Tag Archives: Literature

Words in a Box :
A Literary Gedankenexperiment

Imagine that in order to determine how much money to pay the author (very wishful thinking), the local independent bookseller had to first calculate the velocity of the books as they flew off the shelves (more wishful thinking for the author and the indie bookseller). I’ll also add the constraint: the only way to make this calculation would be to hurl another book at them as they flew by, which would also require the bookseller to know the books’ location. After this thwack with the other book, the bookseller would know the velocity of the books and could calculate the royalty, but the exact location of the books to deliver to the customer would be in question–somewhere in a range of probable locations in proximity to where the books collided.


As a way to express the unique and somewhat ridiculous mathematics involved in describing quantum systems (something I won’t attempt here), and to illustrate the fallacy of applying a quantum analysis to a non quantum object, in 1935 the physicist Erwin Schrödinger conceived of a hypothetical experiment, (no animals were actually harmed): shut a cat in a sealed box next to a piece of radioactive substance small enough such that the probability of it producing one particle of radioactive decay in one hour was the same as it producing no particles at all. He would then outfit the box with a Geiger counter rigged to a hammering device situated over a tube of poisonous gas. If the counter detected a radioactive particle, the hammer would fall, shattering the tube of gas which would kill the cat. Applying the same probability equations used to describe quantum states, after a time, the cat would be both dead and alive simultaneously.


Schrödinger's Cat

However, after opening the box, the observer would definitely see either a hot and pissed off (but still alive) cat or dead one, certainly not both. This gedankenexperiment has been interpreted numerous ways. Some theorized that a quantum state can only be known at the time of measurement (when the box is finally opened). “The many worlds interpretation” has a bifurcating universe at the point the box is opened, one with the observer looking at a dead cat and one with the observer looking at a living cat.

Since literature seems to be governed by cultural appraisal rather than physical law unlike cats and subatomic  particles. It would seem possible for a work of fiction to be in both a Literary and a genre state simultaneously, perhaps until the observer opens it, an observer with a predetermined list of expectations.


The litany of differences is long and varied depending on who is asked.


Genre vs. literary: craft vs. art–plot vs. character–conspicuous vs. subtle– escapism vs. illumination–aliens vs. eighteenth-century hand maidens–Hugo vs. Pulitzer–making money vs. critical acclaim.

There have been writers who have breached this genre barrier, Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut come to mind, but for this, I’m going subatomic, to the words themselves.


In this literary gedankenexperiment, I propose to take the words from two famous novels, one literary and one genre, throw them in a box (a shoebox perhaps), and instead of radiation, I’ll subject them to agitation by placing the box on the washing machine during the spin cycle and extrapolate the result of two sample sentences from the originals.


From East of Eden – Steinbeck These too are of a burning color-not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.” 





From I, Robot – Asimov He’s the best darn robot money can buy and I’m damned sure he set me back half a year’s income. Mrs. Weston was a bit hazy about the insides of a robot…” 





Result: I’m damned, burning, not gold, orange, now a liquid, might be cream, a bit hazy on the buy. These poppies are pure gold, the best, half a year’s income for Mrs. Weston. And he’s like a robot about the money.





*There are a few words lost to entropy in this process.
  • Share/Save/Bookmark

Where to begin…Literary Pheromones

Recently in Frigg, consistently one of the best online literary journals, in an issue filled with compelling ultra-shorts by some great writers, I ran across a lively debate between Randall Brown and Joseph Young about the true definition of microfiction. It is insightful and entertaining. I can see both sides to this squabble. However, I took special interest when Randall Brown used the term “quantum physics of microfiction” to describe the “tension between words that are and words that aren’t” in very short stories.

Having endured the mathematical gauntlet of a physics education, I have often considered the physics of writing. Not the mechanics of motion to put words on paper, but on a lower level. Though I don’t fall into the category of writer Randall refers to as one who delves into the “Quantum Mechanics of fiction,” I do consider the nonlinearity of it, its chaos. But beyond the obvious “butterfly flaps its wings in De Moines and changes weather the pattern in Palau” in which the movement or removal/addition of a single word and or letter has the potential to have the same effect on a story as this mythical butterfly does on Palau, there lurks something else.

Perhaps there is a mathematical resonance within every story. Just as the enigmatic chemical substances, pheromones, are given credit for animal physical attraction, why groundhogs don’t mate with meerkats, so too might every story have a pattern, a harmonious or a discordant pattern on a level lower than rhythm and length of phrase, woven into letters and white space on the page that lures a reader through the experience or, in fact, repels them. Even after the prose has passed the smell check and all the story pockets have been patted for a beginning, middle, and end, after all characterization checkboxes have been checked, and ratios of exposition to dialogue have been tabulated, word counts approved, levels of incongruity and “avant-garde-ness” assessed, post do-I-care-about-the-character stage and after the subject matter gravity evaluation, and finally, beyond the literary “appraisal” process of “which tier does this story belong,” the literary pheromones, a pattern as basic as a simply harmonic oscillator latent within the construction of the prose, ultimately might attract more meerkats than groundhogs–unfortunate for a writer who’s audience is groundhogs.  

  Occam’s Razor, often cited in scientific communities, is paraphrased to state:  


          “All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.”


More complexly put, the best explanation is the one that makes the fewest assumptions after being stripped of any elements not pertaining to the phenomenon in question.


 It would therefore prefer:

      “ionized particles in the atmosphere”


      “a marital spat between Zeus and Hera”

 as the best explanation for lightning during a Thunderstorm.


This six-hundred-year-old axiom might strike some as lazy, overly simplistic, lacking in creativity, or even short-sided given that Occam’s Razor tends to shunt an “unobservable” explanation to the margin, making said “unobservable” the drunk Uncle at the scientific theory family gathering.


Occam’s Razor should certainly not be equated with “common sense”, which has no prescription for chaos theory or fractal geometry. And scientific methods of “observation,” such as tunneling microscopy, require far more faith in the predominantly empty space under the surface of a solid object than a sensible person would have. So this blog, this conceptual “lost and found,” might resemble a written word version of an M.C. Escher drawing where logic is askew just enough to allow a jaunt up several flights of stairs ultimately to the floor below. You may ask what purpose such a blog would serve. And I will direct you back to Occam’s Razor for your answer.



“Relativity” – M.C. Escher

All M.C. Escher works (c) 2009 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands.
All rights reserved. Used by permission. www.mcescher.com

The following story first appeared in the Mad Hatter’s Review. I have posted it here as it was the inspiration for this blog, and it embodies much of the logic, or lack thereof (however it strikes you), behind it.



M.E. Parker

 11:11 a.m. Corridor

A girl with bluish hair, her name is Auburn, whirls around and locks the parlor door with a key that she found on the mantle beside her grandfather’s clock, a grandfather clock, that arrived no less than twenty-four hours ago shipboard from the continent. Her grandfather accompanied his clock. Both are quite grand, her grandfather and his grandfather clock. Both are ornate and full of crannies, one chiseled by tool, the other by time, talking and ticking with metronomic precision during a tea-time rant over the state of Grandfather’s affairs on the continent and why his stocks have fallen and his blood pressure risen, and why he has come alone and not in the company of Grandmother who would have insisted Grandfather still loved his clock more than his wife.

Auburn spins toward the corridor that leads to the locked parlor door. She twirls back toward the kitchen door, also locked. Her grandfather’s clock chimes eleven. She checks her watch and laughs. Eleven minutes after eleven. Auburn cherishes the time she spends with her grandfather, a third-generation temporal palindromist whose grandfather said of their practice “a craft more aptly described as an art that should be preformed with care as if traversing the down-going stairs that lead up to the top.”

The keys in her pocket jingle as she massages them between her fingers. Auburn cannot resist a key. Unlocked doors compel her to secure them and locked ones insult her, teasing her with the mystery on the other side. She peers through the kitchen keyhole and twists the knob, but the door is locked. From a jumble of keys spread out on her hand, Auburn grabs the brass one with a lion’s head and slips it into the lock. The doorknob turns. As soon as the door closes behind her, she locks it back again; then drops the key into the silverware drawer.

10:01 p.m. Lighthouse

Auburn pressed her face to the glass. Yellow stars twinkled at the end of the choppy sea, the lanterns on her grandfather’s ship. He had finally arrived, but the lamp in the lighthouse had gone dark. She would have to go down for supplies; there was no light in the lens. On her way around the dome, Auburn jumped as the watch room trap door fell shut. The clank of metal on metal and the mechanism in the lock froze an expression of amazement on her face. She grabbed the handle and pulled. The door was indeed locked, trapping her in the darkened lighthouse dome.

The ship’s stars drew closer turning into twinkling squares, off and on, signaling for the beacon to guide them around the black rocks. She heard the sails on her grandfather’s ship flap about in gusty puffs. Auburn leaned out the window of the lighthouse dome to warn him, but the ocean wind swallowed her voice. She watched with big eyes as a shadowy boat stocked with parcels, a grandfather, and a grandfather clock broke upon the rocks into shards of wood and gears and bones. 

10:01 a.m. Lighthouse

The steps to the lighthouse watch room spiraled around a column of stone covered with dewy patches of moss. Auburn whistled her favorite song, “Steam Shovel Cincinnati Blues,” sliding her hand along the stone as she wound up to the dome, up the throat to the ocean’s eye that peered out over the salty splashes eating the rocks below. “Oh,” she smiled and reached for the handle on the trap door, heaving the wooden door closed. She inserted a green copper key into the keyhole, and after a twist, Auburn pushed up on the watch room door to make certain it was locked and skipped back down around the stairs.

11:11 p.m. Parlor

Grandfather, with a grayish mustache that curls up at the tips, caresses the crescent moon, a mahogany moon that waxes up one side and wanes down the other of Auburn’s grandfather’s grandfather clock. “What time is it dear?” he asks, pulling the pendulum chain on his clock. 

Auburn checks her watch. “Eleven, Eleven.”

“Eleven, Eleven.” Grandfather positions the hands at straight up eleven o’clock. “How about a cup of tea dear? I’ve had a long trip.”

“What else have you brought for me besides tea?”

He rummages through his bags. “I’ve got some lime and corn cakes from the continent and syrup tapped right from a maple trunk.” He smacks the side of his head. “Oh, and I’ve brought you a book about young girls and lighthouse solitude. We all have our burdens, don’t we dear?”

Auburn stands up with excitement and grabs a key from the mantle, instinctively unlocking the parlor door. When she turns back around, her grandfather is gone.

  • Share/Save/Bookmark