June 2005

Rolfe, Fr. Hadrian the Seventh. New York: New York Review Books, [1904] 2001. ISBN 0-940322-62-5.
This is a masterpiece of eccentricity. The author, whose full name is Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, deliberately abbreviated his name to “Fr.” not just in the interest of concision, but so it might be mistaken for “Father” and the book deemed the work of a Catholic priest. (Rolfe also used the name “Baron Corvo” and affected a coat of arms with a raven.) Having twice himself failed in aspirations to the priesthood, in this novel the protagonist, transparently based upon the author, finds himself, through a sequence of events straining even the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, vaulted from the humble estate of debt-ridden English hack writer directly to the papacy, taking the name Hadrian the Seventh in honour of Hadrian IV, the first, last, and only English pope to date.

Installed on the throne of Saint Peter, Hadrian quickly moves to remedy the discrepancies his erstwhile humble life has caused to him to perceive between the mission of the Church and the policies of its hierarchy. Dodging intrigue from all sides, and wielding his intellect, wit, and cunning along with papal authority, he quickly becomes what now would be called a “media pope” and a major influence on the world political stage, which he remakes along lines which, however alien and ironic they may seem today, might have been better than what actually happened a decade after this novel was published in 1904.

Rolfe, like Hadrian, is an “artificer in verbal expression”, and his neologisms and eccentric spelling (“saxificous head of the Medoysa”) and Greek and Latin phrases—rarely translated—sprinkle the text. Rolfe/Hadrian doesn't think too highly of the Irish, the French, Socialists, the press, and churchmen who believe their mission is building cathedrals and accumulating treasure rather than saving souls, and he skewers these and other targets on every occasion—if such barbs irritate you, you will find plenty here at which to take offence. The prose is simply beautiful, and thought provoking as well as funny. The international politics of a century ago figures in the story, and if you're not familiar with that now rather obscure era, you may wish to refresh your memory as to principal players and stakes in the Great Game of that epoch.


Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Airship. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, [1910] 1992. ISBN 1-55709-177-3.
Following his adventures on land and lake, in this third volume of the Tom Swift series, our hero takes to the air in his hybrid dirigible/airplane, the Red Cloud. (When this book was written, within a decade of the Wright Brothers' first flight, “airship” referred to any flying craft, lighter or heavier than air.) Along the way he survives a forest fire, thunderstorm, flying bullets, false accusation of a crime, and an irritable schoolmarm not amused by having an airship crash into her girls' school, and solves the crime, bags the perpetrators, and clears his good name. Bless my seltzer bottle—never get on the wrong side of Mr. Wakefield Damon!

Apart from the arm-waving about new inventions which is the prerogative of the science fiction writer, Victor Appleton is generally quite careful about the technical details—All American Boys in the early 20th century knew their machinery and would be all over a scribbler who didn't understand how a carburetor worked! Here, however, he misunderstands lighter than air flight. He describes the Red Cloud as supported by a rigid aluminium gas container filled with “a secret gas, made partly of hydrogen, being very light and powerful”. But since the only thing that matters in generating lift is the weight of the air displaced compared to the weight of the gas displacing it, and since hydrogen is the lightest of elements (can't have fewer than one proton, mate!), then any mixture of hydrogen with anything else would have less lift than hydrogen alone. (You might mix hydrogen with helium to obtain a nonflammable gas lighter than pure helium—something suggested by Arthur C. Clarke a few years ago—but here Tom's secret gas is claimed to have more lift than hydrogen, and the question of flammability is never raised. Also, the gas is produced on demand by a “gas generator”. That rules out helium as a component, as it is far too noble to form compounds.) Later, Tom increases the lift on the ship by raising the pressure in the gas cells: “when an increased pressure of the vapor was used the ship was almost as buoyant as before” (chapter 21). But increasing the pressure of any gas in a fixed volume cell reduces the lift, as it increases the weight of the gas within without displacing any additional air. One could make this work by assuming a gas cell with a flexible bladder which permitted the volume occupied by the lift gas to expand and contract as desired, the rest being filled with ambient air, but even then the pressure of the lift gas would not increase, but simply stay the same as atmospheric pressure as more air was displaced. Feel free to berate me for belabouring such a minor technical quibble in a 95 year old story, but I figure that Tom Swift fans probably, like myself, enjoy working out this kind of stuff. The fact that this is only such item I noticed is a testament to the extent Appleton sweated the details.

I read the electronic edition of this novel published in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection at this site on my PalmOS PDA in random moments of downtime over a month or so. I've posted an updated electronic edition which corrects typographical errors I spotted while reading the yarn.


Stenhoff, Mark. Ball Lightning. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-306-46150-1.
Reports of ball lightning—glowing spheres of light which persist for some number of seconds, usually associated with cloud to ground lightning strikes during thunderstorms, date back to the classical Greeks. Since 1838, when physicist and astronomer Dominique Arago published a survey of twenty reports of ball lightning, a long list of scientists, many eminent, have tried their hands at crafting a theory which might explain such an odd phenomenon yet, at the start of the twenty-first century ball lightning remains, as Arago said in 1854, “One of the most inexplicable problems of physics today.”

Well, actually, ball lightning only poses problems to the physics of yesterday and today if it, you know, exists, and the evidence that it does is rather weak, as this book demonstrates. (Its author does come down in favour of the existence of ball lightning, and wrote the 1976 Nature paper which helped launched the modern study of the phenomenon.) As of the date this book was published, not a single unambiguous photograph, movie, or video recording of ball lightning was known to exist, and most of the “classic” photographs illustrated in chapter 9 are obvious fakes created by camera motion and double exposure. It is also difficult when dealing with reports by observers unacquainted with the relevant phenomena to sort out genuine ball lightning (if such exists) from other well-documented and understood effects such as corona discharges (St. Elmo's fire), that perennial favourite of UFO debunkers: ignis fatuus or swamp gas, and claims of damage caused by the passage of ball lightning or its explosive dissipation from those produced by conventional lightning strikes. See the author's re-casting of a lightning strike to a house which he personally investigated into “ball lightning language” on pp. 105–106 for an example of how such reports can originate.

Still, after sorting out the mis-identifications, hoaxes, and other dross, a body of reports remains, some by expert observers of atmospheric phenomena, which have a consistency not to be found, for example, in UFO reports. A number of observations of ball lightning within metallic aircraft fuselages are almost identical and pose a formidable challenge to most models. The absence of unambiguous evidence has not in any way deterred the theoretical enterprise, and chapters 11–13 survey models based on, among other mechanisms, heated air, self-confining plasma vortices and spheroids, radial charge separation, chemical reactions and combustion, microwave excitation of metastable molecules of atmospheric gases, nuclear fusion and the production of unstable isotopes of oxygen and nitrogen, focusing of cosmic rays, antimatter meteorites, and microscopic black holes. One does not get the sense of this converging upon a consensus. Among the dubious theories, there are some odd claims of experimental results such as the production of self-sustaining plasma balls by placing a short burning candle in a kitchen microwave oven (didn't work for me, anyway—if you must try it yourself, please use common sense and be careful), and reports of producing ball lightning sustained by fusion of deuterium in atmospheric water vapour by short circuiting a 200 tonne submarine accumulator battery. (Don't try this one at home, kids!)

The book concludes with the hope that with increasing interest in ball lightning, as evidenced by conferences such as the International Symposia on Ball Lightning, and additional effort in collecting and investigating reports, this centuries-old puzzle may be resolved within this decade. I'm not so sure—the UFO precedent does not incline one to optimism. For those motivated to pursue the matter further, a bibliography of more than 75 pages and 2400 citations is included.


Barlow, Connie. The Ghosts of Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-00552-7.
Ponder the pit of the avocado; no, actually ponder it—hold it in your hand and get a sense of how big and heavy it is. Now consider that due to its toughness, slick surface, and being laced with toxins, it was meant to be swallowed whole and deposited far from the tree in the dung of the animal who gulped down the entire fruit, pit and all. Just imagine the size of the gullet (and internal tubing) that requires—what on Earth, or more precisely, given the avocado's range, what in the Americas served to disperse these seeds prior to the arrival of humans some 13,000 years ago?

The Western Hemisphere was, in fact, prior to the great extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, (coincident with the arrival of humans across the land bridge with Asia, and probably the result of their intensive hunting), home to a rich collection of megafauna: mammoths and mastodons, enormous ground sloths, camels, the original horses, and an armadillo as large as a bear, now all gone. Plants with fruit which doesn't seem to make any sense—which rots beneath the tree and isn't dispersed by any extant creature—may be the orphaned ecological partners of extinct species with which they co-evolved. Plants, particularly perennials and those which can reproduce clonally, evolve much more slowly than mammal and bird species, and may survive, albeit in a limited or spotty range, through secondary dispersers of their seeds (seed hoarders and predators, water, and gravity) long after the animal vectors their seeds evolved to employ have departed the scene. That is the fascinating premise of this book, which examines how enigmatic, apparently nonsensical fruit such as the osage orange, Kentucky coffee tree, honey locust, ginkgo, desert gourd, and others may be, figuratively, ripening their fruit every year waiting for the passing mastodon or megatherium which never arrives, some surviving because they are attractive, useful, and/or tasty to the talking apes who killed off the megafauna.

All of this is very interesting, and along the way one learns a great deal about the co-evolution of plants and their seed dispersal partners and predators—an endless arms race involving armour, chemical warfare (selective toxins and deterrents in pulp and seeds), stealth, and co-optation (burrs which hitch a ride on the fur of animals). However, this 250 page volume is basically an 85 page essay struggling to get out of the rambling, repetitious, self-indulgent, pretentious prose and unbridled speculations of the author, which results in a literary bolus as difficult to masticate as the seed pods of some of the plants described therein. This book desperately needed the attention of an editor ready to wield the red pencil and Basic Books, generally a quality publisher of popularisations of science, dropped the ball (or, perhaps I should say, spit out the seed) here. The organisation of the text is atrocious—we encounter the same material over and over, frequently see technical terms such as indehiscent used four or five times before they are first defined, only to then endure a half-dozen subsequent definitions of the same word (a brief glossary of botanical terms would be a great improvement), and on occasions botanical jargon is used apparently because it rolls so majestically off the tongue or lends authority to the account—which authority is sorely lacking. While there is serious science and well-documented, peer-reviewed evidence for anachronism in certain fruits, Barlow uses the concept as a launching pad for wild speculation in which any apparent lack of perfect adaptation between a plant and its present-day environment is taken as evidence for an extinct ecological partner.

One of many examples is the suggestion on p. 164 that the fact that the American holly tree produces spiny leaves well above the level of any current browser (deer here, not Internet Exploder or Netscrape!) is evidence it evolved to defend itself against much larger herbivores. Well, maybe, but it may just be that a tree lacks the means to precisely measure the distance from the ground, and those which err on the side of safety are more likely to survive. The discussion of evolution throughout is laced with teleological and anthropomorphic metaphors which will induce teeth-grinding among Darwinists audible across a large lecture hall.

At the start of chapter 8, vertebrate paleontologist Richard Tedford is quoted as saying, “Frankly, this is not really science. You haven't got a way of testing any of this. It's more metaphysics.”—amen. The author tests the toxicity of ginkgo seeds by feeding them to squirrels in a park in New York City (“All the world seems in tune, on a spring afternoon…”), and the attractiveness of maggot-ridden overripe pawpaw fruit by leaving it outside her New Mexico trailer for frequent visitor Mrs. Foxie (you can't make up stuff like this) and, in the morning, it was gone! I recall a similar experiment from childhood involving milk, cookies, and flying reindeer; she does, admittedly, acknowledge that skunks or raccoons might have been responsible. There's an extended discourse on the possible merits of eating dirt, especially for pregnant women, then in the very next chapter the suggestion that the honey locust has “devolved” into the swamp locust, accompanied by an end note observing that a professional botanist expert in the genus considers this nonsense.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of interesting material here, and much to think about in the complex intertwined evolution of animals and plants, but this is a topic which deserves a more disciplined author and a better book.


Mack, John E. Abduction. New York: Ballantine Books, [1994] 1995. ISBN 0-345-39300-7.
I started this book, as I recall, sometime around 1998, having picked it up to get a taste for the “original material” after reading C.D.B. Bryan's excellent Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, describing an MIT conference on the alien abduction phenomenon. I made it most of the way through Abduction on the first attempt, but ran out of patience and steam about 100 pages from the finish line while reading the material “recovered” from “experiencer” Carlos, which is the literary equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with a custard pudding. A mercifully brief excerpt with Mack's interpolations in parentheses goes as follows (p. 355).
Their bodies go from being the little white creatures they are to light. But when they become light, they first become like cores of light, like molten light. The appearance (of the core of light) is one of solidity. They change colors and a haze is projected around the (interior core which is centralized; surrounding this core in an immediate environment is a denser, tighter) haze (than its outer peripheries). The eyes are the last to go (as one perceives the process of the creatures disappearing into the light), and then they just kind of disappear or are absorbed into this. … We are or exist through our flesh, and they are or exist through whatever it is they are.
Got that? If not, there is much, much more along these lines in the extended babblings of this and a dozen other abductees, developed during the author's therapy sessions with them. Now, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum (Mack was killed in a traffic accident in 2004), and having won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of T.E. Lawrence in addition to his career as a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and founder of the psychiatry department at Cambridge Hospital, his credentials incline one to hear him out, however odd the message may seem to be.

One's mind, however, eventually summons up Thomas Jefferson's (possibly apocryphal) remark upon hearing of two Yale professors who investigated a meteor fall in Connecticut and pronounced it genuine, “Gentlemen, I would rather believe that two Yankee professors would lie than believe that stones fall from heaven.” Well, nobody's accusing Professor Mack of lying, but the leap from the oh-wow, New Age accounts elicited by hypnotic regression and presented here, to the conclusion that they are the result of a genuine phenomenon of some kind, possibly contact with “another plane of reality” is an awfully big one, and simply wading through the source material proved more than I could stomach on my first attempt. So, the book went back on the unfinished shelf, where it continued to glare at me balefully until a few days ago when, looking for something to read, I exclaimed, “Hey, if I can make it through The Ghosts of Evolution, surely I can finish this one!” So I did, picking up from the bookmark I left where my first assault on the summit petered out.

In small enough doses, much of this material can be quite funny. This paperback edition includes two appendices added to address issues raised after the publication of the original hardcover. In the first of these (p. 390), Mack argues that the presence of a genuine phenomenon of some kind is strongly supported by “…the reports of the experiencers themselves. Although varied in some respects, these are so densely consistent as to defy conventional psychiatric explanations.” Then, a mere three pages later, we are informed:

The aliens themselves seem able to change or disguise their form, and, as noted, may appear initially to the abductees as various kinds of animals, or even as ordinary human beings, as in Peter's case. But their shape-shifting abilities extend to their vehicles and to the environments they present to the abductees, which include, in this sample, a string of motorcycles (Dave), a forest and conference room (Catherine), images of Jesus in white robes (Jerry), and a soaring cathedral-like structure with stained glass windows (Sheila). One young woman, not written about in this book, recalled at age seven seeing a fifteen-foot kangaroo in a park, which turned out to be a small spacecraft.
Now that's “densely consistent”! One is also struck by how insipidly banal are the messages the supposed aliens deliver, which usually amount to New Age cerebral suds like “All is one”, “Treat the Earth kindly”, and the rest of the stuff which appeals to those who are into these kinds of things in the first place. Occam's razor seems to glide much more smoothly over the supposition that we are dealing with seriously delusional people endowed with vivid imaginations than that these are “transformational” messages sent by superior beings to avert “planetary destruction” by “for-profit business corporations” (p. 365, Mack's words, not those of an abductee). Fifteen-foot kangaroo? Well, anyway, now this book can hop onto the dubious shelf in the basement and stop making me feel guilty! For a sceptical view of the abduction phenomenon, see Philip J. Klass's UFO Abductions: A Dangerous Game.


Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster, Vol. 3. Fyshwick, Australia: Aerospace Publications, 1998. ISBN 1-875671-34-X.
In the early 1970s I worked for a company that sold remote batch computing services on UNIVAC mainframes. Our management visited Boeing headquarters in Seattle to pitch for some of their business (unlikely, as Boeing had their own computer service bureau at the time, but you never know unless you try). Part of the presentation focused on how reliable our service was, averaging better than 99.5% uptime. The Boeing data processing manager didn't seem too impressed with this. He asked, “When you came up here from San Francisco, did you fly on one of our airplanes?” “As a matter of fact, we did.”, answered the president of our company. The Boeing guy then asked, “Well, how would you feel if I told you Boeing airplanes only crash about once every two hundred flights?” The meeting moved on to other topics; we never did get any business from Boeing.

Engineering is an art we learn from failure, and the aviation safety community is the gold standard when it comes to getting to the probable cause of a complicated disaster and defining achievable steps to prevent it from recurring. There is much for practitioners of other branches of engineering to admire and learn from looking over the shoulders of their colleagues in air accident investigation, and Macarthur Job's superb Air Disaster series, of which this is the third volume (Vol. 1, Vol. 2) provides precisely such a viewpoint. Starting from the official accident reports, author Job and illustrator Matthew Tesch recreate the circumstances which led to each accident and the sometimes tortuous process through which investigators established what actually happened. The presentation is not remotely sensationalistic, yet much more readable than the dry prose of most official accident reports. If detail is required, Job and Tesch do not shrink from providing it; four pages of text and a detailed full page diagram on page 45 of this volume explain far more about the latching mechanism of the 747 cargo door than many people might think there is to know, but since you can't otherwise understand how the door of a United 747 outbound from Honolulu could have separated in flight, it's all there.

Reading the three volumes, which cover the jet age from the de Havilland Comet through the mid 1990s, provides an interesting view of the way in which assiduous investigation of anomalies and incremental fixes have made an inherently risky activity so safe that some these days seem more concerned with fingernail clippers than engine failure or mid-air collisions. Many of the accidents in the first two volumes were due to the machine breaking in some way or another, and one by one, they have basically been fixed to the extent that in this volume, the only hardware related accident is the 747 cargo door failure (in which nine passengers died, but 345 passengers and crew survived). The other dozen are problems due to the weather, human factors, and what computer folks call “user interface”—literally so in several cases of mode confusion and mismanagement of the increasingly automated flight decks of the latest generation of airliners. Anybody designing interfaces in which the user is expected to have a correct mental model of the operation of a complex, partially opaque system will find many lessons here, some learnt at tragic cost in an environment where the stakes are high and the margin of error small.


Hawks, Tony. Round Ireland with a Fridge. London: Ebury Press, 1998. ISBN 0-09-186777-0.
The author describes himself as “not, by nature” either a drinking or a betting man. Ireland, however, can have a way of changing those particular aspects of one's nature, and so it was that after a night about which little else was recalled, our hero found himself having made a hundred pound bet that he could hitch-hike entirely around the Republic of Ireland in one calendar month, accompanied the entire way by a refrigerator. A man, at a certain stage in his life, needs a goal, even if it is, as this epic quest was described by an Irish radio host, “A totally purposeless idea, but a damn fine one.” And the result is this very funny book. Think about it; almost every fridge lives a life circumscribed by a corner of a kitchen—door opens—light goes on—door closes—light goes out (except when the vegetables are having one of their wild parties in the crisper—sssshhh—mustn't let the homeowner catch on). How singular and rare it is for a fridge to experience the freedom of the open road, to go surfing in the Atlantic (chapter 10), to be baptised with a Gaelic name that means “freedom”, blessed by a Benedictine nun (chapter 14), be guest of honour at perhaps the first-ever fridge party at an Irish pub (chapter 21), and make a triumphal entry into Dublin amid an army of well-wishers consisting entirely of the author pulling it on a trolley, a radio reporter carrying a mop and an ice cube tray, and an elderly bagpiper (chapter 23). Tony Hawks points out one disadvantage of his profession I'd never thought of before. When one of those bizarre things with which his life and mine are filled comes to pass, and you're trying to explain something like, “No, you see there were squirrels loose in the passenger cabin of the 747”, and you're asked the inevitable, “What are you, a comedian?”, he has to answer, “Well, actually, as a matter of fact, I am.”

A U.S. edition is now available.