Strings, Rings, and Other Things

Recently read: Shadows, by Robin McKinley
During our travel to and from Nebraska this Christmas, I finally read Robin McKinley's latest novel, Shadows. It's an (urban) fantasy story set in a small city in "Newworld", which seems to be a fairly close copy of modern America (to the extent that highschoolers still read books like "Anna Karenina", which of course must have been written somewhere in the Slavic parts of "Oldworld"). The setting is intriguing: two or three generations earlier, the government of Newworld banned everything to do with magic, and required all children with magical ability to have the gene for it medically removed. Now, when dangerous "cohesion breaks" appear (due to intrusions of other worlds), instead of magicians handling the problem the Newworld military rushes in to contain and close them using scientific equipment. That's the setting; the story itself is about a high school senior who can't stand her new stepfather and the unsettling way that the shadows around him seem much more alive and threatening than they have any right to be.

I'm not quite sure what to say about the book. I liked the setting, both the parts that were spelled out in detail and the parts that were just hinted at: it felt similar in some ways to the setting of Sunshine, though with more of an "oppressive government" vibe rather than Sunshine's "post-war recovery" feel. I liked the characters, too: the high school kids seemed realistically done (though I was sad that the lead character was was so down on math), and the adults were a fine supporting cast (as seen through high school eyes). Even the general shape of the story was good.

But overall, I think that the pacing just felt a bit off. That became clear to me when the action was just on the verge of taking off and I realized that I was already 2/3 of the way through the book. In terms of the ebb and flow of the story, this whole book feels a lot like Sunshine might if that book ended just after Rae woke up at home the morning after her escape (the end of "Part 1": its first third). The slow initial pace may have also contributed to a bit too much telegraphing of some "mysteries" that are revealed midway through the story. I can't begrudge the attention that McKinley gives to establishing the characters and their relationships, which she does quite well, but I really wish we had an Act 2 and Act 3 to realize a bit of the potential that's hastily suggested in the final few pages of the novel. (I might feel more content to accept that unfinished business if McKinley ever wrote sequels.)

So what's my take-home review? If you enjoy McKinley's writing, Shadows is worth reading. I'd place it happily in the second tier of her work, below the Damar books and Sunshine but clearly above, say, Chalice. It's fun, but I wish it had been just a little bit more than that.

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An unexpected party
Backstory: In my classes, I put my email address on the syllabus and tell students that I'll write back as soon as I can (sometimes even at crazy hours, if I happen to be up). Kim is even nicer: she even gives her students her home phone number (with strict instructions not to call past bedtime).

Fast forward to last night: Just as we were starting to clean up from dinner, the phone rang. Kim answered, and then said, "So you're having trouble with quantum mechanics? Sure, I'll get him." She handed the phone to me, and in response to my inquiring look she explained, "It's A---."

It turns out that A--- has the dubious fortune of taking classes from both Kim and me this semester, so when her study group got stuck on stuff for my class, she knew how to reach me. After a couple minutes of attempting to help over the phone, one of the folks in their group said, "We've got lots of questions on this stuff: can we just come talk to you in person?"

I paused for a moment as several thoughts flashed through my head: "Are you kidding? We've got to clean up and start moving toward bedtime." "This would be delightfully random." "Studies show high retention rates for students who make strong connections with faculty in their first semester of college." So I responded, "Sure! Here's our address." And a few minutes later, three students showed up at our door.

They stuck around for half and hour or so, maybe a bit more, and it went really well: with some extra hints and nudging from me, I think all three of them really solidified their understanding of the topic.[1] They also looked like they were having fun, and none of them could quite believe that it was real. (After ten or fifteen minutes, one of them randomly exclaimed, "Hey, remember that time in freshman year when we went to a professor's house at night for help on our homework?") It was fun, and I like to think that it had a positive impact, too.

[1]Namely, how to calculate probabilities when measuring the spin of an electron in a specified superposition state. Maybe I should have looked for some visually simpler way to represent superposition states than Dirac's ket notation, but I don't really know of a better alternative.

Thoughts on Worm
I recently finished reading a web serial called "Worm". (In other news, I forgot to bring any fun books to read to last week's physics conference.) I'm not sure what to say about it, or even whether to recommend it, but it was a heck of a read. Worm is a very long superhero story whose main character is a 15-year-old girl with the random and not obviously useful ability to control nearby bugs. The quality is a bit uneven, it's often pretty dark, and there were times that it was outright annoying or just too darn long. But its fictional world is quite good at aiming for "the inner consistency of reality", which is important to me, and it weaves a complex and (I think) satisfying story within that setting.

I obviously enjoyed Worm enough to read all of its ~1.8 million words on and off over the course of half a year or so (or more?). (That's something like 10-11 long novels, or almost 6 Wheel of Time books). I cared enough about the characters to want to know how things turned out for them, and enough about the fictional world to want to find out what was really going on. Many chunks of the plot were gripping (both on the scale of scenes and chapters and on the scale of novel-length arcs). It's an enjoyable story.

But on the other hand, there were multiple points along the way where I almost stopped reading (or where I did stop, only for unsatisfied curiosity to suck me back in weeks later). There are several points early on when the main character makes choices that seem blatantly at odds with her well-established goals (which may be forgivable in-story because she's so young, but that didn't make it less annoying to me as a reader). The pacing is inconsistent: in some places the character development and action flow beautifully, but in others it feels like a single plot arc is dragging out about twice as long as it needs to, and in others (well, one other) it skips right over a vast expanse of time that really ought to have been fleshed out more. The story could definitely benefit from a round or two of revision, and probably some professional editing.

There were a few times when Worm's tone rubbed me the wrong way, too. Especially near the start, there's a significant vibe of "adults don't care enough to help" that felt unfairly broad and lacking in nuance to me. Later on, there are a handful of minor places where the story seems to buy in to juvenile anti-feminism. (But then you keep reading, and close to the end there's a completely tangential moment of explicit opposition to rape culture thrown in out of nowhere, so I was left more neutral on that score than I expected to be.) And it sometimes feels too cynical about its people: nobody's perfect, sure, but I wish more characters in the story were more or less decent.

Overall, though, the underlying ethos of the story was right up my alley. A big theme is watching characters find ways to succeed by thinking carefully and making the most of small advantages. Sometimes (sometimes) that's even enough to overcome opposition that is intrinsically stronger or more politically powerful. Even more central to the story is moral ambiguity: there are frequent questions of ends vs. means, conflicting loyalties to family, friends, and society, and it's very rare that there are any easy answers. Even a lot of the worst "villains" have some degree of depth. And the thing that makes all that work for me is simple: the main character is trying to do the best she can for the people around her, even when her choices aren't what they ought to be.

So should you read it? I really couldn't say. I don't even have a good answer to how far you should read before you decide whether it's for you. But there are things about the story that I think will stick with me for a while.
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Memories of the present
I saw this comic recently.

Somewhere in the house is a box containing the plans I drew up around age 12 for pretty much exactly this. (Without the Oculus Rift part, but instead with a complicated multiple controller setup for large-scale team play.) As I recall, my drawings were heavy on the concepts and light on engineering details. :)

My childhood vision began as "Battlestar Galactica fleet vs. Cylon Basestar fleet in the sky", but I gradually expanded it to include at least two additional very distinct teams. I don't think I quite recognized at the time just how far out of reach my ideas were for the technology of the day, but it's awesome to think that someone could conceivably do it for real right now.

We have left our mark on the face of the heavens
We live in a remarkable era. If you brought an ancient Greek astronomer to the present day and dropped him off in a field somewhere, he would be awestruck, and maybe terrified. (Heck, it probably wouldn't even need to be an astronomer: I think that most people were quite familiar with the night sky until recent times.)

The meteor shower was pretty much a bust: I was outside for a decent stretch and only saw two for sure, plus a couple more "maybes" that were too brief and dim for me to judge whether they came from the expected radiant point. (To be fair, from where I was in our backyard I was seeing far less than the full sky.)

But in the same time, I saw at least half a dozen satellites, ranging from "almost too dim to see" to "easily the brightest object in the sky". It's obviously been too long since I just lay back to watch the stars: those things are now a near-constant presence. So I really do wonder how that Greek time traveler would react to the modern sky: what would those swift-moving, variable brightness points of light mean to him? What would Plato make of it? What stories would Homer tell?

For that matter, I'm sure that there are still plenty of societies and communities today that have little knowledge of high technology, from isolated tribes to rural villages. What do *they* make of the satellites that now pass constantly over their heads? This is a recent phenomenon: its origin is easily within living memory, and it has only gradually become as frequent as it is today. What stories do those people tell? Do they know or guess that these are the work of human beings? Do they fear that the newly mobile stars are an omen of some approaching doom?

And what stories might we tell about ourselves, as we alter the face of the heavens so deeply without ever pausing to think what an astounding achievement that is?

Wanted: Time travel short story recommendations
I'm teaching a First Year Seminar class this fall entitled "Time Travel in Science and Literature", and I'm looking for suggestions on the "Literature" part. I honestly don't know how much reading is reasonable to assign in this context, so my main request here is for short story suggestions. (I'm also considering a couple of short-ish books: Einstein's Dreams by Lightman, and possibly The Time Machine by Wells.)

There are a lot of angles I could take on the "literature" side of things, so I'm open to a wide range of suggestions. The important thing is for time travel itself to be central to the story in some way: there should either be a focus on the "science" itself or it should be an essential ingredient of the plot or the meaning of the story. (That makes me hesitate a bit about the Wells, in fact: his science is quite nice, but I'm a little worried about whether "time travel primarily for purpose of social commentary" strays a little far from my aims. But it is a classic, and that's clearly a valid use of the time travel plot device. I just wonder whether it's a whole novel's worth of value in my context.)

[Edit: Oh, and for the record, I'd love to have a good "twin paradox" story, too.]

Other background info:
I'd like to have included the phrase "the Nature of Time" in the title, too, but it started to feel cluttered... both as a phrase and as a course.

On the science side I have an initial sense of what I'm going to do (probably), including talk about space-time diagrams and having them read (at least part of) Sean Carroll's book "From Eternity to Here". (There are no prerequisites for the class, so I can't really use much math at all: concepts and pretty pictures it is!) I may not have time in the class to talk more than a little bit about entropy and the arrow of time, though, so I'm still contemplating options here, too.

Belated self-congratulatory link
I meant to share this earlier (and I don't think I already have), but I've been swamped. I'm still swamped, but I want to close some browser tabs. So here's my fifteen five three and a half minutes of fame in the Alma College student newspaper: Physics professor Jensen receives special recognition for effort inside, outside of classroom; students concur.

This was an award from one of our campus sororities, and I was truly touched when the student who nominated me repeated her nominating speech to the assembled group. She had good things to say about my physics teaching and my dedication to helping her and other students learn the subject and be successful, which was great. But the thing that she really appreciated most was the attention that I have given to women's issues in the classroom: I don't do a whole lot (and for the most part I don't even devote class time to it), but she said that I'm the only male teacher she's ever had (here or at her previous college before she transferred) who ever commented on those topics at all (without it being his actual academic specialty, anyway).

It's a shame that "this guy pays the slightest bit of attention" is enough to merit an award, but if doing my little bit is appreciated that much then I'm awfully glad to keep it up.

On a side note, I have no idea why there's a black and white photo accompanying this online article while the printed newspaper had a color one.

Rundown on inflation and gravity waves

So that physics announcement that I posted the rumors about happened, and it was indeed just as big of a deal as rumor had made it. Here are a few links I've found that summarize the results nicely:

This is really cool, and there are some neat, neat implications. (The data points to an energy scale for inflation that happens to be very close to the expected energy scale of grand unification of fundamental forces in simple supersymmetric models of particle physics, for instance.) It'll be great to see if this result holds up.

Physics/cosmology news incoming
If you happen to be the sort to follow a few cosmologists on blogs or social media, you've probably seen rumors swirling around like mad for the past few days. I'm not sure if this was triggered by the Harvard press release promising that a "major discovery" in astrophysics would be announced Monday at noon, or whether that release was hurried out the door only after the rumors got out. But it sounds like it could be a Big Deal, so keep your eyes open tomorrow. (One rumor is that they've invited Guth and Linde, the first theorists to propose cosmic inflation, to attend the announcement.)

Probably the best description I've seen of what people think the press conference is going to be about came from my friend Sean Carroll at Caltech: it seems that an experimental group observing the Cosmic Microwave Background is going to announce that they have seen direct evidence of perturbations of that background caused by gravitational waves in the first instants of the Big Bang. (As Sean explains, today our direct experimental data on the early universe extends back to about one second after the start of the Big Bang. This observation would push that back to an astounding 10-35 seconds after the start.)

I won't try to explain the physics here, since it's really not my specialty. The intriguing thing is that, as far as I can tell, most people were not expecting to see any actual detection of this signal from the current generation of experiments: other data suggested that the current experiments would only be able to set "less than this threshold" sorts of limits. So this impending announcement would seem to imply one of four things: 1) The signal is much stronger than expected, which would be Very Exciting(TM) for physics, 2) The experiment turned out to be more sensitive than expected, which would presumably involve either really good luck or some neat improvements in data analysis algorithms, 3) The announcement is merely of strongly suggestive evidence rather than a true discovery-level result, which would make the "major discovery" press conference seem quite overblown, or 4) Someone messed up their analysis and/or got fooled by a statistical fluctuation, which after all this hoopla would probably wind up ending multiple careers. (I can guarantee that the experimental team here is painfully aware of all these possibilities. But then, so were the folks who claimed to have seen neutrinos moving faster than light a few years back.)

So yeah. It sounds like the actual science talk will begin at 10:45 (with papers and data going online at the same time). So watch the news, or at least the blogs! It should be exciting.

The Hobbit Part 2
Wow. That was something. I can imagine that for folks who don't know the book well, it was probably a pretty entertaining movie. But, well, is it a bad sign for a serious epic fantasy story that I spent a fair bit of the film laughing?

My chief impression after watching "The Desolation of Smaug" for the first time today was puzzled surprise: given that Peter Jackson has taken a single short book (far shorter than any volume of The Lord of the Rings) and expanded it to fill three very long movies, how (and why) did he manage to condense or omit so much of Tolkien's story?

Hyre be spoileres...Collapse )
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