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Archive for the ‘Reading Tidbits’ Category


Space-Time Expands

Posted by jns on June 9, 2009

This is* author John R. Gribbin (1946– ), a science writer who started life as an astrophysicist. (His website.) I’ve read and mentioned a few of his books here in the last year or so, and I’ve been enjoying them so far.

The one that I most recently read and enjoyed is John Gribbin with Mary Gribbin, Stardust : Supernovae and Life—The Cosmic Connection (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000. xviii + 238 pages). Here is my book note.

The book is all about stellar nucleosynthesis: how the elements are made in stars and supernovae. As you may have realized, this is a subject I find fascinating, particularly the history of the discovery of nucleosynthesis. I’m especially keen on the late nineteenth controversy about the age of the sun, a controversy starring two big names in science, Darwin and Lord Kelvin, a controversy that couldn’t be settled until the invention of quantum mechanics and the discovery of nuclear fusion.

That problem was finally cracked by Hans Bethe in two papers he published in 1939 in Physical Review (“Energy Production in Stars”, first paper online, and second paper online. A very nice short, nontechnical summary of the importance of these papers (“Landmarks: What Makes the Stars Shine?“) is also available online. I may have to write more about these sometime.

But the excerpt from Stardust that I wanted to share here has to do with a different question, one that came up in a discussion we had elsewhere (“Long Ago & Far Away“) following a question Bill asked about the size of the expanding universe.

This doesn’t address that question directly, but does answer another related question. I was unclear at the time whether celestial red-shift should be interpreted as the result of actual motion of objects in the universe apart from each other, or as the result of the expansion of space-time itself, or some combination.

The answer is unequivocal in this excerpt: red-shifts are due to expanding space-time. That is, the geometry of space-time itself is stretching out and this is what causes the apparent motion of cosmic objects away from us (with some actual relative motion through space-time going on).

Hard though it may be to picture, what the general theory of relativity tells us is that space and time were born, along with matter, in the precursor to the Big Bang, and that this bubble of spacetime full of matter and energy (the same thing—remember E = mc2) has expanded ever since. The galaxies fill the Universe today, and the matter they contain always did fill the Universe, although obviously the pieces of matter were closer together when the Universe was smaller. Since the cosmological redshift is caused not by galaxies moving through space but by space itself expanding in between the galaxies, it is certainly not a Doppler effect, and it isn’t really measuring velocity, but a kind of pseudo-velocity. Partly for historical reasons, partly for convenience, astronomers do, though, continue to refer to the “recession velocities” of distant galaxies, although no competent cosmologist ever describes the cosmological redshift as a Doppler effect. [p. 116]

* The source of the photo is an (undated) article from American Scientist, “Scientists’ Nightstand: John Gribbin“, by Greg Ross, which has an interview with Gribbin and gives this thumbnail biography:

John R. Gribbin studied astrophysics at the University of Cambridge before beginning a prolific career in science writing. He is the author of dozens of books, including In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat (Bantam, 1984), Stardust (Yale University Press, 2000), Ice Age (with Mary Gribbin) (Penguin, 2001) and Science: A History (Allen Lane, 2002).


On Reading Potter’s You Are Here

Posted by jns on May 29, 2009

Another book I read and enjoyed recently was by Christopher Potter: You Are Here : A Portable History of the Universe (New York : HarperCollinsPublishers, 2009; 194 pages). Here is my book note.

Potter said he wanted to write the book he wanted to read but no one had ever written. Great idea! His saying that made me think that it was not a book I would have (or could have) written, but that’s a good thing. The book is appealing and the ideas presented very thoughtfully, so I think it could certainly reach an audience that other books don’t speak to. How to tell? I don’t know whether there’s any alternative to reading some of it to see whether it works for you.

Anyway, there were, as usual, a couple of left-over excerpts. This first one is a very telling point that doesn’t much get discussed.

Einstein’s famous theory, the one known as the special theory of relativity, first appeared in 1905 in a paper entitled ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’. It was the German physicist Max Planck (1858—1947) who renamed the theory, though Einstein thought the word relativity was misleading and would have preferred the word invariance instead, a word that has the opposite meaning. [p. 87]

I don’t know that I would exactly say it has the “opposite meaning”, and even if it does have an opposite meaning, it doesn’t refer to the same concept that “relativity” does. However, calling it “invariant” would have been a good, if inscrutable, idea.

“Invariant” means just what it sounds like it means in physics as well as English, something unchanging. But it is used in physics and math to refer to things that don’t change specifically when other things are changed, or transformed.

Special relativity provides one of the best examples of something that it physically invariant, too: the speed of light. If all the laws of physics were to “look the same” in various inertial reference frames (see the film “Inertial Reference Frames“), or under transformation to different inertial reference frames, then the speed of light must be the same, or invariant, in all of those frames. The invariance of the speed of light is the central concept of Einstein’s 1905 theory “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. “Electrodynamics” because that is the “classical” theory of moving charged particles, which, as we saw in the most recent “Beard of the Week“, is identical with Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic radiation / light.

This next excerpt I thought was a fair and concise summary of Bishop James Ussher’s contribution to the idea stream about the age of the Earth, and as the darling of young-Earth creationists.

In his Annals of the Old Testament, published in 1650, the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (1581—1656), had worked out a chronology of Creation. In a supplement to this work published in 1654 he calculated that Creation had occurred on the evening before Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, a date that does not differ much from the attempts of others, from at least the time of the Venerable Bede (c.672—735), to set a date for Creation. Ussher is today often taken for a fool, but he was a greatly respected scholar of his time, known throughout Europe. According to some biblical scholars, the reign of man was meant to last no more than 6,000 years, taking as evidence a line from the Book of Peter: ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’ (2 Peter 3:8). Creation, which began around the year 4000 BC, was set to end 6,000 years later. today, we believe that in 4000 BC the wheel was being discovered in Mesopotamia. Ussher’s date was inserted into the margins of editions of the King James Bible from 1701. It is to this version of the bible that fundamentalists have their curious relationship. [p. 212]


On Reading The Age of Entanglement

Posted by jns on May 21, 2009

Reading proceeds apace, but writing about the books seems to happen in big clumps. For instance, my book note on Louisa Gilder’s The Age of Entanglement : When Quantum Physics was Reborn (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. xvi + 443 pages). Perhaps if I wrote less I could write sooner.

Oddly, I didn’t realize how much I had enjoyed the book until I wrote about. I found it quite engaging and, despite the author’s defensiveness about writing narrative nonfiction (and her queasiness cause me a bit of queasiness at first), I thought it was not only engaging but high in scienticity. She’s done a very careful and thorough job with keeping her science precise, and I thought she showed quite a depth of understanding in what is described as her first book.

From my collection of quotations noted but unused in the book note, this one about the distinction between a theoretical physicist and an experimental physicist. It’s pretty much true, but a bit of reflection makes it unsurprising.

“How do you tell an experimental physicist from a theorist?” asks [experimental physicist John] Clauser more than thirty years later, in his northern California desert home encrusted with sailing trophies and plaques. Running his finger along the thick spines of schoolbooks, he beings to answer his question: “A ”theorist” will have: lots of textbooks (the experimentalist will have some engineering ones, too).” He taps these with his finger. “Lots and lots of ”Phys. Rev. Letters.”” In fact, a bookshelf taking up a whole wall is crowded with the pale green journals. “Biographies of the great, and books written by them.” Clauser gestures through the door of his wood-paneled office. “But the ”experimentalist” will have”—he turns: here, in the hallway beside the kitchen door, is another floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, packed with rows and rows of narrow, shiny softcover book spines in garish fluorescent colors—””catalogues.”” He grins. “Anything I need to make, if I don’t have the pieces already, I look for it here. I can make anything.” [pp. 260—261]


On Reading Sun in a Bottle

Posted by jns on March 23, 2009

Rather recently I enjoyed reading Charles Seife’s Sun in a Bottle : The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking (New York : Viking, 2008; 294 pages). The subtitle is indicative, although I’m not sure just how strange the history of fusion is.

Of course, what he means by “the history of fusion” is not so much the discovery of nuclear fusion, nor really much about its exploitation to build “H-bombs”. Although these topics appear in early chapters to set the fusion stage, the book is mostly devoted to what happened subsequently on the quest for the practical fusion reactor that would fulfill the dream of “unlimited power”.

Well, the quest still goes on and commercial fusion reactors have been just “20 years away” for at least the last 5 decades. All of the “hot fusion” projects are here: “pinch reactors”, magnetic bottles, Tokamaks, and “inertial-confinement” fusion (the name for those giant, multi-laser devices Lawrence-Livermore labs build to zap deuterium pellets), as well as the “cold fusion” wannabes, including Pons and Fleischmann and the later “bubble fusion”, both of which, in the author’s words, have since been “swept to the fringes of science”.

Anyway, my book note is here, but I thought I’d share this one short excerpt that dramatizes why “people of faith” should never be allowed to set policy: anything they really want to “believe” they end up thinking came from their god. By the way, Lewis Strauss was also the guy who was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s principle antagonist during the struggle to take away Oppie’s clearance as some sort of “punishment” for being too liberal.

The paranoid, anti-Communist Edward Teller was the man who most desperately tried to bring us to the promised land. He and his allies lobbied for more and more money to figure out how to harness the immense power of fusion. Lewis Strauss, the AEC chairman and Teller backer, promised the world a future where the energy of the atom would power cities, cure diseases, and grow foods. Nuclear power would reshape the planet. God willed it. the Almighty had decided that humans should unlock the power of the atom , and He would keep us from self-annihilation. “A Higher Intelligence decided that man was ready to receive it,” Strauss wrote in 1955. “My faith tells me that the Creator did not intend man to evolve through the ages to this stage of civilization only now to devise something that would destroy life on this earth. ” [pp. 59—60]


Science-Book Grab-Bag

Posted by jns on March 22, 2009

I’ve been reading lots of good books this year, several that I can count for my own commitment to the Science-Book Challenge, but I am only now catching up on writing about them. Tonight I wanted to mention a trio of top-notch books from three different domains: cosmology, probability & statistics, and history of science (sort of) / chemistry.

1. John Gribbin, The Birth of Time : How Astronomers Measured the Age of the Universe. The subtitle is exactly the theme of the book, and Gribbin answers the question with a very appealing, very satisfying amount of history and scienticity. I marveled at his writing: he made clear, precise writing seem effortless. (My book note.)

2. Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard’s Walk : How Randomness Rules our Lives. Here was an excellent combination of clear and precise exposition of the central ideas of probability and statistics integrated with fascinating examples of those concepts injecting randomness into everyday life. Again, I found the writing very engaging and apparently effortless. (My book note.)

3. Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air : A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Again, the subtitle is truth in advertising. The book was sort of an intellectual biography of Joseph Priestly, who got tangled up in the early days of chemistry research and civil unrest and the American Revolution. Mostly successful but still very engaging and satisfying to read. (My book note.)

From Johnson’s Invention of Air, I did set aside a few extra excerpts I wanted to share. Here they are.

This first excerpt sets the tone for the book–and the attitude of the author–but the anecdote is revealing and horrifying to me. Happily, we know that America turned from following this dangerous path that encouraged anti-intellectualism and anti-scientism. I’m sure some would think this just some liberal hyperbole; I don’t.

A few days before I started writing this book, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was asked on national television whether he believed in the theory of evolution. He shrugged off the question with a dismissive jab of humor: “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president,” he said. “I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.”

It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, the speaker had to share one basic assumption with his audience: that “science” was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn’t know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing a textbook on international affairs. The joke wouldn’t make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the chief executive. But science? That’s for the guys in lab coats.

That line has stayed with me since, because the web of events at the center of this book suggests that its basic assumptions are fundamentally flawed. If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science. The protagonists of this story lived in a climate where ideas flowed easily between the realms of politics, philosophy, religion, and science. The closest thing to a hero in this book—the chemist, theologian, and political theorist Joseph Priestley—spent his whole career in the space that connects those different fields. But the other figures central to this story—Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—suggest one additional reading of the “eighth-grade science” remark. It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American. [p. xiii—xiv]

But there is a lighter side to enjoy here, at least for some of us who can see the humor. I don’t think I have heard any fundamentalists recently who advocated taking lightning rods off churches because they interfere with god’s will. It always strikes me as odd how some science can apparently be perfectly consonant with such an absolutist belief system.

The most transformative gadget to come out of the electricians’ cabinet of wonders was the lightning rod, also a concoction of Franklin’s. [...] Humans had long recognized that lightning had a propensity for striking the tallest landmarks in its vicinity, and so the exaggerated height of church steeples—not to mention their flammable wooden construction—presented a puzzling but undeniable reality: the Almighty seemed to have a perverse appetite for burning down the buildings erected in His honor. [pp. 22—23]

Finally, here is the author quoting Thomas Jefferson writing to Joseph Priestley, after Priestly’s house, scientific instruments, and laboratory notes had all been destroyed by a reactionary mob under the flag of “Church and King”. I think the ironic parallels with our own recent unpleasantness under the previous administration couldn’t be clearer, but the lessons of the Founding Fathers keep getting willfully distorted.

What an effort my dear Sir of bigotry, in politics and religion, have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement; the President himself declaring in one of his answers to addresses that we were never to expect to go beyond them in real science. This was the real ground of all that attacks you. [pp. 197—198]


On Reading The Little Ice Age

Posted by jns on March 11, 2009

Earlier this year I read the book Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age : How Climate Made History 1300 – 1850, by Brian Fagan (New York : Basic Books, 2000; 246 pages). He takes a close look at the relatively cool period between the “Medieval Warm Period” and the current warming period, and considers in careful but fascinating detail the ways that global climate change affected European society and culture. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think he did an excellent job assembling all of his facts and dates and locations and keeping them well sorted out and in line with his thesis. I gave it high marks in my book note.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt that interested me. This was one of his many entertaining and enlightening asides, this one a nicely done short history of sunspots.

Sunspots are familiar phenomena. Today, the regular cycle of solar activity waxes and wanes about every eleven. years. No one has yet fully explained the intricate processes that fashion sunspot cycles, nor their maxima and minima. A typical minimum in the eleven-year cycle is about six sunspots, with some days, even weeks, passing without sunspot activity. Monthly readings of zero are very rare. Over the past two centuries, only the year 1810 has passed without any sunspot activity whatsoever. By an measure, the lack of sunspot activity during the height of the Little Ice Age was remarkable.

The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were times of great scientific advances and intense astronomical activity. The same astronomers who observed the sun discovered the first division in Saturn’s ring and five of the planet’s satellites. They observed transits of Venus and Mercury, recorded eclipses of the sun, and determined the velocity of light by observing the precise orbits of Jupiter’s satellites. Seventeenth-century scholars published the first detailed studies of the sun and sunspots. In 1711, English astronomer William Derham commented on “great intervals” when no sunspots were observed between 1660 and 1684. He remarked rather charmingly: “Spots could hardly escape the sight of so many Observers of the sun, as were then perpetually peeping upon him with their Telescopes…all the world over.” Unfortunately for modern scientists, sunspots were considered clouds on the sun until 1774 and deemed of little importance, so we have no means of knowing how continuously there were observed.

The period between 1645 and 1715 was remarkable for the rarity of aurora borealis and aurora australis, which were reported far less frequently than either before or afterward. Between 1645 and 1708, not a single aurora was observed in London’s skies. When one appeared on March 15, 1716, none other than Astronomer Royal Edmund Halley wrote a paper about it, for he had never seen one in all his years as a scientist–and he was sixty years old at the time. On the other side of the world, naked eye sightings of sunspots from China, Korea, and Japan between 28 B.C. and A.D. 1743 provide an average of six sightings per century, presumably coinciding with solar maxima. There are no observations whatsoever between 1639 and 1700, nor were any aurora reported.


On Reading The Carbon Age

Posted by jns on October 28, 2008

I recently finished reading The Carbon Age : How Life’s Core Element has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat, by Eric Roston (New York : Walker & Company, 2008. 308 pages). I very much enjoyed the act of reading it, but it was only when I was writing about it that I realized that is really an excellent book on all counts. My book note is here.

In this case I think what I admired the most was the author’s scienticity, which is how we refer to a scientific / rational / analytical / naturalistic perspective combined with the fortitude to integrate science moments into a larger cultural context. Mr. Roston did an excellent job of it, making it entertaining and informative without being the least bit silly or imprecise. As you may recall, I’m easily irritated by authors writing about science who do not take the trouble to be precise and thoughtful in their scientific exposition, but I had no such reaction here. If my memory is correct, I thought there was one explanation, out of the 300 pages, where the concept being explained was slightly befuddled–not a bad record!

But, our purpose here is to provide a place for a few excerpts that just didn’t fit into the book note for some reason or that I marked specially for blogging. (It’s true! Sometimes there are bits of the text that I think are a must-share but they don’t share the tone of a book note, so it’s lucky you!)

In this first excerpt, we’re in the midst of a long discussion about carbon’s place in the origins of life and how its central role may have come about. One of the great steps forward happened very, very early in the process. In a world of one-celled life, one cell managed to trap another cell inside it and the two continue to reproduce together to this day. Eukaryotes are organisms, including humans and most everything we think of as life except bacteria, whose cells are complex systems containing a nucleus and other parts, including mitochondira, which produce the energy the cell runs on by breaking down (“burning”) carbohydrates. I liked this terse, elegant, and altogether sensible paragraph about that moment.

The capture and integration of one cell by another is called endosymbiosis. Nearly all eukaryotes have little organs (“organelles”) called mitochondria. These cellular energy centers descend from purple sulfur bacteria, inhabitants of stomatolites in Shark Bay. This class of bacteria has made its living for as long as 3 billion years by using oxygen to burn carbohydrate fuel. Deep in the evolutionary past, some oxygen-breathing bacteria became engulfed within anaerobic cells, which needed help thriving in an atmosphere of increasing oxygen. These bacteria are the ancestors of our cellular power plants. The evidence is that bacteria and mitochondria share much of the same DNA. [p. 73]

In this next short excerpt, Roston comments on the familial culture of experimental scientists. I’ve known this phenomenon myself. I started out in low-temperature physics, an experimental discipline that appeared early in the 20th century when Heike Kamerlingh Onnes, the Dutch physicist, first liquefied helium in 1908. We were a small community and everyone could trace their lineage; there are only a couple of major branches of the family. I don’t think I’ve seen this written about elsewhere and I thought Roston’s observations were very perceptive.

Labs are structured as intellectual family fiefdoms. A professor “raises” his graduate students, who grow up and fan out across the world of research universities and private industry. Virtually everyone’s intellectual ancestors [in chemical synthesis] can be traced back to J.J. Berzelius, the Swedish chemist who first called carbon “C”. Every generation tends the repository of knowledge, weeding out its predecessor’s bad ideas, answering some of their questions, and asking many of their own. [p. 135]


On Hydrogen (& Physics Humor)

Posted by jns on October 23, 2008

I recently finished reading the book Hydrogen : The Essential Element, by John S. Rigden (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2002. vii + 280 pages). Here’s my book note. It’s a book I can recommend.

As I mentioned in the book note, the “hydrogen” of this book is the physicist’s “hydrogen”,* the simple atom of electron + proton (with some isotopic variations) that is the simple test case for all physical theories that deal with things atomic: if it doesn’t work for hydrogen, it’s not going to work.

Hydrogen is overwhelmingly the most abundant atomic species in the universe, making up about 74% (by weight) of the matter we can see. It is the predominant fuel that stars burn through fusion (to make helium nuclei). Hydrogen is the earliest element in the cosmos, protons condensing from a universe of quarks when the temperature finally became low enough, in the period (the “hadron epoch”) between one microsecond to one second after the big bang. It was some time longer before the universe cooled enough (some 380,000 years!) for the protons to capture and hold onto electrons, thus becoming actual atoms of hydrogen (Of course, there had to be electrons to capture; they condensed around one second ABB.#)

Anyway, the history of our modern understanding of the hydrogen atom, and the efforts to gain that understanding, is virtually identical to the history of “modern physics”, by which we loosely mean all that physics stuff from the early twentieth century: quantum mechanics and its friends. Lots of other interesting things get thrown in, too, from all the attention the hydrogen atom got. A couple of the more interesting: the development of the hydrogen maser and very high precision time keeping (i.e., “atomic clocks”, leading to the GPS), and the invention of a technique known to physicists as NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance), which in recent decades developed into the familiar MRI (magnetic-resonance imaging).

Anyway, that’s book-note stuff. What we’re all about here is a couple of leftover quotations from the book that go under the heading: “Physicist’s and their Strange Sense of Humor”. The first two quotations reveal things that physicists find almost knee-slappingly funny but may remain inscrutable to nonscientists (and I wouldn’t worry about that either, if I were you–you’re not missing all that much).

Paul Dirac was a[n] unusual person. Perhaps because Dirac’s father demanded that his young son use French rather than his native English to converse with him, the young Dirac adopted the habit of silence during his childhood simply because he could not express his thoughts in French. Whatever the reason, the adult Paul Dirac was a a man of silence. Dirac’s silence was so intense that it inspired a little levity among physicists. In physics, the units given to physical quantities like time or length are important. Physicists, clearly in jest [!], have defined the unit of silence as the dirac. [p. 89]

For this second joke, I might mention that it was Ed Purcell who pioneered the NMR technique, and that the technique uses magnetic properties of the hydrogen atom, which moves much like a gyroscope when magnetically disturbed (hence the reference to “precessing”**).

I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking at snow…around my doorstep–great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field.
–Edward M. Purcell [quoted on p. 137]

Finally, this one goes into that file where we put really bad predictions of what the future might hold.

In 1952, neither Purcell nor Bloch could have predicted the ways their discovery would advance understanding of solids, of the structure of chemical molecules, and even more. In fact, a representative from Dupont Chemical Company visited Purcell soon after the paper announcing the discovery was published. The Dupont scientist asked Purcell what the practical applications of NMR might be. Purcell responded that he could see no practical applications. In this, Purcell was very wrong. [p. 147]

* Rather than, say, a chemist’s “hydrogen” with discussions of interesting molecules and acids and reducing reactions and carbohydrates, etc. Nor is it an engineer’s “hydrogen”, nor a politician’s “hydrogen” (as in “hydrogen economy”). They’re all stories for another book for someone else to write. What a publishing opportunity!

I just read this the other day about the big bang and the origin of the cosmos (and now I forget who gets the attribution): “In the beginning there was nothing, then it exploded.”

# We could just say “it happened at one second”, since the current understanding has it that time (whatever it is besides a whole other story) began with the big bang.

I’m sure I’ve expressed my peevishness before about how the perfectly good word “nuclear” had to be expunged before MRI could be a commercial success.

** When some body, like the Earth or a hydrogen nucleus, rotates about an axis, and that axis is tilted relative to some other axis about which the tilted axis itself executes a (generally much slower) rotation (a kind of wobble), that latter motion is referred to as “precession”. The precession of the Earth’s axis takes about 26,000 years. Hydrogen atoms do it at about 500 megahertz (or 500,000,000 times each second).


On Reading Despicable Species

Posted by jns on June 12, 2008

Last week I finished reading Janet Lembke’s, Despicable Species : On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges (New York : The Lyons Press, 1999. xi + 216 pages, illustrations by Joe Nutt). You might like to read my book note about it.

I like the author’s portrait inside the back cover: the gracefully maturing lady with her white hair in a bun and the tiny grin of mischief on her face. She’s one of Miss Marple’s friends who invites the lady detective to tea and talks about bugs. How charming! Or–wait!–maybe she’s the murderess and there’s arsenic in the brew.

Ms. Lembke writes with a certain genteel prose but there’s nothing soft about her subjects and her writing is fully informed by science despite her blurb’s insistence that she is, basically, a literary type. However, I don’t see why Shakespeare and taxonomic nomenclature shouldn’t get along as she so aptly demonstrates. These essays about those plants and animals most hated by her friends were charming but robust, personal but informative. Be delighted and learn: what a concept!

Here I wanted to share this little poem that Lembke quoted in the essay “Legs: Centipedes”.

The centipede was happy quite
    Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
That worked her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch,
    Considering how to run.

– Mrs. Edward Caster, 1871


On Reading American Prometheus

Posted by jns on May 23, 2008

In truth it was last summer* when I read the book by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus : The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York : Vintage Books, 2005; 721 pages). It’s only today, however, when I finally got around to assembling my notes into the requisite book note.

It’s a magnificent, informative, and very readable book about a central figure of the last century, the contradictory J. Robert Oppenheimer. Knowing what went on with the Manhattan Project and then the persecution of Oppenheimer may well be required knowledge for good American citizenship; reading this book would be a terrific way to get up to speed on that. (Coupled with Richard Rhodes’The Making of the Atomic Bomb, you can learn virtually all you need to know from two excellent books.)

Guess what? I had some left-over quotations I wanted to excerpt, so there they are.

As Harry Truman moved into the White House, the war in Europe was nearly won. But the war in the Pacific was coming to its bloodiest climax. On the evening of March9–10, 1945, 334 B-29 aircraft dropped tons of jellied gasoline–napalm–and high explosives on Tokyo. The resulting firestorm killed an estimated 100,000 people and completely burned out 15.8 square miles of the city. The fire-bombing raids continued and by July 1945, all but five of Japan’s major cities had been razed and hundreds of 1945, all but five of Japan’s major cities had been razed and hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians had been killed. This was total warfare, an attack aimed at the destruction of a nation, not just its military targets.

The fire bombings were no secret. Ordinary Americans read about the raids in their newspapers. Thoughtful people understood that strategic bombing of cities raised profound ethical questions. “I remember Mr. Stimson [the secretary of war] saying to me,” Oppenheimer later remarked, “that he thought it appalling that there should be no protest over the air raids which we were conducting against Japan, which in the case of Tokyo led to such extraordinarily heavy loss of life. He didn’t say that the air strikes shouldn’t be carried on, but he did think there was something wrong with a country where no one questioned that….”

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and eight days later Germany surrendered. When Emilio Segrè heard the news, his first reaction was, “We have been too late.” Like almost everyone at Los Alamos, Segrè thought that defeating Hitler was the sole justification for working on the “gadget.” “How that the bomb could not be used against the Nazis, doubts arose,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Those doubts, even if they do not appear in official reports, were discussed in many private discussions.” [p. 291]

One of the big reasons for developing the Bomb, at least in the minds of the scientists, was to do it before Hitler’s scientists did, lest the world suffer the consequences. The military and the US Government, on the other hand, had a different agenda and insisted on using the bomb on an actual target even thought the Japanese were close to surrender, perhaps as a demonstration to the Soviet Union. The atomic-project scientists felt betrayed and suddenly conflicted as that realization dawned. The whole affair is murky and filled with intrigue.

There was much that Oppenheimer did not know. As he later recalled, “We didn’t know beans about the military situation in Japan. We didn’t know whether they could be caused to surrender by other means or whether the invasion was really inevitable. But in the backs of our minds was the notion that the invasion was inevitable because we had been told that.” Among other things, he was unaware that military intelligence in Washington had intercepted and decoded messages from Japan indicating that the Japanese government understood the war was lost and was seeking acceptable surrender terms.

On May 28, for instance, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy urged Stimson to recommend that the term “unconditional surrender” be dropped from America’s demands on the Japanese. Based on their reading of intercepted Japanese cable traffic (code-named “Magic’). McCloy and many other ranking officials could see that key members of the Tokyo government were trying to find a way to terminate the war, largely on Washington’s terms. On the same day, Acting Secretary of State Joseph C. Grew had a long meeting with President Truman an told him the very same thing. Whatever their other objectives, Japanese government officials had one immutable condition, as Allen Dulles, then an OSS agent in Switzerland, reported to McCloy: “They wanted to keep their emperor and the constitution, fearing that otherwise a military surrender would only mean the collapse of all order and of all discipline.”

On June 18, Truman’s chief of staff, Adm. William D. Leahy, wrote in his diary: “It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan….” The same day, McCloy told President Truman that he believed the Japanese military position to be so dire as to raise the “question of whether we needed to get Russia in to help us defeat Japan.” He went on to tell Truman that before a final decision was taken to invade the Japanese home islands, or to use the atomic bomb, political steps should be taken that might well secure a full Japanese surrender. The Japanese, he said, should be told that they “would be permitted to retain the Emperor and a form of government of their own choosing.” In addition, he said, “the Japs should be told, furthermore, that we had another and terrifyingly destructive weapon which we would have to use if they did not surrender.”

According to McCloy, Truman seemed receptive to these suggestions. American military superiority was such that by July 17 McCloy was writing in his diary: “The delivery of a warning now would hit them at the moment. It would probably bring what we are after–the successful termination of the war.”

According to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he was informed of the existence of the bomb at the Potsdam Conference in July, he told Stimson he thought an atomic bombing was unnecessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Finally, President Truman himself seemed to think that the Japanese were very close to capitulation. Writing in his private, handwritten diary on July 18, 1945, the president referred to a recently intercepted cable quoting the emperor to the Japanese envoy in Moscow as a “telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.” The cable said: “Unconditional surrender is the only obstacle to peace….” Truman had extracted a promise from Stalin that he and many of his military planners thought would be decisive. “He’ll [Stalin] be in the Jap war on August 15,” Truman wrote in his diary on July 17. “Fini Japs when that comes about.”

Truman and the men around him knew that the initial invasion of the Japanese home islands was not scheduled to take place until November 1, 1945–at the earliest. And nearly all the president’s advisers believed the war would be over prior to that date. It would surely end with the shock of a Soviet declaration of war–or it might end with the kind of political overture to the Japanese that Grew, McCloy, Leahy and many others envisioned: a clarification of the terms of surrender to specify that the Japanese could keep their emperor. But Truman–and his closest adviser, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes–had decided that the advent of the atomic bomb gave them yet another option. As Byrnes later explained, “…it was ever present in my mind that it was important that we should have an end to the war before the Russians came in.”

Short of a clarification of the terms of surrender–a move Byrnes opposed on domestic political grounds–the war could end prior to August 15 only with the use of the new weapon. Thus, on July 18, Truman noted in his diary, “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in.” Finally, on August 3, Walter Brown, a special assistant to Secretary Byrnes, wrote in his diary: “President, Leahy, JFB [Byrnes] agreed Japs looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from the Pacific.) President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden.” [pp. 3000--301]

* In fact it was the book I took with me on our trip in July 2007 to Tuscany. I have fond memories of lying in bed in our hotel room in Pisa reading about Oppenheimer.