SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS by Carlo Rovelli

Between my year working at a used bookstore (with an employee discount, at that) and the bargains to be found on my eReader, I’ve noticed that the way I think about the book as a physical object has changed. I’ve devoured paperbacks with cracked spines and coffee-stained pages along with free ebook versions of classic tomes that would be a hindrance to carry around with me otherwise, and both of these types of books have valued places in my reading life. But I’m come to develop a deeper appreciation for the way a book feels in my hand, the way the cover art complements the prose inside, the way the story is bound and decorated into an art piece. The books that I buy new copies of are books that I know I’ll want to hold in my hands many times over, books that I can picture accompanying me from bookshelf to bookshelf like an heirloom. So when I took my first trip to the newly opened Gramercy Books in Bexley (review of that lovely store to come), I was looking for a new treasure. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli proved to be the perfect answer.

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Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is exactly that: in seven short essays, Rovelli takes the reader through a foundational understanding of how our universe operates, from the scale of our smallest components to the complexity of the vast cosmos. Don’t be fooled by the brevity, though–the lessons are densely packed and almost startlingly informative–I often felt a little knocked over upon finishing a passage, and found myself wanting to reread the paragraphs to make sure I had absorbed everything within.

I don’t want to make it sound like the text was incomprehensible–just the opposite. While Rovelli doesn’t hold back on the science, he is able to convey his knowledge in a clear, even poetic way. It seems that his effort is not to obfuscate or show off, but to illuminate the inherent beauty he sees in the principles he’s illustrating. His prose is deft and adroit, and through it, Rovelli is able to bring the complex, often paradoxical concepts of physics into motion like the gears of a clock. The result is lovely, and almost meditative. I found that as I was reading, I felt grounded into the present moment and my surroundings in a way that I usually really struggle with. Reading about how intricately and perfectly the physical world around us functions helped me to sort through the seeming chaos of my day-to-day. When I started reading this book, I expected to understand the basic tenants of physics a little better. Instead, I came away feeling more connected to the world around me, appreciating the uncertainty I often feel–a rhythm that often feels like unpredictability–as instead a way of being in a world that has made sense out of chance, that has come together into something both functional and beautiful. The reality of space, both within and without us, becomes something of a communal experience in Rovelli’s hands, a way of feeling in company with the universe no matter what your religious leanings might be. As Rovelli writes:

“There is no such thing as a real void, one that is completely empty. Just as the calmest sea looked at closely sways and trembles, however slightly, so the fields that form the world are subject to minute fluctuations, and it is possible to imagine its basic particles having brief and ephemeral existences, continually created and destroyed by these movements. […]

Quantum mechanics and experiments with particles have taught us that the world is a continuous, restless swarming of things, a continuous coming to light and disappearance of ephemeral entities […] A world of happenings, not of things.”

If, like me, you often cry when reading Carl Sagan, I think you will get a lot out of this deceptively slim volume. If you’ve never really thought about what understanding physics has to do with understanding your own life, I still think you will get a lot from this book. I know it’s one I will carry from shelf to shelf, understanding a little more with each reread. The book itself may be a thing, but the experience waiting on the page is a happening, one I am eager to repeat.

 

THE WITCHES by Stacy Schiff

Later this summer, I will have the opportunity to travel to New England, a part of the country I’ve never been to before. The nexus of the trip is Maine, but I had an opportunity to plan a couple of day trips, and Salem immediately came to mind. I’ve always enjoyed learning about history, and as readers who have seen my October posts know, the occult is also a subject of endless fascination. As I started planning the trip, though, I realized that I didn’t know as many details about the witch trials as I would like to before visiting. It seemed like the perfect time to head to my local library and check out a book from my backlist–Stacy Schiff’s The Witches.

Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer, and The Witches certainly demonstrates why. It is a thoroughly researched and compelling account of the myriad factors–the people, the environment, the traditions, the historical context–that coalesced in 1692 Salem to create one of the most troubling and mysterious moments of our history. The scope of Schiff’s work here casts a wide net, but that doesn’t mean she grazes over any details. From what little information is available to us, Schiff is able to turn the actors in the trials into full characters, and to turn the panic, suspicion, and antipathy of Salem into a setting for this travesty. This is not a simple story of good guys and demons, nor of charade and liars; it is a real story of a real place, and so is inevitably as complicated and entangled as any moment of life and culture tends to be.

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In The Witches, Schiff introduces the reader not just to the men and women imprisoned, tried, and hanged for witchcraft, but also to their accusers and their judges. She lays the groundwork for the kind of place that Salem was at this time, the kind of place that could foster this sort of mass hysteria. I think, going in, I was expecting there to be a more tidy resolution: a known plot on the part of the accusers, for example, or a clear-cut agenda in the judges towards the people they tried and accused. It was surprising and, in ways, more disturbing to read about the ambiguity and complication that we’re left with. Schiff paints a picture of a community unique to its time: a rigidly religious community where anything other than hard work and prostration before God was seen as suspect and dangerous. Schiff puts the reader into this world, one that presses down upon you with constant surveillance and paranoia. She writes about the world as the Puritans saw it, highlighting the “incidents” of witchcraft as another part of the cultural landscape. This was a world constantly under threat, and as a reader, you feel this threat. The witch-fever seems, instead of anomalous, almost inevitable.

Of course, the horror of the innocent deaths is not underplayed. Perhaps one of the most chilling passages was the execution of George Burroughs, a former Salem minister that had been accused of being the ringleader of the scourge of witches. Schiff details the moments before his death, in which Burroughs delivered a stirring sermon in argument for his innocence, and in hope of the Lord’s mercy. He then proceeded to perfectly recite the Lord’s Prayer (a task which was put before accused witches–it was believed that a witch could not say the prayer without stuttering or faltering, which many did.) The crowd reacted to Burroughs: “For a few moments it seemed–tears welling in the eyes even of prominent men–as if the crowd would obstruct the execution.” But of course, it proceeded, and over the protests of the crowd, one of Salem’s leaders, Mather, assured them that the very thing that should have proven Burroughs’ innocence instead ensured his guilt. Schiff explains: “The devil stood beside Burroughs, dictating to him. Who else could preach so eloquently? […] Minutes later the minister dangled from a semi-finished beam. The life had not gone from his body when Mather stepped in to smother the sparks of discontent […] What better disguise might the devil choose on such an occasion than to masquerade as ‘an angel of light’? It was time-honored tactic. In the encyclopedia of backhanded compliments, this one qualified among the greatest; to the last, George Burroughs was to be condemned for his gifts. His sentence had been a just one, Mather assured the crowd. The protests quieted, as did the minister who dangled in midair. He may have heard a portion of Mather’s remarks.”

The grip of this insistence of evil in the accused–and the insistence of justice on the side of the accusers–is infuriating throughout. But it is also complicated: again, Schiff has done an excellent job of building the world in which these events transpired. We may never fully understand the perfect combination of factors that fomented this kind of mass delusion, which was unusual and noteworthy even in its time. Then again, we might. The biggest takeaway from The Witches is that a society built on paranoia–on the certainty that deviants are a threat, on the constant surveillance of neighbors and friends, on the fractious community that this kind of value system engenders–can easily allow terror and hatred to overtake logic and compassion. It’s a dark stain on our history, and a prescient reminder, making this book worth the haunting read. (For a condensed version, you can read Schiff’s New Yorker article on the subject here.)

SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE by Mary Roach

I have always been a sucker for haunted houses. This time of year, I can easily be swayed into watching one of those Travel Channel specials about the Top Ten Spookiest Truck Stops (or what have you). I have even been on a couple of ghost tours (alas, to no avail, although it was interesting to learn about the pirate history of a small North Carolina town and to see the winding passages of the Winchester Mystery House). Despite the fun I take in these things, I would probably describe myself as a skeptic when it comes to haunted houses, albeit a light one. I have fun pretending I believe, and I like to keep an open mind, but it would be nice to have some proof.

This made me very excited to read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach, a writer who has made a name for herself by following her insatiable curiosity down the most minutiae-laden rabbit holes. When I first picked up this book, I admit that I was a little daunted by the task: I didn’t necessarily want to confront mortality in a deeply existential way to get my Halloween kicks. Fortunately for me, this book manages to be a lighthearted and fun trip through some of science’s more bizarre chapters. Roach’s aim is not to prove (or disprove) the existence of the afterlife or the soul, but rather to highlight the quirky, surreal, and oftentimes pretty gross ways that people throughout history have tried to. As Roach says in her introduction, “It’s a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question.”

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The best part of this book is Roach herself. She is definitely a roll-up-her-sleeves kind of writer, and she takes you along as she chases down every lead. The book is even filled with footnotes, allowing the reader to decide just how far they want to immerse themselves in these topics: in a couple of cases, the text of the book had taken me plenty far enough, but more on that in a moment. The other great thing about Roach is that she is so funny. Actually laugh-out-loud funny. Reading this book began to feel like having a conversation with Lorelai Gilmore, if Lorelai Gilmore had developed some strange obsessions of late (and anyone who knows my deep love for Gilmore Girls will know what a compliment that is). Roach’s humor is smart and fast and surprising, and I can’t wait to read more of her for this reason.

My only complaint about this book is that oftentimes, Roach has a much stronger stomach than I. You might not expect it, but some of our history’s ghostly obsessions have been, well, disgusting. Roach never shies away from the details of any topic, making sure that she sates all possible curiosity. If I were a different person, this quality would be a compliment, and really, I intend it as one. But as Haley, the same girl who had nightmares about the Magic School Bus after seeing the episode in which they shrink and are swallowed by a classmate, there were a few instances where I could have been spared the details. (This problem has also confirmed what I already expected, which is that I would struggle through two of Roach’s most popular books, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal). I only include this note as a warning to potential readers, and Roach herself does the same thing by titling the most difficult chapter “Hard to Swallow” (through it all, she maintains her sense of humor, which is greatly helpful).

Another thing to note: Spook isn’t really, well, spooky. The most frightening chapter was definitely the one called “Inside the Haunt Box,” which details one scientist’s work in determining if electromagnetic fields can cause hallucinations that could explain ghost sightings (or, perhaps, if such fields merely make us more in tune to these presences), but for the most part, everything in this book is more fascinating than scary. Which, again, is a compliment disguised as a complaint. I only include it as a caveat to make sure you have the right expectations if you decide to check it out.

I think that science writing is so important. Books like Spook are great not just for the information they impart, but for the way they inspire us to pursue it, to ask questions we might never have considered before. If you’re interested in a fascinating trip through some of science’s trippier moments, this is a great read, especially if you’re not too squeamish. As for ghost stories, I’ll probably still peruse the Travel Channel this year, but hopefully I’ll do so with a more discerning eye and Wikipedia at the ready. And yet, I would hate to paint Roach as a joyless skeptic. As she herself concludes, “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.” After reading this book, I can say with certainty that Roach would be a fabulous graveyard companion, just as Spook is a fun companion to the ghost stories and haunted houses of this season, whether you’re a believer or not.