Addicted to Books

For some, alcohol is the indispensable commodity. For others, it is drugs. For a number of us, books prove to be irresistible and foremost among those things in life that we cannot do without. It is fascinating to reflect on why that should be the case for millions of booklovers all over the world. The answers to such musings are many and varied, I suspect. The feelings of attachment can be very strong.

409px-Carl_Spitzweg_021[1] “The Bookworm” by Carl Spitzweg

When she was ill and dying, Jacqueline Kennedy reportedly asked to have some of her favorite books moved into her room. Presumably, she was not embarking on a final reading binge; she apparently wanted them near so she could spend just a bit more time with old and dear friends before the end came. I can completely understand that impulse, for a true bookworm becomes very attached to books.

 The Allure of Books

What is it about books? Where to start? For fiction fans, there is the pure entertainment factor and the escape from life’s hum-drum. The ability of a well-written story to whisk the reader away from today’s here-and-now troubles, even for a little while, is a powerful draw. The literary voyage can transport one anywhere, from the exotic capitals of civilized Europe, to the darkest jungles of Africa – even to the contradiction of Antarctica’s desolate yet serenely beautiful landscape of white. Time is equally capricious; the story can take place hundreds of years in the past, or, just as plausibly,at some time in the far distant future – as in science fiction. And what adventures await the reader/voyager along the way and at the final destination? Anything a creative writer can imagine is possible! Espionage and intrigue, great battles fought long ago, a journey to newly discovered planets – the list is endless.

The most effective fiction books, as with screenplays, are those that weave their spell using superb character development and portrayal. Human nature and societal behavior, as vividly displayed in text, is seemingly among the most inexhaustible of captivating themes. The great novelists all had superb skills in that regard; Charles Dickens always comes to mind for me.

Fiction allows the reader to live vicariously through the main characters – like Walter Mitty. Readers enjoy tagging along with characters who, perhaps unlike themselves, dare to live life to the fullest while dismissing danger, forsaking the conventional, and ignoring social taboos.

There is a large divide between fans of fiction and readers of strictly non-fiction books. Sure, there is often much overlap in interests, but I find that people tend to reside in one camp or the other. Followers of this blog have surely deciphered how I spend most of my reading hours. Although I am aware of missing out on something very good, I do not read much fiction. Why is that? I am in the vexing position of the kid in the candy store when it comes to reading – too many wonderful choices, both fiction and non-fiction. “Too many books, too little time” constitutes the short version of my plight. I have on my shelves, a small selection of excellent fiction; these are books I have obtained mainly because of their universal appeal as great literature and because of the fact that I know I would enjoy them. I really want to read The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Last of the Mohicans, etc. It is the fault of those not-yet read non-fiction books on my shelves that I have not gotten very far into my carefully selected fiction shelf. I will read them in due time, God willing.

 Fact Is Stranger than Fiction

At first that may seem a trite expression, but I find its declaration to be quite true. I gravitate toward true stories for two reasons: First, because they are true – they really happened to real people; second, because, often, “you just can’t make this stuff up” as the saying goes. Why read fictionalized history when the real thing is every bit as intriguing and the real-life protagonists are just as remarkable as any character imaginable? Well, that’s just my take!

The name of this blog is Reason and Reflection: Reason as in science, mathematics, and logical thought – knowledge; Reflection as in a fascination with the human side of life – wisdom. The name reflects my eclectic interests in pretty much everything – from science and mathematics to the nature of the human condition.

Books as Repositories of Knowledge and Wisdom:
This, for Me, Is the Ultimate Attraction


This concept, this view of books as precious repositories of mankind’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom, is the glue which forms such strong bonds to many booklovers. The ideas and discoveries which have changed the nature of human existence have virtually all surfaced, or at least survived, on pages nestled between the covers of books – books which silently preside over the years, the decades, the centuries, on library shelves….somewhere. After 1454 and the emergence of Gutenberg’s printing press, the holy-grail of such printed repositories has been the first editions which initially made the breakthroughs of great thinkers readily available to their fellow man. In rare cases, the “earliest available versions” of books are ancient, one-of-a-kind, hand-written texts which have managed to survive. The printed book is clearly the workhorse of this early “information age,” however. And many of the thoughts and discoveries disseminated in books have fundamentally changed man’s view of himself and his place in the cosmos. See my earlier post on Isaac Newton’s Principia (in the archives) from October 27, 2013, The Most Important Scientific Book Ever Published: Conceived in a London Coffee House.

 The Great Books: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience at Stanford University

Several years ago, Stanford University offered a course on “The History of the Book” through its continuing education program. I fortunately heard about it through my younger daughter, another great fan of books and reading. The several-week course convened on campus in the rare book library. Led by one of the university’s rare book librarians, the classes were structured as two hours of lecture and one hour of “show-and-tell.” The lectures were fascinating, and covered all aspects of “the book” from early forms of books and their construction to printing and collation (organization and page-numbering), bindings, and historical importance. Many of history’s greatest books were covered, from science to philosophy.

Principia 3rd 1726_1During the lecture phase, the instructor would produce, from his ever-present cart, a book to illustrate his point. The books he chose were often first editions of the most important books that exist. I cannot accurately recall them all, but a typical lot would reflect authors like Pliny, Copernicus, Vesalius, Galileo, Kepler, Hobbs, Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and so-on. After each lecture, the books on the cart were wheeled over to join others open for perusal on the long library tables. The class of approximately twenty adults was invited to roam about and personally examine, even “thumb-through,” some of the greatest books ever written – many of them present in their rare, first editions. The instructor was available to answer any and all questions, and there were many.

Often, when the class was over and we had filtered out of the rare book library and into the dark, pleasant coolness of the spring evening, my head was spinning as I contemplated what I had seen…and touched. We students had the privilege of holding, in our own two hands, the well-springs which revealed much of humanity’s accumulated knowledge and wisdom – centuries-worth, many in their original, first edition formats. The total value of such books on the rare book market, today, is very high; their true value: Priceless.

A Reference Library – Steps Away

I have, over many years, accumulated a reference library on science and the history of science. These are books that, while very affordable, are valuable resources on scientific milestones and biography. Since I enjoy writing on matters scientific, it is handy to have these books nearby.

IMG_0732  IMG_0737

Above, you can see what happens when there are too many books and not enough bookshelves!

My wife loves books, too, and she has her own collection. She is a fan of the author/illustrator, Tasha Tudor, and this is one of her favorite items. Long live books!


The Key to Physical Attraction…It’s Called “Gravity” (and “Love”)

As unlikely as it may seem, the language of science has expressions in common with the language of love. The notion of  “physical attraction”  has roots in both. We humans are selectively attracted to others during our lifetimes, yet we are constantly attracted, in reality, to everyone and every thing in the universe as revealed by Isaac Newton in his masterwork of science, the Principia. Two marbles, one inch apart on a smooth table, exert an attractive force on one another which would tend to draw them together, except that the force is too small to overcome the rolling friction on the table. Yet, on the larger scale of the sun and planets, the forces of attraction between such massive bodies are immense.

Newton & Apple_1

 “Falling” in love may happen but rarely in our personal lives, yet we are, in fact, constantly falling – even though we are not conscious of the reality. All earth-bound denizens fall constantly… toward the sun as the earth orbits our nearest star. That motion, due to gravity, of continually “falling toward the sun” works in concert with a component of planetary motion tangential to the orbit to define the path of our earth around the sun. That tangential component of motion represents the inertial path the earth would take if the gravitational attraction to the sun suddenly ceased. The concept of  “gravity” has historically been one of mankind’s greatest comprehension challenges – one of nature’s great mysteries.

 Earth Orbit_1

Early man’s curiosity as to why things apparently fall toward the center of the earth was at least temporarily assuaged (for hundreds of years) by Aristotle’s assertion some two thousand years ago that the earth’s center was the “natural center of the universe,” hence the logical place for objects to congregate (prior to Copernicus in 1543, the sun and planets were assumed to revolve around the earth). The great mathematician/scientist, Johannes Kepler, in the early seventeenth century was an early disciple of Copernicus’s sun-centered solar system and one of the first to seriously contemplate what kind of natural, physical mechanism was at play to keep the planets moving around the sun as they do. He conjectured that perhaps some form of solar, “magnetic” winds or vortices swept the planets along in their almost-circular paths. It was generally believed, prior to Newton, that whatever phenomena, or “force,” that caused apples to fall to earth was distinct and different from the celestial forces that held the heavens together. For a long time, celestial motions beyond the moon were even attributed to divine influence and motivation.

It took the genius of Isaac Newton to declare, in his 1687 milestone book on science and mathematics, that earthly gravity and heavenly forces are one and the same – hence, universal. Indeed, Newton claimed that all objects of mass in the universe attract all other objects to greater or lesser degrees via the force of universal gravitation. He stated that the nature of gravity and the equation which describes how it works is applicable everywhere and at all times – a truly “universal” law of nature! Although Newton explained the scientific version of “physical attraction,” he wisely made no attempt to explain the underpinnings of the version expressed in the language of love. Nor will we! That remains as captivating and mysterious as ever and seemingly beyond the ability of science and mathematics to explain.

But Newton really did not explain what gravity is or why it acts the way it does; he admitted so in the 1713 second edition of the Principia stating: “Non fingo hypotheses,” which, translated from Latin declares, “I feign no hypotheses!” He was criticized by his peers for his advocacy of this mysterious force-at-a-distance; they asked, “How can a body like the sun transmit, through empty space, the tremendous forces necessary to steer the planets?” His contemporary critics should have called to mind that other mysterious force which travels through space – magnetism, in the form of the magnetic field – which also has the power to attract objects. Newton was sage enough and courageous enough to stick by his contentions even though he could not explain them all. Although his famous equation does not hint at why gravity works the way it does, it describes precisely how it works – well enough to be used by NASA for its precise orbital computer computations. Despite the tremendous success of his theory of gravity and his numerical analysis of it, Newton did not – could not at that time – grasp the true essence of gravity. This is a remarkable situation which aptly reflects the reality that science will continue to inexorably peel-back, layer by layer, the deepest mysteries of our existence. Sometimes, genius like Newton’s transcends the state-of-the-art and “the possible”…for a while.

 Albert Einstein Peels Back Another “Layer” of Gravity

It took Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity to go Newton “one better” and unmask the true face of gravity. Planets including the earth go around the sun in almost-perfect circles (ellipses) and not off into distant space not due to an explicit force of attraction between themselves and the sun as Newton proposed; Einstein showed that they are merely following a “natural path” determined by the curvature of four-dimensional space-time around the sun. That curvature is caused by the presence of the sun’s mass. All bodies of mass curve space-time in their vicinity. Einstein advanced physics immeasurably by contributing this radically unique physical interpretation of all gravitational effects. The complexity of Einstein’s mathematics in the general theory of relativity required to demonstrate this conclusively dwarfs Newton’s simple equation for an attractive force as presented in the first illustration of this post. Nonetheless, Newton’s achievement regarding gravity remains one of the greatest milestones in the history of science.

The Makers of  Universes!

George Bernard Shaw’s famous toast to Albert Einstein who was sitting near him at a tribute dinner held in 1930 at the Savoy Hotel in London, is well-known and oft-referred to. After extolling the virtues of mathematicians and scientists who, through the ages, have built “universes” instead of merely fractious empires like Napoleon and others, Shaw concluded by saying, “Ptolemy [the early astronomer/philosopher] made a universe which lasted 1400 years; Euclid [the great mathematician and founder of modern geometry] also made a universe which has lasted for 300 years; Einstein has made a universe, and I can’t tell you how long that will last!” Einstein is shown in the grainy black and white film footage clearly letting-go a big belly-laugh. Science does move relentlessly forward – always with a great assist from mathematics. Look at where we are today. Love and science do go together: To love studying the history of science and its impact on humanity is to experience what I call the “joy of science.”

Despite the phenomenal track record science has compiled while continually advancing the state of our knowledge and well-being, the greatest of all mysteries may prove to be beyond the comprehension of science: Who is the ultimate maker of universes and what can we truly know about that?

One of Einstein’s famous quotations says it beautifully: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”