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This book arrived today morning. I read the first page and the first few pages, and they all went over my head. I don’t know why I keep getting into these things. I thought that I have read many popular science books on quantum mechanics, and I thought that if I picked a textbook and started reading, the knowledge I gain will be more deep and it will be the kind of knowledge scientists acquire. But when I opened the book, it looked at me with contempt and laughed at me. And it threw all these complicated equations at me. I should have guessed when I first discovered this textbook. When I saw ‘Springer’ on the cover, all kinds of alarm bells rang in my mind. Springer books are classics, but they are hard and inaccessible to a normal person. They are meant for professionals and scientists in the field and for masters and doctoral candidates who study in premier institutes. Not for the likes of me. I use a simple rule while buying textbooks. I look at different textbooks online, I don’t ask people who know about it because I like discovering stuff myself, and if there is more than one book on the subject, I pick the biggest, thickest one. My reasoning here is that both thin and thick textbooks cover the same material, and if a book is bigger, it is because the author has taken more time and space and explained things better. I did the same thing here. Other quantum mechanics books were around 500 pages and Florian Scheck’s was around 700 pages. So I assumed that Florian Scheck has taken time and explained things in simple language. But my assumption was wrong, and it is Florian Scheck’s book 1 – Vishy 0.

In addition to the fact that it was published by Springer, which sent the alarm bells ringing, there were other clues that the book offered. If I had looked properly, I would have discovered them. For example, the author Florian Scheck is German. His name is a dead giveaway, of course. This book was initially written in German and it was used in German universities by German students for many years. It was translated into English only recently. A book written by a German professor / scientist for German scientists and students – well, it is a book which is going to laugh at punks at me. Florian Scheck also seems to be an old fashioned German professor – he loves classical music, his dad was a classical musician and he is deep into high-end physics in a way which someone like me can’t comprehend. He made me think of the great German scientists like Max Planck, who was an amazing scientist and loved classical music and performed classical music compositions when he had invited scientists for dinner. Of course, we have our dear old Einstein too, who loved playing the violin. Physicists playing classical music is a very German thing. Playing classical music and doing amazing research which is outside the realm of understanding of most of us science fans who are not scientists – this is a very German thing. I think I’ll put this book in the next room, light a lamp or candle and pray that one day it decides to be kind and come down to my level. I also hope that my mathematical muscle gets stronger that one day I can pick this up and read the first page, and understand it, and hopefully progress till page 10 or page 50. I will be happy if I can do that. Till then, I will keep to my George Gamov, Bill Bryson, John Gribbin, Christophe Galfard and occasionally dip into Roger Penrose.

Lots of admiration and love for all my scientist friends who keep reading stuff like this everyday, like it was a romance novel or cozy crime mystery! I admire you all very much!

Do you try reading a textbook when you like a particular subject? Or do you keep to popular books on the subject? How has your experience been? Do share.

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I discovered Scarlett Thomas’ books through fellow book blogger Bina from If You Can Read This, who recommended Thomas’ ‘PopCo’. I read ‘PopCo’ and loved it. Then I got to know about Thomas’ ‘The End of Mr.Y’ from Bina’s review of it. I got the book and read the first chapter and found it quite fascinating. I kept it for a rainy day, but the book ended up being in my shelf and spending a quiet life there. (It has been exactly a year since I got the book which is a really uncanny coincidence!) Then more recently I read a review by Steph from Steph and Tony Investigate, and Steph gushed about the book. It tempted me to get the book from the shelf and read it immediately. Then Jo from Bibliojunkie said that she was planning to host a readalong for this book, and I couldn’t resist joining in. I finished reading it yesterday, and I loved it. Here is what I think.

 

 

What I think

 

‘The End of Mr.Y’ is about Ariel Manto who is doing her Ph.D in thought experiments, with specific focus on a Victorian writer called Thomas Lumas and his book ‘The End of Mr.Y’, which is mysterious book which seems to carry a curse with it and no known copy of this book is available. Her guide Saul Burlem disappears from the university one day and no one knows what has happened to him. Ariel is not assigned a new guide though, and she continues doing her research in her original area of interest. Then one day one of the buildings in her campus collapses, because the tunnel which runs below the building collapses. Ariel walks home and while doing that she ends up in a second-hand bookshop. After browsing for sometime, she asks the bookshop assistant whether they have any of Thomas Lumas’ books. Ariel is in luck. The bookshop assistant shows her a box which is filled with books of Lumas. And, surprise, surprise, it has ‘The End of Mr.Y’! Ariel reads it and discovers that it shows a way to travel to a different reality where one can enter the minds of others. But for doing this one needs a concoction and the page which describes this concoction is missing. By this time, Ariel is obsessed with the idea of entering other’s minds and tries to search for the concoction. By luck, she finds the torn page in one of Burlem’s books in his room. Then she reads on how to make the concoction and travels to a different reality. While in this alternate reality, Ariel discovers that there are villains chasing her, who seem to want to either kill her or know the secret of the concoction from her. The adventures she has in this alternate reality, the people she meets, the creatures she helps, the people who save her, how she falls in love, the secrets she finds about Burlem and Lumas and the real world and what she does to save the world form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The End of Mr.Y’. I loved it first because of the underlying concept – that one can travel to an alternate reality and travel to other people’s minds and travel across time through those minds. And one can do that by having a simple concoction – how awesome is that! In some ways this book reminded me of the movies which have stories based on getting into an alternate reality by connecting oneself into a machine or through a video game – like ‘The Matrix’, ‘eXistenZ’, ‘The Game’ and ‘Tron’. Even ‘Avatar’. I also loved the book because of the way Scarlett Thomas makes concepts like deconstruction, poststructuralism, the existence of God, Big Bang Theory, Theory of Relativity, Four dimensional Spacetime, the Mobius Strip, Quantum Mechanics, the Uncertainty Principle, Homeopathy and the works of people like  Einstein, Heisenberg, Derrida, Baudrillard and Samuel Butler accessible to the general reader, without oversimplifying the complexity. I discovered this aspect of Thomas’ writing while reading ‘PopCo’ where Thomas takes the reader into mathematics and cryptography, and in ‘The End of Mr.Y’, Thomas goes even further and covers a wide range of subjects. I think that is a wonderful strength of the book. However, if one is not used to reading about a lot of science or philosophy in a novel, this might put off some readers. It worked for me wonderfully though.

 

What follows is probably a spoiler. But I couldn’t resist discussing about this. So, if you are planning to read this book, please be forewarned.

 

One of the interesting things that I learnt from the book was how if we assume that the Big Bang Theory is correct (which most scientists think is), then there should either be a God or there should be many worlds / universes with parallel realities. I haven’t heard of this interpretation before and it made me think. The logic behind this interpretation goes like this : one of the interpretations of quantum mechanics says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist in a particular position or in a particular state, till an observer sees it. It is supposed to exist in what scientists call a ‘Collapsible Wave Function’ – having many forms at the same time. When an observer sees it, the subatomic particle takes up a particular state, position and has a particular velocity. The effect of observation by an observer, determines all these things. This is supported by quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and has been proven by experiments. The Big Bang Theory says that in the beginning the universe was small like a subatomic particle and had infinite mass, which was called a singularity. Then it exploded into the Big Bang and has become the universe as we know it. The argument goes that this subatomic particle-like-singularity would have existed as a collapsible wave function and for it to explode or assume a position or a state or a velocity, an external observer should have observed it. This observer could probably be God. I found this explanation quite interesting, because I haven’t heard of it before. This seems to be the strongest supporting argument for the existence of God that I have read. Are the religious guys listening? 🙂

 

The alternate explanation says that a subatomic particle doesn’t exist as an unresolved wave function before it is observed, but it exists in different states in parallel universes. When an observer observes it, he / she sees one of the states. So at the time of the Big Bang, the primordial subatomic particle, the singularity existed in many different states in different universes, and when it exploded, it resulted in many parallel universes at the same time.

 

From the little I know, scientists avoid questions on what happened before the Big Bang or how it came about (by saying that time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, which I feel is a totally unsatisfying explanation and a cop out) and try to not talk about the ‘Many Worlds / Universes’ interpretation. To prove logically that either one of two controversial possibilities has to exist, was quite something to me. I need to read more on this.

 

There is also a lot of roaring sex in the book, which one expects from a typical Scarlett Thomas novel now. Thomas is also not afraid of using four-letter words and while some readers might find this a bit off-putting, Thomas seems to say implicitly that she can write about such things as well as anyone else.

 

I didn’t know how to react to the ending of the story – Scarlett Thomas herself says this about the ending : “Ian (Stewart) warned me that because of its epilogue, this novel could be read as a ‘shaggy God story’. In the end, I decided to risk it and left it in.” I am not able to say whether the ending is happy or sad – maybe it was bittersweet. It reminded me of the endings of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Fountain’. If you liked the endings of these movies, you will love the ending of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ too.

 

I made a list of things that I want to do, after I read ‘The End of Mr.Y’. This list has these items right now :

  1. Read Scarlett Thomas’ ‘Our Tragic Universe’
  2. Read ‘Flatland : A Romance of Many Dimensions’ by Edwin Abbot
  3. Explore on the Big Bang and the Many Worlds theory
  4. Read a VSI or a graphic novel introduction to Derrida
  5. Explore some of the works of Samuel Butler

Other reviews

 

Here are links to other reviews of ‘The End of Mr.Y’ that I liked. I have borrowed the idea of providing excerpts from reviews, from other bloggers – Thanks for the inpsiration, friends!

 

Bina’s Review – “The End of Mr. Y, like PopCo, is mainly a novel of ideas. Sure, the plot moves fast enough, but Thomas throws in wild mix of topics ranging from Derrida to quantum physics. This is the part I loved best, Thomas has the ability to explore complex ideas but still keep the action going…The quest for reality, God and love spans the whole novel. The beginning is a quick introduction to the relevant thinkers and theories, and with then really gains momentum with Ariel’s travel to the Troposphere. From then on you can never be quite sure what is real and what is not; there is the novel within the novel, a reality within reality, and there is so much talk about thought experiments that no one can miss that novel one is holding is one big thought experiment in itself. As Ariel says, “let me become part of a book”.”

 

Steph’s Review – “Most of the objects of my Sapphic affection tend to be these really brilliant brainy ladies (who have kick-ass senses of humor), so it should come as no surprise that I am now inducting Scarlett Thomas into my club of “Women I Would Go Gay For”…I really love the way Thomas infuses her novels with philosophy and physics…, how she isn’t afraid to tackle big questions and intellectually demanding concepts. In this book there was this whole discussion on the concept of multiple universes and how it relates to the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics that kind of just blew my mind in the very best possible way. It is really gratifying to find an author who is not only convinced that her readers are capable of intense thought and contemplation but practically demands that of them.”

 

Jo’s Review – “I am attracted to this book because of its cover. Nothing else…One of the things that put me off about the book though was that it was rude and shocking at parts…I like the fact that the book is indeed ambitious, ingenious and abstract that makes me as a reader, thinks about the relationships between all those complex ideas introduced. Scarlett Thomas is a writer in her own league and I admire her for that.”

 

Jenny’s Review – “As a thought experiment it was extremely interesting; as a story it was also quite interesting, and I enjoyed it in both capacities. Though I will say that in its capacity as a story (leaving out its thought-experiment-ness), the longish expository segment with Ariel and Lura and Burlem was very – well. Longish. And very very expository. Distressingly so. I used up a lot of my brain paying attention to it and forgot all about the story.”

 

Leeswammes’ review –  “The solution of why certain scientific discoveries have been made was interesting, very clever…There was a lot of scientific discussion, a bit too much for me. Luckily, I have an interest in popular science and most of what was discussed wasn’t new to me. I can imagine that some people might find this slow to read and hard to understand. In the end, I did enjoy reading the book and when I closed it I was satisfied that I’d read a good book.”

 

If you like an intellectual novel bursting with ideas, you will love ‘The End of Mr.Y’.

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