Category: Book Review

Acting the Giddy Goat Book Review

Book by Mike Tanner

Mike Tanner’s first novel is funny, full of life and remarkably original. There is more than a hint of early Tom Robbins as quatrains from the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam are posted on lamp posts in downtown Toronto. Or when Martin, a philosophy PhD temporarily employed as a kindergarten teacher, “got himself an airhorn, which he pulled from his bag and blew the following morning when he appeared among the whirling, shrieking mass of tiny bodies. The sound was deafening, and its effect immediate and dramatic: the noise stopped, and the kids looked at him with wide eyes, startled, curious and with a new respect.”

Tanner introduces hiss characters at a corner table at the Horse and Groom, an imaginary Toronto bar. They are a bunch of disparate people get together Thursday nights to listen to Johnny Raccoon and his band play covers and some original material. They’re in their late 20s, early 30s: well educated, some married, most not, employed gainfully, but not gleefully.

Brewmaster Bill jots notes for a book as he works at the U-brew Palace. Susan Harris wonders whether five-inch heels and switching her name to Susie will help her snatch Drake Liedermann, an aspiring film director, from the ample embrace of Tracy the waitress. Most of Tanner’s characters are putting in time waiting for the last step to adulthood. Some have been waiting for a while.

Tanner’s characters are struggling with the question that lies at the threshold of maturity: “Should I settle for this?” At 40, Johnny Raccoon has got a two-record deal – the first real money he has ever had. It means he will no longer have to race Jin-Dong Choi, the marimba master, for the prime busking spot at the Pape subway station. But it also means he has to accept production direction from Bobby G, late of funky Philadelphia, who has no idea at all what Johnny’s music is about.

Tanner has a gift for detail, he keeps the beer orders straight and, a professional musician himself, is authoritative writing about “the transition into the final B-flat, C, D-minor section”. But it is not all beer and guitar licks: Tanner gives sensitive, smart and convincing portraits of two marriages, one happy, the other heading for trouble.

Toronto is the background throughout the novel. This Toronto is actually a pretty interesting place to live – Toronto on the cusp of Spring, south of St. Clair, downtown, where the crazies on the TTC pass unnoticed by the suburbanites in the golden towers. Tanner’s descriptions of getting around in downtown Toronto, whether driving in Johnny Raccoon’s aptly named car, the “Roach” or weaving on to the last subway train after a half-dozen too many drinks get the pleasures of the city just right.

The collisions between reality and dreams at the heart of Acting the Giddy Goat reach their climax as one of Toronto’s wonderful, fierce, thunderstorms purges the city. Tanner is not trite enough to resolve all his characters’ destinies as the electricity flicks on and off. Instead, Dionysus runs rampant, Rebellion Ale is drunk by the jug and, in the un-air-conditioned
dark of the Horse and Groom, a wonderfully hedonistic full-on party breaks out.

Acting the Giddy Goat avoids most of the mistakes that mar first novels. Tanner has lived enough and done enough to have lots of material. In his early forties, a world class field hocky player, a veteran of literally thousands of bar gigs with his own cover band, a new father, Tanner has a perspective that 23-year-olds rushing their creative writing projects to print do not. Most of all, Tanner just loves writing and is damned good at it.

There are set pieces in the novel – Adam Allman going to his gym to be assailed by the ghastly Grunt Brothers who make repulsive noises as they pump iron, Johnny Raccoon racing for his busking spot, dinner with the most revolting Canadian family I have encountered in print – and each is spun out to let the reader appreciate the characters and their point of view. Even the passages of Brewmaster Bill’s journal that talk about writing – an almost certain kiss of death in a first novel – are amusing, lightly handled and true.

Very occasionally Tanner seems to lose his thread. There is, perhaps, a bit too much about the tribulations of Johnny Raccoon and his band, but these last no more than a couple of pages and often Tanner’s writing is such fun to read that being a bit lost is no great hardship.

The answer to the question, “Should I settle for this?” is often, “Why ask?” Some of Tanner’s characters get it, some don’t, some need more time. Most are working like the sculptor Henry Moore who, according to Adam Allman, asked how he’d sculpted an elephant out of a block of ice: “He said it was easy. All he had to do was to get the block of ice into his studio and chip away everything that didn’t look like an elephant.” Adam goes on, “Have to chip away everything that doesn’t feel like my life.”

Acting the Giddy Goat made me laugh and made me think: Novels don’t get better than that.

Entanglement: The Greatest Mystery in Physics Review

Book By Amir Aczel

Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.

Most people with a smattering of scientific knowledge know this critical speed limit. They may even know that it is a necessary rule in Einstein’s reworking of Newton’s universe.

Nothing can break this speed limit because as something gets close to the speed of light its mass begins to increase. As its mass increases the amount of energy required to increase its speed rockets upwards towards infinity and, at the edge of the speed of light there is simply not enough energy in the universe to accelerate the infinitely massive object over the light speed limit.

Up until 1935, this notion of locality, of a speed limit, fit observed phenomena and all of the thought experiments the world’s best physicists could come up with. By 1935, the action and Nobel Prizes in theoretical physics had shifted away from Einstein’s relativity to the weird world of quantum theory.

Quantum theorist Niels Bohr, famously remarked “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” Albert Einstein for one was shocked to discover that quantum theory implied what Erwin Schrödinger, of popular dead/not dead cat fame, referred to as “entanglement”. Einstein wrote a hugely influential and very controversial paper suggesting any theory which implied entanglement had to be incomplete. He saw entanglement as implying action at a distance and simply too weird to exist in Nature. (“Einstein has once again expressed himself publicly on quantum mechanics…As is well known, everytime that happens it is a catastrophe.” wrote Wolfgang Pauli.)

Einstein was wrong. Nature really is that weird.

Amir Aczel is a mathematics professor with a talent for taking really complicated bits of mathematics and physics and trying to make them intelligible to interested lay people. His very successful Fermat’s Last Theorem proved even esoteric issues in mathematics can make compelling reading. With Entanglement Aczel takes a huge risk: simply explaining what physicists mean by “entanglement” is enough to make your head hurt. But here goes, I quote Aczel,

“For example, two photons emitted from the same atom as its electron descends down two energy levels are entangled. (Energy levels are associated with the orbit of an electron of an atom.) While neither flies off in a definite direction, the pair will always be found on opposite sides of the atom. And such photons, produced in a way which links them together, remain intertwined forever. Once one is changed, its twin – wherever it may be in the universe—will change instantaneously.”

To Einstein instantaneous change across the universe was absurd. It had to be wrong because it violated the one essential principle his theory of special relativity required: nothing could travel faster than light.

The direct implication of quantum theory was that something instantaneously changes the state of one entangled photon to exact state of the other even if the other was a billion miles away. This “spooky action at a distance” which troubled Einstein.

As Aczel details, Einstein’s error gave rise to a series of mathematical speculations and then physical experiments to determine if the light speed limit or entanglement were right. The critical theoretical work was done by John Bell, a Belfast born particle physicist whose interest in quantum theory was more or less a hobby. Bell recognized the predictions of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s speed limit could not both be true and suggested an elegant mathematical construct which could, in principle, be tested experimentally to find out which was right. Aczel describes “Bell’s inequalities” but the real action lay in the experiments.

To test the reality of entanglement meant, in outline, creating entangled entities, splitting them and then changing the state of one part of the entity and seeing if it effected the state of the other part.  But the experiments also had to ensure that there could be no local, sub light “chatter” as between the various pieces of the experimental apparatus. In the early 1970’s researchers began to build apparatus which definitely confirmed that quantum mechanics are “non-local”, that information is somehow passed faster than light could travel. But these experiments, while suggestive, were not utterly conclusive. And if you want to prove Einstein’s speed limit is wrong you need knock down evidence.

As a graduate student Alain Aspect, performed three experiments using lasers to “pump” calcium atoms so that they gave off a steady source of pairs of entangled photons. Aspect’s apparatus changed the polarity of one photon and detected the instantaneous change in the other. And, using a switch which could alter the state of a polarizer in less than 43 nanoseconds, Aspect was able to change the apparatus while the photons were in their 13 meter flight. Each of Aspect’s experiments provided rigorous confirmation that entanglement was real and that there was no purely “local”, that is sub-light speed, phenomena, hidden variable or signal which could account for the instantaneous transformation.

In the early 1990’s a Swiss scientist, Nicholas Gisin, arranged what stands as the final confirmation of the reality of entanglement and thus action at a distance. He set up an experiment using a sixteen kilometer fiber-optical cable. On this apparatus a signal from one photon to another informing it of its state would have to travel 10 million times the speed of light. Which means it is now certain entangled photons are not communicating with each other. Instead, paradoxically, they are simply in touch.

This is where my brain began to sweat hard. Because the implication of the entanglement experiments is not only that the Einsteinian light-speed limit is void but that the entire notion of physical separation is a fiction. Or at least I think that is what the experiments imply.

To a degree Aczel is defeated by the sheer oddness of the material he is dealing with. Defeated by the fact the concept of entanglement does reckless damage to our day to day sense of how things work. Like Einstein we tend to believe that what we see and what we can measure is real. But at the quantum mechanical level measurement is voided by the uncertainty principle: merely by looking we change the outcome.

Reading Entanglement I kept thinking I actually understood the concepts only to realize, a page or two later, that I had entirely missed the point. This is not Aczel’s fault. He has written without diluting the truly bizarre and unintuitive implications of quantum theory generally and the weird facts of entanglement in particular. It is a book which I’ll keep rereading and referring to for a long time; but I doubt I will ever actually accept this strange probalistic world.

I console myself knowing Einstein didn’t accept entanglement either – and he could do the math.

You can buy the book HERE which is available in Hardcover and Audiobook version.

The Killers Within Review

The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug Resistant Bacteria

Book by Michael Shnayerson and Mark J. Plotkin

This is a good book to read now especially with the current coronavirus that is spreading across the globe.

It was front page news when drug resistant bacteria invaded BC Childrens Hospital’s intensive care nursery. But the hundreds of thousands of drug resistant staph infections which occur annually in hospitals throughout the world never make it into the paper. Yet these infections can make routine surgery and hospital stays dangerous and unpredictable one patient at a time.

For three and a half billion years bacteria have been adapting to unforgiving environments ranging from our stomachs to boiling hot outflows miles under the ocean. Antibiotics have been used for a little more than sixty years. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are disappointing and frightening; but the resistance is not surprising.

The Killers Within is a well researched, engagingly written book detailing the worldwide rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria in hospitals and in the community. The rapid evolution of  toxic bacteria –Streptococcus pneumoniae, Enterococcus faecium, Staphylococcus aureus among others – is a deadly but fascinating tale of adaptation.

Twenty years ago infections like staph were routinely eliminated with inexpensive, very effective, antibiotics. Now many of these infections are multi-drug resistant and, if they can be beaten at all, require new, expensive and often toxic drugs. At least 40,000 Americans die each year as a result of drug resistant bacterial infections. That number is growing.

Over prescription of antibiotics, patients’ failure to follow the full course of antibiotics prescribed, the use of antibiotics as “growth promoters” in the cattle, swine and poultry industries have all contributed to resistance. Resistant strains spread in hospitals because health care workers don’t wash their hands between patients or because the bugs survive on not quite sterile instruments, catheters and bed sheets.

The immediate causes of drug resistant bacteria are important but The Killers Within makes a larger point. Bacteria’s ability to rapidly evolve under pressure suggests that antibiotics’ astonishing success over the last sixty years has been illusorily.

The discovery of penicillin followed by the broad range of antibiotics created an evolutionary bottleneck for  bacteria populations. For a few years a drug would kill almost all the target bacteria. The key word here being “almost”: with every drug a few bacteria survive. These survivors are slightly more resistant to the drug and this slightly resistant population is the only one which breeds.

Bacteria generations are measured in hours so evolution is fast. Drug resistance rises and is encoded genetically. In a single decade “bacteria reproduced 50,000 times, trying each time, in some soulless but utterly determined, Darwinian way, to adapt in order to prevail.”

Drug strategies which did not take bacteria’s rapid evolution into account were doomed to fail eventually.

In Nature bacteria do not multiply unchecked. There are a variety of natural anti-bacterials: frog peptides and Komodo dragon saliva kill bacteria very efficiently. Synthesizing these natural anti-bacterials promises highly effective anti-bacterials in the future. Vaccines, naturally occurring or genetically engineered also hold some future hope.

For the moment, the authors see the most promising approach as weird little viruses called phages. Every bacteria seems to have a phage which has co-evolved specifically to feast on that particular bacteria. Phages inject their DNA directly into a bacteria. This DNA takes charge of the bacteria and forces it to make more phages instead of more bacteria before it dies. These daughter phages go and colonize more bacteria.

The anti bacterial action of phages was discovered by a French Canadian named Felix d’Herelle around 1915. He published his results in 1917 to the amazement and frank incredulity of the scientific world.

d’Herelle’s work was largely ignored in the West, particularly after the discovery of penicillin, but continued behind the Iron Curtain at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia. Hundreds of different bacterial strains had their phages discovered and catalogued at the Institute which is still in operation.

Phages offer a more sophisticated ecological strategy for bacteria control. They only have the capacity to commandeer their particular bacterial cell and are unable to attack other species of bacteria or human cells. And phages are likely to mutate right along with bacteria as they have been doing through the whole of geologic time.

For the last sixty years we have used a single approach to anti-bacterial warfare: antibiotics.  The Killers Within details the tragic but inevitable failure of that approach. Antibiotics have bought us is a little time to invent new ways of dealing with the ecology of bacteria. But that time is fast running out.

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