The God Particle pp. 96-117 and Ringworld pp. 1-21

I decided to re-read Ringworld, as it’s still somewhat in my mind from a reading a few months ago, and I know that there’s nothing too challenging in it. It’s also pretty entertaining. It suits speed-reading perfectly. Given my schedule plans, I’m 20 pages in now, and I’ll be 40 pages in tomorrow, then I’ll start reading 30 pages/day on Monday, which will take me to 250 by next Sunday, and at 40 pages/day after that, I’ll finish it on the following Tuesday. (I’ll read the extra 10 pages or so needed to finish it Tuesday night).

Hopefully at the end of it, I’ll be a much better speed reader than I am now! I suffered considerably lowered comprehension on that passage. Anyway, I’ve kept a friend waiting while I completed today’s readings — I look forward to more progress tomorrow!

The God Particle

We’ll see how well I can recall the things I read! We finished up with Newton, and discussed some of the great Chemists who helped search for the atom (some without knowing it). Notably, I can recall John Dalton, who proposed the “atomic theory” of chemistry, despite getting a lot of the details wrong. There’s also Boyle, who did experiments with pressures, and Lavois, who Lederman said was the chemists’ equivalent to Newton. He showed that there … I can’t remember. He was in France, and was killed by guillotine in the 1794.

I had to go look it up. Right. Lavoisier contributed the modern names of chemical elements, like “sulphur dioxide” instead of wacky stuff like “butter of arsenic”. He also is responsible for our knowledge that any substance can take fluid, liquid, or solid forms, and that combustion is a chemical reaction. He was an extremely accurate scientist.

Torricelli discovered air pressure and made the first barometer, and discovered that there must be vacuum, which was created inside of the barometers depending on the air pressure. We also briefly touched on William Prout, who believed that the indivisible a-tom was hydrogen, and from hydrogen, all other things were composed. The idea got thrown out because, for example, Chlorine has a weight of 35.5. It’s actually that there’s a Chlorine isotope that weighs 35 and another that weighs 37, and it just appears to be a uniform substance of weight 35.5. But at the time, a half-weight killed the idea that a bunch of Hydrogen could be arranged and shoved together to make Chlorine.

Then there’s Mendeleev, and this one is the coolest in my mind. I knew that he was the creator of the periodic table — it’s one of the most amazing things we’ve accomplished. Lederman notes that one hangs now in essentially every laboratory and classroom in existence, and that’s our tribute paid to Mendeleev. What I didn’t know was that Mendeleev figured it out by playing cards. He played a game similar to solitaire and had the elements with their qualities written out on cards, and he noticed that there was a spacing of 8 between several of them which exhibited similar properties. He tried arranging them such that there were 8 vertical columns, increasing by weight. He also decided not to try to fill in the gaps, allowing for unknown elements to sit there. The setup wasn’t widely regarded, until new elements discovered fit perfectly into the table, with the expected properties and at the expected weights.

In 1907 when he died, some of his students marched in his funeral procession behind him holding up a banner with his periodic table on it. It’s a mind-bogglingly amazing discovery.

The author notes though, that the periodic table slightly scared scientists of the time, because it showed that there were a lot of these “atoms”, and that made the idea of a simple, elegant organization to the universe with common building blocks a lot less likely. At least it showed that there may be an order within the apparent chaos!


First off, here’s a warning that this post will have Ringworld spoilers.

Right off the bat in Ringworld, Larry Niven starts dropping clues about the later plot. Doing a re-reading is neat, because I get to see some of the longer-term structure of the story get built. I’m impressed by the transporters, the revelation of the hyperdrive ship, discussion of the puppeteers and their analysis of human-kzin relations, and evolution right off the bat.

If you’re in need of definitions:

Puppeteer: A three-legged, two-headed cowardly vegetarian species that discovered that the galactic core was blowing up, and which began a mass migration out of known space roughly 200 years ago. Their name implies that they are wiley. They’re good businessmen, very clever.

Kzin (plural: kzin, adjective: kzinti) are giant supermuscular hyper-aggressive cats. We’ve been at war with them multiple times, and won multiple times. Now they have nothing to fight us with. Very high placement on concepts of honour. They like to eat hot, raw meat (like a fresh kill), and drink hot alcoholic beverages.

The God Particle pp. 76-96 and Stand on Zanzibar pp. 106-127

Oh no!

I read Stand on Zanzibar yesterday, and then I read 10 pages of The God Particle… and fell asleep! I woke up this morning with my glasses and book nearby, lying on my bed. So this counts as my first failure!

I’m not too worried about having had a failure to complete my readings. I woke up on my own time and read the remaining 10 pages of The God Particle, and now I’m making this post. But it has got me thinking about the specific way I’ve been reading. Back on Monday, I chose these books so that I could force myself to read quickly. I haven’t been doing a good job of that — I’ve been vocalizing, slipping back, and reading mostly single words at a time.

I think that I’ve been reading slowly because I’ve been doing a lot of reading-while-walking, to help fit the reading into my day easier. Speed reading (especially while learning) takes considerable focus, as well as stability of the book and preferably, constant light. While walking to work, I am paying at least half-attention to crossing streets and the like, the book moves as I walk, and shadows regularly change the light on the book! It’s very hard to speed read during this — but that’s not an excuse. If I’m going to try to achieve 30 pages / book on 3 books each day next week, I must begin to speed read.

It’s a tough to learn speed reading on any new book though — to really learn speed reading you have to initially sacrifice comprehension. The comprehension will catch back up as you become used to the pattern of catching words while your eyes move. It’s mostly about getting a steady flow of eyesight down the page and forcing yourself not to vocalize. Then you can start trying to pull phrases into your mind as your eye sweeps over them, and from there, pick up details that didn’t fit with a phrase. Ideally, an eye-fixture should be an entire line or a half of a line, and somehow people read multiple lines at once? I’ve never really grokked that bit of it, but maybe I will when I’ve got a wider fixture.

I’m worried about the effects my eyesight will have on my ability to speed-read effectively. I do not possess truly binocular vision – I am normally seeing “more” out of one of my eyes than the other. This may hinder my ability to swiftly recognize and interpret fixtures, or it may make my ability to speed-read more situation-dependent than for someone with better eyesight. We shall see.

Back to the annoyance of the comprehension-drop, I’m considering switching Stand on Zanzibar out for something I’ve read before, or which I don’t care about reading every word of. Zanzibar has become a little like a cheesecake — I appreciate every little bit of it. It’s too dense and too jumpy and too subtle and too good to let myself scan over when my comprehension goes to crap, so, like Red Mars, I will have to place it aside for now. I’ll write about what I’m picking up in the next post.

The God Particle

This passage finished up with Galileo and moved on to Newton. Big revelations covered are F=ma and F=GM1M2/R. I recall learning these things, but have lost the knowledge I gained about them. I’m kind of wishing for a physics textbook now — I’m thinking about purchasing “Head First Physics” off of amazon, but maybe I’ll stop at a used book store to check if they have any old undergraduate intro textbooks first.

This book is doing a good job of delivering the philosophy of the science. I feel like Leo has reached firmer footing in recent history, and he’s doing a great job of speaking to the search for an elegant model of our universe. He regularly brings up the drive of experimentalists to describe what they find without interpreting it, and to question whether they have made mistakes and how best to account for them. Their work is incredibly noble. I think I must be a theorist at heart, because I can’t help but try to find reasons for things. That means being wrong very often, but I feel like reasons lead to greater understanding. There will likely be more discussion on these topics elsewhere in the book.

Stand on Zanzibar

This passage was heavy on the political intrigue side of things. There was also a context from Chad Mulligan, and an odd prayer-like passage that might have been a reference to something I’m too young for. A short focus on a geneticist with family problems who is harried by some youths was included — I wonder about the conclusion the story is heading toward. There are elements of Artificial Intelligence, political subversion, genetic attacks, terrorism, religious events, all kinds of wacky stuff thrown into the mixing pot in this first hundred pages. I can’t wait to see what pieces stick!

The God Particle pp. 56-78 and Stand on Zanzibar pp. 80-106

The God Particle

This passage shifted focus from Democritus to Galileo. The author (who I’m gonna just start calling Leo pretty soon) talks about Galileo’s use of inclined planes, the likelihood that he did actually perform the famous leaning tower experiment, but as a spectacle, not for his own knowledge. Apparently, Galileo’s father was a musician who greatly influenced musical theory by performing experiments with cords of differing length and tension! Leo suggests that this was a great influence on Galileo toward performing experiments.

This is where I’m gonna stop and rag on the author for a bit again.

Look, Leo must be a heck of a smartie, and he’s clearly not an awful writer, but I’ve got some gripes so far. First, he does not have any citations. He keeps talking about “what people believed” re: Democritus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato, Thales — and I think it’s a bunch of bullcrap. I doubt very much that he knows what these people were thinking, and I’d really like him to back it up. That wouldn’t matter a crazy bunch if not for…

Second: Lederman appears to have a completely unsubstantiated hatred of Philosophy. Particularly of Plato and Aristotle. He seems fine using the Socratic dialogue, but rags constantly on those guys. I’m not sure if as a kid he got beaten up by a kid wearing a t-shirt labelled “THE ACADEMY” or something, but it’s ridiculous. Aristotle was the founder of empiricism, which is pretty much the ism that describes experimentation’s role in the scientific method. Throughout the whole book, Lederman has been talking about how important and vital and great experimentation is, but he’s got no love for poor old Aristotally Rockin’.

Some part of me believes that he’s only doing it in jest. It’s possible that he doesn’t really snort at Aristotle and blame Plato/Aristotle’s schools of thought as “one of the things that made the dark ages so dark”. His nature so far has been very jokey, and while informative, the book feels like an easy pop-science read so far. It’s like I’m watching a shallow discovery channel special rendered in text, with itsy bitsy tads of extra info stuffed in edgewise.

I don’t want to speak too ill of the book; I’m enjoying the read and as Leo’s got an easy, fairly readable lightness for the subject. I’ve learned a fair deal about corners of particle physics I knew nothing about, and I’ve learned a lot about its main thrusts so far. He just isn’t Isaac Asimov, and he isn’t Richard Feynman, and he isn’t Stephen Hawking, and he isn’t even Carl Sagan. (I’m sorry, Carl. I got tired of the anti-religion arguments during the audiobook version of Pale Blue Dot. We get it. The universe is bigger than a zealot’s devotion to a god or cause. And Contact has serious pacing issues.)

What I’m really trying to say is, I miss Isaac Asimov.

Stand on Zanzibar

Brunner lines them up and knocks them out of the park. This book is great. Hints of international intrigue and corporate espionage have sneaked into the novel, while the humanist lament continues with a particular focus on race. I’m excited to learn more, and worried I’m getting my hopes up too high. Still making me think, think, think.

Extra Stuff

I am reading faster than I was before, and I’m doing a positively stellar job of integrating reading into the day — such that each day feels full, but not quite overfull. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been speed-reading much yet. I find I can get into it with Lederman’s book when I have a lot of focus and quiet and I’m not walking while I read (much of my reading is done on the walk to work), and I have done it once or twice with Zanzibar. I’ll keep working.

Another game of floor hockey today –  we played hard and had an awesome 3-1 lead going into half, but luck turned against us and we lost 5-3 (though there may have been a goal we didn’t count, so 5-4).  Still working hard at improving, and I’m playing even better than I was when I last wrote about it. The game was on Bain, which is south of Danforth just east of Broadview. Got to see the excellent skyline and then walked from Broadview to Christie, where I read my 20 pages of Zanzibar and, in the growing chill of night, opted to transit home via subway.

Looking forward to having Mike over for a visit on the weekend, and to sleeping in!