This was a bad year in a lot of ways. Among the wars, crimes, and self-inflicted sucking chest wounds of politics, an unnaturally large number of artists died, some before their time. The artists got a great deal of the attention. I think that’s because we all had them in common. We all have our own sets of events, but losing David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds (et depressing cetera) is in the overlap of the giant Venn diagram. Good riddance, 2016.
But I’d like to close out the year by celebrating two people who died this year, whose books taught me a lot. No tragedy here; their combined age was 174. But I thought about them today, and they match the theme of this blog perfectly.
Sidney Drell was a brilliant physicist. His Relativistic Quantum Mechanics and Relativistic Quantum Fields, both written with James Bjorken, were the texts that really cracked quantum field theory open for me. Writing well about quantum field theory is hard. With most authors, by chapter 3 I give up on the words and just read the equations. Bjorken and Drell’s books go the other direction. Reading the words was good enough that I could figure out the equations for myself. Prof. Drell also became one of the leading US authorities on national security, leading a group called JASON. When I got my first job after leaving academe in 1990, all the books I needed weren’t in my building; they were in the JASON library. Seeing Sidney Drell’s name there was the only familiar thing about that job.
Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco. How on earth a semiotician became a celebrity is a thing at which I’ll always marvel. A friend who’s better at reading than I am gave me a copy of The Name of the Rose when I was in college. The way Eco wove his erudition seamlessly into a page-turner plot was a new experience for me, and I started digging up all the other works by him I could find. From his literary criticism I learned a new way to look at books, after which I finally “got” what so many twentieth-century authors were doing with non-linear flows of time. And then, he published Foucault’s Pendulum. That book was practically written for me and my friends. There might have been a few half-drunken dramatic readings from it at various parties over the years (eyewitness accounts differ). And Belbo’s disquisition on the types of people in the world let me finally come out of the closet and embrace my identity as a Moron.
So adieu, maîtres. This wouldn’t be the same blog without you.