The God Particle pp. 117-140 and Ringworld pp. 21-41

The God Particle

Electricity is the name of today’s game. This passage goes over the first batteries made by Volta (improvements on the work done by Galvani (who, oddly, used the musculature of frogs for experimentation), and then covers Coulomb measuring the strength of the electric charges, and goes on to Oersted recognizing that magnetism and electricity are linked (he saw a compass needle jump to point at a wire with current moving through it).

Next up is Michael Faraday, who provided a lot of nomenclature for the work being done (ion, cathode, anode, for example) and who recognized that a changing magnetic field could be used to induce an electric current, which allowed him to create the first electric motor and the dynamo — tools that have since become the foundation of all modern electrical power. The author notes that Faraday was more interested in continuing to pursue new facts and perform experiments than in finding uses for the things he made, famously telling the Prime Minister of England that he did not know the usefulness of the dynamo, but wagered that one day the government would tax it.

Faraday also introduced fields of force, which Lederman harks back to Roger Boscovich, and the idea of particles as mathematical points, not solid objects as in Newton’s conception. This brings about the difficult topic of how a field actually works, and as part of that, whether there is a speed of transmission of force (and what it is). James Clerk Maxwell (the author notes that it is pronounced klark, which I did not know) enters the story here to provide a mathematical basis for Faraday’s work. Interesting things about Faraday time: he was not just incredibly poor growing up, but he had no formal education in physical sciences, held no degree, and didn’t write his work out in mathematical form because he was essentially incapable of it. Instead he wrote in largely non-technical prose to explain his ideas and results.

While Maxwell originally intended to provide Faraday’s work with mathy foundations, he ended up noticing something surprising after working the numbers out: the speed of transmission of forces was the same speed that had been found for the speed of light a few years prior. That experiment, done by Armand-Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau who used the speed of a toothed-wheel and a complex system of mirrors which a light shone through, sounds pretty darn cool! People didn’t really think highly of Maxwell’s work at first — it is very dense and complicated, and the idea that the transmission of force was non-instantaneous was still unpopular. The idea that light was the mechanism of transmission of force also seemed bizarre.

Not too much later, Heinrich Hertz did some experiments that proved Maxwell’s work, and at the same time he simplified Maxwell’s complex math into a system of four simple equations that demonstrate a high level of symmetry and stand as a testament to the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences. This popularized Maxwell’s ideas quite a bit, and now his contribution to physics is regarded to be one of the most important of any. The electromagnetic force propagates at roughly 3.0 x 10^8 meters per second: cool stuff.

The last part of this reading is all about the discovery of the electron. Many people were experimenting with cathode rays in the last part of the 1890s – just hook electrodes into a sealed glass tube and pump as much air out as possible, then let a small amount of a specific gas in, and send a voltage through it. It lights up. When extremely small amounts of the gas are present, there’s essentially just a ray visible, and that’s what gets called a “cathode ray”.

People doing experiments realized that you could change the beam’s course using magnets, and by measuring how much force had to be applied to move the beam, were able to figure out properties of the particles in the beam. When they realized that these particles were much smaller than Hydrogen, the idea was out: the term ‘electron’ was used to refer to whatever this new particle, a building block of the chemical atom, must be.


Louis Wu and his motley crew are assembled! This passage was mostly just getting Teela on board. We hear a little bit about luck, get the description of the Earth’s “Birthright Lotteries”, which are part of the planetary population-control in place, and also learn a bit about Puppeteer psychology — in particular that Nessus is a manic-depressive, which explains his departures from fearful living.

More notes on seeing plot points and story elements: I am realizing how clearly and simply the character motivations are laid out: Speaker-To-Animals “wants a name” in his native language, which is granted by his society’s patriarch, and Nessus “wants to breed”, which is a privilege granted by his society’s patriarch. Louis Wu just gets bored and thinks this would be an interesting departure from the social monotony he’s used to, and Teela is in love with Louis / “wants to save the world”. It’s almost ugly how plain all of their motivations are! It’s also worth noting that the human motivations are two-dimensional at the least, while the alien ones are essentially “do A to get B”.


I checked my reading time tonight. For the first ten pages of The God Particle, I took 25 minutes, and for the second ten pages, I took 32 minutes (I was also eating during that period). While reading Ringworld, both the first and second ten pages took about 13 minutes. I was much happier to skim Ringworld more quickly, since I’ve read it before, but it’s also a bit smaller of a book than The God Particle is. I think that the reading level may also be a bit lower, but I haven’t got any data to back that up!

Tomorrow, I’ll begin reading 30 pages of each of 3 different books, instead of 20 pages of each of 2 books. We’ll find out how possible that is to accomplish — it’s a jump from 40 to 90 pages per day, and that might be too much. If Ringworld is a lower bound and God Particle is an upper bound, I can expect about 20 minutes per 10 pages read, which means I’ll need 180 minutes of reading time tomorrow. I haven’t decided on a third book to pick up yet — maybe The Stars My Destination, or maybe something outside of science or science fiction. My selection in that respect is a little limited.

One last note: This weekend my friend visited, and while we were out on the town (seeking chocolate milkshakes from McDonald’s), we indirectly witnessed a gruesome event. We were present in the cafeteria of the Eaton Centre here in Toronto when a gunman opened fire to kill one man and wounded six others, including a young teenager. McDonalds is slightly set into an alcove from the rest of the cafeteria, so while the vast crowd of people enjoying their Saturday fled and shouted, we (along with the other people in McDonalds) hid behind chairs and tables, and were soon allowed to exit via the kitchen door into the concrete hallways which ring the mall. After remaining in a locked washroom for several minutes, an order to evacuate the building came over the announcement system, and we found our way to an emergency exit.

I’m very glad that my friend and I were unharmed, and I wish the injured a speedy recovery. This appears to have been a gang-related shooting which harmed innocent bystanders. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over the experience since yesterday, but I do not yet have conclusive thoughts on the subject. My recent reading of Stand on Zanzibar has put the topic of Muckers near the front of my mind — I searched to see if John Brunner was still alive to email him, but he died in 1995. My friend and I have tried to make relative light of the situation, because there’s little else that we can do. So far though, I’m not sure if I am dismayed by the lack of profound thoughts that have come out of the experience, or if I’m dismayed by my want to profit in some way from a tragedy like this.

In the end, I think finding positives in a situation — even philosophical ones — could be argued as callousness or pragmatism, or inhumane or thoroughly human, without any side laying claim to ultimate right. I would personally prefer to have something to take from this event; specifically something that can be shared or taught that will help improve the world. Unfortunately, no such thing is as yet forthcoming, and may never be.

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