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This remarkable collection of essays, both personal and scientific, is written by a remarkable man, Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University (a chair once held by Isaac Newton). Unlike Hawking's earlier bestseller, A Brief History of Time, which was written for the lay public to explain current theories of the universe, this book is a mix of essays, speeches, and even a radio show transcript that were originally produced from 1976 to 1992 and whose intended audiences were varied, although none of the works are purely technical.
Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease in the USA, motor neuron disease in the UK) at the age of 21 during his first year of graduate school at Cambridge, though he had already noticed weakness the prior year at Oxford. As he describes in "My Experience with ALS," Hawking experienced a rapid deterioration of function and hence depression.
However, during his hospitalization, he also saw a boy die of leukemia, which made him realize that things could be worse. Hawking married, finished his dissertation, fathered children, and went on to develop innovative theories in physics, such as thermal emission by black holes.
The book begins and ends with personal topics-–the first two essays concern his childhood and education, and the last is a transcript of the BBC radio show, "Desert Island Discs," in which the celebrity is asked to name and describe 8 musical selections and one book he or she would choose to have if stranded on a desert island. Hawking describes how important communication is to him, and the computer program designed by Walt Woltosz, which enables him to have an artificial voice (albeit with an American accent), since he lost his natural ability to speak due to the tracheostomy that was required in 1985. Hawking's incredible will to live and his sense of humor come through in this broadcast, as they do in the scientific curiosity so evident in the essays about physics.
In Gain, Richard Powers interweaves two narratives. One is the story of Laura Bodey, a forty-two-year-old divorced realtor with two adolescent children, who lives in the midwestern U.S. town of Lacewood. Sometime in the late 1990s, Laura is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The account of her illness, treatment, and eventual death is set against the story of the Clare Soap and Chemical corporation, whose headquarters are in Lacewood, from its inception as a trading company at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The Clare corporation is implicated in Laura's death: pollutants from its Lacewood plant have been associated, not quite unquestionably, with abnormally high cancer rates in the area. A class-action suit against the company succeeds, but Clare, globally powerful and massively differentiated, is ultimately immune: no matter how much we might sympathize with individual members of the Clare company (and Powers ensures that we do), the corporation has become a kind of monster beyond human control.
The narrator describes his chronic illness of two or more years duration. He likens his former good health to "an island / going out of sight behind you." His days are filled with visits to the doctor, medicine, and a loss of interest in "wanting to make love . . . . " He describes going through stages: feelings of being punished, which generate "an enormous effort to be good"; anger; fear of death; "a lake of grief"; "neurotic vigilance"; and finally, "only a desire to be done." In the end, he is still en route.
This book is a sequence of poems about Frank Goldin, a middle-aged biochemist who is admitted to a mental hospital, Elmhurst, with the chief complaint, "I hear a thousand voices and must respond to each." In the first poem Goldin confesses his sins, but simple confession doesn't get to the root of his dilemma, the existential ambiguity that plagues him.
During Goldin's dark night of the soul, his scientific self struggles with the mysterious longing within. Dr. Hudspeth, the Elmhurst psychiatrist, directs his support to the part of Goldin that says, "I am the restless biochemical cycle / that pours out glutathione in buckets." In essence, just straighten out the chemicals and you'll get better.
Throughout the book Goldin waits for his wife Helen to visit Elmhurst, but she never appears. He ruminates over the matter of confessing that he had an affair with a woman named Da-ling during a professional meeting in Osaka. If he confesses, if Helen comes, Goldin hopes that things will return to the way the way they used to be.
However, the mysterious side of Goldin is looking for something else. He has visions of the ancient Rabbi Yehuda of Smyrna, who asks, "Why do we not even know how to ask a question properly?" After several weeks Goldin leaves Elmhurst with the feeling that he has made progress, but not in any discernible direction. Goldin concludes that he should be grateful, but he asks, "to whom?"
Anne Finger, a writer and disabled activist whose childhood polio left her with a disability, tells the story of her pregnancy, her birth experience at home and in the hospital, and the serious health problems her newborn son experienced.
The austere and homesick Breton doctor, René T.H. Laennec (1781-1826) (Pierre Blanchar) and his religious friend, G.L. Bayle (1774-1816) are caring for the hundreds of patients dying of epidemic tuberculosis in the Necker Hospital of Paris. They conduct autopsies on the dead, but cannot predict the findings before the patients' demise, nor can they offer any treatment.
Laennec's sister, Marie-Anne, arrives from Brittany with news of their brother's death from tuberculosis. He confesses his despair over this devastating scourge to his friend, but quickly realizes that Bayle too is doomed. A distant cousin, the widow Jacquemine Guichard Argou, becomes Laennec's housekeeper and companion in philanthropic work for the sick after he is able to reassure her about her health; she engages the widow of Bayle in the same enterprise.
One day in 1816, Laennec is invited by urchins to hear to the scratching of a pin transmitted through the length of a wooden beam. He is thereby inspired to fashion a paper tube to listen to the chests of his patients. With Jacquemine at his side, he joyously announces that he can hear sounds from inside the chest. Feverish research ensues as he links the chests sounds of the dying to the findings at autopsy.
He turns his wooden, cylindrical stethoscopes on a lathe in his apartment, publishes his findings, and marries Argou. Fame and notoriety follow, as Laennec is able to distinguish fatal disease from minor illness and to predict the need for operations; however, he is ridiculed by jealous colleagues. Suffering now himself, Laennec consults his friend Pierre Louis, who tells him that he has tuberculosis. In the final scene, he returns to his native Brittany only to collapse on the stairs of his beloved home and die.
Summary:An older pregnant woman hesitantly knocks on a closed door. Everything in her pose suggests fatigue and a kind of dignified resignation. Her head is bowed in the direction of her pregnant belly. Perhaps this is one of many pregnancies in this working-class woman's life. The title of the drawing tells the story: she has come to the doctor for a pre-natal visit.
Summary:This three-quarter portrait of a man is painted in brown tones which, by accentuating the contrast with his skin and the white cravat surrounding his neck, allows the viewer to concentrate on the man's troubled features. His hair is ill kempt, and his averted eyes seem concentrated on some inner grief or turmoil.
Charlie Gordon is a young man with an IQ of 68 who has a job at a box factory and attends night classes in an effort to improve himself. A (very fictional) experimental brain operation becomes available that promises to triple intelligence (it has already done so for a mouse named Algernon), and Charlie excitedly decides that he wants to give it a try. The story consists solely of Charlie's diary entries from the time he hears about the operation through the operation and his dramatic increase, and subsequent decrease, of IQ.
Charlie's increased intelligence opens up to him the understanding of everyday things that had been beyond his grasp, and at his peak he soars to the level of genius, ironically identifying the flaw in the scientific work of the two scientists who developed the operation he has undergone, and thus destroying their careers as their shallow research destroys the life that had been his.
Among the everyday things Charlie understands for the first time is the fact that two of his male co-workers have regularly taken advantage of his retarded state to make fun of him, sometimes roughly. Charlie also becomes self-conscious more generally, which makes it impossible for him to stay in the place where he has been so degraded, even after his formerly misbehaving pals become sympathetic.
At the end of the story he has fallen back to his original level of intelligence--and may continue to decline, if we take the suggestion from the fate of his fellow subject, Algernon, who rises, falls, and then dies. Charlie has only a dim memory of having done something important. His self-esteem is strong, however, and he decides to leave his familiar world and find a place where people won't know about his embarrassment.
With regret, Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull) decides to have her affable brother Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) committed to an asylum. His drinking and his unshakeable delusion of Harvey, a six-foot rabbit who is his constant companion, are interfering with her plans to find her daughter a suitable mate.
The young doctor is a psychiatric zealot, and when Veta claims that she is so fed up that she can sometimes "see that rabbit," he cleverly commits her instead. The error is discovered and rectified, but the gentle manners of Dowd (and his rabbit) eventually convince the young doctor, his nurse, their boss, and even Veta herself that he does not deserve to be locked up. They release him at the very moment he is about to receive a new chemical treatment guaranteed to rid him of the delusion. Dowd happily sets out to share the rest of his life with Harvey.