Saturday, April 05, 2008

Moby Dick by Herman Melville (A Whale of a book)

Moby Dick by Melville is considered by many to be the greatest American novel ever written. To come up with such credentials is no meek achievement for a novel, that was floating in wilderness for first sixty years of its existence. The 1851 novel was at best ignored by readers and critics alike, till in the beginning of twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence declared it to be "An epic of the sea such as no man has equalled." Thereafter two critics, Carl Van Doren (1921) and F. O. Matthiessen (1941) managed to convince the generations that followed that Moby Dick was not only a great novel, but perhaps one of the greatest work of fiction ever written. My only intention to quote this history before I write my own review is to point out that this whale of a book comes with contexts and content that make it a remarkable study. If I were to judge the book with dead objectivity, I think I would have sided with the reception this book got in the first sixty years of existence. Now I am burdened by biases created by people in last hundred years. But in what follows, I will speak my mind, in spite of what impressionists, critics, symbolists and literary hoi polloi might have inferred due to an imposing reputation that this novel has begun to acquire.

Moby Dick is an encyclopedia on whaling. It is an almanac about how the products that can be extracted from the body of a whale. It is a tome that contains endless entries about ships, whaling, oil business and zoology of a whale. As an epic, which it is touted to be, it cannot light a candle to the epics of the ancients, say Homer or Ved Vyas. There is an obsessive Ahab, captain of the ship Pequod, whose only motive is to kill the white whale, Moby Dick. He sets out on the journey with a set of "barbarian" harpooners, and the book presents the imperialistic, (White Man's Burden) thoughts of the age, in an honest portrayal of the non-white races.

The ocean roars in the background, sharks chase dead whales, the hunting of whales is described without creating much adventure and then it is usually a notebook entry about this or that. The story in itself can be told in a few lines, but Melville choses to take us on an endless journey, where interlocking ships converse to fill in the interminable sailing time. For all the diversions and digressions into the plethora of facts and rumors Melville manages to supply us with, I would have liked him to put little more effort into those celebrated elements of novel as a form of fiction: plot, characters, story, climax and drama. The characters are "flat", i.e. they don't get altered by experiences. If I would wish to read a fable, I will always prefer the ones by Aesop or the ones by Vishnu Sharma (Panchtantra).

On the whole, Moby Dick is a readable book, for it does contain some remarkable passages. With some editing, it could have risen in my estimation, and fared better in the era before symbolists explained that what is presented is not as important, as what metaphors, what allusions, (what illusions) it can inspire. Since the book is sold as the battle between the whale and the Captain Ahab, I must add that the face-off between these occurs only in the last thirty pages of a six hundred and fifty-five page version I read. The build-up to the battle begins so far into the novel, that by then most people who read for readings sake, would have given up. The reader is as exhausted as maybe Melville was when he brought his epic struggle of writing this to an end.

Surprisingly, while I did find that I had marked at least hundred pages as worth revisiting (and that in my typical estimation makes it an awesome novel), I was more disappointed than not, after finishing the novel. Even in translation, the Russians and the French find favor from me and I feel transformed after reading them. I prefer and prescribe Lawrence, Maugham, Hemingway, Nabokov, Victor Hugo, Virgina Woolf, Dickens, Joyce, Marquez, Tolstoy, Tagore, Dostovesky, Prem Chand, Pamuk, Gogol, Austen, Forster, Rushdie, and many more over Melville. Be it for entertainment, word play, historical or mythical content or for sheer imagery, I will recommend at least few dozen novels that must enter your reading room before this Whale rams its way there.

Science of foam, beer, bubbles and soap suds

The Physics of Foams by Denis Weaire and Stefan Hutzler
Coherent and succinct introduction to foamy physics

The Physics of Foams by Denis Weaire and Stefan Hutzler is a lucid, terse and coherent introduction to the realm of foams. Weaire, who is co-author of another delightful text "The Pursuit of Perfect Packing", presents ideas about minimum surfaces, packing problems, and associated structural question with simple and elegant examples.

The authors use minimum of mathematics to emphasize the key ideas related to foam rheology, drainage, stability, structure, coarsening and conductivity. By drawing their examples from varied sources (bubble rafts, beer foam, metal foam, magnetic froth, soap suds), and citing relevant experimental and simulation results that explain the concepts, Weaire and Hutzler have created a text that will be handy to instructors everywhere. As a scientific treatise, it connects our understanding with ideas emanating from observing beer and soap bubbles, thinking about Kepler or Kelvin's hypothesis about packing, and basic understanding of properties of (complex) fluids. The text is entertaining, and is supplemented by innumerable illustrations to make it a worthwhile reading for anyone remotely interested in foam physics.

In context of the other review, I may add that the text comes with a list of useful articles and books that can be referred to by the serious researchers interested in deeper questions or details left out of the text. Brevity of presentation has its own merits, and learning and teaching through analogies and intuition is favored and practiced in this informal, but elegant text. Recommended reading!

Universal Foam by Sidney Perkowitz
An entertaining and illuminating journey into foam physics

In Universal Foam by Sidney Perkowitz, we encounter everyday phenomenon and objects - coffee froth, beer head, styrofoam cups, soap suds, shaving cream, bread, cork - and begin to see the underlying mystery, pleasure and physics, that guides their appearance, form and function. The science of bubbles contains answers to complex and varied questions: puzzles about the origin of universe and the softness of bread are revealed and deciphered using foam physics. As a teacher, Perkowitz exudes a ready wit, an imitable enthusiasm about the subject.

After reading this book, the ubiquitous foaminess of the world will reveal itself to you at every juncture. A glass of beer will turn into a laboratory for experiments about size dependence of bubbles of the froth, their stability and strength, and their variation with brand. As you stir your coffee, the foam will organize into patterns; corks on wine bottle will spark discussions about why certain champagnes taste better just because of their packaging. A walk by seaside or river will prompt observations about how much rain (and condensation nuclei) is being generated by the white effervescent milkiness that rides the waves. Night sky shall beckon your thoughts about big bang and about questions as philosophical as "do we really live in a bubble?" The book will reveal the scientific merit of such a question (and many more).

Universal foam is a great read, both as an introduction to the initiated, and as a witty jaunt for they who work their hours of intellectual activity by exploding or imploding bubbles. If you are looking for a more mathematical account, "The Physics of Foams" by Denis Wearie and Stefan Hutzler will provide you both with entertainment and equations in a beery Irish manner. (The text starts with the line: "Pour a bottle of beer")