Monday, August 31, 2009

Punching through the Great Fire Wall

Slowly the research trip is coming together: already I have two contacts (an academic and a man organising a conference) and they have assured me that they will introduce me to other people once I am there. They've been very welcoming.

Now I have a few firm dates like flights, and a few more tentative ones like proposed train journeys, it is becoming easier to write emails to other people to see if they can meet me. But still so many seem not to get through - at least I send them and nothing happens. Maybe they get lost in the spam, or maybe the addresses have changed, or maybe they don't understand...or maybe they are just not interested. But I keep trying, and on the rare times I get a response it feels like a major triumph.

Meanwhile I have my books to read: at the moment I am finishing The Lure of China by Frances Wood (which seems appropriate). It is a glimpse of China through the ages and the various authors pick out details of everyday life which are interesting because they are so idiosyncratic. Ann Bridges, for instance (who wrote novels based on her life as a diplomat's wife to China in the 1930s), describes the whistles attached to the pinion tails of pigeons, and the the ethereal noise they make when they fly in the sky above. She then goes on to describe the flowers, and I am told that China is know as the 'Mother of Gardens' and 80% of England's garden flowers originated in China. Thinking about the magnolias, rhododendrons and water lilies we have in ours it seems obvious that these are Chinese now I think about it, and I'm not sure why I know this - perhaps from pictures I've seen on bamboo, or maybe painted on porcelain.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My China Trip

This week, after a series of emails bouncing back and forth between me and a very good travel agent specialising in China, I have established my Chinese itinerary, and now booked my flights. Consequently I am now just the merest bit anxious (well somewhat terrified, actually) about this and wondering what on earth I think I'm doing.

So now I have to apply for a visa and get a course of vaccinations - and also, I read somewhere, find my own set of needles and syringes, just in case...

But I'm trying not to think about that bit. Instead I'm thinking about travelling through the Karst scenery of the southwest, and walking through the 'Quiet Lingering Gardens'.

It is a strange thing this wanderlust. Somehow I feel like I need to go...somewhere, and yet dread the thought of doing so.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Interview with Paul Halpern.

Yesterday, I posted a review of Paul Halpern's book, Collider: the search for the world's smallest particles. The author has now kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his book - as well as the usual selection of general questions.


Dr. Paul Halpern is Professor of Physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. A prolific author, he has written twelve science books and dozens of articles. His interests range from space, time and higher dimensions to cultural aspects of science. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, and an Athenaeum Literary Award, he has appeared on numerous television and radio programmes. His books have been favourably reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the New Scientist, the Guardian and other publications. They include Time Journeys, Cosmic Wormholes, The Cyclical Serpent, Faraway Worlds, The Great Beyond, Brave New Universe, What's Science Ever Done for Us? and most recently Collider.


Questions about Collider.

CD: Collider shows that what is known about the universe so far is the result of the work of a great number of theoretical physicists. Is there one that stands out for you? And if so, please can you tell me why?

PH: Clearly, in terms of individual contributions to modern physics, Einstein’s were the most significant. His insights about the abandonment of absolute space and time, the conversion of mass into energy, the quantum nature of light, and the warping of the fabric of the universe to produce gravity were each incredibly important contributions. Yet there are so many lesser-known physicists, such as Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, Louis de Broglie and such, without whose efforts modern physics may have taken a different course.

CD: I particularly liked the way you described the variety of particles that were confronting physicists by the mid 1990s. Which of these particles is your favourite and why?
PH: Loyalty to my PhD university, Stony Brook, compels me to say the top quark, since physicists from that university played an important role in its discovery. But for humour value, the bottom quark, also known as beauty, used to generate lots of chuckles. I recall research seminar announcements in the 1980s advertising the search for ‘naked beauty’ and ‘bare bottoms’ (meaning displaying the quantum number associated with that quark). I couldn’t imagine how researchers kept a straight face while delivering talks on such topics!

CD: What would you say was the most challenging theoretical problem facing theoretical physicists today?
PH: There are tons of daunting problems, but I think the identification of dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious invisible substances that pervade space, and supply extra gravitation and acceleration respectively, is probably the most baffling dilemma. It is astounding that more than 95% of the cosmos is composed of unknown stuff. I once went to a conference on dark energy in which most of the talks were a variation of ‘well we really have no idea what it is.’

CD: And what is the most challenging practical problem?
PH: The most challenging practical problem is finding ways of building up to the energies needed to test theoretical predictions. Hopefully, the LHC will have a long, healthy run after its restart in November. But what if its results raise questions that require even higher energies? Would there be the funds and the will to build an even more powerful collider?

CD: You outline the difficulties when the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) was declined further funding in 1993. In some ways it is a lament for theoretical physics in the United States. What do you think were the main reasons the LHC was built but the SSC was not?
PH: First of all CERN had much of the infrastructure in place to support the LHC. It was planned as an extension of existing facilities. The SSC was essentially built from scratch in a region in Texas where there had been no facilities before. Second, Europe engages in much more long-term planning, whereas in the United States budgets are largely decided year to year and different administrations often radically alter priorities.

CD: This week it was reported that the LHC is to work at half energy until technical difficulties are solved. What impact will this have on research work?
PH: I think researchers are happy that a machine will be running with much more power than the current champion, Fermilab. However, with half the power, there would be a whole range of mass left unexplored until the LHC is running at full capacity.

CD: What major practical project would you like to see next?
PH: I would like to see an international drive toward renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, and also greater effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. In terms of physics I will be happy to see the LHC churning out data and would hope that successor devices are built whenever the need arises.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PH: Though my wife informs me that there are snails in our back garden, I’ve only seen slugs, and there are plenty of those. Sometimes the slugs startle me when they pop out of tin cans in our recycling bins when I least expect them. The moment of shock is invigorating, and good exercise for the heart.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
PH: In adult life, witnessing the birth of each of my sons was a highly moving experience and I continue to be very proud of the two of them. In youth, it may well have been passing my driving exam. I won’t say how many times I attempted it and was thwarted by various mistakes. I received a competitive grant to pay for my entire university education (usually very expensive in the U.S.) around the same time that I earned my license, and I was happier about the fact that I had conquered a rather severe aversion toward driving. Nevertheless, I still greatly prefer trains over cars.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PH: The final years of my postgraduate education showed me that I could muster up the intense concentration needed to publish research articles in theoretical physics but proved to me that I wouldn’t be happy doing that exclusively to the detriment of other facets of my life. Rather, those years pointed me toward taking up science writing, which I started shortly after I received my PhD, and also toward trying to keep up a varied existence, including as much travelling as I can fit in (and afford).

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
PH: Even though my grandmother lived to the ripe old age of 98, it was very hard for me to see such a proud, independent woman decline so much in her last few years. I dedicated my first book to her when she was 85 and she managed to conduct a fairly active lifestyle for almost a decade after that. I greatly miss the stories she used to tell, such as sitting in the park when she was a girl and hearing the famous composer John Philip Sousa perform.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
PH: I’d like to spend less time worrying about things and more time living in the present moment. But I’m trying not to worry about that goal too much.

CD: What is happiness?
PH: I read recently a piece by Colin Wilson who described a feeling of everything being right with the world, but that moment of contentment vanishes when it is analysed too much. Very true! For my happy scene, I can imagine sitting with my family on comfortable sofas in a beautiful old library, reading wonderfully interesting books, while taking moments to glance out a large picture window upon a stunning Alpine landscape. Ahhh!

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
PH: Usually it is all a blur until I am on the train to the university where I teach. But I think I somehow get myself together while helping to make sure the kids are off to school. If I find myself on a school bus, and they are on a train I know that I have somehow muddled it up!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

COLLIDER by Paul Halpern

This inauspicious-looking object is actually the portal to a new world. It takes high frequency sound and makes it audible to humans. Last night Hodmandod Senior and I took a walk - and for much of the time there was just a steady hum. We went where we thought there would be bats - in a dark country lane with overhead trees - but apart from the odd rustle, it was quiet. Then, along a more suburban street we suddenly heard it: a clack, clack, clack - loud and sharp - the sound of a bat's sonar.

We stood still, Hodmandod Senior pointing the detector in different directions, its weak beam of light illuminating nothing much except the branches of trees and the poles of street lights, but the sound of the bat was there, swooping around, changing speed and intensity. We had suddenly become aware of something that had been there all along: an inaudible world made audible. Or the fragments of another universe slipping through into the one that I know.

This sounds like science-fiction but it is not. As I learnt in one of the last chapters of Paul Halpern's fascinating book Collider, this is exactly what they are trying to do in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva in Switzerland. In one of the ideas about our universe ('the Braneworld Hypothesis') all the tiny, subatomic particles and components that make up our own universe are thought of as strings. Most of these strings have sticky ends, and these prevent them from passing through the membrane (brane is short for membrane) of our 3D-universe and into any other of a different dimension. However gravitons, which are the components of gravity, are different. Graviton strings try to swallow their own tails and are shaped like doughnuts. They are therefore non-sticky and therefore free to slip through from universe to universe. The LHC operates at just the right energy to detect these theoretical particles so if it detected them, like I detected the bat last night, then this might be evidence for this 'Braneworld Hypothesis.' If there is evidence for other universes of extra dimensions then this could help astronomers understand dark matter. Dark matter is thought to make up 23% of our universe, the bulk of the rest is dark energy (73%), leaving just 4% that is 'luminous' or the stuff we can see.

However, as Paul Halpern explains, detection of something like a graviton in the LHC is not likely to be a simple thing like a bat-clack, or a flash of a light on a fluorescent screen, but the result of months of data analysis. Evidence of the existence of gravitons will be elusive; maybe more like searching for the voice of a bat in a cacophony of other night-sounds.

The idea that our universe is just one of many existing alongside each other is just one of the amazing ideas towards the end of this book. The LHC - which will not cause a black hole, not a destructive one at any rate (as chapter 11 starts 'Not all scientists are lunatics') - has many functions, but perhaps the most famous one is to search for the Higgs Boson.

Paul Halpern explains why finding the Higgs Boson is so important. It would be further evidence that the universe started with a big bang. Just as we all carry remnants of our ancient ancestry from, say, unicellular creatures, in the genes of our DNA, so atoms are thought to carry remnants of the start of the universe in their subatomic components. The Higgs Boson is one of these components, and the only way scientists will be able to find it is by smashing already tiny particles (protons) against each other at the highest energy they can muster; that is accelerating the particles until they are moving at close to the speed of light.

I have often found it remarkable that in order to explain the existence of the largest thing that we can imagine we have to search for the smallest thing too. It is another mouth swallowing its tail, and we seem to be stuck in the middle searching around for an end and a way in. For the curious lay-reader the field is perplexing and complicated, but luckily there are guides like Paul Halpern around that can tell us about these ideas in a clear way.

Gradually, he builds up a picture of the search for the world's smallest particles, starting from the ancient world through the modern world of atoms that is part of every High school curriculum, and then, from the 1950s, the more specialised world of recent mind-boggling ideas of quarks, fermions, bosons, leptons, hadrons, pions, gluons and various sorts of weak forces: 'a zoo of particles with bizarre properties and a wide range of lifetimes'. Even the most general reader builds up an impression of spins that don't actually 'spin', light and theories that are difficult to marry together, and how gravity is a misfit.

Along the way there are fascinating anecdotes of scientists and facts: scientists like Dirac who made important discoveries about the pieces of the puzzle and yet were unable to fit in themselves; calamitous stories of fixing lightning rods to Alpine peaks and then pertinent quotes from authors such as Voltaire and Plato.

Eventually, of course, it leads to the story of the Hadron Collider and story of making something small go fast... and the collision, and the detection, and the fight for funds. In this section too there are interesting facts and characters that really bring the story to life: the story of Robert (Bob) Wilson that was responsible for the Fermilab, and its modernistic and award-winning architecture covering dirt-floors, and the scientists who were working there - on one of the pinnacles of human achievement - having to wade through puddles to take their measurements.

I found Collider a compelling and invigorating read, and one that I am sure will change the way I think about the universe and my place within it. It has shown me that there are many ways of observing, and it is only by questioning what we think we perceive that we can learn where we have come from and where we are going. From now on I think I will listen to the bat clicks in the dark with a new concentration.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

China: the Inaccessible Country.

I'm not sure how long ago it was that I approached various people in China; but to date have had a little response. I have heard tales of firewalls and censoring, but whatever the reason I have made no progress. So, regretfully, because I preferred to organise such things myself, I approached a few travel agencies who specialise in trips to China. I asked them to give me an estimate for travel and accommodation in Khotan; Suzhou; Shanghai and then Guangzhou. But today I received an email back from one: 'due to the recent riot in Xinjiang Region, it's unsafe to go to Khotan'.

It is beginning to seem like this project is jinxed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Planning my Life of Literary Hedonism.

Today TIME by Eva Hoffman came through the door, which I put to join my other recent acquisitions:

I immediately wanted to start reading but shall restrain myself. There are other things I must do first. I have just finished reading COLLIDER by Paul Halpern and made a few notes.

Now I want to assemble them into a sensible review and then I really ought to do a little housework. After that, I think, a novel, one that I have been wanting to read for some time: LIZ AND JOE by John Murray. And then something from here or another pile perhaps (although I have to confess I have dipped into one or two of the above already...which is rather like a dog having its first taste of raw meat or a cat sampling gourmet Whiskas - now I just want more).

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Salon: Video Review of Paul Halpern's Collider

I have discovered that my computer now does videos so I've done a short video review of the book I'm reading at the moment as an experiment.


Looking at it I notice that I should have looked at the camera which is at the top of the screen rather than the screen itself - maybe I'll improve my technique this if I attempt this again.

The written full-review will follow later when I've finished the book.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Last Drink Bird Head

I am delighted that my 'piece of flash' is going to be included (with some great company) in the Last Drink Bird Head anthology edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

What would you write with the words 'Last Drink Bird Head' for inspiration? The results are many and extraordinarily various. There are more details about the book here. It will be launched in San Jose at the World Fantasy Convention in October.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh

Review now up on BookMunch here.

The Watergate

One thing I like about my city is the way it is so easy to step into the past. Beside almost every shop entrance there are steps up or down - and each direction generally uncovers something interesting: a Roman hypocaust behind the till at 'Spud-U-Like' for instance, or behind a plate of glass a short platform leading to medieval vaults.

Every month or so I meet a friend in the Watergate - one of the old pubs close to the centre. The walls are of blocks of sandstone, and the place is only ever dimly lit with candles and fairy lights. I don't know why we meet there, really. I like it well enough but since he's a writer too we often exchange manuscripts and books and struggle to see. So mostly we end up talking and yesterday we had a two hour lunch sorting out the publishing industry, the world economy, and how I don't quite know how to work my camera...well, we didn't sort out that one, actually. The instruction book is incomprehensible - even Hodmandod Senior can make no sense of it.

© Alan Wall 2009 :-)

Even so, he managed to take a couple of good photos while I was busy at the bar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Urban Wounding.

I have long wanted to show how my city seems to be falling apart. One shop closes

and then another. One small livelihood,

one dream,

and then another afternoon of nail on board.

A good idea, or so someone thought. No longer.

It feels like a haemorrhage, and no one knows the cause -

except maybe a borrowing on the strength of what was never there

and businesses fed on nothing but hope

sad bravado,

and empty promises.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Mulberry Book

I wrote a little something for a friend's 80th birthday book the other day. A group of us contributed, as she gave each of us a little notebook as a thank you present.

It's made of mulberry paper, and very pretty. I keep wishing I still had silkworms to see if they'd be interested in eating it - I wouldn't let them though!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thick Curtains.

Tonight I tried to look for shooting stars but unfortunately the sky was covered with such opaque cloud all I could see was the reflected haze of street lights - and underneath, this (taken earlier)...

So all I can do is imagine them sparking in the great velvet beyond. Maybe I'll have better luck tomorrow.

Monday, August 10, 2009

New Mouse

In my continuing war with RSI I have invested in a new mouse and mat.

My old mat, although slated to be optically compatible, didn't seem to be.

They are certainly comfortable to use and come with this sticker - the sort that always amuses one angle the hand is placed so

and then when tipped a little more horizontally shows how the hand should be placed around the mouse.

I bought the mouse on Saturday, and not really used it much yet. From the reviews on Amazon people seem to be highly delighted with it ...or not. I shall see. I am trying to keep to my laptop and its touch pad at the moment to see if that improves things.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Salon: Interview with 'ich' at Lizzy's Literary Life

I am in the midst of doing some interesting (albeit quite challenging) editing at the moment that has to be handed over pretty soon, so for Sunday Salon this week I am just going to direct you to an interview with me at Lizzy's Literary Life (another Sunday Salonist).

Lizzy asked me some really good questions and has some lovely illustrations. Since we were both under the influence of Ebbelwoi (as Lizzy says it is potent stuff) I have given some pretty frank answers. Hic.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Molecular Visualizations of DNA

I just want to watch this again and again - I think the way DNA curls up to form chromatins and then chromosomes is too often skipped over - and I had no idea they only formed during certain times in a cell's life.

I also like the way it shows how proteins are made from DNA via RNA. It is like a little factory - the sound effects really add to this impression. It is incredible to think that this process is going on inside our cells all the time - and that is only one of many equally complicated ones.

This reminds me about something I was reading in Nature today about how scientists are now able to see the cells (neutrophils) of our immune system being summoned to the site of infection where they begin the business of ingesting alien micro-organisms like Salmonella. From the pictures it looked just as clear and illuminating as this video - but this was not a simulation but real life.

Thanks to Andréia Azevedo Soares for the tip about the film.

Writing injuries, writing links and mental asylums.

Suddenly a lot of work has come all at once (interesting editing work which I'm delighted about). Unfortunately the RSI has also returned with a vengeance so I'm applying home-made ice-packs which work quite well until the ice melts and starts dribbling everywhere.

It's not the typing, I feel, but the 'mousing' (or the 'tracking' - since I recently went over to a tablet and after a few days found that didn't work for me either - must be just the way I work) so I'm going to move onto my lap top for the rest of the weekend, and maybe find the old RSI book for some advice and exercises (which worked very well last time).

And in the mean time leave you with some links:

Woowoo Teacup's comprehensive and thought-provoking post on writing and the internet - she's asked for more ideas, and although I couldn't think of any maybe you can...

and Lizzy Sidal's very kind review of my novel 98 Reasons For Being. She's done some very interesting research about the history of the Frankfurt mental asylum having just paid a visit to Frankfurt and it is well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

August Reading

Just recently I have been catching up with a little reading. In fact, over the last couple of days, since finishing an editorial report, I have done very little else.

I have dipped into The Turing Test by Chris Beckett, read a little more from The Lure of China by Frances Wood, contemplated starting The legend of Liz and Joe by John Murray but then, unfortunately, managed to finish Mortification edited by Robin Robertson. This was 'unfortunate' because the book finished with an anecdote by Niall Griffiths - and his moment of authorly mortification involved dope-fuelled onanism (with accidental spectator) - and I felt that the only thing that could possibly follow that was a little Irvine Welsh.

I'd been pondering over REHEATED CABBAGE (a book sent to me for review by Jonathan Cape) for a couple of weeks. I'd flicked through, noted the way it started with a foul-mouthed Rab C Nesbitt type dialect, and closed it again. I didn't think I'd like it. But after reading Niall Griffiths I felt I was ready to give it a try. To be honest I'd thought it wouldn't be long before I'd throw it away in disgust. I'd heard of Trainspotting, and I'd always assumed Irvine Welsh was popular purely because of his use of aggressive language and the violence of his plot... but I was wrong. Although I was indeed disgusted by the behaviour and the misogynist attitudes of the characters, I also found myself stunned by the quality of the writing, and, in the end, as moved by one the later stories as I have be anything that I've ever read.

I want to read more by him, but not just yet. It's the sort of book that can't really be followed by more fiction because it is too powerful, so instead I am going to read some non-fiction - COLLIDER by Paul Halpern. It is about the search for the world's smallest particles inside the Hadron Collider. It sounds like another amazing story - but in another way entirely.

In the meantime I am going to give Reheated Cabbage a couple of days before writing about it properly - and shall post the review in Bookmunch.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Silk Dress.

A few weeks ago, in a fit of optimism induced by bright sunlight, I bought a silk dress from Australia. It is made from a couple of recycled saris from India - a global masterpiece. It is designed a little like an apron: a waistband (or neckband) of one one cloth joined onto two layers of 'apron' - a lustrous brown and orange on top and a cream patterned with red below.

The thing about silk is that is glistens, and the reason it glistens is because each strand of silk is like a very long triangular prism which reflects the light and intensifies each pigment. It is like the water of a highly reflective lake, retaining the mirrored colours as it flows through the fingers.

I spent a good few hours playing with it - tying it this way and then that, strutting around, and generally dreaming of wearing it during the hot dry summer - as exotic and resplendent, I thought, as those parrots I saw once flying through trees in the Andes.

But instead, of course, the summer this year has turned out to be lush, green and wet. The air has been cool, and this silk dress has since been folded away like a dream I once had - a faintly ridiculous garment for this country of woollen cardigans, boots and long socks. But still, from time to time, when I read in the newspapers about silk pyjamas or tea dresses or evening gowns, I go to the drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe and look at it again. I run it through my fingers and hold it up to the light. It is my little piece of tropical weather; and a promise I have made myself to one day take it back to where it was made - and wear it in the sun.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Reading and the Internet

I have been thinking of the ways the internet can enhance the experience of reading a book.

1. Google maps - finding out more about places described and plotting routes;
2. Google images for finding pictures of the places and people described;
3. Wikipedia for finding more information about the author;
4. For looking at sites described by the author in the book. For instance in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink there were several interactive sites referenced that could be accessed;
5. Bookshop sites for finding more books by the author or on the same subject;
6. Author websites for interacting with the author him/herself;
7. Using Google as a detailed dictionary - finding out the meaning of the words in the text;
8. Finding out how words sound - in audiobooks if available;
9. Google for alternative explanations and theories on a subject;
10. Google for finding out when the book was written and generally giving the book a context.

These are all pretty obvious, maybe, but it entertained me to think of them just now and I'm sure there are lots more...