Thursday, August 17, 2006

Thursday August 17, 2006

Filed under: General — m759 @ 2:20 PM

Special Topics

From a review by Liesl Schillinger in the Aug. 13 New York Times of a new novel by Marisha Pessl:

“… Special Topics in Calamity Physics tells the story of a wise newcomer who joins a circle of students who orbit a charismatic teacher with a tragic secret. The newcomer, a motherless waif named Blue van Meer, spent most of her life driving between college towns with her genius poli-sci professor father, Gareth….  Gareth is fond of making oracular statements, which his daughter laps up as if they were Churchill’s: ‘Everyone is responsible for the page-turning tempo of his or her Life Story,’ he tells her. And, he cautions, ‘never try to change the narrative structure of someone else’s story.’

…. Heeding Gareth van Meer’s dictum that the most page-turning read known to man is the collegiate curriculum, with its ‘celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam,’ Pessl structures Blue’s mystery like a kind of Great Books class…. A professor is all-powerful, Gareth liked to tell his daughter, he puts ‘a veritable frame around life,’ and ‘organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order– simply divine.’ Blue’s syllabus also includes a murder or two. Her book’s last pages are a final exam. You will be relieved to learn it is mostly multiple choice, and there is no time limit.”

Multiple choice:
The examination below, taken from a page by a scholar at a Jesuit university, is on the Borges story “The Garden of Forking Paths”– a classic of multiple choice.

No time limit:
See the first question.

Examination on
The Garden of Forking Paths

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“What is the meaning of the idea expressed by Yu Tsun that ‘everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen’? What is the significance of the emphasis on the present moment, the here and now? Is this related to the carpe diem (‘seize the day’) idea? How? How is the present effectively connected to the past and the future? How is the present associated simultaneously to choices, actions, and consequences? How is the present moment relevant to the idea of the ‘forking paths’? What is the symbolic meaning of forking paths when understood as a crossroads? What is a person confronted with when standing at a crossroads? What are the implications of a choice of road? May this be connected to the myth of Oedipus and its concerns with human choices and supposed predestination? What is suggested by the idea that ‘in all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pen, he chooses– simultaneously– all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork’? What does it mean to make all choices at once? What view of life do such beliefs embody?”

Related material on physics:


Peter Woit on the physics
story in this week’s TIME

Physics and Narrative

Related material on mathematics:

Mathematics and Narrative


1 Comment

  1. Thank you. 

    Comment by BlueCollarGoddess — Thursday, August 17, 2006 @ 11:49 PM

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