Friday, 27 January 2012

The Panda's Thumb. By Stephen Jay Gould

The Panda's Thumb

Stephen Jay Gould

Penguin Books. First published 1980.

A set of 31 essays on paleobiology and evolutionary biology by a master. I have read and enjoyed (and learnt much from) Gould's books before, and this one is no exception. Except that they are all about the above two topics, the essays are only loosely connected. In the first few pieces, Gould tells something, but not much, about his theory of punctuated equilibrium as an alternative to the (then?) commonly held theory of slow steady evolution by random variation and natural selection. As 'evidence' he talks about repeated sudden extinctions. He does not say anything about Kimura's theory of neutral drift which I find an attractive way of explaining biological diversity. This is not to discount natural selection as the prime agent of evolution, only that it does not operate to always make organisms 'better and better'. Gould also talks about the Piltdown fraud; the evolution of how Mickey Mouse is drawn to make 'him' look more and more childish, and therefore more attractive; about politically and racially motivated biological and evolutionary theories about such features as the size and weight of brains of women and black people; about how to define species; about cladism; about the intelligence of dinosaurs; and about whether birds are descended from dinosaurs (they are) or whether they are a product of convergent evolution that produced feathers in two separate events - archaeopteryx and birds (no, they are not). Some of the essays are, well, not outdated, but dated, since surely much evidence has accumulated in the last 30 years that would have settled some of questions raised in them. For example, Gould speculates that the evolutionary relationship between ciliates and acoeles (whatever they are) will be settled by analyses of DNA sequences, of which very little were available at the time Gould wrote his essays. With the enormous amount of sequence information now available, that question must have been settled. 

I record one final piece of information - magnetotactic bacteria carry nanocrystals (Gould calls them 'single domain crystals' - the 'nano' terminology was not known then) of magnetite (i.e. one of the iron oxides) to help them orient themselves to magnetic fields. But not, in general, North/South but Up/Down, using the force of Dip or the vertical component of the earth's magnetic field. The nano size (~ 500 Angstroms) is apparently just right - smaller and they would be paramagnetic, any larger and they would have too many domains to act as a proper magnetic sensing device. 

Thursday, 12 January 2012

One Hundred Years of Solitude. By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (of course!)

Penguin Books. Published 1996. First published in 1967.

While reading the first few chapters of the book I felt it was overrated and over-hyped. It seemed (and yet seems, when I think of it sometimes) a standard 'stream of consciousness' book in the style of some of books of Kazuo Ishiguro or Salman Rushdie, or even Orhan Pamuk. Maybe they all have the same style. And maybe it's a great and important style. But I find it difficult to understand. Or enjoy. Or derive any great satisfaction from it. I think to be really able to understand books such as these, one must be either a serious student of literature and philosophy, or have someone explain the whole book in detail, or be aware of every possible historical and political context of every sentence in the book (if there are, in fact, any) or most of them, anyway. Or maybe it's simply that 'the Emperor has no clothes', or well, very little. Certainly I don't understand why Salman Rushdie (or anyone) should call it 'the greatest novel in any language in the last fifty years', almost like there was a rating system for books, like cricket or tennis ratings. Likewise the New York Times' opinion that the book 'should be required reading for the entire human race' seems far too overblown. Of course these statements, which appear on the cover pages of the book, may be the publisher's attempt to overawe a potential buyer into completing the purchase. Maybe the context in which the comments were originally made nuanced them a lot more. But does the book deserve the Nobel prize? A question more to the point is, does the author deserve the Nobel prize? Who am I to say? I do know that most of my attempts to read Nobel prize winning authors have ended in confusion and boredom, except for a few instances - Steinbeck, Tagore, and one or two books by Pamuk and Gao Xingjian. But let me not digress too much. Let me get back to the 100 lonely years.

The book is a tale (or history) of one Colombian family over six generations, narrated in the 'magic realism' style. This means that there are a lot of strange happenings scattered through the book, such as flocks of yellow butterflies always announcing the presence of one of the characters, or the sudden ascent to heaven of another character, the most beautiful female in the book. These events probably represent something else, but I don't understand them. Sometimes they are humorous, sometimes sad, sometimes horrible, but only  rarely clearly related to what the author is trying to convey. The tale begins with the founding of the village of Macondo by the patriarch of the family Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula. Beundia becomes demented after about 50 years and has to be kept tied to a tree until he dies, but his wife survives to see the birth of the sixth generation, and for the first few generations acts like a Michael Corleone, remaining 'strong for the family'. Among the other notable characters in the family is General Aureliano Beundia, son of Jose, who fights some kind of revolutionary war off and on, fighting first in favour of the 'liberals' against the 'conservatives' and then against the 'liberals'. There are other characters almost equally notable - Pilar Ternara, whore/mistress to more than one member of the family, and mother to one; Remedios the beauty who likes to walk around naked and finally ascends up into the sky; Melquiades, the gypsy, who comes to Macondo every year, each time bringing strange devices, like magnets, or flying carpets; and Mr Brown of the banana company who is the typical American (US) executive, only interested in the profits of his company, who oversees the slaughter (and then the cover-up of the slaughter) of '3000' people striking along with the company workers for better conditions. There is love, hatred, sacrifice, adultery, incest, birth and death, and generally high and low points in the struggles of the family, until it decays away to almost nothing. There are several memorable scenes, and no doubt I will come across situations in life where they will be recalled. The family story is set against the background of the typical (probably) history of a South or Central American country. It starts with the founding of Macondo in the wilds, its development, the internal wars, the politics, the dictatorships, the hyper-capitalist US company, the coming of the railway and the changes this 'modernity' brings, until finally decay sets in and the once prosperous and thriving town fades away, before being utterly destroyed (off stage, after the end of the book) by a storm. (This may be blasphemy, but some of these aspects, especially the ones featuring General Aureliano, are reminiscent of the book 'The Adventurers' by Harold Robbins! I kept thinking of that book while reading this.)

After the first few chapters, which as I said, I had to push myself to read, I enjoyed reading the rest of it. Once you get some sort of handle on the writing style and the innumerable Arcadios and Aurelianos, it is enjoyable, and frequently strikes a personal chord. Something or the other in my life is often like something described in the book. Apart from the loose structure I described above, the book does not have a real plot. Almost every third or fourth page of the book takes up a different thread and follows it for a short while. Sometimes, it reverts to a thread that was dropped earlier on, and takes it a little further. But on the whole the novel was probably written down like a poem, rather than like the novels that PG Wodehouse painstaking constructed (as described in his 'Performing Flea'). It does have a denouement at the end. This has to do with some mysterious manuscripts that Melquiades the gypsy has entrusted to the care of the first Jose Arcadio Beundia. The last Aureliano, after six generations, finally finds it is written in Sanskrit, learns that language, finds that it is actually coded in many different codes and then translated into Sanskrit, deciphers the codes, and understands that the manuscript is the history of the Buendia family written in a form compressed in space and time, or in other words, the novel we have just finished!

Some quotations - sentences that struck me as I read the book.

'The best friend a person has is one who has just died'

'She began to make mistakes, trying to see with her eyes the things that intuition allowed her to see with greater clarity'

'...he was the only one who had enough lucidity to realize that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave eternalized fragments in a room.' 

'It had never occurred to him until then to think that literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people...'    

'...the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spilling into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.'

Of course the original in Spanish may be different, almost certainly better. What I have written above are my 'raw' reactions. I will probably read the book again, after I read reviews and essays on Marquez, and perhaps understand why the book is considered so great. Not that I don't like the book now, I like it a lot. But 'greatest'? I don't know. Perhaps it's just that I don't see all of its merit.