Friday, April 26, 2019


I read a few more of the essays in Extremes but have decided not to comment extensively on them. There is an excellent summary of the global warming phenomenon, "Extreme Weather," by Emily Shuckburgh, which reminds me that British academics often produce much more lucid prose than American academics – even when they are scientists. The irony is that climate change is a solvable problem, yet little is being done about it at the moment in the U.S., thanks largely to the current president. Assuming that humans survive climate change, which will cause millions of deaths and trillions of dollars in damage, our descendants are going to wonder who was minding the store during this era. There is also an informative essay, "Extreme Longevity," by Sarah Harper, and a concise presentation of major astronomical events, "Extremes of Power in the Universe," by Andrew C. Fabian, which makes me think that, in a way, we're lucky to have such brief lives, given the gigantic, powerful and destructive events that occur periodically in the universe. Yet we're still not completely safe, because it is possible that a large solar flare such as one that struck Earth in 1849 could wipe out our electric grids and decommission our satellites. A much rarer – but possible – superflare would do considerably more damage to the planet.

The viewing conditions for stargazing have been bad for months, but last night I looked at a few galaxies in my small telescope. I saw the supergiant elliptical galaxy M87. It's a long way off, and its light took 53 million years to reach the telescope. It would appear more clearly in my large telescope, but I could still make it out. The reason why I chose this galaxy was that it is the location of the first photographed black hole, which was featured in the news recently. At this time of year you can see a cluster of galaxies in Virgo, some of which form a line known as Markarian's Chain. If we get better weather soon I'll set up my large Dobsonian telescope before these galaxies have moved out of range.

For new reading materials, I've been racking my brains for something that I would like. I'm going to try a biography of Mikhail Bulgakov on the theory that his life was more interesting than most. He was born in Kiev in 1891 and lived through the early years of the Soviet Union as an author of novels, short stories and plays. Little of what he wrote was published during his life, and he was best known mainly for one play, which Stalin happened to like. I was first exposed to Bulgakov in a Soviet literature class that I took in college. I read The Fatal Eggs and Heart of a Dog and wrote a paper on his most famous novel, The Master and Margarita. I don't think that I would be as amused by his writing now, but at the time I was fascinated by his satire and the breadth of his subject matter. In fact, after years of being force-fed literature in high school (Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, etc.) and various unsuccessful explorations of my own (John Barth and Hermann Hesse come to mind), Bulgakov was the first writer whom I found engaging at all. My selection of Bulgakov as a biographical subject is partly derived from the theory that challenging lives are more interesting than safe, bourgeois ones. On that basis, he had a few things in common with Czeslaw Milosz: he was born before the Russian Revolution and suffered from its consequences – though, unlike Milosz, who ended up with a cushy job in Berkeley and a Nobel Prize, Bulgakov stayed in the U.S.S.R. and died almost unknown at the age of 48. Like Milosz, Bulgakov believed that writers have a civic responsibility during troubled times. As I've suggested quite often, the fiction produced during placid periods tends to be insipid, and the commercialization of literary fiction has made matters even worse. Writers tend to become more serious when they face real hardships. The biography that I've chosen may or may not be worth reading – I'll let you know.

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