#FiveSentenceFiction: Horizon (the Navigators)

Cassiopeia“In space there is no horizon,” the captain declares, in her intelligent voice, as much to herself as to the duty crew.

You look at me, with the calm eyes of one who knows: soon the captain will read the instructions, and we will ready ourselves  for the long voyage, but only us two know how far we will travel.

Everyone is getting on with their tasks, without haste, as our fragile vessel continues her journey through the night.

… The alert bell rings: an elegant blue hologram floats in the air, and the captain calls the crew to attention.

“I have to communicate to you the new direction we are now to take: we are not turning back, we continue to Epsilon of Cassiopeia, which means over the time horizon, through hyperspace”: the crew falls on their knees, in prayer, you, my love, hold my face in both hands – over the horizon, for us, means eternity…

#AtoZAprilChallenge: Revolution

For this challenge I have drawn a lot from Keywords by Raymond Williams. My reasons are that his essays are wonderfully erudite, and fun to read (I hope followers of this blog will agree!) A beautiful example is his essay on Revolution. I cannot not quote this in its entirety! As a reminder, in Keywords C19 means in/from the 19th century.

Frontispiece of Leviathan, 1651 “Revolution now has a predominant and specialised political meaning, but the historical development of this meaning is significant. The word came into English from C14, from revolucion, revolutionem, derived from Latin revolvere – to revolve. In all its early uses it indicated  a revolving movement in space or time: ‘in whiche the other Planetes, as well as the Sonne, do finyshe their revolution and course according to their true time’ (1559); ‘from the day of the date hereof, to the full term and revolution of seven yeeres next ensuing’ (1589); ‘they recoil again, and return in a Vortical motion, and so continue their revolution for ever’ (1664). This primary use, of a recurrent physical movement, survives mainly in the technical sense of engines: revolutions per minute, usually shortened to revs.

The emergence of the political sense is very complicated. It is necessary to look first at what previous word served for an action against an established order. There was of course treason (with its root sense of betraying lawful authority) but the most general word was rebellion. This was common in English from C14. The sense had developed in Latin form the literal ‘renewal of war’ to the general sense of armed rising or opposition and, by extension, to open resistance to authority. Rebellion and rebel (as adjective, verb and noun) were then the central words for what we would now normally (but significantly not always) call revolution and revolutionary. There was also from C16, the significant development of revolt, from révolter, revolutare – to roll or revolve, which from the beginning, in English, was used in a political sense. The development of two words, revolt and revolution, from the sense of a circular movement to the sense of a political rising, can hardly be simple coincidence.

Revolution was probably affected, in its political development,  by the closeness of revolt, but in English its sense of circular movement lasted at least a century longer. There are probably two underlying causes for the transfer (in both revolt and revolution) from a circular movement to a rising. On the one hand there was the simple physical sense of the normal distribution of power as that of the high  over the low. From the point of view of any established authority, a revolt is an attempt to turn over, to turn upside down, to make topsy-turvy, a normal political order: the low putting themselves against and in that sense above the high. This is still evident in Hobbes, Leviathan, II, 28: ‘such as are they, that having been by their own act Subjects, deliberately revolting, deny the Sovereign Power’ (1651). On the other hand, but eventually leading to the same emphasis, there was the important image of the Wheel of Fortune, through which so many of the movements of life and especially the most public movements were interpreted. In the simplest sense, men revolved, or more strictly were revolved, on Fortune’s wheel, setting them now up, now down. In practise, in most uses, it was the downward  movement , the fall, that was stressed. But in any case it was the reversal between up and down that was the main sense of the image: not so much the steady and continuous movement of a wheel as the particular isolation of a top and bottom points which were, as a matter of course, certain to change place. The crucial change in revolution was at least partly affected by this. As early as 1400 there was the eventually characteristic:

‘It is I, that am come down

Thurgh change and revolution.’

(Romance of the Rose, 1366)

A sense of revolution as alteration or change is certainly evident from C15: ‘of Elementys the Revoluciouns, Chaung of times and Complexiouns’ (Lydgate, c.1450). The association with fortune was explicit as late as mid C17: ‘whereby one may see, how great the revolutions of time and fortune are’ (1663).

The political sense, already well established in revolt, began to come through in revolution from early C17, but there was enough overlap with older ways of seeing change to make most early examples ambiguous. Cromwell made a revolution, but when he said that ‘God’s revolutions’ were not to be attributed to mere human invention (Abbott, Writings and Speeches of Cromwell, III, 590-2) he was probably still using the word with an older sense (as in Fortune, but now Providential) of external and Determining movements. Indeed the most fascinating aspect of this complex of words, in C17, is that Cromwell’s revolution was called, by its enemies, the Great Rebellion, while the relatively minor events of 1688 were called by their supporters the Great and eventually the Glorious Revolution. It is evident from several uses that revolution was gaining a political sense  through C17, though still, as has been noted, with overlap to general mutability or to the movements  of Fortune or Providence. But it is very significant that in late C17 the lesser event attracted the description Revolution while the greater event was till Rebellion. Revolution, that is to say, was till the more generally favourable word, and from as late as 1796 we can find that distinction: ‘Rebellion is the subversion of the laws, and Revolution is that of tyrants’. (Subversion, it will be noted, depends on the same physical image, of turning over from below; and cf. Overthrow.) The main reason for the preference of revolution to rebellion was that the cyclical sense of the former implied a restoration or renovation of an earlier lawful authority, as distinct from action against authority without such justification.

From late C17 the sense of revolution in English was dominated by specific reference to the events of 1688. The ordinary reference (Steele, 1710; Burke, 1790) was to ‘the Revolution’, and revolutioner, the first noun for one engaged in or supporting revolution, was used primarily in that specific context. Yet a new general sense was slowly making its way through, and there was renewed cause for distinction between rebellion and revolution, according to the point of view, in the rising and declaration of independence of the American states. Revolution won through in that case, both locally and generally. In a new climate of political thought, in which the adequacy of a political system rather than loyalty to a particular sovereign was more and more taken as the real issue, revolution came to be preferred to rebellion, by anyone who supported independent change. There is a surviving significance in this, in our own time. Rebellion is still ordinarily used by a dominant power and its friends, until (or even after) it has to admit that what has been taking place – with its own independent cause and loyalties – is a revolution, though also with an added sense of scale: ‘Sire… it is not a revolt, it is a revolution’ (Carlyle, French Revolution, V, vii; 1837). (It is worth noting that revolt and revolting had acquired, from mid C18, an application to feeling as well as to action: a feeling of disgust, of turning away, of revulsion; this probably accentuated the distinction. It is curious that revulsion is etymologically associated with revel, which itself goes back to Latin rebellare – to rebel. Revel became specialised, through a sense of riotous mirth, to any lively festivity; rebel took its separate unfavourable course; revulsion, from physical sense of drawing away, took on from early C19 its sense of drawing away in disgust.)

It was in this state of interaction between the words that the specific effects of the French Revolution made the modern sense of revolution decisive. The older sense of a restoration of lawful authority, though used in occasional justification, was overridden by the sense of necessary innovation of a new order, supported by the increasingly positive sense of Progress. Of course the sense of achievement of the original rights of man was also relevant. This sense of making a new human order was always as important as that of overthrowing the old order. That, after all, was now the crucial  distinction from rebellion or from what was eventually distinguished as a palace revolution (changing the leaders but not the forms of society). Yet in political controversy arising from the actual history of armed risings and conflicts, revolution took on a specialised meaning of violent overthrow, and by late C19 was being contrasted with Evolution in its sense of a new social order brought about by peaceful and constitutional means. The sense of revolution as bringing about a wholly new social order was greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order (Socialism as opposed to Capitalism)  and the more limited modification or Reform of an existing order (‘the pursuit of equality’ within a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘post-capitalist society’). The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also an argument about ends.

Revolution and revolutionary and revolutionize have of course also come to be used, outside political contexts, to indicate fundamental changes, or fundamentally new developments, in a very wide range of activities. It can seem curious to read of ‘a revolution in shopping habits’ or of the ‘revolution in transport’, and of course there are cases when this is simply the language of publicity, to describe some ‘dynamic’ new product. But in some ways this is at least no more strange than the association of revolution with Violence, since one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, has been simply important or fundamental change. Once the factory system and the new technology of late C18 and early C19 had been called, by analogy with the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, one basis for description of new institutions and new technologies as revolutionary had been laid. Variations in interpretation of the Industrial Revolution – from a new social system to simply new inventions – had their effect on this use. The transistor revolution might seem a loose or trivial phrase to someone who has taken the full weight of the sense of social revolution, and a technological or second industrial revolution might seem merely polemical or distracting descriptions. Yet the history of the word supports each kind of use. What is more significant, in a century of major revolutions, is the evident discrimination of application and tone, so that the storm-clouds that have gathered around the political sense become fresh and invigorating winds when they blow in almost any direction.”

“France could have readily reinforced her own resources with those of the European revolution; as indeed all revolutionaries hoped she would. But the implications of such a leap into revolutionary war frightened moderate liberal French governments as much as Metternich. No French government between 1815 and 1848 would jeopardise general peace in its own state interests.”

(Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848)

List of Revolutions and Rebellions in Wikipedia

#AToZAprilChallenge: Genius

Salvatore Bruno Wikipedia: “A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of an unprecedented leap of insight. This may refer to a particular aspect of an individual, or the individual in his or her entirety; to a scholar in many subjects (e.g. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz or Leonardo da Vinci)[1] or a scholar in a single subject (e.g., Albert Einstein or Charles Darwin). There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate.”

Genius came into English from C14, in its main Latin sense  – from genius – a guardian spirit. It was extended to mean ‘a characteristic disposition or quality’ from C16, as still in ‘every man has his genius’ (Johnson, 1780), and ‘barbarous and violent genius of the age’ (Hume, 1754). The development towards the dominate modern meaning of ‘extraordinary ability’ is complex; it occurred, interactively, in both English and French, and later German. It seems to have been originally connected with the idea of ‘spirit’ through the notion of ‘inspiration’… This sense is always close to the developing sense of Creative… A good test case is ‘the English genius for compromise’. (Keywords)

#WritersWednesday: His Hero is Marcel

Time Line of the Universe

Time Line of the Universe Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team Source: Original version: File:CMB Timeline75.jpg

It goes for colours, type-faces, places, objects, smiles, books… The human spirit is attracted, inspired, by “things”, in a fashion that appears random to the observer (“tastes and colours…” goes the French saying). But it isn’t. There are reasons for everything, and randomness is often a metaphor for “we can’t explain this”.

Julian is attracted by – universes. Worlds, galaxies, star systems… Or should I write “multiverses”: the existence of multiple universes that rarely intersect, merely coexist, and, mostly, in ignorance of each other? He knows, has read about, that most physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, are generally skeptical about the concept. Generally, but sometimes not. And Julian is attracted by those writers who are less than skeptical, the party of the “cosmic inflation”, and its far away consequences. Julian believes in the Two Moons of Huraki Murakami: he too has seen them…

Sarah, who’s a far better mathematician than her husband, is willing to discuss strings theory and other quantum wonders, and let him indulge in his quest. He too is after the “Ultimate Nature of Reality” [*]. I do understand, and she does, that Julian seeks his inspiration from serious subjects: history, science, philosophy, the “thinking” authors of weird and wonderful stories.

So it goes for time: our Julian is obsessed by it. His hero is, of course, Marcel Proust, and he’s often written about Marcel, and written him into his stories, as himself or as his little prisoner. I am fascinated by this, as it links to his other obsessions, his writing style, and, finally, his love for both Sarah and Melissa, the two women in his life, the inspiration for his writing. There are reasons to believe that, for Julian, his friend Melissa is a reincarnation of the docile Prisoner, dear to Marcel, his Albertine…

But Sarah has another theory: Julian wishes to be Albertine, someone’s property, or, to be precise, his wife’s. So that Melissa maybe Julian, in the end, just in another “universe”. This intrigues me too, as often Melissa has told me she wished to be Julian, to live in his skin. Poor soul. What I keep to myself, for now, is that Melissa has also claimed to be Sarah, to “merge” with her.

Sarah, Albertine, Odette, Julian, Melissa, Swann? Julian is “à la recherche”, in this universe, or, as necessary, in another. Which writer is not?

[*] “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality”, by Max Tegmark, was reviewed by Brian Rotman in The Guardian of February 1, 2014.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Highway

Highway At first the darkness was total, and she did not know if she was still in the lab, or already somewhere else, somewhere out of the Unknown that physics was beginning to reveal.

This was the 24th century of the Christian calendar, not that it mattered to Dr. Cecilia Townsend: her interest was science, or more exactly quantum cosmogony, rather than history.

This experiment was her brainchild, the result of years of calculations and debate in the most exclusive community of science geniuses, and observations on Earth with the ever more powerful accelerators, through the colonised part of the solar system, and through the universe, via the powerful telescopes at her disposal.

For Cecilia was famous, indeed more than famous, she was the first World’s President of Science, and the world’s great corporations were crowding her office in Beijing to fund her project.

Now, she was on her way, through the deep folds of space-time, perhaps never to return, or perhaps to come back to a world much older than her.

Related Articles

#AtoZChallenge: April 24, 2013 ~ Uranium

Trinity You are the most fatal chemical element found on earth, only preceded by plutonium, the byproduct (“waste”) of nuclear reactors.  In nature you are mostly the stable isotope Uranium-238, but your brother, Uranium-235, is much sought after by the sorcerers of nuclear fission since it “only” requires low-energy neutrons to trigger the chain reaction.

Nuclear Fission was discovered in 1938, on the threshold of WWII, by German scientists.  The discovery was one of the outcomes of a series of  findings, both experimental (observations and measurements of interactions of sub-atomic particles) and theoretical (Quantum Mechanics), in nuclear physics, particularly the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick in 1932.  Artificial fission, as opposed to natural radioactive decay, and as obtained in nuclear reactors, or in nuclear explosives (atomic bombs), is the result of the bombardment of heavy elements by neutrons, which “transmute” the target element releasing enormous energy (E=mc2).  The physics of fission is relatively “simple” and well understood by physicists, but the control and engineering of its applications far more complicated.  Following the discovery of fission, fear that Nazi Germany could develop an atomic bomb prompted the Allies (USA, Canada and Britain) to launch their own program: the Manhattan project, led by Major General Leslie Groves, scientific Director J. Robert Oppenheimer (“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”).  Finally bombs were built, tested, and dropped on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the very end of the WWII.

Later research led to the thermonuclear bomb (the “H” bomb), which is an application of nuclear fission and fusion of light elements (such as deuterium), triggered by a plutonium bomb.

In 1983, thirty years after the development of the extension of Quantum Mechanics named  Quantum Electrodynamics, Richard Feynman declared:

We physicists are always checking to see if there is something the matter with the theory.  That’s the game, because if there is something the matter, it’s interesting!  But so far, we have found nothing wrong with the theory of quantum electrodynamics.  It is, therefore, I would say. The jewel of our physics – our proudest possession.”

Oak Ridge

Shift change at the Y-12 uranium enrichment facility at Oak Ridge. By May 1945, 82,000 people were employed at the Clinton Engineer Works.

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.” – J. Robert Oppenheimer





#AtoZChallenge: April 5, 2013 ~ Euler and “e”

Euler and e

Leonhard Euler Leonhard Euler is a towering  figure of Mathematics and Physics in the 18th century, and one of the greatest mathematicians of all times.  Born in 15 April 1707 in Basel (Schweiz, Switzerland) Euler’s legacy includes “e” the Euler number, with pi one of the fundamental constants of mathematics, and volumes on infinitesimal calculus, geometry, algebra and number theory. Euler lived in Saint-Petersburg, where he died on 18 September 1783, and in Berlin.  Students of mathematics the world over owe him the Euler’s Identity:

euler described as “the most beautiful mathematical formula ever”.

#FiveSentenceFiction: Delicate

Feynman diagrams The small boy wrote the equation on the blackboard: the symbols he wrote seemed to come alive.

“It’s the greatest equation of all nature… Einstein discovered it…”

On the board the symbols were followed by others, dancing in the morning light, delicate traces of a genius mind, “e to the power of I(pi) plus 1 equals zero” he repeated, leading on to several lines of weird little diagrams.

Later, much later, he told US senators, after the incident of the Shuttle: “I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered …”

So spoke Richard Feynman (1918-1988).