Re: Recommendations for Juvenile SF

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Mon Sep 10 2001 - 21:25:15 MDT

At 07:45 AM 9/10/01 -0700, Brian wrote:

>>From: Greg Burch <>

>>A family of relatively recent Indian immigrants who are merchants
>>in our neighbrohood have a 10-year-old son who seems to be shaping
>Neighbrohood? ;)

That was just a simple typing error by Greg. He meant `Nighbrohood', the
nearby 'hood where the brothers live.

>There is a very
>interesting book about an Indian math prodigy the title of which
>escapes me now.

Maybe THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan, by Robert

I might as well glue in my whole review of several vaguely related books
from 1992 (beware old Aussie prices):


A Life in Science
by Michael White and John Gribbin
Viking, 304pp, Index, $35.00

Quest for a Theory of Everything
by Kitty Ferguson
 Bantam, 192pp, Index, $14.95

In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity
by Abraham Pais
Oxford University Press, 565pp, Index, $59.95

A Life of the Genius Ramanujan
by Robert Kanigel
Scribners, 438pp, Index, $45.00

Visitors traditionally test a city's pulse by polling its cabbies. Too poor
for this method, I spy on bus drivers.
        Sole passenger, I drowsed as the Sydney driver punched his radio tetchily
from one pop music grab to the next. He lingered at a news spot, until a
scientist started telling us about the algal bloom running amok in local
waterways. `I don't *give* a shit,' cried the driver in fury, and smote the
boring wretch into oblivion.
        So much for science as a spectator sport.
        Then again, Professor Stephen Hawking's quite difficult treatise on
quantum cosmology, A Brief History of Time, has sold some 10 million copies
world-wide. Hawking argues that the universe, while finite, has no
boundaries in space or time, that it is a self-caused `vacuum fluctuation'
out of nowhere. A Spielberg movie of the book combines visual splendor with
the pathos and courage of its crippled, voiceless author. Unless a lot of
horror fans are misreading Stephen Hawking for Stephen King, something
startling (and commendable) is going on here.
        Or is Hawking just the latest victim of misplaced hopes in a world where
science displaces God? White and Gribbin start with Shirley Maclaine's
pilgrimage to the shrunken sage. Perhaps Hawking's book `has sold so well
because it has been latched on to by a lost generation of post-yuppie
Greens who see it as a symbol of new-age wisdom, that it somehow takes on
semi-religious importance in their minds.'
        Producer David Hickman confirms this opinion: `The most exciting thing
about cosmology is the fact that it interfaces metaphysics and conventional
science. It's very interesting that Stephen has attracted a lot of
attention over the religious aspects of his work, as well as the fact that
he is close to a number of physicists with deep theological concerns.'
        `Of course,' observe White and Gribbin, `Hawking finds such notions
hilarious.... Throughout his work, Hawking's early agnosticism had become
more overtly atheistic, and with his no-boundary theory he had effectively
dispensed with the notion of God altogether.' Hawking's spectacularly
devoted wife Jane, by contrast, is a devout Christian, and his amused
dismissal of religious faith is certainly one reason why their 25-year
marriage came to an end in 1990 when he left to live with his nurse.
        Quantum mechanics, with its intractable challenges to common sense, has
been colonized lately by cabalists. See here, they say, causality itself -
the very principle of conventional reason - breaks down in the realm of the
very small. Cosmology tells us that the universe was once compressed to the
size of a sub-atomic particle, and hence subject to quantum weirdness. The
brain itself uses near-quantal neurons. Doesn't this free us from rigid
patriarchal determinism, loosing the joys of quantum mysticism?
        No. Only to the sloppy and the mischievous, who borrow no more than the
trappings of this arcane discipline.
        In his magisterial life of Niels Bohr, the pioneer who oversaw the
invention of quantum methods in the 1920s and 1930s, Professor Abraham Pais
declares at the outset: `I hope that the present account will serve to
counteract the many cheap attempts at popularizing this subject, such as
efforts by woolly masters at linking quantum physics to mysticism.'
        Bohr was explicit. He insisted that his new quantum methods could be
presented `without risking being misunderstood that it should be the
purpose to introduce a mysticism which is alien to the spirit of natural
        Nor was his central idea of complementarity - that fundamental entities
are neither waves nor particles, but either, depending on the experiment
you perform - prompted by oriental philosophy, as books like The Tao of
Physics assert. True, Bohr took the Yin-Yang symbol for his coat-of-arms,
but the icon was suggested by the wife of a colleague. And Bohr held no
brief for faith. `He was sorry for the role religion played,' said his
wife. `He thought it was not good for human beings to hold on to things
which were, as nearly as one could see, not true.'
        At the furthest extreme from this demand that all things must be graspable
by pure reason is the dazzling work of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, a
virtually self-taught Indian mathematical genius born two years after Bohr
(in 1887). The Dane Bohr was a patrician in a nation separated by language
and culture from the German and Anglo-American strongholds of physics, and
his genius delivered him the Nobel Prize in 1922 (at 37) `for his
investigations of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating
from them'.
        Ramanujan (pronounced Ram-AHN-uh-jum) was an impoverished Brahmin who died
of tuberculosis at 32, two years before Bohr got his prize, who `grew up
praying to stone deities; who for most of his life took counsel from a
family goddess, declaring it was she to whom his mathematical insights were
owed; whose theorems would, at intellectually backbreaking cost, be proved
true - yet leave mathematicians baffled that anyone could divine them in
the first place.'
        These three lives, each radiant with intellectual power and an aesthetic
grandeur no non-specialist (like me) can ever truly appreciate, circle upon
each other, twisting through a hidden dimension of poignancy and resonance.
If Ramanujan's life began unpromisingly and ended in stupid tragedy, it had
astonishing triumphs.
        This slate-scribbling mathematician, too poor for paper, erasing his
errors with one dirty elbow as he sat cross-legged, failing his studies,
managed even so to attract the notice of G. H. Hardy, a leading English
mathematician. Hardy fetched him to the dreaming quads of Cambridge, got
him the glory of Fellowship in the Royal Society, toiled with others to
turn Ramanujan's exotic notation into standard publishable form.
        Yet he failed to see that Brahmin dietary restrictions, in a country
without abundant sun, fruit and vegetables, were slowly killing his friend.
If piety destroyed Ramanujan, it spat upon him after his death. `At the
funeral, most of his orthodox Brahmin relatives stayed away.' He had
crossed water in going to England and, too ill for purification ceremonies,
`was still tainted in their eyes.'
        Still, religious experiences evoked Ramanujan's finest work on infinite
series. `After seeing in dreams the drops of blood that... heralded the
presence of the god Narasimha, the male consort of the goddess Namagiri,
"scrolls containing the most complicated mathematics used to unfold before
his eyes".'
        Powerful insight often has irrational roots. Pivotal breakthroughs in
atomic physics were the fruit of mistakes. `In retrospect,' Pais says,
`these many successes are all the more fabulous and astounding because they
are based on analogies - atomic orbits similar to the motions of the
planets around the sun, and spin similar to the rotation of the planets
while orbiting - which are in fact false.'
        Indeed, the physicist Sommerfeld produced a crucial formula which was
correct though its derivation, Pais notes, `is wide of the mark. With good
reason... this derivation has been called "perhaps the most remarkable
numerical coincidence in the history of physics".'
        Precisely because science advances in fits and starts from error, Stephen
Hawking, today's equivalent of Bohr and Ramanujan, favours the method of
conjecture and refutation. The source of good ideas is irrelevant; what
counts is whether a notion can withstand ferocious criticism. Hawking's own
brief history is a cascade of wonderful ideas advanced, demolished (usually
by himself), replaced, tested under renewed pressure, replaced again... Yet
his goal is a Theory of Everything.
        Through all this ceaseless remaking, paradox battles paradigm. As Kitty
Ferguson puts it in her small, lively book (better written and less
expensive than the Viking collaboration, weighed down by White's shockingly
amateur prose), `two great scientific theories taken together seem to give
us nonsense; empty space isn't empty; black holes aren't black; and a man
whose appearance inspires shock and pity takes us laughing to where the
boundaries of time and space ought to be - but are not.'
        My bus driver will not be impressed, but for many others these books -
especially Kanigel's capable and moving double portrait of Ramanujan and
Hardy - will enrich heart no less than mind, sparking imagination in a
pleasure deep as music or art can offer.


Damien Broderick

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