Helgoland: Making Sense of the Quantum Revolution
Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell
read by David Rintoul
Penguin Audio (May 25, 2021), 4 hours and 31 minutes
$18.38 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I must be some kind of a glutton for punishment. I keep reading Kindle books and listening to audiobooks about quantum theory. Sometimes I think I have something of a grasp of quantum mechanics and other times I think that I haven’t a clue. And still I read (and listen) on.
The Helgoland of the title is an island that Werner Heisenberg visited as a way of coping with his allergies. While he was there he recognized that the orbit of an electron around its nucleus required a table rather than a simple equation to describe it. Author Carlo Rovelli explains how this occurred and then discusses theories of other early quantum theorists and the conversations among them, people such as Niels Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger.
Rovelli proceeds to discuss superposition, the idea that a subatomic particle can be in two places at once. He reviews the three primary theories of quantum mechanics: many worlds, hidden variables, and wave collapse. I won’t describe these here: you can find ample online resources if you want to understand them. Suffice it to say that Rovelli finds all three theories lacking.
The author goes on to state that objects only can be measured, and that they only have meaning, when they interact with one another. Rovelli writes, “Quantum theory describes the manifestation of objects to one another.” He states, “The properties of any entity are nothing other than the way in which that entity influences others.” This seems to be the primary thesis of this book. Rovelli insists that this is true no matter what the scale, unlike most quantum theorists who believe that quantum phenomena happen only at the subatomic level.
In the second half of the book Rovelli delves into philosophy. He discusses Alexander Bogdanov, the Russian Bolshevik and philosopher, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me. He devotes a chapter to Nāgārjuna, the Indian Buddhist philosopher of the second century. It seems that Nāgārjuna believed that reality was experienced through interaction. (I’m reminded of Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”)
Rovelli wrote Helgoland in Italian (though apparently while living in Canada), and it appears the book required two translators to render it into English. I question how much of Rovelli’s voice comes through in this audiobook version. David Rintoul delivers a beautiful rendition in highly listenable British-accented English, but how much of that is Rovelli? Rintoul’s voice tells us that American physicist David Bohm was “sacked” from his job at Princeton, clearly a British colloquialism. I wonder if the Italian word Rovelli used was equally informal.
For a lucid discussion of quantum mechanics one might be better off reading the likes of Sean Carroll.
We talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity, but relativity is a scientific reality. We have to adjust for relativity in our timekeeping and GPS devices.
It’s not relativity in the scientific sense, but on a personal level we experience time at different speeds. I can stare at a digital clock display and it can seem to take forever for the clock to click over to the next minute. On the other hand, I can be focused on a task on my computer and an hour can be gone in what seems like no time.
Time can become relative when we look at the past as well. Someone on LinkedIn quoted another person’s tweet:
Someone said, “Thirty years ago,” and my mind went, yes! The 1970s, but they meant 1992, and now I need to lie down.
I feel exactly the same way. I look back fondly on the seventies. I still listen to seventies music regularly. I was at my hair stylist’s shop the other day and she was streaming seventies music on her Amazon Echo. I said, “I like your taste in music.” She replied, “I really love it. My dad used to listen to this music.” Make me feel old why don’t you? I have trouble accepting the fact that I graduated from high school fifty-one years ago. Can’t be? Can it? Yes, it can.
Thirty years ago I was working in Silicon Valley and Terry and I had been (back) together for a year. We moved to Gilroy when we bought our house there in 1997 and we moved to Hemet in 2105 after I had been laid off for a year. That meant we spent eighteen years in Gilroy. Sure didn’t seem like it.
Sometimes it all simply seems out of control.
We have the Steve Miller band to remind us that:
Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’
Into the future
That’s for sure.
I have been eating hamburgers since I was old enough to make my own choices from the menu at a restaurant. I suppose that’s true of many males my age. So when writer Lucas Kwan Peterson ranked twenty-three hamburger brands in a two-page spread in the Weekend section of last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, I felt qualified to respond.
I question Peterson’s taste in hamburgers.
Peterson ranked Burger King #23, dead last. Are you kidding me? Lower than Wienerschnitzel? (#21) Lower than Del Taco? (#18) Lower than White Castle? (#17) Burger King is not my favorite burger, but if location and circumstance facilitate, I can certainly enjoy a Whopper with cheese. (I’ve always wondered why the default Whopper comes without cheese.)
As for Del Taco, I admit to not having had their burger, but I don’t trust a fast food taco chain that also sells fries and burgers. If I’m going to Wienerschnitzel, I’m not going to get a burger. I doubt they put much effort into their hamburgers, and Peterson says as much.
I’m not sure where Peterson went for White Castle. There aren’t any in Southern California, so he would have to have made a trip to Nevada unless he had visited the East Coast. Of course, you could buy a box of White Castle sliders in the freezer section at the grocery store, heat a couple up in the microwave, and then ask yourself why you did it. I’ve done that.
Peterson ranked Jack in the Box at #15, which is about right in my estimation. They went through a phase of emphasizing their snack food in their TV ads recently, and I believe that their Sourdough Jack, which I used to really enjoy (and which Peterson lists as his recommended burger for Jack in the Box), has gone downhill of late.
The chain Habit Burger Peterson ranks at #13. Terry and I got takeout there shortly after they opened here in Hemet. We received two identical burgers, neither one of which was what we ordered. Terry couldn’t eat hers because it had onions, to which she is allergic. I ate mine, but I wasn’t terribly impressed.
Five Guys comes in at #8 which makes sense. When we lived in Gilroy there was a Five Guys one town up the road from us and Terry and I went there once. We enjoyed it, but not enough to go back. Plus, from Terry’s perspective the Five Guys burger was way more Weight Watchers points than In-n-Out because of the higher fat content in their burgers.
Speaking of In-n-Out, Peterson ranks it at #5. He lists Carl’s Jr. as #2. To list In-n-Out lower than Carl’s is just not acceptable in my mind. Carl’s has quality burgers, no question, and I enjoy them, but I went to college in Los Angeles County in the seventies and In-n-Out has a special place in my palate. And to rank In-n-Out lower than McDonald’s (#4) is simply insane.
Peterson’s #1 hamburger? Fatburger. I know they have a good reputation, but I haven’t eaten there so I can’t comment.
Peterson makes one glaring omission. While he includes establishments where burgers are secondary to their mission, he fails to mention one prominent restaurant chain: Red Robin, where hamburgers are front and center. Terry and I both love their burgers. The wait staff there is competent and attentive. If you still have COVID concerns (as we both do) they offer both curbside pickup and home delivery. Red Robin is a bit on the expensive side, but their burgers are well worth the price.
Peterson got some things right in his rankings, but I believe he was way off target in others. As a hamburger connoisseur since I was five years old I feel entitled to make up my own mind.
Hotbed: Bohemian Greenwich Village and the Secret Club that Sparked Modern Feminism
Seal Press (June 7, 2022), 417 pages
Kindle edition $14.95, Amazon hardcover $23.99
I like to say that I was raised by feminists at Pitzer College in the 1970s and that really is true. I arrived at Pitzer in the fall of 1971, just as second wave feminism was gaining momentum. Of course, we didn’t call it “second wave.” It was just feminism, and my sister Pitzer students did a lot to alter my attitudes and perceptions. I have been a staunch feminist ever since, as my wife Terry can attest. It was in that context that I saw a review of Hotbed and decided that I needed to read it.
The book focuses on a private woman’s club called Heterodoxy that met regularly in New York City during the early 1900s to discuss social values and share ideas. Even back then the women called themselves feminists and believed women had the right to independent lives and to make their own decisions.
Like many others involved in the bohemian culture of New York City, members left town during the summer. Many went to Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, and some of the same names that appear in the book The Shores of Bohemia, about which I recently wrote, appear here as well.
While the initial idea for the club was primarily social, these women, being who they were, did not shy away from larger issues. The book describes how they fought the New York City public schools in its policy of not allowing teachers to be married, and then for penalizing married teachers who got pregnant.
Members of the group did not stop there, however. They became involved in workplace issues around the treatment of workers and worker safety. The group was not only concerned about the safety of women in the workplace, but about the disparity between rich and poor when it came to family planning. The rich had access to those resources; the poor did not. Author Joanna Scutts writes that Heterodoxy members believed, “All women deserved to know how their bodies worked, and poor women had as much right to plan their families and love freely and joyfully as rich women did.”
Heterodoxy members became part of the civil rights movement, opposing discrimination based on race. They protested Woodrow Wilson’s policy of suppressing dissent during the First World War, and many were opposed to the war itself.
And, of course, they fought for the right to vote. Scutts describes their failure to secure the vote for women in New York state before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She recounts how not all women were in favor of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, as some felt that women should be a protected class.
The Eighteenth Amendment prohibiting liquor was ratified in 1919. The nineteenth was ratified in 1920. While Scutts mentions prohibition, she fails to discuss the fact that, as I have read in other accounts, many feminists were in favor of prohibition. Their rationale was that American men were getting drunk, beating their wives, neglecting their children, and jeopardizing their jobs. It’s an odd omission.
That omission notwithstanding, Hotbed is a highly readable depiction of a part of American history that doesn’t get sufficient attention.
I have written about how we have done a sort of incremental kitchen remodel in the seven plus years we have been here. (I still can’t fathom that it’s been over seven years.)
We have replaced all the built-in kitchen appliances that were here when we bought the house. We moved here in 2015 and the house was built in 2006, so the appliances were nine years old when we got here. Our final built-in replacement was the dishwasher. We are still getting the hang of the new one, but we really like it.
One addition we made when we did our kitchen remodel in Gilroy was to add track lighting over the kitchen counter. We have good lighting in our kitchen, but it was not optimal when doing prep work on the counter or when washing pots and pans in the sink.
That’s why we asked our contractor to install track lighting over the sink and prep counter. His electrician did that, and the result is marvelous. We love it.
But to do so he had to cut two holes into the wall in the dining area. So our contractor sent over his painter, who patched, textured, and painted. You would never know that the electrician had cut into the wall. There is no evidence.
There’s no point in showing you a photo of a wall on which it looks like nothing was done, so I’ll simply offer you a picture of our new track lights.
Terry and I are pleased.
Great Board Games of the Ancient World
Journalist and Nonfiction Writer
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription
This series was different from my usual video course selections in that it was not an academic subject and that the instructor was not a college professor. It was interesting nonetheless.
Tristan Donavan, the presenter, is a journalist and gaming enthusiast. He has a fascination with games of all kinds and is knowledgeable about the rules and the evolution of board games throughout human history. The course title is misleading in that Donovan does not limit himself to ancient games; he gives plenty of attention to the modern incarnations of those games as well.
A few themes run through the various games Donovan discusses. One is that there are games of chance and there are games of strategy. There are also games that combine the two. The other is that the rules of games can be quite complex. We learn that there are families of games: games that have similar premises and rules, but which vary considerably across geography or time.
There is plenty of history in this course to provide context for the origins of the various games. For example, Donovan describes how the kings of England and France, overwintering with their troops on their way to one of the crusades, became distressed by the high stakes gambling in which their troops were engaging while playing an early form of backgammon. He explains how a precursor to chess arose in the Gupta dynasty on the Indian subcontinent, which lasted from fourth century CE to the near the end of the sixth century. He outlines how we lost details of an Aztec game called Patolli because the Catholic Spanish conquerors thought it to be sinful.
It is interesting that some games survived while others did not. The ancient Egyptians had a game called Senet that did not survive. The same was true for the Royal Game of Ur, played in ancient Mesopotamia. Yet chess, having evolved from its earliest form in perhaps the sixth century, is still highly popular today. (The game has been in the news of late on account of an apparent cheater among the ranks of the professionals.) A game played in India called Pachisi, which goes back many centuries, sees its modern-day form in the commercial board game Parcheesi. The British adopted (and adapted) the ancient Jain or Hindu game of Snakes and Ladders, Christianizing it in the process. In the United States Milton Bradley got rid of the snakes and created the commercial success they marketed as Chutes and Ladders.
Donovan is neither charismatic nor dynamic in his presentation. He also sports a Don Johnson Miami Vice-style day’s growth of beard, which I found distracting. But he is knowledgeable and the material he presents is entertaining. There was certainly a lot of information about board games of which I knew nothing. I haven’t played board games since I was a youngster, but I enjoyed this course.
Our local WinCo supermarket used to have a pizza with white sauce and chicken in their pizza shop. I would bring it home in take-and-bake form and cook it in our oven. I really enjoyed it, so when Chicken Alfredo Pizza from my good friend Alyssa at The Recipe Critic popped up in my newsreader, I decided I needed to try it. (Alyssa is not actually my good friend, but I like her style of cooking.)
For the crust I used my own tried-and-true recipe because it is always reliable. I did, however, follow Alyssa’s directions for the homemade Alfredo sauce. I rarely make my own Alfredo sauce, but I thought it worthwhile for this recipe. She did not offer directions on the chicken other than to say that it should be cooked and shredded. I went my own way: I cut up part of a chicken breast into bite-sized pieces and cooked it on the stove, seasoning it with Penzeys 33rd & Galena seasoning, my favorite seasoning for chicken. In place of the bacon I used the meatless Bac’n Pieces, a standard pantry item in our kitchen. I failed to buy mozzarella cheese (I’m always overlooking a recipe ingredient when creating my shopping list), so I used the Monterey Jack cheese I had in the refrigerator.
It turned out quite well. Using Monterey Jack instead of mozzarella was not noticeable. Terry really enjoyed it and I found it a nice change from my normal red sauce pizza.
Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Henry Holt and Co. (September 20, 2022), 279 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $18.20
I have mixed feelings about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Sometimes I like what he has to say and sometimes I simply think that he is arrogant. I’m not sure what he is trying to accomplish in Starry Messenger. (“Starry Messenger” is the English translation of the title of a work written in Latin by Galileo.) He says that the book “is a wake-up call to civilization.” I hate that phrase. I find it both trite and condescending. And to what he’s trying to wake us up I’m not clear. Except that he likes to suggest, and I paraphrase, that “we scientists have a more accurate view of the world than the rest of you.”
His first chapter is entitled “Truth and Beauty,” in which he tries to distinguish between the objective and the subjective. He talks about pi, (3.1416592…) and its infinite nature. Tyson writes about how President Clinton kept a moon rock on the table in the Oval Office and when people were at loggerheads in a discussion he would show it to them to offer some perspective. OK, fair point.
In a chapter entitled “Earth and Moon” he provides a cosmic perspective on things. He points out that the only human-built structures visible from space are Hoover dam and the Great Pyramid in Egypt. Tyson notes, “Everything else that divides us—national borders, politics, languages, skin color, who you worship—is invisible to you.” Although he is not a big fan of religion, Tyson writes about the Apollo 8 astronauts reading the Genesis creation story from their lunar orbit. He writes about how the famous atheist of the sixties, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, filed lawsuits because of this. He imagines a conversation with her in which he asks if she were there in space looking back at the earth. When she replies she wasn’t, his imaginary response is, “Then shut the fuck up.”
In the same chapter Tyson shares an anecdote about how for an eighth-grade science fair he built a spectroscope from scratch to prove that the spectrum of the moon’s light is identical to that of the sun. (Hence proving that the moon’s light is reflected.) He says that he came in second place. I wish he had told us what project beat that out for first place.
Tyson’s chapter four is entitled “Conflict and Resolution.” He makes the point that liberals are not always as liberal as they believe, and that conservatives are not always as conservative as they think they are. Again, fair point.
In his chapter on the subject of “Risk and Reward,” it seems that Tyson is simply trying to demonstrate how much more rational scientists are than the general public. Thanks, guy.
I won’t go on. Other chapters had me scratching my head trying to figure out what Tyson was trying to get at.
There are some interesting ideas in Starry Messenger, but I’m not sure that I’m any the better for having read it.
Tonight at sundown the sacred Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur begins. The day always gives this Episcopalian pause to reflect.
I have long had a deep affinity for Judaism. When I was in the fifth or sixth grade my Methodist Church Sunday school class took a field trip to the synagogue in Palm Springs for the festival of Sukkot. I was in the front row for the rabbi’s presentation. After my senior year in high school one of my favorite teachers taught a summer school course in Old Testament history, which I took even though I had graduated. We took a field trip to a synagogue thirty miles from Hemet where I was totally engaged.
At Pitzer College I became involved with the chaplain’s office, which served all the Claremont Colleges. I was as interested in what was going on with the Jewish community as I was in my own Protestant niche. My senior year at Pitzer and after graduation when I stayed in Claremont, I had a serious crush on a Jewish woman named Julia, with whom I went out once or twice. Sadly, my inept social skills prevented anything from coming of that.
After graduating from Pitzer in 1975 I worked at B. Dalton Bookseller, and in my ambition to become a store manager I moved to Laredo, Texas where I opened the first B. Dalton Bookseller in South Texas. After a year in Laredo I got a store in Oklahoma City to manage. I became involved in the Unitarian Church there, and that is where I met Ruth, a Jewish woman seven years my senior. We developed an intense relationship and after moving in together to a house in Moore, Oklahoma, an Oklahoma City suburb, we decided to get married. We wrote our own vows, but the rabbi at the Reform synagogue in Oklahoma City performed the ceremony in our backyard under a homemade chuppah, the ceremonial canopy under which Jews marry, that Ruth had put together.
We moved to California in 1985 and developed the practice of observing Shabbos on Friday evening. Ruth did the traditional prayer to greet the Sabbath and lit candles, while I read the appointed Torah portion, and we drank an appropriate Israeli wine. When we had Ruth’s two kids over the summer it was an especially meaningful time.
Ruth died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1989. Her graveside service was in Oklahoma City, officiated by the Conservative rabbi of her mother and stepfather’s synagogue. It was Passover, Jewish law stating that if burial can’t happen within twenty-four hours after death it should happen as soon as possible thereafter. The rabbi said, “Because it’s Passover we can’t have a eulogy, but we can teach.” He then delivered a beautiful eulogy. (Ruth had a thing about Passover in life as well as in death. She told me that in her first marriage where they were “more observant than the rabbi,” she had a nervous breakdown one Passover because it all became too much to handle.)
But before we left Oklahoma City, and before Ruth became furious at the rabbi for some disparaging remarks he made in a Shabbat sermon about New Age practitioners (of which Ruth was one), after which she no longer allowed us to attend the Friday evening services that I loved, I had the opportunity to attend one, and only one, Erev Yom Kippur service. It was a cold, blustery evening in Oklahoma City, and the synagogue was full (just like a Christian church on Easter). The Kol Nidre moved me deeply, just as it does today when I watch it via YouTube.
So here I am, an Episcopalian since 1997 in the most Trinitarian of Trinitarian denominations, and yet I continue to question why I need a Son and Holy Spirit to mediate between me and God.
On this Day of Atonement 2022 (5783 in the Jewish calendar), as my eyes fill with tears listening to the Kol Nidre, I say to my Jewish friends:
May your fast be easy.