Woit in his blog post here mentions, approvingly, The Conceptual Framework of Quantum Field Theory. I wonder if I could make enough sense of it to justify getting it. The preview of the first chapter in Amazon’s listing looks encouraging.
I never expected one of my reviews to get a review, least of all a review from the author of the book I was reviewing. It was a good review, too: he said that mine was the best review he’d read, and he sent me a copy of his second novel as a way of saying ‘thank you’. At the time I thought that ‘best review’ meant ‘review penetrating deepest into the mind of the author and his intentions in creating the work’. I’m not so sure, now – he might just have meant ‘review that says the nicest things about me’ – but either way, I am in his debt to at least the extent of another review.
It took me a long time to get round to opening the book. Not just the sense of obligation, but a simple fear: would Stephen Foster, like Donna Tartt and Salley Vickers, be one of those authors who ought to have got run over before publishing their second novel?
This is not a book that anyone will want to read.
Unicode is a project to assign code numbers to every character in every language in the world. In the early days of PCs there weren’t many code numbers, so every region used the numbers in its own particular way. You could type “wędzony łosoś” (smoked salmon) in Poland and see wędzony łosoś on your screen; but if someone looked at it on an English computer he’d see those same codes displayed as wêdzony ³oso¦ – not the same thing at all. This made it impossible to type anything that had certain mixtures of languages in it, and it made life very difficult for web browsers, which need to be able to handle anything anyone anywhere has written.
Unicode started with 60,000 character codes, soon increased to just under a million. It sounds like the world’s most boring project, and the book of the project must therefore qualify as one of the world’s most boring books.
In many ways, it is.
Essays in Satire, Ronald Knox, 1928. AbeBooks.
Ronald Knox (1888-1957) was a priest who wrote devotional books, scholarly books, books of essays, detective stories (from which he made a substantial income), and novels. He was also a regular broadcaster in the early days of radio.
Some of the pieces reprinted in Essays in Satire have long since dried up and shrivelled. They would have been read politely to politely self-conscious after-dinner groups of Oxford undergraduates, and the scholarly sense of humour of those days is not ours today. But three or four of them are still very much alive and one of those is outstanding.
Robin Wilson taught me algebra and topology in my first year at Oxford. I despised him because (in no particular order)
- He was the son of the loathed Prime Minister.
- He had been borrowed from the Open University.
- He wore fluorescent socks.
- He adapted songs from The Sound of Music for didactic purposes (“G, a group, an abstract group”, and “My Favourite Rings”) and made a horrible pun about the distinguishing characteristic of Hausdorff spaces.
He, on the other hand, told the Master of my college I was “arrogant and difficult to teach”.
Robin Wilson’s field is graph theory, and since the controversial proof of the Four-Colour Theorem is the most famous result in that field, he was the logical person to write this book.
The Four-Colour Problem (Theorem, now that it’s been proved) is one of those delightful things that it’s possible to describe on the back of a napkin. Take an outline map – of the counties of England or the countries of the world – and colour it so that no two adjacent regions have the same colour. How many colours do you need? Obviously at least three (just draw three regions that meet at a point) and almost obviously at least four (replace that point with a tiny region that touches each of the other three). But are four enough?
The problem has exercised mathematicians for a century and a half. It is so simple that the solution surely must be simple too. It was solved for the surface of a bagel (seven are enough and sometimes seven are needed) and the surface of a three-holed pretzel (nine) but the plane or sphere resisted all attacks.
Going for a walk on a Norwegian mountain, Oliver Sacks came across a dangerous bull. He turned and fled. As he was running away down the steep muddy slope he slipped and fell. He tore the huge muscle in his thigh and severed the nerves. A moment ago he was a walking biped; now he was a slug, crawling on two hands and one knee dragging a useless lump of meat down the mountain behind him. At length he reached a farmhouse; he was taken to hospital and operated on; the nerve was reconnected; and he woke up in a hospital bed.
He had lost his leg.
I wish I could recommend this book to my friends, but, as with Bernard Levin’s Enthusiasms, there is a technical obstacle: when I open it to find a few sentences to quote to show why it’s so wonderful, I end up reading the whole thing all over again and I never get round to telling them about it.
What is it about this simple boy-meets-girl story that is so enchanting? Well, it is a simple boy-meets-girl story, for a start, and one with a happy ending at that. There are no festering wounds from dark childhood traumas, no scenes of social deprivation or trenchant indictments of contemporary politics and culture. This is just a story where you want everyone to be happy and where you occasionally want to shout at the hero for being such an idiot; except that you know he knows he’s being an idiot because he tells you, and you know that in your shoes you’d be one too.
One day I met a Kurd on the seafront in Istanbul. He was bilingual, which was good; but bilingual in Kurdish and Turkish, which was less good. The structure of Turkish makes dictionary-pointing conversations impossible, and eventually we found that the only truly international language was beer.
When my mother was sacked from an Austrian V-1 factory for inefficiency and was having a pleasantly idle time in the picturesque Vorarlberg, the standard medium of communication among the displaced persons of the area was “ausländisch”, a kind of German from which all the grammar had been removed. There were people there from all parts of Europe (and even from Turkey) and this was the only language they had in common. “Sprach ausländisch?” was the first question you asked when you met a stranger.
A pidgin happens when people need to communicate and haven’t got a shared language to communicate in. Pidgins take the nearest “big” language – the majority language of the region, or the language of the colonial power – and they fillet and adapt it for their own use. When the need goes away – when the war ends and the displaced persons go home – the pidgin goes away as well.
In Australasia and Oceania things went on too long for this to happen. People didn’t go home, or they had no homes left to go to; or – especially in Papua New Guinea – they had moved into towns and needed to communicate not just with people from their own village or the next one, but with strangers from all over the country. So much of the terrain in Papua New Guinea is impassable that one valley can be isolated from another for centuries until the languages have evolved into mutual incomprehensibility. The only option left is pidgin English.
Finally the children come in. Children are not designed to learn or speak fractured jargons. From their first babbling words they are striving to speak a proper language with proper grammar and proper expressive power. If there isn’t one, they invent it. They take the bits and pieces of English that their parents have glued together anyhow, and out of it they create a real language. And so a pidgin is born.
The cover of this book is the colour of old parchment, with suitably antique-looking scientific images and a photograph of the author in front of a fresco, dressed as a clergyman, with a reassuring beard and with light shining off his glasses so that you can’t see if he has a mad glint in his eyes or not. He seems to have short legs. The name “Consolmagno” is exotic so that you can’t mix it up with anyone else’s, without being actually unpronounceable. The words “Vatican” and “scientist” in the subtitle give you an intriguing feeling of paradox, enough to make you open the book and perhaps even buy it. The word “Jesuit” is omitted from the outer cover, so that opening the book feels safe.
“El Club Dumas”, Arturo Pérez-Reverte, 1993: 84-663-1831-3 (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).
“The Dumas Club”: 0099448599 (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).
“The Club Dumas”: 015603283X (Blackwell’s, amazon.com, amazon.co.uk).
Wanting to brush up my Spanish, I realised that the reason that I’d been finding Spanish novels heavy going was that I’d been reading heavy Spanish novels. If you’re not the sort of person who reads Russian novels, sitting in the corner of a café in rimless spectacles and dressed entirely in black, then there is little point in trying to find enchantment in Gabriel García Márquez or Pedro Vargas Llosa. You want something entertaining and unimproving: hence this book.
At first it works excellently. The Spanish is clear, straightforward, and literately colloquial. The main character, Lucas Corso, is a predatory outsider, a hunter of rare books whose wolfish nature hides itself behind a rabbit-like innocence (on one occasion, a rabbit engaged on half a carrot) when he needs to charm or disarm. All the standard “film noir” ingredients are there: the old friend and drinking companion, the rough bar run by a couple of lesbians, the girlfriend who left him one day with no explanation. The other characters are satisfyingly grotesque: crooked twin bookbinders who can restore any book, whether it exists or not; a phenomenally rich and evil antiquarian bookseller (called Borgia) with satanist obsessions; an inconsolable widow, blonde and pneumatic, aggressive and seductive just like Dumas’ Milady.
The whole book, in fact, is an echo of and a homage to The Three Musketeers: even the chapter headings are direct references to Dumas. As long as this is a game, it is rather fun. As soon as you’ve identified the Rochefort character you can have fun half-remembering Rochefort’s part in the original and seeing the variations that are played on it. But ultimately, in this genre of thriller, it is compulsory to bring things down to earth and tie them back into 20th-century reality, and the necessary explanations end up deflating the story and leaving it flat and lifeless, like a soufflé that’s been left in a draught.