Monday, June 14, 2010

The Intrepid Naturalist and Insinuations of Irrationality

Staring into the very heart of imponderables

You wouldn't just start out running a marathon without lots of preparation and practice. Bear with me, because I personally have no idea of how one might run a marathon. My point is, you start small and work your way up to a challenge, right?

I've been exercising my brain with lots and lots of sudoku, which is popularly supposed to help out the function of aging brains. Just so you don't think I'm making this stuff up, I checked out an Newsweek article on a study in The American Journal Geriatric Psychiatry, which suggests that "Sudoku, a logic puzzle, along with regular exercise and a low-fat diet are good for your mind and body. Those individuals who combined exercise and a healthy diet with mental exercises and stress reduction techniques showed significant improvements in both their brain functions and metabolism. (Newsweek; 6/12/2006, Vol. 147 Issue 24, p78-79).

With my brain all exercised, many morning miles behind me, and the occasional stab at a low-fat diet (as long as no one counts those M & Ms), I figured that I was ready for a much bigger challenge. So....

I'm starting out with physics, astronomy, and the mysteries of the universe; and I am finding these subjects that I never imagined learning about are surprisingly elegant, fascinating, and absolutely riveting. I'm serious!

Naturally, I am not prepared to read about these things at a college textbook level--I need physics "lite" as intended for more general consumption. I started with Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, a general science book that serves as an introduction to some aspects of chemistry, paleontology, physics, evolution, and geology.

That was a wonderful beginning, but I wanted to read a bit more about quantum mechanics (can't believe I'm saying this), so now I'm reading Charles Flowers' A Science Odyssey; 100 Years of Discovery. I can't resist his lovely sentences containing phrases like "insinuations of irrationality and the imponderable," and his descriptions of the search for a unified theory ("an elegant single explanation of the complex behaviors of all matter and all forces that exist in the universe"), together with the convoluted and nearly impenetrable possibilities of string theory.

I have to admit, at times I have to stop reading and pace around the room, muttering to myself. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of a sentence and dream of quarks that dance with M&Ms. And I often have to read whole sentences aloud, over and over ("In theory it should be possible to measure the degree to which space is curved by comparing the brightness of a supernova with its distances as indicated by the red shift in its spectrum...") so that I can gather some sort of sense from the words.

But I'm having a lovely time.

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