“Black Hole” picture; the final evidence

When I saw the picture, the final conclusive evidence, of the existence of black holes, I got out my long-held copy of “A Brief History of Time”, authored by the late, great Stephen Hawking, and reread the chapters on black holes, so called because their gravity is so great even light cannot escape. One chapter was entitled “Black Holes”, but the second chapter was entitled “Black Holes ain’t so Black”.

His book was of course an automatic best-seller, because every scientist, and I guess especially astronomers, both professionals and amateurs, which I am one, went out and got a copy of it. And we were all overwhelmed by his genius; many of us didn’t even finish the book because of that genius. Simply owning the book was “cool”; owning it made people think you were a genius – you understand Hawking??!!!

Late, great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking

But Hawking’s book would put anyone’s mind to rest about physics being a terribly complicated. Yes, its a fact that physics has generally been favoured by fairly brilliant people, but Hawking tries to dispel any suggestion of “elitism” by using very common comparisons and by not being afraid of making more than a few jokes in the book.

Admittedly, when I first read the book maybe twenty-five years ago, I was among many who had to close the book before I finished it because I simply didn’t understand much of what Hawking was saying. His ideas and concepts were simply considered that brilliant.

While not knocking his brilliance even now, I have reread the book perhaps with my own increasing confidence and understanding.

In fact, one of the great benefits to science these days is that we have many science writers, not just science journalists who play their own important role, but actual scientists to recognize the benefits of writing about often complex science in terms easy to understand.

We used to insult this process by calling it a “dumbing down”, when it should be called an “educational enlightening”.

I don’t think Hawking wanted science to be seen as “elite” in any sense of that word. Hawking has passed away, just of course as Einstein died in 1955. But there are, and will be, plenty of others.

Don’t be afraid to get a copy of his book and read it; you will be educated, and entertained.

The picture of a black hole confirms Hawking’s work.

What other incredible science discoveries are to be made?

English as an old (ancient) language

Edward Gibbon with three volumes of his great history
A portrait by George Romney (1781)
(Trustees of British Museum)

I’ve mentioned having a copy of Edward Gibbon’s historical masterpiece “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” The copy that I have is not a copy at all, but an eight book set. I’m only into volume number two; his research seems thorough, but there are definite challenges to reading it and understanding it.

Edward Gibbon lived from 1757 to 1794 and so even the language used is already over two hundred years old. Its like looking at an episode of M*A*S*H. The comedy was set during the Korean War in the fifties, but the show was a 1970’s production.

For me, its history looking at history.

Gibbon’s writing style is far more formal than today, there is no “economy of words” to it. In fact, the work shows how English as evolved as a language; several years ago I happen to come across the writings of Julian of Norwich, a nun who lived four hundred years earlier, from 1342-1416. Her writings amply demonstrate how English has changed, significantly, over the centuries.

Of course, neither of these writers obviously had word processors or typewriters(for the youth out there, use your search engine to look up “typewriters”)

Gibbon, and Julian of Norwich, had nothing more than quill pen, and ink well, and parchment paper, so I can only guess that from his first words to the final edition, Gibbon must have gone through a thousand quill pens, a gallon of ink, and thousands of sheets of parchment paper.

An example of Gibbons 17th century style comes from the opening of Chapter 13: “As the reign of Diocletian was more illustrious than that of any of his predecessors, so was his birth more abject and obscure.”

I won’t even attempt Julian of Norwich, because her medieval style must be seen to be appreciated.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire must have been a true labour of love. It took him twelve years to write it and some of his own sources, such as Homer, writer of his own iconic Illiad and Odyssey, are of course much more ancient.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a great example of a history lesson in so many ways.

My view of Star Trek Discovery

As someone who has been a fan of the series since the beginning, there is no doubt that this latest incarnation is very different from the others, which is clearly disturbing to some. In fact, in the first season, they did their version of the “Mirror, mirror” episode, which is an episode I was never a fan of.

But the series has slowly but sure grown on me, and I simply accept its very different approach. The various incarnations have only shown up the limitations of the Original Series, even in terms of the special effects technologies that simply didn’t exist at the time of the Original Series.

What will we be like in two hundred and seventy years from now, when the Discovery version is supposed to be happening? Well, I have grown to like the characters, and I like the fact that the series is not “standardized”. So I wish the series luck, and hope its outlasts the Original Series and is still on the air five years from now.

Libraries are great; great libraries

As mentioned, I had my first library by the time I was a young teen, and have had three or four in my life. Books, as much as I love ’em, are a pain to move.

But there is not a major city on this planet that doesn’t have at least one library, and even the smallest hamlet probably has one; schools generally have one. I have heard of the Great Library at Alexandra, founded by Ptolemy and of course in those ancient times there were no books as we know them today, there were scrolls, and this library was reputed to hold thousands of them. Older yet are cuneiform tablets, probably the oldest form of writing, on clay tablets. But even some cursory research revealed there was the Library of Aristotle in Athens Greece(384-321 B.C.), and the Nippur Temple Library in Iraq circa 2500 B.C.

In fact, I have recently had the pleasure of reading a translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian epic, of course originally written on clay tablets in cuneiform. In fact, the translation I read had gaps in it, acknowledged by the translators from the damage done to the clay tablets over time.

So we have been collecting knowledge, originally on clay tablets, then scrolls, then in book form for millennia, as the easiest way to access this knowledge. Brilliant.

We continue to have great libraries allover the world. I have two ebook libraries, and one of the great benefits of an ebook library is that its so easy to carry around! But, I hope, at least in my lifetime, we don’t see the end of actual book libraries.

This is not only for their main purpose, the housing of books and public access to them, but also for the atmosphere of learning they engender. Seeing young people quietly sitting and reading, whether it be a library book or a school book, gives me hope for the future.

Books I have recently finished: The Pathfinders; The Art of War; and my own book “Journey to Me”

As an amateur astronomer with an overall interest in science, I have long been aware of the influence of science from west to east and east to west. In fact, this exchange has actually been going on for millenna, even with the difficulties of travel in the ancient world.

Prof. Jim Al-Khalili has covered this wonderfully in his book “The Pathfinders”, highlighting the scientific achievements during the “golden age” of Islam, and that there were scientific exchanges between Islamic and Christian communities and some exchanges from as far away as India in the centuries surrounding the year 1000. And, like Leonardo da Vinci in the west, the Islamic world had its share of polymaths, such as Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina, who known in the west as Avicenna. But the Islamic world was not monothestic, as many Jews and Christians, such as the Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon and the Christian Job of Edssa also made their contributions; indeed, there were even a couple of atheists.

Prof. Al-Khalili goes into some of the reasons for the golden age’s decline, and they are not all religious, as one might assume, but he also notes the signs of resurgence, as evidenced by the numerous libraries and scientific institutions that have recently been built in cities like Damascus.

A wonderful historical account of a really interesting time in history.

My second book might seem strange, as I am a life-long pacifist, but its a book about the ancient writings of Sun Tzu, who was a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher who lived from 545 B.C. to 496 B.C., and is entitled “The Art of War”. Reading it comes from both my curiosity and my philosophy of “better a devil you know than a devil you don’t know”.

The edition of the book I got came across as a “how to” book of war, a line item listing of what seemed, to me even as a pacifist, actual sage advice on what to do and what not to do to fight a war. The book apparently has an international reputation, and generals from countries who have actually seen combat claim the Art of War as their “Bible”.

As much as I am against war, I found the reading of it strangely compelling, and I am actually kind of glad I read it. The book did not, to me, glorify war in any way, but was simply very practical advice on how best to fight one. It was, indeed, a very strategic book.

And the last book I want to mention is my own, recently self-published on Kobo, entitled “Journey to Me”.

I had a nervous breakdown when I was nineteen, and went through years of therapy to try to bring a very traumatic and confusing childhood and teen years into perspective.

There’s a saying that “when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it tough to remember you were sent to drain the swamp”. I finally managed to mostly drain my swamp and get a perspective on my life. I say mostly because life is always an ongoing experience.

I wrote the book to try and help people who are going through their own very tough times to get the courage to face themselves and understand. Only by facing your issues can you deal with them. Because, one of the truths of life is, you can’t run away.

When books lead to other books

Some years ago I purchased a book entitled “Paris After the Liberation” by Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper(Folio Society). It was about Paris just after WWII, and spoke about the tough times and deprivation the city endured, but also touched on a vibrant nightlife, the clubs, the theatre, and the many personalities. Highlighted in the book’s pages, with accompanying photos, were Charles de Gaulle, future president of France, and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Another person mentioned was Duff Cooper, a British conservative politician who was eventually named British ambassador to France after the liberation in 1944. He is mentioned here because he authored a well received book about Talleyrand, (Folio Society) whose actual name was Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand’s claim to fame was that he was an accomplished, brilliant diplomat who served under the leadership of Napoleon, and a rogue with his share of illegitimate children. I decided to get a copy of this biography, which was both interesting and seemed well researched, and included several paintings of Napoleon in which Talleyrand is depicted.

The other example I can give is a book, by Einstein, entitled “Relativity”. As an amateur astronomer over many years, books about astronomy and related topics, like physics, have equally interested me. The book was difficult to read in spots, as mathematics was never my strong point. But it did encourage me to buy some “Dummies” books on algebra and even calculus to try and understand his work better.

Part of the book dealt with the topic of quantum physics, the sub-atomic world of particle physics. There a joke that goes: Never trust an atom; they make up everything. And so what is this microcosm which makes up everything?

I been further helped by books on quantum physics written by Jim Al-Khalili, who is a professor of physics at the University of Surrey in England. Prof. Al-Khalili has a very “down to earth” style of writing that makes even a very challenging topic like quantum physics easier to grasp.

I don’t claim to be an Einstein or even Jim Al-Khalili, but, every “book-adventure” adds to knowledge and experience.

Three Authors(novelists) I have Enjoyed

The first book is called “I, Claudius”, an historical novel by Robert Graves and published in 1934.

Claudius was a real person, and was Emperor of the Roman Empire, at least according to Edward Gibbons’ the “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”,he came to the throne after Caligula and ruled for some thirteen years.

In Graves’ fictional account, well, I’ll quote directly from the back of the book: “Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the Imperial Roman dynasties.(Game of Thrones, Roman style?)

Graves doesn’t hold back in describing the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome and I found the novel very real and compelling. Actually, Graves further wrote “Claudius the God” which I must soon get. Better late than never.

My next author is Canadian Margaret Lawrence( not to be confused with Margaret Atwood, recently famous for her novel, the Handmaid’s Tale) I’ve read two of her novels, The Stone Angel, published in 1964 and which tells about the up and downs of the life of character Hagar Shipley, and “The Diviners” which is the story of another lady Morag Gunn, a novelist and single mother.

I like Lawrence’s novels because they are “gritty” and reflect her own experiences in life, I think more sadness than happiness. Her novels have received many awards in Canada.

My third novelist is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denis0vich” which is about a day in a Russian Labour Camp under the Stalinist purges, and became famous just for that reason. Even more famous is his book, the Gulag Archipelago, which is his recounting of the Stalinist purges, very popular during the Cold War.

I had the Gulag Archipelago as a three volume set, and I managed to read book one before they disappeared.

I books I’ve lost over the years…….