Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Name of the Wind

To be honest, I haven't read much fantasy in the last 5 years or so, certainly not as much as I did in High School.  It all started to seem about the same and too formulaic (with the exception of George R. R. Martin), which is why I started to gravitate towards science fiction and non-fiction.  But after the recommendation of a friend, I picked up and read "The Name of the Wind," which is the first book in what will eventually be "The Kingkiller Trilogy."

The author, Patrick Rothfuss, is a fellow Wisconsinite and currently professor at UW-Stevens Point.  He seems to be a man after my own heart in that he puttered about in college for upwards of nine years because there is just so much cool stuff in this universe to learn.  How could anyone ever hope to settle on learning about just one thing?  One thing I like about the book is that the author seems to have an underlying understanding of ideas and principles like conservation of energy, chemistry, thermodynamics, linguistics, and whatnot, and they peek through the narrative in a way that is not common among fantasy authors.  It makes for a deeper and more believable world that is extra appealing to scientists.  Not that attracting scientists to the readership is much needed, because I have always thought that scientists and other nerdy types are attracted to sword-and-sorcery type fantasy novels anyway.  Much of the action takes place at a University for wizards, and gives it a bit of a Hogwarts feel.  At the University there is political infighting between professors, lapses of laboratory safety, a cavernous library...basically it is a setting and atmosphere that a lot of graduate students in science can identify with.

The structure of the novel is also very interesting to me.  It has a story-within-a-story structure, much like the Arabian Nights.  The main narrative is a first person account given by the powerful magician character "Kvothe" over the course of three days, as it is penned by a scribe called "Chronicler."  Although the main story itself (essentially an autobiography of the character Kvothe) stretches over decades, the telling of story is what takes three days, and each day is one novel in the trilogy.

I also especially liked the aspects of the story reflecting on how myths and legends develop and mature.  Comparing the "real" story as told by Kvothe to the rumors and legends that are constantly circulated among the general public is, I think, similar to how foundational religious myths developed and one of the central themes of the book.

"The Name of the Wind" is not only one of the best pieces of sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, but also one of the best pieces of fiction in any genre that I have read in a while.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Yerkes Observatory: A Wisconsin Science Temple

Did you know the world's largest refractor telescope is located in southern Wisconsin? The Yerkes Observatory was built in 1897 in Williams Bay, on the northern shore of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.  Although it is now past its prime for making major astronomical discoveries, today it is a really neat museum and education center.  Danielle and I visited it last year, and I thought I would record a few interesting photographs and tidbits here that might not be found on Wikipedia (where you can go and learn that the Observatory and nearby Frozen Lake Geneva were used as filming locations for Chain Reaction (1996), starring Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman).  They typically only provide free tours of the observatory on Saturday mornings, so you have to plan ahead a little bit if you want to visit.

The main telescope itself is quite impressive in scale, as you can see compared to the spiral staircase in this photograph.  Don't leave your jacket in the car if it is a cold morning, because the dome is kept unheated.  This is both because it would be too expensive to heat the dome, and to improve the astronomical viewing conditions by avoiding the atmospheric turbulence that would be caused by warm air escaping the open dome by convection.

Even Albert Einstein (middle right) managed to make a pilgrimage to the Yerkes Observatory in 1921.  It is obvious by comparing this photograph to the previous one that the floor is at different levels with respect to the bottom of the dome.  The entire floor in the room is actually a giant elevator.  Depending on the angle of the telescope, the viewing end changes height.  The solution that the engineers devised is to raise and lower the floor to reach the business end.  The electric motors that lift the floor elevator are still in working condition, and you can ride it up and down on the tour.

Here is a picture of one of the massive counterweights and pulleys that helps raise and lower the floor of the observatory.  There are several of these distributed around the circumference of the room.

Yerkes Observatory telescope elevator floor counterweights

The architectural details are fantastic and full of astronomical symbolism, some of which will be described by the tour guide.  It is pretty neat how the lobby hasn't changed very much from how it was at the end of the 19th century.

If you take a tour, make sure to keep an eye out for Spiderman hanging out in the rafters of the dome!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Favorites from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Two weeks ago I was in Boston, MA, for the MRS (Materials Research Society) Fall Meeting at the Hynes Convention Center.  After the conference was over I was able to spend most of the day Friday at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  It is a lovely museum.

I took the hour-long "Art of the Ancient World" tour, and then explored the rest of the museum on my own.  One thing I learned that I did not previously know is that the Museum of Fine Arts (also known as the MFA) has one of the largest and most exquisite collections of ancient Egyptian art and artifacts in the United States.

Djehutynakht onions ancient egypt painting Boston Museum of Fine Arts

These masterfully done paintings are from the interior of the wooden outer coffin of Djehutynakht, who was a governor during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2040-1640 BC).  Apparently this piece is notable for the onion bulbs in the lower middle, which have shading to indicate their roundness, and the darker coloration for Djehutynakht's left leg (seated), again indicating some depth.  This is one of the earliest examples of shadow and depth in painted art.  What is also amazing is that this is on the inside of a sealed coffin, so it wasn't really artwork meant for the living to admire.

ancient egyptian wooden ships Boston Museum of Fine Arts Djehutynakht

These wooden ship models are also from the tomb of Djehutynakht.  I am always astounded that little delicate pieces of wood like this can not only survive for millennia, but they look like they could have been made yesterday.

In addition to fantastic Egyptian objects, there were many interesting Mesopotamian artifacts in the collection.  For example, here is a cylindrical carved seal from ancient Babylon:

Carved cylindrical seal from ancient Babylon (left) and its impression in plaster (right)

The cylinder seal is on the left, and an example of its impression in plaster is on the right.  The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and other cultures used these seals a bit like bar codes for shipping goods.  You rolled these seals into clay or wax as the cargo leaves, and you could identify the owner of the cargo at its destination by the presence of the distinctive seal.  It is amazing how beautifully and delicately these hard stone cylinders are carved, and they're carved in reverse in order to leave the correct imprints.

I managed to venture away from the ancient art and view some of the famous American and European artworks as well.  This famous painting by J. M. W. Turner is called "The Slave Ship." It caused quite the stir when it was painted and was very controversial for the grisly depiction of slave bodies and chains thrown overboard so the slavers could collect on insurance payments for injured and sick slaves who wouldn't be sellable. It was painted in 1840, about 20 years before the breakout of the American Civil War, so slavery was very much a hot-button political issue at the time.  This painting probably even sparked a lot of conversations and soul-searching that eventually led to the ending of slavery in America.

19th Century Painting MFA Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Mark Twain was a little critical of the composition of the painting, but his assessment actually hits pretty close to the mark for what this explosion of orangey yellow brown and red color evokes if you sort of squint at it from afar: "Slave Ship - cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes."  I thought it was kind of cool that Mark Twain definitely stood in front of this painting during the 19th Century, though it was probably hanging someplace else at the time.

I really got drawn in by this painting of Berber King Mulay Ahmad painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1609.  The artist must have loved this painting himself, because he kept it in his own collection for more than 30 years.  I don't know what it was about this guy, but the glistening of his eyes and the shimmery quality of the fabrics really got me staring.

This final painting is really fun.  It is called "Museum Epiphany III" by Warren Prosperi.  It's a bit of a "meta" art work because it is a painting of people viewing all the 19th century American artwork in the beautiful gallery surrounding it.  It is a bit like looking in a mirror that's not changing, or a photograph taken on a particular day in the gallery.  If they ever change the arrangement of works in the room, or the colors of the wallpaper, the effect wouldn't work anymore.  It is the only recent painting in the room (painted in 2012) and it kind of sneaks up on you in the middle of the other works with gratifying results.

Museum Epiphany iii by Warren Prosperi (2012) Boston Museum of Fine Arts, with surrounding gallery context

New Directions

I have decided to change the focus of this blog, to open it up to a wider range of interests beyond simply language learning.  I still want to learn languages at a slow burn over the course of the rest of my life, and language practice may still appear in these pages.  However, I also want to practice consistently writing and editing more complex thoughts in my native language of English, in styles other than the scientific manuscript writing I generally do.  I also want to maintain only one consistent writing space rather than having multiple blogs.  Since I have already invested many hours into writing in this blog, I have chosen to change its title and focus instead of starting from scratch.  Since I really currently have a consistent audience of one, and perhaps a small number of strangers who stumble in from Google...I think no one will really mind these changes.

-- Josef