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canister

Antimatter canister from ‘Angels and Demons’

The Writers Almanac got me thinking this week about antimatter and the positron. If that seems a strange topic for a writing site, then you need to consider all of the fictional uses of antimatter in literature and popular entertainment.

Science fiction writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick are a few of the many who have played around with this scientific discovery. The British television series Doctor Who used it for a propulsion system. That sentient android, Data, from Star Trek: The Next Generation has a positronic brain that gives him powerful computational capabilities. In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, the Illuminati try to destroy Vatican City using the explosive power of a canister of pure antimatter.

In physics, the idea that there may exist particles and matter that are exact opposites of the matter that surrounds us goes back to the late 19th century. It is difficult to grasp the idea that there are mirror-image anti-atoms for all our known atoms. take that idea bigger and there would be whole anti-solar systems.

And what if in those solar systems the matter and antimatter might meet? They would annihilate one another.

In 1932, American physicist Carl Anderson discovered the first physical evidence that antimatter was more than just an idea. Anderson was photographing and tracking the passage of cosmic rays through a cloud chamber, a cylindrical container filled with dense water vapor, lit from the outside, and built with a viewing window for observers. When individual particles passed through the sides of the container and into the saturated air, they would leave spiderweb tracks of condensation, like the vapor trails of miniscule airplanes, each type of particle forming a uniquely shaped trail. Anderson noticed a curious pattern — a trail like that of an electron, with an exactly identical, but opposite curve — an electron’s mirror image and evidence of an anti-electron.

He took a now famous photograph of the event and in it a particle is seen approaching the metal plate , and when it hits the plate, it loses energy but continues to curve in the direction appropriate for a positively charged electron. He later called it a positron.

He had discovered antimatter. The discovery earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936 (at the age of 31 he was the youngest person to be so honored).

Antiprotons were discovered in 1955, and the antineutron was discovered the following year. In 1985, scientists created the first anti-atoms. And other antiparticles, such as antiprotons and antineutrons, have been discovered.

These discoveries led to speculation on its practical use. In Star Trek, it forms the basis of high energy propulsion systems. So far, the amount of antimatter so far created on Earth is orders of magnitude short of what would be needed to power a spacecraft.

Back in the 1940s, biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took up the newly discovered particle and made it the means for his fictional “positronic brain.” Made of platinum and iridium, it was his way of  imparting humanlike consciousness to the robots in his story collection I, Robot.

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I started reading The Goldfinchthe third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches

American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

bartleby shirtThis weekend I am starting a period of unemployment – or retirement. That hasn’t been determined yet. But it is definitely a new phase and perhaps it was more synchronicity than coincidence that I found this weekend an annotated version of the Melville story “Bartleby, the Scrivener, a story of Wall Street.” Andrew Kahn has added the commentary and they have added the option to see notes based on categories like history and Melvilliana.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener” is an odd story about a lawyer who hires Bartleby to work in his office as a scrivener. It’s an old profession from the times when humans were the office copy machine.

Bartleby is quiet and initially he is efficient. But he soon begins to refuse to help out with any other office tasks. Well, not refuse, but, as he states, he would “prefer” not to. The lawyer and other employees are startled and confused but unsure of how to respond.

Bartleby is always in the office. He does his copying and often stares out the window at a neighboring wall. We discover he is living in the office.

He reminds me of an episode of Seinfeld when Kramer begins going to an office where he is not employed and just hangs out, interacting with employees, but not doing any work.

Bartleby eventually announces that he will no longer do any work at all, but he prefers to stay in the office. The lawyer asks him to leave, but he just doesn’t.

comic

Don’t take this as real life and ask why didn’t they just throw him out. The story is, as Kahn says in his introduction, “part office comedy, part ghost story, part Zen koan.”

Kahn says that in 1852, the year before the story’s publication, the once best-selling author of tales of adventure, had literally been declared “crazy” in a newspaper headline about his writing.

Herman Melville wrote this story after Moby Dick, which was his masterpiece, but was not well reviewed and didn’t sell. He followed the white whale with the novel Pierre which was not subtly subtitled “The Ambiguities” and that subtitle is accurate.

In this story, he seems to be trying to make meaning as frustrating as the lawyer’s relationship with Bartleby.

The lawyer’s frustrations mirror the reader’s frustrations.

“In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.'”

When I read this story in my college literature class, I wrote a paper around the idea that one of the few things we hear about Bartleby’s life is that he was rumored to have earlier been a clerk in the Dead Letter Office in the Washington, DC post office. What a beautifully symbolic place to work. Here’s how Melville, through the lawyer, ponders that job of sifting through letters that could not be delivered.

“When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.”

Spoiler alert: Bartleby ends up being imprisoned in the New York prison known as “The Tombs.”  There, he begins to prefer not to eat, and in a short time dies.

This story was first serialized anonymously in two parts in a magazine in 1853. Anonymously, probably because the Melville name would not help sales. Today it is viewed as a masterwork of his short fiction.

Let the critics and students of literature continue to ponder the story and how it uses philosophy, free will, ethics, depression, economics and all the other analyses. I’m rereading it this time as more of that Dilbert cartoon (above) interpretation of just preferring not to do anything and also preferring not to explain why.

Ah Bartleby! Ah Melville! Ah humanity!

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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