Flowers and food

This post was inspired by foxgloves blooming in our garden and a recipe for three-cheeses biscuits I promised to my sister. So here are the plants that are blooming right now, the recipe for the biscuits, and a recipe for cupcakes that uses some ricotta cheese left over from after I made the biscuits. The aroma while these cupcakes were baking was as delightful as their taste.

Three-cheeses biscuits

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
2 jumbo eggs
3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup whole milk mozzarella, shredded

Makes about 15 biscuits


  1. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 415ºF.
  2. In a small bowl mix flour, baking powder and salt.
  3. In a medium bowl whisk eggs, then add ricotta cheese and olive oil, mix well. Add the flour and mix.
  4. Add shredded cheddar and mozzarella, mix well (the dough might be a little sticky, but it is easy to work with).
  5. Form balls from dough and put them on the parchment paper about an inch apart. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until they are golden in color. Let the biscuits cool a bit before eating.

Chocolaty ricotta cupcakes

1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 stick (100 g) softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 jumbo eggs
2 tablespoons brandy
1 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

Makes about 12 cupcakes


  1. Line 12 muffins cups with paper liners. Preheat the oven to 375ºF.
  2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cocoa into a bowl.
  3. Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy, add eggs and brandy and mix again (I use a food processor).
  4. Add 1/3 of the flour and mix, then add ½ cup of ricotta cheese and mix. Repeat ending with the flour.
  5. Fill the muffin cups. Bake for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

The cupcakes were eaten with great enthusiasm even though they were without frosting.


Mountain Laurel in our garden

Blackberry blooming in our garden

Hybrid tea rose in our garden

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Daring to Dream – fiction and reality

“I want to make a toast, please. To the women in my life. My mother, who’s shown that love makes a marriage bloom. My friend,” she said, turning to Ann, “who always, always listened. And my sisters, who gave me the best of families. I love you all so much.”
Eighteen-year-old Laura, just before her wedding ceremony, from Daring To Dream, by Nora Roberts

“Late last week, Nora learned from PEN America that a number of her books were banned from school libraries in Martin County, Florida.”
From Nora Roberts’ blog, Fall Into The Story, The state of the world of books

One of the banned books is Daring to Dream, a romantic tale about three young women, Laura, Kate and Margo, each having a childhood dream. Born with a silver spoon, Laura’s aspiration in life is to start a family while her husband works at her parents’ hotel business. Adopted Kate “could discuss, happily, interest rates and capital gains with Mr. T. for hours.” Skipping a grade in high-school, Kate is heading to Harvard University at seventeen. Margo is the daughter of the family’s housekeeper. After graduating from high-school, she refuses to depend on her mother’s employers charity and goes to L.A. to get a job. Daring to Dream – and the next two books in the trilogy, Holding the Dream and Finding the Dream – follow the three best friends as they try to realize their aspirations and find both personal and professional fulfillment.

I read these books years ago and I still keep paperbacks at home. They are comforting and inspiring tales about young women following their dreams despite obstacles, about the power of friendship and loyalty to help one when she is down on her luck. It is hard to imagine less objectionable books.

So why the heck were these feel-good tales banned as pornography?

I cannot imagine any modern American woman more old-fashioned than Laura, a homemaker and devoted mother, whose life revolves around charities and driving her daughters to recitals and ballet lessons and whatnot. Career-obsessed Kate is more threatening as she is financially and emotionally independent, yet I believe that the culprit is the beautiful and often headless Margo. Unlike Laura, who waited to have sex until the wedding night, Margo is more free spirited. As Margo’s modeling career took off in Europe, she had a sexual relationship (not depicted in the book) with a married man. Was this the reason the book was banned from high school libraries? In the novel, the affair ruined Margo’s career and forced her to do serious soul-searching. That led her to a change of career and to a monogamous relationship with a man she knew and trusted from childhood. Since it’s a Nora Roberts romance it is easily to guess how the story ends – a marriage and later also an adorable baby. In real life, a sexual relationship with a married man did not disqualify a woman from becoming a First Lady, nor, in a more recent example, a Queen of Great Britain.

As Lord Byron had said in Don Juan almost two centuries ago:

‘T is strange — but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!

A final note. Daring To Dream was published in 1996. In 2023, some of the characters and their choices may not resonate with readers used to different outlooks and conventions. Personally, I like the book and recommend it without reservations as an uplifting and uncomplicated romantic tale. Regardless of whether the story will appeal to teenage girls, there is no justification to deprive the ones who depend on school libraries from access to these books.
The girls have no voice, but parents can demand that their daughters receive a decent education, and that includes access to books that encourage girls to follow their dreams.

Nora Roberts' banned books
Nora Roberts’ banned books – image from Nora’s blog Fall into the story

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A bookstore, supply and demand, and reality check for readers and writers

“Seventy-five dollars?” said Imp. “Just to play music?”
“That’s twenty-five dollars registration fee, thirty-five dollars up front against fees, and fifteen dollars voluntary compulsory annual subscription to the Pension Fund,” said Mr. Clete, secretary of the Guild.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

The conversation between Imp, a harp player who has just arrived to the city of Ankh-Morpork, and Mr. Clete, who “was not, by the standard definition, a bad man; in the same way a plague-bearing rat is not, from a dispassionate point of view, a bad animal,” revolves about a Catch-22 situation: a musician must earn money to pay the Guild of Musician’s exorbitant fees, yet he cannot play music without paying the Guild first.

I borrowed Soul Music from our local library, after I recently borrowed Pratchett’s Hogfather and Guards! Guards! According to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett wrote 41 Discworld novels. A quick search discovered that my local library system doesn’t have most of them. Buying a few Discworld books (not audio-books or e-books) seemed like a good idea. But which ones?

I prefer not to read other readers’ reviews before I read a book, because of spoilers. Usually, after I add a current best-seller to my list on Goodreads, it recommends the author’s other books. When I gave five-stars to Hogfather, Goodreads did not send recommendations. This kind of digital silence (typically given to self-published authors) should have clued me that Pratchett’s books are not a must-have anymore.

Once upon a time books were bought in bookstores. The mid-Atlantic town I live in does not have a bookstore, so when I was in New Brunswick (the home of Rutgers University with tens of thousands students), I went into a Barnes & Noble store. The ground floor was packed with merchandise likely to attract students and visitors to the university – hoodies and t-shirts with university-related logos, the latest best-sellers, snacks and similar items. Fiction and non-fiction books (except textbooks) were on the second floor. In libraries, the stacks rise high. In that store, one did not need to lift their eyes to see the highest shelf. Shelves were few, low and separated by very wide aisles. Whoever runs the bookstore seemed reluctant to stock it with books. Or maybe they did not bother to display more books due to scant demand for the many thousands of titles published every year. In the fiction section, the books were lined alphabetically. At the letter “P”, between Jodi Picoult and Marcel Proust, I expected to see books by Terry Pratchett. There were none, which seemed impossible.

We live in a time when a lot of what I’ve thought as impossible turned to be possible. Maybe it has become unreasonable to expect a large bookstore to keep a book by a highly popular and prolific author? It turned out that I was not altogether wrong. A few paperbacks of Pratchett were found in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy “section”. A possible explanation: after he was knighted for “services to literature”, Sir Terry commented that, “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any.”

Next, I turned to the 800-pound gorilla also known as Amazon. As I wanted neither e-books nor audiobooks, I searched in “books” for “Terry Pratchett discworld.”

The first six results (after sponsored products by another author) were free Audible audiobooks. Numbers seven and eight were kindle books. “Incidentally” both Audible and Kindle belong to Amazon.

The next four recommendations were Audible audiobooks again. Next came three sponsored books by other authors. Fed up with the shenanigans of the search, I left the Amazon page.

I can blame algorithms, inefficiency, or even a conspiracy against a liberal-minded author who laughed at the absurdity of greedy organizations. None of these, however, explains why a large bookstore leaves a considerable part of its space unused while it displays an abysmal selection of books (and I’m speaking about a very small group of hugely popular writers, others are completely ignored). I can make a guess on why a leading e-commerce giant pushes products of its companies, not out of a mere disregard, but as a manipulation of supply and demand.

From a certain point of view (for example, Mr. Clete’s), this is not a big deal. On the other hand, ignoring the problem, we let a trove of excellent books that are not the current runaway bestsellers to slip from our minds and fade into obscurity. This is not just a matter of current tastes and fashion. Our society relies on maintaining a balance between supply and demand. When the causality between supply and demand is disrupted (either purposely or by corporate carelessness), writers and readers should do a reality check.

I get more book recommendations in one week than I can read in a year, but the vast majority of the books I enjoyed didn’t come from AI analysis of previous preferences. They were discovered in conversations, reading reviews, or in occasional advertisements. (Famous writers who publish regularly or writers who can afford the prohibitive cost of advertising have an advantage in putting their work before readers’ eyes. Most of the writers don’t have the budget to move the needle, neither on Amazon nor in a physical store.) Libraries offer more than the latest best-sellers. It is my favorite place to try writers who are new to me and genres I usually don’t read. Sometimes, especially in non-fiction, our library doesn’t offer what I want. I usually turn to Amazon when I want to buy a book online, but there are other options, so at least for now, readers do not completely depend on Amazon. Nevertheless most readers, myself included, check out what is readily available. We don’t know what great books we miss.
They are right there, somewhere, along with great music and art, not necessary hidden but certainly obscured. I have no solutions and instead of casting blame, I conclude with citing Terry Pratchett again:

“And although the Guild had a president and council, it also had Mr. Clete, who took the minutes and made sure things ran smoothly and smiled very quietly to himself. It was a strange but reliable fact that whenever men throw off the yoke of tyrants and set out to rule themselves there emerges, like a mushroom after rain, Mr. Clete.
Hat. Hat. Hat. Mr. Clete laughed at things in inverse proportion to the actual humor of the situation.
“But that’s nonsense!”
“Welcome to the wonderful world of the Guild economy,” said Mr. Clete. “Hat. Hat. Hat.”

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The Choice and what comes after that

“Breen awakened. Breen became. Breen chose.
THAT was the story. Mission accomplished.
I cannot give each individual reader all they want. And I won’t.
I will tell you the story that comes to me, and work hard to make it the best I can. That’s my job. I can’t tie every aspect that every single reader wants up in a bow, and keep going and going. When it’s done, it’s done.”
Written by Nora Roberts on her blog as a reaction to readers’ demands to continue the story after the conclusion of The Dragon Heart Legacy series.

The ChoiceI have read The Choice, or rather galloped through the pages, for the book — a mixture of epic fantasy where the good Fey, dragons, and occasionally humans, battle against unrestrained evil, and a tale of two Americans building their personal and professional life in a picturesque cottage in Ireland. It was hard to put down until the very end. Faster than I wanted, I reached the end of the Epilogue, and… the lighthearted sensation I usually have after finishing one of Nora Roberts’ novels was not there. No cozy feeling that, at least in the stories, all that ends ends well, no smile as I leafed back through the pages to find and reread a scene that stuck in my mind. I ended the book feeling as if I was abruptly woken in the midst of a dream, then hurled into a different reality, with the dream, still unfinished, niggling in the back of my mind.

For me, this is an unusual reaction. Unable to work out what exactly bothered me, I checked the author’s blog, thinking there might be a discussion thread about The Choice. What I found was a response to some nastiness from unsatisfied readers, who apparently posted obnoxious demands and spoilers on Facebook. Mrs Roberts’ response prompted this post.

First, I want to make it clear that I’m not asking for another Dragon Heart novel, a novella, or a short story set in that world. The Choice is a compelling novel and I have nothing but admiration for the author’s imagination and skills. What follows is my attempt to understand my bizarre reaction to the book. At first, I focused on the ending: the story seemed to end too soon after the decisive battle, leaving me with a feeling that something was missing. I had no idea what this could be. The Choice is a powerful, fast-paced novel, where detailed exposition heavy on weddings and babies would be out of place. But as a reader, I’m used to the denouement that settles the nerves after the climax. The highlights of the day of the battle, however, did not bring the expected closure. Feeling petty and ungrateful, I tried to figure out ‘What’s wrong?’

The story resonated with me, but not because “Breen awakened. Breen became. Breen chose.” For me that was not the magic of the story. As with Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker (neither of whom was my favorite character in their respective sagas), the protagonist’s journey alone could not hold my attention for over a thousand of pages. It was the story-worlds I cared about, both our world and Talamh, their inhabitants, whose desires, conflicts and – especially in the last volume – their choices glued me to the books for so many hours. (Not a particular fan of fantasy, I don’t care how portals between the worlds work, how to conjure a pretty outfit or how to banish the guilty to another world.)

The frightening and, until I started to analyze them, unconscious parallels my mind created between The Choice and today’s reality were the crux of my problem. It might sound crazy. It’s certainly unfair. Nora Roberts’ post said that she had completed the manuscript in 2021. But in my mind I cannot treat the fictional war as a light entertainment, not in 2022. In the story world, people (human or magical) may choose the Evil God out of greed or religious fanaticism, because they seek an easy reward and a punishment for perceived slights. In real Earth, people may not have these choices. The freezing cold and the darkness are imposed by missiles one cannot fight off with swords. There is not always a place to hide from the destruction. In real Earth, there are other reasons than greed to cooperate, like staying alive and not seeing your beloved die. The most horrifying scene in the book was the attack on the dragons’ nests. I cried. Mrs Roberts is an amazing storyteller, known for evocative writing. This time, her fantasy brought back images from planet Earth. Published in November 2022, the novel echoed what I had seen and read in the news.

I didn’t have to read The Choice. In fact, I read it so fast, I didn’t connect between the real war and the fictional one until I started wondering about the lingering unease about the book’s abrupt end. Some of the strong impression it made is due to Mrs Roberts’ powerful storytelling, that predated the current war. And yet, at least in the end of the book, I wish there was some comfort and solace for those who wanted just a story and got more than they bargained for. I now know that Nora Roberts had finished writing the book in 2021, but the manuscript was prepared into the book in 2022. Many eyes read it during the process. Had anyone of those professionals felt that readers might be in need of extra compassion at this tumultuous time? I can only speculate, but I (probably naively) hope that someone had suggested to add a few comforting scenes after all the death and destruction the people of Talamh went through. Maybe something like the last chapter of the The Lord of The Rings, where Tolkien rounded up what happened to the Shire, to the protagonists and the less important characters. (Some of it was sad, and yet we could say goodbye not only to Frodo and Sam, but also to Merry and Pippin, to Bilbo, Galadriel and Gandalf. I’m sure that after reading it, no one was left with any doubt that the fellowship ended, but even though “The Days of the Rings” had passed, we had one last glimpse at Merry and Pippin riding with Sam homeward, singing again. There was some consolation that at the end of the day Sam gets what he wants most – to be at home with his wife and baby daughter.)

Ok, it’s about time to end speculations, to clarify again that Nora Roberts created a world and characters I cared about. In retrospect, I wish there were a few morsels of information about how these characters fared in the days, weeks (and months and years) after their battle was won, whether the characters changed after the ordeal, who healed and who could not.

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Pumpkin and Honey bread

This recipe was adapted from The Martha Stewart Cookbook. We used a can of pumpkin purée. Honey provides a good balance against the taste of pumpkin: the bread was eaten (with a helping) by someone wary of anything pumpkin!
Makes 2 large loaves.


1 ½ sticks (150 gr) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup raw (or brown) sugar
4 jumbo eggs
3 tablespoons honey
2/3 cup water
1 can (15 oz / 425 gr) pumpkin
3 ½ cups all purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground Ceylon cinnamon (or any cinnamon)
½ teaspoon ground allspice


  1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Butter two 9x5x3 inch loaf pans.
  2. Beat together the butter, raw sugar, and sugar until well-blended and creamy.
  3. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the honey, water and pumpkin and mix well.
  4. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the pumpkin mixture to the bowl and stir until well blended.
  5. Pour into the prepared loaf pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean – for about 55 minutes. Cool the bread in the pans.


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The Greeks – A Global History

“…when we think of ‘Greeks’, what comes to mind first is likely to be the artistic and scientific achievements of a group of city-states led by Athens and Sparta around two and a half thousand years ago.”
From the preface to The Greeks by Roderick Beaton

The GreeksOffhand, I’m more likely to think about a Greek restaurant (or yogurt) and yet I read The Greeks because I wanted to know more about what led to the Athenian golden age. How the confluence of artistic creativity and rational thinking materialized in temples that inspired countless buildings, in plays that are still taught in high-schools, and in concepts that became part of our everyday vocabulary? Greek Classical Age has boggled people’s minds at various periods. How could so many achievements culminate in a small area in a relatively short span of time? Why did the ancient Greeks’ influence continue to spread even after the transition to monotheism? What caused it to make such a lasting impact over people physically and chronologically removed from the original city-states?

The Greeks addresses these questions, starting with Mycenaean civilization, “the dark ages” that ensued, the emergence and the heyday of ancient Greek civilization (from about 800 BCE when the Greek alphabet was adapted, to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE) and what came after, up to the twenty first century. Apparently, The Greeks is the first book to condense three and a half thousands years of Greek-speakers history into a single volume. Its scope is enormous – historical figures (rulers, artists, writers, philosophers…), innovations, wars and major geopolitical events that shaped the Greek world. The “biography” of Greek culture it mostly told in a chronological order, with emphasis on processes that led to or were a result of world-changing events. A few examples:

Fortification built around citadels in Mycenaean Greece used massive stones “that latter generations could not believe they had been raised into position by human beings at all but must have been the work of mythical one-eyed giants, called Cyclopes.”

Cyclopean masonry
Tiryns – Cyclopean masonry

The language of the Iliad and Odyssey mixes elements taken from dialects spoken in the eight century BCE in different parts of Greek-speaking world and traces of earlier forms of Greek that go back to Mycenaean times. “By the 540s BCE, the poems had already become so central to public life in Athens that the city’s ruler, Pisistratus, decreed that a definitive, authorized version should be made…
Three centuries later, scholars in Alexandria in the service of the Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies, took it upon themselves to collate all the manuscript versions of the poems they could lay their hands on. They stripped out all the bogus, redundant lines that had crept through successive retelling and copying. The result was the model texts that would ever afterwards be copied with great accuracy right down to invention of printing in the fifteen century.”

By the sixth century BCE, the belief in Olympian gods was widespread throughout Greek settlements, where private and public ritual were obligatory part of everyday life. The Greek philosopher and poet Xenophanes however argued that “there is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortal neither in shape nor in thought.” Xenophanes attributed the traditional portrayal of the gods to human tendency to suppose that the immortals look like people. “If cows, horses, or lions could draw shapes, he posited, they would draw their gods in the shape of cows, horses, or lions.”

The Greek word drama means action. Men played all the parts, from powerful goddesses to the comic role of Lysistrata who organized Athenian women to withhold sex from their menfolk to force the men to conclude the war between city-states.

aa Aristophanes

After the Golden Age came the inevitable fall, the conquest by Rome, then the rise of Christianity. The story of the Greeks continues to alternate between good and bad times, the first culminating with Justinian I and the building of Hagia Sophia , then again came disintegration and miseries, some brought about by foreign conquerors and other self-inflicted.

Hagia Sophia Southwestern entrance mosaics
Southwestern entrance mosaic of the former basilica Hagia Sophia of Constantinople
(presently Istanbul, Turkey). The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, emperor Constantine I, presenting a model of the city.

El Greco paintingFor me, the second part of the book was less interesting, even though it gave a context to how the achievements of ancient Greeks survived and became a bedrock of modern Western civilization at times when the art and the knowledge of other pagan societies were lost. Compared to the glorious past, Greeks’ artistic and scientific contributions after the collapse of Byzantine Empire were a bit of a letdown. There were acclaimed individuals like El Greco (a nickname for Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance), but considering that many Greeks migrated to the great commercial centers of Europe in the late seventeen and eighteen centuries, it’s surprising how little they influenced Neoclassicism in the arts and the Enlightenment in philosophy and the sciences. Even the Greek Revival that peaked in the early nineteen century was influenced not by contemporary Greeks but antiquarians and travelers from western Europe fascinated with the traces of ancient Greek civilization they glimpsed in the Ottoman Empire. Of these, the most notorious was Lord Elgin, who “removed about half of the sculpted blocks that make up the frieze of the Parthenon” and the most famous was Lord Byron, whose poems brought Greek culture to the minds of his many admirers.

The British Museum
The British Museum in London

The Parthenon in Athens
The Parthenon in Athens

I recommend the book to readers who want to know more about Greek history and have the time and the inclination to tackle the plethora of events, names and places they are most likely to forget.

PS. The Greeks emphasizes the importance of the Geek language and often mentions the Greek origin of many familiar words (for example, the word nostalgia comes from longing for nostos, the Homeric word for homecoming).My Big Fat Greek_Wedding movie poster Reading these attributions reminded me the father-character in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who always pointed at words that came from the Greek language. I recommend this romantic comedy for its hilarious portrayal of the clash of cultures encountered by second generation Greeks in America.

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The Strangest Man – the Hidden life of Paul Dirac

The equation was “achingly beautiful”, as theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek later described it: like Einstein’s equation of general relativity, the Dirac equation was universal yet fundamentally simple; nothing in it could be changed without destroying its power.
The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

The Strangest ManDirac’s equation, published in 1928, describes the relativistic and quantum behavior of an electron and predicts the existence of electron’s antiparticle – the positron. Although Dirac made other important contributions to physics, as the Nobel Prize Award summarized:

The importance of Dirac’s work lies essentially in his famous wave equation, which introduced special relativity into Schrödinger’s equation. Taking into account the fact that, mathematically speaking, relativity theory and quantum theory are not only distinct from each other, but also oppose each other, Dirac’s work could be considered a fruitful reconciliation between the two theories.

If Dirac’s greatest achievement can be distilled into one short equation he published in his mid-twenties, what could be so interesting in hundreds of pages of his biography?
Farmelo’s answer is that P.A.M. Dirac (1902-1984) was a very strange man. Arguably anyone who dedicates his life to search for a beautiful quantum field theory must have, to put it politely, an unusual psyche. Dirac was considered odd even by theoretical physicists’ standards, not only by cynics like Pauli, but also by fatherly figures like Einstein and Bohr.

The biography with the long title The Strangest Man, the Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (US edition; the UK edition is titled The Strangest Man, the Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius), illustrates Dirac’s unusual behavior and outlook through his relations with his nearest family, his approach to research, his quick ascent as mathematical-physicist (Dirac “was not quite thirty and just a few months older than Newton’s age” when he took the Chair of Lucian Professor in Cambridge University), his attitude toward other physicists and their work. For me, with the exception of lengthy description of Dirac’s childhood and shorter posthumous speculations about Dirac’s possible autism, the book was a fascinating read.

Most of all I enjoyed how Farmelo described the different places Dirac visited and worked at and the physicists whose names one mostly encounters as a part of some principle or equation. In the book, greats like Pauli, Heisenberg, Bohr and first and foremost Dirac are not just formidable geniuses whose work changed the course of history, but they are also actual people faced with a rapidly changing world. Through Dirac’s travels between Copenhagen, Göttingen, Princeton and other hubs of physics, Farmelo shows that even those with secured positions in the most renowned universities, did not work in vacuum. At the beginning of Dirac’s career, aspiring theoretical physicists congregated to Göttingen. In the 1930s, Einstein, Pauli and many others who had to flee Germany, moved to the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton. The United States became a magnet for scientific talent before and after WWII, but the Cold War, once again, changed the atmosphere. In 1955, Dirac’s application for an American visa was refused. In 1971, two years after his retirement as the Lucian Professor in Cambridge, Dirac moved to Florida State University.

Dirac’s biography offers many anecdotes about this reticent and private man, whose formidable intuition led to creation of quantum field theory and to prediction of a new type of matter – the antimatter. It is worth to notice that Dirac stuck to his results when they were in vogue and when no one else believed in them. Throughout a meeting in Copenhagen in April 1932,

Dirac had to put up with Bohr’s hostile questioning and the taunts of other colleagues. Dirac appeared to take it all on the chin; according to one colleague, during the meetings that week he did not utter a word. In the final session of the meeting, Bohr lost patience and put him on the spot:
“Tell us, Dirac, do you really believe in that stuff?”
The room went silent, and Dirac stood briefly to intone his twelve-word reply:
“I don’t think anybody has put forward any conclusive argument against it.”

The much criticized “theory of holes” predicted the existence of a new, and then unsupported by any experimental evidence, “counterpart”of an electron—a positive charged particle with the same mass as electron. The positron was discovered in 1932 by C. Anderson, when he studied tracks of cosmic ray particles in a cloud chamber (Nobel Prize for 1936). Also in 1932, Blackett showed that pairs of electrons and positrons could be formed out of photons with sufficiently high energy (Nobel Prize 1948). Dirac received the Nobel Prize in 1933.

Commemorative marker for Dirac
Commemorative marker in Westminster Abbey, London

Dirac’s equation (second line from below on the commemorative marker) looks deceptively unintimidating, but only the electron mass (denoted by m) has a meaning for a non-specialist. For those interested, an explanation and derivation of the equation can be found in those videos:


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Genuine Lies – Fictional memories of a movie star

Genuine LiesGenuine Lies by Nora Roberts

“There’s always something redeeming in trash. I’ve done plenty of trash and made it shine. This” – she kicked the script again with relish – “is shit.”

“She” is Eve Benedict, an aging movie star who still has a lot of clout in Hollywood. Bossy and manipulative, she lives “alone” in a walled estate in Beverly Hills, drinks champagne like a marathon runner guzzles water, and smokes as if she could not subsist on mere air. Four failed marriages and obsession with her looks add to the impression of a self-absorbed, shallow woman, so one isn’t surprised to read that Eve is poised to tell her story to a celebrity biographer. It’s harder to see why her decision is met with such a wide, almost unanimous disapproval, even from people who have a vested interest in its financial success. When threatening notes start to pop up, both in the manor house and in the guest house where Eve’s biographer and her ten-years-old son stay, it becomes evident that someone is determined that Eve’s tell-all memoir would not materialize.

Eve’s Hollywood career is the backbone of Nora Roberts’ Genuine Lies, a genre-straddling novel, with events unfolding both in the present and in Eve’s recollections of her life and career. Published in 1991, my guess is that the “present” is late 1980s. The “past” starts when “Betty Berenski from Omaha” leaves “Betty and the cornfields behind” and Eve Benedict arrives to Hollywood. Shrewd and ambitious, she volunteers at the Hollywood Canteen, where “Bette Davis pours coffee and Rita Hayworth serves sandwiches.” An actor she meets there becomes her lover. He also helps launch Eve’s acting career, and, since it’s Hollywood, he gifts her a necklace of diamonds with a huge, hot ruby in the center.

“The diamonds were shaped like stars, the ruby like a tear… He took the necklace out, let it run through his hand. ‘When you reach for stars, Eve, you loose blood and tears. That’s is something you should remember.’”

And she remembers this. Eve’s story mixes glamour with criticism of both the Golden Age and the practicality of times “when movies were made by accountants”. There is romance, sex, gambling, and excesses that range from merely annoying to criminal. The cast includes actors (ranging from Hollywood to English theater), servants and assistants, mobsters and cops, and many others. Some of the story seems outdated in 2020s. Dealing with Hollywood, cliches are unavoidable. But in all, most of the story – the hypocrisy of “old fashioned values,” child neglect, and the ambivalence about abortions – seem even more relevant today than when it was published. I expected the romance between Eve’s stepson and her biographer to be a major part of the book, but it was not, for the sixty-seven years old movie star easily eclipsed the much younger, and considerably less flawed couple. It took more than striking looks, dogged determination, and lack of scruples to propel Betty Berenski to stardom and keep her at the top for nearly fifty years.

Reading the novel, I noted similarities between the fictional Eve and legendary Bette Davis, that went beyond their heavy drinking and smoking. Eve Benedict shared her given name with Bette Davis. She had the same number of marriages, an adopted son, and a biological daughter. I could easily see her play the role of the cunning Eve Harrington in All About Eve, where the younger actress Eve manipulates the character of Bette Davis until she threatens the aging actress’s career and personal relationships. Nora Roberts’ Eve is neither particularly good nor evil, which makes her story unusual and way more intriguing. This was a gripping and fun read.

Bette Davis in All About Eve
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Book review: The Tenth Muse

The Tenth MuseThis is a review of The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung,
that I posted on Goodreads.

The notion of the tenth muse, who is reborn in every generation as a mortal gifted woman drew me to read this book. The protagonist, Katherine, was a brilliant child. Growing up as a biracial girl in the fifties, her childhood was complicated by prejudice and discouragement at school. Fascinated by math, she excelled in it at college and made remarkable progress as a graduate student at MIT. Although Katherine is a fictional character, her struggle seemed real.
The first half of the novel was a quick and interesting read. Invested in the progress of Katherine’s academic career, I expected to find out how she triumphed over hardships and obstacles until she became a prominent mathematician, one who many years later was invited to MIT to respond to Lawrence Summers’ “infamous speech on the natural abilities (or lack thereof) of women in the sciences.”
The novel ended without answering this question. This, by itself wouldn’t be a problem, if the story did not lose cohesion around the middle, when Katherine began to search for her roots. As I hate spoilers, I’ll only say that the second half of the novel was a quick succession of scenes that stretched all over the world (more precisely US, Europe and Asia), went back and forth in time, and too often required a complete suspension of disbelief. Some incidents might have made more sense if they were given enough space and context. As it was, I read the novel to the end, but I wish I didn’t, because it only confused me what the story was about.

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Book review: Ascension

Ascension: A Story of Mental IllnessThis is a book review for
Ascension: A Story of Mental Illness
by Daniel Trump,
which I posted on Goodreads.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mental illness is a scary topic, especially when it comes out of the blue for someone young and previously healthy. Dalton Lewis, the protagonist of Ascension, was a bright college graduate in his early twenties when something went seriously wrong with his mind. For me the book’s greatest strength is that it reads like a good fiction, showing, rather than telling, what it feels like to live with paranoid schizophrenia.
In Dalton’s own words: “I know that sometimes I felt like I couldn’t communicate with people or finish sentences. Think of how much better I am on this new medication. Think of the next medication, or the next, or the next. I might be able to articulate ideas more effectively. I might be able to write better. Who knows? I might be able to write something that moves someone, truly, in their mind, heart and soul. That’s the goal…”
I don’t know what in his story is based on facts (the author of Ascension has mental disability) or what is fiction. Nevertheless, it moved me from the beginning to the end.

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