Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Anathem: Reviewing Neal Stephenson's new book

When I read that Neal Stephenson was going to release a new book, I got really excited.  I own all of his books from Snow Crash forward.  I was really interested to hear about the topic of the new book.

Here is the general description:

Anathem is set on a planet called Arbre, where the protagonist, Erasmas, is among a cohort of secluded scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who are called upon to save the world from impending catastrophe. Erasmas - Raz to his friends - has spent most of his life inside a 3,400-year-old sanctuary. The rest of society — the Sæcular world — is described as an "endless landscape of casinos and megastores that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, dark ages and renaissances, world wars and climate change." Their planet, Arbre, has a history and culture that is roughly analogous to Earth. Resident scholars, including Raz, are unexpectedly summoned by a frightened Sæcular power to leave their monastic stronghold in the hope that they may prevent an approaching catastrophe.

At first, I was just confused, and then I was a bit concerned.  I read a lot of tech blogs ( Boing Boing, Makezine, Hack-a-day), and there is this outright contempt for people who don't believe in evolution, man-made global warming, and other science based "facts".  They seem to paint this picture of this select group of Tech geeks that believe in science "facts", and then there are the rest of us who just care about what Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are doing.  Maybe that's my misunderstanding, but that's what it sounds like to me.  So I was afraid this new book was going to be another disposition on this dichotomy.  However, I am such a big fan of NS's topics and style, I got the book anyway.

Initial Thoughts:
I am about 120 pages through this 910 page monstrosity.  At first, it was really difficult to grasp all of the meaning of the sentences because all of the vocabulary is made up.  I am horrible at pronunciation, so I know I am creating fictional ways of saying these words.  After about 60 or so pages, you start to get a little bit more comfortable with the words, and Stephenson picks the perfect time to start building the mystery.
I am very happy with the book so far.  The issues above that I was concerned about are there, but Stephenson is not very heavy-handed with it.

Here is one good quote from the book that I think applies to me:
"Boredom is the mask that frustration wears." 
The question is what to do about it.

Other observations:
The "secluded scientists" are basically just Augustinians Monks or at least characatures of them, but they just study a different topic.  It is an interesting point to see that this same behavior is rationalized when studying Pythagoras' theorem, but it is sheer folly when it is the Old Testament.

Well, I will try to do another update half way through the book and also at the end.  If I get "carried away to a dream world of magic", then I might not post again until the end.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Boston, Babies and Explosive Gases

I know I have been a slacker and have not updated the blog, so I will just throw out a little synopsis of my Labor day weekend in Boston.

I went to visit my friend Chris. He is a smart ass(double masters from MIT), but we went to school from 1st grade through our senior year in college. This was my first time in the Boston/New England area. The weather was great: low 70s, sunny, and a nice breeze.

The house where I stayed was pretty crazy. 7 adults, 2 18-month olds, and 2 babies under 3 months. A solid night's sleep was nonexistent(not that I am complaining :P). I also got stuck in Philly for 2 extra hours because I missed my connecting flight by 10 minutes, but that allowed me to see some of the South Carolina/NC State game.

Spending time with "Frankie-stein" (Chris's 1.5 year old daughter), I was encouraged that I was not clueless about children and felt like I was somewhat competent. (I did not have to do any of the hard stuff, though, hahaha.) But all the other crazy stuff (everything having to do with have a child) is very intimidating. Who knows where that puts me.

Overall, the weekend was great. I got to go to the Children's Science museum, MIT campus, and to Rockport, Mass (a small town on the coast).

One of the things that Chris and I wanted to do was to figure out if my compressed gas cannon idea was even feasible.

I have messed around with the physics but was never able to get a definitive answer with the math. We used an interesting selection of resources from plain old Thermodynamics text books to Wikipedia.

We calculated that to get 1 kg object to LEO, you would need about 2 kg of Oxygen and 0.5 kg of hydrogen. This is a good thing because it is not a ridiculous amount of gas that it would not even be possible. The next hurdle was the conversion of the energy from that explosion into heat or delta T (difference in temperature).

This is where we hit a roadblock. After doing some calculations using the specific heat formula, we come up with the delta T of 6000 degrees C, which just happens to be the temperature of the sun's surface. So that made us think delta T is incorrect.

After consulting the text books and searching online, the only real way we found to get this information was to actually blow up some gas in a bomb calorimeter. We don't have one, so basically we said we would just start to do some experiments with H2 and 02 and see what we might get.

Furture steps:
1. Create a setup for producing and capturing 02 and H2 through electrolysis.
2. Design/build/make up a fixture for exploding the gas- Chris's idea is an old engine block.
3. If results are above average, convert fixture into a cannon.