Talking books

I love books above all else, much more than clothes, shoes and handbags. And when we moved to Asia, most of the crates that we shipped over contained books. They were like old friends and much-loved family members.

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Yet curiously, my youngest child was a late reader. We always suspect it was because she so enjoyed being read to every night that she decided not to make the effort to learn to read for herself. She once commented (joking or not, we don’t know), “I could read a long time ago, I just pretended I didn’t know how.”

In my early career, when I had to work long hours, I would count my happy days as the nights that I was able to be home to read my children their bedtime stories. Those were the magical moments of our lives, the hour after bath time, just before bed.

My Ma used to read to us too.

Years ago, when I was in my early forties, someone read me a book for the first time in my adult life. It was a book written in Italian, not published, about wartime Italy. I still could not get the story out of my mind, any more than I could get what my reader read to me. It moved me so deeply that I began writing the precursor of Catching Infinity, Ten Most Beautiful Equations in the World, for the person who read to me.

Indeed, reading out loud a.k.a storytelling is our primal behaviour. It also connects to the emotional centres of our brain, so say neurologists. I often read to my partner in the evening what I had written during the day and I think we both get a lot out of it. I think he gets to know what goes on in my mind and my day; it brings us closer. It certainly gave me a lot, as I subconsciously write for him, with each sentence I write, I look forward to reading it back to him in the evening, even if it is on Skype.

The New Yorker published a deep article on The Pleasures of Being Read To. The link is here.

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Excerpt from Chapter 3, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

“I watched you on television once, many years ago,” she continued, looking directly into his eyes. PW felt his knees weakening, and mentally thanked God that he was sitting down, or those knees of his would have surely buckled. “Your accent, I could not get it out of my head from that moment onwards. The way you sounded made the whole Relativity, multiple universes and time travel scenario more believable, more real, and at the same time, more magical. You brought these two seemingly irreconcilable realms – reality and magic –together, like how you are trying to unify the two final contradicting worldviews of our era. Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Field Theory. How can the right hand ever fit into the left? We could never get it, not on 2D. Before you, many have tried. It’s your voice that draws people to your story, Professor, me included. There’s something about your voice. I hear it in the words you write, and something in me blooms.”

He spoke with many tongues, but his power came, not from his words or his accent, but from his mystical ability to speak directly to the subconscious mind. The subconscious occupies a larger part of the brain than the conscious, hence PW’s power over the thinking mind.

“For us Boers, the Afrikaans language symbolises more than a sequence of words. We have a special word for language. We call it taal. It’s about our identity, our history, our kultuur. It’s our gemeenskap.”

He smiled, light flickering in his eyes. “Also, storytelling is part of our human psyche, isn’t it? Our ancestors have been doing it for millions of years, sitting round the fire telling stories about mammoths and dinosaurs that they hunted. The desire to tell stories and the desire to connect with stories are part of us all. It is our evolution.”

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So long as your heart shall beat

Listening to someone’s heartbeats is one of the most intimate things you can do, when you lay your ear against a pregnant belly listening to the fast and faint foetal heartbeats, or when you rest with your head on your lover’s chest listening to grown-up cardiac music.

There is music in heartbeats, if you listen carefully. The first sounds you hear is the closing of the mitral and tricuspid valves during the systole. Systole is the name given to the phase when blood is forced out of the ventricles into arteries that will take it round the body, nurturing and sustaining distant parts. These valves close like efficient biological doors to prevent the back flow of blood back into the heart chambers.

And then you will hear the second sound, the sound of diastole. You can tell a lot about the heart from this sound, without having to break into the rib cage. A healthy valve closing should sound like a gentle, muffled tap on a soft surface. Any variation is an indication that all is not well within, when the valves are not playing to the primal beats of life. I could spend forever listening to these primal beats.

Because hearts are not just four-chambered organs with a lifetime function of supplying blood, waiting to die from a litany of breakdown causes – aortic dissection, haemodynamic deterioration, dyspnoea, syncope. It has a finite life. It is not just about the valves and the sounds either. Sometimes, when cardiac muscles forget their place in this orchestra and play to the wrong beat, the heart begins its dance of death. Death follows hot on its heels. Angor animi. When you are about to die, you feel an anguish of the soul, this angor animi. I know, I have felt it, this anguish. But as I lay listening to his heartbeats on Halnaker Hill on this glorious summer’s day I know that I am alive, because so long as he shall live, so do I.

To do:

Put your hand on the spot on your ribcage directly above where your heart sits. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Bring your attention inwards, following the flow of your breath. Where the breath goes, energy and consciousness follow. Connect to the rhythm of your beating heart. Listen for its music. And then say to yourself, again and again, softly, “I am, I am, I am.”

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Love is the lesson

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I did this simple piece of art yesterday as I was told to summarise Catching Infinity into 10 words. I took out my colouring pencils and a paintbrush and did this instead.

As a scientist, I know that we are just a bag of chemicals with a finite shelf-life. And then we are no more. What goes on beyond our organic matter is how we had lived our lives: how will we live on in the minds of the people who once loved us, when our bodies are long gone? That is the BIG philosophical point I made in Catching Infinity. That only love goes on.

So that is the philosophy. What about the practicality? We are still human beings who eat, shit, fuck, cry, laugh. We make dumb decisions, chasing chemical highs, be it a job, exciting lovers, faraway travels or handbags. No matter, all the same. Dopamine, dopamine, dopamine to satisfy some receptors in the complex human brain.

But it’s OK. It’s all human experience. We are here to learn and we learn from our experiences. Bur learn what?

From Catching Infinity, Chapter 5: Dreams are made of quarks

But Ouma was scared of dying, though Oupa had already gone ahead. Sometimes, in her last years, she was like a little girl and had often clung to PW’s hand whenever he came to visit and they sat on the stoep watching the unmoving veld. Time had stood still then.

“I’m scared that they will put me into the ground, and that I will be stuck there forever,” she confided to her grandson.

“You will travel again, Ouma,” he promised her. You will leave the reality of old bones, failing sight and a body that had reached the end of the road behind. You can follow my frogs to Cape Town. Or head towards Mozambique, where Hennie’s spirit roams with the lions. You can even cross oceans and go further to find the soul of your beloved husband.

He knew his grandparents held hands until Oupa died. They were lovers till the end, his Ouma and his Oupa. And PW began to wonder, who will hold his hand when his eyes are rheumy, his skin paper-thin and his body stooped, when he is no longer the hotshot Professor of Theoretical Physics at Oxford? Who will still be there, loving him, as his Ouma had loved his Oupa till the end of his days? And he knew, in a flash of insight, that love is not an emotion. It is a construction, a life-long build.

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Photograph: a beautiful day in Bosham, Hampshire, summer 2016.

Be part of my novel!

I have thought about this for years – if I have to choose one landmark that is representative of the story, which will it be? I narrowed my choices down to a bicycle parked in St Giles, St John’s College, the iconic George & Dragon on Little Clarendon Street, the clock tower at Christ Church or the Sheldonian. I chose the Sheldonian in the end because this was where the protagonist delivered his maiden lecture on the 26th dimension on that fateful day in June when it snowed as he stood on its steps.

If you are into colouring and would like to be part of my first novel, do download this picture of the Sheldonian, colour it, sign your name on the bottom left, scan it and email it back to me. x

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Space and love is infinite

Every year in early spring, my parents would spend hours putting in the bedding plants – the sweet peas, Busy Lizzies, geraniums, petunias and begonias. Now, it is the end of summer and most of these plants are preparing to die.

“Oh Ma, why do you bother? Why don’t you just plant evergreens?” I used to ask her in exasperation.

“Jac, someday you’ll understand,” she had replied each time with her legendary patience.

I think I do. There is no forever. Even the evergreens die. We live and we die, that is the cycle of life. Only space and love is infinite. I know. My mother’s love will go on, because I have loved my children the way she loved me. Look at the endless night sky and you will see.

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Inspiration for the title

A galaxy is a system of millions or billions of stars. There are an infinite number of galaxies in our universe.

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Look at the night sky. You can see other galaxies with your naked eye. From planet earth in the Milky Way Galaxy, you can see the Andromeda, 2.4million light years away.

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The distance between any two galaxies grows with time, creating an illusion of mechanical movement.

But the galaxies themselves never move. Motion is an illusion. To try to catch something would be like catching infinity. All that is, is here and now.

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Below: working on explaining this concept:

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World Wide Web

The Internet is so pervasive in our lives, but do you ever stop to wonder about a greater, more magical network, one that is created entirely Nature?

My parents are both passionate biologists, and they created that wonder in me that never dims. Their particular passion is fungi. Mushrooms to you and I. But what we see above ground are just the sex organs of these small but amazing organisms. Beneath these fungus are roots that nurture the whole forest through a beautiful mutualistic symbiotic relationship. A complexity far beyond the comprehension of the mere human brain exists below ground, connecting all living things. Indeed, the forest is far more than you can see.

So here’s a little practice in mindfulness: the next time to log on to the Internet, think about the magical network beneath your feet.

Working on my next book, inspired by my parents, of course ❤

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Understanding the physical world

In conversations with my daughter, I became interested in how we learn maths (because Catching Infinity is maths/physics-based). She has many friends who does not understand maths, cannot do maths and are scared of maths. Unfortunately that fear and dislike persists till adulthood, possibly for the rest of someone’s lifetime. I hope  Catching Infinity will change that.

There are sociological theories about why maths holds terror for many students: thinking in abstract and in symbols is not ‘normal’ in the world we live in, and also the fact that it is a subject that a student is either right or wrong. Fear of failure often impedes progress in the subject. You have to be relaxed to be good at maths.

Yet maths is the foundations of so many things. Like physics.

Here’s something that came to my attention recently:

One thing that never fails to awe me is the fact that so much of the human brain is unknown despite the billions we have invested into its research. For example, do you know that there is a special part of the human brain that is responsible for comprehension of physics/physics-like subjects? Take away the maths and the scary equations, physics is just an inner intuitive sense for how things will bounce, wobble, or fall. We use it all the time unconsciously in our heads. So, my message to adults and children alike, learn to love physics.

To test the physics centre of your brain, go to:

Writing literary fiction

My natural domain is writing cookbooks and parenting books. I do OK when it comes to writing about yoga and yoga philosophy too.  But I struggle with literary fiction.  Catching Infinity is being worked on at the moment by the talented editor, Steven Mair. I have begun my second one, with the working title The Sisterhood. Here’s an excerpt (Chapter Thirteen) inspired by a beautiful day looking for the South Down’s version of Jorge Luis Borges’s Strandbeesten with my partner, whose goodness inspires this book:

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

When he was a little boy, John McDermott wanted to be an anthropologist like his parents though his mother had died young, drowned, whilst searching for some obscure tribe in the Papuas.

John’s father had shrugged, tears somewhere in his gruffness, as he said to his young son, “She’s gone where she travels freely; it’s just you and I now, boyo.”

Death is but a horizon, just the limit of our eyes. Maybe that was what drew young John to become a doctor, this tightrope between life and death beckoned him from a young age, the way small children are compelled to peer over the edge of a tall building, wondering what it is like to jump off its great height, to fly without wings.

But actually, not. John still remembered the evolution of his thinking, from wanting to be an anthropologist to being here, ending up as a heart surgeon. It had started from his years of reading Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book Of Imaginary Beings under the duvet after lights out in the boarding school dorm at Winchester. Then he had wanted to seek out the mythical beings with exotic names. On his childhood holidays to Holland, the young John had looked out of the car window at the dykes, floodgates and canals. The Dutch had built them to prevent flooding and in the process, had created new landscapes. And according to Borges, this was where the Strandbeesten lived. The Strandbeesten were mechanical life forms, some as large as houses, others as small as dogs, but they all had arms like windmills and legs that were composed of triangles. They resolutely marched along the windswept dykes, floodgates and canals like mechanical millipedes. Strandbeesten walked the many miles but they never ate. They simply incorporated cordage, lumber or durable shells into new body parts. When parts wore down, the Strandbeesten freed the newer parts, and hence, the daughters were born.

Wasn’t that, in its barest form, the basis of life? Someone – John cannot remember whom – said that we walk, we reproduce, for that is the basis of life. We share this commonality across the board. Borges wrote too about Animals In The Form of Spheres, of which the Earth is the largest one. The Earth, an animal? But think of the mercury beating heart and of the weird stone flowers of Glauber’s chemical gardens.

Later, divining entrails of cadavers at Manchester Medical School, John knew that there were no difference at all between Borges’s Book Of Imaginary Beings and the world that we call real. And being in an induced coma, hovering between wakefulness and chemical sleep, he walked that very tightrope of his childhood imaginings, only that it was less frightening when it was actually happening. With his eyelids taped shut to protect his corneas, he saw a lot of things. Why is it that human beings see best with their eyes shut?