Spiritng Neal Stephenson Away

Yesterday was a busy day for me; it began with meeting a friend from London, and then a talk by the ever-elusive Neal Stephenson. We progressed on to a spot of Laserquest, had dinner, and finished with watching ‘Spirited Away’. Since there’s a lot of interesting stuff there, I’m making this a ‘massive’ entry.

Meeting up with Lal (the aforementioned London friend) went quite well until we were ensnared by the siren call of Waterstones. Lal, bedazzled by their 3 for 2 offers, proceeded to buy Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, both by Neal Stephenson, in addition to the copy of Cryptonomicon that he’d brought with him. I volunteered to buy the books for him in case there was a student discount, but apparently Waterstones have stopped doing that sort of thing (probably because of people like me).

A hundred metres further down the road, we ducked into Galloway and Porter, my favourite seconds bookstore. Galloway and Porter has an almost universal effect on heavy readers of any genre; they’ll walk in, and exclaim that this didn’t look like a second-hand bookstore, because everything was in good condition. Then they’ll find several books that they’ve bought within the last year being sold significantly cheaper than what they paid. Once that stage has passed, they’ll proceed to a Terminator-like state, they methodically scan the titles of every single book present to see if they are worth buying for �1 or �2 – this usually requires quite a bit of mental rejigging, since you’re used to paying at least �6 for a book. In book calculus, does this mean that a book one-third the quality of a book you would buy for �6 be worth paying �2 for, or is book quality perhaps a logarithmic scale? Such questions keep the best thinkers of Cambridge awake at nights…

After we left Galloway and Porter, Lal dropped his bags off in my room, and we went out to meet Rich, who’d be joining us for the Neal Stephenson lecture. We found Rich on the Trinity backs (the ‘back’ of Trinity College, next to the river, also confusingly called the ‘backs’) and went to the lecture.

Now, Stephenson’s lecture was the second of a weekly six-part lecture series, and the first lecture was by George Dyson, which I wrote about earlier. I think only about ten students turned up to that talk, meaning that we were outnumbered by the dozen or so fellows present. I assumed that this would be the same for Stephenson’s lecture – granted, Stephenson is a world-famous bestselling science fiction author, but Trinity had done (perhaps deliberately) such a poor job of publicising the talks that I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.

I was wrong – someone on the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (of which I am not a member) had posted a note about Stephenson’s talk to their mailing list. As a result, the place was full by the time we got there. Not wanting to sit at the back of the room, we grabbed a few chairs and proceeded right to the front, along with a few glasses of wine for good measure.

Stephenson was looking particularly (and some might say, unusually) respectable, what with the nice suit and the neatly tied ponytail. When the room had become sufficiently packed, the lecture series organiser introduced Stephenson’s talk, on ‘Newton/Leibniz’ and Stephenson warned us about the length and esoteric nature of his lecture. If we wanted to leave, we were told, he wouldn’t be offended.

Neal Stephenson looking respectable after the lecture

I didn’t take notes for the lecture, so I won’t be able to go into detail about its content.

Stephenson started off by giving us a quick overview of the Newton/Leibniz controversy; these two people developed calculus seemingly independently in the 17th century, and sparked off a huge argument about who developed it first. The short answer is that Newton was first, and the long answer would include how Leibniz also contributed much to our use of calculus today, including the integral and differential notation.

But that’s not what Stephenson wanted to talk about – that story has been dealt with by many scientific historians. Instead, he took us on a typically Stephenson-like meandering of thoughts and facts relating to why this argument developed in the first place, what the historical context was, and the personalities of Newton and Leibniz.

As I said, I’m not prepared to go into detail because I’d inevitably make a dreadful hash of it. Suffice to say that Stephenson had done his homework, plus that of many others, and that if I could find any fault with his lecture, it was that he spent perhaps a little too much time reading directly from 17th century texts.

If you’re familiar with Stephenson’s writing, you’d expect his lecture to have some wonderful and bizarre tangents in them that defied all imagination. You wouldn’t be disappointed. For several minutes he talked about how some scholar (John Wilkins) tried to create a new language using only a few thousand words that he deemed essential; he placed these words into a matrix, and people would refer to them by their co-ordinates within the matrix. In the course of creating this language (and the book about it) he had to compose the world’s most comprehensive list of organisms at that time.

This posed a problem; he was implicitly casting doubt on the veracity of Noah’s Ark by saying that there were so many animals in the world, and this was not a good idea at all in the religious climate of the time. So Wilkins decided to go and explain exactly how, with the use of diagrams, all of these animals would fit into Noah’s Ark. Wilkins listed a number of tricks he could have used to do this, namely the ‘six cubits equals one cubit’ trick, and the ‘all animals were vegetarians before the Ark’ trick, and then delcared that he didn’t want to use any of them.

It appeared that Wilkins succeeded, although he did have to fit about 1800 sheep into the Ark as food for all the carnivores.

Naturally, I completely forget why Stephenson got onto this, although there’s a strong possibility that a good explanation simply does not exist – you just can’t be sure with Stephenson. Another of his short tangents involved comparing the Jedi Knights to the Knights Templar, which I think you’ll agree is much more straightforward.

Anyway, the rest of the lecture swirled around alchemy, myths of secret societies, universal libraries, theories of the nature of the universe, monads, and other such things. Thus it is not surprising that Stephenson overran his alloted time by an impressive 30 minutes. Due to this, there were only two questions asked. The first was whether Stephenson considered himself a dualist or a materialist; Stephenson replied saying that much of the materialist argument is based on the brain being a Turing machine, which he is not so sure about, and so he’s a skeptic.

The second question, asked by myself, addressed what I believed to be the burning issue of the night:

“Can you tell us about your next book?” I said. After the room burst into laughter, I added, in an effort to appear on-topic, “Is it related to what you’ve been talking about this evening?”

I already knew a little about his next book, but it’s always fun asking. Stephenson told us that it would be set in the 17th century, which was a great time because it had all these mathematical and cryptographical shenanigans going on (which was the subject of his lecture), plus it also had real life pirates, plenty of swashbuckling, and swordfights galore. What more could you ask for? The book will also visit people such as Newton, Leibniz, the Royal Society in London, and I imagine the royal intrigue going on at the time.

The lecture organiser helpfully added that the book would be called ‘Quicksilver’. Stephenson then added that his publicist would have killed him for not mentioning the name of the book, and that it was coming out in August.

Most people left after that and maybe a dozen people hovered around the front of the room evidently wanting to talk to Stephenson, probably for book signings – but none of them wanting to be first. I didn’t really want to go first, because I thought I might talk to him for a while and it wasn’t fair to keep other people waiting. However, this didn’t seem to work so after Stephenson told the President of the Science Fiction Society that he, alas, could not present a talk to them because he was leaving tomorrow, Lal and I had a brief chat with him about his website, which screams ‘Don’t talk to me’ to all visitors, and his time in Europe visiting Versailles.

“Was that for research?” asked Lal.

“Yeah, for ‘research’,” replied Stephenson, with audible quotation marks, and then went on to talk about how authors get to have lots of fun researching things.

There was a bit of a chat about doing publicity for new books, and I executed a shameful segue by saying, “Well, if you want to get back into practice for signing books, why not start now?” as I whipped out my copy of Cryptonomicon. He agreed, in good grace, and wrote a little message at the front:

“To Adrian. Thank you for staying awake through my talk, Neal S.”

Lal also had his three books signed, although he didn’t get a message. We later theorised that this was probably because he didn’t manage to stay awake through the talk.

I did ask Stephenson whether he was doing anything that night, in an unlikely effort to get him to come out with us, but unfortunately he suspected that plans had already been made for him by Trinity College; undoubtedly true, although we berated ourselves afterwards for not having pretended to be the ‘Trinity College Welcoming Committee’ and kidnapping him.

I’m going to skip over Laserquest now, since this account has already gotten too long and you probably don’t want to hear about it anyway. Neither will I talk about dinner, which we had at a nice Italian restaurant with another of my friends, Zizhen; instead I’m going to talk about the film ‘Spirited Away’ that we saw afterwards.

Spirited Away‘ is Japan’s most successful film ever, and could be superficially described as a children’s anime fantasy. Its producer, Hayao Miyazaki, commands such respect among the Japanese that they look forward to his new films with the same kind of expectation (if not more) that we have for the next Harry Potter book.

You might think, as a friend of mine confessed, that you don’t want to watch a cartoon movie. Maybe you really don’t. But if you miss ‘Spirited Away’, which should be released in the UK next year, you’ll be missing one of the most magnificent and wonderful films ever made. It has meticulously crafted and beautiful artwork along with a sensitive score; and of course, the story is enchanting; it’s about a young girl who has to save her parents and make her way in a strange and fantastic world.

What I loved about Spirited Away was the way in which they really utilised the power of animation. Several scenes were literally breathtaking, and unlike the identical Disney movies we’ve had in recent years, Miyazaki didn’t simply use animals – he created all sorts of strange creatures that morphed and shapeshifted.

When I left the cinema (actually, it was a college film society, but anyway) I saw that everyone was smiling. It was one of those movies that really delighted you; it wasn’t what I’d simply call a feel-good movie, and it was darker than most Disney movies, although certainly not as dark as Miyazaki’s other great work, ‘Princess Mononoke‘. The story and setting was much more adventurous than most movies these days as well, with a rich universe that had some excellent concepts that progress far further than the ‘dwarfs and elves’ that seem to characterise most other fantasy movies.

I intend to buy the score of the movie, and also the DVD when it is released – it’s just one of those movies that I really have to own.

And that’s about it for me, I’m not going to write any more now since I have to leave for the lab and do some programming. I might add some stuff later though.

An Evening with George Dyson

[This is an extended version of an email I sent to the Culture list, hence the slightly bizarre structure. I thought it was a bit long to put in ‘Middling’].

So I was walking through Trinity College Great Gate when I see none other than the overlord of all evil, Rich Baker, who was also coming to see the lecture that evening by George Dyson. Rich presented me with one of his new business cards after we’d had a glass of wine, whereupon I made some remark about American Psycho and the business card scene (I haven’t seen the movie but I’m informed that said scene is very amusing). Apparently I was the second person that day to make an American Psycho, which prompted me to ruminate on the likelihood of this (high, I ventured, because Rich’s circle of friends is very film-literate and I certainly don’t receive that many business cards from friends).

The talk was excellent; George Dyson is actually the son of Freeman Dyson, a fact which laudably was not stated on the (two) promotional posters in existence. Under the enormous pressure of having a world-famous physicist as a father and the director of the Royal College of Music as a grandfather, he went and lived in a tree for a few years, and then became a world-famous kayak builder. George wrote a book, then wrote another book about Project Orion. Project Orion was the codename for a US spaceship powered by nuclear bombs.

Some interesting factoids: One of the Project Orion plans specified an 8 megaton advanced spacecraft that would use 2500 nuclear bombs. As these things happen, it got shelved due to safety concerns and political reasons, although for a while the militar kept it knocking it about as a contingency plan ‘in case the Russians occupied Jupiter’.

Also, George Dyson seems to have the largest collection of Project Orion materials in the world. When NASA wanted to get a copy of the original ARPA contract to initiate multimillion dollar Project Orion (~20 pages long), he had to sign a NASA contract for the single figures dollar transaction (~30 pages long).

There were plans for a related ‘Doomsday’ weapon by the US military which would have several spacecraft outside the orbit of the Moon, 1 day away, with enough nukes to flatten the entire of Russia.

During almost every stage of Project Orion, the researchers were allowed to do essentially whatever they wanted as long as they were being supervised by a responsible physicist. George rather wisely pointed out the flaw in this, namely the ‘responsible physicist’ part, and then went on to tell us about how the Project Orion team used large amounts of C4 to launch a demonstration craft (blowing lots of other stuff up in the process).

He also showed us a diagram of how to make a shaped nuclear charge, which he told us was technically classified and illegal, but it didn’t matter since someone had sent it to him by mistake in the first place and he just put it in his book.

Before George finished, he remarked that it was well worth our time coming back next week to see Neal Stephenson, who he said was never seen in the US, so a public appearance by him in the UK was amazing. The Trinity don who’s organising the lectures said, well, it wasn’t quite public, was it, since Trinity is a private college. He then laughed heartily in a matter I found mildly unsettling, as if saying ‘Foolish mortals, only Trinity College members may gaze upon the visage of the slow-to-write one you call ‘Neal Stephenson’!’.

I had a few words with George after the lecture, asking him about other forms of nuclear propulsion (he isn’t so hot on them) and whether attitudes might change sufficiently in the future to allow nuclear propulsion in space (he thinks so). He also said that his father, Freeman, holds an interesting if politically-incorrect view about nuclear proliferation. Apparently Freeman thinks that if Hitler used a nuclear weapon in WW2, they would’ve been so stigmatised to have been abandoned by the world. Perhaps.

Lessig at Trinity

I just found out that Lawrence Lessig, the champion of individual rights on the Internet, went to Trinity College at Cambridge (my college). The Wired article says:

He went to Trinity College in Cambridge, England, for what he thought would be an extra year of coursework. He wound up spending three years there studying philosophy. “I just fell in love with the place,” he says. “For the first time, I really felt like I was … serious.”

I wonder if I should be feeling more serious when I’m at college…

College Girls

It strikes me that, so far, the Channel 4 documentary College Girls is giving people a very skewed view of life in Oxbridge. I understand that documentaries have to concentrate on the more interesting aspects of their subjects, which is why the first episode was about a student activist refusing to pay her university fees and the second episode was about a girl running for a post in the Oxford Union.

However, judging from the reactions of friends at Leicester University who I watched the first episode aired, College Girls is not doing the public perception of Oxbridge any favours – so far, almost every single person shown on the programme has been privileged and frankly atypical of the average Oxbridge student. We call such people ‘socialites’ at Cambridge – I’m sure others use less diplomatic words.

Today’s episode on the Oxford Union, which the majority of Oxford students do not attend, gave the impression that most students there regularly go to black tie balls, do no work and spend their time plotting politics. No wonder people don’t like Oxbridge.

Thankfully, it seems that later episodes in the series will be more realistic, dealing with the work pressures of Oxford and the personal problems of students there. Alas, I fear that the damage has already been done – undoubtedly the series director wanted to pull in as many people as possible with the first couple of episodes, and we know that first impressions count (trust me, I’m a psychologist!)

Oxbridge admissions

While idly browsing through an Oxbridge admissions website, I came across a report of an interview written by someone who applied to the same course at the same college as I did, but a year later. Curious to see if they’d changed anything, I checked out the questions this person was asked at interview.

Practically nothing had changed – this person was asked exactly the same questions that I had been (enzyme kinetics, sketch y=xsinx). The only differences were due to the fact that there was a physics bias instead of a chemistry bias. Incredible. This just goes to show that if you’re on the ball, you can really get an unfair advantage at interviews by using the Internet.