Thursday, July 05, 2007
As I've mentioned before, I'm reading the book at the left, the one with the title that's getting on my nerves. I'm finding the personalities in this history to be more interesting than the actual science, in most cases, so I thought I'd remember some of them as I go.
Bryson relates a couple of stories about Sir Isaac Newton I'd never heard before, such as a couple of scary-wacky experiments he performed on his own eyes: he once inserted a long needle into his eye socket and rubbed it around, and amazingly, did no permanent damage. Another time, he stared into the sun for as long as he could stand to, just to see what the effect on his vision would be. Again, there was no permanent damage, though it did take him some days in a darkened room to recover. Of course, there were plenty of mornings when he was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he never quite made it out of bed, anyway. A brilliant man, Newton, but, as Bryson writes, "solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted...and capable of the most riveting strangeness."
Another interesting subject is Henry Cavendish. For him, any human contact meant profound discomfort. An excerpt:
Once he opened his door to find an Austrian admirer, freshly arrived from Vienna, on the front step. Excitedly the Austrian began to babble out praise. For a few moments Cavendish received the compliments as if they were blows from a blunt object and then, unable to take any more, fled down the path and out the gate, leaving the front door wide open. It was some hours before he could be coaxed back to the property. Even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.
Madame Curie won two Nobel Prizes, but was never elected to the Academy of Sciences because, after her husband Pierre's death (which was an accident, though he also had radiation sickness), she carried on a notorious affair with a married physicist that shocked even the French (or at least the old men at the academy). She died of leukemia in 1934. To this day, even her papers and cookbooks from the 1890s are too dangerous to handle. Those who wish to see her lab books, which are now stored in lead-lined boxes, must wear protective clothing.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~more of that at a later time~~~~~~~~~~
I'm cheating on the above book with this very appealing book of short stories. I did mention that I wasn't really in the mood for nonfiction, right? Even though Bryson is an engaging writer and wrote the above book for people like me, it's taking me awhile to get through it.
Anyway, after reading the intriguing Pulitzer Prize winning The Known World, I was eager to read some of Edward P. Jones's short stories. I read the first of these last night. Titled In the Blink of God's Eye, we meet two very young newlyweds named Ruth and Aubrey, and in just 32 pages, we learn an extraordinary amount about their circumscribed life and culture and how that world becomes distorted when they move across the Potomac from Virginia farmland to the city of Washington. As Jones writes, these characters are the sons and daughters of "once upon a time slaves," and the fact that they are African-American in 1901 certainly defines their lives, but this story is not about how Ruth and Aubrey relate to the white world, but how they relate to each other and their own changing circumstances. Though Ruth and Aubrey have grown up together in the same small town and culture, each takes away something different. After Ruth discovers an abandoned baby, her marriage changes in ways she would not have expected. It's a captivating and thought-provoking tale about how random events can change lives and bring out the best and worst in personalities.
I look forward to reading more of these.