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The Quantum Story

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve read many accounts of the early days of quantum mechanics. Einstein and Planck, Bohr and Born, de Broglie and Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger. A familiar tale, for good reason. I wouldn’t think we’re in need of another account.

But a year ago, another one appeared, Jim Baggott’s The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments, and last April, Jeremy Bernstein reviewed it in the Wall Street Journal. This passage suggested that another account may well be needed, and this may be the one:

I have never come across a book quite like Jim Baggott’s “The Quantum Story.” He has done something that I would have thought impossible in a popular book. He manages to present the full ambit of the theory, starting with the introduction of the quantum—the basic unit of energy—by the German physicist Max Planck in the beginning of the 20th century, and ending with the search for the Higgs particle at the collider at CERN in Geneva. In doing this Mr. Baggott navigates successfully between the Scylla of mathematical rigor and the Charybdis of popular nonsense. He also manages to get the people right. I know this because for many of the scenes he describes I was there.

That Baggott brings the tale to the present day, an unexpectedly ambitious undertaking, was reason enough for me to consider the book. And consider it I’ve done, off and on for months, whenever I cast about for what to read next. But I have resisted.

Two nights ago, with Pelecanos’s What It Was behind me, it was casting time again. I turned first to another book on my list, Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War: A History. Its day will come, and soon, but Friday I decided I wasn’t ready. Next I considered Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon’s 1983 study that, I believe, evolved from his PhD thesis. Since reading his brilliant Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West last April, I have been eager to return to this earlier work. The Kindle edition is inexpensive, so I downloaded it and read the Preface, only to decide again that the time wasn’t right.

What else? Well, maybe The Quantum Story. I had downloaded the free Kindle sample before. This time I moved beyond that, took the plunge, bought and downloaded it. I’m about a sixth of the way into it, in the midst of moment number nine. The year is 1926, and sure enough, the usual characters are doing the usual things. Nonetheless, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Baggott is a good storyteller. And he manages to perform a neat trick at the start of each moment, continuing the previous chapter’s tale for a few paragraphs in a way that effectively sets the stage for the next one.

Not that the explanations of the quantum mechanics are easy to follow. Bernstein warns in concluding his WSJ review that “the problem is not the mathematics. There is almost none. The problem is that physics is hard. Quantum mechanics is hard. Like a good wine, you cannot take this book in gulps. Take it in sips. It is well worth it.” I might actually prefer more mathematics rather than vague mathematical talk. Not to complain. So far so good. And I still have the Crimean War to look forward to.

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Categories: Books

What It Was

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

I mentioned two months ago that I had given up reading George Pelecanos’s DC-based crime novels. Back in September, Marilyn Stasio featured his latest, The Cut, in her NYT Sunday Book Review crime roundup. Looking for books to read that coming week in Nantucket, I ignored it, but was inspired by her briefer remarks about the third in Martin Walker’s series about Bruno, the Dorgogne police chief. That led, as I wrote regularly throughout the fall, to my reading the first Bruno novel while in Nantucket, then in quick succession the second and third, and finally the fourth (not yet available in the US, so I ordered it in hardcover from UK Amazon).

I mentioned in the same December post that in Stasio’s survey of notable crime books of 2011, she included The Cut under the heading “Favorite New Sleuth.” I ignored it once again, this time being inspired by her listing of Sebastian Rotella’s Triple Crossing — reviewed with Pelecanos’s and Walker’s books in that very same Labor Day roundup — as both her favorite debut novel and favorite action thriller.

But my Pelecanos resistance was broken down at last, and for the silliest of reasons — cost. In the NYT a month ago, Janet Maslin reviewed a still newer Pelecanos novel, What It Was. I was surprised he had released another less than half a year after the last one. What especially got my attention was this:

Mr. Pelecanos writes a lot of books. His publisher seems particularly intent on finding readers for this one. It is available in an unusual array of formats: $35 hardcover (a handsome boxed edition decorated with an Afro pick); eye-catching $9.99 paperback with a big red Fury on its cover; an e-book with the bargain price of 99 cents, a first for Little, Brown (though it will rise to $4.99 a month after publication); and the usual audio-book CDs.

Ninety-nine cents? I may not care much for Pelecanos anymore, but you never know. In case I have a change of heart, I may as well grab it before the price increase. I resisted for a couple of weeks, until Stasio, in yet another Sunday NYT crime roundup, once again led off with Pelecanos. It wasn’t clear if she was enthusiastic, and anyway I didn’t want to read the details and learn too much of the plot, but she seemed positive. So I downloaded it.

Last Monday, a holiday for me, I had spent the morning finishing Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (which I wrote about here). Wondering what to read next, I found myself drawn to What It Was, perhaps because it’s short. Thursday night, I finished it.

Is it worth 99 cents? Sure. I mean, that’s really cheap. Of course it is. And it’s still available at that price.

The book takes us back to the spring and summer of 1972, the early days in the private detective business for Derek Strange, one of Pelecanos’s strongest recurring characters. As Stasio explains, “Pelecanos is crazy for details, so all these particulars — the colorful names, the flashy clothes, the sexy cars and soulful music — add to the big picture he’s continually drawing of crucial moments in America’s changing history, as viewed from the streets.”

There’s a lot of music, on LPS, 45s, and AM radio, and a great scene at an outdoor Roberta Flack-Donny Hathaway concert. I hadn’t remembered, but Flack’s version of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face was released that March and hit #1 in April, staying there through the time of the book. Like some of the characters who find themselves at the concert, I wasn’t much of a fan of it.

Well, things could be worse, and let me assure you, soon enough they were. For, soon enough, there was Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), the song I identify with the summer of 1972, the hottest summer of my life. A story for another day, perhaps. The short version is that I spent much of the summer in New Brunswick, New Jersey, with no air-conditioning in either the dorm I lived in or the car I was driving, a car equipped with AM only. I can’t think of New Brunswick without hearing the song, played incessantly as I drove along the Raritan River, or on the Jersey Turnpike on my weekly trips back home to Long Island. Brandy, Brandy, Brandy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was torture. Here, hear for yourself:

I’m losing the thread here. What can I say? There’s better Pelecanos, but What It Was is entertaining. And 99 cents. Plus, if you’re a Derek Strange fan, you won’t want to miss it.

Categories: Books

Shake Shack

February 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Shake Shack burger

[Evan Sung for The New York Times]

I have yet to eat at a Shake Shack. But I’ve wanted to know more, so I was delighted to see this morning, as I was going through the week’s NYT and about to toss Wednesday’s food section, that Pete Wells devoted his weekly restaurant review to them. Though his findings are mixed, he still finds Shake Shack worthy of a star, which I take to be strong praise. As Wells explains,

It is not every hamburger stand that achieves the prominent spot in the city’s consciousness held by Shake Shack. There are 14 of them now, uptown, downtown and out of town (Miami, Washington, Kuwait City). One respectable writer has spoken of the burger as life-changing.

From its origins as a hot-dog cart that the restaurateur Danny Meyer set up as a kind of art project in 2001, Shake Shack has become one of the most influential restaurants of the last decade, studied and copied around the country. Its legacy can be seen not just in the stampede of good, cheap burgers, but in the growing recognition that certain fine-dining values, like caring service and premium ingredients, can be profitably applied outside fine dining all the way down the scale to the most debased restaurant genre of all, the fast-food outlet.

Yet, Wells finds the burgers inconsistent, and the fries worse:

You can get better fries just about anywhere. Considered as décor, the crinkle-cut fries are exactly right, calling up images of the milkshake-with-two-straws past that is at the core of Shake Shack’s appeal. Considered as food, though, they are pretty awful. Freezing turns them mealy, and no amount of oil or salt can make them taste like the fresh-cut potatoes that are standard issue at some burger joints now.

The eponymous shakes are a different story, “smooth, not crunchy with ice crystals, and drinkable, not so stiff that they fight the straw. And the flavors are true.” And Wells lavishes praise on the hot dogs (from Chicago’s Vienna Beef, whose dogs we have ordered direct on occasion) and the “Bird Dog, a smoked chicken and apple bratwurst from Usinger’s of Milwaukee.”

Read the full review, and be sure to watch the slideshow, where you can see photos of the burgers, shakes, and dogs. Plus, Wells has an accompanying blog post in which he compares burgers from seven other restaurants. The Steak ‘n Shake signature gets the prize.

The first New York location of the Indianapolis-based chain offers an organic “Signature Steakburger,” and it’s fantastic, with a reliably browned surface and a fully rounded flavor. (Off topic but still important: The fries, fresh cut from russet potatoes, beat the pants off the ones at Shake Shack.)

I knew there were no Shake Shacks out this way, but I hadn’t heard of Steak ‘n Shake, so I just looked it up. Alas, no. They aren’t out west either. On the other hand, they’re in North Carolina, the subject of my last post, in which I described possible trip plans for April. Not in Chapel Hill, where we will be based, but Greensboro, the destination of the outing I described. I suppose we could make a detour. Then again, I was kind of looking forward to eating some local southern food, not chain hamburgers, no matter how good they are. It’s not like good burgers are unavailable here. We have Dick’s. We have Red Mill. And this is one case where I do believe there’s no place like home.

As for Shake Shack, Joel, if you do go up to DC next week, you might try it out for us. Pity is, we would have passed right by their upper east side location last September, on 86th between Lex and 3rd. We could have taken out. Next time.

Categories: Restaurants