Archive for March, 2013

Planck results

March 21, 2013

Big science news today: the Planck experiment has released a huge raft of results based on cosmological observations made during 2009-10. Planck is a satellite-based experiment that has been making precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the details of which tell us a great deal about the history and structure of the universe. Planck is a truly spectacular project.

I remember that when I was an undergraduate physics student — which was quite a long time ago now — we heard rumours of this satellite, which was then in the planning stages. The hope was that it, and to a lesser extent its predecessor WMAP, would usher in an era of “precision cosmology”, in which cosmologists would have a wealth of high quality measurements against which to judge their theories about cosmic structure and evolution.

Based on the results published today, I would say that those hopes have been triumphantly vindicated. For instance, consider this paper on cosmological parameters; look at Tables 1 and 2. These are amazing results: baryon density is about 2.2%, cold dark matter density about 12%, dark energy density about 68%, Hubble constant about 67, and the age of the universe about 13.8 billion years (with an uncertainty of only about 100 million years!).

There is a lot here for non-specialists to digest — and I certainly count myself in that group. The BBC is on the case.

Mantel: Wolf Hall

March 16, 2013

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel
(Harper Perennial, 2009)
672 p.

When Hilary Mantel’s ambitious historical novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell won the Man Booker Prize in 2009, and then won the National Book Critics Circle Award the same year, I made a note of it; I don’t normally go out of my way to read contemporary fiction, but the Tudor period, and the life of Henry VIII in particular, is of more or less perpetual interest. Then in 2012 Mantel won the Man Booker Prize again, for Bring up the Bodies, the first of two planned sequels to Wolf Hall. I decided I had better take a look.

Wolf Hall charts the course of Thomas Cromwell as he rises from an undistinguished childhood in a working class family to become first the trusted advisor to Cardinal Wolsey and then, after Wolsey’s downfall, to become the king’s chief minister and, excepting the king, arguably the most powerful man in England. It is during this period — the early 1530s — that Henry VIII breaks with the Pope over his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marries Anne Boleyn; Cromwell is the man who greases the wheels. He is portrayed by Mantel as a pure pragmatist, personally loyal to individual persons — he never forgets the kindness shown him by Cardinal Wolsey, for instance — but indifferent to the distinction between temporal and spiritual power, and undettered by any alleged obstacle to the fulfillment of the king’s will.

Mantel does a lot of things right. Her evocation of Tudor England, and especially of the high-stakes political machinations of the royal court and its various outsized personalities, is a pleasure to behold. She goes about it with a sure — as in ‘confident’ — hand. Whether it is faithful or not is something that I cannot judge, but on its own terms it is largely convincing. Her Cromwell is a fine creation, superbly capable and “as cunning as a bag of serpents”, as she has Henry say of him; the part is written with nuance and intelligence.

Her style is interesting but difficult to describe. There is a thorny quality to the prose, an obliquity, with frequent sharp turns and lacunae that require the reader to pay close attention or risk losing the thread. Hers is a literary talent, and it is clear why the book attracted the attention of the awards committees. Moreover, the book is particularly unusual for its distinctive use of the pronoun “he”: it is frequently used in what seems to be an ambiguous manner. Who is “he”? Yet a few cases establish the pattern: in the absence of evidence to the contrary, “he” means Cromwell. More than just a stylistic tick, I believe this actually contributes to the characterization of Cromwell himself, who is somehow immanent in the very grammar of the story and seems almost to be a force of nature.

The central fault of the book — and it is no slight fault in my mind — is its portrayal of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. If the book has villains, is is them. To a certain extent this is natural and even appropriate, for they were the two men who most vigorously opposed the king’s absurd hubris. But her characterization of them — and especially of Thomas More — is mean-spirited and calumnous. She allows More a capacious intelligence and a certain dry wit, but essentially she portrays him as a remorseless kill-joy and sadist. Her treatment of his martyrdom, which is the narrative capstone of the book, is chilly. It is a notably unsympathetic portrait of a great man, and a saint. Naturally, any book that takes Thomas Cromwell as its hero is going to have a topsy-turvy moral perspective, but this mistreatment of More (and, though he is a much more peripheral figure in the story, of Fisher) put quite a strain on my good will. (I can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s fine biography of More, which gives a much more balanced appraisal.) The novel has been lauded in some quarters as a celebration of the triumph of the forces of reform and liberation — represented by Henry and Cromwell — over those of tradition and stagnation — More and Fisher — at the birth of the modern period. In my judgement this reading is too simplistic and does a disservice to the subtlety and craft of the story she tells, but to the extent that it is true, it is all too true.

Finally, a curiosity: “Wolf Hall” is the name of the house of the Seymour family, from which Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, will come. Jane does appear here and there in this book, but, if I remember correctly, no part of Wolf Hall actually takes place at Wolf Hall. Nonetheless, for a book that circles in and around Henry’s court, the title is remarkably apt.

Pope Francis

March 14, 2013

Habemus Papam!

It appears that my decision to not follow any of the pre-conclave speculations on papal candidates saved time and energy; Pope Francis seems to have taken most commentators by surprise. I am surprised too; I had, to my recollection, never heard of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio before yesterday. The two or three minutes during which he was on the balcony were hardly sufficient to form any adequate idea of the man, but he made a strong and favourable impression on me. Notice that he spent most of those minutes praying with and for the people gathered to greet him. A good beginning.

Among the three or four bits of background that are floating up into news reports is the observation that he has been known in Argentina as an unusually humble and self-effacing cleric, eschewing most of the pomp of his  office in favour of a life of relative simplicity. His choice of name would seem to be indicate that such observations are relevant to the kind of pope we can expect him to be. I am personally an enthusiast for papal pomp — the restoration of which was for me one of the attractive aspects of Benedict XVI’s reign — but I can also see the appeal of a principled (as opposed to a desultory) simplicity, such as one finds in Benedictine monasteries and (naturally) in the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

The two most informative pieces I have seen on Pope Francis were both written before his election. John Allen, who is generally regarded as being the best informed and most astute Vatican journalist in the English-speaking world, wrote a profile of him a few weeks ago, and back in 2005 the Catholic Herald published a fairly lengthy essay by Jose Maria Poirier about him after Benedict XVI’s election:

If he were Pope? Everything suggests that his approach would be above all pastoral, which is what a number of the cardinals were looking for in the conclave. He would govern the Curia with a sure hand, as he does his diocese. He would likely take a firm stand with the powerful of this world. But the modern-day media demands on the papacy would be a torture for this most retiring of Church leaders.

It would be a torture for most of us, I expect. The Holy Father made it clear in his first address that he wants the Catholic faithful to pray for him; Janet Cupo has posted a few suitable prayers.

Another guide to guides to children’s books

March 3, 2013

Some months ago I wrote brief appraisals of several guides to children’s literature. In the meantime I have read a few more such books. For instance:

trelease-readaloudThe Read-Aloud Handbook
Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2006; 6th edition)
432 p.

This book, now in its sixth edition, has evidently been a great success. Sometimes the world is funny like that. The book is pitched as a parents’ guide to reading aloud for children. There are sections on why to read to children, how to read to children (duh), and what to read to children. I am struggling to find a way to describe the overall impression the book makes. It’s as though one were reading a how-to guide to eating breakfast: this is the section describing the differences between toast and cereal, here is the part where jams are defined and listed, and here are the frequently asked questions about which utensils to use in a variety of different situations. In other words, the content is 95% completely obvious, and even then it is dressed up in faux-intellectual garb to make it seem complicated and important. This is a book that leans heavily on acronyms like SSR (which stands for “sustained silent reading” — or, you know, reading). There are some marginally interesting data on effects of television exposure on academic performance, but even then we all knew the answer in advance. (To wit: television is not good for academic performance.)

The second half of the book consists of lists of books recommended for reading aloud. The majority of the books are of fairly recent (post-1990, say) vintage. I was not familiar with most of the titles, so I can only say that after my experience of reading the first half of the book, I could but page quickly through this second half, looking doubtful. Where respect is lacking, there can be no bond of trust.

I am glad to see a book recommending that families stock their shelves with books and read them together; this is praiseworthy. But the best that can be said for this book is that its heart is in the right place.

1001-Children-s-Books-You-Must-Read-Before-You-Grow-Up-97807893187631001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up
Julia Eccleshare (Ed.)
(Universe, 2009)
960 p.

I did not have very high hopes for this guide, expecting it to be a list of books more or less culled from publishers’ promotional materials, its massive bulk an inadequate substitute for thoughtful appraisal — but I was pleasantly surprised. The peremptory tone of the title might well be the worst thing about it.

The first surprise is the breadth of titles selected: not only does one find the great classics of children`s literature, and a host of solid runners-up, but also quite a few foreign language books (presumably available in translation). Even more impressive is the historical sweep of the selections: I estimate that roughly 10% of the titles date from the nineteenth-century or earlier, and approximately 40% were published more than 50 years ago. Having now perused a few guidebooks of this type, I can say that that level of interest in older books is as rare as it is welcome.

Each book receives something between a half-page and two pages for an illustration or two and a short description. It isn’t much space, but after sampling fairly liberally my impression is that the writing is clear and informative and the critical judgements are generally sound. The book is divided into sections based on age, starting with a 0-3 category on picture books and ramping up in stages to a 12+ age group. There are good indices for titles and authors, which obviously make the book much more useful than it would otherwise be.

It is an edited volume, so the reviews themselves are contributed by upward of 70 different pens. This prevents there being a consistent critical perspective, and thus makes it harder to assess whether to trust a particular recommendation, but this is an unavoidable concession for a book of this size. There are also dozens of ‘featured’ reviews contributed by notable children’s authors, such as Eric Carle and Philip Pullman (to choose two poles).

Overall, I was impressed. It is not the sort of book one reads from start to finish (and I did not try to do so), but it would serve admirably as a kind of treasure chest for reading ideas. I am thinking of adding it to our family’s library, which cannot be said for most of the other children’s literature guides that I have looked at.

(If anyone is wondering, one would have to read one book roughly every six days between the ages of 2 and 18 in order to get through all 1001 books before one grew up.)

Books-That-Build-Character-Kilpatrick-William-9780671884239Books that Build Character
A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values through Stories
William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe
(Touchstone, 1994)
332 p.

Selecting books specifically for their moral value could be done well or ill. Here it is done well. The danger is that stories not be valued for their merits as stories but rather patrolled for compliance, and reading lists compiled on those grounds are unlikely to make a strong appeal to the imagination. Nor is this, as one might suppose, a temptation principally for “conservatives” who want to teach their children traditional values; anything your child has been assigned to read in school has been patrolled for compliance, and not by a conservative. The authors of this book declare themselves in the introduction:

We don’t think fiction, whether for adults or children, ought to hit us over the head with a blunt moral. We don’t think writers should write primarily out of a moral intent. A storyteller is, preeminently, a person who has a story to tell.

At the same time, stories do instruct; literary quality cannot be the sole criterion by which books are judged. This book wants to steer clear of “problem stories”, in which the aim is to provide a kind of therapeutic reassurance that everything, however disordered, is “okay”. Rather, the authors select books “that challenge, thrill, and excite, and awaken young readers to the potential drama of life, especially to the drama of a life lived in obedience to the highest ideals”.

How does this play out in practice? Pretty well. Certainly there is nothing musty or cramped about these recommendations — about 300 in all. Most of the classics are here; there are many Newbery Medal winners, many Caldecott Medal winners; stories about war, about adventure, about domestic life, and about imaginary lands. The books are divided into sections: picture books for young readers, fairy-tales and folk-tales, books “for holidays and holy days”, stories drawn from sacred texts, historical and contemporary fiction, science fiction, and biographies. For each book there is a brief (< 1 page) description and assessment. Quite a few of the titles were new to me, and quite a few of the new-to-me titles sounded worth exploring.

Overall the book is one of the more thoughtful guides that I have read.

new-york-times-parents-guide-best-books-for-eden-ross-lipson-paperback-cover-artThe New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children
Eden Ross Lipson
(Three Rivers, 2000; 3rd edition)
550 p.

I have to eat my words: I said above that in a book with 1001 recommendations a group effort would be “unavoidable”, but here comes Eden Ross Lipson to prove me wrong. She was the children’s book editor at the New York Times for over twenty years, and she single-handedly penned this impressively sized list of exactly 1001 books, each accompanied by a short description.

It is interesting to compare this guide to the edited volume above. The scope here is actually quite a lot narrower: whereas the Eccleshare guide devoted about 40% of its space to books more than 50 years old, in this book that fraction falls to about 15%. The recommendations are almost (though not quite) exclusively twentieth-century books, and my impression after paging through the entire volume is that a significant fraction of the recommended books are from the 1990s alone. As one would expect from a book conspicuously advertising that provenance, a good deal of attention is paid to “diversity” and political correctness; there is little that could offend the sensibilities of upper-middle class parents for whom a copy of the NYT tucked under the arm is an important cultural accoutrement. The selections are mostly works of fiction, with a bit of non-fiction and poetry thrown in. Books are organized according to the age of the target audience, beginning with picture books and extending up to books for adolescents. Many of these latter are “problem stories” of the sort avoided by the authors of the guide immediately above.

An unusual feature of this book is its set of extensive indices: about 120 pages worth of small-type listings which provide topical entry-points into the main listings. Happily, among them are book suggestions for girls and (separately) for boys. Even the Grey Lady is not quite senile.

Pictures from space!

March 2, 2013

I never thought I would have something nice to say about Twitter, but yesterday I discovered Chris Hadfield’s Twitter feed. Commander Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station, and he has a camera. He has been posting photos of the earth taken in his spare moments, and some of them are really striking.

Here is one that I like: Glasgow is on the right, and Loch Lomond stretches north above it. My wife and I walked the West Highland Way a few years ago, a portion of which runs along the eastern shore of Loch Lomond, and it is wonderful to see that terrain from so high.


Well, I cannot figure out how to actually show you a photo from a Twitter feed, but look here. There are many other wonderful pictures, of places all over the world.

Someone took a time-lapse photo of the International Space Station passing over my own city: here it is.