What I was Reading in August – November

Unmotivated to blog / write about what I’m reading, I didn’t even do an annual Books of The Year thing in October — and I’ve been doing that for ten years. “Life Project” and all (still quoting Emile on that), so … change and shit, I suppose. Still reading though, at a much diminished rate, partly because lack of time and energy and eyes needing a rest. Books have been read and are being read. No particular order.

Miri Song’s Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, ’cos I’m trying to understand myself, my family’s history, and all. You’d think by the time you’re in your forties, you’d have this somewhat nailed, but nope, thanks to family secrets and family aspirations to whiteness, or some shite. Like my middle name never blew that fantasy up.

Charles Stross’ The Labyrinth Index, nth book in a series I’m long over. I keep reading like an old lover whose time has passed and, yeah, Lovecraft mythos is really creaking on its Zimmer frame these days.

JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters. Very much a favourite author right now. South-East Asia is slaying it in the sci-fi / fantasy lately. I wish these were longer and JY Yang would write more. The so-far trilogy for some reason reminds me of The Water Margin (水滸傳, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), which is, I dunno, about as high praise as you can get from me.

Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Joseph Norman’s The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks. Only two references to Feersum Endjinn. I was broadly disappointed. More so because trying to divide Banks’ work up into skffy / non-skiffy, or sci-fi / non-sci-fi, is never going to work (and I’m not even going to start on the glaring errors referring to The Hydrogen Sonata). Ken McLeod’s essay was beautiful.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping: The Seventh Rivers of London novel. Still holding fast to ‘Harry Potter, a black cop from London estate’. Glad he finally dealt to the Faceless Man, and hope he moves on a bit from this narrative arc (apparently, yes, he is planning to). I’m likely to re-binge this series rather soon, while listing to proper LDN Grime.

Ruth Pearce’s Understanding Trans Health: Discourse, Power and Possibility. Not fun reading. Considering lending to my endocrinologist because he gives a shit but I swear it’s like the last 30 years of ‘progress’ hasn’t happened in Germany. Primarily focussing on the UK and NHS, but I’ve dealt with health systems in several countries around the world (either Euro, or influenced by / aligned with Anglo models), and “Tru dat” was said a lot. Also “Fuck cis people”.

Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few: Wayfarers 3. Reading a lot of series, me. This is the series where nothing much happens, in a rather large universe (of the world-building type, I mean; mostly takes up a small bit of a small bit of a galaxy). I’ll keep reading because for some reason I like the story.

Kevin Martens Wong’s Altered Straits. Currently reading, and had been waiting for this for an age. Trans-dimensional, time-travelling corporeal horror. Once again, South-East Asia, and Singapore bringing it in the sci-fi / fantasy.

Sabine Hossenfelder’s Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. I’ve been reading her blog for years. I kind of talked back to her a lot while reading, particularly of the, “Well, if you’d read history, and get outside a euro-centric model of science and philosophy, maybe some of these ‘intractable’ problems wouldn’t be there in the first place?” A frustrating like.

Tiffany Trent and Stephanie Burgis’s The Underwater Ballroom Society. Plus for the cover, plus also for Ysabeau S. Wilce, a stack of really good stories, probably going to have to read some of these authors.

Victor Mair’s translation of Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu. He of the blog Language Log. Also been reading that for years. And I knew he was all about this stuff, but somehow blind spot assisted me in missing this. I like Zhuangzi heaps, my 404 is not complete without.

I also re-read a bunch of other novels, some Iain Banks, and Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy for the second time, even better than the first.

Reading: Randall Monroe — What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Relativistic Baseball! Spent Fuel Pool! A Mole of Moles! Machine-Gun Jetpack! FedEx Bandwidth! Exclamation key broken1

Those are some of my favourites from the utterly brilliant xkcd‘s What if? And then there were ones I’ve never read! Periodic Wall of Elements! Orbital Submarine! Lost Immortals! Plus Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox!

This is probably the most un-obscure book I’ve bought in almost forever, so there’s not much I can say that’s new, especially as the internetz went into meltdown when it was published. Still, xkcd I’ve been reading for ages and is one of my favourite webcomics, and buying this was a bit impulsive but also like going to see a show of an old friend. I was expecting something not as … well, wow, it’s a beautifully presented book. Large, hardcover, with a very touchable dust jacket, really attentively and attractively laid out (it’s far, far from just a reprint of every What If?), a lot of little details (like the inside of the dust jacket) make it a pleasure of a book. I single-handedly (the other hand was busy eating) devoured it (metaphorically; there was already food in my mouth) in an evening. And had planetary surface-sized sadness when I turned the page and it was already the end.

I seem to read so many books that I think, “Kids would love this!” They’d probably think I’m wholly and embarrassingly out of touch old person. But in the small event I’m not, this is the kind of thing to make someone go off and become an astrophysicist, or geologist, or make comics.

Randall Monroe — What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Monroe — What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

subatomic particle plushies

Oh I want these. Really, really, really…

Julie Peasley makes particle plushies at the Particle Zoo. Quarks, Leptons, Theoretical particles like the Higgs Boson, Force carriers, Nucleons, not forgetting anti-particles, and soon Supersymmetry particles and a Quantum Duck.

I’m torn between my utter love of particle physics and… she has a picture on the bottom of her website of a bubble chamber in action, these spiraling lines are I think my earliest remembered love with such an esoteric branch of science, when I was 9 or 10 I used to stare at these pictures for hours and read over and over the descriptions as if I could divine more from doing this. Possibly a love more strong than I have for astronomy and astrophysics, yet of course inextricable, the latter from this sub-atomic zoo.

And then I’m thinking oh toys! Yes what a wonderful present for someone of any age to be taken by the seductive fascination of particle physics. (I meant all this as a hint.)

And then I’m thinking oh haha plushies, and imagining Top Quarks and Bottom-Quarks in some heavy scene, and the Z-Bosons are the Daddy Bears… mmm beats dressing up as a furry fox.

smashing small thing together really fast

Maybe I should change my blog name to supernaut … i whore for science, I’ve been blogging so much about planetary physics, Mars, other stuff is totally off the art trail. Anyway, particle physics is one of those things that just gets me delirious with excitement, smashing stuff together at the speed of light and watching pretty new things grow in the universe. I was quite surprised that there is an old not so large accelerator in Beijing, that compared to CERN and Fermilab is merely a sleepy backyard playground, but is both fascinating as a historical artifact of communist science and as a low energy collider that is managing to do some impressive research. And then there’s China’s interest in the International Linear Collider.

The energy range of the Beijing collider, 1 to 2.2 billion electron volts per beam, contained a lot of puzzling left-behind physics, including the tau, a sort of superfat electron, for which nature has no obvious purpose, and the so-called J/psi. The J/psi, consisting of a pair of quarks each exhibiting the quantum property known whimsically as charm, set off a revolution and led to Nobel prizes when it was discovered in 1974.

“There is a lot going on in that energy region,” said Frederick A. Harris, a professor of physics at the University of Hawaii, who works often at the Beijing collider. By tuning the energy of their colliding beams, the Chinese researchers have been able to measure the mass of the tau very precisely, as well as carry out detailed studies of the J/psi and similar particles.

In the collider’s energy range, Dr. Chen said simply, “We dominate.”

Among the collider’s achievements, Dr. Harris said, was the most precise measurement yet of a number called “R.” In the so-called standard model, which currently rules particle physics, this parameter measures the likelihood of fireballs produced in the collider to materialize into so-called hadrons, particles made of quarks as opposed to other, simpler particles known as muons. That involved “changing the machine energy 91 times,” explained Dr. Harris.

— New York Times

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