My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 27 Jul, 2004

Retro Math

I'm spending my math hours plucking logarithms and anti-logarithms from the columns in the tables in the back of the 1958 book. Soon I will be not only plucking them and adjusting them, but using them in computation to multiply and divide long inconvenient numbers. The 1958 book covers this material, while more recent books written since the mid-'80s or '90s don't. The newer textbook authors assume that the student will use a calculator to figure out the logarithms and all other computations, and that's that.

But for some peculiar reason I like the feeling of computing them the old-fashioned way, before I relinquish it all to use the calculator like a modern twenty-first century person. It's sort of like ice skaters doing those geometric figure-eights and circles, even though they're no longer required to do them in competitions. Every discipline has some devotees who deliberately learn how to do things the old way, as I mentioned a couple of entries ago about my crafter friends.

Not only do I frequent the log tables, I now have a slide rule as well. This beautiful relic was lent to me by a friend who has kept slide rules as cherished family heirlooms. The slide rule belonged to her grandmother, who was a math teacher. She is not alone in her collecting. Check out this slide rule site to see the work of someone who has a special fondness for the things. The heirloom now on my math desk is made in Japan and has a bamboo back and a plastic (or perhaps even ivory) front. The etching of the numbers is very precise and delicate, and so small that it's hard to make out the parallel number lines, let alone the proportions of space in between them. To find a logarithm, you slide the bar to choose the number on the front and then look around to the back, where the indicator will tell you what your logarithm is. But boy is that indicator tiny. How did the slide rule users ever get an accurate-to-four-significant-digits reading? Maybe they went for the log tables in addition to their slide rule.

Another helpful friend has found a website which sells vintage slide rules, in mint condition still wrapped in their boxes. (I don't want to mention the site, because then there will be a big rush to buy this limited stock and I won't get one.) My friend has already ordered me one as well as one for herself. They were surprisingly cheap for the treasures that they are. Now all I need is a short-sleeved shirt with a plastic pocket protector, and big black-rimmed glasses, to complete that 1958 look. Well, it would involve a bit of cross-dressing, since I am not about to wear the '50s female attire of poufy conical skirt, along with girdle, fitted blouse, stockings, and high heels….

Doing this retro math reminds me that the first "computers" were not machines, but people. The word "computer," before about 1960, still could refer to a person doing computing work. Earlier in the twentieth century, before our cybernetic age, astronomers and physicists used roomfuls of people to do the number-crunching work. Often they were young women, sitting at their desks computing away like living parallel processors. The scientists chose women, as I have read, because they claimed (as do some modern evolutionary psychologists) that women are better suited to tedious, repetitive, painstaking, precise, detail-oriented work. Rarely, one of the more talented ones was able to rise out of the pool and actually become a scientist herself, like the admirable astronomer Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941). If I had chosen to study mathematics in the early twentieth century, and wanted to work in physics or astronomy, I probably would have ended up in one of these rooms, with little hope of ever going any further. So I am thankful to what we now truly call the Computer for liberating me from this non-existent prospect.

Posted at 2:59 am | link

Fri, 23 Jul, 2004

The most wonderful time of the year

You probably know this skwushy Christmas song, "It's the most wonderful time, of the year" which appears like a recurring fungus every December. But for me, the winter is the LEAST wonderful time of the year. It's right now that I rejoice: high summer, the heart of July. Unlike almost everyone, I love hot, humid, steamy weather. I love the way the soft air filters out color so that the distant trees shimmer in gray-green and shadows of blue. I love the hot white sky, tinged with gold as afternoon deepens. Most of all I love the oncoming dark clouds in the west, which fill me with joyous anticipation of the thunderstorm and the downpour. There was one today, in the late afternoon, though the thunder was muted rather than the crack and boom of a true July tempest. But the deluge was satisfying.

After the rains come the mists, steaming off the hot pavements and the soaked lawns, and the leaves turn silver as they twist in the receding wind. I keep hoping for another wave of storms. Evening brings more exquisite watercolors, blue-green trees and black silhouettes against a greyed lavender sky. As night falls, the chorus of insects awakens; like me, the insects do their best work all night long. These are not the harsh roaring horde of the seventeen-year cicadas which filled those same trees this May; the singing chorus of crickets are like a drone of tiny whirring bells, while the katydids shake their maracas. Every so often there is a chatter or a zip from some other insect noisemaker. Where I grew up, the hot nights were full of rhythmic chanting from the snowy tree crickets, who chirped faster when it was hotter, slower when it was cooler. Where I live now, there are no snowy tree crickets, but there are all these other little singers to fill the warm nights with friendly song. And this wonderful time is lit by the semaphores of fireflies, silently blinking their mating messages through the moist air.

I look forward to weather which annoys other people. It has to be well over 90 degrees before I get uncomfortable. The dewpoint is my friend. When it's high, I'm happy. I like to stick to tables and papers. I don't mind mosquitoes or flies; I'm usually faster than they are. Bugs come in through holes in the screen and crawl over my art on the table. I just whisk them away with my drafting brush.

Summer is the only time of year when I don't feel as though I am fighting for survival in my environment. I welcome a time when I don't have to wear three layers of clothing even indoors (at work). The days are still long and languid, even in the city, which is unusually deserted on weekends when many folk quit town for the mountains or the beach. I'm not going anywhere. I'm doing logarithms while the air conditioner sighs. Summer is so short, it's moving fast, and soon the dark dread season will loom again. I cherish every sticky moment of this enchanted July.

Posted at 3:30 am | link

Wed, 21 Jul, 2004

Spinning Logarithms

Many of my friends practice ancient crafts such as combing, dye-ing, and spinning wool, weaving and knitting homespun fibers produced by animals they keep for their cast-off fluff. Others less familiar to me chip flint into points and blades, etch bone, or carve stones, just as people did in prehistoric times. I am fascinated, but at the same time perplexed as to why people want to do these Stone Age crafts, when all the items that were originally produced this way are available to us cheaply, in abundance, with updated, efficient modern designs, and even with good quality.

I am even more bemused by the fact that these same wool spinners, flintknappers, carvers, and weavers are constantly e-mailing each other over the Internet and surfing to websites about their crafts, as well as taking full advantage of all the other modern conveniences which are everywhere around them. They use everything from laptops to DVD players to dishwashers, not to mention driving real automobiles, rather than oxcarts.

When I ask them why they do these crafts, the response is that they enjoy them and love to work with their hands in a mechanized society where handcraft is no longer economically or industrially important. They love the texture and feel of real wool and linen and wood and leather and stone, rather than plastic, polyester, or aluminum. They can make beautiful things and be creative, too. It's kind of romantic. And if civilization ever goes down the tubes, these folks will have the advantage, because they know how to get along without the Machine and Global Exploitation.

Here in my 1958 book it's not the stone age, but it is the 1950s, which are almost as ancient. I continue to interpolate between the entries in the common-logarithm tables to find the logarithms of numbers with four or more significant digits. I am sometimes misled by the eye-straining columns vertical and horizontal, especially since the first numbers of the 4-digit mantissas are not cited except in the very first column to the left, and you have to add them in. They've marked where the first number changes with asterisks, but they never bothered to tell me that, until I wondered what those asterisks were for. There are also tables of "proportional parts" which are there to help you add in just the extra number you need on your mantissa. (How about using the calculator?)

Once I've figured out enough of these, the next chapters get into what logarithms were originally devised for, that is using them in computation. You can add or subtract the logs of the numbers, then look up the anti-log of the answer to get your computation. Presumably this uses less time than sitting there and multiplying or dividing it out by long, long division. (Y'know, I could use my calculator for this, and it would take less than a second.)

There are plenty of problem sets, of course, to make sure that I get familiar with the process and learn my way through the tables. There are no negative numbers in the tables, which is why negative logarithms in this era are expressed by the difference of two positive numbers. (My calculator simply shows the negative number, without any of that subtractive fooling around.)

In the historical spirit of learning logarithms in virtual 1958, I use the table in the back of the book to do these problems. It is somewhat analogous to my friends who spin wool on prehistoric-design drop spindles or who carve wood and bone into little animal figures. Ancient crafts are worth doing. I am also going on the notion that if it's tedious, hard, painstaking work, it's good for you. It will make me a better mathematician if I do lots of logarithm problems this way. (But my calculator's right there on the desk. Should I pretend the battery is dead?)

How many logarithm problems will I do in the next week? With apologies to the mathematical deities of thoroughness, I probably will not do every last one in the book. (Can't use my calculator? How much time do I have? Hide the calculator.) I'll pick the ones that have odd numbers. Or the ones that look juicy, or have lots of zeros. Or the ones which look "colorful" according to my math synesthesia. Unlike my fiber-fondling friends, I can't say that this will either be pleasant to the touch, or warm, or produce a useful item like a sweater, or even be creative. It's not romantic or heroic. It is number-crunching, pure and simple. And all right, I'll use the calculator, but just for checking my answers.

Posted at 2:53 am | link

Mon, 19 Jul, 2004

Like trying to cut the lawn with a scissors

After learning to find the common logarithm of a number in the tables of my 1958 book, I'm now learning to interpolate between logarithm entries to find the log of a number that is between the integers they cite in the table. There's a four-stage process to this which is too tedious to relate here. It's done in reverse to find the antilogarithm, or the number that's associated with the logarithm.

Of course, nowadays, you just look up the damn number on the calculator. Which brings me to a peculiar matter of practice when using the 1958 book. In 1958, no one had hand calculators. They had slide rules, or nothing but pencil and paper. I don't have a slide rule. When I started working with the 1958 book, I asked the question: should I do the problems in 1958 without a calculator, since students in those days didn't have them? Perhaps, for the sake of authenticity, I should work only with the tools that the students in 1958 had. For some of the subjects, such as polynomials, I didn't need a calculator. But when the answers were numbers, calculating was necessary, and I quickly realized that if I spent my time working all these multiplications and divisions out on paper, it would take me a long, long time. Not to mention that it would drive me crazy. So I used my calculator, a futuristic gadget solving problems from 46 years ago that were meant for guys with slide rules, or lots and lots of patience and time. So much for authenticity.

Even so, my style of doing math tends towards the stepwise, detailed, and sequential. I'll do all the problems in a set rather than skipping them as I used to when I was in school. I don't know whether this is the right way to do math. For all I know, the geniusboys who learn calculus on their own at age 11 do only two or three of the problems in a set, or perhaps none at all. If I had as much talent and energy as those young mathletes, I'd already be doing differential equations, rather than picking my way through logarithms.

When I do my math (or physics), I am approaching a vast field with a tiny little focus. When I read the weblogs or articles or biographies of scientists and mathematicians twenty years younger than I, they already know more about math, physics, and computer programming than I will ever know. It does not console me that I know more about art and how to draw and paint than they do. There is no comparison in power and complexity or knowledge and craft. If I look too far ahead, I feel overwhelmed, and have no idea where to go or what to do next. That's why I keep my focus low and small; this way at least I can do something. Doing those problems, one after another, is like trying to cut a lawn using a scissors.

I can't help wondering. Will I ever really get to calculus? Will I learn more than Newton's laws of motion? Will I ever learn to do even the simplest computer programming? Will I ever do a physics experiment, even the kind that kids do in middle school? (I never got to do anything like that in school.) And don't even let me think about WHY I'm doing this. Ambition isn't a pretty thing, especially in a lady of a "certain age." And if I think about what use I could possibly put this study to, that's even more dispiriting, because there probably isn't any use for it. So it's better not to think about it, and go on snipping, one little green problem at a time.

Posted at 3:17 am | link

Fri, 16 Jul, 2004


I couldn't resist this title.

I'm back in 1958, and the book is teaching me how to look up logarithms in the table in the back of the book. Please turn to page 568. Take the first two significant digits of the number you wish to find the logarithm for (common log, that is). Find that 2-digit number in the column to the left. Then look over the horizontal row to your number's right in the table to find the column under the third significant digit of your number. There will be a 3-digit number there, which must be preceded by the first digit which for space saving sake, has not been given but must be added from the column on the left. When you have a 4-digit number, that is the mantissa of your number. You have already found the characteristic of your number by calculating its log exponent in scientific notation. If your characteristic is negative (I know I'm often characterized as negative) then you must express your logarithm as the result of subtracting one positive number from another. Once you have determined this, you can put the characteristic and mantissa together and you have the common logarithm of your number.

But wait! This is 2004. Dazzling cities full of mile-high skyscrapers, joined with skywalks. Jet cars and flying bubbles take us where we want to go. Colonies on the Moon and even Mars. The "Science Police" make sure that we're all safe. War and poverty have been eliminated by wise social and genetic engineering. Everyone has perfect bodies and we're all wearing pink, aqua, and silver spandex jumpsuits with white boots! And logarithms? You just punch the numbers into your tiny hand-held calculator and out comes the answer, in a fraction of a second. Tom Slick! (as my old boss used to say when he was impressed.)

A New Kind of Art

I read a lot of scientists' blogs. I find them fascinating and I am so glad that science professionals take the time out of their busy lives to write these online journals. It gives me excellent insights into the lives and thought processes of folks I would never be able to talk to in person. The scientist bloggers talk about how they collaborate to write papers. And what it is like to teach classes in elementary physics when you are a high-level person trying to get your own research done. And they talk about their own specialty, what is going on there, what the controversies are, and what ideas are being offered as to how to resolve ongoing problems. Sometimes they even talk about the creative process of doing research, as the Australian physicist Michael Nielsen has been doing for the last week or so, in an inspiring set of essays about "Principles of Effective Research."

String theorists talk about their string stuff on their blogs, and it sounds, to me, like poetry in a foreign language. I can hear poetry recited in Russian, for instance, and know that it is poetry, even if I don't understand a word of it. But string theory, as everyone knows, is science. Well, it's supposed to be. Do I know this is science, even though I don't understand a word of it? Bosh! Science doesn't work that way! Just because it sounds like poetry to someone completely out of it, like me, doesn't mean a thing.

Lately, though, a note of self-doubt has been echoing in the blog writing of some of the string theorists. The lack of experimental verification has been getting to them. They desperately hope, perhaps against hope, that when the great supercollider at CERN goes online in 2007, something that confirms string theory, no matter how tenuous, will pop out of it. Meanwhile, they talk about how difficult it is to keep working on it, and how there are really no more places at the virtual table for any more scientists in the field, or at least how incredibly difficult it is to become a professional string theorist (or any other kind of physics theorist). Amanda Peet is a New Zealander who is now at the University of Toronto as a professor of theoretical physics and string theory. She was one of only two (count'em) two female scientists who appeared in the famous Brian Greene TV mini-series on string theory. She has a fascinating page on what it takes to become a professional physicist specializing in string theory. I can't help wondering, what would happen if a person tried to learn this stuff outside of a university career? Probably as impossible as trying to become a brain surgeon without going to graduate and medical school, I guess. Won't stop me from trying, though, since it wouldn't put anyone at risk.

The personnel picture, then, is small and esoteric for this kind of physics, and by its essential nature will remain that way. Yet curious outsiders like me can see into it, by way of the blog journals and websites. The more I see of this world, even if I can't (and may never) understand the substance of it, the more this subculture and its characters look familiar to me. They sound like artists. And this stuff sounds to me not like science, but like an art form. This is not a popular art form like comics or rock music. It's more like modern classical music, for instance twelve-tone and atonal music. Esoteric, demanding, relentlessly anti-popular, and accessible only to a few elite specialists. It's interesting that this musical system, dating from the early twentieth century, is highly mathematical, as if the originators wished to make music as "scientific" as possible.

It's possible that string theory will evolve, not into a science which describes "ultimate reality," but an art form that also aims at describing reality, but from another point of view. Unlike painting or simple music or writing, where anyone who wants to can at least play as an amateur, this mathematical physics art would be accessible only to people who would be willing to spend years learning it. It would probably exist only in universities, similar to that atonal modern music which found its only real home in academic music departments.

But as most classical music listeners (and even some composers) will tell you, twelve-tone music isn't what it used to be. Contemporary composers have moved on, even in the universities. It's been years since I've heard a recent twelve-tone or atonal piece, though I know there are still some die-hards writing and playing it and taking it very seriously. Will the same thing happen to string theory? There are fashions and trends in science, just as there are in music.

But there is an inescapable difference between art and science. Science demands proof, or at least experimental confirmation. Or, to put it in another way, it demands disproof, or falsification. An artwork can't be proved, disproved, or falsified. It can be judged as aesthetically good or bad, but there's no experiment or mathematical protocol out there that will tell you whether the art you see is good art or bad art. Statistics about how many people love a work of art are notoriously bad at measuring whether a work of art is really "great art."

Scientists sometimes attempt to prove their theories are right by the "elegance" or aesthetic value (at least mathematical-aesthetic) of their calculations and equations. Will this be the lasting legacy of string theory — though it was never proved that it had anything fundamental to say about the "real world," it created an art form which was arduous, difficult, serious, appreciated only by a few, and aesthetically beautiful?

Posted at 3:39 am | link

Tue, 13 Jul, 2004

Thoughts on a summer night

It's a stuffy, hazy, humid night tonight, the kind where sudden storms can rise up, rumble and rain, and be gone in minutes. I look to the western horizon, not much of a horizon here in the city, but at least to the west, from whence storms come. I block out the harsh fluorescent lights to see the sky more clearly, looking for weather. I wait for flashes of heat lightning at the horizon. I scan the weather radar online, looking for promising blobs of color heading my way. There are many of them, but not near me. I look out at the sky above the black trees again. The katydids chirp, the crickets sing, the air conditioners drone, but there is no thunder, and the sky is just a cloudy darkness, grey with reflected city lights. I want lightning, Nature's high energy physics right here on earth. But there is none here tonight. Maybe tomorrow night, there will be lightning and plasma and ozone and an electrical storm. There are not many nights like this in a year. The summer is so very brief.

Studying logarithms brings me again to one of those Heavy Philosophical Questions which fascinate me the way they do many other people who do math and science. Namely, why does the world as we know it follow mathematical patterns? Why is math so good at describing the universe and predicting its (at least non-quantum) features and events? There is even math for describing chaos and randomness.

There seem to be some very basic patterns that repeat to build up reality: multiplying, multiplying by oneself, periodicity, nesting complexity (like Russian dolls, one thing within another thing), proportionality, etc. Does the Universe HAVE to be that way? Could intelligence have evolved in a chaotic, fluid universe where things did not follow predictable patterns?

It brings me to an idea I found while reading the work of some theoretical physicist somewhere, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. He suggested (in the scenario of multiple universes that is so trendy nowadays) that universes that have order will survive longer than universes which do not have order. Chaos dissipates, order builds, at least for the time it takes to make a coherent universe in which intelligence can evolve. I wish I knew which physics guy said this. Perhaps it was Murray Gell-Mann.

I am told, by one of my Friendly Scientists, that this is related to what is known as the "weak anthropic principle," which states that the universe could have had other patterns and other physical laws, but we would not have evolved there to see them. So the reason our universe follows the patterns it does, is because we evolved within those patterns and our physical beings are evolved to work within the laws as they exist in this universe. We can see it, and make mathematics to explain it, because we're already part of it, and are formed by it.

A similar idea is proposed by Lee Smolin, whom I wrote about earlier this year. He says that zillions of universes are "created," each with different parameters, but only a few of them have the conditions necessary to evolve matter and stars, let alone living things. There is, by his reckoning, a whole "ecology" of universes, in which a kind of "natural selection" takes place. Each universe starts with a different set of physical parameters. Some of them have no coherence or stability, and disappear quickly. Others persist for a while, until some factor in their allotment of laws and constants overwhelms them and they also collapse. But others, whose conditions are more favorable, will develop stars, galaxies, and the re-cycling process that allows the precursor elements of organic life to develop. These "clusters" of universes will last longer, and within those clusters, one or two of them will survive long enough to develop life. And then within that lucky portion, the life that survives will develop intelligence, and collectively live long enough to build a society in which theoretical physicists can wonder about the anthropic principle.

Posted at 2:16 am | link

Sat, 10 Jul, 2004

The perplexities of e

One of my favorite math reference books is the monumental Mathematics: from the Birth of Numbers, by Swedish writer Jan Gullberg, illustrated by Jan's son Per, as well as other members of his family. Gullberg was not a mathematician; he was a surgeon, who also wrote on scientific and medical topics. This grand compendium, published in 1996, was recommended to me by one of my Friendly Scientists who unfortunately is no longer with us. Charles Sheffield, who died in 2002, was both a scientist and a science fiction writer. When I told Sheffield, at a convention in 2001, that I was studying mathematics, he immediately cited me the Gullberg title, and said that this book would last me a lifetime. It's not something you read sequentially, like a novel; it's a reference book, where you look up what you need, when and where you need it.

It has an excellent chapter on logarithms and their origins. Mathematics, like music and costuming, is one of those fields of human endeavor where the past is everpresent, and where practitioners willingly attend to details of tradition that may go back thousands of years. Gullberg recounts the work of seventeenth-century Scottish mathematician John Napier. Though he's credited with the invention of logarithms, he actually must share that credit with one of his English contemporaries, Henry Briggs. It is Napier, though, whose name appears with logarithms based on the number e even though the books say that he didn't invent this form. The logarithm chapter of the Gullberg book shows a somewhat poorly printed facsimile page of Napier's book A Description of the Admirable Table oe Logarithmes, With a declaration of the most plentiful, easy, and speedy vie thereof in both kindes of Trigonometrie, as also in all Mathematicall calculations.

Currently I'm learning to identify the parts of logarithms, the characteristic and the mantissa. Gullberg, always ready to deliver fascinating mathematical and linguistic tidbits, writes:

Mantissa is a late Latin word of Etruscan origin, meaning "addition" or "makeweight" — that is, something added to make up the weight; it later came to acquire also the meaning of "appendix."

It is the decimal, or non-integer, part of a logarithm. See what I mean about ancient traditions!

And so I have finally been introduced to e. Even Gullberg is hard to understand when he talks about the derivation of e, or why logarithms using it are called natural. As with other transcendental numbers, golden ratios, and other ancient mathematical realities, I must accept these as features of the world without asking too many questions, at least for now. Repeat after me the hopeful, eschatological prayer of the aspiring mathematician/scientist: "Its usefulness and value will be revealed to me in the future."

Posted at 2:41 am | link

Tue, 06 Jul, 2004

One of those little victories which keep me going

The fireworks are out and it's back to math. I'm working my way through lots of logarithm problems. As you may remember from last time, I spoke in a rather agricultural way about "raising" and "rooting" numbers. How would I describe a logarithm, then? It's a number seed which when planted, both raises and roots at the same time.

As I understand it, a logarithm is the number which designates how one number, called the "base," can be transformed into another number, (can't find the term for this one), not by plain old multiplication, but by either multiplying the base by itself (raising) or taking the root of it, whether square, cube, or whatever (rooting). The root is the number that has to be multiplied by itself in order to get your base number.

The logarithm is that fractional distillation of all the raising and rooting that has to be done to turn one number into another. I have no idea (yet) how the mathematicians of history came up with the logarithms that fill the tables at the back of the book, but logarithms, like sines and cosines, are something that you look up, or nowadays, punch into your calculator.

My problem set comes from Algebra 1958. Like all math problem sets, the examples start simply and then progress one by one to greater complexity. With more than a couple of mistakes here and there, which I rectified by the somewhat dishonest process of working backwards from the given answer, I found my way to problem number 63. "Find the logarithm, to the base 10, of 25." OK, to you mathematicians and scientists out there, this is child's play. But I've never seen this kind of thing before. I couldn't just go look it up, because the book specified that I could only use the logarithms (to base 10) of 2, 3, and 7, which were given in the problem set.

So far I had been solving 'em by factoring out whatever number they wanted, into combinations of 2's, 3's, and 7's. But what to do with 25? Sure, it's a perfect square of 5, but they didn't give me any logarithm for 5. I pondered over it for a while, trying to figure out how to get 25 to be a combination of 2, 3, or 7. Factoring didn't work, because that 5 stood in the way. What I needed was something that 10 could be raised to, since I was already working with a base of 10, and also something that 2 could be raised to, since I knew the logarithm of 2.

So finally I thought it out. How else could I express number 25 so it would be in the realm of 10's and 2's? Hey, isn't 25 also 100 divided by 4? What if I translated 25 into 100/4? Then it works out just fine, 'cause four is 2 squared and I have the logarithm of 2. Sure enough, 100/4 did the trick, and the rest of the calculation, as long as I followed the logarithm rules, was quick and easy. With trepidation I went to the back of the book to check the answer for problem number 63. I know, real mathematicians don't bother with the answers at the back of the book. So I'm not real (am I imaginary?). The book's answer was exactly mine, so I was RIGHT. Yeah! It's kind of the feeling that you get when you land a crunched-up piece of paper into a narrow wastebasket from 10 feet away. It's trivial, but it's satisfying.

Posted at 2:33 am | link

Sun, 04 Jul, 2004

Ray Bradbury days

It's Ray Bradbury Day today, July 4. That's not the official holiday, of course, and no one else knows about it but me. But this weekend of high summer and sultry nights and fireworks is what American fantasy writer Ray Bradbury evoked in many of his stories. No writer that I know has written so beautifully about summer, about light-effects and weather, and in general about nostalgic Americana. Therefore I honor him today.

His writing is out of fashion these days, too sweet for an age that exalts brutality. By today's standards, he is guilty of sentimentality and over-writing. Yet most of his stories hold up just fine when read in 2004, which was the far future when he was writing most of them. Only his use of the word "rocket" for "spacecraft" sounds dated. Some of his tales, which I have been re-reading lately, are truly prescient. I hope that many of those stories, about atomic war, are not at all prescient. Bradbury is still alive, and I also hope that he is at least getting some satisfaction over seeing wonderful machines like the Mars Rovers and Cassini exploring Mars and Saturn, even if people won't get there in his lifetime, and even if there are no dark, golden-eyed Native Martians looking into the rovers' cameras.

Ray Bradbury spent his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, north of Chicago, and when he was about 12, his family moved to Southern California. One of the major themes of his writing is exile from a lush, green, long-settled Midwestern environment to a harsh desert in which humans have to build pioneer towns up from the bare dirt, spreading tacky artificiality over the landscape. California, in his stories, became Mars. I wonder what he imagines now, looking over the pictures taken by "Spirit" and "Opportunity," which show Mars looking rather like Arizona without the cacti. Is that desolate landscape familiar to him?

The Chicago area, like much of the northern Midwest as well as my native New England, is a place where the seasons vary drastically. The temperatures can range from below zero in winter to above 90 degrees in summer. And there isn't much summer, really only about two months' worth. Summer, to a kid growing up in these places, is infinitely precious — not only is it warm, but you are out of school and (at least in earlier days) able to spend long afternoons fishing, or wandering, or just dreaming. Bradbury's childhood, immortalized in his book DANDELION WINE, perfects the memories:

…"I'm going to…keep track of things. For instance, you realize that every summer we do things over and over we did the whole darn summer before?"
"Like what, Doug?"
"Like making dandelion wine, like buying those new tennis shoes, like shooting off the first firecracker of the year, like making lemonade, like getting slivers in our feet, like picking wild fox grapes. Every year the same things, same way, no change, no difference. That's one half of summer, Tom."
"What's the other half?"
"Things we do for the first time ever."(page 19)

The most glorious thing in the summer is July fourth, and the fireworks displays. No one loves fireworks more than Ray Bradbury. No writer that I know can top his descriptions of this high ritual of summer. What's even better is that he put futuristic science fiction, weird fantasy, Mid-American nostalgia, and the Fourth of July all together. In my favorite Bradbury story of all, The Fire Balloons (from The Illustrated Man, 1951), decent but misguided priests travel to Mars hoping to convert the natives to Christianity. Here is how the story opens:

"Fire exploded over summer night lawns. You saw sparkling faces of uncles and aunts. Skyrockets fell up in the brown shining eyes of cousins on the porch, and the cold charred sticks thumped down in dry meadows far away.
The Very Reverend Father Joseph Daniel Peregrine opened his eyes. What a dream: he and his cousins with their fiery play at his grandfather's ancient Ohio home so many years ago!
He lay listening to the great hollow of the church, the other cells where other Fathers lay. Had they, too, on the eve of the flight of the rocket Crucifix,lain with memories of the Fourth of July? Yes. This was like those breathless Independence dawns when you waited for the first concussion and rushed out on the dewy sidewalks, your hands full of loud miracles."(The Illustrated Man, page 75)

The priests encounter not unconverted natives but mysterious floating blue globes of light. The men are naturally frightened, but the dreaming Father Peregrine once again recalls fireworks, as well as his grandfather's "fire balloons" (which sound quite dangerous to modern eco-sensibilities):

"And again, Independence Night, thought Father Peregrine, tremoring. He felt like a child back in those July Fouth evenings, the sky blowing apart, breaking into powdery stars and burning sound, the concussions jingling house windows like the ice on a thousand thin ponds. The aunts, uncles, cousins, crying, "Ah!" as to some celestial physician. The summer sky colors. And the Fire Balloons, softly lighted, warmly billowed bits of tissue, like insect wings, lying like folded wasps in boxes and, last of all, after the day of riot and fury, at long last from their boxes, delicately unfolded, blue, red, white, patriotic — The Fire Balloons! He saw the dim faces of dear relatives long dead and mantled with moss as Grandfather lit the tiny candle and let the warm air breathe up to form the balloon plumply luminous in his hands, a shining vision which they held, reluctant to let it go; for, once released, it was yet another year gone from life, another Fourth, another bit of Beauty vanished. And then up, up, still up through the warm summer night constellations, the Fire Balloons had drifted, while red-white-and-blue eyes followed them, wordless, from family porches. Away into deep Illinois country, over night rivers and sleeping mansions the Fire Balloons dwindled, forever gone…."(page 80)

The glowing Martian spheres turn out to be disembodied, almost angelic beings, who have no need of religion or redemption, but who renew the priests' own faith. This is Bradbury at his finest.

But there is always that sense of impermanency, the knowledge that the idyllic warmth of Summer is fleeting, especially in a climate where there are ten months of winter. Bradbury was haunted by that, as I am. Even though I now live in a somewhat milder climate, summer will be over before I can turn around. Bradbury writes about this in one of his most famous stories, A Scent of Sarsaparilla, published in his 1959 collection A Medicine for Melancholy. In this story, a man discovers a time-warp in his attic, though Cora, his mean-spirited wife, hates the idea:

"Cora," he said,…"you know what attics are? They're Time Machines, in which old, dim-witted men like me can travel back forty years to a time when it was summer all year round and children raided ice wagons. Remember how it tasted? You held the ice in your handkerchief. It was like sucking the flavor of linen and snow at the same time."
Cora fidgeted.
(…)"Well, wouldn't it be interesting," he asked…,if Time Travel could occur? And what more logical, proper place for it to happen than in an attic like ours, eh?"
"It's not always summer back in the old days," she said. "It's just your crazy memory. You remember all the good things and forget the bad. It wasn't always summer."
"Figuratively speaking, Cora, it was."
"What I mean is this," he said…"If you rode your unicycle carefully between the years, balancing, hands out, careful, careful, if you rode from year to year, spent a week in 1909, a day in 1900, a month or a fortnight somewhere else, 1905, 1898, you could stay with summer the rest of your life."
"You know, one of those tall chromium one-wheeled bikes, single-seater, the performers ride in vaudeville shows, juggling. Balance, true balance, it takes, not to fall off, to keep the bright objects flying in the air, beautiful, up and up, a light, a flash, a sparkle, a bomb of brilliant colors, red, yellow, blue, green, white, gold; all the Junes and Julys and Augusts that ever were, in the air, about you, at once, hardly touching your hands, flying, suspended, and you, smiling, among them. Balance, Cora, balance."
"Blah," she said, "blah, blah." And added, "blah!"

Happy Ray Bradbury Day, and happy July. Taste and enjoy, for summer will be gone before you know it.

(What, no math? Don't worry, I'll be back with more math and science in a bit.)

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