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As we have no contributing diarist this week, we'll have an open forum instead. Friends, Romans, and Kossacks, we're running into choppy waters here--we need more contributors! If members don't contribute diaries, this group may collapse like a tent during a thunderstorm. Please tell me you'll do a diary on a book that changed your life.  It's as easy as pie. Just kosmail me for the template and you'll see how you can do a diary in just three paragraphs. You may even lose weight without all those excess words rattling around in your head!

When I was 18 my father brought home a book called Great Ideas and Theories of Modern Cosmology by Jagjit Singh. In those days I wanted to read everything and understand everything, so I opened the thin blue paperback book, read the dedication to Jawaharlal Nehru, and turned to Chapter I, which was titled “Digging Up Eternity.”

For me to undertake reading a book of this sort was a tremendous intellectual leap. Never good at mathematics, I thankfully decided to abandon the subject after my freshman year of high school.  “After all,” the guidance counselor told me, “why do you need math? After you graduate you’ll work in a department store until you get married.”

However, when Governor Orval Faubus closed the public high schools in Little Rock to avoid racial integration, I found myself attending St. Mary’s Academy in junior year.  To fill my schedule I agreed to take first-year algebra as one of my courses, and it was one of the greatest strokes of luck that ever came my way. Sister Mary Marcelline, she of the bright blue eyes and Boston accent, made algebra so fascinating that in study hall I did my algebra homework first. I earned two B’s in the subject during that year, and I was prouder of them than of all my straight A’s in English, history, and French.

So it was in that spirit (“If I can understand algebra, I can understand this”) that I began to read Chapter II, “The Physics of Celestial Fires:  An Astrophysical Preamble.”  My imagination was caught by Singh’s descriptions of primeval gas clouds and primordial cosmic dust, of young, hot blue stars and aging red supergiants. At one point during my reading I had my algebra textbook at my left hand and the dictionary at my right for reference.

Many years ago I read somewhere that we here on Earth inhabit “the third planet of a second-rate star in a commonplace galaxy.”  A humbling thought, as is this statement by Singh:

“In other words, our universe originated from a state of unimaginably dense concentration of matter in which all the galaxies were packed within a pin point at a definite epoch of time some 7 billion years ago.  This conclusion, deduced from Hubble’s observation that the first dawn of creation was a peculiar condition in which all the galaxies emerged from the explosion of a sort of giant primeval atom some 7 billion years ago, contradicts the postulate that in the beginning the universe was without form and void—an equally unimaginable vacuity spread over infinite space.  There is thus complete discord between Hoyle’s theory and Hubble’s red-shift observation if the red-shift is really a recessional effect.”
Singh then goes on to discuss in mind-boggling detail the differences between the two theories.  (If I remember correctly, some time after 1962 Fred Hoyle renounced his steady-state theory of the universe.) We humans are not as important as we like to think.

Did this exercise lead me into a whole new world of science?  Not really, although a couple of years later when my father brought home a book by Trachtenberg, I did sums all one summer. Trachtenberg’s mathematical methods fascinated me so much I even got my boyfriend of the time to read some of the book and do the math exercises with me. To this day I find cosmology profoundly interesting and read every article I encounter on that subject.

What about YOU?  Which book made your eyebrows shoot up into your hair because it opened up a whole new intellectual frontier for you?  Did you read something that made your mind explode?  Really?  What was it?

The boat bearing the coffee beans from South America has been sequestered, so there’s no coffee this morning, alas.  But there’s plenty of hot chocolate in that urn over in the corner, and there's mulled cider in the crockpot next to that platter of fresh-out-of-the-oven almond biscotti. Help yourself and tell us which book was so far over your head you almost didn’t come up!

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Mar 01, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.


What was the subject of the book that was over your head?

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