Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Faster Than the Speed of Light

On Saturday I was feeling depressed. This was not a serious depression (I never seem to be serious about anything, really), more an end-of-semester rainy-season bad mood. Work is absurd. My life is absurd. My so-called 'career' is going nowhere fast (which has been true for as long as I have been doing it, and doesn't usually bother me, but never mind that). I still have the lingering effects of my third cold of the year, a pile of paperwork backed up, and the weather is disgusting.

Because I was feeling so crappy, I did not get any work done. Instead, I went through the unread books I still have left over from the giant booksale at the beginning of the year (or was it the end of last year?) looking for one that would have the greatest chance of banishing the blues. I chose a book from the 'hard' pile, about cosmology. There is nothing like contemplating the Big Bang to add a little perspective to one's life, I find. When you are contemplating the beginnings of the universe, a bad mood becomes supremely irrelevant.

The book worked, wonderfully. Joao Magueijo's Faster Than the Speed of Light: The Story of a Scientific Speculation is a roller coaster of a book, and it is impossible to remain depressed while reading it. Some reviewers dismiss the book as a self-involved whinge and its writer as a bristly protagonist, and so on, and a quick web search (or just a glance through the Amazon reviews) will reveal that there are plenty of people out there who think he is an arrogant upstart. But I didn't think he came across as arrogant. I thought he came across as a wildly enthusiastic clever person with no patience for stupidity or for meaningless paperwork or silly bureaucratic nonsense. He seems PERFECTLY sensible to me. It is true he is not particularly modest, but if he were modest he would not be coming up with theories that contradict Albert Einstein's. Also, his book would be much less interesting.

If you have ever been on the receiving end of endless, meaningless red tape that keeps you from doing your job properly, this book will probably make you laugh, because Magueijo says out loud the insulting things you will have wanted to say yourself but didn't dare, for fear of losing your job. He has been criticized for biting the hand that feeds him, but if you ask me it is the other way around. If it were not for scientists and academics (and humble teachers) doing their jobs, the bureaucrats and administrators who inhabit the academic world would be out of work. And when they muck things up for the educators, who's biting whom, eh? EH?

Also, I came across one critic (can't remember where I found this one) who complained that Magueijo has a cushy, secure job and complaining about it is ungrateful. But if you prohibit the people with job security from complaining about absurdities and ridiculousness in the system they work in, then who is going to complain, and push for change? The people who do not have security? THINK AGAIN, SHERLOCK. Secure, cushy-jobbed academics SHOULD be as loud and obnoxious and pushy as possible when they encounter ludicrous behaviour in administrative idiots who make it harder for educators to do their jobs well. If I complained I'd be fired, and there are far too many people in my situation. He SHOULD do it, for the insecure, uncushy-jobbed people, like me.

Yes, I know, he is at a British institution, not a Japanese one, and what he says is largely irrelevant to my job, but still, I got a vicarious thrill every time he got irate and insulting, which was often. It was music to my ears. Maybe if enough people complained something would get done about the problem of non-educators with no knowledge of what it means to educate being in charge of education. (These are not the only people he insults, but it is the problem I identified with the most.)

But I'm going off track. Really, it was the imaginative wanderings around the sci-fi-ish further reaches of physics that kept me on the edge of my seat while reading this book. The academic wrangling was just icing on the cake. I LOVED this book. I could understand it, mostly, and I did not expect to. Magueijo is a brilliant science writer for dummies like me. Everything made sense, and you can't imagine how shocking that was. By the time I was halfway through I was feeling so clever I had dreamed up about fifteen theories about how the universe began and what shape it is, each one madder than the one before. What fun! (Science fiction writers should read this book. It is inspiring. I came up with several science fiction plots, too, none of them in the least bit plausible, but ... WHAT FUN!)

And the book is exactly what it claims to be: the story of a scientific speculation. It is a book about people. It is not really so much a science book; it is an 'about doing science' book. It gives you a glimpse into the minds of some very clever people and does it in a way that the layperson can understand. (Particularly when the clever people get all cranky. Everybody understands cranky.) Of course the book has faults, but as far as I'm concerned Magueijo is a genius. It takes a genius to explain cosmology in a way that I can understand it.

Incidentally, he even explained the Big Bang in a way I could understand, and tonight as I was passing the book along to a friend I told her so.

"But you're clever, BadAunt," she said, doubtfully. "I'm sure I won't understand it."

"Oh yes, you will!" I said, and explained it to her. The Big Bang for Beginners, minus all the tricky bits I didn't get.

You should have seen the look on her face.

Then I found a page where Magueijo describes a particularly revolting bit of paperwork educators have to deal with in British universities.

"Remember that paperwork you told us about a couple of weeks ago?" I said. "The one where you had to write your aims for the coming academic year, and explain what you did to meet your aims of the last academic year? The one that was so meaningless it was driving you up the wall, and was taking forever to do?"

She nodded. (She is a full-timer. Part-timers like me are spared this particular brand of nonsense, although we do occasionally get self-assessment forms to fill in, which I generally manage to 'lose.')

"Read this!" I said, pointing at the page.

She did, and as she read, she started laughing, because Magueijo points out exactly what every teacher knows is wrong with this system of assessing what educators do, which is that the lower your aims, the more chance you have of being wildly successful. It is a procedure that could have been specifically designed in order to lower the standard of education.

She found it as extraordinary as I did to discover that this procedure is used elsewhere. But somehow, discovering that other places have similarly (or, in this case, identically) stupid procedures in their education systems was perversely comforting. Japanese universities do not have a monopoly on anti-educational practices. It just feels like it sometimes. (And I suspect the anti-educational practices here are more successful.)

So now you know why I liked the book so much. It made me laugh, taught me a lot of things I didn't know, encouraged me to think, gave me back perspective, banished the blues, and made me feel clever.

What more could you ask for?


Lia said...

Sounds like it was, indeed, perfect. I'm glad it banished the blues.

Actually, it sounds quite good. Cynicism is always good for a laugh at something.

On another note, good science fiction is built on good science. So enjoy your theories - or share them so we can all enjoy them.

Radioactive Jam said...

Okay I'm convinced, I'll check out the book. And I'm pondering deeper meanings and potential applications for a statement such as "never serious about anything."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. :-)

Kay said...

Back at ya...have placed a hold on the Magueijo book you talk about and it will come to the beautiful downtown Eagle River Library for me to pick a couple of here is mine for you: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian (Marina Lewycka), and The Know-It-All A.J. Jacobs ..... give 'em a try while I try yours!

kenju said...

You have convinced me to look for that book and I know two teachers who will "eat it up", so I am going to recommend it to them. Thanks!

pkchukiss said...

They have a similar system for assessment of armed forces regulars: the person involved writes up a report on what he has done to contribute to the armed forces for the past one year, and their forecast of contributions for the next year.

I did ask a colleague back when I was still in service about the rationale for this weird occurance, but my superior (coincidentally a regular) dismissed my questions. Of course! Regulars are trusted to have the integrity to write honestly!

My colleague and I kept quiet.

Potentilla said...

I just bought it for 3p from Amazon! (it had better be good after I invested that much).

The Editter said...

What more could you ask for?
Pretty pictures??