Black Hole Blues: A late look at Janna Levin’s rousing book on LIGO

Black Hole Blues cover

Astrophysicist and author Janna Levin has a good nose. In the late naughts, catching a rising swell of attention to Alan Turing as the centenary of his birth drew near, she wrote a novel that intertwined his life with that of logician Kurt Gödel, which she called, with a knack for alluring but sometimes twisty language, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. Sure, anyone could’ve looked up the date of Turing’s birth, but few would’ve guessed he’d soon be the subject of a major American film. A few years later, again with an anniversary looming, Levin decided to chronicle the decades-long effort to catch a new kind of wave, and she began interviewing major participants, visiting laboratories, and compiling an account to be published sometime in 2016, 100 years after Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves. It’s as if (pardon the illogical analogy) somebody had said in 1492, “Hey, I think I’ll go to the Bahamas in case any Europeans turn up.” On February 10 of this year, not many people knew of these waves; on the 11th, the world was set on its ear, so to speak, by the announcement that they’d been heard, and Levin’s book, already on its way to print, was simply rescheduled to come out in March. She didn’t know how the story would end; the entire book is written from the standpoint of an open question. But she was there with the backstory just when we wanted it.

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Blowing your own horn department: work of mine is in a new book

Identity & Anonymity cover 700x925Unexpectedly, I’ve become a published author of fiction, with a piece in a recently published anthology. As its cover suggests, Identity & Anonymity is a collection of responses, both visual and verbal, to two subjects that have grown increasingly problematic in recent decades, for cultural as well as technological reasons. The contributors include a number of art-world creators—unsurprising, since the volume was assembled as an adjunct to an art exhibition—such as Judy Chicago and the Guerrilla Girls, as well as critics, poets, an art historian, an illustrator, the artist-journalist Molly Crabapple, a professor of psychology who’s also a collage artist, and even a writer who’s better known as a film actor, Peter Coyote. Though I’ve only dipped into it so far, the volume looks pretty stimulating, but I may be biased.

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Language watch: desultory remarks on emoji, forms of “emoji,” etc.

Language is one of the things we’re fond of here at Je Suis…; we find ourselves resorting to it quite often, in fact. (A character in Tom Stoppard’s After Magritte insists at one point, “Now there’s no need to use language!” We disagree, and besides, she’s talking about something else.) Not long ago, our eye was caught by a particular profusion of word forms, which we forwarded to the editor of the World Wide Words newsletter but didn’t think to post here until now. This is the second paragraph of a New York Times article published in June:

“You know, sometimes you’ve typed a whole message and you realize at the end that you’re entirely lacking in emojification,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president for software engineering. “So we provided the solution: When you tap on the emoji button, we’ll highlight all the emojifiable words there, and you can just tap, tap, tap, tap and emojify.”

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Feel like brushing up on physics? Carlo Rovelli is here to help

At one point in my youth, my father thought I was spending too much time reading and unceremoniously instructed me to go outside and do something. According to family legend, I went out the front door with a book, sat under a tree, and resumed reading. Lately I’ve been indulging my reading hunger with books on a couple of subjects that have fascinated me since childhood: aircraft carriers and physics. Geoff Dyer’s account of a visit to a carrier, which I read last week, came out in 2014; my take on it can be found on Goodreads. Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is almost new, having been published in March, and so I’ll reproduce here, with perhaps an edit or two, the thoughts I posted on Goodreads. Incidentally, Rovelli feels the same temptation to go outdoors with a book. His chapter on relativity includes a recollection of sitting on a beach in Calabria, supposedly vacationing, but irresistibly reading instead. Continue reading

Tour de France, Tour de France: A recollection and two images

When I was a teenager, I liked bicycles, and I often visited a bicycle shop that was only a couple of blocks from where I lived. I don’t know quite what I did there. Presumably it was the same thing I did in the college bookstore that was also near me, or the camera store a little farther down, or the antique-weapons shop just beyond: I looked at what was there and adjusted yet again my sense of how many things were in the world, what they did, how they worked, who used them and for what—and what they cost. In the small, neatly crowded bike shop, this meant looking at serried ranks of bicycles themselves, and accessories such as caps and pumps, and all sorts of components, and even posters of components, such as an elegant depiction of the elegant products of the Campagnolo company, which, needless to say, was Italian, and which gave me some early ideas about design as a quality in itself.

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