Sunday, October 15, 2017

Dolly, Hamlet, and Frankenstein

It has been a bit of a crazy couple of weeks with Symphony, so I never got a chance to write up Hamlet. Then, we did back to backs on the other two this weekend. So, I decided just to do three quick reviews. All three of these plays have iconic characters which are challenging to play.

Hello, Dolly! (Stars Theater)

I got a chance to play Hello, Dolly! half a lifetime ago, and my wife knows pretty much every song by heart. It is a fun show, with some lines I dig out every so often.

Unfortunately, this particular show was a bit disappointing. While the singing was generally good, the acting was a bit uneven. The sets were also pretty minimalist by Stars’ standards. I was a bit surprised, since the last two shows I saw at Stars (Ragtime and The 39 Steps) were both quite good. I do wonder if the uncertainty regarding their lease led to some belt tightening. In any case, it was enjoyable, just not up to the usual standard. 

Minnie (Caitlin Wolfenstein), Barnaby (Lucas Shearson), Irene (Amanda Locke), and Cornelius (Kyle Ball)
 Horace (Bob Anderson) and Dolly (Lori LaMacchia)

Newcomer Lori LaMacchia was good in the title role, as were Kyle Ball as Cornelius and usual suspect Bob Anderson (who played multiple roles in The 39 Steps) as Horace Vandergelder. Some of the others seem to have been picked for vocal chops rather than strong acting. A couple of high school brothers ended up taking parts at the last minute (according to the program), and, while they acquitted themselves well overall, the youth showed a bit.

Again, I had fun, but it wasn’t as good as previous Stars shows.

Hamlet (Bakersfield College)

My wife and I attended quite a few of BC’s Shakespeare productions during our dating and pre-kid years. Back then, Randy Messick was the theater professor; my wife took his Shakespeare class a few times during nursing school as a change of pace. Well, Messick retired a few years back, and got ordained as an Anglican priest. One wonders if a few times of playing Friar Lawrence prepared him for his second career. Through the years, his hair has gotten shorter (and has now disappeared altogether) while his beard has gotten longer and longer.

Taking over for Messick is Brian Sivesind, a local theater veteran who we have also watched since our dating years - he was in The Comedy of Errors, at the first iteration of The Empty Space, then called Stone Soup. Sivesind continues as executive director at The Empty Space.

Believe it or not, neither my wife nor I had ever seen Hamlet live. The closest we came was seeing the Benedict Cumberbatch version on the big screen. Because BC’s Shakespeare plays are performed right around our opening Symphony concerts, we often struggle to fit it in, and the timing had just never worked out. That was the case this year, almost. We would have loved to have gone and seen Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but there was no date I didn’t rehearse, sadly. But at least we got Hamlet.

This production was a bit of a “who’s who” of local theater, with plenty of familiar names, both students and pros. Ryan Lee, who I have praised for his work in a number of other local productions over the last couple of years, was outstanding in the title role. While I haven’t yet seen him attempt a humorous role, he has a way with brooding characters (as evidenced by his performance as Tom in The Glass Menagerie), as the straight man in a screwball comedy (Arsenic and Old Lace), and as a subtle character in a tragedy (Of Mice and Men). I thought Lee’s interpretation of the character in this play was compelling, consistent, and emotive. I also should mention some of the athletic moves - not everyone could pull off that kind of choreography.

Sivesind as King Mark was also solid. Sivesind is pretty delightful as a villain - he was chilling and malevolent in Othello last year, for example. Messick took a turn as the stuffy Polonius - a role he had never played before. Bob Kempf was hilarious as the chief gravedigger, and Nolan Long, who seems built to play humorous bit characters played off him as the assistant. Nancee Steiger, who has show some real range as the fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie and as the lead in If/Then, brought a totally different vibe to Guildenstern, giving him(her) a bit of a tic and a too loud laugh. Carlos Vera, who seems to be in just about everything these days, as Laertes. Vera seems to have a bit of a menacing edge to every part he plays, whether Cassio in Othello or Carlson in Of Mice and Men.

I want to also mention Tevin Joslen as Horatio. Joslen was last seen (by me at least) in the role of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, and he has a huge stage presence. Playing opposite to Lee isn’t easy, as he tends to own the stage, but Joslen and Lee had real chemistry in portraying the close relationship of Hamlet and Horatio. Both of these young men have real promise. 

 Hamlet (Ryan Lee) and Horatio (Tevin Joslen)

There were a couple of performances which were disappointing mostly because of how good the actors usually are. Amy Hall as Gertrude and Shelbe McClain as Ophelia both suffered a bit from the venue. BC’s outdoor theater is large and, well, outdoors, and projection can sometimes be an issue. Particularly when facing to the side. While I thought both performances were good overall, I lost a few lines to low speaking volumes for each of them. Mostly, this is a minor complaint, but adapting to the venue is important. Outdoor performance is a much different beast, particularly if no amplification is to be used.

BC chose to make a bit of a change to the script in this case. I am not a Shakespeare purist, exactly. I find setting plays in different eras to be perfectly acceptable. However, I am not sure how I feel about this one.

As the play opens, we see the very last scene, where Hamlet bids Horatio tell the tale. At that point, the play is told as a flashback. When we get to the end, the lines were (if I am recalling correctly) changed just a bit so that we don’t get the epilogue in total. (I think a few lines were cut. I wish I had had my script to check it at the time, and two weeks have gone by now.) Finally, at the very end, Horatio, having told his story, drinks the poisoned cup as well.

The sets were minimalist in this case, with copied pages of the script used as wallpaper on everything. In between scenes, echo-y fragments of the lines were played in a mashup. Rather atmospheric, and fitting to a low-budget operation by students. The acting more than made up for it. Naturally, BC’s stuff is going to be uneven, since the point is to give students a chance to act. This particular one was stronger than most. Kudos to Sivesind for maintaining the high standards that Messick brought to the program.

Young Frankenstein (The Empty Space)

This musical was a new one to me. In fact, my experience of Mel Brooks is pretty much limited to Get Smart. Yeah, I know. I am just not that much of a movie person, and I really don’t remember the 1970s very well. (Give me a break, I was born in 1976…)

But I couldn’t resist a chance to see Young Frankenstein, particularly since a number of friends really love it. I was not disappointed. The Empty Space has been outstanding the last few years, and have managed to put on several musicals despite limited space.

My wife and I brought the four oldest kids, and they had a blast. However, I will caution that there is a certain amount of sexual content in the play, so your parenting may vary. We are not particularly puritanical, in spite of (because of?) our Fundamentalist upbringing, so we went ahead and brought the kids. I should not be surprised that the older three got a lot of the jokes - including the innuendo. After all, they are good at wordplay, and read voraciously. I am reminded of the time Amanda and I saw Much Ado About Nothing early in our marriage, and we were the only younger people who got all the naughty jokes. Never underestimate the innocent looking ones…

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the young Frankenstein (“it’s pronounced Frahnk-en-steen!”) is the grandson of the familiar character. As this play is a spoof on the old Hollywood movies, rather than the more thoughtful original book by Mary Shelley, it doesn’t line up with the book, but contains the gloomy castle, and Igor. (“It’s pronounced EYE-gore!”) It is also set in “Transylvania,” even though the accents, names, and foreign words are all German. (Including some German swear words. Don’t ask me why I know them. My German is pretty much limited to food terms, musical terms, and vulgarities.)

Anyway, Frankenstein inherits the old castle back in the old country, but must go there in person, or the property will escheat (go back to the state.) When he gets there, he is met by Igor (grandson of the original), taken to the castle where he meets Frau Blucher, and sees his grandfather’s ghost, who convinces him to “join the family business.” Things, naturally, go awry.

I won’t spoil it more than that. Along the way, the old tropes are spoofed, there are fun song and dance numbers, and the monster gets to do a soft shoe Irving Berlin number.

The cast was outstanding, as usual. Kyle Gaines is quite young, but he has acting in his blood. His mother Julie was also in this production, as well as in Arsenic and Old Lace. (His grandmother had a few big screen parts back in the day, and has done ad work up until the last few years.) Kyle got the part of Young Frankenstein, and he was fabulous. He has a good voice, and an expressive face, and thoroughly inhabited the part. I hadn’t seen him before, although I understand he has been in other plays around town. I also approve of the little mustache he grew for the occasion. Perfect. 

 Young Frankenstein (Kyle Gaines)

Igor was played by Perrin Swanson (no relation), last seen in You Can’t Take It With You as the nerdy xylophone player Ed. Swanson is skinny as all get out, and in black tights with a hump and hood, would have been funny even if he hadn’t done anything. But he was hilarious to watch and listen to. Particularly when he danced, but the rest of the time too. Perfect part for him, and the chemistry between him and Kyle Gaines was excellent.

Igor (Perrin Swanson)

Julie Gaines got the part of Frau Blucher, in which she was appropriately creepy. Perhaps the best was her number “He Was My Boyfriend,” where she describes her love affair with the elder Frankenstein in awkwardly lurid terms. Kyle looked appropriately horrified. (One can only imagine watching one’s mother singing this song. Acting families must be fun…)

Victoria Lusk is an Empty Space regular, usually taking smaller parts. It was fun to see her flirt and pout her way through the part of Inga. Likewise, the other point of the love triangle, Elizabeth, was played by Marti Hoyt in an appropriately uptight and controlling manner.

Inga (Victoria Lusk), Igor (Perrin Swanson), and Frau Blucher (Julie Gaines)
Steve Evans brought the monster to life in a convincing manner as well, both in the original form, and then as the suddenly intelligent monster who “talks like Noel Coward.”

The Monster (Steve Evans)

Director Ron Warren, who is a longtime veteran of the stage, also played the ghost of the old Dr. Frankenstein. Warren is bigger than life on stage, with a voice that could fill a much larger venue, and a naturally sinister aspect that he plays for all it is worth. (If my memory serves, he played Caliban in The Tempest, which was the first Shakespeare I took my older daughters to see.) Warren is also a fantastic knitter - his knit creatures have graced the theater’s art gallery - and knows my wife from the local guild. He also serves as technical director for The Empty Space. Really one of the veteran theater guys who works behind the scenes to make good things happen.

As is the usual case, The Empty Space used creative sets, making the most of a very small space. The sliding door used in this play was a nice touch.

I really can’t think of any negatives to this production. The kids laughed the whole way through it, and we had a great time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

This was yet another book I picked up on a whim because it was on the “new books” shelf. I was passingly familiar with the basic history, because of the important legal precedents set by the cases that resulted. But I had never really gone into detail on the personal, scientific, or political sides of the issue.

I’ll start with a basic synopsis. In the period of time spanning from the beginning of World War I through the 1930s, glow-in-the-dark faces for watches , gunsights, and aircraft instruments were in great demand. Back in that time, this was accomplished by using a paint containing the element radium, combined with zinc sulfide. The radioactive radium would stimulate a glow from the zinc. 

 Antique clocks and watches under black light. Still radioactive, but not dangerous unless ingested.

The radium paint was carefully applied to the dial by skilled painters - almost all of them young women hired for the task. In order to get the fine brush point, the painters were advised to use their mouth and tongue to shape the bristles before painting - a practice which predictably led to the workers ingesting radium. While radium was well known to be toxic at the time, this fact was hidden from the young women - and in some cases deliberate lies were told to them regarding the danger. Within a few years, the women began to experience radiation poisoning, and many of them died at young ages as a result.

In what is well known to lawyers and law students as a common theme of history, the corporations lied, bribed, threatened, retaliated, and fought against all attempts to hold them legally responsible for killing their workers. Finally, some courageous lawyers, working mostly for free, teamed up with the most determined of the workers, and won. Soon afterward, laws were changed to protect workers, and OSHA was created, to prevent this sort of horror from happening again.

Kate Moore intentionally focuses on the women themselves. Their stories, lives, and fates, are the central story of the book. She extensively researched their lives, drawing heavily on diaries, letters, and interviews with survivors and family members. The result is a truly heart-rending tale, made all the worse by the unvarnished way it is told.

First, a bit of science, because I care about that sort of thing. Radium exists in nature only as a byproduct of the decay of uranium. Because the most common isotope has a half-life of about 1200 years, it doesn’t last long, geologically speaking. (Particularly compared to uranium, which has a half life of 700 million to 4.5 billion years, depending on the isotope. This is why uranium is useful for radiometric dating.) Radium thus forms a very small portion of uranium ore. The Curies isolated radium in 1898, and described its properties.

Radium is found in group 2 of the periodic table - the “alkaline earth metals.” (Back when I was in school, the groups had different names: group 2 was 2a back then.) This is the same group that contains calcium, and the human body uses radium the same way it does calcium. This means that if you ingest it, the radium will be built into the bones. Unsurprisingly, this is not at all good for the body. Radium decays by alpha decay, which means it emits a helium nucleus and becomes radon gas. Alpha radiation is normally not all that dangerous, because it doesn’t penetrate skin. But inside of bones, it can do tremendous damage.

This is precisely what happened to the Radium Girls. “Lip...Dip...Paint,” as the women described the process, and eventually, you get enough radium in your bones to destroy the marrow, turn the bones to sponge, and devastate the immune system. Just as a warning, the medical stuff is graphic and horrifying in this book. Some women had their jaws disintegrate in their mouths - and then brought the pieces into court. You also get pus and infections, fatal hemorrhages, and painful cancers.

Even worse, there is no real treatment. Once the radium is in there, it can’t be removed, even by chelation therapy. All that can be done is to remove any surface contamination, give supportive therapies, and hope the dose is low enough. The problem is that the radium continues to emit radiation for thousands of years, and as long as it is there, it will continue to cause damage.

Some specifics stood out to me as I read this book. First of all, there is no doubt that the companies in question knew the risks of radium. The evidence that came out at trial showed that they provided the (exclusively male) lab workers and supervisory staff with lead aprons and other protective gear. On the one hand, this was sexist (as later events showed), but on the other, this was kind of par for the course when it came to worker protections. High level, high skill employees are considered valuable enough to protect - and retain. Low level workers are considered expendable, and thus not worth sacrificing even small amounts of money or work to protect. This is still the case, by the way. One need only look at coal mine safety to see this in action. One might also note the fact that in general, higher wage workers get paid vacation, paid sick leave, paid parental leave, and so on, while “service industry” workers do not. I wonder why? Might it be that they are considered expendable?

The sexism was more apparent later, however. As women began to show symptoms of radium poisoning, the company - and their doctors - tended to blame “hysteria.” Yep, because they were female, their poor nerves were making them sick. This was a common response to any sort of occupational illness or injury among women. And it still is. Anyone remember carpal tunnel syndrome? Because it was mostly (or at least perceived to be) an injury that happened to female secretaries, it was blown off as a hoax by many.

The worst misdiagnosis was to one of the early victims. Her death certificate listed syphilis as the cause of death. Fortunately, her body was exhumed a decade later, and was found to have no signs of syphilis - and every sign of radium. The fact that her body hadn’t really decayed - and glowed in the dark - was a dead giveaway. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Also a factor here was that dial painting attracted working-class teens to the job. The pay was good, and their families needed assistance. But the assumption that lower-class women are sluts is pretty much timeless, it appears.

What seals the deal on sexism, however, is that it wasn’t until a male employee died of radiation damage that doctors started actually taking things seriously.

At this point, I really have to mention the case of Eben Byers, the wealthy socialite who died of radiation-induced cancers after consuming 1400 bottles of “Radithor,” a patent medicine containing radium. Ah yes, the history of medical quackery in the United States - it is our true national game. The best thing about this rather sad story is the fact that the Wall Street Journal ran the story under the headline, “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off.” After his death, he was buried in a lead lined coffin, because he was so radioactive…

 Ah yes, the good old days before regulation...

On a related note, a person who went by Dr. Frederick Flinn comes into the story as one of the main villains. Not a medical doctor, he had a doctorate in philosophy. (The jokes almost write themselves…) That didn’t stop the United States Radium Corporation from holding him out as an MD, having the ill women consult him, then hiding the results. Flinn was originally a hired gun in another case, involving the fumes from the manufacture of leaded gasoline. His job: prove that the fumes were harmless. Likewise, he was hired on by the corporation to prove that radium was harmless. The account of Flinn’s perfidy is pretty sobering. That he sold his soul so easily is disconcerting - as is the story of one of the dentists who helped blow the whistle on the early cases...and then decided to try to sell his silence to the company.

Like the doctors, some of whom fought on the side of the victims, the lawyers involved took both sides. The company lawyers came up with all sorts of, um, creative defenses, and did not make lawyers look good. (I suspect they were Partnership Collective Drones. Go read Schlock Mercenary to understand why…) 

 But she wasn't REALLY sick. Just hysterics, right?

The Statute of Limitations defense was obvious, and it worked in some cases. However, the counter was that the company had deliberately misled the women, and that the SOL on fraud didn’t start until the women discovered it. But there was another counter argument, one that would have a significant impact on the law. (This was, if I recall, the reason I read one of the cases back in law school.) Raymond Berry, the attorney in the New Jersey cases (the others were against Radium Dial, located in Illinois - and the difference in the laws of each state were important too), submitted the argument that since the radium remained in the bones causing damage, the SOL was irrelevant: the injury was continually occurring and would continue to occur.  

The other attorney who deserves recognition as a hero was Leonard Grossman, who took on the Illinois cases, mostly on his own dime no less. While the New Jersey cases came first, and started the process, they were settled out of court, and the company was never held to be at fault. Grossman, in contrast, fought his cases through trial, with the issues eventually reaching the US Supreme Court.

Grossman was quite a character, and his appearance in this book is delightful. He was a brilliant litigator with a soft spot for victims, which meant that he was often in financial difficulties. And boy, could he write a passionate brief. I’ll quote a bit from it.

“I cannot imagine a fiend fresh enough from the profoundest depths of perdition committing such an unnatural crime as the Radium Dial Company did. My God! Is the radium industry utterly destitute of shame? Is the Radium Dial Company utterly dominated by a beast? … It is an offense against Morals and Humanity, and, just incidentally, against the law.”

But it wasn’t just the Radium Dial Company and the United States Radium Corporation that were - and are - like this. The pursuit of profit always presents the temptation to sacrifice people. It is a part of human nature that has been evident ever since the dawn of recorded history. Slavery is merely the most obvious example. I cursory examination of worker safety even a mere 100 years ago show just how casually cruel employers have always been. A couple summers ago, the kids and I visited the ghost town of Bodie, where the stamp mill is still mostly intact. Not only did workers work without protection from giant machinery belts, if an arm got ripped off, they got fired. And charged for the damage to the equipment. Other workers used mercury to extract the gold. Was safety equipment provided? Of course not. And if you got sick, you got fired, and your family had to go beg. Ah yes, the good old days before OSHA. And likewise for the Radium Girls. Once one got sick, she was fired, so she wouldn’t frighten the other workers into quitting.

The case of the Radium Girls was crucial in forcing Congress to examine the widespread disregard for worker safety, and eventually enact laws to protect workers. OSHA was part of the solution, as were the many safety regulations that govern our workplaces.

I really wish that my Libertarian friends would actually read the history, before they insist that government has no place in regulating workplaces. There was no golden age before regulations - the golden age (such as it is) is now, and it exists because of regulations and inspections. Remove that, and you will have workers treated as expendable.

And let’s not kid ourselves about the present either. Here in Kern County, we grow things. This year, our crops were the most valuable of any county in California. Our food and clothing comes from here - and it is planted, cared for, and harvested by farm workers, most of whom are immigrants. My wife works in a local hospital, and she has seen a lot of workers who were victims of pesticide “drifts.” Many of them were never healthy again. Expendable. They’re just damn Mexicans and probably illegals, right? Or are they human beings, deserving of their lives and health? That is the question for my Libertarian friends. How do you plan to protect them? Or do you just not care? And no, the fact that the dial painters got high wages doesn’t solve the problem. Many died in their early 20s. Was that okay because they made some money?

At this point, I think we need to talk politics. I lean conservative, but part of that is that I support keeping our institutions - like OSHA - in place. That is not the goal of the modern day Right any more. Rather, it is to pack regulatory agencies with industry insiders - let the fox watch the hen house. And, to eliminate class action suits, which are about the only sort of litigation likely to succeed against giant corporations. Something to think about. And remember, the company can hire a doctor who will claim that the injury is imaginary. In one case in this book, a woman was told “I don’t think there is anything wrong with you” by the company doctor.

She was missing an arm.

I am not making this up. But this is what happens when profits are at stake.

My point here isn’t to make an anti-corporate or anti-capitalist argument. The track record of the Soviet Bloc isn’t good on worker safety either. The problem is human nature, in which power and wealth will always be more tempting than the lives of “other” people. That is why our current system, our social institution, if you will, is set up to balance the power and motivation of profit with the power of regulation and the law. The one keeps the other honest. This balance is as much a necessity of a functional society as our laws against theft.

This book is a powerful reminder of that reality, and a good antidote to the utopian thinking that Libertarians indulge in. We don’t have to guess what an unregulated workplace looks like: we can examine history. We don’t have to guess whether unregulated employers will do bad things. We know they will, because that is what they have always done. Human nature.

One final bit to point out here. A key player in these cases was the Press. The pressure on Congress would never have been felt if the legal cases were all that happened. It was the stories of these women and their suffering which inflamed public opinion and led to legislation. I think we are in need of a similar event these days, but I am not yet sure where it will come from. Right now, the very people who would most suffer under an unregulated workplace are the very people who distrust the legitimate media, and prefer media which pushes the agenda of corporate deregulation - and not coincidentally, the White Nationalism which distracts the white working class from the fact that they are being sold out. I am reminded a bit of the way that the residents of the town in which Radium Dial was located responded to the injured women.

They shunned them, and condemned them for “attacking” a major employer in the city. The power of denial is very strong, stronger than empathy in many cases.

Find and read this book. It will put a human face on the purpose of regulation, and give a cautionary tale that we need to heed in these times.



At the end of the book, there is a bit on the subsequent history of the study of radiation. It was the long term effects of radium that opened the eyes of many in the field of nuclear science to the risks of long-lived isotopes that were biologically active. In particular, strontium 90 behaves in much the same way as radium. Strontium 90 is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. So if you ever wondered why the world has banned above-ground nuclear tests, that is why. You don’t need any strontium 90 eating your bones, do you?

Postscript 2:

The most shocking thing from the epilogue turned out to be a statistical fact. The US wasn’t the only country to use radium for luminescent paint. (European countries, however, used safer techniques…) But get this: the total amount of radium used worldwide during World War I was…

30 grams

Say what??

Thirty grams worth of water is two tablespoons. That’s all. And radium is denser than water. So we are talking an incredibly minute amount of the substance.

That is probably why some didn’t think the small dose would be harmful. But a tiny bit of radioactive stuff in the wrong place can indeed kill you. And in really gross ways.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Love and Math by Edward Frenkel

Source of book: I own this.

While I didn’t go beyond algebra, trigonometry, and analytical geometry in school, I remain fascinated by math. Had I chosen a different career, I probably would have taken more advanced classes. In any event, I do find certain books about math to be fascinating, and try to read one from time to time.

Probably the one I enjoyed the most was The Nothing That Is by Robert Kaplan, about the history of the use of zero as a placeholder. Truly revolutionary. For more of the books I have reviewed with a mathematical theme, take a look at my index - specifically the section on Science. (I lump them together.) 

Love and Math is a blend of autobiography and an introduction to the area of mathematical theory called the Langlands Program. I’d try to explain it except (1) I’m not sure I really understand it myself and (2) Edward Frenkel, who is pretty good at breaking stuff down for non-mathematicians, took a whole freaking book to do it. So just read the book instead.

Frenkel grew up in Soviet Russia, as a Jew. This was problematic for him, because Jews were not (in practice) permitted to be admitted to the best schools, or even to have careers in certain areas. In his examination to get into Moscow State University, he was given a clearly bogus test, then failed on it. Nevertheless, he persisted in doing what he could. He was taken under the wing by a number of different professors and mathematicians who recognized his genius. Basically, he couldn’t study pure math, but had to look to a career as an engineer or applied math teacher. He could, however, study in his spare time, which is what he did. He eventually was invited to lecture and study at Harvard. He stayed on during the failed coup and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union, and now teaches at UC Berkeley.

The autobiographical parts of the book trace his academic and mathematical career, but don’t really get into his personal life. Instead, the biography serves to connect the mathematical concepts. Frenkel introduces each piece of the puzzle at the point where it fits in his life, and by the end, the reader can (sort of) understand at least the basics of what Frenkel has done in his field.

I must say, Frenkel does a rather outstanding job at simplifying concepts. I checked out a few different sources to try to get a better understanding, and realized that the others were even more confusing to a non-math-major sort. While I can’t say I fully understood everything, I believe I know more than when I started, and enjoyed the process. It took me a while. It was all I could do to read one chapter at at time, and then sit on it for a bit and process the information.

I won’t even attempt to get into the math itself. What is even more interesting is the way that math and the physical world work. Roger Penrose saw reality as a triad: the physical world, the mental world, and mathematics. I think he is right to a large degree. The more we learn about the physical world, the more we understand that it is written in the language of math. As a general rule, math has developed in the mind, in the realm of pure reason. But when we look for ways to describe the behavior of the universe, it turns out that the pure math we have ends up being the necessary language to describe what we see. The DNA of the universe does turn out to be math. This is fascinating and awe inspiring. While Plato’s idea of the “form” may not hold true as a general description of the world around us, math does fit that idea. There is indeed a world of ideal mathematical truth that we don’t so much invent as discover.

Einstein put it thus:

“How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?”

It seems hard to believe - and this may be one of the reasons that laymen often distrust science - but it is true.

There are a few other highlights of the book. One was Frenkel’s description of the way the Soviet system worked.

In the stagnant life of the Soviet period, talented youth could not apply their energy in business; the economy had no private sector. Instead, it was under tight government control. Likewise, communist ideology controlled intellectual pursuit in the spheres of humanities, economics, and social sciences. Every book or scholarly article in these areas had to start with quotations of Marx, Engels, and Lenin and unequivocally support the Marxist point of view of the subject.

It was hard not to laugh at this. After all, this idea was nothing new to the Soviets, and it hasn’t disappeared. You find it in many areas. Just to pick one of which I am all too familiar, within Evangelicalism here in America, most areas of study are off limits as far as intellectual honesty is concerned. You have to start with a quote from the Bible, and end up unequivocally supporting the “theologically correct” view of the subject, actual facts be damned. Likewise for [insert your favorite political dogma here.] (Maybe, say, climate science for conservatives…alternative facts, people. Or, the economic theories of Murray Rothbard - widely embraced by the Paul Ryans of the world - which dismiss empirical evidence as irrelevant to economic policy.) No matter where it happens, ossification of ideas and refusal to embrace the possibility that our beloved dogma may not be, in fact, true, leads to an inability to make further progress.

There were two exceptions to the general anti-intellectualism of Soviet academia were math and physics. It isn’t difficult to see why. They were useful. Useful for inventing and building things that blew up the enemy. And this is where many of the most talented Soviets found their outlet, even as many had reservations about the way their country was using their work.

Two particular discussions of the connection between math and physics were particularly interesting. The first was on the curved nature of space. This is hard for us to visualize. As Frenkel puts it, “We are used to thinking the space we live in is flat, and so in our everyday experience curved shapes seem to appear only within the confines of that flat space. But this is a misunderstanding, an artifact of our narrow perception of reality. And the irony is that the space we live in isn’t flat to begin with!” Perhaps one way to understand this is to think of the fact that in our everyday life, the earth appears flat. Building furniture or even an house can be done perfectly well based on that assumption. However, build a long bridge and you find very quickly that the earth is curved. Now imagine living on the scale of an ant, or a bacterium. Such a creature will never need to experience a round earth. Likewise, we cannot perceive the curvature of space, and flat space works well for our everyday experiences. But not so much when we explore larger scales.

The other discussion which was fascinating was that of duality, which underlies much of physics at the large and small scale.

It might seem strange to look for a duality in physics, but in a sense this is a concept we are all already familiar with. Take electricity and magnetism. Even though these two forces seem to be quite different, they are actually described by a single mathematical theory, called electromagnetism. This theory possesses a hidden duality that exchanges electric and magnetic forces.

This is a “theory” in the scientific sense, of course. It is abundantly clear that this duality exists. Without it, generators and electric motors, speakers and microphones, and so many other electrical and magnetic devices would be impossible.

One final bit. I have noted before that our society treats mathematics like some sort of foreign language, unnecessary for most to learn. We are math-phobic. It is socially acceptable to be illiterate in math, in a way that it is not socially acceptable to be unable to read. Even as our everyday lives are intertwined with math - any time we use technology - we are willing to accept it without bothering to understand. Frenkel quotes the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger: Math is
“a blind spot in our culture - alien territory, in which only the elite, the initiated few have managed to entrench themselves.” We do not bother to learn the language. As Goethe put it (poets and math...who knew?): “Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language, and forthwith it is something entirely different.” This really is a shame. I am doing my best to make sure that all my children enter college with a solid foundation in math, and (I hope) without a fear of it or a willingness to be illiterate. This book is not easy to read, but it is fascinating. For those with a math phobia, probably better to start with something easier. For those who love math, this book will be fun and enlightening.