Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Disappearing Spoon

Back when I was writing about Lavoisier, I mentioned that a casual reader may get more out of a history of the period rather than Lavoisier's actual writings.  Well, I found one that I can recommend.  It's called 'The Disappearing Spoon', by Sam Kean [Amazon link]. 
The book is a walk through the periodic tables.  Most (if not every) element gets a story and some of them are wildly entertaining.  Take for instance, the lengths that Neils Bohr went, to hide some golden Nobel prizes from the Nazis:
On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr's lab. He wrote later, "I suggested that we should bury the medal(s)," but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.
So Hevesy's thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and "I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue's and also James Franck's medals."
They put the dissolved remainder into some beakers and stashed them away.  The Nazis ransacked the labs but ignored the beakers.  Pretty clever, eh?  The best part though, after the war, they precipitated the gold out and had the medals recast.  That's wonderful!

As I'm going through the Great Books, I'm recognizing where my strengths and weaknesses are with different types of books.  The science and math readings (and the Kant!) are not going to be my friends.  After reading 'The Disappearing Spoon', I have a much better grasp on chemistry and the people who have done so much of the work over the past few centuries.
Highly recommended.   

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sylvia Plath - Poetry

This is the final poem in the book.  (As a reminder, I'm reading the plays from this book here.)  I'll do at least one summary post (I promise!) in which I'll talk about what I've learned.
This last poem is from Sylvia Plath, a name that I've often heard.  I've never read her work before though.  This poem is called 'Daddy'.  (It's lengthy, but I'll add the whole thing.)

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breath or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time-
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters of beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.

My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene.

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gypsy ancesstress and my weird luck
And my Tarot pack and my Tarot pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You-

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Facist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
And less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a mode of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I'm finally through.
The black telephone's off at the root,
The voiced just can't worm through.

If I've killed one man, I've killed two-
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.

Wow.  What a vicious poem!  From the blurb in the book, Plath's father died when she was eight.  He was a professor.  I'm not sure that the Nazi comparisons are fair, but it's hard to believe that they would be.  So...a metaphor?  Anger with her father for dying when she was so young?  That makes sense, though the anger seems to be out of proportion.  (Which I can say, safe in the knowledge that I'm 40 and both my parents are still alive...)
Ok, so move past that.  Does the poetry of the poem sing to you?  I confess, it doesn't for me.  It could be that the imagery is so horrible that it buries the art.  I'm open to some learnin' here but I'll be honest.  I didn't care for this poem.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reading for November

One piece

Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov (Part I-II) link

This is basically the first half of the book.  The second half comes up next year.  I'm reading the whole thing in one shot this year.  In fact, I'm about half way through part three and I can tell you that this is excellent.  Highly recommended! 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Anne Sexton - Poetry

Another new poet for me.  The blurb says that she was a friend of Sylvia Plath, whom I have heard of.  The poem has a less than cheerful title, 'Wanting to Die'.

Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.

Even then I have nothing against life.
I know well the grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
The never ask why build.

Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.

In this way, heavy and thoughtful,
warmer than oil or water,
I have rested, drooling at the mouth-hole.

I did not think of my body at needle point.
Even the cornea and the leftover urine were gone.
Suicides have already betrayed the body.

Still-born, they don't always die,
but dazzled, they can't forget a drug so sweet
that even children would look on and smile.

To thrust all that life under your tongue!-
that , all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death's a sad Bone; bruised, you'd say,

and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.

Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.

A couple of months ago, when Robin Williams committed suicide, I got into one of those internet arguments, you know the type.  The other person works with death and has had to comfort the families of suicide.  She was (justly) angry with those who have suicided and was upset with people that were putting Robin Williams on a pedestal.
I could understand the anger, but thought that this was a bad way to prevent future suicides.  I don't know if anyone would stop from killing themselves because they thought people would be angry afterward.  In fact, that thought of future reaction might be a goad for them to go on.  The approach that made the most sense to me was the one where people talked about depression being an outside force ('not really you') and how it could be combated.
This poem seems to line up with that.  'and yet she [Death] waits for me, year after year/to do delicately undo an old wound/to empty my breath from its bad prison'.  If you tried to tell this person that you'll be pissed at them, they'd simply think that you were afraid to leave your prison cell.  They wouldn't understand you and that misunderstanding would go both ways.

I would love to hear Socrates discuss this poem.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Elements of Chemistry - Lavoisier

I skipped writing a bio for Lavoisier.  You can read one here, if you're interested.  Of note, he is considered by many to be the 'father of chemistry'.  After reading part one of 'Elements of Chemistry', it's not hard to see why.

I won't go into great depth here.  'Elements' is very much in the vein of Great Books of basic science and math texts.  The usefulness of reading these as a layperson is debatable.  I'm of the opinion that if you're really interested in the early days of chemistry, that you're better off reading a history of the period rather than Lavoisier's actual work. 
But I don't mean to turn people away from the work.  'Elements' is very readable.  It becomes repetitious with experiments, but at least they're easy to follow.

Having said that, there are some things to appreciate.  The book opens with Lavoisier explaining why molecular differences change with temperature and how that makes the difference between solids, liquids and gases.  He also explains the role that pressure plays in liquid states.  It seems obvious once I'd read it, but this was honestly new to me.
It really is amazing the things that Lavoisier did.  I was reminded again and again of Lucretius and the poetic atomic theories.  Lavoisier actually took various substances and tested and experimented to see what would happen with them.  This meant heating and boiling.  This meant testing quantities of trapped air.  It meant weighing things.  And so on and so on.
'Elements' was published so that Lavoisier could get his findings out to other chemists.  I'm sure they redid his experiments and compared results.  Chemistry was put on a solid footing. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Representative Government - Mill

[This covers the first six chapters only.]

Mill is always an interesting read and 'Considerations on Representative Government' is no exception.  This was published in 1861, before democracy became widely acclaimed.  One of the interesting things about 'Representative Government' is that it's not an argument for everyone to drop their current system and switch.  In fact, Mill says:
...forms of government are not a matter of choice. We must take them, in the main, as we find them. Governments can not be constructed by premeditated design. They "are not made but grow." Our business with them, as with the other facts of the universe, is to acquaint ourselves with their natural properties, and adapt ourselves with them.
And even if the 'organic' opportunity occurs, it may not last.
But there are also cases in which, though not averse to a form of government-possibly even desiring it-a people may be unwilling or unable to fulfill its conditions. They may be incapable of fulfilling such of them as are necessary to keep the government even in nominal existence. Thus a people may prefer a free government, but if, from indolence or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions - in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty...
While reading this, I couldn't help but think about the trouble that we've had encouraging democracy to bloom in Iraq.  And I wondered if Mill would think that we've failed on his last point and elevated the Presidency and trusted him "with powers which enable him to subvert [our] institutions". 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Allen Ginsberg - Poetry

From what I can recall, Allen Ginsberg was an important 'beat' poet.  Not that I really know what that is, but I've at least heard of him.  This poem is 'A Supermarket in California' and I don't think that I know it.  But of course I soon will!

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I
walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a
headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes! - and you, Garcia Lorca,
what were you doing in the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eye the
grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork
chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary
fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy,
and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an
hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees
add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of lost past
blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his
ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood
watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

My first thought is that there is probably ton of references in here that I'm not getting.  My experience with Whitman is very limited, especially to his biographical details.  I read that he's childless and eye[ing] the grocery boys.  Does this mean that he was maybe going to pick one of them up?  And who is the Angel that he was seeking?  I don't know and I suspect that this means I miss out on a lot here.
But put that aside.  The idea of the poem is certainly interesting.  If I was out late at a grocery store and I tried to have a conversation with a literary idol, how would that go?  I think I'd discuss ideas, but that's what attracts me.  This conversation is driven entirely by feelings.  Ginsberg and Whitman are lonely and wistful.  They search for something that isn't there and probably never was.
Ginsberg seems to suspect that in the final stanza.  He asks Whitman 'what America did you have' when he died and went to Hades.  A different one in many ways but still the same in others.  Does Ginsberg feel a betrayal at (his) modern America, especially in comparison to Whitmans?  Probably.
Hmmm.  It doesn't really speak to me but I respect it.  Maybe Ginsberg and I are just in different keys.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Author Timeline

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

You may notice a rarity here.  Almost all of the reading list is in chronological order but not this month.  Mill lived entirely after Lavoisier.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Books Read in September

Let's see, what did I read last month?
  • Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie - My first Christie book, but I'm certain it won't be the last!  I've always liked stories that had a mystery element but have read very few pure mystery stories.  This particular story sets up an unusual 'closed room' mystery and a very unusual conclusion.  Highly recommended. 
  • The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell - I've read a few of Mitchell's books and enjoyed them quite a bit.  This one tells a single story through six discrete time periods.  Not as satisfying as 'Cloud Atlas' but still pretty good.
I've also been reading some short stories and brushing up on some Shakespeare history.  This month I also started Dostoyevsky's 'Brothers Karamazov' for November.  The reading plan splits it between this year and next.  I'd rather do the whole thing at once for continuity sake.  

Readings for October

Two pieces for September.

Mill: Representative Government (Ch1-6) link
Lavoisier: Elements of Chemistry (Part 1) link

The Mill is enjoyable (as expected).  I haven't started the Lavoisier yet.