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Is Holden Caulfield Obnoxious?
You already know where you stand on Holden Caulfield. Either you found him a kindred spirit in your youth and continue to sympathize with him—less blindly, more wistfully—as you age; or else you found him a whiner then and you find him a whiner now.
According to the New York Times, the second faction is gaining ground. In an oddly statistics-free trend piece, the paper reported in 2009 that The Catcher in the Rye has lost favor among teens: “what once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many as ‘weird,’ ‘whiny’ and ‘immature.’” (No word on whether any wiseass added “phony.”)
Of course, some high schoolers will trash Hamlet if given the chance, but on this book you won’t find much consensus from the literati, either. Harold Bloom has branded Catcher a “period piece” but concedes Holden’s archetypal status. Norman Mailer called Salinger “the greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.” Where Joan Didion is skeptical about Holden’s pandering “relatability,” William Faulkner left us this grand tribute:
[Holden’s] tragedy was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there. There was nothing for him to do save buzz, frantic and inviolate, inside the glass wall of his tumbler, until he either gave up or was himself, by himself, by his own frantic buzzing, destroyed.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a similar divide among bookish friends. The reason may be that Holden holds up a mirror to factors besides “taste”: class, cultural background, individual personality. Where some skilled readers see a flawed but sensitive young man, others have a hard time seeing anything but an entitled little twerp.
Still, an infuriating character is not necessarily a failed characterization. If Holden is the latter, we should be able to identify specific failures.
The case against him seems to turn on three main objections. The first is that his narrative voice is, in the Times’s phrase, “grating and dated.” The second is that his plight lacks genuine tragic stature. (As one student, quoted secondhand in the Times, put it: “I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.”) The third is that he's too saintly (or holier-than-thou) to win our sympathies—that his conscientious alienation from the human race comes to look like its own form of prep-school snobbery.
Let me address each of these in turn. Like most of Salinger’s fiction, Catcher is a pure voice piece, and Holden’s teenage argot is so pronounced as to constitute almost a dialect. On rereading I find that Salinger does sometimes lean too hard on this effect. The constant “goddam”s, “whaddya”s, “lousy”s, and so on—not to mention the hedgings and repetitions (“in some ways,” “I mean,” “it really was”)—add up to an assault of tics that threatens to exhaust the reader’s patience. Then again, Twain sometimes goes overboard with dialect too. And I’ve never heard anyone claim that Salinger got his teenspeak wrong—that it wasn’t basically accurate for its time and place. So while we may convict Holden on this first charge, we shouldn’t hang him for it.
The second charge is potentially more damning. Prep school angst alone isn’t enough to ground a novel. Adolescent drinking, sexual fumbling, and academic failure would seem to be grist for a comic picaresque, but while Catcher can be very funny, its tragic intent is clear. So what, if anything, elevates Holden’s martyrdom to Faulknerian heights? The best answer I’ve read came from playwright Polly Stenham in a tribute to the recently deceased Salinger:
[Catcher] reads as a coming of age thing when you are young; when you get a bit older, it's about sexuality and being lost and later you see that it's about an epic breakdown following a death. But he's so light with that material—he dips it in a tiny bit and you have to really concentrate to see it.
The death she means is that of Holden’s younger brother Allie, and she's right that it’s the crucial background against which the whole story takes shape. Beneath the surface of its urban preppie setting, Catcher is not a portrait of rich-kid ennui but a portrait of grief, and should be judged accordingly. I personally find it a convincing portrait, full of eerie particulars—for example, Holden’s absurd fear of “disappearing” whenever he crosses a street. This is many things at once: a superstitious fear of death, a displaced suicidal impulse, the Raskolnikov-like sense of having cut himself off from everyone, and a dread that the integrity of his grief (against which everything else becomes “phony”) will disappear in the transition to adulthood.
Holden’s inability to save Allie from death fuels his desire to rescue innocence from anything that threatens it, including the corruptions of adult sexuality and money. It becomes, in fact, a puritanical impulse with which he wrestles: he lets fly with just about every swear word in the language except those having to do with sex. Famously, he erases the graffito “Fuck you” from walls where kids can see it—where, most likely, kids wrote it. This gesture should be paired with an earlier episode, in which he packs a snowball at his windowsill but can’t bear to throw it, lest he disturb the pristine whiteness below.
His tendency toward puritanism brings us to the last objection. Despite his reputation as a foul-mouthed rebel, the truth is that Holden often risks sounding sanctimonious. Unrepentant sinners sometimes work as literary characters, but saints never do. To be too good for the world is to be, by definition, too good for us.
I can’t deny that this is a pitfall to which Salinger is particularly vulnerable. Holden is a spiritual cousin to the Glass family, of whom John Updike once wrote, “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.” Seymour Glass especially (except in the short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”) is a genuine failure of characterization: impossibly good, impossibly wise. People who hate Holden may be reacting to a similar sense that we’re expected to love him beyond measure.
I would argue, though, that Holden remains flawed enough to keep him interesting. He is frequently, by his own admission, childish. (“Sleep tight, ya morons!” he yells as he leaves his dorm for good.) He can also be cowardly (as during his run-in with Maurice the pimp), needy (he’s literature’s most notorious drunk dialer), and misanthropic (“I’m sort of glad they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it”). In other words, he's believably sixteen. And however hard Salinger tried to fulfill it as a man, as an author he shows Holden’s daydream of monkish seclusion—of living alone and posing as a deaf-mute—to be misguided. Exiled in a mental health facility at the end of the novel, Holden finds himself “missing everybody.”
Within the confines of the book, in other words, Salinger is more or less in control of his ironies. Holden is not a saint, but he is certainly a writer. (He blows off every class except English, fantasizes about talking with Thomas Hardy, and so on.) That’s why, tiring though his voice can be, I can never dismiss the kid. Writers of any kind secretly know that they, too, are childish, irritating, self-involved—but always desperate to stay on the side of the angels. If well-adjusted people close the covers on Holden in exasperation, I can’t blame them; but I know I judge him at my peril.
[Illustration of Holden courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, user 50 Watts.]
A new paper reveals that the Voyager 1 spacecraft detected a constant hum coming from outside our Solar System.
- Voyager 1, humankind's most distant space probe, detected an unusual "hum" in the data from interstellar space.
- The noise is likely produced by interstellar gas.
- Further investigation may reveal the hum's exact origins.
Voyager 1, humanity's most faraway spacecraft, has detected an unusual "hum" coming from outside our solar system. Fourteen billion miles away from Earth, the Voyager's instruments picked up a droning sound that may be caused by plasma (ionized gas) in the vast emptiness of interstellar space. Launched in 1977, the Voyager 1 space probe — along with its twin Voyager 2 — has been traveling farther and farther into space for over 44 years. It has now breached the edge of our solar system, exiting the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space influenced by the sun. Now, the spacecraft is moving through the "interstellar medium," where it recorded the peculiar sound.
Stella Koch Ocker, a doctoral student in astronomy at Cornell University, discovered the sound in the data from the Voyager's Plasma Wave System (PWS), which measures electron density. Ocker called the drone coming from plasma shock waves "very faint and monotone," likely due to the narrow bandwidth of its frequency.
While they think the persistent background hum may be coming from interstellar gas, the researchers don't yet know what exactly is causing it. It might be produced by "thermally excited plasma oscillations and quasi-thermal noise."
The new paper from Ocker and her colleagues at Cornell University and the University of Iowa, published in Nature Astronomy, also proposes that this is not the last we'll hear of the strange noise. The scientists write that "the emission's persistence suggests that Voyager 1 may be able to continue tracking the interstellar plasma density in the absence of shock-generated plasma oscillation events."
Voyager Captures Sounds of Interstellar Space www.youtube.com
The researchers think the droning sound may hold clues to how interstellar space and the heliopause, which can be thought of as the solar's system border, may be affecting each other. When it first entered interstellar space, the PWS instrument reported disturbances in the gas caused by the sun. But in between such eruptions is where the researchers spotted the steady signature made by the near-vacuum.
Senior author James Cordes, a professor of astronomy at Cornell, compared the interstellar medium to "a quiet or gentle rain," adding that "in the case of a solar outburst, it's like detecting a lightning burst in a thunderstorm and then it's back to a gentle rain."
More data from Voyager over the next few years may hold crucial information to the origins of the hum. The findings are already remarkable considering the space probe is functioning on technology from the mid-1970s. The craft has about 70 kilobytes of computer memory. It also carries a Golden Record created by a committee chaired by the late Carl Sagan, who taught at Cornell University. The 12-inch gold-plated copper disk record is essentially a time capsule, meant to tell the story of Earthlings to extraterrestrials. It contains sounds and images that showcase the diversity of Earth's life and culture.
As the American population grows, fewer people will die of cancer.
- A new study projects that cancer deaths will decrease in relative and absolute terms by 2040.
- The biggest decrease will be among lung cancer deaths, which are predicted to fall by 50 percent.
- Cancer is like terrorism: we cannot eliminate it entirely, but we can minimize its influence.
As the #2 leading cause of death, cancer takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans each year. In comparison, heart disease (#1) claims more than 650,000 lives, while accidents (#3) take about 175,000 lives. (In 2020 and likely 2021, COVID will claim the #3 spot.)
Headlines are usually full of terrible news about cancer. Seemingly, you can't get away from anything that causes it. RealClearScience made a list of all the things blamed for cancer — antiperspirants, salty soup, eggs, corn, Pringles, bras, burnt toast, and even Facebook made the list.
The reality, however, is much more optimistic. We're slowly but surely winning the war on cancer.
Winning the war on cancer
How can we make such a brazen statement? A new paper published in the journal JAMA Network Open tracks trends in cancer incidence and deaths and makes projections to the year 2040. The authors predict that around 568,000 Americans will have died of cancer in 2020, but they project that number to fall to 410,000 by 2040. That's a drop of nearly 28 percent, despite the U.S. population being projected to grow from roughly 333 million today to 374 million in 2040, an increase of 12 percent. That means cancer deaths will decrease in both relative and absolute terms.
What accounts for this unexpected good news? The lion's share is the number of deaths attributable to lung cancer, which is projected to decrease by more than 50 percent, from 130,000 to 63,000. This drop is largely due to the decreasing use of tobacco products. Other deaths predicted to decline include those from colorectal, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers, among others, such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).
The authors credit screening and biomedical advances for saving many of these lives. For instance, lead author Dr. Lola Rahib wrote in an email to Big Think that "colonoscopies remove precancerous polyps." She also noted that targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped reduce the number of deaths from leukemia and NHL.
We'll never cure cancer
Now the bad news: We'll never cure cancer. There are at least three reasons for this. The first is obvious: We all die. The lifetime prevalence of death is 100 percent. The truth is that we are running out of things to die from. After a long enough period of time, something gives out — often your cardiovascular system or nervous system. Or you develop you cancer.
The second reason is that we are multicellular organisms and, hence, we are susceptible to cancer. (Contrary to popular myth, sharks get cancer, too.) The cells of multicellular organisms face an existential dilemma: they can either get old and stop dividing (a process called senescence) or become immortal but cancerous. For this reason, the problem of cancer may not have a solution.
Finally, there isn't really such a thing as a disease called "cancer." What we call cancer is actually a collection of several different diseases, some of which are preventable (like cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine) or curable (like prostate cancer). Unfortunately, some cancers probably never will be curable, not least because cancers can mutate and develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat them.
But the overall optimism still stands: We are slowly and incrementally winning the war on cancer. Like terrorism, it's not a foe that we can completely vanquish, but it is one whose influence we can minimize in our lives.
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.