Why Time Flies

9781410496928_p0_v1_s192x300Alan Burdick’s treatise on Why time Flies offers no solutions to slowing down or speeding up time, depending on what is preferred, but it does relay a sense of exploration about how we live and a philosophical view on the individual experience of time, combined painlessly with scientific inquiry.

In an interview with Robert Siegel of NPR (National Public Radio), Burdick noted “our brains do a lot of work to kind of hide what you might call reality from us… a possible explanation for the discrepancy and argument over what is true (time).”  He cites experiments with Martian time, references St. Augustine and William James, offers some solutions for jet lag, and throws in a little wry humor and his experience with his preschoolers. His scientific inquiry, however, is grounded in his curiosity – his frame of reference.

Because Burdick explores time through his personal experiences (“walking back to the deli to my office one day after lunch, I glance at a clock that sits on a high pedestal outside the bank…I’m suddenly made aware of the clock’s quiet efforts to orient me…”), the scientific references are tempered and made more palatable.  If you have ever awakened in the middle of the night and refused to check the time on the bedside clock, you will empathize with his rebellion to “ignore this chatter in the middle of the night…and drift alone, for a little while…”

“For well over a century researchers have recognized that we shape time as we move through it; it seems to speed or slow depending on whether you’re happy, sad, angry, or anxious, filled with dread or anticipation, playing music or listening to it; a study in 1923 found that a speech seems to go by more quickly to the person who gives it than to a person who listens to it.  When researchers discuss time perception, typically the time in question is just a handful of seconds or minutes.”

When Burdick fell into describing experiments involving computers and diagrams, I admit I skimmed through, anxious to return to his storytelling.  Overall, the book leaves as many questions unanswered as addressed, but that is the nature of scientific investigation after all.  As he ends the book with sand castles overrun by the tide and a reference to Nietzsche, I wondered how much time I had spent reading the book – and decided it was worth the time.
 

 

 

 

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Nonfiction with Bill Gates

Although I tend toward novels, preferring to immerse myself in imaginary characters and plots, periodically I accidentally find a nonfiction book to read.  Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is at the top of my recommended list, and biographies of Cleopatra or one of the Roosevelts can always transport me.

Recently, I happened upon Bill Gates’ list of books on his blog gatesnotes  – some fiction, but mostly nonfiction.   Gates organizes his books by category: Most Recent, Title, Reviewed, Science and Technology,Business, Philanthropy, Politics and Policy, Heroes and Gamechangers, Saving Lives, Energy, Education – and he has read them all.

Although I did not relate to his reviews, I found two familiar titles of books I’d read and enjoyed: Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  Just reading the list gave me a perspective on Bill Gates.

I also got some ideas for books to read – maybe you will too.  A few I plan to order from the library include:

  • One Minute to Midnight by Michael Dobbs
  • Tap Dancing to Work by Warren Buffett
  • The Man Who Fed the World by Leon Hesser

Related Reviews:

Zeitoun

Moonwalking with Einstein

 

Orfeo – on the Man Booker Longlist

9780393349849_p0_v1_s260x420Some books just make you smarter when you read them, and National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Richard Power’s Orfeo raised my level of music appreciation while reminding me of the frightening power of modern science and technology.  Without the recommendation of the Man Booker long list – Powers is one of the first four Americans to be on that prestigious list – I would not have read this. Orfeo is both  a thriller focused on a fugitive fleeing across country from Homeland Security and the reminiscences of a seventy year old avant-garde composer whose retirement project is using bacterial DNA to splice musical patterns into living cells.

When his dog dies, Peter Els calls 911, annoying the policemen who answer the call – until they notice suspicious vials and Peter’s homemade laboratory.  The next morning, as Peter returns in his car from his morning walk (like many walkers Peter drives to a park to walk), he sees his house surrounded by the ubiquitous yellow tape, as men in hazmat suits are carefully packaging all his belongings.  He keeps on driving, and Powers begins a lifelong elegy uncovering how Peter’s life has brought him to this point.  Most of the novel is in flashback, from Peter’s childhood to his first love who convinces him in college that his talent for music should be acknowledged, as he switches majors from chemistry to music composition.  Eventually, he marries someone else, has a daughter, and falls into the perpetual search for the perfect score, with a few successes along the way – but too few to be noticed.

Powers invokes Mahler, Messiaen, and many others, using classical music the same way Melville used whaling.  At times, I skimmed over the information – much as I had in Moby Dick – searching for the thread that led back to the story.  Powers’ line: “Maddie’s eyes crossed a little when he went on too long about harmonic structure,” hit a chord with me.  Nevertheless, at one long interlude, when Peter plays the 5th Symphony, I found Shostakovich on my iPhone and played it as accompaniment to his description.

The novel really is more about music than bioterrorism, but Powers cleverly connects the easy access of modern technology and its dissemination.  As Els drives from Pennsylvania cross-country to his former wife, his old friend, and finally, his daughter, the watchful observance of ATM machines, phone logs, and highway cameras follow.  The possibility that anyone – even a well-meaning musician – could become the target of a zealous government pursuit may be the real terror, but, in the end, Els learns to use the social media to counterattack.

Despite the haunting remorse of not having listened more carefully in Music Appreciation 101, I found myself immersed in the story and finished the book quickly – in awe of Powers’ use of the “silence between the notes.” The emotional impact of following the protagonist had me lost in what Powers describes as “…the book’s power to erase  {the reader}…the single most useful trick of fiction…” If you decide to read the book, beware that the opener is only a teaser, and you will wallow through pages before you get the rhythm.  If you are an impatient reader, or one who must look up every obscure reference, this may not be for you.

The Man Booker Longlist 

Hardwiring Happiness

9780385347327_p0_v1_s260x420Written like a textbook with summaries at the end of each chapter, Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness offers practical zen-like exercises and reminders that a sense of well-being is often an individual choice.  With the same mindfulness theme prevalent in many books that promote self-actualization, Hanson offers examples worth trying from imagining an idyllic scene somewhere else while in the dentist’s chair to “reframing” – finding positive meaning in negative events.

As a neuroscientist, Hanson reminds readers that the brain can be shifted from negative mode to positive with just a little practice, and offers a twist on meditation.  Instead of totally clearing your mind, focus on a positive experience for a sustained time to promote its permanence in the brain – a resource that can be called up when needed.

Although only a little over 200 pages, the book seems longer, and I couldn’t help comparing the message of positive psychology to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Bright-Sided and Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil – both referencing biological rather than psychological science and both avoiding the didactic tone that Hanson adopts.  But this is the season to be both positive and happy, so another book revealing the secrets to true happiness can only be good.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

9780399162091_p0_v3_s260x420If you take Barbara Kingsolver’s advice in her New York Times review of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  as I did   – “avoiding everything written about it…”  including Kingsolver’s review –  you will enjoy the surprise that Fowler conceals until almost 100 pages into the story.  No spoilers here but you might consider stopping right here so you won’t risk it.

Rosemary Cooke, narrates the tale of her family. Her father is a respected university psychologist with a crew of graduate students to help with his research in animal behavior.  She starts her story “in the middle” and jumps back and forth from her college days at the University of California Davis to her childhood with her brother, Lowell, who becomes a fugitive from the FBI before graduating from high school, and her sister, Fern, who suffers a terrible fate when she is only five years old, that changes everything for everyone.

Fowler includes some comic moments with a puppet modeled after Madame Defarge (Madame Guillotine), but the serious notes predominate, with frequent references to scientific study and political upheaval – at times overwhelming the story with detailed erudite citations and shocking brutal treatment of animals.  In addition to her obvious agenda for animal rights, Fowler slowly unravels family lives that are irrevocably sidetracked.  When the surprise is revealed, the consequences of family interaction seem unique to their situation, but by the end Fowler has connected the story to all families who suffer the distractions of sibling rivalry as well as family loyalty.  And, she may challenge your perception of what is normal human behavior.

It’s no surprise that the New York Times asked Kingsolver to write the review; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has faint notes of Flight Behavior – a book with a message and characters who will stay with you.