Stories of the Past and Future

Inspired by a classic XKCD cartoon, the infographic above shows the year of publication and of setting for several novels, plays, and films.

They fall into four groups. The top (white) section is literature set in our future. The upper grey section contains obsolete predictions – literature (like the book 1984) set in the future when it was written, but now set in our past. The centre grey section contains what XKCD calls “former period pieces” – literature (like Shakespeare’s Richard III) set in the past, but written closer to the setting than to our day. He points out that modern audiences may not realise “which parts were supposed to sound old.” The lower grey section contains literature (like Ivanhoe) set in the more distant past.


The Man Who Knew Infinity: a book review


The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel (1991)

I recently, and somewhat belatedly, read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography of the brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. A partly fictionalised film based on the book was released in 2015 (see Scott Aaronson’s review of the film here).


Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, where Ramanujan lived when he first arrived in England in 1914 (photo: Cmglee)

Ramanujan had one of the greatest mathematical intuitions of all time (he himself credited his insights to the goddess Namagiri). However, his brilliant guesses were as likely to be wrong as right. Furthermore, Ramanujan often neglected formal mathematical proofs, so that the work of separating the many diamonds from the occasional paste was frequently left to collaborators (like G. H. Hardy, who invited Ramanujan to England, and who wrote several joint papers with him). There are still results in Ramanujan’s journals which have neither been proved nor disproved (see this perspective on Ramanujan by Stephen Wolfram).


One of Ramanujan’s formulae for π

Interest in Ramanujan seems to have peaked at around the year 2000, according to Google Ngrams (although this does not include the influence of the recent film):


Google Ngrams search for Ramanujan’s name in books

I found Kanigel’s book a very enjoyable read. There is extensive biographical detail, albeit with a few misquotes, and with apparent confusion at times about the language of a century ago (e.g. the word “cult,” used in a technical sense to mean “a particular system of religious belief,” referring to the Brahmin version of Hinduism which Ramanujan followed). Kanigel does not quite succeed in fitting Ramanujan into a larger context – I would have liked a bit more discussion of Ramanujan by other mathematicians. And I cannot help but wonder what would have happened had illness (probably chronic hepatic amoebiasis, although Kanigel suggests tuberculosis) not killed Ramanujan at the tragically young age of 32. I guess nobody can imagine what further mathematics we might have seen.

See here and here for other reviews of the book.


The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel: 3.5 stars


Colour in literature

The chart below extends my previous colour analysis to an even more mixed collection of books. On the right are books with many descriptive passages involving colour, and thus a high frequency of colour words (calculated without excluding stop words this time). At the top of the chart are books with large colour vocabularies (counting colour words used twice or more). The dots show the most common colour word in each book.

Results are consistent with the fact that the most common colour words in English (in decreasing order of frequency) are black, white, red, green, blue, yellow, brown, grey, pink, orange, and purple. However, Anne of Green Gables and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz have “green” as the most common word for plot-related reasons, while The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery has, not surprisingly, “blue.” The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle has “scarlet,” some uses of which are as the name “Will Scarlet.” Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea I have already discussed.


Colour in children’s novels

Following up on the children’s literature theme again, here is an analysis of colour words in three quite different books:

About 0.57% of the words in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (after excluding stop words) are colour words, with a wide variety being used (“the finback whale, yellowish brown, the swiftest of all cetaceans” and “Portuguese men-of-war that let their ultramarine tentacles drift in their wakes, medusas whose milky white or dainty pink parasols were festooned with azure tassels”):

In contrast, Five Go Adventuring Again only has about 0.25% colour words, mostly used in clichéd ways (“Anne went very red” and “her blue eyes glinting”). The one use of “scarlet” refers to “scarlet fever,” rather than to a colour:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz mentions colour even more than the other two books, with about 1.21% colour words. Green and yellow are particularly common, given the storyline:


On children’s novels

Having previously mentioned children’s fantasy literature, I thought I might follow up the theme a little more. In one kind of children’s novel, a group of child protagonists resolve some serious dilemma with little or no adult assistance (generally, the plot involves adventure of some kind). Such a story prompts the child reader to ask: “How would I handle a problem like that?” Of course, such a story also requires a reason for the lack of adult help. There appear to be four main possibilities, which I list below. Can my readers think of any others?

1: Complicit Adults

One common reason for the children to act independently is that the adults are complicit in an evil that the protagonists struggle against. A classic example is The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967). Thirteen-year-old Will is looking forward to his coming-of-age ceremony, until he discovers that this involves a mind-control device being implanted in his brain by the aliens who control the Earth. This kind of novel inevitably focuses on escape – in Will’s case, a dramatic journey on foot from England to the “White Mountains” of the title.


The White Mountains by John Christopher (1967).

2: The Desert Island

Another option involves stranding the protagonists in a location without helpful adults. The journey to this location can be undertaken through either physical or magical means, and the focus of the novel is on achieving some goal(s) and then returning home. A famous example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900).

The “desert island” option can be combined with option #1 – that is, there are adults on the island, but they are pirates (or evil in some other way). An example would be the planet Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).


A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963).

3: The Unbelievable Story

Another way of ruling out adult help is by making the dilemma completely unbelievable, as in Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962). “‘The Chief of Police,’ Will said. ‘He’d listen to us—’ ‘Yeah,’ said Jim. ‘He’d wake just long enough to send for the butterfly net. Hell, William, hell, even I don’t believe what’s happened the last twenty-four hours.’


Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962).

A somewhat less satisfactory variation of this option is simply to make the adults too busy to pay attention. Alternatively, the “unbelievable story” option can be combined with the first two. For example, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) combines elements of all three options.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950).

4: The All-Out War

Finally, the dilemma can involve a conflict which is so serious that it forces the recruitment of what are essentially child soldiers. The City of Gold and Lead (John Christopher, 1968) and The Pool of Fire (John Christopher, 1968), the sequels to The White Mountains, are two examples.


The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher (1968).

Other examples of this option include Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card, 1985) and Tomorrow, When the War Began (John Marsden, 1993).


Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985).

Of course, there are many other kinds of children’s literature, and protagonists may also be adults, talking animals, hobbits, or other creatures. But exploring those is out of scope for this post, which is already an odd one for a science blog.


Art Forms in Nature: a book review


Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel

I finally got my own copy of the classic Art Forms in Nature (Kunstformen der Natur) by Ernst Haeckel. Yes, the prints are all online, but that isn’t quite the same thing. This collection of 100 prints, first published as a set in 1904, is a true classic.

   

Is it an art book or a science book? It doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s beautiful, and it’s informative. Everyone should cast their eyes over these pictures at some point. These images influenced the Art Nouveau movement, and have also found their way into many books on the relationship between mathematics and science. And they are just fun to peruse.

* * * * *
Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel: 5 stars


Satan’s Science (That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis)

One of the more interesting novels by C. S. Lewis (though far from being his best) is That Hideous Strength, published in 1945:


That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength contains what may be the first mentions in fiction of hypertext (“… they’ve got a wonderful gadget – I was shown the model last time I was in town – by which the findings of each committee print themselves off in their own little compartment on the Analytical Notice-Board every half hour. Then, that report slides itself into the right position where it’s connected up by little arrows with all the relevant parts of the other reports.”) and of cybersex (“There when a young man takes a maiden in marriage, they do not lie together, but each lies with a cunningly fashioned image of the other, made to move and to be warm by devilish arts, for real flesh will not please them…”).

The main interesting feature of the novel, however, is that Satan sets up his own laboratory in Britain, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). That’s right – Lewis describes the Devil’s own scientific institute. Lewis’s goal was to portray evil in an academic setting, which was the setting he knew best (Lewis was himself a respected academic, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, specialising in Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature).


Magdalen College, Oxford

So what does the Devil’s own scientific institute look like? First, and most obviously, all the work is aimed at an evil goal. George Orwell, in his review of the novel, puts it this way: “A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control. All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself. There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced ‘obsolete’ – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical.

The details of the programme are reminiscent of Huxley’s earlier Brave New World, or of Nazi Germany: “Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain…” Some of the better parts of the novel describe the main character’s flirtation with these horrific plans.


Dachau concentration camp, Germany

Second, and perhaps surprisingly, science itself (particularly pure science) very much takes a back seat to the political programme. An elderly chemist says at one point: “I came here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it’s something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I’m too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn’t be my choice… And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police … and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again.


“I fear I could not persuade the Committee to invent
for your benefit some cut and dried position in which
you would discharge artificially limited duties”

And third, Satan has a particularly savage management style. This is described rather well by Lewis, I thought. Satan tends to leave duty statements disturbingly vague: “There must be no question of taking ‘your orders,’ as you (rather unfortunately) suggest, from some specified official and considering yourself free to adopt an intransigent attitude to your other colleagues. (I must ask you not to interrupt me, please.) That is not the spirit in which I would wish you to approach your duties. You must make yourself useful, Mr. Studdock – generally useful.

Performance criteria are equally vague, and expressed in terms that are in fact impossible to satisfy: “My dear young friend, the golden rule is very simple. There are only two errors which would be fatal to one placed in the peculiar situation which certain parts of your previous conduct have unfortunately created for you. On the one hand, anything like a lack of initiative or enterprise would be disastrous. On the other, the slightest approach to unauthorised action – anything which suggested that you were assuming a liberty of decision which, in all the circumstances, is not really yours – might have consequences from which even I could not protect you. But as long as you keep quite clear of these two extremes, there is no reason (speaking unofficially) why you should not be perfectly safe.” I hope that none of my readers work in an institution run on those lines!

As to the novel, it has flaws, but it is definitely, as Orwell says, “a book worth reading.”


That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis: 3.5 stars