Playing it safe

 books, homosexuality  Comments Off on Playing it safe
Oct 242007
Is it really such a big deal that Dumbledore was crushing on young Gellert back in the heady, free-loving days before the war? Does it really change anything about the books? Heck, does it even change anything about the fans’ perceptions of the books? Rowling commented, “God, the fanfiction,” but that just shows she’s never heard of rule 34. The body of fanfiction based on the Potter novels is so vast as to be beyond the comprehension of any sane man, and at least a quarter of it is probably porn. Rowling, imaginative as she may be, could not possibly conceive of anything that fanfic writers have not already turned into treacly, overwrought prose riddled with misspellings, atrocious grammar, and cell-phone language.

I don’t doubt that this will add more fuel to the fire of fundamentalists already out to burn the books for daring to mention witchcraft and to promote tolerance. And I have already been subjected to a diatribe accusing Rowling of using this to “drum up publicity” for the books, which is patently ridiculous. For one thing, Harry Potter has so thoroughly permeated popular culture that it is almost certainly impossible to publicize it further. For another, J.K. Rowling is already wealthier than the Queen of England. If your personal wealth overmasters that of a family that spent centuries sucking dry the marrow-bones of indigenous peoples then you hardly need the extra publicity a gay controversy will give you.

Even in the context of the books, this is a minor fact. It fills out the story of Dumbledore’s fascination with Gellert, but this is hardly necessary as the books themselves give a strong account of his feelings. It casts an interesting light on his relationships with Snape and Harry, but it doesn’t really make any more sense of them. While it might be interesting for the fans to know that Rowling thought of Dumbledore as gay, knowing this doesn’t really add much to the depth of the story.

I’ve even seen some comments saying that it was brave of Rowling to admit that Dumbledore was gay. Well, it fits her books’ themes of tolerance. But “brave”? For admitting that a secondary character was gay months after the final volume of her series wrung its billions from the best-seller list? Not a chance. “Brave” would apply if Harry had secretly crushed on Oliver Wood, gotten beaten up for glancing one too many times at the other blokes in the Quidditch showers, and shyly asked Ron to be his date at the Yule Ball. But Rowling never took such chances.

For all that can be praised about the Potter books, it’s important to realize that Rowling always played them perfectly safe. The teenage romance was chaste and hardly emotional. The abuses Harry suffered in his adoptive home were never of a kind that truly threatened his well-being. Neither Harry nor any of his friends was ever truly tempted by evil. She rarely played with ambiguity — with very few exceptions, Harry’s foes were completely unhinged monsters or obstinately ignorant to the point of irrationality (or, like Umbridge, both). Neither Harry nor the reader was ever remotely tempted to take their side. I’m not criticizing her for this — were I lucky enough to be in her position I might take the same approach. But let’s not make the Potter novels into something they’re not. And let’s not give Rowling’s pronouncements about them more than the momentary notice they’re due.

To learn NMR…

 books, nmr  Comments Off on To learn NMR…
Aug 212007
I picked up James Keeler’s Understanding NMR Spectroscopy because of a teaching dilemma. Students who come to an NMR lab often want to “learn NMR”, though of course this is not really possible in a 2-3 month rotation. They can at least get started in NMR, but in order to do this effectively they need a resource to study and discuss with whomever has charge of them in the lab. I’ve had trouble finding an appropriate book for this task. High-Resolution NMR Techniques in Organic Chemistry, originally by Derome and now reincarnated by Claridge, is a fine introduction for general NMR study but is not at all oriented towards biomolecules and relies heavily on the vector representation that doesn’t always help a student understand techniques such as HMQC or HSQC. Protein NMR Spectroscopy, by Cavanagh, Fairbrother, Palmer, and Skelton is an excellent resource for the advanced student, and has just come out with the long-awaited new edition, but the pages of mathematics and occasionally obscure language are really too intimidating for beginners.

Understanding NMR Spectroscopy is, I think, the resolution of this dilemma. Keeler’s text is clear, describing the physical basis of NMR in a straightforward way that should work for just about any student. He handles the necessary quantum mechanics and operator representations with a deft touch that makes their mathematical derivations clear without producing an intimidating morass of equations. Naturally, some detail and rigor is swept under the rug in this approach, and an advancing student will want the Cavanagh book or Levitt’s Spin Dynamics to get a firmer grasp of the nuts and bolts, but as an introduction to the theoretical underpinnings Understanding NMR Spectroscopy is superb. Keeler’s explanation of relaxation processes is also excellent, and includes perhaps the best physical description of T2 relaxation I have ever read. The book also includes a useful little chapter on the workings of an NMR spectrometer that, while nothing special on its own, is also a good resource for an early-career grad student or rotator. Exercises at the end of each chapter can also be a good teaching tool (although, since the answers are available at spectroscopyNOW, not appropriate for a course).

Although the book is not explicitly oriented towards biomolecular NMR, it has a strong focus on heteronuclear experiments that ensures the information presented is appropriate for students interested in biomolecules.

I can’t praise this book without reservation, however. Some topics that might be considered important are glossed over or skipped entirely — chemical exchange, for example is barely mentioned, and REX not at all. Residual dipolar couplings are not discussed, and the angular dependence of the dipolar interaction is only skimmed. Chapters 10 and 11 are poorly structured and include inadequate and possibly confusing discussions of raising and lowering operators, coherence order, and coherence transfer pathways and diagrams. The mentor will need to take an active hand in explaining just what is going on in these sections.

That said, I think that Understanding NMR Spectroscopy will be an excellent book for grad students just starting out in biomolecular NMR or possibly rotating students who want a glimpse of the nuts and bolts of NMR theory. The gap between Derome/Claridge and Cavanagh has been pretty neatly filled by this affordable little volume ($40 at Amazon).