Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

Related Posts

A Tale for the Time Being

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Day 752: The Ascent of Man

Cover for The Ascent of ManThe book The Ascent of Man is a companion piece to the 1970’s era TV series. The introduction to the book states that the series was an answer to Kenneth Clarke’s famous Civilisation, which left out the accomplishments of science. Author Jacob Bronowski was a well-known mathematician, biologist, and science historian.

Bronowski begins this book with our ape relatives and a discussion of evolution, but he really gets into his subject after man has moved from a nomadic to an agrarian lifestyle. His contention is that nomads do not have the time or energy to innovate.

The book takes us through a series of the most important discoveries for the improvement of human life and understanding. These include the combination of copper and tin to make bronze, mathematical discoveries, the Copernican system, the Scientific Revolution, and so on up to the double helix.

As the book is so obviously the script of a program, there are some frustrating times when it refers to an image that certainly appeared on TV but not in the book. On the other hand, the illustrations in the book are many and beautiful.

Of course, since the book was written in the 70’s, it is a little dated. One example is that Bronowski frequently comments on how slowly animals evolve, but I believe this idea has been reconsidered.

Because the discussion of the concepts is very brief, there were times when I felt Bronowski was implying a lot more than he described. That is, his greater understanding of the topic interferes a bit in his simple explanations. So, even though I watch a lot of science programs and usually have no trouble understanding them, I felt sometimes as if the explanations of the more difficult subjects have too much left out. Still, for someone who wants to learn basic information about important scientific discoveries up to the middle of the 20th century or is interested in the history of science, this is a good place to start.

Related Posts

Salt: A World History

Death by Black Hole and Other Quandaries

A History of the World in 12 Maps