Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Brian Clegg – Infinity, the Quest to Think the Unthinkable.

The concept of infinity is one of those slightly misunderstood scientific ideas. Everyone thinks they know what it means, but Brian Clegg's book is about showing that the concept itself has had a complex history. For children, “infinity is the biggest number there is”, I remember being very young and announcing to bemused parents that I was going to “count to infinity”.

Clegg's examination into how infinity has become a much more formal (I was going to say concrete, but it is anything but) mathematical construct is a fairly easy and enjoyable read. His introduction to set theory is one of the most straight forward I've ever read, and his little pencil portraits of everyone from Aristotle to Einstein help enliven the subject.

By the end of the book, you get to examining such strange constructs as Gabriel's Horn, a simple shape with a finite volume, but infinite surface area. You could fill it with paint, but it couldn't contain enough material to coat the inside of the horn itself! I particularly enjoyed his explanation of Cantor's proof that there are an infinite numbers between 0 and 1... leading to the idea that there are different “levels” of infinity.

This isn't a book for mathematicians, though I am sure they'll enjoy it, particularly if its been 15 years since they last looked at a Venn diagram, it's a great introduction to a fascinating subject for the layman. Worth a read, if you've ever gazed at the universe and wondered at what it contains.

"My Bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite."

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, II. ii 133

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Andrew Kaufman - All My Friends Are Superheroes

Despite the strange world that Andrew Kaufman's book is set in – one populated by a limited, but significant number of superheros (Toronto, Canada has 249 Superheroes we learn, “None of whom have secret identities.”) - the story is actually about that most important of ideas. The human condition.

In this case, Tom our hero, isn't of the super variety. He is an ordinary guy, whose friends and friends of friends all have particular special abilities. His girlfriend, The Perfectionist, can put things in order with the power of her mind. Unfortunately, on her wedding day, her jealous ex-boyfriend “Hypno” uses his own superpower to hypnotise The Perfectionist into not seeing Tom.

For reasons too complex to go into here, Tom has the length of a short flight to Vancouver to get The Perfectionist to see him, otherwise their love will be destroyed and his heart broken.

Now anyone who has suffered from unrequited love, will know Tom's predicament. To be invisible to the one you most desire is an unpleasant experience, but to be in that situation, while knowing that the other loves you intensely and can't understand your absence is pure torture.

The beauty of Andrew Kaufman's work though isn't this bizarre concoction of a world. It's the little aspects of the lives of those living in it that illuminate our own, non-super, ordinary lives. There is a beautiful moment in the book, described by Tom as he reflects on his love affair with The Perfectionist, and in particular their first night together.

The Perfectionist takes him to a hitherto unseen room in her house. Inside there are only two boxes. One labeled “Lover” one labeled “Friend”. She makes him choose which one to get in. Tom picks up the one marked “Friend” and puts it into the other.

“Then he turned around, picked up the Perfectionist, and lifted her inside the boxes. He climbed in with her. In the morning, there wasn't much left of either box.”

What starts off as a seemingly clunky metaphor, becomes a beautifully surreal examination of the complexities of relationships.

Many reviews of the book concentrate on the small little vignettes of other superheros. The Projectionist, The Battery, The Sloth, The Wild Mood Swinger. The details don't matter, but the names hint at their flaws and thus become more of a metaphor for us mere mortals than any description of human life can do.

Tom's desperate struggle to get his lover to see him is really about how we all struggle with the odds stacked against us. His solution to the problem, is of course, a triumph of logic, rather than some fantastical unknown super power that some may expect. That in itself hints at the solution to all of our problems.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Thomas M. Disch - The Word of God

Organised religion certainly needs the fun poked at it, and Thomas Disch certainly does that here. Now any book that contains the line "Jesus loved creme brulee" would be a sure fire hit with this avowed atheist, but Disch's book is so much more than that. It pokes fun at the concept of religion and God, by being the word of God himself. In this case, the God (there are many) is the author himself. Self declared as such, Disch argues his particular world view, proves his point with a few minor miracles, and tells the improbable story of his origin.

Along the way, we meet a few famous characters in history, many of whom are tangled up in a complex plot of Satan's to destroy Thomas Disch's parents liason, and thus prevent God occuring. One of the side effects of this, is that Germany and Japan will win World War II. The chief instrument of Satan's scheme is the resurrected Phillip K. Dick. For the purpose of this novel (and perhaps in reality) Phillip K. Dick holds an almightly grudge against Disch, carried with him down into the bowels of hell after his death.

It's all quite fun - very little of it means anything particularly deep, though we have the occasional nugget of philosophical thought, ruminations of opera and art, and snippets of favourite books and poems (some of which are even real I trust) but mostly this should be read for the cynical humour and barbed jokes.

It is a clever book, worth reading, if only to annoy and amuse someone more religious than me.