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Archive for September, 2019

When I read ‘The Universe Below‘ by William J. Broad, earlier this month, I fell in love with oceanography and marine life and went and got a few more books on these topics. ‘Citizens of the Sea‘ by Nancy Knowlton was one of them.

Citizens of the Sea‘ is based on the ten year Census of Marine Life research project which was a collaborative effort by scientists from across the world. The aim of the project was to study marine life in the ocean in different parts of the world, classify and document unique marine species, identify new species, attempt to take a census of marine life, and identify the challenges that marine animals face. Nancy Knowlton has used this research as the basis for this book.

The book is divided into many interesting sections. Each section in the book is focused on a particular theme. There are sections on how marine animals are discovered, identified and named, how appearances are important for them and how these evolved across time, how marine animals travel across the ocean, how they make friends and fight with enemies, how they find their partners, mate and raise their young ones, how humans are threatening their way of life now – these and other fascinating topics are explored in each section. As the book is published by National Geographic, the book is filled with stunning photographs in every page. They are so amazing and an absolute pleasure to look at. Many of my favourites were featured in the book – I was so happy to see the Coelacanth, which was thought extinct millions of years ago before it was rediscovered again, the Orange Roughy, which lives till the great age of 125 years and which was featured in a chapter aptly titled ‘Methuselahs of the Deep‘, and the Fugu fish, which is famous in Japan. There were many amazing facts which were mentioned in the book. One of my favourites was about fishes like the blue-headed wrasse, anemone fish and the hamlet, which change their gender when it suits them, sometimes while mating, sometimes during parenting. I smiled when I read this sentence – “Paternity tests sometimes reveal that a father has become a mother” 🙂 There are many amazing facts like this on every page.

I am sharing some of the pages of the book, so that you can get a feel for it.

Sarcastic Fringehead Fish (doesn’t she / he look sad?)

Barrelhead Fish (doesn’t she / he look sad and adorable?)

Fish Farmers (aka Damselfish)

How Fishes Do Parenting (or How Mom becomes Dad and Dad becomes Mom)

I loved ‘Citizens of the Sea‘. It is a beautiful book filled with amazing facts and stunning photographs. It is a must read if you are an ocean / marine life enthusiast.

Have you read ‘Citizens of the Sea‘? What do you think about it?

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After reading a couple of books by Yasunari Kawabata, I thought I’ll read a book by Yukio Mishima. I picked ‘Thirst for Love‘.

First a few words on Yukio Mishima. Mishima was one of the great Japanese writers of the twentieth century. He was also one of the most handsome. He wrote many books, including novels and plays. His most famous books are probably ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion‘ and ‘The Sea of Fertility‘ tetralogy, which is regarded as his magnum opus. He was expected to win the Nobel Prize for literature during his lifetime, but he didn’t. He died at the young age of forty-five, by committing Sepukku (or Harakiri as it is popularly known).

Now about the book.

Etsuko is a young woman and the main character in the story. When she loses her husband, her father-in-law Yakichi invites her to come and live in his farm with his other two grown-up children. Yakichi’s son and daughter live with him in different parts of the house and help out in the farm. They are both married and have children. Yakichi used to work in a shipping company and when he retired he was the President of the company. After retiring, he decides to move to the countryside and buy a farm and manage it. His wife and children oppose that move, but then they move with him and now help him out in the farm. Yakichi’s wife passes away after a few years. When Etsuko moves into her father-in-law’s house, she is given a special status by him, which annoys his two children. But they still try to be friendly with her. After a while, Yakichi starts making advances on Etsuko. While these things are going on, Etsuko is attracted towards Saburo, who is a servant and gardener who is working there. To complicate things further, the cook and maid Miyo loves Saburo. How these feelings of different characters evolve and how the complex events of the story unfold is told in the rest of the book.

This is my first proper Yukio Mishima book. Though I have read parts of ‘The Temple of the Golden Pavilion‘, I couldn’t finish reading it then. So I didn’t know what to expect. Though I was expecting that the story would be a bit dark, based on past experience. It is. We experience the story most of the time through Etsuko’s eyes and so we empathize with her. Though sometimes the point of view changes, we continue to be on ‘Team Etsuko’. But as the complex story evolves and one thing leads to another, at some point we are no longer sure what to think. The characters in the story, including our favourite Etsuko, are complex, imperfect, flawed, real. When we read about Etsuko’s feelings towards Saburo and Saburo’s simple-minded ignorance and response to that – it is so beautifully expressed by Mishima. Yakichi’s eldest son Kensuke and Kensuke’s wife Chieko come through initially as two characters who gossip and plot behind other people’s backs, but as we continue reading our heart warms up to them. One of my favourite conversations in the story happens between them. It goes like this.

Chieko : “You don’t have it quite straight. I meant you were a plain, ordinary man of the house.”

Kensuke : “Ordinary? Wonderful! The highest point at which human life and art meet is in the ordinary. To look down on the ordinary is to despise what you can’t have. Show me a man who fears being ordinary, and I’ll show you a man who is not yet a man. The earliest days of the haiku, before Basho, before Shiki, were filled with the vigor of an age in which the spirit of the ordinary had not died.”

Chieko : “Yes, and your haiku show the ordinary at its highest point of development.”

The other characters in the story are also well fleshed out including Yakichi, Saburo and Miyo. A complex story like this will have a complex ending. Yukio Mishima ensures that it does. I won’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book to find out.

I enjoyed reading ‘Thirst for Love‘. I am glad I finally read my first Mishima book. I can’t wait to read more. I am sharing below some of my favourite passages from the book. Mishima’s prose is very beautiful and very different from Kawabata’s. Read it for yourself and tell me whether you find it different.

“She was not religious, yet like devoutly religious women, Etsuko found in the emptiness of her hopes the purest of meanings…Not thinking about things was the basis of Etsuko’s contentment. It was her reason for being.”

“A feeling of liberation should contain a bracing feeling of negation, in which liberation itself is not negated. In the moment a captive lion steps out of his cage, he possesses a wider world than the lion who has known only the wilds. While he was in captivity, there were only two worlds to him – the world of the cage, and the world outside the cage. Now he is free. He roars. He attacks people. He eats them. Yet he is not satisfied, for there is no third world that is neither the world of the cage nor the world outside the cage.”

“In those three short days of Saburo’s absence, the feeling that developed with his absence – whatever the feeling – was to me entirely new. As a gardener who, after long care and toil, holds in his hand a marvelous peach, hefts the weight of it, and feels the joy of it, so I felt the weight of his absence in my hand and reveled in it. It would not be true to say that those three days were lonely. To me his absence was a plump, fresh weight. That was joy! Everywhere in the house I perceived his absence – in the yard, in the workroom, in the kitchen, in his bedroom.”

Have you read Yukio Mishima’sThirst for Love‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Mishima book?

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My second Yasunari Kawabata book in succession. This time it is ‘Thousand Cranes‘. The edition I read has been translated by Edward Seidensticker, who also translated the great Murasaki Shikibu’sThe Tale of Genji‘, the world’s first novel. So I was doubly excited!

In ‘Thousand Cranes‘, a twenty-five year old man is invited for a tea ceremony, by his father’s former mistress. His father has passed away recently. Of course, this kind of meeting never goes as expected. In this particular meeting, another of his father’s mistresses turns up unexpectedly. And then, as happens in a typical Kawabata book, this leads to the Pandora’s Box being opened and all kinds of unexpected surprises start happening. You should read the book to find out what happened next 🙂

Thousand Cranes‘ is vintage Kawabata. It is slim at around 100 pages. There is an unexpected meeting at the beginning, which leads to unexpected events orchestrated by interesting, imperfect characters, which leads to an unexpected ending. I loved the depiction of the relationship between two of the main characters, Kikuji and Fumiko. For want of a better word, I’ll call it a beautiful love story, with lots of things unsaid. I was hoping that this love story would have a happy ending, but Kawabata-San does something strange in the end and I can’t tell whether it was happy or sad. Kawabata’s prose is lyrical and delicate and the description of the Japanese tea ceremony and the way it is intertwined with the story, is a pleasure to read.

I enjoyed reading ‘Thousand Cranes‘. This is the last Yasunari Kawabata book in my collection. Hoping to add more of his books to my collection and read them.

Have you read ‘Thousand Cranes‘? What do you think about it?

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I read my first Yasunari Kawabata book a couple of years back. It was called ‘Snow Country‘. I thought it was time to read my next Kawabata book now. I picked ‘Beauty and Sadness‘.

In ‘Beauty and Sadness‘, a middle aged writer in his fifties, who lives in Tokyo, decides to travel to Kyoto and spend the New Year Eve there. He wants to ring in the New Year Eve there by listening to the bells of the temples. He also has another agenda there. He hopes to meet his former lover who lives there. She is a painter and she is famous, and they haven’t met in nearly twenty four years. Of course, this kind of search for the past is always beset with danger. It opens a Pandora’s Box and one thing leads to another and – well, read the book to find out what happens next 🙂

Beauty and Sadness‘ is a slim book at around 140 pages. I read it in a day. Yasunari Kawabata’s prose is lyrical and flows serenely like a river. His descriptions of nature and art are beautiful and delicate. The characters who make their appearance in the story are complex and imperfect and flawed and beautiful and endlessly fascinating. No one can accuse Kawabata of creating simple, caricature-ish characters – his characters are all real flesh-and-blood human beings with real feelings and imperfections. I wasn’t sure about the ending of the book and why it was the way it was. Sometimes it is hard to understand the ending of a story.

I enjoyed reading ‘Beauty and Sadness‘. I can’t wait to read my next Kawabata book, hopefully ‘Thousand Cranes‘. I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Time passed. But time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time will flow rapidly at some places and sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”

Have you read Yasunari Kawabata’sBeauty and Sadness‘? What do you think about it?

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I have read a few John Gribbin books and loved them all. His book about quantum theory, ‘In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat‘, is a classic. I have had ‘Deep Simplicity‘ with me for a long time. I thought it was time to take it out and read it for ‘Science September‘.

In ‘Deep Simplicity‘, John Gribbin talks about Chaos theory. I remember during my student days one of my classmates was reading about it and he was planning to apply it in his research on business cycles. I don’t know whether he was able to do that and whether he came out with interesting predictions which came true. That was probably the first time that I had heard about Chaos theory. In essence, as John Gribbin describes it, Chaos theory is simple. It tries to study systems which start with simple origins but result in complex patterns and behaviour. And it also tries to study what happens if some minor changes are made at the start. The conclusion is that minor changes in the initial conditions will lead to complex, unbelievable changes later. That is all there is to Chaos theory. Because it is an interdisciplinary field with applications across different areas like physics, chemistry, biology, geology, economics, the stock market, traffic movement and weather forecasting, there are many different techniques and ways of studying how real world systems behave, when they evolve from simple origins to complex futures. John Gribbin describes some of these across these different fascinating fields. He describes the beauty of fractals and how they are observed in the real world in surprising ways. He talks about something called the ‘power law’ and describes how it amazes us by manifesting itself in the real world in surprising ways. Gribbin is strong when he talks about physics and its related areas because it is his field, but he also spends considerable time in biology, the evolution of life and the extinction of dinosaurs and other species. It is very fascinating to read.

I enjoyed reading ‘Deep Simplicity‘. John Gribbin gives a beautiful guided tour of physics in the initial chapters before delving into other branches of science and other fields, while exploring Chaos theory. It is not an easy read, because it demands close attention and contemplation, but it is a rewarding read.

I am giving below the first couple of passages from the introduction to the book which sets the tone for the rest of the book, so that you can get a flavour for the subject and also experience Gribbin’s style.

“The world around us seems to be a complex place. Although there are some simple truths that seem to be eternal (apples always fall to the ground, not to the sky; the Sun rises in the east, never in the west), our lives, in spite of modern technology, are still, all too often, at the mercy of complicated processes that produce dramatic changes out of the blue. Weather forecasting is still as much an art as a science; earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike unpredictably, and seemingly at random; stock-market fluctuations continue to produce boom and bust with no obvious pattern to them. From the time of Galileo (in round numbers, the beginning of the seventeenth century) science made progress – enormous progress – largely by ignoring these complexities, and focusing on the simple questions, looking to explain why apples fall to the ground, and why the Sun rises in the east. Progress was so spectacular, indeed, that by about the middle of the twentieth century all the simple questions had been answered. Concepts such as the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics explained the overall workings of the Universe on the very large and very small scales respectively, while the discovery of the structure of DNA and the way in which it is copied from generation to generation made life itself, and evolution, seem simple at the molecular level. And yet, the complexity of the world at the human level – at the level of life – remained. The most interesting question of all, the question of how life could have emerged from non-life, remained unanswered.
It is no surprise that the most complex features of the Universe, which proved most reluctant to yield to the traditional methods of scientific investigation, should exist on our scale. Indeed, we may be the most complex things there are in the Universe. The reason is that on smaller scales entities such as individual atoms behave in a relatively simple way in their one-to-one interactions, and that complicated and interesting things are produced when many atoms are linked together in complicated and interesting ways, to make things like people. But this process cannot continue indefinitely, since if more and more atoms are joined together, their total mass increases to the point where gravity crushes all the interesting structure out of existence. An atom, or even a simple molecule like water, is simpler than a human being because it has little internal structure; a star, or the interior of a planet, is simpler than a human being because gravity crushes any structure out of existence. And that is why science can tell us more about the behaviour of atoms and the internal workings of the stars than it can about the way people behave.”

Have you read ‘Deep Simplicity‘ by John Gribbin? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell at a secondhand books sale a few years back. It was an old copy and the individual pages were coming off. I finally took it out of my bookshelf and turned the pages delicately and read it.

I was expecting the book to be about how science is important to society – on how we all need to have a scientific temper, how we should follow the scientific process and method and use facts and logical analysis to arrive at conclusions. This book, interestingly, was different. It was about how society evolved from ancient times, when people believed in received information and words of wisdom and how this changed in recent centuries after the advent of science. Then Bertrand Russell touches on how science has impacted everyday life and work and the economy and war and how science impacts different political structures like democracies and totalitarian systems and how science impacts our values. Russell talks about both the positive and negative impacts of science in all these areas. Then Russell goes on to imagine what the future has in store. When Russell talks about science, he is mostly talking about what he calls ‘scientific technique’, which is what we call ‘technology’ today. The factual and historical parts of the book were wonderful. Some of Russell’s analysis and predictions and vision for the future feels dated, but that is to expected because this book came out in 1952, and it was the beginning of the Cold War era, and the world was a different place then. But the things that Russell gets right are amazing, because those insights apply very much to our modern world. Russell prose is simple and straightforward and he writes with clear, simple logic, taking an argument from first principles and leading it forward. He is not scared of offering unconventional opinions and arriving at unconventional conclusions based on where the facts and logic take him, and we understand why his own countrymen were uncomfortable with him during his time, because he calls a spade a spade. Interestingly, this is the first proper book by Bertrand Russell that I have read. I don’t know why I haven’t read his work before, because I really like his writing. I am hoping to read more of his books.

I am giving below one of my favourite passages from the book which feels true even today, though it talks about a different time.

“…even in a country like our own, where industrialism is old, changes occur with a rapidity which is psychologically difficult. Consider what has happened during my life-time. When I was a child telephones were new and very rare. During my first visit to America I did not see a single motor-car. I was 39 when I first saw an aeroplane. Broadcasting and the cinema have made the life of the young profoundly different from what it was during my own youth. As for public life, when I first became politically conscious Gladstone and Disraeli still confronted each other amid Victorian solidities, the British Empire seemed eternal, a threat to British naval supremacy was unthinkable, the country was aristocratic and rich and growing richer, and Socialism was regarded as the fad of a few disgruntled and disreputable foreigners.
For an old man, with such a background, it is difficult to feel at home in a world of atomic bombs, communism, and American supremacy. Experience, formerly a help in the acquisition of political sagacity, is now a positive hindrance, because it was acquired in such different conditions. It is now scarcely possible for a man to acquire slowly the sort of wisdom which in former times caused ‘elders’ to be respected, because the lessons of experience become out of date as fast as they are learnt. Science, while it has enormously accelerated outward change, has not yet found any way of hastening psychological change, especially where the unconscious and subconscious are concerned. Few men’s unconscious feels at home except in conditions very similar to those which prevailed when they were children.”

Have you read ‘The Impact of Science on Society‘ by Bertrand Russell? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Russell book?

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I discovered ‘The Universe Below‘ by William J. Broad when I read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, years ago. I got Broad’s book at that time, and after it had spent many years in my bookshelf, I decided to read it now for ‘Science September‘.

As the title describes, this book is about the deep part of the ocean. We would expect that it would be about the deep ocean and its shape and structure and about the strange and wonderful denizens who live there. It is about all these things, but the book also talks about other things, unexpected things. Let me explain.

The book is divided into seven chapters. Each chapter touches on a particular topic. The first chapter is about how the deep parts of the ocean were explored and how some of their secrets were discovered and how some of their wonderful denizens came ashore and amazed people, while other amazing inhabitants were discovered during underwater explorations. This chapter stretches to around 30 pages, and in my opinion, it was the best part of the book. It was definitely my favourite part. The second chapter talks about how the American Navy explored the ocean’s deep and used that knowledge to fight against its Cold War enemies. There is one chapter which talks about volcanic vents in the ocean floor and how they were discovered to be harbouring bacteria and other living beings which survived in conditions of extreme heat. The author also talks about his own trip to the ocean bed with scientists who were studying volcanic vents. Successive chapters talk about these – about ships which had sunk into the ocean and how treasure hunters and archaeologists and historians and scientists were trying to recover them now, how the supposed treasures in the ocean were being exploited by people and organizations and governments or how these denizens tried exploiting them, and how wastes were dumped into the ocean, especially radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors, and how that might have an adverse effect on marine life and their environment.

So, as you can see, the book is not just about oceanography and marine life, but it is also about many about things related to the ocean. The author has tried to focus on one topic in each chapter and so there is something in it for everyone. If your favourite is sunken treasure or sunken ships like the Titanic, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite is microbes which live in extremely hot deep sea volcanic vents, there is a chapter on it. If your favourite topic is fishes like the Coelacanth which were assumed to have gone extinction millions of years ago until they were discovered again recently, there is a chapter on it. My own favourites were the chapters on oceanography and deep sea life. I also found interesting the chapter on the American Navy’s involvement in the deep sea, because it talked about the evolution of a lot of new technology which was invented and used by the Navy, and which was later used by scientific organizations for deep sea research. The chapter about the exploitation of the deep sea was heartbreaking, especially when I discovered that some of the fish which are caught in the deep sea by fishing companies and which might be moving towards extinction, are like humans – they grow slowly and they live till a great age, like a hundred years or more. Human greed knows no bounds. The chapter on how governments dumped radioactive waste into the ocean was also heartbreaking. There was one particular passage which talked about how the American Navy used to dump radioactive waste stuffed in steel drums into the ocean not far from the coast, and when some of the drums refused to sink, the Navy pumped them with bullets and sea water entered those barrels and they sunk. It is hard to stop ourselves from asking the question, “What kind of idiot does that? Isn’t that drum filled with radioactive waste?” The Russians seem to have done even better – they dumped whole nuclear submarines and nuclear reactors into the ocean! Our hearts just seethe with anger at all the idiots in the different governments who did stuff like this.

I found ‘The Universe Below’ quite fascinating. It has lots of interesting information on the ocean from different perspectives, with lots of insights on humans’ engagement with the ocean. William Broad’s prose is engaging and moves at a smooth pace. The book doesn’t have any photographs, but Dimitry Schidlovsky’s black-and-white sketches, which look like a combination of line drawings and stippling art (drawing using dots), are beautiful and gorgeous and they are decked throughout the book like stars. The book made me want to explore the science of oceanography sometime.

Have you read William J. Broad’sThe Universe Below‘? What do you think about it?

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