BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Unless It Comes with a Comfy Chair …

This is another of those “Early Reviewer” program books. As I've noted previously, these typically have a only a paragraph or two on the site describing them, so users have to put in their “requests” for the offered books based on fairly sketchy information … so while a book may sound like it would be “interesting”, it's rare that one really knows what one's getting into until it actually shows up. I was sort of expecting that “a world-famous theoretical physicist with hundreds of scientific articles and several books of popular science to his credit” would have been producing a more “sciency” book, but Marcelo Gleiser's The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything is a somewhat muddled combination of science discussions, autobiographical sketch, travelogue, and an enthusiast's paean to fly fishing.

The author hails from Rio de Janerio in Brazil, where he first got hooked on fishing as a boy, hitting the famed Copacabana beach several times a week. As he grew up, he left fishing behind, eventually becoming a physicist (from a country that has only a handful of jobs for physicists), doing his graduate work in the U.K., and eventually moving to the U.S., ending up as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth College.

Gleiser and his (second) wife were out walking on the Dartmouth campus one day, and encountered a class of novices being introduced to fly fishing. He was evidently smitten by the activity, and his wife decided to get him that class for their anniversary. He took the class, bought all the requisite gear, and made a go of it a few times, but was unable to balance the time required with the frustration involved … he notes: “you have to embrace it full-heartedly in order for it to work”. After a few years had passed, his wife prodded him to try again … and he began to get up before dawn, and head down to a local river to fish. This is the first point where the “metaphysical” aspects of the book come to play, as he's constantly having “encounters” with his young self who encourages him in his efforts.

The book is set up in four sections, each anchored to a particular event (usually an international conference somewhere around which he is able to schedule time with a fishing tour guide), and generally themed with a “scientific philosophy” issue. These are:

                    • Cumbria, Lake District, UK
                    • São José dos Ausentes, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
                    • Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy
                    • Laxá River, Mývatnssveit, Iceland

To be honest, I really did not connect much at all with the fishing parts of this … although some sound to be in amazing locations, and are quite beautifully written about … but that material reads like any enthusiast's enthusing about their particular “thing” (it could be model railroading, cosplay, or wine collecting), no doubt interesting to the extent of exposing one to information not previously encountered, but not having the pull to make the reader really care if they're not already into the particular activity.

Oh, and I think I have an actual spoiler to pass along here (unusual in non-fiction reading) … so if you don't want to see it, quickly skip to the next paragraph. OK. Here it comes … ready? You sure? Last warning … One of the sub-themes here is his epiphany of how his vegetarian diet is poorly reflected in his fishing. Generally speaking, I felt like the tone “devolved” somewhat over the the course of the book, and while I wouldn't necessarily call the direction as being into the “shrill” zone, it certainly gets to feeling “preachy” and “holier-than-thou” at points. While one can congratulate the author for trying to resolve the implicit cognitive dissonance of his vegetarianism and the “violence” being done to the fish, the “journey” to that point (in parallel with flag-waving for some popular leftist “scientific” stances) turns what is, for the first two-thirds or so, a reasonably pleasant read into something that feels like it's subtly brow-beating the reader … leaving this reader, at least, feeling somewhat abused by the time the pontificating (and book) ends.

The U.K trip is anchored by a “workshop on classical field theory”, and that section starts off quite promisingly with Gleiser sort of free-form “riffing” about fields. While this is entertaining to read (going from pre-Socratic philosophers to current research), it's also a bit hard to cherry-pick coherent quotes from. He goes from familiar field concepts and then veers off into discussing “matter fields” and even “communication fields” (he at one point writes: “for physicists like me who deal with the inner structure of matter and the cosmos, everything is a field of some sort”), which then flips over to a discussion of quanta, and waves. This leads into a story of a Scottish engineer in 1834 who encountered a “solitary wave” (“soliton” - “a bundle of particles interacting with each other so as to behave as a single non-changing entity”), which leads to musing on “solitary activities”, such as fly-fishing, as well as intros the topic of his presentation, that of “oscillons” (too complicated to try to define here – click on the link if you want to read up on this).

It turns out that his fishing guide has a PhD in theoretical chemistry, from the same school (King's College in London) that the author attended, and this leads off into more philosophical pondering on the nature of reality, with much name-checking of leading lights of science, from Galileo to Planck, and the question of belief within the scientific community, including the big cosmic divide in theoretical physics between the supersymmetry and multiverse camps – with mention of research currently being done at the Large Hadron Collider which is targeted to shed some light on which of these hypotheses is more likely.

The bulk of the book (about 40%) is in this first section, and the author goes into a lot more side discussions than in the later, shorter, ones. One of these is a story from his teenage years (further illustrating the “faith” angle), when his father fired a cook who (only discovered during a dinner for a very important guest) had been drinking all the whiskeys, etc., in the liquor cabinet and replacing the liquid with tea. Unfortunately, said cook “was a high priestess of the Macumba, a syncretic religious practices widespread in Brazil”, who openly put a curse on the house in response. The author was the witness of what seemed to be the fulfilling of this as he was mysteriously drawn to the dining room, just in time to see the glass shelves of the liquor cabinet and serving cart simultaneously collapse, destroying all the crystal, etc., with no evident (non-occult) cause. This leads to a sub-section on “Reason, Faith and the Incompleteness of Knowledge”, which includes looking at the concepts of our “cosmic horizon” (“the bubble of information defined by the distance that light has traveled since the Big Bang”), “worm holes”, and assorted philosophical backwaters such as the “Ionian Fallacy” (the belief that all genuine questions have one true answer) … which also provides the first point for the book to start slipping into politics. There is a lot of navel-gazing going on here, including another return to the author's youth, and the loss of his mother, which drove him to desperately try to “see” her ghostly form, but whenever he managed to evoke the vision “she would vanish in thin air, like a rainbow made of hope”. The fishing story is almost an afterthought here, wedged in between his mother's ghost and his father's insistence that he be an engineer (saying “who is going to pay you to count stars?”).

The section on Brazil continues with the “belief” theme. He's back in his home country for a promotional tour for a novel he'd published, and was lured to a book fair in the far-southern city of Porto Alegre with the promise of actual Brazilian fly-fishing. His talk centered around “changing views”, scientific, religious, and, at their intersection, cosmological. He spins off of this into a discussion of atheism (which he practices), and how that concept has developed through history. One bit that I marked to illustrate this is:
I find it quite ironic to see {a religious fundamentalist} happily using a GPS, talking on a cell phone, or, when illness comes, taking antibiotics or going for radiation therapy. How is it that the technological offspring of quantum and relativistic physics may be conveniently used as needed but not the revolutionary worldview they brought forth? The same science used to build these gadgets is used to date fossils, Earth's age, and life's evolutionary trajectory from bacteria to people. It's mind-boggling. And yet, this eyes-tightly-shut perspective is the only option for an alarmingly large number of people, not just religious extremists.
And, it's not just the assorted flavors of “fundies” that get his derision, he also notes that “some in the New Age movement … ground their beliefs in a science pulled completely out of context … using concepts like ‘energy’, ‘quantum’, or ‘field’, in ways that have very little to do with their physics counterparts”. The bits on fishing are somewhat more expansive here, veering off into a contemplation of our urge to take the biggest/strongest fish (or any hunted species), which ultimately weakens the gene pool. He also muses on returning to places … he avoids his old neighborhood “to hold on to the little of my past that my memory can preserve” … and our “place” in the world.

The Italy section is centered on a conference of the International Astrobiology Society, taking place in Florence. On this trip, he starts with the fishing, then returns to Florence for the conference. Here his guide introduces him to fishing in the dark … which led to dreams of his younger self and his mother. Most of this section (the shortest of the four) is taken up with discussions of general cosmological theories, from the gas composition of the primordial universe, to the life-cycles of stars, leading up to the formation of our solar system, and the origin of Earth. Gleiser goes on to trace the development of terrestrial life, and what that might imply for life elsewhere. He has an interesting view on what makes humanity stand out:
Humans have an urge to explore the unknown, what lies beyond their immediate reach. This may be our species' most distinguishable trait. Animals want to be safe, living within familiar boundaries that don't expose them to any extra risk. They keep to their tried, well-adapted behavioral patterns, a recipe that allows them to thrive. … Humans, on the other hand, have a need to lunge into the unknown, to expose themselves to what is uncomfortable, even threatening. We take risks as individuals and as a species, continually pushing ourselves beyond established limits. We like our boundaries elastic, safe but expandable.
He finishes this section with a look at the “is anybody out there?” question, and isn't particularly optimistic of there being any, despite the large numbers of likely habitable planets that both should be out there statistically, and are almost daily being identified by our space-based telescopes.

The Iceland section comes from an opportunity made available to him by a Dartmouth alumni group, which invited him to lead a series of lectures on a cruise around the island. However, he brought his very pregnant wife (and their 5-year-old son), and, while her doctors back in the states had OK'd her for the trip, the ship's officials felt it was too hazardous to have her on board due to some of the very isolated areas they'd be in. They had to disembark, and change the schedule from several lectures across the whole of the cruise, to one substantial “seminar”at the end, which caused them to have to improvise their own tour of Iceland. One of the fascinating things about that part of the world is that: “The belief in Huldufólk {in the book it's written hundúfolk, but I was unable to find any references to that on-line} (hidden people) is so pervasive that construction projects often have to deviate from sites and stones where elves are believed to dwell.”. There's a lot about the volcanic nature of Iceland, and some of the issues with recent and historical volcanism, and a discussion of creation myths. Interesting, both the Icelandic narrative, and one from China (around 300ce), describe the creation of the world from the corpse of a slain giant, whose skull becomes the sky, blood becomes rivers and oceans, bones forming rocks and mountains, hair turning into trees, etc., and in both cases, humanity arising from the maggots eating his flesh!

The author spins from this to a look at current views of cosmic origins, from the Big Bang onward, and eventually comes to a point where he points out that “all that exists has a common origin”. This is where the “soapbox” comes out and we're into the vegetarian lecture … which, while raising assorted very valid ethical points, is quite aggressive. But, he's not done with beating the reader up at the end of that … as this leads right into a whole “global warming” (at least he's not using the “climate change” euphemism) tirade, which, admittedly was what he was scheduled to be talking to the Dartmouth alumns about during the cruise. Lecture completed, he sends his wife and son back to the States, and heads off for his Icelandic fishing adventure. However, while in the midst of this: “Something had changed inside, a feeling of complicity with the fish, of humility as a fellow living creature sharing the same planet. … We can be close to Nature without maiming its creations.”. I guess he's presenting this as his big “enlightened human” moment, but in the arc of the book, it's a real downer for the ending.

The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is a mixed bag (one might be tempted to say “neither fish nor fowl”), but is interesting on various levels throughout (even in the “soapbox” parts). At this writing, the book has just been out a few weeks, so it's likely to be available via your local still-extant brick-and-mortar book vendors … however, the on-line big boys are offering it at about 1/3rd off of cover price, which is likely your best bet if this sounds like something you'd like to check out.

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Tags: book review
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