Every Icelandic town, no matter how small, has its own pool. There are ramshackle cement rectangles squatting under rain clouds in the sheep-strewn boonies. There are fancy aquatic complexes with multilevel hot tubs and awesomely dangerous water slides of the sort that litigious American culture would never allow. All told, there are more than 120 public pools — usually geothermally heated, mostly outdoors, open all year long — in Iceland, a country with a population just slightly larger than that of Lexington, Ky. “If you don’t have a swimming pool, it seems you may as well not even be a town,” the mayor of Reykjavik, Dagur Eggertsson, told me. I interviewed him, of course, as we relaxed together in a downtown hot tub.
These public pools, or sundlaugs, serve as the communal heart of Iceland, sacred places whose affordability and ubiquity are viewed as a kind of civil right. Families and teenagers and older people lounge and chat in sundlaugs every day, summer or winter. Despite Iceland’s cruel climate, its remoteness and its winters of 19 hours of darkness per day, the people there are among the most contented in the world. The more local swimming pools I visited, the more convinced I became that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen. The pools are more than a humble municipal investment, more than just a civic perquisite that emerged from an accident of Iceland’s volcanic geology. They seem to be, in fact, a key to Icelandic well-being.
To understand the origin of the universe, today’s cosmologists seek to identify the unknown driver of inflation, dubbed the “inflaton.” Often envisioned as a field of energy permeating space and driving it apart, the inflaton worked, experts say, like a clock. With each tick, it doubled the size of the universe, keeping nearly perfect time—until it stopped. Theorists like Kleban, then, are the clocksmiths, devising altogether hundreds of different models that might replicate the clockwork of the Big Bang.
Like many cosmological clocksmiths, Kleban is an expert in string theory—the dominant candidate for a “theory of everything” that attempts to describe nature across all distances, times and energies. The known equations of physics falter when applied to the tiny, fleeting and frenzied environment of the Big Bang, in which they struggle to cram an enormous amount of energy into infinitesimal space and time. But string theory flourishes in this milieu, positing extra spatial dimensions that diffuse the energy. Familiar point particles become, at this highest energy and zoom level, one-dimensional “strings” and higher-dimensional, membranous “branes,” all of which traverse a 10-dimensional landscape. These vibrating, undulating gears may have powered the Big Bang’s clock.
When boundaries are broken, they aren't always broken through high-brow means. Today, we all agree that some of the best writing can be found in mysteries and thrillers, but when the genre began, what sustained its development was pulp fiction — and L.S. Hilton's Maestra is pulp fiction for sure.
Geeks rule the world these days, but who built that world? If you look to the history of comic books and popular culture, one name is increasingly standing out: comic artist, writer, and editor Jack Kirby.