I'm sick / Hot water bottles / Universe breakers
Why I haven't posted recently, and what I'm going to do about that (including suspending paid subscriptions for a month)
Well, I told you this Substack would let you peek behind the Glamorous Facade of the Professional Writer; give you a glimpse of how odd, how ramshackle, the whole process, the whole life, often is; show you some of the rough moments, the rough drafts.
And this is an extremely rough draft, about a pretty rough moment.
An update about my health…
So, I mentioned in my last post that I and my family had – after successfully dodging it for three years – finally come down with Covid. Even though we were double-vaccinated, and boosted, it hit us pretty hard, and several weeks later Solana (my wife) and I have not fully recovered. (Our nearly-four-year-old son is now FINE, and bouncing around the place, thank the various gods.)
At the height of it, I had to do considerable work to get a full breath. I know just how much work, because I sleep wearing a watch which measures these things. So, I know that my normal resting heart rate is in the high sixties (beats per minute), and my heart rate while sleeping is usually in the mid to low sixties. During one particularly bad night of Covid, my average sleeping heart rate, as I fought to catch a breath, was 103 bpm (with some exciting peaks of 115). Not good for someone lying down, unmoving, mostly asleep. (I did wake up, frequently, to cough.)
Anyway, recovery has been steady, but slow. I keep thinking I’ll be back to normal in a few days, and I keep being wrong.
An example of the problem: I’m typing this in a cafe, and I’m finding it hard to finish any of the sentences. They kind of trail off, as my mind tries to remember what it was I was trying to say, way back when I started typing the sentence.
So, I guess that counts as post-Covid brain fog, or at least a little light mist.
Basically, any seeming coherence here has been faked over a number of drafts.
The illness has screwed up The Egg and the Rock this month in a number of ways. Some are obvious: I had a couple of posts coming together nicely before Covid hit, but since then I haven’t been able to think clearly enough, or stay focused long enough, to finish them properly.
But it’s screwed things up in novel ways, too. I had booked a flight to London for late February, my first trip there in three and a half years. (I live in Berlin, but my agent and publishers are based in London, so I would normally pop over and catch up with them in person once or twice a year. Having a delightful kid who didn’t sleep much, followed by Covid, had stopped that happening for the past few years, so I was HUGELY looking forward to this visit.) Then, in mid-February, I got sick, and thought I would have to cancel. But by the time the departure date arrived, I was testing negative, and feeling a bit better, so I went. (Yes, I realise all this reads like a school essay by a twelve-year-old, but that’s the level I’m at right now.)
Oh boy. Flying to London with half a functional lung was a bad idea. Too soon. Just schlepping around London really knocked me out. Meeting my agent and publishers went OK; I got through it on adrenalin, the novelty of being somewhere other than home, and the pleasure of seeing old friends. But I’d also arranged to interview an interesting scientist in his home in north London, with the idea of putting up the audio and a transcript on The Egg and the Rock as a post. I didn’t want to cancel – I mean, I’d made it to London, which was the hard part, I could survive half an hour on the Northern Line – so I met the interesting scientist, we talked for two and a half fascinating hours… and when I checked the recorder at the end of the conversation, I found that it hadn’t recorded anything at all. I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong: the machine (a Zoom H5 with stereo microphones that I use a lot) works fine, the batteries were fresh; I just did some brain-fogged thing at some point, at the start or the end of the process, and either failed to record at all somehow, or fumbled some buttons at the end and lost or deleted the recording.
Anyway, another post gone…
As a result of all this, there have been no posts for the past three weeks. And I don’t want to put myself (and my family) under more pressure over the next couple of weeks, just to produce something substandard. So I’m going to suspend paid subscriptions for a month, to take the psychological pressure off me; that means all of you terrific people who are supporting this project financially will not have to pay anything this month, because I’m just not able to hold up my end of the deal right now.
HOT WATER BOTTLES
Can I take this chance to say thank you, though? All the work I have been able to do so far this year (research and writing) has been funded by my paid subscribers here on Substack, plus some Paypal donations by well-wishers, and a small Agility Award from the Irish Arts Council (who have also been consistently supportive of my writing). It’s been SO helpful to have a couple of hundred paid subscribers putting a financial floor under me. All 214 of you basically cover my rent and health insurance right now, and so allow me time to research, think, and write, without worrying constantly about how to pull in enough money each week to look after my family. I know you don’t get much in the way of extras for your money – because I want everyone to be able to read all the posts for free – but please do realise how much I appreciate you. You make those free posts possible.
Q: Isn’t it kind of silly to suspend paid subscriptions at exactly the time when you can’t work, can’t write, can’t earn?
A: Don’t worry, I should get a few grand in book royalties next month, which should more than make up for suspending paid subscriptions this month, and will probably get me through another couple of months after that. And I think it’s more important to show respect to my paid subscribers than to try and optimise my income right now.
Q: Aren’t you just performing virtue here, by telling everybody in an email that you have stopped taking their money? Couldn’t you just quietly do it, and tell nobody?
A: Well, yes. I’m aware that there is no way to Do The Right Thing in public without it being, on one level, a rather irritating performance of virtue. But I also do want to formally tell my paid subscribers, in public, that I appreciate them; and I want to prove it by not taking their money when I’m not posting my ideas. So yes, I’m performing virtue, which is annoying; but I also hope I am being, at least a tiny bit, actually virtuous.
Q: Are you, perhaps, over-thinking, and over-explaining, this?
A: Yes, probably. But I’ve never been in such an intimate relationship with my readers as here on Substack – it’s not like the normal, rather distant and impersonal, relationship between writer and reader as mediated by the publishing industry; they aren’t buying a product with my name on it from a corporation – they are directly funding me and my work, as patrons in a gift economy, because they like my writing, without getting a specific product in return; and so I feel I owe them as much openness and transparency as is compatible with my essentially private nature.
Q: OK, you can stop now, I get it.
A: You’re welcome…
Some other housekeeping, which ties in with the above: an increasing number of you have got in touch recently to say you can’t afford a paid annual subscription, but do enjoy my work, and would like to be able to buy me a coffee now and again – so could I put something in place on the Substack to let you do that?
Well, firstly, cool, that’s greatly appreciated. (Especially this month! Although I may spend any coffee money on another hot water bottle.) Yes, you can do that through this Paypal donations link. I’ll include it (unobtrusively) at the end of future posts. Apologies for not setting up a more regular way for you to donate small sums earlier, despite repeated requests; I know the universe told me to accept love from others, but it’s taking me some time to adjust to that rather radical idea.
Being so low in energy right now is EXTREMELY FRUSTRATING, because there was an amazing paper published in Nature last month, which has received widespread coverage, and which I REALLY want to write a post about. (I’ve started one, but… uuuuurrrgh, brain hurts…) It was so obviously up my alley that I was immediately emailed and DM’d links to it by several people, including the wonderful philosopher and biologist Johannes Jaeger and the excellent(whose fine Substack, What's New Under the Sun, I highly recommend to anyone interested in the problem of innovation in science.)
The paper is called A population of red candidate massive galaxies ~600 Myr after the Big Bang, and it discusses the unexpected (by the mainstream!) discovery of six large, mature galaxies in the very early universe. All the press coverage led with the researchers’ nickname for those galaxies: Universe Breakers. Here’s a great press release/interview from Penn State, where they talk to Joel Leja, one of the paper’s authors, and Assistant Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State’s Center for Theoretical and Observational Cosmology.
Sample quote, from Joel Leja:
“These objects are way more massive than anyone expected. We expected only to find tiny, young, baby galaxies at this point in time, but we’ve discovered galaxies as mature as our own in what was previously understood to be the dawn of the universe.”
“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science. We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’ — and they have been living up to their name so far.”
Such early, rapidly forming, mature galaxies are of course exactly what I predicted the James Webb Space Telescope would see, back before it had released any data at all. So this is absolutely fucking thrilling, from my point of view.
For those of you who have only subscribed recently, here’s what I said back then:
“There will be absolutely loads of recognisable, rapidly growing (rapidly star-forming) galaxies within the first 100 million years (probably much sooner). This is earlier than the mainstream have traditionally assumed. (They keep having to shuffle a bit further back, as they find new quasars, and their galaxies, ever further back in time. But they are pushed there, reluctantly, against the logic of their paradigm; I am leaping there, exultantly, because my paradigm predicts it.)”
Given that I was predicting rapidly growing galaxies within the first 100 million years, I’m entirely unsurprised to find mature galaxies at 600 million. Anyway, I’ve read the paper several times, I’ve reached out to the paper’s authors, and I’ve begun a draft of a post in response. So, I hope, in the next month, I’ll have something for you.
I’ve also basically finished writing the first chapter of the book version of The Egg and the Rock, and will be posting that soon. (If you missed it, I posted the Introduction to the book last month. If you want to read that introduction and give me feedback on it in the comments, that would be great. The feedback so far has been helpful, and interesting.)
And I’ve various other posts at various stages of completion. Once I’ve recovered a little, I’ll get back to work, and post them as I complete them.
Ugh. I know this post is a sloppy mess, and could be tightened up and improved, but I want to get something out this week, to let you know what’s going on (or not going on), and it’s Friday already, so I’m just going to hit Publish.
But yeah, thanks again for all the support this year. I’m extremely sorry that I haven’t been able to publish a proper post this month. But yes, if the universe moves you to click on this magic link and buy me a c̶o̶f̶f̶e̶e̶ hot water bottle, right now I’ll accept it very gratefully indeed.
And look after each other…
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