analysis company that took its name from the crystal orbs that wizards in the Tolkien universe use to see far away places. It’s a clever name for a company that, as The Intercept described, “Helped the NSA Spy on the World.”

But it’s also misnamed. Palantir, founded by libertarian techno-tyrant Peter Thiel, who once destroyed the media outlet Gawker because he didn’t like it, has built a company where the looking glass focuses on others but nobody can see into Palantir (well, except that now Palantir wants to sell stock so we can see that prying into the lives of everybody on Earth is still a money-losing proposition.)

In The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf is aghast to find that his colleague Saruman is utilizing a Palantir. In the books, this is not a one way device. When you look into one Palantir, somebody looking into another might be watching you. In The Lord of the Rings, the evil Sauron is on the other end.

Another evil company with a Lord of the Rings name is Anduril. In The Lord of the Rings it is the sword of Aragorn, forged from the remnants of the sword the heroic Isuldur used to chop the ring off of Sauron during the first world war. So, this is the weapon that, in the novels, defeats the worst evil the world has ever known and reminds us that there’s always hope and cause to fight.

Thje real-world Anduril, however, supplies drones to the U.S. Border Patrol for use stopping brave people fleeing political, social and economic oppression by making a hazardous trip across our militarized southern border. So, it is evil. Not only is it evil, it delights in its crapulence by boasting on its careers page:

“We won’t tell you that you’re making the world a better place with ad optimization and emoji filters. We believe the most socially impactful thing we can do is help people in life-and-death situations make better decisions.”

Ha, ha. Make the world a better place by utilizing drone chicanery against defenseless refugees. How heroic. Dorks.


Rereading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as part of a mission to brush up on my understanding of physics, astronomy and cosmology. I also rewatched the Errol Morris A Brief History of Time documentary and after Cosmos will reread The Illustrated A Brief History of Time. I plan to conclude, for now, with a first reading of The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose. I’m hoping some immersion study in popularized from from 1980 through now (I’d read Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time last year) will at least bring me to some acceptable level of comprehension.

Anyway, it feels like this:

“Infinite Regression” by Jon Lomborg, Cosmos page 266

This painting, which Lomborg made for the book, actually did help me get a sense of what it means for the universe to be finite but unbounded, at least from our perspective as prisoner of three physical dimensions.

Stunning Nature Writing by Edgar Allen Poe

I’ve never bee a huge fan of “man vs. nature” tales. Sure, I love The Old Man and the Sea, but that’s really existentialism at work, along the vein of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t delved into the James Fenimore Cooper or the Jack London. But I’ve add an odd little book by Edgar Allen Poe on my shelf since 2008 and finally opened it — the shuffle of the library being packed in one location and unpacked in another unearths all sorts of little surprises.

The Journal of Julius Rodman is five chapters of a fictionalized memoir of an expedition up the Rockies that Poe wrote for Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine as a serial. It’s an incomplete novel as Poe was fired from the magazine and dropped the project. There are no supernatural or macabre elements, but the romanticism is in high gear.

Amazon.com: The Journal of Julius Rodman (Pushkin Collection)  (9781901285956): Poe, Edgar Allan, David, Michael: Books
published by Pushkin Press, 2008

Upriver, Rodman and his companions find dead buffalo washing up on the banks. Soon, they discover the source — a herd of the beasts attempting to cross the river at the wrong point, reaching steep embankments where they cannot climb out, criss-crossing the deep, flowing waters and exhausting themselves against the current. The band of explorers can only watch as:

“They now struggled fearfully to scramble up the bank, and one or two of them had nearly succeeded , when, to our great distress (for we could not witness their noble efforts without commiseration) the whole mass of loose earth above caved in, and buried several of them in its fall, without leaving the cliff in better condition for ascent. Upon this, the rest of the herd commenced a lamentable kind of lowing or moaning — a sound containing more of a dismal sorrow and despair than anything which is possible to imagine — I shall never get it out of my head.”

Just stunning writing there, had to share.

Then… This Happened


A Strange and Delightful Speculative Novella

Imagine a company could hook you up to a machine, delve into your deepest interiors and tell you everything about your soul, including your past lives. Would you? Could you trust them? Sure you would, especially if it meant finding your true companion on life’s endless karmic journey. For the generation that’s given up its DNA to 23&Me and its browsing histories to every free social network out there comes Amanda Quintenz-Fiedler’s delightful and provocative novella, Soul Mates Inc. Erik is a photographer devoted to making art that’s just not selling, so he takes a journalistic assignment to photograph the clients of Soul Mates Inc. But his intentions as the skeptical outsider looking in are soon thwarted when he catches a glimpse of who he really is, where’s he’s been, all he’s done and who’s meant to share eternity with him. Quintenz-Fiedler imagines a universe with a definite absurdist bent and soon Erik’s on the trail of a life he can’t remember to meet the person he’ll never forget. It’s a perfect premise for readers who enjoy the philosophical storytelling of Milan Kundera, who enjoyed The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard and who became healthily skeptical of technology after reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle. This is smart, relevant and fast-moving fiction that reminds us we can’t get to know ourselves without changing ourselves.

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