Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mind Over Matter

So, I was reading this nonfiction book (because I was kind of procrastinating) and I'd expected...well, I hadn't expected much from it initially, but it kept pelting me with its insights nonetheless. Or, more accurately, the book's author--K.C. Cole, a physicist and talented writer--kept forcing me to expand my worldview by sharing her unique one...and this uncomfortable sense of agitation set in (because I was being given a fascinating scientific window and unable to tell anyone about it), so I decided I'd better start blogging.

[Side note: I always understood the allure of reading other people's blogs, but it's taken me a year and a half to finally know WHY people get addicted to blogging themselves. I just HAD to share this book with someone...]

The book, Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos, is a collection of 92 short essays from Cole's Los Angeles Times science column. The column no longer exists, but the essays remain--divided into four sections and revolving around concepts like "the subjectivity of inquiry" and "the politics of science."

Publishers Weekly can better explain the premise. They write:
Cole's technique is to set her stage with a scientific factoid or news blip and then ruminate on the unexpected insights, inversions or ironies she finds there. Her themes include uncertainty, the limitations of measure, fragility, illusion, humility before nature, complacency. A solar eclipse "exposes our fragility" and dispels illusion "like turning up the houselights during a movie." The millennium, indeed the notion of time itself, is an artificial concept, and "it's a fine line," the author writes, "between discovering something and making it up." Ever the navel gazer, Cole seeks the wondrous in the stuff we mistake for just ordinary. Her piece on clouds ("wind made visible") segues inevitably to dying stars ("a cosmic-scale cloudburst") and atoms (a nucleus "engulfed by a cloud of electrons"); her piece on wind leads her to the hurricanes on Jupiter and the complicated "weather" of galaxies.

Maybe having a dad who was a scientist and getting (from him) a Periodic Table of the Elements as my very first poster (yep, it's true) influenced my opinion, but I was intrigued by the merging of human drama and scientific revelation in every essay. The piece on "Uncertainty" was one of my favorites. But there was another piece--one writing-related and on the topic of "Simplicity"--that especially held my attention.

Cole was relaying the discovery of her female mathematician friend that math and poetry boiled down to much the same exercise: "You discover some essential truth, distill it to its pure form, and figure out how to communicate it to others."

YES!! At least that's the goal, isn't it??? Isn't everything we write just another way of trying to prove some theorum we hold dear? Some emotional truth about humanity we hope will be verified? Those of us who are novelists, of course, get 400 or so pages to try, whereas poets are allowed but a handful of lines and mathematicians only an equation...but I think we're on the same team. And I think so many of us are trying--across disciplines, across cultures--to find those kernels of truth. To link them. And, when possible, to let each other know we're not alone in our search.

Has anyone else read this? Other recommendations?


Carrie Lofty said...

Only non-fic I've read in ages was The World Without Us, which was brilliant. I talked about it here.

Robin said...

You summed things up beautifully, Marilyn!

No, I haven't read this and I don't have any recommendations, but science fascinates me. And oh my gosh, your first poster was the periodic table? LOL I think mine was Shawn Cassidy. Or maybe Bobby Sherman. But my favorite toy as a kid was a microscope! I wanted to be a marine biologist.

Marilyn Brant said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Carrie--I'll check it out :).

Robin--LOL about Shawn Cassidy!! So many of my fellow elementary schoolers were in LUV with him! I had a crush on Andy Gibb for the longest time before working my way up to Rick Springfield :).

L.A. Mitchell said...

This really sounds like my kind of book. Thanks for the recommendation, M :)

Pamala Knight said...

Well said, Marilyn! Your summation of our purpose in trying to distill our point of view or message down to its essence and communicate 'across disciplines and cultures' through the pages written, is spot on.

I haven't read that book, but it sounds really interesting and I'll add it to the TBR pile. I think that it's WAY cool that your first poster was the periodic table of elements. Science rulez!

We'll have lots to talk about next time we see each other (Monday night).

Pam said...

I admire how you're expanding your horizons--I tend to get stuck in a rut. I'll keep my eyes peeled for her work in the future.

(I started with Shawn Cassidy, too, but then moved to David. I'm such a tart...)

Marilyn Brant said...

L.A.~I thought of you as I was reading it.

Pamala~Great seeing you (even briefly) last night!! Looking forward to chatting again soon...

Pam~I preferred David to Shawn, too, but I liked anyone with a British accent even more :).

Lisa Laing said...

I'm a junkie for science non-fiction books. If you want to keep going down this path, check out The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, both by Brian Greene. He makes me want to go back to college to study physics. Also check out The Social Atom, which talks about how the mathematical concepts and techniques from physics are revolutionizing the social sciences. That one made me want to go back for a PhD in Economics. (Scary, but true.) I don't venture into non-fiction often, but I'm always refreshed when I do.