Books about people to get you into Physics

Way back around 1960 I went to a course at Oxford at Ruskin College- a conference where I learnt about the flexibility of the labour force; that many people would have to take many jobs in a lifetime. I went on to teach Physics for some 37 years. I went on for a further week in Cambridge where in Heffers I discovered a fascinating book about the life and work of Albert Einstein. (I had previously read snippets from his own “The World as I see it” borrowed from the library of the local Methodist minister.) I recall the book as being full of photographs and diagrams which gave me some insight into aspects of General Relativity.A short seach has revealed this to be Albert Einstein, The Man and his theories by Hilaire Cluny This

ground has been covered on the brilliant DVD, Einstein and Eddington published by the BBC with Andy Serkis and David Tennant taking the leading parts.

Einstein And Eddington [DVD] [2008]

Reflecting on this I think that my biographical interest in Science was much influenced by the television series on Louis Pasteur by the brilliant writer/director Nesta Pain. The importance of consistent and painstaking research in the laboratory seemed to be one theme I would have been wise to have retained from this brilliant series which I must have seen around 1958.

 

Two excellent biographers are George Gamow and Banesh Hoffmann. The latter’s biography of Albert Einstein-Creator and Rebel was written with the assistance of Helen Dukas who was Einstein’s secretary from 1928 and one of his literary trustees.

Albert Einstein Creator And Rebel (Plume)

George Gamow was born in Odessa in 1904 and worked with Neils Bohr in Copenhagen and with Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. His expositions are very clear and Thirty Years that Shook Physics covers the development of the Quantum Theory with chapters on the following:- Planck, Bohr, Pauli, De Broglie, Heisenburg, Dirac and Fermi. It closes with an exposition on Yukawa and Mesons.

These books may now be considered somewhat dated but they remain clear on the state of Physics up to around 1950. One physicist who always stands out as particularly exciting for both his work and unconventional personality is Richard Feynman. I can still recall his safe cracking amusements which are so well described in Brighter than a Thousand Suns on the Manhatten Project.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brighter_than_a_Thousand_Suns_(book)

There are many books on Feynman including an engaging comic book but the classic biography is Genius, Richard Feynman and modern physics by James Gleick.

Finally, I would like to commend this recent historical account-

Faust In Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics and the Birth of the Nuclear by Gino Segrè

 

 

 

 

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Sarah Crossan’s “Die Sprache des Wassers”

I am finding this an excellent read and an interesting and moving cultural experience. Having just seen “Ladybird” which moved me to both tears and laughter, this story is broadly a similar coming of age story. I suppose it could be termed a Bildungsroman but that is a weighty term for the evocative and indeed provocative text which is ideal for someone wanting to learn German. Essentially it is a prose poem in German about a 13 year old girl coming from Poland to Coventry.

 

Heidegger Reframed by Barbara Bolt

Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889 – May 26, 1976 is renowned for the complexity and subtlety with which his thoughts on the philosophy of being (ontology) is expressed. His ideas are inspired by numerous sources from the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle and much of his thought dependent upon his early training as a Jesuit. He read and imbibed St Augustine and Duns Scotus. He trained under the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl at Freiburg and his approach is deeply engaged with German philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. He also read Kierkegaard with close attention.

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His ideas about the nature of being are in stark contrast with those of Descartes which involve a split between consciousness and the external world. This Cartesian framework or dualism is embedded in modern science and Western thought generally. One result of Descartes philosophy is that Nature is subject by the mind to measurement and calculation and also to manipulation. This borders on what is termed instrumentalism and indeed the consequent exploitation of the environment. This, Heidegger with his alternative view of the direction of philosophy, he deeply and radically opposed. The implication of Heidegger’s thought for the creative artist and the making and meaning of art forms the thrust of Barbara Bolt’s text. His project is illustrated with specific reference to international artists like Sophie Calle, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer.

 

Generally considered as a great classic of Twentieth Century philosophy Sein und Zeit, 1927 is not an easy book to read even if you are thoroughly fluent in German. Concerned with existence and the nature of being, it is equally interested in associated questions about time. This central text focuses on the nature of reality and the being-right-there of existence for which Heidegger uses the term Dasein. Part of the difficulty of understanding this central work is that language almost seems to break down under the pressure of difficulty in communicating the awesome nature of human existence, which many would see as essentially spiritual. Barbara Bolt provides a thoroughly useful glossary to such terms in support of her guide.

 

This glossary contains some eighty terms; it is relatively clear but illustrates some of the difficulties in expounding Heidegger’s collected work,Gesamtausgabe, which itself runs to more than eighty volumes. Barbara Bolt explains in her early chapters concepts associated with Dasein which involvecare for the self and other beings, Sorge, and in the face of personal and certain knowledge of death, the termination of existence on Earth, anxiety or Angst. For Heidegger there are two possibilities, it seems either falling into immersion in the day to day, which he terms ontic existence or striving with resoluteness for authenticity. This bears upon artistic endeavour in several ways; the acceptance of strife when faced with unsettling artworks, the necessity of praxis in art education and research which hopefully produces a practical and respectful understanding of materials by a heuristic approach. Bolt is interesting and thought-provoking in her exposition on this.

 

A perhaps greater difficulty in appreciating Heidegger, which Bolt mentions, perhaps too briefly, continues in current debate. This was his active involvement with Nazism and his eulogy of Hitler involving praise for his moral regeneration of the Fatherland. This has been, not surprisingly, a sticking point in the appreciation of the Heidegger canon. A discussion of this may be found inInauthenticity: Theory and Practice, contained in JP Stern’s essays on literature and ideology, The Heart of Europe. There is particular concern over his treatment of his German-Jewish teacher, a Christian convert and former colleague, the proponent of phenomenology Husserl, to whom Sein und Zeithad initially been dedicated. He also took a renowned student, Hannah Arendt as his mistress and she it was who later to testified on his behalf at a denazification hearing in opposition to Karl Jaspers.

 

In a key chapter, Barbara Bolt uses two central concepts of Heidegger to evaluate particular art works. These are ‘enframing’ (Gestellung) and ‘poiesis’-a Greek term for making from which the word poetry is derived. Enframing, according to Heidegger, has negative connotations and is applied to methods like those of modern technology which treats nature solely as a means to an end and shows Heidegger to be an early proponent of environmentalism and certainly a critic of agribusiness. This seems to be echoed by concerns about the manner in which the business of art has been cheapened and debased by commercialisation and celebrity culture. There is, she explains an unholy alliance developing between advertising in late capitalism as evidenced, for instance, by Tracey Emin selling Bombay Sapphire Gin. Enframement also appears to include a criticism of managerialism; disapproval of the manner in which humans are treated often with statistical techniques as mere available resources. Before examining the concept of ‘poesis’, it is worth noting that this book is actually entitled ‘Heidegger Reframed’ and is one in a general series. This tends to give framing a different, presumably positive connotation that sits uneasily with the particular use of the term by Heidegger. Unfortunately, there appears to be no general series editor that could add guidance and cohesion to this demanding project of applying the thought of modern philosophers to art.h1

 

Bolt sometimes writes convoluted sentences in a somewhat orotund style which may be an understandable effect of propounding the concepts of this demanding, intriguing philosopher. Nevertheless, the style invites the reader to question some of the propositions expounded. There is no doubt that Heidegger had a particular view about the dominance of the scientific method as he conceives it. Also mathematics seems deemed uncongenial, whereas language, and also history with its different conception of time and certainly etymology are viewed by Heidegger as more relevant to his project. It is interesting to speculate how much he might have responded to philosophers of science like Thomas Kuhn whose views on paradigm shift, and those too of Paul Karl Feyerabend, might have influenced him had he been fully aware of them. Heisenburg, a contemporary and also a controversial figure, might have influenced Heidegger on his notion of how preconceived theories operate in science.

 

Heidegger as Bolt explains was inspired by poetry and must have been sensitive to its lyricism. This makes the reader question his apparent failure to respond to the beauty of mathematics which is in a sense a universal language. In general he was at pains to oppose certain notions of aesthetics associated particularly with the Enlightenment and Romanticism and the artist as an inflated, self-dramatising subject. In his conception of poesis, Heidegger approaches another mode of artistic appreciation and indeed gratitude which is guided by sympathy. The term, as Bolt makes clear is Greek in origin and involves openness to the bringing-forth or unconcealment of being. It is, for example, the sense of wonder when a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis or in the transformation when a flower blossoms from a bud. Heidegger spent a year in 1942 lecturing on Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister” which relates to the Danube and examined the limitations of a metaphysical interpretation of art and appears to argue the case for spiritual values in art together with a feeling for place attained by intimate journeying. George Steiner emphasises elsewhere how Heidegger’s titles are those of peregrination and comments, “He has been an indefatigable walker in unlit places”.

 

Barbara Bolt has written an interesting book on a difficult topic. The publishers might have supported her with somewhat better illustrations than the few disappointing images provided. However, she has shown how Heidegger can illuminate the work of prominent international artists. She has provided an introduction to a highly influential and controversial thinker supported with a sound biography. This work encourages the reader to bravely question art and promote radically innovative ways of observing and researching related issues.

 

 

 

Monday was Washday- a review of “Women of West Cornwall”

Monday was washday. For many Cornish women, the busiest day of the week. The first day of the week one of strenuous activity after a long, quiet and for many a Methodist Sunday. The thought of washday recalls images of raw, red hands, buckets of “blue” whitener and the dangerous possibility of fingers getting crushed in the mangle. In this book from the Penwith Local History Group, “Women of West Cornwall”, all the of the back breaking effort of domestic routine, to which women were tied, is vividly recalled. In earlier days before washing machines and even hot water, it might involve catching and hauling buckets of rainwater. For women in large Victorian families catering for brothers fishing or sons toiling on the land it meant restoring heavily soiled work clothes. It was truly hard labour.WWC

This fascinating 100 page book gives the impression that many women’s lives were run along pre-determined tracks. Who you married decided rigidly the pattern of your future life. Also according to medieval laws, up until the late 19th century your property and dowry became your husband’s. It recalls the lines of Joan Baez’s “Waggoner’s Lad” – a folk song that was much heard around Penwith in the sixties:-

“Oh, hard is the fortune of all womankind
She’s always controlled, she’s always confined
Controlled by her parents until she’s a wife
A slave to her husband the rest of her life”DREADNOUGHTSW-620x452

Yet, in spite of destiny, which sometimes included injury or loss of a husband, perhaps in war, womenfolk were determined not just to survive. “Women in West Cornwall” shows how they were intent upon improving their lot and also that of their sisters, real and metaphorical. Even in small villages like Ludgvan there were successful attempts to create a Friendly Society by means of which women might alleviate difficult times or dire emergencies. In a similar manner, women who managed large families, adapted their skills to run businesses in larger towns like Penzance. Despite educational discrimination and rigid stereotyping, these ladies showed an enterprising spirit, determination and courage. They pursued their rights to preserve their privacy, dignity and reputation through the complexities of Church Court system.

In this splendid little volume, it is truly encouraging to read of the maternal care that one Mousehole women showed in wartime to a number of Jewish children entrusted to her care, showering them with love and understanding. Bearing in mind the current refugee crisis, this story moves the reader to meditate upon the nature of human progress and the transformative power of kindness.

Aste Nielsen- Die Suffragette (1913)
Aste Nielsen- Die Suffragette (1913)

In a short review it is difficult to mention all the useful studies in this fascinating and moderately priced book. It is delightfully illustrated with informative diagrams and background material. It is worth mentioning that it contains passages of humour, like the surreal yet socially revealing clash between Penzance carnival queens in the 1930s. There is an informative chapter on the vicissitudes of being the model of a famous artist and her later experiences. These ten chapters all written by women show, in a variety of styles, empathy and imagination, much systematic and painstaking research into primary sources. Such materials, wills and deeds, being hand written are challenging to decipher. There is in addition a productive use of personal recollection and family memories. This is a great contribution both to Cornish and Women’s Studies. Equality, sadly, is still a work in progress but this neat volume marks, in a touching manner, the distance travelled towards that goal.

“Bin ich ein Tier, dass Musik mich beruehrt?”

Although perhaps reminiscent of Caliban in The Tempest, the quote comes from Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “Die Verwandandlung”-or Metamorphosis as it is known in English translation. However I found the quote on an interesting and intriguing video about Nietzsche’s categories of the Apollonian and the Dionysian by Claudia Simone Dorchain.

My interest in Nietzsche has been re-awakened by seeing the new film about “Lou Andreas Salome” in Berlin-actually at Eva Lichtspiele at Blissestraße 18-which is a great old-fashioned cinema.  It reminds me of another old filmhouse in Vienna-(The Bellaria Kino) which is situated behind the Volkstheatre and in turn years ago to “The Scala” in the High Street in St Ives -which is where Boots Chemist is situated today. Anyway, for those who are interested this is what it says on the Eva Lichtspiele website:-

Die ‘Eva Lichtspiele’ gelten mit der Eröffnung 1913 unter dem Namen ‘Roland Lichtspiele’ als ältestes Filmtheater im Bezirk Wilmersdorf. In den 20er Jahren, nach einem Umbau und der gleichzeitigen Umbenennung des Kinos in den heutigen Namen, wurden hier die Filme auf Vorschlag des Betreibers mit Musikbegleitung präsentiert – zuerst durch eine Violinistin und später durch ein ganzes Orchester, das durch den Einbau eines zweiten Vorführapparates pausenlos im Einsatz war. Glücklicherweise blieb das Kino während des Zweiten Weltkrieges nahezu unbeschadet, so dass der Kinobetrieb durchgehend aufrechterhalten werden konnte und noch heute viele Einzelheiten des Gebäudes (wie z.B. der schöne elegante Neonschriftzug an der Fassade) auf die lange Kinogeschichte der ‘Eva Lichtspiele’ hinweisen.

Nietzsche I find difficult to come to grips with. Probably, I have read about him rather than reading him directly. Steeped in German classical studies and Schopenhauer, he has had a huge influence on his time but like Heidegger no friend of rationalism or socialist thinking. Although both not only raised interesting questions but demonstrate the continuity of philosophical history. Neo-Thomism and Catholicism in the case of the latter, Plato and Schopenhauer-and both of course were influenced by the Jena poet, Hölderlin.

As to Salome’s influence on Rilke; here is one view relating to her Russian origin:-

“In 1899 Rilke made the first of two pivotal trips to Russia with Salome, discovering what he termed his “spiritual fatherland” in both the people and the landscape. There Rilke met Leo Tolstoy, L. O. Pasternak (father of Boris Pasternak), and the peasant poet Spiridon Droschin, whose works Rilke translated into German. These trips provided Rilke with the poetic material and inspiration essential to his developing philosophy of existential materialism and art as religion. Inspired by the lives of the Russian people, whom the poet considered more devoutly spiritual than other Europeans, Rilke’s work during this period often featured traditional Christian imagery and concepts, but presented art as the sole redeemer of humanity.” This comes from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/rainer-maria-rilke

In any event this film-not the first on her -see the link below to Calvini’s version- is visually appealling making fascinating use of old picture postcards and raises questions over the many radical ideas, poetry music and of course, psychoanalysis. There is a very revealing chapter on her in Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester’s “Freud’s Women”. I do hope this becomes available soon on DVD with English subtitles just like the Stefan Zweig film currently also playing in Berlin. Zweig too has written interestingly on Nietzsche-the book below is available in English translation. Reading about her and her circle, their poetry and music certainly has a calming effect on me.

The following clip is also revealing:-

LAS

Stefan Zweig’s last days in exile in America -“Vor Der Morgenroete”

Stefan Zweig has been the subject of new interest in recent years. Two new biographies have appeared quite recently and in addition his friendship with Joseph Roth has been the subject of fierce debate after an article in The London Review of Books by Michael Hoffmann. “Ostende. 1936, Sommer Der Freundschaft” by Volker Weidermann is a magnificent read on this relationship and the plight of exiles from Nazi Germany was published just last year and has been translated into English as “Summer before the Dark, Ostend Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth;Ostend 1936“(Reviews may be read at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Summer-Before-Dark-Stefan-Joseph/dp/1782272038/ref=pd_bxgy_14_2?ie=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=JA0N7E4NR05FFN2CAHF9 )It was also Radio4’s Book of the week. The Sunday Times, for instance, said of this book;
‘For such a slim book to convey with such poignancy the extinction of a generation of “Great Europeans” is a triumph’.SZ However Zweig’s life experiences also formed the background and leitmotif for the zany film and also a book by Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel. One reader comments, “I also feel like I owe this movie a great deal, in that it turned me on to the works of Stefan Zweig, master Austrian storyteller, and my new favorite author”

The new film just screening in Germany is called “Vor der Morgenroete” and features Josef Hader as Stefan Zweig and is produced by the actress, Maria Schrader who recently played a prominent role in the Channel 4 series, Deutschland 83.SZ2Vor der Morgenröte Plakat web_1

The film consists of  episodes from the life of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig in exile. At the height of his worldwide fame, he is driven to emigrate and grows desperate in the face of knowledge of the downfall of Europe, which like Roth he already attempts to forsworn his fellow European intellectuals. This then is the story of a refugee, the story of the loss of the old world of the Hapsburg K und K and the search for a new home in America.SZ3

Stefan Zweig was a renowned  author German together with Thomas Mann the most translated in his time. Already in 1934, Zweig left his native Austria to go into exile from which he did not return. In her compelling and sensual opulent film Maria Schrader shows the world-famous author in six episodes from his life; his first stay in Brazil and the participation in the P.E.N.-Congress in Buenos Aires in 1936 about visiting New York City and his first wife Friderike in 1941 until his death in 1942 in Petrópolis. There, Zweig wrote his famous work “The Chess Game“. Josef Hader shines in the title role of the famous Austrian writer and pacifist Stefan Zweig. Barbara Sukowa as his first wife Friderike, also gave a convincing performance. Another strong impression was given by Aenne Schwarz as Zweig’s delicate and alluring second wife.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wLiyFyfuB4

The film impressed me on several different levels. In 2015,I had visited in Munich, the following exhibition which showed much of the material, Zweig had collected and details of his first trips to America-http://www.literaturhaus-muenchen.de/ausstellung/items/141/vars/id-2015-stefanzweigausstellung.html It is clear that despite the recognition of his fame, Zweig found it difficult to settle in America;either in New York or in Yale or later in Brazil. (Verloren war die Welt von Gestern.) Yesterday’s world had disappeared, the Hotel Metropole in Vienna was now a Gestapo headquarters. Notably in Die Welt von Gestern, he noted how money came so readily to the Brownshirts and living in Salzberg he knew just how the racist menace grew. Sadly there are parallels with today and as Zweig remarked, Wer die Vergangenheit nicht versteht, versteht nichts wirklich. 

 

Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

A serviette, a glass of champagne taken outside a fish restaurant in the open-air Viktualienmarkt in Munich, all taken to celebrate the first day of spring, prompt Cees Nooteboom into Proustian reverie. Upon the paper napkin is written in blue capitals the word POSEIDON, the Greek god who has preoccupied Nooteboom’s thoughts for several summers. The blue colour reminds him of the sea viewed from Mediterranean garden of his villa in Menorca. Taking this prompting as a moment of benign synchronicity, he later begins a correspondence with this sea-deity. He seeks to inquire how this somewhat unreliable ancient Greek Olympian sees aeons of time and sends him letters and legenda; meditations and stories to be read, both poetic and tragic, from the arts and the contemporary world. He is not expecting a reply.

In the Odyssey, Poseidon is renowned for hating Odysseus who had blinded the Cyclops, Polyphemus who happened to be the god’s son. This is Homer’s view. Ovid would have known the god as Neptune and wrote about him in the ‘’Metamorphoses’’. Kafka wrote an essay in which he imagines Poseidon constantly submerged. So, Nooteboom wonders, in a notably poetic passage, how would he have viewed the first passage of the first boat on the surface above him. How does he feel about the decline of those very Greeks who worshipped him? Is he melancholy about his timeless vigil already an old man beneath the sea with only occasional excursions pulled about by tiny sea-horses, nature’s experiment in trans-gender parturition? Fascinated by the rhythms of animal behaviour and curious plants, Nooteboom’s meditative writing is enlivened by his close observation of the natural world.

Letters to Poseidon juxtaposes thoughts which are essentially theological with ponderings on inexplicable tragedies in the contemporary world from the Challenger disaster to the Arab spring. Uncomfortable topics of puzzling cruelty are subject to persistent interrogation which is addressed to an ancient deity- often depicted in statuary with his face turned away. However, there is also an interesting wrestle between belief and doubt beneath the surface. Here is an attempt to figure the Christian deity in relation to the ancient gods. It is almost that the averted gaze of the sea-god makes him more accessible to questioning. Dante and the early-German Christian mystic, Seuse are invoked and discussed whilst the reader is provided with routes to his own investigations from Nootebbom’s well-stocked mind.

The author is prominent as a novelist, art historian and as a traveller. Successive pieces are situated in, for example, in Seoul Museum of Art, a Zen garden in Kyoto, back in his study in Menorca, an island of the Dutch East Indian company in Nagasaki and back once more to Menorca to watch a blood moon. This continuous movement appears to have given rise to a certain Weltschmerz  and in particular to a fascination with time and memory. This connection between time and space fascinates him as do geological aeons. He uses the Poseidon figure as a means to attempt to grasp the manner in which rocks are metamorphosed and ground to sediment over aeons. This is done in a leisurely discursive style that produces its own poetry. It requires that the reader find the patience to enjoy such digressions.

Here is a small example:-

‘’The curlews begin to call. I know they are close to the sea, but I have not yet seen them. Their Dutch name ‘’griel’’ is a much better match than ‘’curlew’’ for that drawn out, pleading sound they make. The owl I can hear nearby is another member of the secret service; it wears the darkness like a uniform and makes itself invisible.’’

The relaxed and tentative tone of the writing is at times penetrated by an image carrying anxiety which frequently refers to contemporary concerns. This is shown above where even an owl might appear as a Stasi interrogator. Despite its metaphysical tone, the prose mostly remains vivid. The issues addressed are the concerns of a man, possibly an elderly man, in search of a soul.Cees

An unexpected feature of this book is the fifty or so pages at the end which provide photographs and reference material. I was some 30 pages into the book before I discovered these. This brought to mind the work of W.G.Seebald whose elegiac tone, Nooteboom’s travel memoir sometimes resembles. There are touches which reminded me of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘’The Alexandrian Quartet’’ and of the mysterious symmetries of Anne Michael’s ‘’Fugitive Pieces’’. This book will not be to everyone’s taste, as by nature, it is inconclusive but thought provoking. It asks fundamental questions about human behaviour ‘’’sub specie aeternitatis’’’-Baruch Spinoza’s term for the eternal perspective.

Nooteboom’s previous book on the fall of the wall can be found at Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom and Laura Watkinson (Translator) and another discussion of a fruitful Greek myth is discussed at Orpheus, The Song Of Life by Ann Wroe.

Nooteboom’s own website is at http://www.ceesnooteboom.com/?lang=en