Tag Archives: science

Exploring the new by using the old, with discourse on the NYRB

NYRB: Volume 56, Number 6 · April 9, 2009 Freeman Dyson’s review (not available free online unfortunately) of The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

I run chronically behind reading the New York Review of Books. It’s thick, juicy stuff that fills me with intellectual joy. I can’t bear to throw away an unread issue. My only salvation is that through the summer, they go monthly instead of bi-monthly so I have a fighting chance of keeping up. (Getting the flu also helps.) In June then, it is time to take up the stack that started to accumulate back in March and sprint through them. Of course, if I were someone I imagine as a typical subscriber, someone who could actually apply for those fellowships in medieval basketweaving or take that summer immersion class in London, I’d be tucking those copies into my bag to take to the Hamptons. No, I am one of their more bohemian followers, alas, no vacation in the cards, who usually only gets to pick it up on business trips (NYRB’s are great airplane reading, btw, with the content of a tome and the weight of a newspaper) or for bedtime reading. I sometimes get stuck on a paragraph for weeks, falling asleep at exactly the same point, recreating Proust’s book leaving his his hands on a nightly basis. I do tend to skim articles on art exhibits – they only produce despair that I can’t attend and I find verbal descriptions of paintings useless – and articles on poetry, because despite being hopelessly bookish, most poetry doesn’t do it for me. I always give it a chance, but if it doesn’t let me in, I move on. I adore all of the history, the literature, the politics and the science.

(So what was this post about? Oh yeah. Actually, many NYRB authors take a similarly discursive path. They are assigned to review a book, but they know a lot about the subject and they tend to ramble on. I find this enjoyable, though it causes my more succinct husband to claw the walls in frustration. If someone has interesting things to say, I’ll follow them anywhere. Probably far more than I could ask from hapless blog readers. So I’ll get to the point.)

So, anyway, this article was talking about the history of atomic particle research; what has worked and what hasn’t. What may not provide future return on investment, are these huge particle accelerators costing a bazillion dollars that every country has been fighting to get. The ones that fear-mongering news articles a few months back accused of having the potential to destroy the earth by creating an unintentional black hole byproduct. Ironically, many past discoveries were made using a far cheaper, passive system still in use by countries without bazillions to spend. I was amused by the analysis done by the author that showed that Nobel prizes have been given disproportionately to discoveries made with the cheaper method. A few years back, there was a similar article completely debunking any need for manned space flight and convincingly demonstrating that unmanned robot probes serve up information for a fraction of the cost. Think of those plucky Martian Wall-E’s marching on forever without need for dehydrated astronaut food.

This reminded me of our dear physician friend, now in his late 80’s, who spent his life in cardiology research. He is a devoted advocate and master of electrocardiography (ECG or EKG) using the now ancient paper and stylus, a medical technology, I understand, now falling somewhat behind the new and sexier computerized versions. Our friend stands by his opinion that, though the old method is harder for his interns to learn, it ultimately provides all the required information about the patient in a much more economical way.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as entranced by every new Internet toy as the next avatar, but we should try to preserve those old ways too. We might need them. Our friend, the cardiologist, also tells us how his family got through the Great Depression by living completely off the land. His family had no income whatsover for four years. If we were in the same straits, we’d have a total produce yield of about 6 tomatoes, some rosemary and thyme sprigs, and some very spindly asparagus. And none of us knows how to milk a cow, let alone butcher one. Gives one pause.