The God Particle pp. 24-56 and Stand on Zanzibar pp. 58-80

The God Particle

Leon Lederman may really be a great physicist, but he is not a really great writer. (that I’ve seen so far, at least)

He’s not awful, mind you, he just … really shouldn’t have tried to write a socratic dialogue in a fake dream sequence as the opening to a book about the history of physics. It’s very cute, but mixing in bad physicist puns and Democritus making time travel jokes and constantly ragging on Plato and name-dropping famous physicists and artisans that he’s saying he met — it’s overstated. Eventually, I was able to stop being super-conscious of the fact that I’m reading something Leon Lederman made up about himself, and Democritus became a character, and they were having a dialogue, but that was >10 pages into the damn thing.

I’ve digressed from the book’s focus throughout the exchange: it’s a history of presocratic greek philosophers and some concepts they played around with, like indivisible particles, the composition of the universe(one element and which, or many and what about them), the aether, and other cool stuff like multiple universes or the earth floating in water.

The author also makes a lot of sleeping on accelerator floor jokes. I’m not sure if the quantity is representing the reality, or if he just wants to make sure it’s known that that’s a thing that happens.

Oh, one last note: 137 is a pretty cool number I hadn’t even heard of before! It’s the inverse of the fine structure constant. 1/137 is that constant, and it’s apparently a dimensionless number that comes up all over the place in physics out of the speed of light, the charge carried by an electron, the force between two point-charges, and the ratio of the energy of an photon and the frequency of its wave.

Apparently, physicists love (or love to hate) this number, because it’s not a particularly nice number, and because it’s dimensionless, it’s not a weird number just because we made a meter a certain size or anything. If an independent species somewhere else in the universe identified this set of constants (in whatever units they might come up with), they too would find 1/137ish, provided they’re using base 10. (It has the same value in other bases, just not the same representation).

Anyway, the author presented some fun stories about the number and famous physicists and suggested that if a physicist ever needs help in a big city they should just put the number 137 on a sign and stand worriedly on a street holding it up, and other physicists will eventually come to help, because it’s a somewhat universal sign of “bleck oh no”. It was also the number that Lederman chose for his house at Fermilab while he was the director of the institution.

Stand on Zanzibar

In these pages, John Brunner delivered a compelling and awe-inspiring commentary on modern society and the nature of our existence within it. He notes that animals in overpopulated environments become irritable and violent toward members of their own species — even fertile members of the opposite sex or their own young. Looking at us as territorial and pack-natured animals, he describes how population density and availability of territory affect our behaviour.

Brunner suggests that property and privacy operate as abstractions for territory because real territory is scarce, and that personal wealth has a large impact on their availability. He also makes sure to note our commercial world’s mass-produced, impersonal nature that drives us to continually replace (and thus never bond with) our possessions is destroying the idea of property even for the affluent.

He contends that when we have territory taken from us, we revert to our pack-nature, and  attempt to regain what we’ve lost. This is posited to be a part of why crime and gang activity is highest in low-income areas of inner cities: population density is high and privacy and property are scarce. He suggests that a similar dynamic helps armies to make killers out of regular people: remove your privacy by making you live in a barracks and make it so that everything you own is really the unit’s. Your unit becomes your gang, and you are convinced to channel your psychotic nature in your gang’s fight for its territory.

He also notes that our primary means of punishment is very similar to the military. You’re taken from the abstractions that hold your identity: your space and possessions, and put into a featureless place you constantly share with other people, while wearing clothes you don’t own, under constant watch and random check-ups in your “room”, with a see-through door.

The delivery wasn’t perfect. His comments have aged at least a little in 45 years. But he’s writing with 2008 in mind. That helps to make the whole thing so surreal — he’s really pegged some of this stuff. Some of it has just gone on and gotten worse since he wrote the book. But he obviously doesn’t see perfectly to now. Reading this will keep me thinking for a while to come; it was a great bit of writing for introspection’s sake at the least.

Lastly, a little bit about its delivery: The book is structured into a few different “types” of vignettes. Some are the “main threads” which follow common characters, some are newscasts or lists of advertisements which give us some insight into the world the characters inhabit, and its values. Some are tangential characters who help provide some background or an introduction to a topic, space, or situation. And some are “direct dialog” written as excerpts of books by Chad Mulligan, usually addressed straight to the reader.

The rest of the book feels a little bit difficult to manage. There is a lot of made up jargon and breaks between viewpoints, and the world feels like it’s cold and mean, while keeping constantly in your face trying to sell you things. The bits of context provided in Mulligan’s books use direct, simple, unjargoned language. They’re given in long passages and fill in lots of details. It makes me, as a reader, thirst for hearing from Mr. Mulligan, just for a change of pace — on top of that, everything he gets to say is thought-provoking. I’m still waiting for an easy definition of “hipcrime” — it’s either the crime of being hip or the crime of being unhip. Apparently a reader commits a hipcrime by reading the book on hipcrime. Sufficient, but not necessary.

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