Chickens and Eggs


Courtesy, “hand writing science formulas” by Mr. Lightman


Sometimes it feels like Plato and Aristotle are sitting at my kitchen table, arguing. This happens because where my kids used to bicker over who elbowed whom in the back seat of the car, as they’ve grown up they’ve moved on to better things – debates over ideas. And I have to say that while the squabbling in the back seat used to make me want to scream, the disputations that happen at the kitchen table leave me thinking. Here’s a case in point: the other day, the Rocket Scientist and the Conductor got into an epic talk about whether math is only a product of the human mind, or whether it has some reality in the world. The Rocket Scientist maintained that math is the name we give to things – amounts, shapes – and that, as such, it’s only a human construct. We see a tree outside, and connect the lines of its branches to other lines we see (the horizon, for instance), and come up with this idea we call a line. We see things and call them squares, even though no perfect square exists in the world. Meanwhile, the Conductor argued back that math grows out of physics – things exist in the world, we see them, and so we name them. Therefore, there’s a line because lines exist in the world, we see a bunch of them that look very similar to each other, and the idea of lines is born. To put the question another way, does the abstract grow out of the concrete, or do we pull the abstract out of nothing and lay it over the world we see? Sometimes These are chicken and egg questions that are just interesting to think about, and have been throughout time. As usual, I don’t think about them in terms of math and physics, but in terms of people and the telling of stories. The questions are equally tough in that realm, though, because while you often see that people tell themselves stories about what should be, or what the world is like, and then build their real, lived lives around that made-up story, you’ll just as often see stories that grow out of life. A person will experience kindness or cruelty, and go on to tell stories of the same. This gets writ large all over history – we tell ourselves that the king is born to be petted and obeyed and the serf is born to be abused and commanded, and then we make that story true by making sure everybody lives that way. And yet, that’s not the only way it happens. For a thousand reasons some other idea might develop – the concept that we human beings have inalienable rights, for example – and it works its way in, eventually changing the story for everyone. Chicken and egg, math and physics, reality and story. Is it a seesaw, or does one always lead to the other? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about. 

The Reading Rainbow

IMG_5485Our house is a book house, where everybody is reading something all the time. And the nice thing about that, aside from the obvious, is that we get book recommendations from each other. Many of the books I’ve read in the past few years have come from these recommendations, and sometimes even a book I’ve read before is brought back to me in a new way when one of the family reads it. This was true of Tiger Rising, by Kate DiCamillo, which a few years ago became the Beautiful Dreamer’s favorite. I had read it long before, and remembered liking it, but Because of Winn Dixie stuck in my memory so much I think I passed over Tiger Rising until, out of curiosity about why my daughter loved it so much, I read it again. I discovered that it’s a small gem, painful and beautiful at once. So I learned something both about the Beautiful Dreamer and about rereading books.

Her older sister, let’s call her the Conductor, introduced me to the lyrical contemporary/historical fiction The World to Come, by Dara Horn,  and the Rocket Scientist brought home several fantasy series I had never heard of before, in addition to pointing me toward a fascinating discussion about philosophy and fantasy that I’m still chewing over. My youngest, the Castle Builder, showed me the hilarious The Name of This Book is Secret series, which changed the entire feel of footnotes for me, probably forever. Then there’s the fun detective novels that Superman reads in alphabetical order.

And today, the Book Princess quoted from a book of poems that reminded me how well words can capture the exact feel of being alive in a specific moment. Here’s the poem she mentioned, from a book called Under the Mesquite by Guadalupe Garcia McCall:

“And the pomegranates,/
like memories, are bittersweet/
as we huddle together,/
remembering just how good/
life used to be” (p.129).

All I can say to that is wow. I think I have some reading to do.

Asimov the Wonderful

"Profession" by Isaac Asimov in the ...

“Profession” by Isaac Asimov in the July 1957 issue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though I didn’t read much YA fiction as a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, and the science fiction I read was mostly by Isaac Asimov. Asimov, probably one of the most prolific authors of all time, taught me about seeing things on a huge scale. His books about future history, societies, and worlds were very different from the other kind of books I loved – intimate character-driven stories — and they showed me how to think big, and keep a story moving. In Asimov’s stories and books, ideas drove the plot, and the characters were shaped by them. Reading Asimov, you felt like some kind of professor god, who knew everything at once, and saw history as a giant chess game. The ideas he explored in his short stories — the power of education, the force of social pressure, the dangers of relying too much on technology and not enough on the human brain — still inspire much of my thinking today. Later, when I grew into an interest in real history (as opposed to the made-up, future history of Asimov’s novels), I realized I’d been learning all that time I thought I was just having fun. Asimov taught me how to see the narrative line running through all things.

In college, I had the rare privilege of working, briefly, as an intern at Analog Magazine, which helped launch such science fiction greats as Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. By that time (in the late 80’s), Asimov had set up his own magazine, which had offices next door to Analog. I was always hoping to catch sight of him some time in the office there. Sadly, I never did. I would have liked to thank him for being such a big part of my childhood. Then again, back in college, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say a word. Still, I have ever single paperback of his science fiction I ever bought. They’ve followed me through several moves, and, in part, helped inspire my son to love science and space, so that he’s now on his way to becoming our own, home-grown Rocket Scientist.

Really, thank you, Mr. Asimov.