By Greg X. Graves
Posted July 17, 2012
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Are you familiar with rubies? The famous gemstone? They can be big or small, pale pink or deep crimson. They can be tiny pebbles or thick, coagulated droplets of the Earth’s blood. Imagine one the color of the setting sun, as big as that blazing disc as it shines through a cocoon of smog. You’re not supposed to stare directly at the Sun. It will destroy your vision. But never will you see a more beautiful sight, and so you take the risk. The color dazzles the eye, mesmerizes the brain. An extraterrestrial ember glows in the sky every night.
That’s the color of my shoulders after a vigorous sunburn.
I spent a long weekend at a rural lake cabin and the aforementioned sunburn was achieved during a rather spirited game of Water Toss with a lemon that we found floating in the water.
I also spent time in the lake floating around. And while I floated around on my back, listening to the snapping of tiger muskies, I let my mind drift.
Letting my mind drift isn’t a good idea if I have any deadlines that day. When my mind drifts its the kind of drift where you’re driving sideways and all you hear is tires squealing and smell burning rubber as you try to get your mind back on track. It takes a lot of skill and bravery to see the drift through to its conclusion. But when I’m on vacation its like my brain has hit the mental salt flats. It can go for miles with nothing to stop it.
It took a lot of photons, traveling very long distances, to scorch my shoulders. Those photons carried the fury of the Sun all the way to Earth.. But they also carried information, like how fiber optic cables carry information in packets of photons. The difference lies in the precision. Hyper intelligent engineers, upon whom modern society depends, calibrate fiber optic systems to extremely precise parameters. Without that precision, receivers could not decode the pulses of light careening down the glass cables.
Photons from the Sun also carry information: information about the state of the nuclear fusion going on inside the Sun. It’s all noise to us, like a firehose aimed at a teacup. No signal can be found in the chaotic stream of radiation bombarding the surface of the Earth. But if we could re-cast ourselves as gods who happened to be nuclear physicists and who tired of making baby demigods with muscular farmhands, we could infer the state of the Sun from the radiation arriving at our little planet.
Sort of like listening to an oncoming storm and hearing, behind the thunder and wind, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.
The red splotches on my shoulders make it look like I got in a fight with a bottle of cranberry juice and lost, but they represent all of the solar information that hit my body. From fusion reaction to photon to skin to swearing to aloe vera.
The only connection that I comprehend between my burning shoulders and the Sun is a gross sense of cause and effect: the Sun has very powerful radiation, even from 93 million miles away. But if I were a god? I could trace the impact of each photon, its birth and death and its ancestry within the solar crucible.
A brilliant book is the Sun.
It shines with unrestrained ferocity. You only receive a fraction of its output because every story signifies different things to different people. A woman in her nineties who spent her youth in Europe the 1940s will experience Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon differently than I will, who spent my youth with my nose pressed up against a cathode ray tube. The book doesn’t change. The source is the same for every reader but the impact varies. And while you can attribute the biggest ideas and the broadest themes to a book as soon as you put it down, the deeper impacts matter more; they’re the ones that wrinkle your brain like the Sun will eventually wrinkle my skin. They penetrate so deeply that years will pass before their effects become apparent.
Likewise, some books scorch us like a cloudy day spent beneath an umbrella in winter, but we don’t make those kinds of books at 1889 Labs.
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