Tag Archives: science

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

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Winner of the 2004 Mary Shelley Award for Outstanding Fictional Work

Nominated for the 2004 Arthur C. Clarke Award

New York Times Notable Book ~ 2003

Los Angeles Times “Best of the Best” ~ 2003

Economist Best Book of the Year ~ 2003

Newsday Favorite Book of the Year ~ 2003

William Gibson is a very important writer; he is a pioneer of contemporary sci-fi sub-genres steampunk and cyber-punk, he has coined many terms in popular culture – most notably “cyberspace”, and he was one of the first writers to really integrate our current techno-society into science-fiction, if not fiction in general. Gibson immigrated to Canada in his youth to avoid the Vietnam War draft, although he admits it had more to do with living the 60s counter-culture lifestyle as he wasn’t actually drafted. Gibson is one of those writers who is required reading for those interested in variety of literary topics: sci-fi, contemporary CanLit, and the literature of draft-dodgers. Pattern Recognition is my first William Gibson novel and it was also his first novel to gain mainstream attention and climb up the big bestseller lists. This particular title landed on my shelf because it was on the longlist for Canada Reads 2011.

This is the story of Cayce Pollard, a marketing consultant with an unusual sensitivity to trademarks and logos. She removes all labels and identifying corporate symbols from her clothes and avoids direct contact with them. As the novel progresses, we are drawn into her hunt for the “footage,” a series of mysterious film clips posted online that represent the absolute pinnacle of artistic beauty. Cayce’s employer, Hubertus Bigend, offers her the full use of his company’s unlimited resources to find the “maker” of these clips for an unspecified purpose. This journey takes her and the supporting cast to London, Paris, Tokyo, Russia and, most importantly, deep into the online world.

Pattern Recognition is not a sci-fi novel per se, but it certainly has a sci-fi feel to it. The movement of the story, tone, and characters are very reminiscent of sci-fi, but, really, there is nothing in this book that is implausible for its time. I would argue though, that this is sci-fi, but it is soft, rather than hard sci-fi. It’s steeped in the social sciences rather than hard sciences like physics and engineering. This story plays with psychology, psychiatry, human behavior, sociology, and even criminology.

It’s been two days since I’ve finished this novel and I still can’t really give a definitive answer as to what I thought of it. There were parts and elements that I greatly enjoyed and others that almost made me put the book away. The quality of writing is very literary and the characters are well developed; as I thought about it, I would have to say pacing was the biggest frustration. I have the pocket paperback edition and it clocks in at 367 pages – so it is not a huge book. As I read it though I would alternate feeling like the book was way too long and other points where I felt too much was happening too fast and details were being lost. This is very apparent in the last 15% or so of the novel; it felt like Gibson was about to default on his deadline and needed to wrap things up quick. The book’s concluding chapters left you felling like you had just spent the last week trying to untangle a ball of yarn, then you got frustrated and asked your wife to do it, she then untangles it in about 10 seconds and says “you saw how I did that right?.” The last 35 pages were way too much story in too short a time.

Pattern Recognition, despite my criticisms, was an interesting read. It’s ahead of its time (2003) in many ways by looking at the concept of viral videos, exploring living in a post-9/11 world, examining online personas and virtual lives, and the seemingly never ending push of global corporatism. Overall though, Pattern Recognition just gets a “meh.”

The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Universe Within

Longlisted for the 2013 Charles Taylor Prize

An Amazon.ca Best Book ~ 2012

If I would have worked harder at math in high school, I would have been an astrophysicist. The cosmos fascinates me; the study of physics of attempts to answer the most fundamental question in all of existence: how did we get here? Physics and cosmology play with such fantastic ideas that it makes your head spin. Spacetime, the Big Bang singularity, black holes, quantum particles, a multiverse, 11 spacial dimensions, and imaginary numbers like the square root of negative 1 are all fascinating topics. Who hasn’t been fascinated by Schrodinger’s Cat and who hasn’t looked up who Heisenberg was after watching Breaking Bad? Neil Turok’s The Universe Within, the 2012 Massey Lecture series, is an examination of the history of physics, how physics has shaped our world, and a philosophical treatise on the power of human mind. The Universe Within, particularly the fifth and final chapter, is an epic examination of science and is a very powerful read.

Turok, a world renowned physicist, explores the development of physics through its major stages. He looks at the contributions of the Greeks like Pythagoras, Newton and the beginning of classical physics, Einstein and the physics renaissance of the early 20th century, and the current quantum revolution. Throughout this history, Turok gives insights into his own experiences as a student of physics while growing up in Africa, giving back to the continent, and what the future of science in Africa may hold. He speaks very passionately about this subject and has great hope for the developing world. His prevailing question seems to be “what would happen of all seven billion of Earth’s minds fulfilled their potential?” This is certainly a great question to ask.

I LOVE the Massey Lecture books and this was a fantastic entry, but it didn’t knock off A Short History of Progress as my favorite (but I think Wright’s book was one of the most important pieces of writing in the last half-century). Of all the Massey Lecture’s I’ve read though, Turok’s book was certainly the most thoroughly and widely researched, covering not only science but history, philosophy, and literature. My one criticism of the book is that, at certain points, maybe a total of 20 pages, Turok gets way too technical for the average reader. There were times that he was elucidating mathematical formulae that were so complicated that I kind of zoned-out. But, with that being said, with some very very complicated theories, like the singularity, inflation, quantum mechanics, and string theory, Turok did a masterful job of “dumbing-it-down,” so to speak, for us non-scientists. (I tell my wife I’m a scientist all the time, but apparently studying the literary history of small islands doesn’t make me one…in her opinion).

The last chapter of this book absolutely blew me away. If you don’t have time to sit down and read a 250 page book, buy this title, and just read the final 50 page chapter. In it, Turok discusses the coming age of quantum computing. In addition to humanity approaching the end of its supply of non-renewable resources, it seems, according to Turok, that we are 20 years away, at most, from reaching the finite maximum computing speed using existing technology (because transistors in CPUs are limited by the size of an atom, and right now they are not much larger than that now). His discussion on the development and ramifications of quantum computing were fascinating.

Turok’s primary theme is that the human mind seems to have no limits. In our short time as a civilization, we have already mapped the visible universe, discovered the Higgs Boson, and are on the brink to solving the mystery of the Big Bang. Personally, I also think we are also on the brink of “discovering” a multiverse, travelling faster than light, and finding evidence of extraterrestrial life. Within his scientific writing, Turok is very humble about his place in the world (he has an astrophysics equation named after him) and he is also somewhat critical of the wider study of science. He advocates for a return to a common 18th and 19th century practice of public scientific lectures and making scientific research a part of everyday culture and thinking, removing the disconnect between the lab and the wider-world.

Even someone with the most rudimentary understanding of science will enjoy this book. If you enjoy science and are fascinated by the universe, this is a must read. In time, I think The Universe Within will join other books like A Brief History of Time, The Elegant Universe, and Cosmos in the canon of popular-science classics.

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