Lighthearted takes on fiction and physics

Two comics by John Atkinson, thirst-editions and simplified-physics.

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Richard Feynman’s 100th birthday

Richard Feynman

“There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.”
Hands Bethe, Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate.

Richard P. Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist, a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Physics (1965) and inventor of Feynman diagrams, introduced in 1948 and still widely used today in studies of collisions and scattering of elementary particles.

Five particular achievements of Feynman were crucial to the development of modern physics (according to Encyclopedia Britannica):

First, and most important, is his work in correcting the inaccuracies of earlier formulations of quantum electrodynamics, the theory that explains the interactions between electromagnetic radiation (photons) and charged subatomic particles such as electrons and positrons (antielectrons).

Second, he introduced simple diagrams, now called Feynman diagrams, that are easily visualized graphic analogues of the complicated mathematical expressions needed to describe the behavior of systems of interacting particles. This work greatly simplified some of the calculations used to observe and predict such interactions.

Feynman diagram of electron-positron annihilation

Feynman provided a quantum-mechanical explanation for Lev D. Landau’s theory of superfluidity — i.e., the strange, frictionless behavior of liquid helium at temperatures near absolute zero.

Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann devised a theory that accounted for most of the phenomena associated with the weak force, which is the force at work in radioactive decay. Their theory, which turns on the asymmetrical “handedness” of particle spin, proved particularly fruitful in modern particle physics.

And finally, while working with experimenters at the Stanford Linear Accelerator on the scattering of high-energy electrons by protons, Feynman invented a theory of “partons,” or hypothetical hard particles inside the nucleus of the atom, that helped lead to the modern understanding of quarks.

Murray Gell-Mann was reported to grumble that Feynman “spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” One of my favorite Feynman anecdotes is titled “It Sounds Greek to Me!”, from the book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman:

One time, in 1957, I went to a gravity conference at the University of North Carolina. I was supposed to be an expert in a different field who looks at gravity.
I landed at the airport a day late for the conference (I couldn’t make it the first day), and I went out to where the taxis were. I said to the dispatcher, “I’d like to go to the University of North Carolina.”
“Which one do you mean,” he said, “the State University of North Carolina at Raleigh, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?”
Needless to say, I hadn’t the slightest idea. “Where are they?” I asked, figuring that one must be near the other.
“One north of here, and the other is south of here, about the same distance.”
I had nothing with me that showed which one it was, and there was nobody else going to the conference a day late like I was.
That gave me an idea. “Listen,” I said to the dispatcher. “The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other ,not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like ‘G-mu-nu. G-mu-nu.’”
His face lit up. “Ah, yes,” he said. “You mean Chapel Hill!”
He called the next taxi waiting in line. “Take this man to the university at Chapel Hill.”
“Thank you,” I said, and I went to the conference.

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BBC royal wedding blunder (updated)

Fans of royal weddings might enjoy the BBC’s attempt to educate the rest of the world about what to expect on May 19, 2018:
A non-Brit’s guide to Meghan and Harry’s wedding (BBC, May 7, 2018).

Can you spot the blunder in this screenshot from the article?:

Actually, Diana and Charles were not married at Westminster Abbey.
“The wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer took place on Wednesday 29 July 1981 at St Paul’s Cathedral, London, United Kingdom.” (Wikipedia)

St. Paul’s Cathedral:

Westminster Abbey:

On May 8, BBC have changed the wording:

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Story Elements: Core, World, Setting

C-3PO tells the story of the Rebellion to the Ewoks

After trying to get to the root of readers’ satisfaction with a story, I found that a better understanding of what a story is might be in order. On its face the answer to the question “what is a story?” is intuitive and straightforward, but pinpointing what exactly separates a story from a bunch of sentences slapped together is not so easy. Obviously, “character,” “plot” and “theme” are necessary. However, a story must have other ingredients, both as its building blocks and as forces that tie it together. In the following, are notes on the subject, compiled from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants!, Gwen Hayes’s Romancing The Beat, Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid, and Dwight. V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Story Core: All stories are about desire vs. danger, what one did to get what he wanted and why. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what cost he’ll have to pay along the way.

Simplistically, it can be deconstructed as:

  • A Character who is affected by and reacting to external events, and fights against danger.
  • A backdrop of troubles that forces the character to act.
  • A Desire, because a character without desire cannot be endangered.
  • An Opponent who fights back. The opponent personifies the obstacles the character has to overcome.
  • A Disaster, the character must face before s/he is off the hook.

Once a character has a desire, the story “walks” on two legs: acting and learning. A character in a pursuit of a desire takes actions to get what s/he wants. In the process, the character learns new information about better ways to get it. New information causes the character to make a decision and change the course of their action.

Everything about the character’s journey can be a part of the story, but to make it at least somewhat entertaining, a storyteller must select, connect and build a series of intense moments, so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. What tools, beside innate talent, a storyteller has?

Theme is the story’s unifying concept. It tells us something about the storyteller’s outlook on the world, or on human behavior, about right and wrong actions and what those actions do to person’s life. Story characters, be they opponents or allies of the hero, deal with the same moral problems, but they do it in different ways. Whenever a character uses some means to reach an end, there is a moral predicament, a question of right action, an argument about how best to live.

Story world is life as we imagine it could be, life condensed and heightened. It is everything surrounding the characters all at once, representing simultaneous elements and actions. The story world is usually a physical expression of who the hero is and how he develops. Different kinds of worlds embody, highlight or accentuate the hero’s needs, values, desires (both good and bad) and the obstacles he faces. A world of slavery often expresses or even exacerbates the hero’s great weakness. In fantasy, the hero starts in a mundane world, where his psychological or moral weakness is set. This weakness is the reason the hero cannot see the true potential of who he can be.

Setting: Natural setting carries a multitude of meanings because locations such as island, mountain, forest, plain, have an inherent symbolic power. Mountains, for example, are often associated with greatness, whereas a forest brings to mind a frightening place where people get lost. Man-made spaces can be a microcosm of the hero and the society in which he lives. The House, for example, is a nest, the home of the family, a place for intimacy. The warm house is a big, cozy and diverse shelter, infused with memories of childhood. The terrifying house, on the other hand, is not a cocoon. It might be a prison, a cramped pressure cooker, an outgrowth of hero’s great weakness, a manifestation of his biggest fear.

Passageways Between Worlds is a popular story technique to move characters between extremely different sub-worlds (like a passage from the mundane world to the fantastic). A passageway literary gets the character from one place to another, but it’s also a kind of decompression chamber, that prepares the listeners to a big change in the story world rules between one place to another.

Technology magnifies the character’s power, tools allow him to manipulate the world and maneuver through it. In science fiction, specific technology highlights those elements of society that the story is set to explore.

Arena marks physical boundaries of the story world. It’s a single unified place surrounded by some kind of wall, with everything inside that space is part of the drama and everything outside it isn’t part of the story.

Some stories start with a large umbrella, which a storyteller then crosscuts and condenses. The largest scope is usually described somewhere near the beginning, and as the story progresses, the focus shifts to the smaller worlds within the arena. Alternatively, characters journey through generally the same area.
In a “fish out of water” stories, the hero jumps from one world to another world. The character starts in one arena, where he shows his special talents, then jumps – without traveling – to second arena where the main story takes place.

Foto Ennevi/Fondazione Arena di Verona
The Verona Arena is a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century AD. It is one of the best preserved ancient structures of its kind, still in use today for the large-scale performances.

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March For Our Lives – Princeton, 2018

See full size (3.6 MB, opens in a new tab)

Credits: photography and collage – my son.

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This is not a time to keep silent


It’s time to mourn and weep for the dead in Florida, time to try to help the wounded to recover. It’s not a time to keep silence. It’s time to speak, again and again until lawmakers face the fact that guns are used to massacre schoolchildren.

“Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old suspected shooter, used an AR-15 semi-automatic style weapon during the massacre, law enforcement officials told the Associated Press. The highly deadly military-inspired rifle has been the weapon used by several mass shooters. The AR-15 was most notably used during the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. that claimed 27 lives, including that of the shooter.”

Sandy Hook Elementary School. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

It’s time to SHOUT as loudly as possible until the SHOUT reaches lawmakers, and something is actually done about gun control.


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2017 is drawing to a close

Finally, 2017 is drawing to a close. I can’t say that it was one of the better years to look back at. This is why I’m not going to do any “2017 in …”, but just post a few pictures from September to December 2017 (months I did not blog).



Delaware River


The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the detection of gravitational waves!!!

“While from the outside, it may seem surprising that this Nobel Prize was awarded a scant 2 years after the discovery of gravitational waves (often, Nobel Prizes are awarded many years after discoveries), for the three laureates, it actually comes at the culmination of decades of effort. LIGO may have only recently detected gravitational waves, but its journey to doing so began nearly 45 years ago.”
From ‘Nobel Prize awarded to LIGO Founders‘ Caltech News Release


Autumn colors

A Literary Moment:


Statues of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, in Central Park, Manhattan.


The snow is here

Rutgers University, New Jersey

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An anniversary of an experiment that transformed the world

Two hundred years ago, the relationship between magnetism and electricity was not an established fact. It had been known that thunderbolts created certain magnetic effects, but there was no proof that magnetism and electricity were related, until 1820, when Hans Christian Ørsted demonstrated that changes in electric current flowing in a wire produced a change in the orientation of a compass needle. In the experiment credited with the discovery of electromagnetism, Ørsted observed that at the moment an electric current from a battery was switched on, a nearby compass needle was temporarily deflected from its stable position of pointing towards the magnetic north. The needle also moved when the electric current was switched off.

Within months after Ørsted discovered that the change in an electric current (from none to flowing, and vice versa) produced a temporary magnetic effect in its vicinity, André-Marie Ampère showed that each of two parallel current-carrying wires, placed close to each other, generated magnetic lines of force. The force caused the wires to be attracted or repelled from each other depending on the relative direction of the currents flowing in the wires.

After Ampère and Ørsted established that electricity could be converted into magnetism, scientists tried to do the reverse: to create electricity from magnetism.

The first to succeed was Michael Faraday. On 29 August 1831, Faraday made one of his greatest discoveries, in which he demonstrated generation of electricity in a wire by means of the electromagnetic effect of a current in another wire. He used an “induction ring” which he made from insulated conducting wire wound around a wooden cylinder as a helix. The helix was covered by a layer of muslin, then a second conducting wire was wound on top of the muslin. Faraday repeated the process of adding insulated coils several times, then connected the free ends of all the even coils to make one continuous length. He did likewise with the odd coils. Having two helices, he connected the ends of one helix to a galvanometer (a device invented a few years earlier to detect the presence of an electric current) and the other to a voltaic battery.

Although the effect was very small, the galvanometer needle was deflected one way upon switching the battery on and the other way when disconnecting it. This effect is known as electro-magnetic induction – changes in the electric current in the first wire, and hence the magnetic field produced by it, induced a current to flow temporarily in the second wire.

Faraday’s induction ring was, in effect, the very first electrical transformer. Nowadays, it’s on display at the Royal Institution’s museum (see the museum web page).

For an overview of early research in electromagnetism, see the article “The birth of the electric machines: a commentary on Faraday (1832) ‘Experimental researches in electricity’”, from Pholosophical Transactions A, (2015).

Faraday’s induction ring:

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Wolfish Pursuits and RoseMary Inn

Three Little Bops

“ ‘Mr. Spratt,’ began Archibald, slowly bringing himself up to speed like a chilled gecko. ‘Is it true that Mr. Wolff once belonged to the Lupine Brotherhood, a secret society dedicated to traditional wolfish pursuits such as the outlawed Midnight Howling?’
‘Yes, I understand that to be the case,’ replied Jack, ‘but that was over fifteen years ago. We do not deny that he had been investigated over various charges of criminal damage arising from the destruction of two dwellings built by the younger pigs, nor that Mr. Wolff threatened to ‘eat them all up.’ But we saw this as an empty threat – we produced witnesses who swore that Mr. Wolff was a vegetarian of many years’ standing.”
From The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

Wolves are carnivores. But in Northeast U.S., your have about the same chance of meeting a vegetarian wolf as meeting a wolf living in the wild. Which is to say – practically none. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that “wolves were hunted and killed with more passion and zeal than any other animal in U.S.” And why? Most Native Americans revered gray wolves, trying to emulate their cunning hunting abilities. But white settlers had a different attitude. While settlers progressively depleted the populations of wolves’ natural prey (mostly large mammals such as deer and elk), the numbers of domestic animals increased. Having little choice, wolves replaced their diet with sheep and cattle. Determined to protect livestock, “ranchers and government agencies began a campaign to eliminate wolves. Bounty programs initiated in the 19th Century continued as late as 1965, offering $20 to $50 per wolf. Wolves were trapped, shot from planes and snowmobiles, dug from their dens, and hunted with dogs. Animal carcasses salted with strychnine were left out for wolves to eat. This practice also indiscriminately killed eagles, ravens, foxes, bears and other animals that fed on the poisoned carrion.”

Although there are no wild wolves living in New Jersey today, The Lakota Wolf Preserve offers a sanctuary for about a dozen wolves born in captivity. On a hot July day, the wolves looked not like dangerous predators, but more like cute, lazy dogs. Yet the massive fences that separate between different packs and between them and the human visitors, suggest that in this case looks are deceptive. Here are some pictures to illustrate what I mean:

Continue reading

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What makes a good book?

“What do you think makes for a ‘good’ book?… Is it too subjective to define or are there specific and universal elements that make up a ‘good’ book? How can you pull the reader in rather than push them away?”
From a thread on Writers’ Cafe.

Obviously, tastes are subjective, be it about food, a novel, or whatsoever. Some judge a book by its literary merit, others by how engrossing or memorable it is. Writers and others interested in storytelling look for unifying elements in stories we (the generic readers) like.

In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain, a writer and lecturer on writing, tried to answer a related question: “What is the source of readers’ satisfaction with a story?”

According to Swain, a story is a record of how somebody deals with danger. And if it is told properly, it hooks us, because we are curious about other people’s troubles. A story starts rolling when a change plunges a character into jeopardy. Change causes fear, fear creates tension. And readers like to worry.

So, tension created at the beginning, builds up and intensifies in the middle of the story (all these turns and twists cause complications, to which characters must respond). Excited by the danger, we are tense and eager. The escalating tension carries us through most of the story. At the climax, it is focused sharply.

Is keeping readers’ tension sufficient to be counted as a “good” story? According to Swain, while excitement keeps readers turning pages, it doesn’t constitute satisfaction.
Readers need resolution, that part of a story that comes after climax, where the hero demonstrates that he deserves to win. There, fear is dissipated and the accumulated tension is released. Finally the hero is satisfied and happy. He/she can relax, and so can the reader.

I can think of classics and modern successful novels that don’t follow this pattern (e.g. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and of blockbusters and bestsellers that do follow this version of “hero’s journey”, but I’m not going to dwell on examples and counter-examples, because I think that Swain’s reasoning as to “Why this is so?” is way more interesting.

So, according to Swain, we turn to fiction for encouragement and reassurance, and in particular to experience through a story what we believe in but not necessarily encounter in our daily life. One of the things we yearn to see is a relation between “what we do” (the cause) and “how we fare” (the effect) and demonstrations of individual worth and individual reward. If a resolution happens due to accident or coincidence, many readers will feel cheated, because they’d rather like to see an outcome where man (the book is from 1965!) masters fate. Personally, I don’t feel that way – I wouldn’t mind if the Death Star was blown by some quirky accident, but let’s return to Swain’s arguments. First, we worry about the hero, gradually we are shown why he is worthy, then we take part in his triumph. Seeing the protagonist rewarded feels good, because it contributes to our sense of control and security, reaffirms the wishful thinking that a cause-effect relationship exists between deed and reward. Yet, seeing the courageous hero rewarded and the ruthless and selfish villain punished isn’t enough.

Fiction is a venue for escape from the everyday reality, from not being in control, from feeling inconsequential and unable to challenge the laws laid down by men, nature, and practicality. In life we are wary of change. In fiction we seek danger and boldness, and are turned off by a mundane situation and powerless characters. A story that satisfies readers’ emotional needs is populated with characters that fascinate us, characters whose experiences we share as they challenge the impossible (wizards, vampires…), the unattainable (hot twenty-something self-made billionaires…), the forbidden (serial-killers, pedophiles…), or the disastrous (raging nature, on Earth or beyond…). Reading a good story, we take part in an adventure we’d never attempt in life. While we expand our horizons through seeing different worlds through the eyes of heroes and villains, we also satisfy repressed desires and emotional hunger without risking anything.

Back to the initial question – what is a good story? I think that an answer is too subjective to define. But the aspects described above make a story widely appealing.

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