The Devil Walks in Mattingly – Q&A with Billy Coffey

Billy headshot 2014We’re back! My book has now gone to the printer (much more on that to come), so I am able to resurrect my blog in the best way possible, by talking about a terrific new book. Billy Coffey has just published his fourth novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly, and it is his best yet. In fact, this is the first book of his that I’ve given five stars to, on Goodreads (and that was certainly one of my most convoluted sentences).

Like the great Rick Bragg and the late, great William Gay, Billy is a southern boy who has a magical gift for storytelling. He’s also the hardest-working writer I know, and if he’s not really famous some day, I’ll eat my hat.

(Inasmuch as I don’t wear hats, this is not much of a promise. But still.)

If you need comparisons, this story is similar to Frank Peretti’s best work, only less preachy and more lyrical. It’s dark, it’s lovely, it’s unputdownable.

Once again, Billy was nice enough to stop by and talk to me about all sorts of nerdy things. It might literally be the best interview ever. Except for the fact that I somehow failed to work Benedict Cumberbatch into the questions.

Read on.

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This novel has shades of Southern Gothic. Who’s your favorite writer in that genre?

All fiction writing begins and ends with Flannery O’Connor.  She was fearless, she was faithful, and she had the best style and tone of anyone I’ve ever read.

Regret and hope are twin themes in this book (as they are in life). Emily Dickinson said “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / and never stops – at all.” Regret can swallow decades, even whole lifetimes…but hope, I think, is the more relentless of the two. Your thoughts?

I would agree with that. I don’t think anyone ever chooses regret, it’s just one of those things that happens to us all. What we choose is to allow it to swallow us whole–we decide that what was will affect what is, and therefore what always will be. I’m a big believer in the human capacity to screw up something wonderful, but I’m also a big believer in the human will to make that something better afterwards. To make amends. But hope? Hope chases us. I believe that, too. Hope is that thing that won’t let us go. We can survive without a lot of things, but never that.

If you could make everyone on earth read one book, besides the Bible, what would it be?

The Brothers Karamazov. That was the book that made me understand what a novel could be. Everything is there—history, theology, philosophy, psychology, all in a single story. It’s the greatest novel ever written.

I first read that book at about age 15 – I reread it in another translation several years ago. The Grand Inquisitor chapter is just…everything. Okay, what word grates on your nerves most when it’s misused in discourse? (Mine would be “literally.”)

“Literally” would have to be my pick, too. It’s literally the most misused word in discourse. And I really have a problem with people who mispronounce “supposedly.” Supposably, it happens a lot. That literally gets on my nerves.

Two books you read within the last year (besides yours and mine, naturally) that blew you away.

Life After Life: A Novel, by Kate Atkinson, and The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Both of those novels blew me away. Amazing, amazing stuff.

If you received a two-year grant to write a literary history of any building in the world, which would it be?

Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Key West, Florida. Because Hemmingway. And because Key West. Both are amazing places. I spent a week in Key West once. It was the only time I never missed the mountains.

Monticello would be a close runner up. I go there at least once a year. It’s magical, standing there looking at Jefferson’s books and desk.

Sometimes I’ll read one of your sentences and think “dang!” And then I’ll have to read it a few times. Do you ever do that about one of your own sentences? Or what was your favorite sentence in The Devil Walks in Mattingly?

I don’t think I’ve ever done that with one of my sentences. Other people’s, absolutely. Never mine. With mine, I could have always made it better.

I don’t know that I have a favorite sentence from Devil. The one that stands out at the moment is Justus saying that Jake’s kindness was “panic without teeth.” I’ll admit to grinning when I wrote that.

Bill Bryson, Edmund Morris, or David McCullough?

Who’s better than David McCullough? No one. No one, I say. Bill Bryson and Edmund Morris are Dewey Crowe. David McCullough is Boyd Crowder.

Your last supper on earth?

A burger and fries from Five Guys. You don’t have Five Guys out in the great Northwest, do you? That’s a shame. If you’d eat one, you’d pack up and move here ten minutes ago.

No, we have Five Guys! But my heart belongs to In-N-Out…which we do NOT have here, despite online petitions that I may/may not have participated in. Moving on now – Doctor Who shows up and offers to take you in the Tardis to the destination of your choice: to any point in past history, OR 100 years into the future. Do you choose the past (and if so, when), or do you choose the future? Why?

I’ve never been much on the future. I suppose I’ve been coerced by The Walking Dead and all those dystopian novels, but I have serious doubts we’ll end up growing into some idyllic Starfleet future. Give me the past. I don’t want to know what’s coming. I’d rather it be a surprise. And give me a time way, way back. Give me pre-history. I read recently that archeologists found traces of a lost civilization in the Sahara that stretches back thousands of years before the Egyptians, and there are hints that they were just as advanced. Can you imagine that? We think we know so much about what’s happened. We know nothing.

Last fantastic documentary you watched?

I watched something on NatGeo a while back about the Shroud of Turin.  I freaking love the shroud of Turin. I have no idea what it is, but I laugh every time someone has some new theory about how that image was imprinted on that piece of cloth and that theory turns out to fall apart. Plus, for an hour I got to feel like Indiana Jones.

What’s one highly acclaimed book that everyone else seemed to love except you?

How about Steig Larsson’s books? Never could get into those.

Mine was One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read it, and didn’t get it AT ALL…then again, I don’t like magic realism. Which story genre are you least likely to read? 

I’m an eight-year-old boy when it comes to romance novels. The book covers always look scary to me, and I can’t seem to help but wrinkle my nose and go, “Eww, gross.”

What’s up next?

I just finished my next novel, titled In the Heart of the Dark Wood. It picks up where When Mockingbirds Sing left off and centers upon Allie Granderson from that book and Zach Barnett from The Devil Walks in Mattingly. It’ll be out in November.

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I’m really stoked that we only have to wait 8 months for Billy’s next book! You can read the first chapter of The Devil Walks in Mattingly here. And then download the whole thing or order a hard copy here, or pick it up in your favorite bookstore. Seriously. Go on.

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The Waiting – coming in May 2014

Well, here it is…the stunning cover of Grandma’s book, The Waiting, which will be published in May by Tyndale!  I am working morning, noon and night (along with my partner, Cindy Coloma) to meet the manuscript deadline of December 31.

Tyndale is wildly excited about the project, and is fast-tracking the release for a Mother’s Day tie-in. They have also lined up some exciting national media events for May that I am ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOT ALLOWED to talk about. Boo.

I couldn’t have asked for a better agent (Janet Grant), a better collaborator (Cindy), or a better publisher. All of them love and believe in this story as much as I do. It’s been an amazing journey, one I’ll write about someday. I am so privileged to be able to be a part of sharing this wonderful story.

Anyway, the book is available now for pre-order on Amazon. You can see it there, by clicking here! I’ll be sharing more details with you as they unfold. And reminding you to help spread the word. Over and over. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

The cover photo was taken while I was in California a couple of weeks ago, by the awesome (and adorable) Stephen Vosloo, who works in Chicago. Those are Grandma’s beautiful hands, holding the photograph of her and baby “Betty Jane” that she carried around for seventy-seven years, while she waited for her miracle reunion. (If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s a synopsis.)

And now, I literally have to get back to work.

thewaiting-cvr-2

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When Mockingbirds Sing – A Chat with Billy Coffey

Billy 2013Oh, this is EXCITING.

With each novel Billly Coffey has released, his writing and story-telling skills have taken a quantum leap upwards. When Mockingbirds Sing, his brand-new book, is the kind of fiction I wish all Christian novelists were producing.

Billy is one of my favorite people: geeky-cool and polite and incredibly well-read. That’s not why I promote his work, though. I have too much respect for literature to fudge about quality. Billy just also happens to be one of my favorite writers, period, and is getting better all the time.

When Mockingbirds Sing is one of a planned series of stories set in the fictional small town of Mattingly. The book centers around Leah, a wise child with a bad stutter who creates marvelous, disturbing paintings. Her best friend and fierce defender is Allie, one of the most delightful characters I’ve ever run across. There is a storm coming to Mattingly. Nerves are on edge and relationships are in jeopardy. Just who is the Rainbow Man? Will anyone heed Leah’s message?

Oh, and there is a goosebump-y description of the music in Heaven that is so perfect, upon reading it I immediately demanded to know whether Billy (a non-musician) had come up with it himself. (He had.)

Books have to be really good to hold my attention these days. This one is, and did. And you’ll want to get in on this cast of characters now, because I have it on impeccable authority that Billy’s next novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly (already written, and due out next spring), is knock-your-socks-off sensational.

Billy Coffey is the real deal. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a Q&A for you.

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Billy, which character in When Mockingbirds Sing is most like you? Which is least?

I wish I could say Allie or Leah or even Barney, but if honesty is what’s called for here, I’ll say I’m most like Reverend Goggins. I think a lot of us are. Because really, who hasn’t leafed through one of those shiny magazines at the grocery checkout and thought, Why does that idiot get all the good stuff in life and not me?

As far as which character is least like me, that would have to be Tom. He has no spiritual inclinations whatsoever. I get whimsical at the sight of a rainstorm.

You write children’s dialogue as well as anyone I’ve read. Do you find that kid’s dialogue flows better than adult’s, because kids are so unguarded?

This is the first novel I’ve written that focuses on children. I was a little worried about that, mostly because it’s been so long since I was a kid. But it was extremely freeing in a way, and I had my own kids to serve as guides. There’s no filter when it comes to what kids say. And oftentimes what they want to say is so big that it gets mangled in the limits of their vocabulary. The result is part innocent humor and part lyrical philosophy.

Unlike many Christian authors, you are unafraid to let really bad things happen to your characters. If one of them were to lose faith altogether, would you let it happen?

Absolutely I would, because that stuff happens all the time. People lose their faith. People die. People are mean and nasty. Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My novels tend to have supernatural elements, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want them to mirror real life. And real life is tough because the world is tough. If you want to read a story where the characters are black and white and everything gets wrapped up in a nice pretty bow at the end, you should probably go read someone else. I’m not interested in any of that.

Are we going to hear from Allie again in the future? (Correct answer is “yes.”)

Leah might be the main character in Mockingbirds, but I’ve always seen Allie as the story’s soul. Everyone but her seems to get some closure by the end. That was intentional, because her story isn’t done. Of all the characters I’ve created, she’s my favorite. Which means yes, you’ll be hearing from her again. And yes, it won’t necessarily be pretty.

I’m forcing you to pick one of each. Who is your favorite living author, and who is your favorite living physicist?

Stephen King, hands down. The man is not only a genius, but he seems like a really cool guy. Lee Smith would be a close second.

Favorite living physicist is a tougher one. Hawking is maybe the smartest guy in the world. But Neil deGrasse Tyson is just as smart, and he seems pretty down to earth. Plus, he was on The Big Bang Theory. I’ll go with him.

Hawking was on TBBT, too. Just sayin’. Okay, you get to spend an afternoon with the living writer of your choice. Who do you choose?

You know what? JJ Abrams. I think he’s brilliant. Watch his TED talk. The man is doing Star Wars and Star Trek. He was behind both Lost and Fringe (two of the best shows EVER), and he knows what makes a great story. Plus, his glasses are cool.

That Ted talk was crazy good. J.J.’s mind moves at a million miles an hour. Speaking of really fast things, would you rather go on a private tour of Cern, or of the Hubble Telescope?

The Hubble. Tiny things like particles leave me intrigued. Big things like galaxies leave me in awe. I like being awed.

Besides reading or writing, what activity makes you completely lose track of time?

Give me a mountain to walk in or a fishing pole, and I can check out of the world for hours. I love getting immersed in a good movie. Something old, involving a murder and guys in fedoras. And chess. I can get lost in a chess board.

For 48 hours, you can be any character from British literature. Who and why?

I know this sounds like a canned answer, but who wouldn’t want to be Holmes for two days? Especially if I could have hair like Benedict Cumberbatch.

YOU HAD ME AT BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH. Okay, now for the lightning round. Top three books you’ve read in the last year?

Flannery O’Connor’s The Complete Stories, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Walker Percy’s Signposts in a Strange Land. I’ve just started reading that last one, but I can already tell it’s gonna be one of the top 3.

Three favorite “rabbit hole” websites?

i09.com. I visit it every day, and it’s utterly amazing. Arts and Letters Daily is a really good one, too. And I’ve recently discovered Atlas Obscura. That one’s a little hard to explain. You just have to go there.

Generally speaking, music or silence?

Music. Anything from Johnny Cash to AC/DC, depending upon what I’m writing.

Open Range or 3:10 to Yuma?

3:10 to Yuma. Open Range is a great movie, but it wasn’t written by Elmore Leonard.

Favorite 19th-century Russian fiction writer?

I can’t decide on either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, so I’ll go with Gogol. His Dead Souls is a masterpiece.

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You can see why I like Billy, yes? You can order When Mockingbirds Sing here on Amazon, or pick up a copy at your local Barnes and Noble. And you can go here for a chance to win a free copy of the book, autographed by Billy. Or here, where they’re giving away five copies!

If you need further convincing, here’s the book’s super-cool trailer:

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The Book – an update

Lots of things are happening behind the scenes in my writing world, which is why I’ve been scarce lately and haven’t been chattering on about all the exciting things happening in the world of physics, such as the solar flare that may/may not be cause for concern, or the fact that in just TWO MONTHS you can start submitting your application to be one of the original Mars colonists, or the fact that Google just BOUGHT A QUANTUM COMPUTER and forgive me for shouting but I think my head just exploded.

Anyway, here’s what’s been keeping me busy.

As you may know, since January of 2012 I’ve been working on a book manuscript of my Grandma’s story. It’s been a long, hard road. I’ve had to squeeze book work into the few hours a week my littlest is at preschool, plus evenings and weekends at the library (plus one trip to my favorite monastery.) Since I’m writing about events that happened a century ago and I’m bullish about factual accuracy, the project requires a ton of research.

booksandsuchColor_webinar

To cut to the chase – a few weeks ago, I signed with Janet Grant, the president of Books & Such Literary Agency. Because of Grandma’s age, Janet wants the book to come out as quickly as possible. Since I am a fairly new writer and this is a massive project, we decided that I should work with an experienced collaborator.

Janet suggested someone she’s worked with, a bestselling author who’s published 13 novels and 3 nonfiction books in 5 different languages. For most sane people, such credentials would more than suffice.

I think we can all agree that I am not most sane people.

2565163My writing standards far exceed my own abilities. So I hedged and balked and fussed about writing quality and probably came close to getting fired by my brand new agent by reason of massive unreasonability, but then I had a great phone conversation with the writer in question. And then she sent me an unpublished short story that blew my socks off and sealed the deal.

The woman’s got serious writing chops.

So I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be writing this book with the lovely and talented Cindy Coloma. We’re getting along like a house on fire, as Janet knew we would (Lesson #1: Your experienced agent may know a thing or two). Cindy and I are meeting in California in a few weeks. Right now I am buried in a sea of paperwork, including a 272-page adoption file and stacks of interviews I’m transcribing, which means I’m happier’n a pig in slop.

By the way, the adoption file came to me (copied onto some of the most beautiful paper stock I’ve ever seen) from my cousin Brian Lee, whom I’m dying to meet in person. You’ll meet him in the pages of the book – he’s the one who found Grandma on his mother’s behalf. He’s one of those cool people who has a mile-long resume, because he spent his twenties going to West Point and amassing degrees and learning how to build really cool sh*t, whereas during my twenties I was busy dining out and going to Six Flags and watching The Real World.

Brian has provided such fantastic support and/or pushing during the last year. (He’s also provided me with a couple of sleepless nights, because he is a Lieutenant Colonel and I’m not used to the pressures of Army life.)

Anyway. This journey is not about me, in any sense. Having this story “fall into my lap” is a gift that any writer would be lucky to have.

Grandma in Montreal, 1941

Grandma in Montreal, 1941

Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “Reading about the response of people in stories, plays, poems, helps us to respond more courageously and openly at our own moments of turning.”

As I’ve worked on this manuscript during the last year, spending long hours alone at the library, wrestling sentences to the ground one by ornery one, there were plenty of times when I doubted myself. But there has honestly not been a single second when I doubted the beauty and power of Grandma’s story, or the fact that it needs to be told.

I pray that Cindy and I can do it justice. I’ll keep you guys posted. Thanks so much for your support.

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Ebert, Art, and Life after Death

The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.

The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Image courtesy of Photobucket

Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.

In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.

Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.

There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.

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Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.

And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.

Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.

The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:

They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…

As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.

The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.

Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”

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Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.

As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.

And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.

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I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.

And I am grateful.

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My Year in Books – 2012

Following are the titles of the books I finished reading in 2012. In addition to these, I am still in the middle of so many books, I’m too embarrassed to give you the number (27.)

As I no longer finish books that aren’t at least very good, I can recommend all of the titles on this list. The ones in blue were the best of the best.

I sincerely love book lists, so if you’ve compiled one for your 2012 books, please direct me there!

Happy New Year, and happy reading.

I am in the middle of reading every book you see here. I can't talk about it right now.

Currently reading. I can’t even talk about it right now.

MEMOIRS

No Regrets, by Apolo Ohno
Decision Points, by George W. Bush
Open, by Andre Agassi
My Life, by Earvin “Magic” Johnson
True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy
Coop, by Michael Perry
Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl
Blood, Bones & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff
Forever Liesl, by Charmian Carr
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My Lucky Life In And Out Of Show Business, by Dick van Dyke
Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch
Sharing Good Times, by Jimmy Carter
Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell
A Natural Woman, by Carole King
Total Recall, by Arnold Schwarzenegger

FICTION

Tishomingo Blues, by Elmore Leonard
The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Ape House, by Sara Gruen
Jim the Boy, by Tony Earley
The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin
The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
The Stand, by Stephen King
The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
Shopgirl, by Steve Martin
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

NONFICTION

Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku
Quiet, by Susan Cain
Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Appetite for Life, The Biography of Julia Child, by Noel Riley Fitch
A Silence of Mockingbirds, by Karen Spears Zacharias
The Big Miss, by Hank Haney
Furious Love, by Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger
The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis
The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

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Year in Cool – 2012

I’ve been MIA here, lately. Turns out, writing a research-heavy historical memoir is massively time-consuming. Who’d have thought?

However, there’s no way I’d miss our annual Year in Cool post, because writing this post is more fun than spending a day at Disneyland with the entire cast of The Avengers. Below are my ten favorite news stories of 2012 involving physics celebrities gone wild.

I’m totally kidding. They’re totally about physics. But I promise – this stuff is way cooler than celebrities gone wild. (Although to be honest, maybe not quite as cool as spending the day at Disneyland with Downey, Jr. and Hemsworth and Hiddleston. But they’ve all stopped returning my calls.)

Ladies and Gents…presenting.

1. SCIENCE FICTION, MINUS THE FICTION

Set your phasers to stunned – it’s about to get freaky in here.

Remember in Apollo 13, when the astronauts got stuck in space and had to jerry-rig things out of stuff they had on board, like duct tape and toilet paper rolls? Remember how it would have been really helpful if someone on Earth could’ve punched something into a computer and then a Star-Trekky “replicator” in space could’ve produced the items? Like a printer, only for three-dimensional objects?

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have such things.

This video shows a 3-D printer scanning a crescent wrench, then “printing” an actual, working crescent wrench with moving parts, out of a powder solidified with a binding material and resin.

I love it when the guy says that this company is “one of the world’s leading manufacturers of 3D printers.” As if the world is casually overflowing with companies that make 3D printers…a sci-fi technology that I heretofore didn’t even know existed.

Seriously – watch the video. It’s fan-freaking-tastic.


2. APPROACHING THE FINAL FRONTIER

Way back in 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, two small spacecraft originally designed to explore Jupiter and Saturn. Once they checked that off their lists, they kept going – and any time now, 35 years after we sent it into space (carrying a gold-plated audio/visual disc inscribed with voice greetings and music by Mozart and Chuck Berry), Voyager I is preparing to become the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

https://i0.wp.com/voyager.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/images/interstellar_1.gifThe spacecraft is currently some 11 billion miles from the Sun, inside the Heliosheath, an outer section of our solar system where winds from our Sun interact with outer space, creating 100 million-mile-wide bubbles in the “air.” Astonishingly, it still sends data back to Earth via radio waves. And sometime within the next year or so, Voyager I is expected to cross the Heliopause, the theoretical edge of our solar system, to take its place among the stars.

Voyager I is traveling at a speed of around 37,000 mph, and has enough nuclear power to propel itself until at least 2020. After that, it will drift forever, trillions of miles away, accompanied by its own perfect Motown soundtrack.

Go, Johnny, go.

3. HOW MUCH IS THAT SPACE-TIME ALL AKIMBO

But when will humans travel to the stars? Even at Voyager’s fast clip, it would take an exasperating 76,000 years to arrive at Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. Clearly, we’re gonna need a faster ship. Fortunately, we have some ideas.

https://i2.wp.com/img.gawkerassets.com/img/186idp39rpm13jpg/original.jpgIn 1994, a physicist named Alcubierre came up with a theory for moving a starship through space by putting it inside a chunk of space-time (created via a giant ring) and then moving the chunk of space-time faster than the speed of light. The starship itself would not be moving faster than the speed of light within the bubble, so it would not violate Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

The only fly in the theoretical ointment has been the amount of energy needed to power the ring containing the space-time bubble – it would take a ball of antimatter that’s 317 times the size of Earth. And as of now, antiparticles are rarely even found in the observable universe, only in radioactivity and cosmic rays.

But this September, at the annual 100-Year Starship Symposium (and how much do you love that we have such a thing?), researchers announced that by changing the shape of the ring, they’ve worked out a design that could be powered by only 500 kilograms of antimatter!

Never mind that 500 kilos of antimatter would be dangerous enough to destroy all life on Earth. Never mind that we don’t even technically know if the whole ring concept would actually work.

We’re inching ever closer, peeps.

4. HOLE-Y MOLEY

Since the 1980’s, astronomers have maintained that every large galaxy has a black hole at its center – an extremely dense chunk of space-time that allows nothing to escape, not even light.

In October, scientists announced they’d found not just one, but two black holes at the center of the Milky Way, each about 10-20 times larger than our Sun (and please remember: our Sun is the size of a million Earths.)

But hold on to your britches, because just last week, astronomers announced that within the smallish NGC 1277 galaxy, they’ve discovered a black hole that has a mass equal to 17 billion Suns.

http://www.dailygalaxy.com/.a/6a00d8341bf7f753ef015433ac9868970c-800wiThe bad news about these bad boys? They gobble up surrounding space matter like candy, and if you were to fall into one, your body would compress to a single point of infinite density. (Sounds kind of cool, except for the part where you wouldn’t survive.) The good news? Black holes are formed when stars explode from compression of their own gravity, and our Sun’s relatively weak gravity ensures that that’ll never happen to it. So yay! We’re far, far away from any black hole danger.

Well, unless we get that starship working.

5. YES, VIRGINIA, (WE’RE 5.9-SIGMA LEVEL SURE) THERE IS A HIGGS BOSON

In the last half of the 20th century, physicists created the “Standard Model,” a theory that explains the most basic building blocks of the universe. As far as I can tell, the theory includes 12 matter particles, 12 antiparticles, and 5 elementary bosons (force particles). For a long time, the elusive “Higgs” boson (or as I like to call it, the Scarlet Pimpernel boson) was the only one of the bunch that had never actually been seen.

Basically, so the theory goes, all other particles have to interact with an unobservable “Higgs” energy field in order to obtain mass (unless they’re photons, in which case they don’t care to have any mass whatsoever, much like Victoria Beckham, but I digress.)

The Higgs particle is interesting. It has no spin. It is its own antiparticle. It has no electric charge or color. And, oh yes, it decays almost instantly upon creation, which is why it’s almost impossible to detect.

Enter the Large Hadron Collider (about which I’ve already written.) This July, two groups of scientists, working independently, analyzed 800 trillion proton collisions within the LHC and found, bingo, a never-before-seen particle that is “consistent with a Higgs boson.”

In other words, they’re pretty pretty pretty sure they’ve found what they’re looking for.

6. CALL ME DATA

So, you know how computers store data in something called “bytes,” which consist of 8 “bits” (binary digits) of 1’s or 0’s, which is absolutely as far as my understanding of such things goes, so don’t ask me to explain any further, because it makes no sense to me how a computer can turn numbers into…other things.

Anyway, scientists have figured out how to store data (the 1’s and 0’s about which I’m unclear) in human DNA. To the tune of 700 terabytes (one trillion bytes, and please stop talking) per one gram of DNA.

https://windowsandpaperwalls.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/700terabytedna.jpg?w=300Conceivably, you could store text, pictures, and Javascript in your strands of DNA. So, 10,000 years from now, someone could dig up my bones and find out just what books Cathy was reading, which videos she was watching…heck, they could read this blog post. On (okay, in) my bones.

Of courses, we are decades away from practical applications for such technology. Still – human DNA as data storage space? I love that there are people smart enough to figure out how to do these things that I am not even smart enough to explain.

Speaking of not being smart enough…

7. DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?

Never before in history have I tried so hard to understand a technology. Never before have I so utterly failed.

In July, scientist announced that they had discovered a way to take pictures through opaque objects, using natural light instead of lasers (X-rays.) Meaning they can now take pictures from around corners.

https://i2.wp.com/www.extremetech.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/seeing-around-corners-diagram.jpgIn short, when you’re trying to look at an object but there is a barrier in the way (a piece of paper, skin, a wall), the barrier is interfering with the photon beams – changing their directions (in the case of something opaque), or changing their wavelengths (in the case of something semi-transparent.) The barrier is said to be “scattering” the beams.

Spatial Light Modulators correct the scattering, allowing you to see the image as it really is (for a jolly good tumble down the rabbit hole, google phases and sine waves and ha ha, have fun with that) by turning the barrier into a mirror. Or something.

I asked three of my smartest friends to help me decipher this technology. They each wrote back a beautiful essay on the subject. One of the explanations was so sweeping and elegant, I nearly wept with joy.

And it all still makes zero sense to me. But anyway: we’ve developed a camera that can see around corners. Super cool, yes?

8. DIAMONDS, DIAMONDS EVERYWHERE…

The largest diamond ever found on Earth was discovered in 1905 – the Cullinan Diamond, a whopping 3,106.75 carats. The biggest stone cut from the Cullinan, at 530.4 carats, is part of the Crown Jewels in London and is worth an estimated 400 million dollars.

Sounds impressive – but should we ever manage to get our grubby little hands on a certain Super Earth zooming around a star named 55 Cancri, even the Cullinan would be rendered worthless.

https://i2.wp.com/i.space.com/images/i/22659/iFF/55-cancri-e-diamond-planet.jpg55 Cancri e (yes, that’s the planet’s completely boring official name) is twice as big as Earth, but it’s a fast-moving behemoth – it orbits its Sun, a journey that takes us a full year, once every 18 hours! Two months ago, astronomers announced that this planet is likely a “carbon planet.” Meaning a third of it could be pure diamond.

Sadly, this impressive piece of bling is 40 light years away from us. (NOW do you see why we need that starship?)

A bone to pick. Could we please find a more interesting name for this beauty? I vote for Latin – Puellae Optimus Amicus. Rough translation: Girl’s Best Friend.

9. MARS DREAMING

On August 6, with millions of people (including me) watching live, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity rover landed safely on Mars, after completing an astonishing sequence of events that all had to occur automatically and perfectly within a seven minute timeframe in order to not have the $2.5 billion project, well, literally crash and burn.

Since then, Curiosity has been making geeks happy by driving around the surface of Mars taking photographs, conducting experiments, and generally being adorable. (It beamed a song – “Reach for the Stars” by will.i.am – back to Earth, and used the Foursquare mobile app to generate the first “check-in” from another planet! C’mon…does it get any cuter?)

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7d/Mars_atmosphere.jpg/220px-Mars_atmosphere.jpgHowever, Curiosity may soon be made obsolete by the appearance of – well, people on Mars. In 2010, the U.S. scrapped plans for another moon mission and instead authorized a 2030(ish) manned Mars mission. Not to be outdone, those renowned space experts the Dutch have spearheaded Mars One – a planned actual human colony on Mars which has a (wildly) optimistic target date of 2023.

Well, you can imagine how much all of this excites me. Although there is 0.00% chance of me going to Mars, myself…

10. SO YOU WANNA BE AN ASTRONAUT

I’ve already written about how no-way no-how could I ever go into space. (I’m a big fat scaredy-cat, etc.) The video below, complete with audio remastered by the folks who brought you Star Wars, lets you (sort-of) experience traveling out of our atmosphere on the Space Shuttle. Pay attention to the numbers on the upper right – that’s the shuttle’s speed in mph.

Note the heart-pounding force that pushes the shuttle off the launch pad. Note the amazing sounds of the rockets and the pierced-through atmosphere. Note how fast the shuttle is accelerating.

Note me soiling my pants like a little baby.

 

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Hear Them Roar – Women of the 2012 Olympics

Four years. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s a long time to wait. A long time to work towards redemption.

Image Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

At the age of 12, Dana Vollmer was the youngest swimmer at the 2000 Olympic Trials. She didn’t make the team but four years later, at just 16, she helped the U.S. team win an Olympic gold medal in the 800m relay – while battling a congenital heart condition that required her to carry a defibrillator to every practice and meet in which she swam. Coming into the 2008 Olympic Trials, where she was scheduled to swim four events, the talented twenty-one-year-old was expected to be a major force.

But she didn’t make the Olympic team – not in a single event. In two of them, she didn’t even make it to the trial finals.

After such crushing disappointment, Dana didn’t know if she ever wanted to swim again. For many athletes, the Olympics are the single greatest measure of their talent. Ahead of Dana stretched fifteen hundred days of grueling work and little payoff. Athletic training isn’t cute, no matter which gender you are. It is gritty and monotonous and agonizing. It goes on day after sweaty day, with plenty of setbacks. Progress, when it comes, is incremental.

Sometime during the bleakness of 2008, Dana decided to keep training. For four long years, she got into the pool every day. And last Sunday, she became the first woman in the world to swim the 100m butterfly in under 56 seconds, earning not just an Olympic gold medal but a world record, and a place in history.

Sixteen years. Five thousand, eight hundred and forty days.

That’s a long time to labor. A long time to maintain an elite edge.

Image courtesy of People.com

Kim Rhode had just turned seventeen when she competed in her first Olympics in 1996, in the sport of double-trap shooting. When she won the gold, she became the youngest female to do so in the history of Olympic shooting. In the next several Olympics, spanning a dozen years, she won a bronze, another gold, and a silver. Kim’s sport isn’t one that people tune in to watch on TV (although they should – it’s a treat, watching her shoot with laser precision). Before this week, few people knew her name. Nobody would have recognized her on the street.

Kim had to make plenty of adjustments along the way. After her sport was eliminated from the Games, she switched to skeet shooting. In 2008, the shotgun she’d used for eighteen years was stolen from her truck. Shooter’s guns are like an extension of their arm and trying to adjust to a new one, Kim said, was like “a swimmer going from the backstroke to diving.” But adjust she did, while shooting 500-1000 rounds daily, seven days a week.

And when she won another gold medal this week, Kim became the first American in history – male or female, in any event – to medal in five consecutive Olympic games.

Forty years. Fourteen thousand, six hundred days.

That’s a long time to hope. A long time to yearn for a place at the table.

Image courtesy of The Washington Times

Saudi Arabia entered its first Olympics in 1972 with an all-male team and in the four decades since, the country has never allowed women to compete. This year, after months of intense pressure by the International Olympic Committee, which threatened to ban Saudi Arabia (and Qatar and Brunei) altogether if they didn’t let women on their teams, those nations scrambled to find some female athletes.

Saudi Arabia came up with two teenagers, Sarah Attar, a runner who attends college in America, and Wojdan Shaherkani, a judo wrestler. These women have no shot at Olympic wins – their scores and times aren’t nearly good enough to even qualify them for the Games (they were given a special dispensation by the IOC). And they’re still an agonizingly long way from equality. They marched at the back of the pack during Friday’s opening ceremonies. Their clothing is regulated and their movements are monitored. Their very inclusion is largely a “saving face” move by Saudi Arabian authorities.

Still, they have taken a tiny but important step forward for their gender, in a country where women still suffer appalling indignities. They are quiet pioneers, giving a face to millions of their sisters who still have no voice. One desperately hopes that these two modest, veiled women are that “cloud the size of a man’s hand” that Elijah saw in a barren desert, the promise of a deluge of progress to come.

These Games are chock-a-block full of strong, beautiful women.

Like Allison Schmitt, the effervescent swimmer who has brought such cheer to the entire U.S. team, including her more famous buddy Michael Phelps. A fierce competitor, she’s already earned four medals this week. After swimming a blazing relay anchor leg on Wednesday that brought her another gold medal, she sounded adorably like Buddy the Elf. “I think this is the biggest smile I’ve ever had in my life, and that’s saying a lot, because I love smiling.”

Or the astonishing British heptathlete (in seven! track & field events) Jessica Ennis, one of only ten women in history who have high-jumped a full foot above their own height. She hurdles. She jumps. She throws. She runs. Two years ago, running the 60 meter hurdles in an international meet, she actually beat a chagrined Lolo Jones – the U.S. champ whose only event is the hurdles. Jessica has pushed through fractures in her foot and inflamed muscles, and she’s filled her walls with medals and trophies and awards. Her 2012 Olympic quest begins on Friday.

And of course the glorious Gabby Douglas, who last night led the women’s gymnastics competition from beginning to end, becoming the first black woman to win the gold all-around medal. In a sport where frayed nerves usually cause even the most confident athletes to stumble, she sailed through every rotation with terrific skill and pizzazz.

Women athletes often don’t get as much attention as their male counterparts, who are stronger and faster. But they train just as hard, and their stories are just as extraordinary. They have earned their place in history. My gorgeous sisters inspire me and make me proud.

I am woman. They smile, as bright as the stadium lights. Hear the crowd roar.

Photo courtesy of Bleacherreport.net

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In Defense of Paper Pages

To Kindle or not to Kindle? That is the question.

I have no quarrel with e-readers. Since I am a die-hard fan of learning, any medium that gets people reading is fine by me. Read on a papyrus scroll or an overhead projector or a Minority Report-esque glass screen, it makes no difference to me. But I have no plans to buy an e-reader.

I don’t just love reading, you see. I love books.

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When I was in grade school, we lived for a time in a small, rectangular house where the ugly carpet was the exact color of rust. We didn’t own a television. When the weather was nice, I sometimes pedaled around the neighborhood on my bike, but most often I was curled up somewhere in our house, reading from a stack of books. I commandeered a corner of the living room, near a window, and dragged a pillow and a sleeping bag there. Lying on my stomach on the rough carpet, I read the hours away as specks of dust swam in the sunlight.

I owned a precious few books, perhaps thirty, and I read these over and over. Others were checked out from the library – I read those over and over too. I was careful with books, never smashing the covers flat, never turning the corners down to mark my place. Every now and then a paper cover would tear slightly, at one of the outside edges, and I would scotch-tape the rip. I still have many of these books. The strips of tape are yellow and brittle now.

To a shy girl whose family moved often, books were treasured companions, tangible comforts. I loved them as deeply as you could love a pet or a playmate. Then as now, their covers, their particular sizes conjured up the stories inside and the hours I’d spent with them. Some books were fat (I liked those best.) Some were tall and thin. Some had glossy covers, some plain. Some had unusual or pretty artwork on the outside.

My handful of childhood books stayed with me through college and marriage and moving across the country and back again. Along the way, they were joined by lots of other books – more than a thousand by now. In many cases, looking at a particular book makes me think of the person I was shopping with at the time, or the loved one from whom it was a gift.

In the late 70’s, my Dad’s sister occasionally came to visit us during the holidays. She seemed exotic, with her long hair and tall boots and her once-upon-a-time residence in France. Pretty and smart, she remained unmarried in her 30’s, which was not common then. She always came bearing gifts of books. She would read to us in the evenings, with a dulcet voice that broke off into a wonderfully throaty laugh.

One year she brought The Gifts of the Child Christ, a two-book collection of the great George MacDonald’s fantasy stories for children. It would be impossible to guess how many hours I spent poring over those two books, over the next few years. I never picked them up, never looked at the familiar illustration on their gray-edged covers and felt their specific heft, without thinking of my aunt, and those hours by the fireplace.

Those books sit three feet from me, now. Volume One has become delicate – the glue in the binding has failed a little. I keep them on a top shelf and away from my small children. But soon my boys will be old enough to understand these stories. They can snuggle up under my arm and carefully turn the pages, studying the woodcut illustrations at the beginning of each tale. They will be able to tell which ones were my favorites by how easily the pages fall open.

********

While on vacation in the 1990’s, my best friend and I ducked into a bookstore. It was raining. After shaking out our umbrellas we wandered around looking at stacks of books, our wet shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. Susan had recently read a novel that she said I simply had to read. But I don’t like that genre, I said. When she couldn’t convince me, she insisted on buying a copy, and handed it over. (She was right. The Sparrow would become one of my favorite books.) My vivacious friend died three years ago, just before her fortieth birthday. As I write this, the book she pressed into my hand that night lays in my lap. Every time I look at it, I think of her.

Books remind me of the places I bought them. From decades ago, I remember the barn-like Christian bookstore that carried Bibles and frightening tracts and the kid’s serial books that I loved. The store is still in business in my childhood hometown, and still smells like mildewed old pews.

I remember the tiny bookstore in the fancy mall in Atlanta, where they kept the rare books locked behind a glass case. I bought my brother an early edition of Hansel & Gretel there.

I remember the bookstore near the wharf in Baltimore, where I wandered in the evenings while on business trips. The store was in an old factory, with huge exposed pipes hanging overhead. When I’m adrift in a strange city, I seek out the nearest bookstore for comfort. Looking at books piled on tables and wedged onto shelves makes me feel like I’ve arrived home.

I remember the bookstores in nearly every airport I’ve ever been in. I remember bookstores in strip malls, and in Victorian houses by the ocean.

Nowadays most bookstores smell like roasting coffee (which always makes me want to unwind my scarf, even when I’m not wearing one). But I still sometimes pick up books and furtively sniff them, to get a whiff of that papery, inky, heavy smell that whispers, Oh, honey, just wait’ll you get me home. We’re going on an adventure.

Granted, as with humans, a book’s essence is found inside it. I understand that. But people’s faces and voices and smells are evocative of all that we love about them.

For me, it’s that way with books, too.

********

I actually wrote the bulk of this post in 2010, then filed it away. A few months ago, I read this gorgeous piece by one of my favorite writers…and knew I wasn’t alone.

If there is a book that evokes memories for you, I’d love to hear about it!

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Quiet Time

I saw a woman at the park the other day who held forth to a group of her friends, no kidding, for at least an hour solid. I kept looking up from my book, in astonishment – Yep, she’s still talking. Her friends seemed content to be her audience. I was equal parts amazed and exhausted, watching her. She was still going, when I left.

It was like watching a creature from another planet. But let me explain. Continue reading

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