Hello, Pluto! But are you a planet?
(What I wrote in 2011.)
Hello, Pluto! But are you a planet?
Removing doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal, but not too ambitious for the Queen and Parliament of Britain in 1880. They enacted the “Statutes (Definition of Time) Act” to settle the matter once and for all. So now we know. Or do we?
Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots—tiny, skeletal, incapable robots, usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.
What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable? Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, …
Howard Jacobson: “So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”
You write a book; time passes. Toward the end of Genius I quote a bit of doggerel by “a young friend” of Richard Feynman: You are old, Father Feynman … And your hair has turned visibly grey; And yet you keep tossing ideas around— At your age, a disgraceful display! Where did I find that? I have no memory. Now comes email from Tom Ferbel, a distinguished particle physicist at the University of Rochester, claiming authorship. Ferbel has been around: Fermilab, CERN, the Max Planck Institute, SLAC—wherever a big high-energy collider can be found. In 1977 he and Feynman met at a conference on multiparticle dynamics in Kayserberg, France. Feynman was 59—about this old: Also present was Giuliano Preparata, a 35-year-old firebrand from Padua by way of Rome and Princeton, then working as a theorist at CERN. Apparently Preparata and Feynman got into a shouting match about quantum chromodynamics, then in its heyday, and the hypothetical elementary particles known as gluons. (Gluons are needed to bind quarks. They’re the glue in the strong nuclear force—get it?) For …
What is a bike messenger, and why? William Gibson looks at the archaic intersection of information and geography.
This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.) (Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)