I’ve been going through a period of Spring Cleaning. Really, it is a period of shucking possessions I no longer use (and, if I’m really, really lucky, also shucking habits that no longer serve me). Basically, it is one big, painful cycle of creating piles of things to go to the trash or to AMVETs followed immediately by the creation of another pile. (It is painful because I am unreasonably attached to my clutter. But, that’s a blog post for another time. Maybe I’ll review that Konmari book everyone seems to be in love with.) While doing all of this I’ve been listening to books on physics, philosophy, and meditation. The meditation and philosophy books are obvious and probably the subject of next month’s This Month in Reality. The physics books seem obvious to me and I hope after you read this post they will be obvious to you, too. I’m a pretty smart person but beyond basic Newtonian physics and some of the basic math of quantum physics, I’m stumped. I don’t get it. Or, I do get it but only after it has been explained to be in a metaphor. And, since you have to use a metaphor for the universe why can’t that just be a metaphor for some aspect of life? We’re already kind of stretching the truth. And, why can’t I contemplate that while I’m trying to decide if I should keep a pair of heels I’ve only ever worn to vacuum in at home?
Anyway, this month I listened to A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and What if?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions By Randall Munroe.
tl;dr: these are both awesome. I loved them. You should read them.
The best thing about A Brief History is that I got to spend a lot of time giggling like a 12-year old boy when the narrator said, “hot body”. The bigger something is, the hotter it has to burn. Whoa, Mamma! (Yes, I am aware of my incredible immaturity.) But, I also got to marvel at a lot of things about the universe. Like, time began when the universe began. The concept of time, the scientific concept of time, literally has no meaning outside of our universe because it is a dimension of our universe. There is no time before time.
That still gives me shivers.
And, I got to marvel at all of the cool physics stuff. Like quarks come in the following flavors (yes, flavors): up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top and colors: red, green and blue. It is funny that they have colors because we’re not talking about something that can be visibly perceived. Wait…that’s not how I want to say that. There are colors outside our spectrum of vision. I want to say that this color property doesn’t go beyond the atom. Color is just another metaphor here for how charges interact with one another. There’s an entire theory of quantum physics that deals with chromodynamics. In my mind, this involves an amazing light show. That can’t possibly be the case but please don’t disabuse me of this notion. And, did you know that protons have 2 up and 1 down quark and neutrons have 2 down and 1 up quark? Yes, I was surprised by that, too! There are also gluons in there, too. But, it is now unclear to me what gluons do (except maybe glue things together?)
This book talked a lot about time and how it moves and its place in the universe. It also talked a lot about gravity (which is “always attractive” bada-ching!) Hawking is actually really funny in this book. I found myself laughing that things that I’m sure I was supposed to laugh at (not just at the things my inner 12 year old would laugh at.) For example, he tells an amusing anecdote about a talk that he gave at a conference at the Vatican where he proposed a framework that would do away with the notion of a divine creator. Whoops.
But, my favorite part, and perhaps the most (possibly unintentionally) philosophical part of the book was when Hawking talked about if anything in quantum physics were different, we’d all be different. That is fun to think about.
So, after I listened to this intense text of which I understood about 20%, I decided to move on to something that is meant to funny but is also very smart. What if? by Randall Munroe is a book of hypothetical questions answered using modern science. The audio book is read by Wil Wheaton. This automatically makes it 50% nerdier (and if you’re a nerd about 20% cooler. I am a nerd. And, I like Wil Wheaton. But, I LOVE xkcd, Monroe’s web comic. This is why it’s only 20%). Some of the scenarios are “What would happen if rain came in one gigantic drop” and “What if you built a machine gun jet pack”? and “what if you had a mole of moles?” I think you can see where this is going. Munroe treats each question as if it were not absurd and answers it to the best of his ability. The answers draw on real scientific data (the weight of a mole, gravity, heat, air speed, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, etc) and comes to what are hilarious and often horrifying conclusions. The book itself has great illustrations (I immediately picked it up and re-read a bunch of it after I finished listening to it) and Wheaton’s performance is outstanding.
This month I got lucky: These were two great books that I highly recommend!