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Science, Fiction, and points in between
Tuesday 28 August 2001
Stephen Jay Gould on embryonic stem cell research.
Stephen Jay Gould on paparazzi.
Michael Shermer on real science, balderdash, and what lies between.
Updates: that controversial essay by by B.R. Myers about literary pretentiousness is now online, as is Lee Siegel's response, Why Great Literature Contains Everything But a Clear Answer: A Defense of Serious Fiction.
Elmore Leonard's rules for writing, "Easy on the Hooptedoodle". E.g., Avoid prologues; avoid detailed descriptions of characters; try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Tuesday 21 August 2001
Is the answer to life, the universe, and everything 137.03599976? Or something just a little bit greater? Maybe what we thought are the most fundamental constants of nature aren't constant after all.
Peering back through time with their telescope, analyzing the ancient light of quasars, the scientists found that alpha (which is also called the fine-structure constant) may have been slightly smaller billions of years ago. The tiny difference, in the fifth decimal place, isn't enough to have seriously scrambled the cosmic rule book. But the finding carries the odd implication that the universe may be a place where the laws of physics can change.
Lee M. Silver explains where the word clone came from and how popular understanding of the idea has changed over the years, from Wilhelm & Thomas in 1965, Alvin Toffler in 1970, computer and political metaphors in the '80s and '90s, and a recent Dutch TV producer with no patience for technical accuracy.
For the umpteenth time, I explained that no technology exists for making copies of people, and that real cloning technology might only lead to the birth
of a unique and unpredictable child who had the same DNA sequence as someone else, but nothing more. The producer was abrupt and dismissive: "Dr Silver,
you are not aware of what cloning can accomplish. Clones are not what you think they are."
After years of believing otherwise, I realized that he was right. The scientific community has lost control over Webber's pleasant-sounding little word. Cloning has
a popular connotation that is impossible to dislodge. We must accept that democratic debate on cloning is bereft of any meaning. Science and scientists would be
better served by choosing other words to explain advances in developmental biotechnology to the public.
The latest on Robert Zubrin's plans to go to Mars, with perspective from Kim Stanley Robinson.
"I'm not in a hurry to get to Mars like a lot of the Mars Society people," says Robinson. "I don't have this apocalyptic sense that we need to do it in 10 years or a window will close. I think that's crap. If there's a window that's going to close in 10 years, then our civilization is too stupid to deserve something like this, anyway."
Wired, 9.07 - July 2001
Thomas Kuhn's idea of scientific "paradigm shifts" (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) has become part of the scientific/philosophical liturgy, but increasingly since his death Kuhn's ideas are being challenged, in at least three books published in the last year.
When a paradigm shifts, when, for example, the earth is no longer seen as the center of the universe, old notions of truth are discarded and new ones take their place. But that wasn't all Kuhn said. He argued that new paradigms are no more valid than the old; they just turn out to be more useful. Kuhn dismissed the idea of scientific progress, portraying scientists as a self-regulated guild that excommunicates dissenters and is preoccupied with what he dismissively referred to as puzzle-solving.
The implications of these ideas turned out to be far more controversial than Kuhn initially imagined, and five years after his death the debate over his intellectual revolution continues.
If cell-phones are a menace to good driving, what about audiobooks?!?
US publishers are nervous about BookScan, which might reveal just how few copies are sold of books by literary luminaries. But there are precendents, like SoundScan for music sales, and USA Today's bestseller list.
That article in The Atlantic last month (not online; see July Aether Vibrations) by B.R. Myers, about the pretentiousness of current literary prose, has provoked much response in the literary press. One was a long essay by Lee Siegel in the Los Angeles Times -- whose links expire quickly -- which, according to Laura Miller in Salon, accused Myers of
"phony populism" and arrogance in declaring (according to Siegel) that because "ordinary people" are "too stupid to read complicated prose" therefore "great literature" should not be "difficult."
Miller's article explores the questions of style vs. substance:
On the level of sentences (or paragraphs, for that matter), DeLillo can write circles around Dreiser, but when it comes to writing novels, Dreiser wipes the floor with the author of "Underworld." ...
One reason why most literary novels don't appeal to readers like my sister -- a nurse who likes Hoffman and Irving and also bemoans the dearth of "good stories" -- is that they aren't intended to; what literary authors are after is the esteem of their colleagues.
Laura Miller in Salon, Aug. 16, 2001
Also online is Meghan O'Rourke's essay in Slate, which explores both sides:
At the 1999 National Book Awards, Oprah Winfrey said that she sometimes had to stop and puzzle over Toni Morrison's sentences; Morrison responded, "That, my dear, is called reading." This enrages Myers: "Great prose isn't always easy, but it's always lucid; no one of Oprah's intelligence ever had to puzzle over a Joseph Conrad sentence," he writes in return. This seems patently wrong, but Myers' jeremiad has met with an overwhelming response from readers who are relieved to find that they're not philistines, even though they failed to finish Underworld or Infinite Jest. (The irony, of course, is that they feel they're not philistines only because a critic in a glossy literary magazine has reassured them they're not.)
Of course they're not. But the danger of Myers' irritation is self-evident: It implies we needn't ever challenge ourselves as readers. It wants a literature of lucidity and leaves little room for mystery.
On another literary plane entirely is this complaint by M.J. Rose that, as an e-book author, she gets no respect.
You knew, of course, that the e-mail program Eudora was named after the late author Eudora Welty.
Finally, there was an article in Wall Street Journal last month [no longer accessible online] about how "Bad Books Are Hot as Internet Fans Rediscover the Joy of Bad Writing"...
Bad writers never had it so good. Largely thanks to increased exposure on
the Internet, prices for their works have been rising. First Editions of Ed
Earl Repp, who wrote Westerns and science fiction (including a story called
"The Gland Superman") fetch $100 on the Internet. Sydney Horler, a spy
writer, was "egregiously bad," says Bill Pronzini, a mystery novelist who
has produced three books on bad writing. "Fifteen, 20 years ago, you
couldn't give away his books." A first-edition Horler now can be found for
sale on the Web for $550. ...
R. Lionel Fanthorpe, an author in Wales who claims 250 books to his name,
credits technology with helping to revive interest in his early works. Paid
by length and speed in the pulp days of the 1950s and '60s, he would
sometimes devote long passages to a philosophical discussion or the
description of a rock, then be forced to tie up his story in the last few
paragraphs when he realized he had dictated too many pages.
His speed gave birth to lines like this: "Trinkle did not possess a legal
mind. He was a mental grasshopper, an intellectual kangaroo, a mind
Now a 66-year-old writer of nonfiction books as well as a judo instructor,
management consultant, volunteer Anglican priest and television-show host,
the Rev. Fanthorpe delights in the discovery of his old works. These days,
he says, "People are paying more for a copy of a book than I got paid for
writing it." His new fans buy him drinks at autographing sessions, he says.
July Aether Vibrations