The strange topology that is reshaping physics

Davide Castelvecchi in Nature:

Gyroid ONLINECharles Kane never thought he would be cavorting with topologists. “I don't think like a mathematician,” admits Kane, a theoretical physicist who has tended to focus on tangible problems about solid materials. He is not alone. Physicists have typically paid little attention to topology — the mathematical study of shapes and their arrangement in space. But now Kane and other physicists are flocking to the field. In the past decade, they have found that topology provides unique insight into the physics of materials, such as how some insulators can sneakily conduct electricity along a single-atom layer on their surfaces. Some of these topological effects were uncovered in the 1980s, but only in the past few years have researchers begun to realize that they could be much more prevalent and bizarre than anyone expected. Topological materials have been “sitting in plain sight, and people didn't think to look for them”, says Kane, who is at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Now, topological physics is truly exploding: it seems increasingly rare to see a paper on solid-state physics that doesn’t have the word topology in the title. And experimentalists are about to get even busier. A study on page 298 of this week’s Nature unveils an atlas of materials that might host topological effects1, giving physicists many more places to go looking for bizarre states of matter such as Weyl fermions or quantum-spin liquids.

Scientists hope that topological materials could eventually find applications in faster, more efficient computer chips, or even in fanciful quantum computers. And the materials are already being used as virtual laboratories to test predictions about exotic and undiscovered elementary particles and the laws of physics. Many researchers say that the real reward of topological physics will be a deeper understanding of the nature of matter itself. “Emergent phenomena in topological physics are probably all around us — even in a piece of rock,” says Zahid Hasan, a physicist at Princeton University in New Jersey. Some of the most fundamental properties of subatomic particles are, at their heart, topological. Take the spin of the electron, for example, which can point up or down. Flip an electron from up to down, and then up again, and you might think that this 360° rotation would return the particle to its original state. But that’s not the case.

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An errant boyhood in the Texas borderlands

44ea8054159099b6b90b5528233befe0_XLRoger D. Hodge at The Oxford American:

When I was eighteen years old, I packed up my car and left Texas forever. Maybe not forever, but I’m still gone. I spend as much time there as I can, and its landscapes inhabit my imagination, but since that bright, sunny day in 1985 when I drove off to college in Tennessee, unconsciously reversing my family’s long-ago westward migration, I haven’t lived in my home state for more than a few months at a time. The Texas that I keep in mind is largely defined by the Rio Grande and from my hometown perspective stretches westward from Del Rio—which sits at a crossroads of Texas geography, on the northern shoulder of that intermittent stream that we insist on calling a big river, where the rolling grasslands of the Edwards Plateau give way to the great Chihuahuan Desert—through Comstock and beyond the Trans-Pecos creosote flats and the steep draws along the canyons of the Rio Grande and the wide volcanic vistas of the Big Bend to the barren, sandy wastelands of El Paso. But also and especially it includes the rugged canyons of the western Hill Country that drain into the Devils River as it winds its way toward the Rio Grande. Beyond the immediate range of my boyhood domain, that long riverine landscape drops below the Balcones Escarpment to encompass the flat savannas and harsh Tamaulipan thorn brush of South Texas and the fertile lowland vegas of the lower Rio Grande valley. Beyond the Hill Country to our northwest, the Llano Estacado rises up and opens the infinite expanses of the high plains, whence the Comanches came down their raiding trails toward the rivers, where they preyed on their ancient enemies the Apaches as well as the precarious settlements and ranches of Texas and northern Mexico.

Above all, I think of Juno, now just a name on a map, a spot on a perilous winding road, no longer a town. The post office and the school, the hotels and the saloons and the old country store are all long vanished, the stones and the lovely old hardwood washed away by floods, carried off by interior decorators and “reclaimed,” or gone to dust.

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Tom Stoppard’s heartfelt high jinks

GettyImages-142766655_webAndrew Dickson at Prospect Magazine:

It is sometimes said of Stoppard’s work that it is all head and no heart; that his fascination with verbal high jinks and conceptual fireworks doesn’t mine the deepest truths about human existence. Yet few writers have engaged so passionately with the big issues of our time—faith, politics, revolution—or pushed the boundaries of theatre so far. And in a period of nervy global uncertainty, perhaps a few high jinks are what we need.

Later in that BBC interview, Stoppard recovered his old wit. Maybe his response to the surreal absurdities of the current moment might be a farce, he added—“several vicars dropping their trousers in walk-in wardrobes.” Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past him.

Stoppard’s life story is as unlikely as anything he has put on stage. Born Tomás Straüssler in July 1937 in Zlín in what was then Czechoslovakia, his father was a company doctor for a firm that made shoes. Forced to flee two years later by the Nazi invasion, the family ended up in Singapore, before fleeing again, this time from the Japanese. Tomás’s father remained behind, and was killed; on reaching India, his mother remarried a major in the British Army, Kenneth Stoppard, who gave her two boys his surname and brought the family to England in 1946. Thomas—as he now was—had only learned to speak English a short while before.

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meditations on the midwest

27848-Greenfield-VillageMeghan O'Gieblyn at The Point:

Greenfield Village describes itself as a “living history” museum. Unlike most museums, where artifacts are displayed in vitrines, the park is emphatically “hands on.” Not only can you visit a nineteenth-century print shop where a man dressed in overalls operates a proof press with real ink, you can also attend one of the interactive workshops and make antique broadsides with your own two hands. On that summer morning, the Village was alive with the bustle of people making things. There were men tinkering in workshops, bent over bootjacks. There were women in calico dresses peddling flax wheels and kneading actual bread dough to be baked in functional coal ovens.

The park, completed in 1929, was the vanity project of Henry Ford, a man who years earlier had declared that “history is more or less bunk.” Later, he would clarify: written history was bunk, because it focused on politicians and military heroes rather than the common men who built America. Greenfield Village was his correction to the historical narrative. It was a place designed to celebrate the inventor, the farmer and the agrarian landscape that had given rise to self-made men like him. Ford had a number of historically significant buildings relocated to the park, including the Wright brothers’ cycle shop and Thomas Edison’s laboratory, both of which still stand on its grounds. But the park was never really about history—not, at least, in any objective sense.

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Peter Singer Interview

From What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?:

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne…

Where did you grow up?

In Melbourne, Australia, in a typical Australian suburban home, single-story, with what Americans call a yard, but Australians call a garden, and for my father, it was definitely that – he spent a lot of time planting a garden with trees, flowering shrubs and annuals.

What did your parents do?

My father had a small business, importing coffee and nuts. My mother was a doctor, a general practitioner.

Was your family, were you, religious?


Did you ever seriously consider it?

Not really. There were periods when I was open to the idea that there might be a god, but I never got further into religion than that.

In general, how did your family, or where you grew up, shape your worldview, you think?

My parents were of Austrian-Jewish origin. When the Nazis took over Austria, they soon realized they had no future there, and as a result of a chance meeting with an Australian who had come to Austria to ski, were able to get visas to go to Australia. Their parents stayed, and only one of them survived. Obviously, that family history had an impact on me. It led to strong support for racial equality, the rule of law, democratic government, a cosmopolitan outlook, and an abhorrence of violence and cruelty.

Crazy. Did you encounter discrimination in Australia?

Australia was still largely an Anglo-Celtic community. I came from a different background. I also looked different – I had darker hair and skin than most other kids. Most of my parents’ friends were also Jewish refugees from Central Europe, so the culture around my home, and the food we ate, was different from that of my schoolfriends. At a local swimming pool, I remember a group of boys picking on me and telling me “go home.”

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Where Did Time Come From, and Why Does It Seem to Flow?

John Steele in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2756 Jul. 19 19.46Paul Davies has a lot on his mind—or perhaps more accurate to say in his mind. A physicist at Arizona State University, he does research on a wide range of topics, from the abstract fields of theoretical physics and cosmology to the more concrete realm of astrobiology, the study of life in places beyond Earth. Nautilus sat down for a chat with Davies, and the discussion naturally drifted to the subject of time, a long-standing research interest of his. Here is a partial transcript of the interview, edited lightly for length and clarity.

Is the flow of time real or an illusion?

The flow of time is an illusion, and I don’t know very many scientists and philosophers who would disagree with that, to be perfectly honest. The reason that it is an illusion is when you stop to think, what does it even mean that time is flowing? When we say something flows like a river, what you mean is an element of the river at one moment is in a different place of an earlier moment. In other words, it moves with respect to time. But time can’t move with respect to time—time is time. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the claim that time does not flow means that there is no time, that time does not exist. That’s nonsense. Time of course exists. We measure it with clocks. Clocks don’t measure the flow of time, they measure intervals of time. Of course there are intervals of time between different events; that’s what clocks measure.

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The Broken Ladder: Keith Payne on How Inequality Affects Our Behavior

Shannon L. Bowen in Signature:

9780525429814Americans believe strongly in personal responsibility. It’s one of the underpinnings of our culture—and of all of Western thought—and rightly so. But Americans also believe deeply in fairness, and it’s increasingly difficult to square either of these American values with the dramatic rise in income inequality that this country has witnessed over the last fifty years.

According to nonpartisan policy and research institute the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since the 1970s, income growth for high-earning households has vastly outpaced that of low- and middle-earning households. Over the last ten years, the wealthiest one percent of households’ share of before-tax income “has climbed to levels not seen since the 1920s.” And when it comes to households’ wealth—the value of assets minus debts—the top three percent possess more than half of all wealth in the United States.

Keith Payne tackles inequality and its wide-ranging effects in his timely and illuminating new book, The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die. In America and all over the world, more inequality correlates to more health and social problems. It influences how we think about social justice, how we vote, how we save for retirement or don’t, what illnesses are likely to afflict us, and how long we can expect to live. But inequality is about more than just the amount of money in a person’s bank account. “Inequality is not the same as poverty,” Payne writes. “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

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Petrified Forest: Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:

DesperateSpeaking to citizens of what in 1933 was still a democratic republic, Roosevelt sought to strengthen the national resolve in the depth of the Great Depression, “preeminently the time,” he said in his first inaugural address, to tell “the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” no need to “shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today.” His fellow countrymen took him at his word, and the national resolve proved strong enough to emerge from the Depression, in 1941–45 to win the war against Germany and Japan, in the years since to bring forth the wealthiest society and the most heavily armed nation-state known to the history of mankind. Heroic resolve, but not heroic enough to surmount the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception. The force of mind rooted in the soil of adversity didn’t take hold in the flower beds of prosperity; placed under the protective custody of the atomic bomb and sicklied o’er with the pale cast of money, the native hues of resolution lost the name of action.

Fear itself these days is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of a tweet. Popularly priced at conveniently located checkpoints on drugstore and supermarket shelves, at airports and tanning salons. Diligently promoted by the news and fake news bringing minute-to-minute reports of America the Good and the Great threatened on all fronts by approaching apocalypse—rising seas and barbarian hordes, maniac loose in the White House, nuclear war on or just below the horizon. Our leading politicians and think-tank operatives shrink from both truth and falsehood, regard mental paralysis as the premium state of securitized being. Our schools and colleges provide safe spaces swept clean of alarming, unjustified speech, credit a rarefied awareness of nameless, unreasoning terror as evidence of superior sensibility and soul.

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This Man’s Immune System Got a Cancer-killing Update

Jim Kozubek in Nautilus:

Cancer-a-238William Ludwig was a 64-year-old retired corrections officer living in Bridgeton, New Jersey, in 2010, when he received a near-hopeless cancer prognosis. The Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania had run out of chemotherapeutic options, and Ludwig was disqualified from most clinical trials since he had three cancers at once—leukemia, lymphoma, and squamous cell skin cancer. In a later interview, the scientist Carl June described Ludwig’s condition as “Almost dead.” Alison Loren, an oncologist at Penn, had been taking care of Ludwig for five painful years. If chemotherapy is not effective early on, each new round brings diminishing returns, and it becomes more and more toxic, she told me. In Ludwig’s case, its toxic side-effects were outdoing any progress scaling back the battalions of cancer cells. The chemo was suppressing Ludwig’s immune system, since it was his immune system’s B cells, precisely the cells being targeted by the chemo treatments, that were cancerous, expanding uncontrollably in his bone marrow. An infection from an old chicken pox virus broke out in his right eye. And the cancer now appeared to be mobile, or what doctors call “motile,” riddling far-flung sites in his body. Ludwig’s skin cancer looked to Loren as if it had spread, or metastasized, from his bones.It was about that time when Loren approached Ludwig about a new arrow that doctors at Penn had in their quiver. It was an indigenous strategy, and a radical and dangerous one. “William is the most lovely, humble human being,” Loren said. “I don’t think he realized how groundbreaking this would be at the time. He was almost casual about it. He looked at me, and shrugged, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’”

In short, the Penn scientists wanted to use engineering tricks to replicate the precision targeting ability of antibodies—Y-shaped proteins that come in billions of varieties—to target a marker on Ludwig’s cancer. Antibodies normally bind to molecular markers called antigens, tagging them to be disposed of by scavenger cells. B-cells and other antigen presenting cells can also lock onto the antigen. Then other immune system cells, such as helper T-cells notice the resulting structure, lock onto it, and unleash a powerful wrath of signaling molecules called cytokines to stir up the immune response. Killer T-cells also carry out lethal attacks on microbes carrying unauthorized antigen badges. T-cells carry a powerful thwack on their own, but they’re less effective without the precision targeting of the antibodies.

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48f4496a-4968-43e0-96f4-284f2dc2ee01Fredric Jameson at Public Books:

Neuromancer is now more than 30 years old, a considerable time to remain a classic. Its publication in the Orwellian year will seem ironic and laden with symbolism only for those who think Orwell has remained a classic, or that he had anything to do with science fiction or reflected any serious political thought. But at least in one respect the juxtaposition is useful in showing how dystopia can swing around into the utopian without missing a beat, the way depression can without warning become euphoria. Indeed, I’ve suggested elsewhere that much of what is called cyberpunk (which begins with Neuromancer) is utopian and driven by the “irrational exuberance” of the ’90s and a kind of romance of feudal commerce; but I had Bruce Sterling in mind rather than the more sober Gibson, whose postmodern overpopulation (“the sprawl”) comes before us rather neutrally, even though its tone is radically different from the older Malthusian warnings of Harrison and Brunner. But Neuromancer and the novels that followed it were certainly not utopian in the spirit of the blueprints of More and Bellamy, or Fourier and Callenbach. Indeed, I would argue that the Utopian and still energizing work of the latter, Ecotopia(1968), was for the moment the last of its kind. And that, for a fundamental reason that takes us to the heart of our present topic, namely, that since Callenbach, the utopian form has been unable to take onboard the computer, cybernetics or information technology. Ecotopia was conceived before the Internet, and whatever utopian fantasies the latter has inspired—and they are many, and often delirious, involving mass communications, democracy, and the like—those fantasies have not been able to take on the constitutive form of the traditional Utopian blueprint. Meanwhile, more recent Utopian work, such as Barbara Goodwin’s remarkable Justice by Lottery (1992) or Kim Stanley Robinson’s monumental Mars trilogy (1993–1996), however suggestive and influential in their Utopian features, have not seemed to incorporate cyberspace as a radically new dimension of postmodern social life.

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Humboldt’s New World Landscape

Flower-e1493743493351Dean Flower at Hudson Review:

Frederic Edwin Church, born in Hartford, Connecticut, is now generally regarded as America’s greatest landscape painter—either of his own time, 1826–1900, or any other—but he is not usually recognized as an innovator. He was the only pupil Thomas Cole was ever persuaded to accept and is usually understood as carrying forward if not epitomizing Cole’s vision, the one we like to identify with the Hudson River school. But it turns out, when you read far enough into Andrea Wulf’s new biography of the German explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt, that Cole was not Church’s master, either aesthetically or spiritually.[1] Nor did Church espouse the usual Hudson River school teachings, like the Emersonian theme of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, for example. Church’s real master was Humboldt, and he found his calling spelt out for him in Humboldt’s Cosmos, Volume 2 (1850):

He who, with a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature manifested in mountains, rivers, and forest glades, has himself traveled over the torrid zone [as Humboldt did in South America, 1799–1804], and seen the luxuriance and diversity of vegetation, not only on the cultivated sea-coasts, but on the declivities of the snow-crowned Andes . . . or in the primitive forests, amid the net-work of rivers lying between the Orinoco and the Amazon, can alone feel what an inexhaustible treasure remains still unopened by the landscape painter . . . ; and how all the spirited and admirable efforts already made in this portion of art fall far short of the magnitude of those riches of nature of which it may yet become possessed.

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The Origins of Hunter S. Thompson’s Loathing and Fear

004-hunter-s-thompson-theredlistTimothy Denevi at the Paris Review:

But the real surprise came just as his speech appeared to be winding down. Goldwater, after a brief silence, glanced at the podium, his jaw jutting sharply. Then, gazing out on the 1,308 delegatesbelow, he said, pausing every couple words, “I would remind you … that extremism … in defense of liberty … is no vice.” In the next instant, Thompson found himself at the epicenter of the most primal expression of political fervor he would ever witness. The delegates howled and cheered, their voices buttressed by innumerable noisemakers, trumpets, klaxons, and cowbells. Thompson watched people in the rows ahead of him bang their bodies against their chairs, their chairs against the floor, and the floor rumbled against their countless stomping feet.

Later that night, Thompson left the Cow Palace and crossed the six miles back to downtown San Francisco with thousands of other attendees. He’d pushed himself too hard; the crash was coming: in a few hours, he’d descend into a state of drunken dissolution. Still, that moment on the floor was one he’d never forget. “When GW made his acceptance speech,” he explained In a letter to his friend Paul Semonin a few months afterward, he admits to “actually feeling afraid because I was the only person not clapping and shouting. And I was thinking, God damn you nazi bastards I really hope you win it, because letting your kind of human garbage flood the system is about the only way to really clean it out. Another four years of Ike would have brought on a national collapse, but one year of Goldwater would have produced a revolution.”

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Kurt Vonnegut Walks Into a Bar: How the legendary writer handled his Scotch and his fans

Terry McDonell in Electric Literature:

1-mlv9nDMSTxfujXjgw3r5JQI was on the corner of Third Avenue and Forty-eighth Street, and Kurt Vonnegut was coming toward me, walking his big, loose-boned walk. It was fall and turning cold and he looked a little unbalanced in his overcoat, handsome but tousled, with long curly hair and a heavy mustache that sometimes hid his grin. I could tell he saw me by his shrug, which he sometimes used as a greeting.

I was on my way to buy dinner for some Newsweek writers who were suspicious of me as their new assistant managing editor. I had been brought in from Rolling Stone, and no one at Newsweek had heard of me. I didn’t know them either, but I knew Kurt, who was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York. We were neighbors on Forty-eighth Street, where he lived in a big townhouse in the middle of the block, and he’d invite me over for drinks. I had gotten him to contribute to Rolling Stone by keeping an eye out for his speeches and radio appearances and then suggesting ways they could be retooled as essays.

“Come have dinner,” I said. “I’ve got some Newsweek writers who would love to meet you.”

“Not in the mood,” Kurt said.

“They’re fans,” I said. “It’s part of your job.”

Kurt lit a Pall Mall and gave me a look, one of his favorites, amused but somehow saddened by the situation. He could act, Kurt.

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How a scientist you never heard of made String Theory possible

Paul Halpern in Medium:

1-jBHiPADEY2dq_vJA_5zDPQWhen he died on September 7, 2012, theoretical physicist Claud W. Lovelace left behind a house filled with parakeets. With no family or close companions, the eccentric Rutgers professor loved to be surrounded by his colorful fine-feathered friends and listen to classical music as he contemplated the nuances of unified field theory. A loner not particularly close to his colleagues, members of the Physics and Astronomy department were astounded and delighted when he willed his entire fortune of $1.5 million to it. The funds were used to help establish endowed positions in practical fields of physics, a far cry from his own speculative work. He also willed his collection of more than 4000 classical CDs to Rutgers’ School of the Arts and donated his body to its Medical School.

While Lovelace’s death was little noted in the media — he certainly wasn’t well-known even among physicists outside of string theory — arguably one of his key findings about the high number of dimensions needed for string theory’s consistency had a critical impact on the history of the field. The surprising result established him as one of the most influential theoreticians of the early 1970s. String theorists still grapple with its repercussions.

Let’s step back to 1970, when string theory was in its infancy.

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The End of the American Experiment

Umair Haque in Bad Words:

1-vvjE3kGcCIm1eN3LV3ecbAWhat does America not have that the rest of the rich world does? Public healthcare, transport, education, and so on. Every single rich nation in the world has sophisticated, broad, and expansive public goods, that improve by the year. Today, even many medium income and even poor nations are building public healthcare, transport, etc. America is the only one that never developed any. Public goods protect societies in deep, profound, invisible ways (we’ll get to that).

First, here is the really curious thing. American leaders are pretending like the relationship above is a great, confounding mystery. Like dumbfounded dinosaurs watching the mushroom cloud engulf the land, never — not once — in American media will you read a column, hear a voice, or see a face discussing the above. It has never happened a single time in my adult lifetime as far as I can remember. Yet the relationship couldn’t be any more obvious, clear, or striking: no public goods are what uniquely separates America, the uniquely failed state, from the rest of the world.

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The Untold Journey: the Life of Diana Trilling

Untoldjourney-200x300Laura Tanenbaum at Open Letters Monthly:

“Writers are what they write, and also what they fail to write.” So Diana Trilling, book critic and author, wrote in her memoir. Natalie Robins, author of the first full-length biography of Trilling, spends a good deal of time on Trilling’s false starts: the unfinished, unpublished, and abandoned works that, like many writers, she often saw as her realest and most important. Robins begins the book by recounting the story of a fight between Diana and her husband Lionel when they were newlyweds. Diana was enraged when Lionel called a play she had written with a college friend “a vulgar babble.” Lionel responded by throwing his favorite pipe out the fifth-floor window.

Lionel called his one novel The Middle of the Journey; Diana called her memoir about her marriage The Beginning of the Journey. By titling her biography The Untold Journey, Robins suggests that she will fill in what Diana could not or would not write. In particular, she frequently evokes what she could or would not say during her marriage to Lionel, because of his rages and because of the complicated ways he both could and could not see her as an equal. And yet Robins’s book maintains some of the same distances and evasions; she doesn’t shy away from the more unflattering aspects of Diana’s life but she doesn’t know quite what to make of them, as if she herself feared being on the wrong end of Diana’s famously withering prose.

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inside the confessional

SBM_SaintChristopher_CMYK_13_finalS. Billie Mandle at Cabinet:

Saint Christopher, the enigmatic martyr and patron saint of travelers and children who bore the increasingly heavy Christ child across a deadly river before his own decapitation, bears brown water stains across his acoustical tiles. Light falls in displaced blades through his half-shut opening, across his little ledge, glaring the green cover of a volume lying there, angling down brown half-wall panels into the shadow realm. Saint Elizabeth—who vanishes from the Bible eight days after giving birth, when the men who are to circumcise her son arrive and try to name him Zechariah, whereupon she cries out, “No, he is to be called John!” for this is John the Baptist—is transformed, as in a Greek myth, into the black constellations of perforations in her soundproof paneling, then mantled with a jointed beam of light. And Saint Thomas More, intently principled, severe and merciless, who would not bow to kings, is a single, narrow ray plunging down a wooden wall, illuminating the grain in patterns reminiscent of a seizure patient’s EKG.

For seven years, S. Billie Mandle traveled across the United States, photographing church confessionals, searching, she has written, “for what might be left behind in these private rooms.” One recognition she came to—documented in her series Reconciliation, selections from which are presented here—is that the imprint of what these spaces not only witnessed but lived through was so palpably vivid that the rooms themselves assumed the character of the church’s heroic intercessors. These chambers carried scars suggesting martyrdom and sacrifice—as well as lyric plays of light and color, attesting to the possibility of grace.

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Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941 – 1945)

Download (1)Daniel Beer at Literary Review:

In March 1945, with victory over Nazi Germany only weeks away, Pravda praised the nearly one million Soviet women who had fought the Germans and their allies. They had ‘proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners. But they don’t forget about their primary duty to nation and state – that of motherhood.’ In accordance with the official policy of the state, women combatants were henceforth to lay down not only their arms but also their wartime identities. While men were celebrated in the postwar years as frontoviki, frontline soldiers who had made heroic sacrifices to defeat fascism, the contribution of women to the struggle was reduced in popular memory to the traditionally familiar wartime occupations of nursing and cooking.

Drawing on diaries and her own interviews with veterans, Lyuba Vinogradova seeks to recover the experiences of Soviet women combatants from the obscurity to which they were consigned. Vinogradova’s rambling but highly readable Avenging Angels follows snipers from their first days of training and their first kills to their participation in great set-piece battles on the Eastern Front and their eventual deployment in the assault on Berlin. Some became accomplished soldiers who fought in the vanguard of the Soviet army and notched up dozens of confirmed kills. Yet in Vinogradova’s account, their voices are frequently submerged beneath a narrative that cannot decide whether it wants to be an exciting account of the heroic exploits of women in combat or a more reflective meditation on the personal dislocations, exhilarations and traumas of war. The female snipers themselves remain, for the most part, psychologically inaccessible. They fight, suffer the death of comrades, fall in love, participate in fierce battles, witness atrocities and (in some cases) eventually return home, often in a few short paragraphs that tend to summarise rather than illuminate.

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