Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Friday, June 01, 2007

Shelf life

Over the last few days, I re-read a couple of books, both after at least a dozen years. The first of these was Changing Places by David Lodge. It's about two professors of English, one at a hotshot West Coast university and the other at a drab English university, who go on exchange for a semester to each other's departments. I remember liking it a lot when I'd read it first - oh - when I was in the eleventh or twelfth grade, I think. I'd got it from the British Council library, and that was the time I used to go there frequently (and try to figure out what was funny about Punch).

I thought I should read this book again partly because I remember enjoying it the first time round, and partly because I'm now in the profession, so to speak. I thought I might enjoy it even more. Funnily, I didn't. I found myself putting the book down every few minutes, every five or ten pages. It was still very good, I think, and very clever and everything, but it just seemed forced. I wonder why -- it's not as if I have anything against cleverness (more on this below) and I'm not even a huge fan of linearity as I realised while walking away from watching Das Leben der Anderen. (Yes, I finally got to watch it. It was very good, but a little too linear, don't you think? And what was with all those "two years later" bits?) I thought it might be due to my (not so) newfound underwhelmedness by what I was recently castigated for calling "storybooks". Makes me wonder: there's so much wild stuff that's gone down in the world, there's so much to know about -- that seems to be my rationale for preferring to not read storybooks given the opportunity to read. (Also explains my suckerishness for bookstores -- I ended up buying five new ones over the weekend :-| So much for travelling light.) I guess films work as entertainment because in general they're so much lighter than books. You sit back, you absorb for a couple of hours, and then you're done. "Heavy" films are either the deep-meaningful types, usually with telling profound stories with lots of dark and negative feelings, or they're the meaningless-on-the-surface ones, which critics can spend fifty years delving into constructing "meaning". (I'm thinking about Bunuel here.) These are generalities, I know. And I sort of lost the point that I was trying to make, but it's something to do with fiction versus non-fiction in books, versus fiction versus non-fiction in films. If someone can find that point, let me know.

The second book I got back in touch with was one that was very close to my heart for years and years. There were three books that I read as a kid that made me want to become a physicist. The most critical one was The Structure of the Universe by Jayant Narlikar. I got it for my birthday, and a few days later an elder cousin visited and saw the book and dismissively remarked that I'd never understand it. So of course I had to. I spent seven years chasing it. The second was The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav. Where Narlikar's book communicated the macho-ness of physics, in spades, I might add, this book reinforced its coolness. A coolness that died many years later, when I learned about all the mysticism crap that this stream of thought had led towards.

The third book was Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman. I'm definite that there's a generation - if not more - of young Indian geeklets who've grown up idolising Richard Feynman. I mean, who wouldn't, after reading this book? Well, I learned quickly enough when I lent it to a neighbor who was a dozen years older and a sociology student to boot (and we all know what Jim Hacker has to say about that). This person returned the book saying she was put off by Feynman -- he just seemed too full of himself. I was aghast at the blasphemy and discontinued the conversation post haste.

Which is why it was interesting to me that, so many years after having interacted with all parties concerned, one of my first reactions to the book was indeed that Feynman was making too big a deal out of himself.


Reading through, though, I began to change my mind. The guy really was a genius and he was just telling it like he saw it. Self-effacingness isn't the greatest of American virtues anyway, and this was an American who really was an exceptional person who had so much to tell the world. One image that had stuck with me all these years was that of a comment by one of his students in the introduction to either this or one his Lectures. That student had said something about how it felt great to just walk into a class with Feynman. He'd be standing there, smiling to himself, playing with a piece of chalk. In his book he talks about the delight of communicating the joy of physics, and I'd held on to that thought. A good teacher doesn't just communicate the content, s/he also communicates the joy of knowing the material. A lot of human knowledge is just really cool. And anyone who can communicate some of that coolness is doing the world a favor.

Which sort of brings me back to what I was trying to say about fiction versus non-fiction in books.

Much as I did when I was fourteen, revisiting Dick Feynman made me revisit my ambition to be the best I can as a communicator.


Anonymous Brown Magic said...

I loved that book (and this post). I was very disheartened when I finally realized that despite what my mother said, I couldn't be anything I wanted. I could be anything that didn't involve science.

6/01/2007 2:05 AM  
Blogger Veena said...

Bill wants to check whether you ever were at the kumbh mela. Narlikar and Feynman apparently strikes too close to home. I reminded him it didn't really matter since unlike you, he copped out to study computer science (of all things)! He says that maybe that's better than copping out later in life, after studying physics, to study marketing :)

6/01/2007 2:52 AM  
Blogger km said...

Lodge's books are kinda funny in parts. Then again, I haven't read "Changing Places" in so long.

Dude, we all loves the Feyn-Man but sometimes, just sometimes, don't you find his "look at me! I'm freaking awesome!!" mode a bit, only a teensy-weensy bit tiring? Granted, he is FEYNMAN but still.

/that sound you hear is millions of Indian "geeklets" dipping their plastic Reynolds 045s in nitric acid to tell me why I am wrong about Feynman.

//Dude, I've got flight timing issues on the weekend. Will email you about the plan.

6/01/2007 4:36 AM  
Blogger km said...

forgot to add to my last comment: "assuming you're going to be reveling in Brotherly Love over the weekend."

6/01/2007 4:38 AM  
Blogger Rahul said...

"Surely you're joking" was fun and all (I don't find it "full of himself" -- if anyone had the right, he did). And a lot of his stunts are genuinely interesting. It was reading his description of beating an abacus speed-user in calculating cube roots that caused me to stop using log tables in exams. I could quickly get my answers to within a few percent, which was good enough.

But it's The Feynman Lectures in Physics that are the most awesome undergraduate physics texts ever. Especially Volume 1. It's the sort of book that gets you excited as an undergraduate, but continues to make you think over the years.

I find it incredible that undergraduates in India today (at least, the ones I meet) don't seem to have heard of, let alone read, those books.

Feynman had a regret that he never discovered a new law of physics (he mentions beta decay in his book as the only time he knew a law nobody else did, but in later editions he admitted that "it wasn't true" and Sudarshan/Marshak and Gell-Mann did it first). But he had a new way of thinking of quantum mechanics (path integrals) and a new way of doing calculations (Feynman diagrams) without which physics would not be the same. Even if he didn't discover new physics, he enabled its use.

6/01/2007 11:19 AM  
Blogger scout said...

i actually rather liked that book. and like bm says, i can't do science (or scientologists)... but i'm great at being envious.

6/01/2007 5:31 PM  
Blogger gaddeswarup said...

Interesting post. Should come back to it and your other posts some day. Busy with what I hope is my last math. paper. Keep writing.

6/01/2007 7:54 PM  
Blogger Abi said...

If you liked "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman", check out his second volume of memoirs (may be you already have). It's a lot more mature (not too much of 'look how smart I am') and much, much more likable. There is even a somber section dealing with his first wife's terminal illness.

6/01/2007 9:54 PM  
Blogger km said...

"Lectures in Physics" is *such* a great book. (And I agree with Abi about the second book...)

(Rahul: of course he had the right.)

6/01/2007 10:24 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

See, I read Feynman back in the 80's and I thought it was very fly. Maybe it's time for a cynical re-read.

6/02/2007 1:47 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thank you :-)
yes, that realization must have been hard. i had a similar insight over the course of tracking the age profiles of various athletes.

hah! i think it's not a copout as long as you can still pretend you're being feynman :-D

brilliant about the reynolds!! i used to *swear* by those things!

i think rahul has probably the best response to the "full of himself" point. he was just telling things as they were. and besides, as we say these days, "it's his blog".

you meet undergrads who haven't heard of the feynman lectures?! you have to stop hanging around the sociology department.

you can't do scientologists?! that's a new one :-)

thanks -- and you too!

oh yes, "what do you care what other people think" was a brilliant memoir as well. and the title served as a fitting capstone for a philosophy of life, especially as a high-schooler / undergrad.
the parts relating to his first wife were *very* moving -- in both the first book as well as the second.

uh, what's "fly"? (never a bad time for a re-read anyway.)

6/03/2007 8:13 PM  
Anonymous scout said...

tr: mt is pretty fly for a brown guy, in't he?

6/04/2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i think i know what you're saying... so that means you can ask him to buzz off, right?

6/06/2007 1:11 AM  

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