Monday, June 14, 2010

Nature; new story

Started reading Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science, by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, who writes for the New York Times. It appeared on the new book shelf at the library, and concerns a topic that had been on my mind recently, namely the system of classification for living things. Yoon posits that the scientific approach shouldn't simply trump our (evolved) approach to categorizing living things, and she walks us through the history of classification.

I have out from the library two books on caving. Haven't started them yet. They're to be resources for the next short storry in my "Old Man" set of tales, to be titled either "Unfathomable" or (looking more likely today) "Firmness of Earth." This is another prequel to "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down," taking place in the 1920s.

My process for these stories is increasingly non-linear. Maybe I've discovered how I think. Or maybe I just have zero attention span for writing. I've typed up three pages containing summaries of scenes, bits of dialogue, one coherent paragraph (that almost certainly won't end up in later drafts), some background notes, and a rather detailed description of . . . some creatures. While doing dishes just now, I figured out something about the theme and a few more plot points that are essential.

Still waiting to hear back about "Clockworks."


Calvin said...

I recently read Naming Nature and really liked it. It has some lacunae--for example, why not start with the Great Categorizer, Aristotle? -- and I have a few quibbles, but otherwise thought it a very good book.

William Preston said...

I'm only in the second chapter. I did wonder why she started so late. She passingly mentions Aristotle, but I think doesn't (or hasn't, yet) sufficiently diss the ancients for simply making up information, even about biological or physical things they could have observed.

BTW, my middle daughter is working in a theoretical physics lab at her college this summer.

Calvin said...

No, she doesn't dis Aristotle; I supposed she just couldn't fit him into the scheme for the book.

I'm on the last lap for Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream. While it has its problems, I'm enjoying it immensely. One thing I am appreciating is, Stan resists making Galileo a mouthpiece for certain views (unlike other books mentioned recently on this blog). The whole heresy trial is presented as appropriately complex. Stan neither apologizes for the Church's actions and the horrifying things Galileo goes through (and indeed, suggests that an even worse fate was possible), not does he cast the Pope and his crew as mustache-twirling monsters. Instead, there are complex political forces at work here, in a system full of flawed humans. Galileo, too, is presented as a complex, flawed human (but not too over the top). While the book is, at heart, about the politics of science, it does not take the easy way out; Stan portrays politics and sciences as irrevocably entangled, yet he does not fall victim to the postmodern view that science is just politics by another name. I mention this because, somewhat like Naming Nature, it is a book about the collision between science and the experience of being human.

Good for your daughter. It's not easy to do theory at the undergraduate level; the required technical skills are rather daunting. (I say this having been at both ends, of course, as both student and mentor.) If she has excellent computing skills that can be helpful.

William Preston said...

The only KSR I've read is the first few chapters of Red Mars. I became daunted by the thing's girth and stopped. Is this also voluminous?

My oldest daughter is especially interested in the science/faith intersection/clash. (She was a bio and English major, and she's a science writer.) And I haven't heard anything about computing from the middle one (I think she may take something next year, however). She and three other students are studying fractal dimensions and dark energy, doing tons of math, reading papers, and sitting in a room with sofas and blackboards. The aim is to help the prof produce a paper. She told me her astro class is going to a telescope in Arizona this fall.

Calvin said...

Galileo's Dream is indeed voluminous, though not as daunting as Red Mars. I also think GD is more readable than RM for a number of reasons. GD has only a single POV, Galileo's naturally, where as RM had a huge cast. Also one of the themes of the Mars trilogy is the cyclic nature of history, and the unknowability of history, so you have a lot of repetition and a lot of characters wandering the Marsscape endlessly. And it sometimes feels endless. GD has a more definite plot arc.

For a shorter, terrific KSR novel, try his first: Icehenge. Terrific.

It is not at all easy to involve undergraduates in theory work. I'm not saying this as any sort of criticism; in fact, I'm impressed when someone can pull it off. Lab work is easier, because you can have a student run samples, or take data, and so on. Theory usually involves math far, far, far beyond the undergraduate level, not the easy stuff like calculus and linear algebra and differential equations. (Yes, that's the easy stuff.) But even simply trying teaches the students an enormous amount, so it's worth it, although it can be hard to pull a paper out. I'll be interested to hear how it works out for your daughter.

When I was an undergrad I ended up at the campus cyclotron, and eventually used my computer skills to do data analysis...

William Preston said...

The math: She just finished her sophomore year, but she was taking junior-level math. I think she's been teaching herself fractional calculus this summer in order to do the physics work. She really has a head for the math. She'll say it's "hard," but all that seems to mean is that she has to learn it.

I know a fellow student told her last year to take a computing class, as that skill set would come in handy. So far, she just does page-long calculations by hand, near as I can tell.

We'll see what comes out of it all.

She might be going to Berlin this summer at one point with the group; also Princeton. Her astro class in the fall has lined up some time on a telescope out in Arizona.

Thanks for the shorter KSR rec. I hadn't heard of that one.