Stuart Clark Makes Kepler and Galileo Live Through Fiction

Doctor Stuart Clark, Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

Image courtesy of Simon Wallace, http://www.meltingpotpictures.co.uk

The way Stuart Clark describes the fascinating lives of Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, he could almost be talking about the plot of a novel.

Oh, wait – he is. Clark recently gave a talk at the Isobel Bader Theatre in Toronto, promoting his new novel, The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, the first in a trilogy about the lives of perception-changing scientists. Clark didn’t do a reading, but just described the facts behind the events in the book. And despite a dose of jet lag (he’d just flown in from London, England), he kept the audience riveted. Did you know it was Kepler’s interest in astrology that led him to the discovery of his three laws of planetary motion? Did you know Tycho Brahe kept a pet elk in his castle, free to roam the entire place and eat from the table??

Clark, a well-known astronomy journalist with a PhD in astrophysics, has planned his trilogy not merely to try interest people in science and those who practise it. He wants to illustrate just how dramatically society’s entire view of what the universe is and how it works was changed by a few pivotal scientists. So in his next novel, The Sensorium of God, he’ll feature Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, and The Day Without Yesterday will complete the trilogy with the lives of Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and George Lemaitre.

Clark frames the explorations of Kepler and Galileo as part of the quest for the Theory of Everything. Any lay person who follows popular science through books, articles, or documentaries will recognize that phrase. Scientists today are still trying to find that one, all-encompassing theory that will explain everything from the behaviour of the most fundamental particles of which the universe is made, all the way up to the behaviour of gigantic galaxies and stars.

But when Kepler and Galileo began, their society believed they already had the Theory of Everything: astrology. Kepler was trying, in fact, to establish principles for the movement of heavenly bodies so astrologers would have better data with which to work. And many other scientists who studied the stars were working to an extremely religious agenda, trying to find a way to sync their imperfect calendars with the actual seasons, so the dates of religious events and rituals would occur at the right time of year. As Clark told his audience, when Galileo was forced to read a prescribed recantation, he refused to read the part where he confessed to being a bad Catholic. He simply was not, and the church ultimately agreed.

Picture of front cover of The Sky's Dark LabyrinthClark described both the times and surroundings these two scientists lived in, as well as the development of their thought. He moved from events to theory, and back again, with delightful ease. And all his explanations were easy to understand, no matter what he described. It’s not hard to see why he moved away from the world of academic research into that of astronomy writing. He brings alive the subjects he describes, so almost anyone can understand them. He currently writes for the European space Agency as the senior editor for space science, was formerly the editor of Astronomy Now, and regularly writes articles for such publications as The Times, New Scientist, and BBC Sky at Night.

Clark is in Toronto (with a few days in Montreal) for two reasons. First, he did this talk and a colloquium as part of the outreach of the newly-established Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. The institute does experimental research, but also conducts outreach into the community, to educate and share the passion of astronomy. It’s a testament to Dr. Clark’s qualifications and his skill in handling his subject that a work of fiction would be considered an opportunity for scientific outreach.

He’s also here for the International Festival of Authors, to promote The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth simply as a work of fiction. Whatever discussions he might engage in, or whatever readings he might do, his audience is due for a treat. His novel straddles science and and fiction the way he himself straddles science and journalism. And on either side of that divide, his writing makes the subject intriguing and understandable.

Tim Flannery: We May Save the Planet Yet. Or Not.

Here on Earth, by Tim FlanneryEnvironmentalists, take heart. Sure, the world may be about to end – but not yet. And if Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery is right, there’s actually time to save it, and there’s even a strong likelihood we’re going to. This is the message of Flannery’s latest book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, and that’s what he told an appreciative audience recently at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library. Interviewed by journalist and TVO host Allan Gregg, Flannery acknowledged the foreboding evidence he described in his earlier book, The Weather Makers, but he’s seen and done a lot of things since he wrote it, and has found astonishing reasons for hope.

It’s all because evolution isn’t “survival of the fittest,” after all, says Flannery. Rather, the evolutionary mechanism is more cooperative and collaborative. This view may contradict Darwin’s to some degree, but it has just as long a history. Alfred Russell Wallace, who developed evolutionary theory at the same time as Darwin, saw nature not as a bloody competition but as a system of cooperation and collaboration. And James Lovelock, who more recently propounded the Gaia Philosophy, sees things the same way. The world is a system that self-regulates, each part of it collaborating to create the optimum conditions for life, and survival.

This means, Flannery says, that the world is more like a body than a competition. And after all, you don’t really find the bladder, spleen, and lungs competing viciously to see which can defeat the others and be the last organ standing. Instead, they all work together so all will survive. As Gregg suggested, “Evolution is on our side, then.”

And we are gradually seeing the development of that kind system, where the world is the body and we ourselves are the brain. As Flannery says, there’s a great coming-together in our economics, our slowly unifying belief systems, connections in communication – and even our genetics will slowly merge as we continue traveling and intermarrying. Humans are emerging out of a “warring tribes” state and evolving into the world of an integrated “superorganism.”

It’s not that this definitely will save the planet, you understand. But the conditions are coming into existence in which we finally can. In fact, Flannery says – and this is both thrilling and very frightening – for good or ill, our living generation is the one that will finally choose, and take whatever action we’re going to take. Or not take.

The Weather Makers, by Tim FlanneryThis is a good news/bad news scenario for Canadians, though. While Australians are beginning to make big strides in reducing their carbon footprint, with even the Indians and Chinese starting to move toward green technologies, the same can’t be said forCanada. Gregg asked, “Is our reputation really that bad in the world?” To which the extremely well-travelled Flannery replied, “Sadly, it is.” With Stephen Harper in charge, in fact,Canada’s part in saving the world has not just diminished, but plummeted.

But if Flannery is right, the human race in general may yet save the planet, and just happen to drag Canadaalong with it. That’s the primary message of Here on Earth, and that was his emphasis to the enthralled crowd throughout the interview and the Q&A afterward. It’s possible for humanity to evolve to a point of integration with the earth, to its ultimate salvation, or to continue as we have been, and doom it altogether. And those who are alive today will know what choice humanity made before they pass on.

More of Austin Clarke, Please

Tina Srebotnjak interviews Austin ClarkeI learned one important thing last night at the first event in the One Book element of April’s Keep Toronto Reading festival: ask author Austin Clarke a question, and you’ll probably get a lengthy, meandering anecdote in response. But it will always be fascinating, and you’re likely to learn something about Toronto or perhaps Clarke’s native Barbados that you’d never known before.

It’s kind of fun, the idea of getting an entire city reading the same book for a whole month. Of course, realistically, no one can get a whole city to do that, but Toronto certainly tries. And one of the primary features of the One Book that gets chosen each year is that the city of Toronto itself features prominently.

The same holds true for this year’s selection, More by Austin Clarke. As he described during an interview with Tina Srebotnjak last evening at the Toronto Reference Library, the novel takes place in Toronto – as a matter of fact, in a neighbourhood just south of where I live myself – and deals with the immigrant experience. How does someone whose entire range of cultural norms and social cues has been left behind manage to know or even recognize themselves in a wholly new context? These are issues with which Idora, the main character of the book, must struggle, as Clarke himself struggled three or four decades ago as an immigrant to Toronto.

In a very small way, I can relate to this dilemma, having come almost exactly a decade ago from conservative Calgary to liberal Toronto, and having had to reinvent myself as a Torontonian. This is why I love books like More, or the very first One Book chosen in 2008, Michael Redhill’s Consolation. I love discovering the many layers and facets of this city.

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

Trey Anthony reads from "More"

Clarke certainly gave the audience some of those last night. One of his anecdotes took us to the jazz clubs in his early days here, virtually all of them now closed. But he could remember that this one was owned by So-and-So from Hungary, “and his wife used to bake cakes,” while that one was where he first saw this or that musician. Mister Clarke gave us a snapshot of Toronto-then compared to Toronto-now. And I got nostalgic for all the history that I’d missed.

The evening was rounded out by selected readings from More, by actress and writer Trey Anthony, and the Mike Murley jazz trio regaled us with music to suit the mood of the book, both before and after the interview and readings.

I plan to go to several other events during this Keep Toronto Reading month. But this introduction, with the reminiscences and insights of Austin Clarke, reminded me why I love Toronto, and added yet another layer to my understanding of my adopted city.

Jazz Trio

Kevin Sylvester’s Neil Flambé Cooks Up a Murder Mystery

Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo MurdersWhile the staff of the Indigo book store finished their final preparations for the reading, Kevin Sylvester drew pictures for the kids. He’s a great doodler and artist, so he stood by his easel, making little drawings according to the kids’ instructions, or illustrating the way he used to dip his fries into his strawberry shakes when he was young. The kids were totally grossed out and happy!

But soon everything was ready to get down to business, the promotion of Sylvester’s new YA novel, Neil Flambe and the Marco Polo Murders. Of course, he just kept doing what he’d been doing, chatting with the kids, asking which ones liked to eat, and using the food as an introduction to this novel about a brilliant fourteen year old master chef who helps the police solve food-related crimes with his expert knowledge and a supersensitive nose.

Family promo t-shirtThe kids enjoyed what Sylvester called his “multi-media” presentation: the drawings, the brief readings (accompanied in chapter one by a burp that really was part of the story), and the chef’s jacket and hat that Sylvester wore. He moved quickly from one thing to another, recognizing the attention spans he was dealing with, keeping the kids interested with a second reading, followed by a little drawing lesson. He had them count down, 5-4-3-2-1, promising to show them all they needed to know before the countdown was finished.

When they reached “1,” he drew a circle. Did you know that all you need to start with is a circle, upon which you then doodle till the details come out right? Or that the Mona Lisa was essentially a 40-year doodle by Leonardo da Vinci? Or that you can draw a dragon just by beginning with a circle and a triangle?

CBC Junkies!

CBC Junkies!

This Neil Flambé story, apparently the first of at least three novels, has had a long and rather public gestation. It first saw the light of day in 2007, as Sylvester filled in for the summer on the national CBC Radio One morning program, Sounds Like Canada. He decided to write the story over ten weeks, working on a chapter each weekend and having it taped and read on the show during the subsequent week by anime and television voice actor Anna Cummer. Even the listeners got some input as the story went along, contributing on a Facebook page.

So there were thousands of us who followed and loved the story of this audacious and arrogant boy-chef the first time through, and who have waited ever since, toes tapping impatiently, for the radio play to be reborn as a novel. It’s probably for kids a little older than the ones Sylvester was reading for today (which is why I’m calling it a YA novel rather than a children’s book), but it’s going to have a horde of adult fans too, I can guarantee it.

When I ask, “Do I Want to Read Your Book,” I confess that I cheated this time, because I knew long before I arrived at Indigo that I wanted to. But I still like to go to readings and book events and try to judge from the atmosphere and the presentation whether I’d have wanted to read a book if I didn’t already know about it. And judging from the kids’ enjoyment, and Kevin Sylvester’s fun and entertaining presentation today, my answer would still be yes.

Kevin and his adoring public

(For more news about public appearances and other things Sylvester is up to [including his ongoing “cat” series of doodle pictures], check out the Kevin Sylvester blog.)

Four mayors, little politics: no, this was not a dream

Shape of Suburbs cover

Four city mayors in the same room, with no politicking??

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I may be exaggerating a bit: there were really only two mayors, one deputy mayor, and one former. And almost all they did was talk politics, but not in the usual “gotcha” sense. For a change, this was a genuine conversation, with very little sense that they were saying what they had to say just to get re-elected.

The occasion was the recent launch of former Toronto Mayor John Sewell’s new book, The Shape of the Suburbs: Understanding Toronto’s Sprawl, at another of Pages Books & Magazines’ This is Not a Reading Series events at the Gladstone Hotel. And in honour of the book, Sewell took part in a panel discussion with Mayors Rob Burton of Oakville and Steve Parish of Ajax, and Deputy Mayor Jack Heath of Markham, moderated by architect and urban designer Kim Story.

The evening provided an unusual chance to hear people at the top level of municipal government talking frankly about subjects like how to plan for water and sewage, how to manage population intensification, and what in the world to do about traffic. You felt less like you were listening to politicians and more like you were watching several intelligent people work away at some significant planning problems.

I swear I’ve never heard so much honest and thoughtful discussion from politicians in my entire life. These guys really think about these things. In fact, they worry about them. A lot.

And they were surprisingly critical of politicians doing things that we non-politicos think of as sheer manipulation for political gain. For example, Steve Parish spoke of the almost “incestuous” relationship between developers and politicians, which absolutely must be done away with. Rob Burton considers the urbanization of rural land to be a gigantic wealth-creation device. How do we discover who is behind these schemes? Burton says we merely need to ask, “Who got rich?” All the developers’ promises of low costs never produce cheaper houses; they just increase the profit margin for the developers.

Tough words from guys who we lay people tend to think of as being in bed with developers. Maybe we just didn’t have the “right” mayors in attendance that night.

Or maybe a shift is starting, as conscientious people take office and get a good look at what’s really been going on in these cities, with all the implications for a looming future. That became more and more evident, at least, when they got onto the subject of traffic and transit. In fact, everything kept coming back to that. With transit and roads all over Toronto and the satellite cities already stretched to full capacity, these mayors have to devise ways of increasing transit to prepare for the even greater population boom that’s now developing. It’s a subject constantly on their minds; everyone in the crowd could see that.

In the collegial and entertaining atmosphere, the only time any panelist got touchy was when some topics from Sewell’s book seemed too Toronto-centric. As Jack Heath reminded everyone, all 20 municipalities around the city are “also Torontonians.” Parish maintained that the real goal is to make a harmonious “Toronto region.” And in response to Sewell’s theory that the extra density in Toronto helps make people more courteous as people learn to live closely together, Burton remarked, “If density made you polite, nobody would ever complain about how they were treated in Paris.”

A panel discussion about sewage, population, and traffic — one of the best book-related evenings I’ve ever had? Yes, believe it or not. And do I want to read John Sewell’s book as a result? Certainly I do.

But even more, I’d like to spend another evening talking city planning with these guys.

It’s all fun and games until someone does an interview

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

The huge Snakes & Ladders drop cloth

Stand on a snake, you get a tough question. Stand on a ladder, an easy one.

This may sound like some weird torture ritual from the Inquisition, but it was actually a simultaneous Interview and Snakes & Ladders game, at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event at the Gladstone Hotel. Indeed, the whole evening was nothing but fun and games. Literally. Every table in the room was set up with bowls of chips, tacos, and dip, and bore at least two boxed games.

Our table had three: Monopoly, Pictionary, and Trivial Pursuit (the 80s version).

Shaun Smith autographs books

Shaun Smith autographs books

Author Shaun Smith, whose YA (i.e. Young Adult) novel Snakes & Ladders was featured at the event, experienced a bit of a homecoming. He was one of the two co-founders, five years ago, of This is Not a Reading Series itself (along with Mark Glassman of Pages Books & Magazines). He had left to do other things, but now returned to experience one of these evenings from the other side of the fence.

Nathan Whitlock, Books For Young People editor of Quill & Quire, interviewed Smith as the two moved around an actual Snakes & Ladders drop cloth that covered most of the stage, their moves determined by the roll of a gigantic air-filled die (note to the unfamiliar: the singular form of “dice”). It was a fun concept, though the randomness of where they moved meant that the interview was a bit random too. Ah well, that’s how the dice roll, I guess.

Checkers

Checkers

The two main characters in Smith’s book, set in 1971, are a young girl and her younger brother, spending the summer at the family cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka region. They get involved in trying to help save a duck’s eggs from being eaten by a snake, and in trying to save the beloved tree where the sister has her private retreat. Several plot streams run through the book: that of eco-activism, family difficulties, and a lot of dark things that might make some adults wonder if young readers can handle this story.

But Smith maintained that kids can deal with deeper stories than we often give them credit for, when the tales are told carefully.

The purpose of this not-reading series is “to get to the roots of the creative process,” as Mark Glassman often states. Smith revealed that he only discovered he was doing a kids’ book as the story evolved during the writing and this discovery necessitated his editor helping to remove a few racy elements. Another thing he learned, once the book was finished, was that YA writers have great camaraderie, and are usually eager to help each other.

Scrabble

Scrabble

Before the rather sporadic interview ended, Smith left the audience with one important tidbit. When asked, knowing what he knows about the publishing industry, why he wrote a book at all, his answer was simple: “Real writers stick with it.” Serious writing is a vocation, and he’s in it for the long haul.

It should be encouraging to his future prospects that the entire room burst into applause at this pledge.

Wacky Stacky

Wacky Stacky

And then the “book part” was over, and the games began! One small group immediately launched into a Scrabble match at one table, while another set up a checkers board nearby. While several people headed for the bar to get refreshments, another duo built a small tower on their table with rectangular wooden blocks, and then began the game of trying to pull blocks out of the middle of the tower without the whole thing collapsing.

Did this event make me want to read Shaun Smith’s book? Perhaps. As I said, the interview was a little disjointed, so we got our information in random little chunks. But the atmosphere in the room was cheerful and playful enough that I would definitely approach the book with a positive feeling.

To Whom it May Concern: King Lear Rules!

I admit, given the very cold temperatures outside, I wasn’t sure how big a crowd there would be at last night’s This is Not a Reading Series event by Pages Books, promoting Priscilla Uppal’s new book, To Whom it May Concern. To my great pleasure, and I’m sure the author’s as well, the Gladstone Hotel ballroom was packed. With people carrying heavy coats.

It was King Lear’s fault. I’m sure of it. He’d been conscripted to help promote the book – it was built on the underlying motif of his own story, after all – and everyone was dying to see how he’d push it.

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