Thu, 22 Feb 2018
The Big Pictures

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new Royal Academy exhibition Charles I: King and Collector. Last week I went to the closely related exhibition Charles II: Art and Power at the Queen's Gallery. Both are showing stunning works but the RA pips the award for the greatest display, even though it's almost twice the cost.

The Royal Academy has some very large rooms and they are needed here, for some of the work is monumental. In particular, there are the nine huge Mantegna canvases of the Triumph of Caesar (c.1484-92), bought from the Gonzaga's of Mantua when they hit some financial difficulty at the start of the 17th Century. Charles' man Nicolas Lanier added these to the collection for his master.

Right: Triumph of Caesar: The Trumpeters by Andrea Mantegna, c.1484-92

See : The life of Charles I: King, collector, tastemaker, traitor by Jenny Uglow.

Who can argue with such greats as Holbein, Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian and Veronese? To name but a few ...

Coincidentally, a BBC TV show was on recently about the setup of the RA exhibition, available via the BBC iPlayer : here. It is always fascinating to see how much work goes into this type of show. Great royal propaganda recently

Tue, 06 Feb 2018
Three Body Problem

The Three Body Problem
The Dark Forest
Death's End
By Cixin Liu

Score: 4/5

I really enjoyed this science-fiction trilogy by Chinese author Cixin Liu. It's full of amazing ideas in physics, maths, space, cosmology and philosophy. As a novel, it is sometimes a little clunky, especially the characters, who are often very thin, but the dazzling speculation keeps everything moving. The first book of the trilogy, The Three Body Problem, was good enough to convince me to pick up the next in the series, although I procrastinated. Unusually, I thought the second and third books were better. I let the Chinese names wash over me occasionally, knowing I would get used to them, and went along for the ride.

These books are definitely a bit "science nerdy" in (quite a few) parts, but if you like science and cosmology, that's a plus point. This is first contact with aliens and the consequences for Earth over the following decades and centuries: the aliens are invading, are on their way and have managed to sabotage Earth's scientific progress in order to make conquest straightforward. It turns out that the crux of the book is that the universe is not only full of life but that everyone is keeping their heads down. It is a very dangerous place (a "Dark Forest"). Not an entirely new concept but told well, and with a Chinese spin that's fresh. There are a lot of unexpected and wild twists, and slightly fresher perspectives.

It's entertainment but also educational as well, and might kindle an adult or adolescent interest in science and technology. If you like the idea of wondering what multi-decade human hibernation would be like, a fourth-dimensional space, the ultimate type of prisoner's dilemma on board a space warship or just how "magic" advanced technology might be, this is the book for you.

I am now looking forward to reading a book of his short stories: The Wandering Earth.

From a Wired article :

When Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem was published in English in 2015, it became the first Chinese sci-fi novel to win a Hugo award. President Obama took it on holiday. Mark Zuckerberg recommended it on Facebook. Yet even as his reputation spread, Liu, 53, continued to work in a power plant in Shanxi Province.