is for Physics, as in the branch of science. Physics is not the same word as Psychics, despite what my students said.
Remember, I’m an engineer, an aerospace engineer no less. I did a lot of physics back in my undergraduate degree. I taught a lot of physics in my days of high school teaching. I still like to revisit the physics now and again. It is also fun to mix physics with theology and shake a little and see what comes out. I know, I know. I’m a geek.
Alister McGrath is a mix-master of science and theology. He has a science doctorate (his research was in molecular biophysics) and a doctorate of divinity, both from Oxford University. He has written extensively on the interaction between science and theology and I find his stuff very interesting. He wrote a three-volume work called A Scientific Theology which I read with interest. It is full of really interesting science as well as interesting theology. I imagine that for theologians without some background in science or scientists without some background in theology the set might be (at times) unreadable. It is not easy reading even with background in both areas. McGrath also published a primer on his three volumes called The Science of God. That is a more accessible place to start than page 1, volume 1 of A Scientific Theology — in case you decide to check it out.
I also read straight physics from time to time because it is still interesting to me. I can’t keep up with really technical articles at this point, but like to read things like A Brief History of Time or other popular books. James Gleick’s Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman on my shelf. I used to have Feynman’s memoirs as well, but have no idea what happened to my copies. They disappeared, along with the history of mathematics book I once had. I’ve also got old physics textbooks stored away in a box. I can’t quite get rid of the piece of my past. Fluid dynamics calls to me from time to time. Then I get bogged down in the calculus and go back to theology. My way of combining the two (as McGrath has done) has not yet become clear, but it will. Sometime. Surely.
Today’s post, brought to you by the letter
is all about finding books on the Internet — because I is for Internet.
Obviously, I write this blog about books thinking that people might find it helpful in figuring out what to read next, and this blog is on the internet, so the internet MUST be a helpful source of information to figure out what to read next, right? Yes and no.
Let’s start with No so we move in a positive direction. In the past when I’ve followed advice from internet-people-I-don’t-know, I’ve been disappointed. In a usenet group I read a positive comparison between Codex, by Lev Grossman to Possession (which is my selection for The Best Book Ever). It turns out the comparison between Codex and Possession was made in the New York Times Book Review and did not originate with the person who continued the comparison in the usenet group. All I have to say to the reviewer is You Must Be Joking. And: Have You Read Possession? Possession has a depth to it that Codex certainly does not have. Codex barely sustained one reading let alone the multiple readings I’ve subjected Possession to. There are some similarities in subject matter, but there the similarities end. I was thoroughly disappointed in Codex and am surprised it is still in print. This bad experience means a few things. (a) I’m suspicious of recommendations from people I don’t know in usenet groups. (b) I’m really conflicted about trying Grossman’s later books — which look interesting — because of the bad earlier work. (c) No one should ever compare books with Possession. IMHO of course.
On the other hand, Yes, I’ve found the internet helpful in figuring out what to read next. I use the fantastic fiction site regularly to keep up with favourite authors, and to find out which book comes next in the series I just found. This is the website that alerted me to the fact that Margaret Atwood and Kate Atkinson contributed stories to the same collection called Crimespotters. I ran out and read Crimespotters and quite enjoyed it. I also use the LibraryThing recommendation lists. I think there are flaws in the recommendation algorithm at LibraryThing and you do have to be a member with some books entered for this to work (I think) but it gives me a sense of what people-with-books-like-mine have in their collections. Then there are social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Last year the Toronto Public Library FB page offered to recommend books if people sent them three books they really liked a lot. I did this. It took a while for the TPL staffers to get back to me — I think they probably got flooded with requests — but the list they sent was helpful. And I liked the books they recommended.
What about right now? Has the Internet recommended any books to me lately? Yes. And I’m of two minds about the recommendation. On the NPR site is a new blog post by Lev Grossman recommending books for one’s inner geek. I classify myself as a geek. I’m suspicious of Lev Grossman (see above). Reading a blog post isn’t too much of a commitment, so I clicked on the short link in Twitter. Grossman recommends three books: Possession (which I love), Snow Crash (which I also love, but which is so different from Possession), and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, which is on my to-be-read shelf. Rats. I think I might take Grossman’s advice and read Fifth Business. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
Neal Stephenson writes hard-to-classify books, all having to do with economics, history, and technology in some kind of combination. I’ve heard seen Stephenson’s writing called “Baroque“, and I find the description helpful; do with that what you will. In terms of genre, I don’t think most people would call Cryptonomicon historical fiction, though it does have historical elements. I’ve found Cryptonomicon in the regular fiction and science fiction sections of bookshops. I’d say it is a thriller, but it doesn’t quite move as quickly as most thrillers do. Let’s just agree that the book is History With A Twist.
I first heard of Stephenson from a student back when I tutored mathematics for income while at Seminary. This student said to me: “You like reading and computers, right?” I agreed that I did. “And you are into religion, right?” Yes, also true. “You’ve gotta read this book, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. It is awesome.” The kid was right. It IS an awesome book. It took me a while to find it as I was looking for a book by someone called Neil Stevenson, but eventually I got the picture. Then I started reading Stephenson as he (slowly) produced new material. Cryptonomicon (1999) starts in WW2 but it also jumps forward to the present/near future. It is a very long book, and while you can easily see that the characters in the WW2 segment are related to the characters in the present/near future (the last names are a giveaway), it isn’t clear exactly how the whole thing is going to come together. I had no idea at all where this was going the first time I read it. It becomes clearer with each re-reading, and so it has the hallmarks of good literature (according to Lewis). Cryptonomicon is connected to Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy, more clearly historical fiction, which includes Isaac Newton of physics fame as a key character. Stephenson’s brand of history is history with a twist. I’m not sure how else to describe it. There is a thread of the fantastic that runs through both the trilogy and Cryptonomicon which is hard to describe. That fantastic thread is not really ever resolved or clarified. It remains a mystery to both the characters in the book and to the reader. It makes the whole thing much more interesting.
I’ve read Cryptonomicon 6 times, far more than I’ve re-read any other Stephenson book. This one appeals because it is full of grace, has really interesting things to say about theology and redemption, and takes me to the places described. And I like the characters and want to spend time with them again. The tech element in the book is mostly about codes and code-breaking and computation power. The key characters are mostly geeks, though there are also USMC-type soldier and ex-soldier characters. One of the Marines also writes haiku. And is named Bobby Shaftoe. This is appealing to me. The history element is set in an alternative WW2 (no atom bombs in the story), and the economics has to do with gold and backing currency. Read it — but remember, it takes a certain amount of patience. You’ll find out where it goes eventually, trust me.
I like lists. So here are links to two lists that I quite enjoyed this week:
9 Essential Geek Books You Must Read Right Now
These Are the Greatest Geek Books of All Time – Readers Say
I don’t quite qualify as a Geek as I haven’t read all of the books. I’ve only read 10/18. That is barely a passing grade. One is on my to-be-read list, but 11/18 is still only 61%. Once I’ve read Ender’s Game then I’ll be 61% Geek I guess.
Any guesses on which ones I’ve read? C’mon, you know you want to.