Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Take a trip round my head

When I said I was reading John Gribbin’s In search of Schrödinger’s cat. Plutarch said, “Regardless of the outcome of the hypothesis the poor creature must die, in its sealed box, of starvation or asphyxiation or both.” This is not true and there is good(ish) news if you accept the parallel world theory: in one world the cat is, alas, definitely, dead (from rapidly acting poison) but in another it is, happily, alive.

But here’s something else. Lacking formal instruction in ”books” I have discovered there are those I cannot read. Conrad’s Victory, Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings are among them and I’m talking deep, second-page antipathy. The Conrad shames me most. Gribbin deals with quantum physics and I am severely under-educated on that too.

But then most of us are. Einstein spent thirty years writing to Niels Bohr, an über-quantist, suggesting experiments which would invalidate quantum mechanics. All were scientifically refuted. For me to read Gribbin is like dosing the baby with gin. Yet I was pulled along by a narrative tension found in the best books.

Did I understand the book? QM is possibly the hardest subject in the world and I’d be a fool to say yes. But I read on, closed in by mist most of the time but occasionally seeing the mist thin. Am I boasting (I’ve done that before)? I hope not. I’m astonished such an abstruse subject could hold my attention for 275 pages. In positive support I acknowledge I bought the book and wanted to read it. Also it is a deliberately simplified account. But what goes on in our mind when we read a book we don’t really understand?

7 comments:

The Crow said...

"But what goes on in our mind when we read a book we don’t really understand?"

Questions ping around inside my mind, like the balls in a pinball machine, making me (usually) want to read more until I can understand.

I continue to search until understanding is reached - or I become so frustrated with my stupidity, my inability to grasp what was so obvious to at least one other person, that I give up.

The effort to understand the difficult stretches my mind, always a good thing. If nothing else, all that pinging makes for interesting dreams.

20th Century Woman said...

It's an interesting question: why read something we don't understand? I think there are degrees of understanding. You have to understand a bit, a glimmering, and it has to be presented so that you get the illusion that your understanding is in some way improving as you go. A little mystery tantalizes, and you keep going. I love reading stuff I only partially get. I'm not sure I'd be up to quantum mechanics.

I hope you'll give Victory another go. It's a truly thrilling and tragic book.

marja-leena said...

Good comments here so I won't go that way. I'd like to compare the experience of certain literature to looking at modern art, especially abstract art. One can enjoy aspects of the work, the colours, textures, the mood created without understanding the art history or the techniques.

herhimnbryn said...

I think it's the desire to grasp at the idea. To see glimpses and then to want to see the whole. If it is wriiten well, it draws one in to persevere.

Plutarch said...

You are quite right to persist with books dealing with the frontiers of science, even if most of the time there is a feeling, as you say, of reading, through a veil of mist. I have been hooked for some time on the likes of John Gribbin (his Deep Simplicty is gripping even if, with the likes of me, the grip slips most of the time), Paul Davies The Goldilocks Enigma), David Deutsch (The Fabric of Reality) and various books on Chaos Theory. I mention these not to boast but only to show that I, too, have been through the mist and enjoyed it. This baby is suckled on gin.

I'm sure that I have understood only a little of what I've read but hope that something has stuck at least for a while. I have persisted because the mysteries of existence constantly intrigue in the same way as who-done-its keep you reading to the end.

I apologise for trivialising that elusive cat, (which you, after all, have spent hours tracking down.) It is a cat in a thought experiment, and, alive or dead or both at the same time, makes a point. I suppose being unable to grasp entirely the science of the point it is making, prompted me, in my email, to be frivolous about the terms of the experiment, which are of course entirely legitimate.

Barrett Bonden said...

Thank you all for taking the question seriously and providing individual (and differing) insights into what is a rather curious process. On re-reading my post I find my need to undershoot 300 words has, as in the past, distorted one of the points. That is, I don't persist with all the books I take up, even though I know them to be generally worthwhile. But I did in this case.

The Crow: What you describe is similar to the release of endorphins I experienced during the early days when I was attempting to crawl-swim longer and longer distances. A fizzing within the body, which I have referred to as the Alka Seltzer effect. The accompanying sense of wellbeing suggests it is good for you.

20CW: I feel I should read Conrad but I've been rebuffed by everything except The Secret Agent which is surely atypical. Perhaps in a moment of zen-like calm... But I'm unable to suggest the same might happen with Lawrence.

M-L: If there's a response (however badly defined) then one can progress.

HHB: Gribbin writes very clearly; given the subject he has to. That may well have been an important factor.

Plutarch: I didn't see your remark as trivialising. The implicit cruelty, even though only theoretical, is probably one reason why some people avert their eyes from this hypothesis. As to reading books about other difficult subjects (especially buying them) it's proof that Jane Austen can't satisfy all our intellectual needs even though there may be other writers (no names, no pack-drill) who just might.

Lucy said...

Why keep a dog and bark yourself? I am married to a phycisist so I don't have to read books like that, I let him do it and enjoy (mostly) the completely unintelligible music of hearing about them. It sure beats cricket.