Nothing Compares 2 Prince

I know I said I’ve been really busy the past two weeks, but if I don’t write something, I’m gonna go crazy. I have a pile of books to write about (naturally), but what I’ve been reading for the past two weeks is mostly about Prince. His death now looks like a drug interaction (note to self: do not mix Ambien for sleep with painkillers…) or just a straight Percocet (Oxycontin + Acetaminophen) overdose.

My wife Camille and I have really been torn up about Prince’s death. I sort of shrugged when David Bowie died, and I have lots more Bowie music at home than Prince. But this was like our brother died or something, and I’m not sure it’s merely because we spent three years living about five miles down the road from Paisley Park (we lived in Hopkins). Camille even met Prince a few times in the early 90s, when she would go clubbing in Minneapolis and Prince had like a booth in back at the Pacific Club (We’ve been the First Avenue too, I think).

I think it’s mostly mourning the passage of genius. Supposedly, when they asked Eric Clapton how it felt to be the greatest living guitarist, he said “I don’t know…you’ll have to ask Prince.” Now, anyone who knows anything about Clapton, who wouldn’t even give an inch to Jimi Hendrix, suspects a Prince fan made that all up. But I’ll leave it up to you: check out the solo Prince whips off during George Harrison’s tribute during While My Guitar Gently Weeps as Prince falls backward off the stage (and then Prince throws the guitar up in the air at the end and walks off the stage with that little grin of his that says “Top that…if you can.”

The 2004 video is here.

Prince comes on at 3:28, wipes the fretboard at 4:02, falls at 4:40 or so (and without missing a note: check out the glee on Tom Petty’s face as realizes what will happen), and “the toss” is at 6:09.

Prince supposedly found the sounds of the guitar “limiting” and often playing all instruments on his albums, except, famously, the saxophone. His drumming has been described not as flashy, but as solid as handclaps. Since I have a soft spot of multi-instrumentalists like Brian Jones, I think that explains a lot of why I’m mourning the loss of Prince. I admit a lot of his post-80s stuff was barely listenable, but there were some goodies in there, and once you’ve done it all, you basically having nothing more to prove and can do anything you want to amuse yourself.

Let me close with a word about Prince’s lyrics. Like Hendrix, I think Prince’s skill with words has been under-appreciated. I’ve been listening to Sinead O’Conner’s recording of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U a lot lately. Prince has a version too, usually a duet with men’s and women’s parts, but I think it works best as a soliloquy on the part of one person pleading with a former lover. Let me break it down for you so you know what I like about it (my comments in parentheses):

Nothing Compares 2 U

by Prince

It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away
I go out every night and sleep all day
Since you took your love away

(Note the fault of the breakup: the other person “took” their love away. I’m blameless!)

Since you been gone I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues
‘Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(Note the tone: the sky’s the limit without you, babe! And note the strict grammatical objective wording “whomever” instead of the more common “whoever.” Also, never mind that I never took you to a fancy restaurant when we were together…heck, I can do that now that I don’t have to pay for you too! I like the subtle way this subtext opens up the narrative, although it still hurts that you’re gone.)

It’s been so lonely without you here
Like a bird without a song
Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling
Tell me baby where did I go wrong?

(Ah! Maybe I *did* have something to do with the breakup, but I have no idea how you could have found me less than perfect. Where did I mess up? Give me a hint…)

I could put my arms around every boy I see
But they’d only remind me of you
I went to the doctor guess what he told me?
Guess what he told me?

(I love the challenge in the “guess what he told me?” line. The implication is that the doctor said we should still be together, if not for your health, then certainly mine! And the repeated challenge is pure genius. But the doctor’s advice was different…)

He said girl you better try to have fun no matter what you do
But he’s a fool
‘Cause nothing compares, nothing compares to you

(This is the payoff of the whole song: life is no fun since you broke up with me, and it will never be. We MUST be together, and if that stupid doctor can’t see that, then he’s obviously a fool.)

All the flowers that you planted mama
In the back yard
All died when you went away

(This is my favorite lyric in the song. See! Not only am I suffering, but you killed our flowers! It’s not clear why the singer could not water the stupid flowers. I can’t hear these words without thinking they are a metaphor for Prince’s legacy: the “flowers” he “planted” – I mean the songs he performed – will wither and die “when he went away”.)

I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard
But I’m willing to give it another try

(The song ends with the hope of reconciliation. Note that there is no sign anywhere that this return is possible, and likely is not. Just as well: it puts the blame firmly on the other person again…living with you was so hard, see? But, gosh, I could try again if you really ask me nicely…)

Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you
Nothing compares
Nothing compares to you

(The song ends with the theme repeated over and over…)

Goodnight, Sweet Prince!

We’ll not see another like him for a long while.

Life on the Edge by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden and Jim Al-Khalili (Crown, 2015), 368 pages.

LOTE intnl McFadden and Al-Khalili LOTE McFadden and Al-Khalili

This book, like last time, also forms a kind of bookend with a book I wrote about earlier about the discovery of DNA and RNA and the genetic “code”: Life’s Greatest Secret. The other book that is intimately related to the topics covered here are in a book I read a couple of years ago and which you can find here: Life’s Ratchet.

There seems to be something quantized about this book besides the subtitle. It appears to exist in two states at the same time, much like the particle and wave aspects of all quantum systems, which is why there are two images and links above. One book, with a light cover, was published in November of 2014 by Bantam and lists Jim Al-Khalili as the first author and has International Standard Book Number (ISBN) 978-0593069318. Sometimes you see this edition as the “International Edition” and that’s how I’ll talk about it here. The other book has a dark cover and was published in July of 2015 by Crown and lists Johnjoe McFadden as the first author and has ISBN 978-0307986818.

However, the two books (?) seem to be identical in terms of content and page number and even description. In fact, the content of the 2015 book is copyrighted 2014. (One reviewer on Amazon moaned that they expected a new book from July 2015 and got this “old” book from last year instead.) I have to admit this is the first time I have noticed something like this. Welcome to publishing in today’s world.

Once you get into the particle or wave version of the book, you’ll find a wild ride, as promised, on the leading edge of research into how quantum physical effects influence otherwise puzzling features of life such as bird navigation, the sense of smell, and the speed and accuracy of DNA reproduction and protein folding. The authors tackle head-on the issue of whether there is anything distinct about “quantum biology” as related to “regular biology” in the first place. That is, because everything small enough (and quiet enough, as the book points out) is better understood as a quantum system governed by probabilities, there are many people who see a separate category for quantum effects on biological systems as silly (page 19). But to me, this is a bit like saying because there is life on earth, the universe is alive. Is there life in outer space? Of course, because we’re in outer space! It’s undoubtedly true, but not particularly helpful.

I was attracted to this book because of one thing I knew was true: the fact that protein folding in a cell takes place much too quickly during protein synthesis to be explained by classical physics. Classical physics is what you use if you don’t use quantum physics, and classical rules usually apply to the objects we can see or deal with in everyday life. But at the other end of the microscope, quantum rules must apply to make these activities sensible—or so this book claims, correctly in my thinking.

After exploring how classical physics cannot explain how a migrating European robin can sense a weak magnetic field of the earth with an internal inclination compass (page 6 and 14), the book goes through a kind of crash-intro to quantum effects. These effects include how quantum states can be “smeared out” between possible values until a “measurement” snaps the mathematical wave function to a definite value, how quantum tunneling allows quantum particles to “tunnel” through an energy barrier (think of this as a high hill) to the other slope without having to climb to the summit, and how quantum entities can be “correlated” or entangled so that actions that should be impossible can take place.

As I said, in some sense this quantum action is trivial. This is how reality works. The surprise to researchers that this book points out again and again is that without a “quantum beat” drumming in the background at the molecular level, cellular activities like enzyme snipping and photosynthesis make no sense energetically and could never proceed, or proceed much too slowly, under the rules of classical physics.

This is fairly esoteric stuff, and the authors do a good job of keeping you on board by recapitulating important effects and with very well-done figures (for example, those on pages 80 for DNA and page 150 for the sense of smell). One of the real revelations to modern researchers is that quantum effects, normally reproduced in the lab by a very small number of atoms (a near vacuum) in a very cold environment, can exist and drive cellular events in the hot, wet, crowded environment of the cell. This is because the thermal activities of the atoms in the cell are performing “measurements” that destroy the quantum effects all the time (page 116). In spite of it all, there seems to be enough isolation at the atomic level in the cell to allow “quantum walks” to enable things to happen and make life possible.

For example, cells must not only build things up, they must break them down, a process known as catalysis. The “scaffolding” of a cell is collagen, a really tough molecular strand that has to be broken down, for instance, when a tadpole’s tail disappears as it becomes frog. The enzymes used in the cell to perform this “snipping” are well understood; the problem is that, using classical rules (page 79-80), the process is much too slow for life to function. Even with very efficient catalysts, cellular functions should take about 8 hours to complete (page 84), but we can see an entire cell reproduce in about 20 minutes in some cases. Only quantum “shortcuts” can make life possible, the book says.

Which brings me back to the issue of protein synthesis and folding. As proteins are formed by chains of amino acids from RNA, they must fold correctly in order to function, and fold almost instantaneously as they roll off the RNA assembly line. But there are literally hundreds or thousands of ways they can fold (misfolded proteins are behind many brain diseases, and probably Alzheimer’s disease as well). How do they fold so correctly so fast? It has to be some quantum effect in action…

I was fascinating by how quantum effects can explain the robin’s magnetic abilities, which seem to be located in the bird’s eye (page 18 and 171), the role of chlorophyll in photosynthesis, how molecules shaped almost the same can smell very differently, and how DNA and RNA seem to obey quantum rules. However, at the end of the book, quantum effects become to explanation for everything we don’t yet understand, it seems. But to me, the extension of the research results earlier in the book to explain human consciousness (page 231), the origin of life (page 265), and the finality of death (page 289), although they may prove to be correct, is one step too far.

I can’t close without telling the only physics joke I know, which I invented with Irwin Weingarten at NYU around 1967. The quantum, which is indicated mathematically by the letter symbol h, was discovered or invented by Max Planck around 1900. So here’s the joke. Q: Who put the h in pysics? A: Phlanck (Flanck).

OK, you can groan now. 🙂


The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis

The Gods of Tango by Carolina de Robertis (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 367 pages.

GOT de Robertis

I haven’t read a work of “literary fiction” (non-genre fiction) in a long time. Not only does literary fiction not fit neatly into a genre, but literary fiction is supposed to say something profound about the human condition. And the writing is really pretty. At least, I think that’s what it’s all about. But in any case, this book succeeds on all fronts.

I admit I read this book for personal reasons. I saw it reviewed in The New Yorker magazine, and the reviewer mentioned that it was about an Italian girl who leaves Naples in 1913 and takes a ship to Buenos Aires in Argentina, I knew I had to read it.

Why? Sometime in the early 1900s (I think it was 1904) a young boy named Giovanni Gayton Galasso (GGG: I still have his gold monogram ring) left a small town in Calabria for Naples because the 14-year-old boy did not get along with his father. He took his little brother with him. Life was hard in those days: the family had fallen from one that “lived in a castle on top of a hill” on property granted by the kings of Naples and the Popes for services rendered (family history is vague about just what these services might have been). Then Garibaldi, that infernal “baker from Brooklyn” came and took the property from Giovanni’s family and gave it to “the lazy poor people.” Giovanni’s grandfather took the grant to Garibaldi’s men and said “See, I have the papers…” and, according to family history, Garibaldi’s men grabbed the papers and ripped them up and threw the pieces into the fire. “See? Now you have no papers. You are just like the rest of us.”

And so the family no longer lived in the castle. Giovanni’s father, only a child in the 1860s, took his frustrations out on his son Giovanni, born in 1890. The animosity ran deep: when Giovanni left Naples to become John, his father grudgingly gave him two dollars. When John got a job as a laborer in New York, he took two dollars from his first paycheck and sent it back to my great-grandfather. “Now,” he wrote, “I owe you nothing.”

At the port of Naples (I visited there in June of 2015) two ships offered the brothers passage for one person to the New World in exchange for work on the ship. One boat was bound for New York and the other for Buenos Aires. And so, due to a flip of a coin, my grandfather John Galasso came to New York while his little brother Tom went to Argentina and founded a family of tailors to the rich and powerful. I met my great-uncle Tomasso and my distant cousins once: in Nutley, New Jersey around 1960. They had come for a marriage of someone in the family of John’s sister Giaconda, who John had convinced to come to the New York area. I always wondered what life in Argentina must have been like for them.

Now I think I know: the main character in The Gods of Tango, Leda, comes to Argentina from a small town near Naples. Her family is relatively well-off because her uncle, her father’s older brother, owns the property on which everyone depends to make a living.

But wait, that’s not really where the book starts. It starts at the “end,” with the death of an elderly man named Dante, who dies in Montevideo thinking of a girl named Cora. Then the book delves even deeper into the past, and joins a girl named Leda on her way meet her husband in Argentina. In her trunk is her prized possession: a violin that once belonged to Federico, the last king of Naples of the Trastamara line (page 8). The exiled king plays a dirge and gives the violin to his loyal count because the king wants the instrument to stay in Naples. And stay it does, until it comes into the possession of Leda’s father, who, surprisingly, gives it to Leda (who ever heard of a girl playing the violin!) before she leaves for the New World. (Yes, the violin that had to stay in Naples has no problem joining Leda in the New World, although on page 25 the old king is “writhing” in his grave. Stuff happens.)

Tall, thin Leda is close to her cousins, a boy named Dante and a girl named Cora. So close, in fact, that when puberty arrives, it’s Dante who gets to explore Leda’s changing body. Soon, it becomes obvious that the pair might be better off married than tempted into a life of sin under the rose arbor. Leda gets engaged to Dante, who leaves for Argentina, and they get married by proxy before Dante sends for Leda to join him in the New World.

Meanwhile, Leda and Cora are undergoing a stressful time. Cora starts acting weirder and weirder, and before long everyone is calling her “Crazy Cora.” De Robertis drops in more and more of the Cora story back in Italy as Leda makes her way through Buenos Aires, and this slow tease is masterfully done. But without Dante and Cora, who has been found dead in the river, Leda has no reason to stay in her little town—and her mom is none too happy about that cousin-marriage thing.

But once in Argentina, Leda finds that Dante has been killed by troops suppressing a workers’ strike (Communists are everywhere, it seems). This leaves Leda alone in a world where women are either virgins, wives, or whores. Leda is technically a widow, but still a virgin, and reluctant to become a whore. It’s tempting, however, because only the “bad girls” have any amount of the freedom that Leda craves. (There is a terrific passage on page 30-31 when Leda’s father takes her to the ship and Leda sees a woman in a red dress on a street corner in Naples. She is tempted to join her and this sets the stage for Leda’s actions later.)

As a widow with no good alternatives, Leda dons her dead husband’s clothing and becomes “Dante,” eventually finding as job as a violin player in a tango orchestra. She goes from place to place, band to band, until near end of the book, she has found love (Rosa) and is a key part of the best tango band in Buenos Aires, led by Santiago, a half-black father substitute to Leda.

Naturally, two great events upset Leda’s perfect world. The beauty of it all is the way the de Robertis works this in with the final revelation about the cause of Cora’s madness and suicide. A book like this is so good you just keep reading. You’ll be tempted to consume it all at once, but force yourself to stop and reflect every 50-100 pages of so. The text is so rich you could drown in it.

So who are the “gods of tango”? You’ll find that revealed on page 286. Santiago notes that the tango began with the drum beats of African slaves, drums they use to speak to the gods, and ends his history with the thought that “Tango is the sound of the gods.”

Good books teach us “how does it feel to be _______?” (fill in the blank). Read this book, and you will find out how it feels to be Leda/Dante (the false male), Fausta the girl who joins her dull husband (the good girl), the Polish girl who ends up in the brothel (the bad girl), as well as men like Arturo (dead Dante’s roommate, who feels he must care for Leda) and Santiago (the leader of the tango orchestra).

At the Edge of Uncertainty by Michael Brooks

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise by Michael Brooks (Overlook Books, 2015), 292 pages.

ATEOU Brooks

I loved Brooks’s 2009 book, 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense, so I jumped all over this book when it came out. Both books are about things that scientist know or have evidence of, but are sort of at a loss to figure out how to fit them into our “standard” models of reality. At least a couple of the head-scratchers from the 2009 book, like the strange drift of deep space probes, seem now to have satisfactory answers, so a follow-up volume was a good idea. And I like to keep up with lots of different science fields.

But I have to say that some of the 11 topics chosen left me a little puzzled as to what could be so radical or challenging about them. Interesting, yes, but hardly challenges to contemporary scientific understanding that things like dark matter and dark energy (although “dark flow” does show up at the end). It’s one thing to note that gender differences have been ignored or underappreciated in vaccine or drug research, but addressing the issue does not require any new science or breakthrough of theory. We only need to add common sense about half the human race to often un-reported gender biases.

Let’s go through each of the 11 discoveries and let’s see what it is that makes them noteworthy.

Consciousness and zombies—Given my AI background, I liked that the book started off with material about new discoveries in brain neuroscience. That said, Brooks puts it all in a package with “zombies,” although brain scientists mean something very different than reanimated dead people. In AI studies, a zombie is a person who acts just like a regular human, but you aren’t really sure that their minds are working like ours. After all, we only know of one truly conscious person in the universe: the person looking out at the world from behind our eyes.  The discoveries here include studies that seem to establish near-human levels of consciousness in “lower animals” like parrots. Visual studies (page 17) are starting to reveal a unified theory of the mind for the first time (it’s hard to have “artificial” intelligence when you really have no idea what “intelligence” is in the first place. Otherwise a strict behaviorist approach (“if it acts like a duck…”) prevails, but this is not very scientific or challenging, given the way people talk to their GPS systems.

Humans aren’t special—In a related chapter, Brooks explores animal emotion and points out that animals can be shy or bold and exhibit personalities like humans (I suspect anyone with dogs or horses knows this). But even funnel-web spiders can be aggressive (as in New Mexico) or shy (as in Arizona) (page 42), a finding that sort of had everyone scratching their heads.

Rise of the chimera—We can now manipulate the DNA of many species, and from a strictly scientific point of view, people are mostly bacteria (page 66). This chapter opens with a survey of early attempts, starting in 1656, at inter-species blood transfusions (page 57) which is not for the squeamish, and speaks of experiments to crossbreed humans and apes (I’m not sure which to feel more sorry for).

Epigenetics—There is more than a hint of evidence that Lamarck (the guy who thought giraffes grew longer necks because they stretched them during life) was onto something after all (page 89). Darwin proposed that proto-giraffe offspring with slightly longer necks were “fitter” than others of their generation and so survived when the population was stressed.  But the discovery of epigenetics and the idea that heredity is not all DNA has given scientists a way to test some of Lamarck’s ideas. But experimenting on human is tough. In one of the books gems, Brooks tells how the Indian scientist Subbabrao discovered tetracycline and folic acid and a host of B vitamins and the magical molecule of biological systems, adenosine triphosphate (ATP, page 86). By 1983 (Subbabrao died in 1948) vitamin supplements for pregnant women were deemed so important that studies with control groups without vitamins were considered unethical. Now, that’s the kind of stuff everyone should know.

Gender—I know the stuff I read is good when I run to tell my wife what I just read. This chapter covers the underrepresentation of women in major drug studies, and much to the chagrin of all, giving the same drug to a man or a woman turns out to be important. For example, in 1989, high-viral-count versions of measles vaccine killed 33% more Third World girls than boys (page 101). Why? Because the new dosage had not been tested adequately on malnourished females. Now they get extra food with the vaccine. Gender science shows that women and men have completely different heart attack symptoms, but the whole system is set up to detect and treat men (page 105). The main symptom in women is not chest or shoulder but lower abdominal pain, often dismissed by male doctors.

Will to Live—If a famous person commits suicide, and this is treated as a big story, suicides of “regular people” will spike immediately after (page 134). If you dump the survivors of a shipwreck or plane crash into the ocean, people with similar weighs, ages, general health, and so on will have very different survival rates. At some point, older people just seem to let go and lose the urge to keep going (in fairness, this is often after a health crisis or loss of someone dear). It just might turn out that if you think you’re old and about to go, you are and you will.

Quantum biology—Scientists are finding out that quantum effects at atomic levels might make life not only more efficient, but possible in the first place. This is apparently how only 450 “smell nerves” can detect thousands of aromas (page 149). Quantum “vibrations” might be important in photosynthesis as well (much of this vital process remains mysterious).

Reality—So they tell me that we might be all programs running on a computer the size of the universe (page 173). I read a whole book on this by Max Tegmark, and Brooks creates a nice summary. My whole career has been spent in networking and telecommunications, and here’s the problem I have: bits is bits. If the whole universe is information like 10100101101… and so on, where does the meaning come from?  (See “the Information Paradox” by Peter J. Denning and Tim Bell on page 470 in the November-December 2012 issue of American Scientist for more on my point. Let me know when you have an answer. John Wheeler thought the human mind essentially created meaning in the universe.)

Big Bang Issues—This is where “dark flow” comes in (age 195). Whole clusters of galaxies are apparently being dragged off somewhere…but where? And by what? It could be, as poet e e cummings once put it, “the universe next door” is having one heck of a big party and wants us to come. (How excited do you get over things that might or might not happen 10 or 20 billion or trillion years from now?) Anyway, a lot of things imply that the Big Bang doesn’t work well anymore.

Hypercomputing—We all saw Turing invent the computer in The Imitation Game, right? But the “Turing Machine” is only one possible model of a computational device. Studies in hypercomputing (they are even hard to describe) show that these might be better models for the human brain than digital (0 or 1) processes. But nobody knows yet…which is good.

Time—I took not one note on this last chapter. Time is relative, Einstein showed. Deal with it. 🙂