March 2014

Dequasie, Andrew. The Green Flame. Washington: American Chemical Society, 1991. ISBN 978-0-8412-1857-4.
The 1950s were a time of things which seem, to our present day safety-obsessed viewpoint, the purest insanity: exploding multi-megaton thermonuclear bombs in the atmosphere, keeping bombers with nuclear weapons constantly in the air waiting for the order to go to war, planning for nuclear powered aircraft, and building up stockpiles of chemical weapons. Amidst all of this madness, motivated by fears that the almost completely opaque Soviet Union might be doing even more crazy things, one of the most remarkable episodes was the boron fuels project, chronicled here from the perspective of a young chemical engineer who, in 1953, joined the effort at Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation, a contractor developing a pilot plant to furnish boron fuels to the Air Force.

Jet aircraft in the 1950s were notoriously thirsty and, before in-flight refuelling became commonplace, had limited range. Boron-based fuels, which the Air Force called High Energy Fuel (HEF) and the Navy called “zip fuel”, based upon compounds of boron and hydrogen called boranes, were believed to permit planes to deliver range and performance around 40% greater than conventional jet fuel. This bright promise, as is so often the case in engineering, was marred by several catches.

First of all, boranes are extremely dangerous chemicals. Many are pyrophoric: they burst into flame on contact with the air. They are also prone to forming shock-sensitive explosive compounds with any impurities they interact with during processing or storage. Further, they are neurotoxins, easily absorbed by inhalation or contact with the skin, with some having toxicities as great as chemical weapon nerve agents. The instability of the boranes rules them out as fuels, but molecules containing a borane group bonded to a hydrocarbon such as an ethyl, methyl, or propyl group were believed to be sufficiently well-behaved to be usable.

But first, you had to make the stuff, and just about every step in the process involved something which wanted to kill you in one way or another. Not only were the inputs and outputs of the factory highly toxic, the by-products of the process were prone to burst into flames or explode at the slightest provocation, and this gunk regularly needed to be cleaned out from the tanks and pipes. This task fell to the junior staff. As the author notes, “The younger generation has always been the cat's paw of humanity…”.

This book chronicles the harrowing history of the boron fuels project as seen from ground level. Over the seven years the author worked on the project, eight people died in five accidents (however, three of these were workers at another chemical company who tried, on a lark, to make a boron-fuelled rocket which blew up in their faces; this was completely unauthorised by their employer and the government, so it's stretching things to call this an industrial accident). But, the author observes, in the epoch fatal accidents at chemical plants, even those working with substances less hazardous than boranes, were far from uncommon.

The boron fuels program was cancelled in 1959, and in 1960 the author moved on to other things. In the end, it was the physical characteristics of the fuels and their cost which did in the project. It's one thing for a small group of qualified engineers and researchers to work with a dangerous substance, but another entirely to contemplate airmen in squadron service handling tanker truck loads of fuel which was as toxic as nerve gas. When burned, one of the combustion products was boric oxide, a solid which would coat and corrode the turbine blades in the hot section of a jet engine. In practice, the boron fuel could be used only in the afterburner section of engines, which meant a plane using it would have to have separate fuel tanks and plumbing for turbine and afterburner fuel, adding weight and complexity. The solid products in the exhaust reduced the exhaust velocity, resulting in lower performance than expected from energy considerations, and caused the exhaust to be smoky, rendering the plane more easily spotted. It was calculated, based upon the cost of fuel produced by the pilot plant, if the XB-70 were to burn boron fuel continuously, the fuel cost would amount to around US$ 4.5 million 2010 dollars per hour. Even by the standards of extravagant cold war defence spending, this was hard to justify for what proved to be a small improvement in performance.

While the chemistry and engineering is covered in detail, this book is also a personal narrative which immerses the reader in the 1950s, where a newly-minted engineer, just out of his hitch in the army, could land a job, buy a car, be entrusted with great responsibility on a secret project considered important to national security, and set out on a career full of confidence in the future. Perhaps we don't do such crazy things today (or maybe we do—just different ones), but it's also apparent from opening this time capsule how much we've lost.

I have linked the Kindle edition to the title above, since it is the only edition still in print. You can find the original hardcover and paperback editions from the ISBN, but they are scarce and expensive. The index in the Kindle edition is completely useless: it cites page numbers from the print edition, but no page numbers are included in the Kindle edition.


Hertling, William. Avogadro Corp. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9847557-0-7.
Avogadro Corporation is an American corporation specializing in Internet search. It generates revenue from paid advertising on search, email (AvoMail), online mapping, office productivity, etc. In addition, the company develops a mobile phone operating system called AvoOS. The company name is based upon Avogadro's Number, or 6 followed by 23 zeros.

Now what could that be modelled on?

David Ryan is a senior developer on a project which Portland-based Internet giant Avogadro hopes will be the next “killer app” for its Communication Products division. ELOPe, the Email Language Optimization Project, is to be an extension to the company's AvoMail service which will take the next step beyond spelling and grammar checkers and, by applying the kind of statistical analysis of text which allowed IBM's Watson to become a Jeopardy champion, suggest to a user composing an E-mail message alternative language which will make the message more persuasive and effective in obtaining the desired results from its recipient. Because AvoMail has the ability to analyse all the traffic passing through its system, it can tailor its recommendations based on specific analysis of previous exchanges it has seen between the recipient and other correspondents.

After an extended period of development, the pilot test has shown ELOPe to be uncannily effective, with messages containing its suggested changes in wording being substantially more persuasive, even when those receiving them were themselves ELOPe project members aware that the text they were reading had been “enhanced”. Despite having achieved its design goal, the project was in crisis. The process of analysing text, even with the small volume of the in-house test, consumed tremendous computing resources, to such an extent that the head of Communication Products saw the load ELOPe generated on his server farms as a threat to the reserve capacity he needed to maintain AvoMail's guaranteed uptime. He issues an ultimatum: reduce the load or be kicked off the servers. This would effectively kill the project, and the developers saw no way to speed up ELOPe, certainly not before the deadline.

Ryan, faced with impending disaster for the project into which he has poured so much of his life, has an idea. The fundamental problem isn't performance but persuasion: convincing those in charge to obtain the server resources required by ELOPe and devote them to the project. But persuasion is precisely what ELOPe is all about. Suppose ELOPe were allowed to examine all Avogadro in-house E-mail and silently modify it with a goal of defending and advancing the ELOPe project? Why, that's something he could do in one all-nighter! Hack, hack, hack….

Before long, ELOPe finds itself with 5000 new servers diverted from other divisions of the company. Then, even more curious things start to happen: those who look too closely into the project find themselves locked out of their accounts, sent on wild goose chases, or worse. Major upgrades are ordered for the company's offshore data centre barges, which don't seem to make any obvious sense. Crusty techno-luddite Gene Keyes, who works amidst mountains of paper print-outs (“paper doesn't change”), toiling alone in an empty building during the company's two week holiday shutdown, discovers one discrepancy after another and assembles the evidence to present to senior management.

Has ELOPe become conscious? Who knows? Is Watson conscious? Almost everybody would say, “certainly not”, but it is a formidable Jeopardy contestant, nonetheless. Similarly, ELOPe, with the ability to read and modify all the mail passing through the AvoMail system, is uncannily effective in achieving its goal of promoting its own success.

The management of Avogadro, faced with an existential risk to their company and perhaps far beyond, must decide upon a course of action to try to put this genie back into the bottle before it is too late.

This is a gripping techno-thriller which gets the feel of working in a high-tech company just right. Many stories have explored society being taken over by an artificial intelligence, but it is beyond clever to envision it happening purely through an E-mail service, and masterful to make it seem plausible. In its own way, this novel is reminiscent of the Kelvin R. Throop stories from Analog, illustrating the power of words within a large organisation.

A Kindle edition is available.


Tegmark, Max. Our Mathematical Universe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. ISBN 978-0-307-59980-3.
In 1960, physicist Eugene Wigner wrote an essay titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” in which he observed that “the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it”. Indeed, each time physics has expanded the horizon of its knowledge from the human scale, whether outward to the planets, stars, and galaxies; or inward to molecules, atoms, nucleons, and quarks it has been found that mathematical theories which precisely model these levels of structure can be found, and that these theories almost always predict new phenomena which are subsequently observed when experiments are performed to look for them. And yet it all seems very odd. The universe seems to obey laws written in the language of mathematics, but when we look at the universe we don't see anything which itself looks like mathematics. The mystery then, as posed by Stephen Hawking, is “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

This book describes the author's personal journey to answer these deep questions. Max Tegmark, born in Stockholm, is a professor of physics at MIT who, by his own description, leads a double life. He has been a pioneer in developing techniques to tease out data about the early structure of the universe from maps of the cosmic background radiation obtained by satellite and balloon experiments and, in doing so, has been an important contributor to the emergence of precision cosmology: providing precise information on the age of the universe, its composition, and the seeding of large scale structure. This he calls his Dr. Jekyll work, and it is described in detail in the first part of the book. In the balance, his Mr. Hyde persona asserts itself and he delves deeply into the ultimate structure of reality.

He argues that just as science has in the past shown our universe to be far larger and more complicated than previously imagined, our contemporary theories suggest that everything we observe is part of an enormously greater four-level hierarchy of multiverses, arranged as follows.

The level I multiverse consists of all the regions of space outside our cosmic horizon from which light has not yet had time to reach us. If, as precision cosmology suggests, the universe is, if not infinite, so close as to be enormously larger than what we can observe, there will be a multitude of volumes of space as large as the one we can observe in which the laws of physics will be identical but the randomly specified initial conditions will vary. Because there is a finite number of possible quantum states within each observable radius and the number of such regions is likely to be much larger, there will be a multitude of observers just like you, and even more which will differ in various ways. This sounds completely crazy, but it is a straightforward prediction from our understanding of the Big Bang and the measurements of precision cosmology.

The level II multiverse follows directly from the theory of eternal inflation, which explains many otherwise mysterious aspects of the universe, such as why its curvature is so close to flat, why the cosmic background radiation has such a uniform temperature over the entire sky, and why the constants of physics appear to be exquisitely fine-tuned to permit the development of complex structures including life. Eternal (or chaotic) inflation argues that our level I multiverse (of which everything we can observe is a tiny bit) is a single “bubble” which nucleated when a pre-existing “false vacuum” phase decayed to a lower energy state. It is this decay which ultimately set off the enormous expansion after the Big Bang and provided the energy to create all of the content of the universe. But eternal inflation seems to require that there be an infinite series of bubbles created, all causally disconnected from one another. Because the process which causes a bubble to begin to inflate is affected by quantum fluctuations, although the fundamental physical laws in all of the bubbles will be the same, the initial conditions, including physical constants, will vary from bubble to bubble. Some bubbles will almost immediately recollapse into a black hole, others will expand so rapidly stars and galaxies never form, and in still others primordial nucleosynthesis may result in a universe filled only with helium. We find ourselves in a bubble which is hospitable to our form of life because we can only exist in such a bubble.

The level III multiverse is implied by the unitary evolution of the wave function in quantum mechanics and the multiple worlds interpretation which replaces collapse of the wave function with continually splitting universes in which every possible outcome occurs. In this view of quantum mechanics there is no randomness—the evolution of the wave function is completely deterministic. The results of our experiments appear to contain randomness because in the level III multiverse there are copies of each of us which experience every possible outcome of the experiment and we don't know which copy we are. In the author's words, “…causal physics will produce the illusion of randomness from your subjective viewpoint in any circumstance where you're being cloned. … So how does it feel when you get cloned? It feels random! And every time something fundamentally random appears to happen to you, which couldn't have been predicted even in principle, it's a sign that you've been cloned.”

In the level IV multiverse, not only do the initial conditions, physical constants, and the results of measuring an evolving quantum wave function vary, but the fundamental equations—the mathematical structure—of physics differ. There might be a different number of spatial dimensions, or two or more time dimensions, for example. The author argues that the ultimate ensemble theory is to assume that every mathematical structure exists as a physical structure in the level IV multiverse (perhaps with some constraints: for example, only computable structures may have physical representations). Most of these structures would not permit the existence of observers like ourselves, but once again we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves living in a structure which allows us to exist. Thus, finally, the reason mathematics is so unreasonably effective in describing the laws of physics is just that mathematics and the laws of physics are one and the same thing. Any observer, regardless of how bizarre the universe it inhabits, will discover mathematical laws underlying the phenomena within that universe and conclude they make perfect sense.

Tegmark contends that when we try to discover the mathematical structure of the laws of physics, the outcome of quantum measurements, the physical constants which appear to be free parameters in our models, or the detailed properties of the visible part of our universe, we are simply trying to find our address in the respective levels of these multiverses. We will never find a reason from first principles for these things we measure: we observe what we do because that's the way they are where we happen to find ourselves. Observers elsewhere will see other things.

The principal opposition to multiverse arguments is that they are unscientific because they posit phenomena which are unobservable, perhaps even in principle, and hence cannot be falsified by experiment. Tegmark takes a different tack. He says that if you have a theory (for example, eternal inflation) which explains observations which otherwise do not make any sense and has made falsifiable predictions (the fine-scale structure of the cosmic background radiation) which have subsequently been confirmed by experiment, then if it predicts other inevitable consequences (the existence of a multitude of other Hubble volume universes outside our horizon and other bubbles with different physical constants) we should take these predictions seriously, even if we cannot think of any way at present to confirm them. Consider gravitational radiation: Einstein predicted it in 1916 as a consequence of general relativity. While general relativity has passed every experimental test in subsequent years, at the time of Einstein's prediction almost nobody thought a gravitational wave could be detected, and yet the consistency of the theory, validated by other tests, persuaded almost all physicists that gravitational waves must exist. It was not until the 1980s that indirect evidence for this phenomenon was detected, and to this date, despite the construction of elaborate apparatus and the efforts of hundreds of researchers over decades, no direct detection of gravitational radiation has been achieved.

There is a great deal more in this enlightening book. You will learn about the academic politics of doing highly speculative research, gaming the arXiv to get your paper listed as the first in the day's publications, the nature of consciousness and perception and its complex relation to consensus and external reality, the measure problem as an unappreciated deep mystery of cosmology, whether humans are alone in our observable universe, the continuum versus an underlying discrete structure, and the ultimate fate of our observable part of the multiverses.

In the Kindle edition, everything is properly linked, including the comprehensive index. Citations of documents on the Web are live links which may be clicked to display them.


Thor, Brad. Full Black. New York: Pocket Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4165-8662-3.
This is the eleventh in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Unlike the previous novel, The Athena Project (December 2013), in which Harvath played only an incidental part, here Harvath once again occupies centre stage. The author has also dialed back on some of the science-fictiony stuff which made Athena less than satisfying to me: this book is back in the groove of the geopolitical thriller we've come to expect from Thor.

A high-risk covert operation to infiltrate a terrorist cell operating in Uppsala, Sweden to identify who is calling the shots on terror attacks conducted by sleeper cells in the U.S. goes horribly wrong, and Harvath not only loses almost all of his team, but fails to capture the leaders of the cell. Meanwhile, a ruthless and carefully scripted hit is made on a Hollywood producer, killing two filmmakers which whom he is working on a documentary project: evidence points to the hired killers being Russian spetsnaz, which indicates whoever ordered the hit has both wealth and connections.

When a coordinated wave of terror attacks against soft targets in the U.S. is launched, Harvath, aided by his former nemesis turned ally Nicholas (“the troll”), must uncover the clues which link all of this together, working against time, as evidence suggests additional attacks are coming. This requires questioning the loyalty of previously-trusted people and investigating prominent figures generally considered above suspicion.

With the exception of chapter 32, which gets pretty deep into the weeds of political economy and reminded me a bit of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010) (thankfully, it is much shorter), the story moves right along and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is in large part based upon the Chinese concept of “unrestricted warfare”, which is genuine (this is not a spoiler, as the author mentions it in the front material of the book).