January 2015

Farmelo, Graham. The Strangest Man. New York: Basic Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-465-02210-6.
Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was born in 1902 in Bristol, England. His father, Charles, was a Swiss-French immigrant who made his living as a French teacher at a local school and as a private tutor in French. His mother, Florence (Flo), had given up her job as a librarian upon marrying Charles. The young Paul and his older brother Felix found themselves growing up in a very unusual, verging upon bizarre, home environment. Their father was as strict a disciplinarian at home as in the schoolroom, and spoke only French to his children, requiring them to answer in that language and abruptly correcting them if they committed any faute de français. Flo spoke to the children only in English, and since the Diracs rarely received visitors at home, before going to school Paul got the idea that men and women spoke different languages. At dinner time Charles and Paul would eat in the dining room, speaking French exclusively (with any error swiftly chastised) while Flo, Felix, and younger daughter Betty ate in the kitchen, speaking English. Paul quickly learned that the less he said, the fewer opportunities for error and humiliation, and he traced his famous reputation for taciturnity to his childhood experience.

(It should be noted that the only account we have of Dirac's childhood experience comes from himself, much later in life. He made no attempt to conceal the extent he despised his father [who was respected by his colleagues and acquaintances in Bristol], and there is no way to know whether Paul exaggerated or embroidered upon the circumstances of his childhood.)

After a primary education in which he was regarded as a sound but not exceptional pupil, Paul followed his brother Felix into the Merchant Venturers' School, a Bristol technical school ranked among the finest in the country. There he quickly distinguished himself, ranking near the top in most subjects. The instruction was intensely practical, eschewing Latin, Greek, and music in favour of mathematics, science, geometric and mechanical drawing, and practical skills such as operating machine tools. Dirac learned physics and mathematics with the engineer's eye to “getting the answer out” as opposed to finding the most elegant solution to the problem. He then pursued his engineering studies at Bristol University, where he excelled in mathematics but struggled with experiments.

Dirac graduated with a first-class honours degree in engineering, only to find the British economy in a terrible post-war depression, the worst economic downturn since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Unable to find employment as an engineer, he returned to Bristol University to do a second degree in mathematics, where it was arranged he could skip the first year of the program and pay no tuition fees. Dirac quickly established himself as the star of the mathematics programme, and also attended lectures about the enigmatic quantum theory.

His father had been working in the background to secure a position at Cambridge for Paul, and after cobbling together scholarships and a gift from his father, Dirac arrived at the university in October 1923 to pursue a doctorate in theoretical physics. Dirac would already have seemed strange to his fellow students. While most were scions of the upper class, classically trained, with plummy accents, Dirac knew no Latin or Greek, spoke with a Bristol accent, and approached problems as an engineer or mathematician, not a physicist. He had hoped to study Einstein's general relativity, the discovery of which had first interested him in theoretical physics, but his supervisor was interested in quantum mechanics and directed his work into that field.

It was an auspicious time for a talented researcher to undertake work in quantum theory. The “old quantum theory”, elaborated in the early years of the 20th century, had explained puzzles like the distribution of energy in heat radiation and the photoelectric effect, but by the 1920s it was clear that nature was much more subtle. For example, the original quantum theory failed to explain even the spectral lines of hydrogen, the simplest atom. Dirac began working on modest questions related to quantum theory, but his life was changed when he read Heisenberg's 1925 paper which is now considered one of the pillars of the new quantum mechanics. After initially dismissing the paper as overly complicated and artificial, he came to believe that it pointed the way forward, dismissing Bohr's concept of atoms like little solar systems in favour of a probability density function which gives the probability an electron will be observed in a given position. This represented not just a change in the model of the atom but the discarding entirely of models in favour of a mathematical formulation which permitted calculating what could be observed without providing any mechanism whatsoever explaining how it worked.

After reading and fully appreciating the significance of Heisenberg's work, Dirac embarked on one of the most productive bursts of discovery in the history of modern physics. Between 1925 and 1933 he published one foundational paper after another. His Ph.D. in 1926, the first granted by Cambridge for work in quantum mechanics, linked Heisenberg's theory to the classical mechanics he had learned as an engineer and provided a framework which made Heisenberg's work more accessible. Scholarly writing did not come easily to Dirac, but he mastered the art to such an extent that his papers are still read today as examples of pellucid exposition. At a time when many contributions to quantum mechanics were rough-edged and difficult to understand even by specialists, Dirac's papers were, in the words of Freeman Dyson, “like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another.”

In 1928, Dirac took the first step to unify quantum mechanics and special relativity in the Dirac equation. The consequences of this equation led Dirac to predict the existence of a positively-charged electron, which had never been observed. This was the first time a theoretical physicist had predicted the existence of a new particle. This “positron” was observed in debris from cosmic ray collisions in 1932. The Dirac equation also interpreted the spin (angular momentum) of particles as a relativistic phenomenon.

Dirac, along with Enrico Fermi, elaborated the statistics of particles with half-integral spin (now called “fermions”). The behaviour of ensembles of one such particle, the electron, is essential to the devices you use to read this article. He took the first steps toward a relativistic theory of light and matter and coined the name, “quantum electrodynamics”, for the field, but never found a theory sufficiently simple and beautiful to satisfy himself. He published The Principles of Quantum Mechanics in 1930, for many years the standard textbook on the subject and still read today. He worked out the theory of magnetic monopoles (not detected to this date) and speculated on the origin and possible links between large numbers in physics and cosmology.

The significance of Dirac's work was recognised at the time. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1930, became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (Newton's chair) at Cambridge in 1932, and shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger. After rejecting a knighthood because he disliked being addressed by his first name, he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1973. He is commemorated by a plaque in Westminster Abbey, close to that of Newton; the plaque bears his name and the Dirac equation, the only equation so honoured.

Many physicists consider Dirac the second greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century, after Einstein. While Einstein produced great leaps of intellectual achievement in fields neglected by others, Dirac, working alone, contributed to the grand edifice of quantum mechanics, which occupied many of the most talented theorists of a generation. You have to dig a bit deeper into the history of quantum mechanics to fully appreciate Dirac's achievement, which probably accounts for his name not being as well known as it deserves.

There is much more to Dirac, all described in this extensively-documented scientific biography. While declining to join the British atomic weapons project during World War II because he refused to work as part of a collaboration, he spent much of the war doing consulting work for the project on his own, including inventing a new technique for isotope separation. (Dirac's process proved less efficient that those eventually chosen by the Manhattan project and was not used.) As an extreme introvert, nobody expected him to ever marry, and he astonished even his closest associates when he married the sister of his fellow physicist Eugene Wigner, Manci, a Hungarian divorcée with two children by her first husband. Manci was as extroverted as Dirac was reserved, and their marriage in 1937 lasted until Dirac's death in 1984. They had two daughters together, and lived a remarkably normal family life. Dirac, who disdained philosophy in his early years, became intensely interested in the philosophy of science later in life, even arguing that mathematical beauty, not experimental results, could best guide theorists to the best expression of the laws of nature.

Paul Dirac was a very complicated man, and this is a complicated and occasionally self-contradictory biography (but the contradiction is in the subject's life, not the fault of the biographer). This book provides a glimpse of a unique intellect whom even many of his closest associates never really felt they completely knew.


Mazur, Joseph. Enlightening Symbols. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0-691-15463-3.
Sometimes an invention is so profound and significant yet apparently obvious in retrospect that it is difficult to imagine how people around the world struggled over millennia to discover it, and how slowly it was to diffuse from its points of origin into general use. Such is the case for our modern decimal system of positional notation for numbers and the notation for algebra and other fields of mathematics which permits rapid calculation and transformation of expressions. This book, written with the extensive source citations of a scholarly work yet accessible to any reader familiar with arithmetic and basic algebra, traces the often murky origins of this essential part of our intellectual heritage.

From prehistoric times humans have had the need to count things, for example, the number of sheep in a field. This could be done by establishing a one-to-one correspondence between the sheep and something else more portable such as one's fingers (for a small flock), or pebbles kept in a sack. To determine whether a sheep was missing, just remove a pebble for each sheep and if any remained in the sack, that indicates how many are absent. At a slightly more abstract level, one could make tally marks on a piece of bark or clay tablet, one for each sheep. But all of this does not imply number as an abstraction independent of individual items of some kind or another. Ancestral humans don't seem to have required more than the simplest notion of numbers: until the middle of the 20th century several tribes of Australian aborigines had no words for numbers in their languages at all, but counted things by making marks in the sand. Anthropologists discovered tribes in remote areas of the Americas, Pacific Islands, and Australia whose languages had no words for numbers greater than four.

With the emergence of settled human populations and the increasingly complex interactions of trade between villages and eventually cities, a more sophisticated notion of numbers was required. A merchant might need to compute how many kinds of one good to exchange for another and to keep records of his inventory of various items. The earliest known written records of numerical writing are Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets dating from around 3400 B.C. These tablets show number symbols formed from two distinct kinds of marks pressed into wet clay with a stylus. While the smaller numbers seem clearly evolved from tally marks, larger numbers are formed by complicated combinations of the two symbols representing numbers from 1 to 59. Larger numbers were written as groups of powers of 60 separated by spaces. This was the first known instance of a positional number system, but there is no evidence it was used for complicated calculations—just as a means of recording quantities.

Ancient civilisations: Egypt, Hebrew, Greece, China, Rome, and the Aztecs and Mayas in the Western Hemisphere all invented ways of writing numbers, some sophisticated and capable of representing large quantities. Many of these systems were additive: they used symbols, sometimes derived from letters in their alphabets, and composed numbers by writing symbols which summed to the total. To write the number 563, a Greek would write “φξγ”, where φ=500, ξ=60, and γ=3. By convention, numbers were written with letters in descending order of the value they represented, but the system was not positional. This made the system clumsy for representing large numbers, reusing letters with accent marks to represent thousands and an entirely different convention for ten thousands.

How did such advanced civilisations get along using number systems in which it is almost impossible to compute? Just imagine a Roman faced with multiplying MDXLIX by XLVII (1549 × 47)—where do you start? You don't: all of these civilisations used some form of mechanical computational aid: an abacus, counting rods, stones in grooves, and so on to actually manipulate numbers. The Sun Zi Suan Jing, dating from fifth century China, provides instructions (algorithms) for multiplication, division, and square and cube root extraction using bamboo counting sticks (or written symbols representing them). The result of the computation was then written using the numerals of the language. The written language was thus a way to represent numbers, but not compute with them.

Many of the various forms of numbers and especially computational tools such as the abacus came ever-so-close to stumbling on the place value system, but it was in India, probably before the third century B.C. that a positional decimal number system including zero as a place holder, with digit forms recognisably ancestral to those we use today emerged. This was a breakthrough in two regards. Now, by memorising tables of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division and simple algorithms once learned by schoolchildren before calculators supplanted that part of their brains, it was possible to directly compute from written numbers. (Despite this, the abacus remained in common use.) But, more profoundly, this was a universal representation of whole numbers. Earlier number systems (with the possible exception of that invented by Archimedes in The Sand Reckoner [but never used practically]) either had a limit on the largest number they could represent or required cumbersome and/or lengthy conventions for large numbers. The Indian number system needed only ten symbols to represent any non-negative number, and only the single convention that each digit in a number represented how many of that power of ten depending on its position.

Knowledge diffused slowly in antiquity, and despite India being on active trade routes, it was not until the 13th century A.D. that Fibonacci introduced the new number system, which had been transmitted via Islamic scholars writing in Arabic, to Europe in his Liber Abaci. This book not only introduced the new number system, it provided instructions for a variety of practical computations and applications to higher mathematics. As revolutionary as this book was, in an era of hand-copied manuscripts, its influence spread very slowly, and it was not until the 16th century that the new numbers became almost universally used. The author describes this protracted process, about which a great deal of controversy remains to the present day.

Just as the decimal positional number system was becoming established in Europe, another revolution in notation began which would transform mathematics, how it was done, and our understanding of the meaning of numbers. Algebra, as we now understand it, was known in antiquity, but it was expressed in a rhetorical way—in words. For example, proposition 7 of book 2 of Euclid's Elements states:

If a straight line be cut at random, the square of the whole is equal to the squares on the segments and twice the rectangle contained by the segments.

Now, given such a problem, Euclid or any of those following in his tradition would draw a diagram and proceed to prove from the axioms of plane geometry the correctness of the statement. But it isn't obvious how to apply this identity to other problems, or how it illustrates the behaviour of general numbers. Today, we'd express the problem and proceed as follows:

    (a+b)^2 & = & (a+b)(a+b) \\
    & = & a(a+b)+b(a+b) \\
    & = & aa+ab+ba+bb \\
    & = & a^2+2ab+b^2 \\
    & = & a^2+b^2+2ab

Once again, faced with the word problem, it's difficult to know where to begin, but once expressed in symbolic form, it can be solved by applying rules of algebra which many master before reaching high school. Indeed, the process of simplifying such an equation is so mechanical that computer tools are readily available to do so.

Or consider the following brain-twister posed in the 7th century A.D. about the Greek mathematician and father of algebra Diophantus: how many years did he live?

“Here lies Diophantus,” the wonder behold.
Through art algebraic, the stone tells how old;
“God gave him his boyhood one-sixth of his life,
One twelfth more as youth while whiskers grew rife;
And then one-seventh ere marriage begun;
In five years there came a bounding new son.
Alas, the dear child of master and sage
After attaining half the measure of his father's life chill fate took him.
After consoling his fate by the science of numbers for four years, he ended his life.”

Oh, go ahead, give it a try before reading on!

Today, we'd read through the problem and write a system of two simultaneous equations, where x is the age of Diophantus at his death and y the number of years his son lived. Then:

    x & = & (\frac{1}{6}+\frac{1}{12}+\frac{1}{7})x+5+y+4 \\
    y & = & \frac{x}{2}

Plug the second equation into the first, do a little algebraic symbol twiddling, and the answer, 84, pops right out. Note that not only are the rules for solving this equation the same as for any other, with a little practice it is easy to read the word problem and write down the equations ready to solve. Go back and re-read the original problem and the equations and you'll see how straightforwardly they follow.

Once you have transformed a mass of words into symbols, they invite you to discover new ways in which they apply. What is the solution of the equation x+4=0? In antiquity many would have said the equation is meaningless: there is no number you can add to four to get zero. But that's because their conception of number was too limited: negative numbers such as −4 are completely valid and obey all the laws of algebra. By admitting them, we discovered we'd overlooked half of the real numbers. What about the solution to the equation x² + 4 = 0? This was again considered ill-formed, or imaginary, since the square of any real number, positive or negative, is positive. Another leap of imagination, admitting the square root of minus one to the family of numbers, expanded the number line into the complex plane, yielding the answer 2i as we'd now express it, and extending our concept of number into one which is now fundamental not only in abstract mathematics but also science and engineering. And in recognising negative and complex numbers, we'd come closer to unifying algebra and geometry by bringing rotation into the family of numbers.

This book explores the groping over centuries toward a symbolic representation of mathematics which hid the specifics while revealing the commonality underlying them. As one who learned mathematics during the height of the “new math” craze, I can't recall a time when I didn't think of mathematics as a game of symbolic transformation of expressions which may or may not have any connection with the real world. But what one discovers in reading this book is that while this is a concept very easy to brainwash into a 7th grader, it was extraordinarily difficult for even some of the most brilliant humans ever to have lived to grasp in the first place. When Newton invented calculus, for example, he always expressed his “fluxions” as derivatives of time, and did not write of the general derivative of a function of arbitrary variables.

Also, notation is important. Writing something in a more expressive and easily manipulated way can reveal new insights about it. We benefit not just from the discoveries of those in the past, but from those who created the symbolic language in which we now express them.

This book is a treasure chest of information about how the language of science came to be. We encounter a host of characters along the way, not just great mathematicians and scientists, but scoundrels, master forgers, chauvinists, those who preserved precious manuscripts and those who burned them, all leading to the symbolic language in which we so effortlessly write and do mathematics today.


Osborn, Stephanie. The Case of the Displaced Detective Omnibus. Kingsport, TN: Twilight Times Books, 2013. ASIN B00FOR5LJ4.
This book, available only for the Kindle, collects the first four novels of the author's Displaced Detective series. The individual books included here are The Arrival, At Speed, The Rendlesham Incident, and Endings and Beginnings. Each pair of books, in turn, comprises a single story, the first two The Case of the Displaced Detective and the latter two The Case of the Cosmological Killer. If you read only the first of either pair, it will be obvious that the story has been left in the middle with little resolved. In the trade paperback edition, the four books total more than 1100 pages, so this omnibus edition will keep you busy for a while.

Dr. Skye Chadwick is a hyperspatial physicist and chief scientist of Project Tesseract. Research into the multiverse and brane world solutions of string theory has revealed that our continuum—all of the spacetime we inhabit—is just one of an unknown number adjacent to one another in a higher dimensional membrane (“brane”), and that while every continuum is different, those close to one another in the hyperdimensional space tend to be similar. Project Tesseract, a highly classified military project operating from an underground laboratory in Colorado, is developing hardware based on advanced particle physics which allows passively observing or even interacting with these other continua (or parallel universes).

The researchers are amazed to discover that in some continua characters which are fictional in our world actually exist, much as they were described in literature. Perhaps Heinlein and Borges were right in speculating that fiction exists in parallel universes, and maybe that's where some of authors' ideas come from. In any case, exploration of Continuum 114 has revealed it to be one of those in which Sherlock Holmes is a living, breathing man. Chadwick and her team decide to investigate one of the pivotal and enigmatic episodes in the Holmes literature, the fight at Reichenbach Falls. As Holmes and Moriarty battle, it is apparent that both will fall to their death. Chadwick acts impulsively and pulls Holmes from the brink of the cliff, back through the Tesseract, into our continuum. In an instant, Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective of 1891 London, finds himself in twenty-first century Colorado, where he previously existed only in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Holmes finds much to adapt to in this often bewildering world, but then he was always a shrewd observer and master of disguise, so few people would be as well equipped. At the same time, the Tesseract project faces a crisis, as a disaster and subsequent investigation reveals the possibility of sabotage and an espionage ring operating within the project. A trusted, outside investigator with no ties to the project is needed, and who better than Holmes, who owes his life to it? With Chadwick at his side, they dig into the mystery surrounding the project.

As they work together, they find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, and Holmes must confront his fear that emotional involvement will impair the logical functioning of his mind upon which his career is founded. Chadwick, learning to become a talented investigator in her own right, fears that a deeper than professional involvement with Holmes will harm her own emerging talents.

I found that this long story started out just fine, and indeed I recommended it to several people after finishing the first of the four novels collected here. To me, it began to run off the rails in the second book and didn't get any better in the remaining two (which begin with Holmes and Chadwick an established detective team, summoned to help with a perplexing mystery in Britain which may have consequences for all of the myriad contunua in the multiverse). The fundamental problem is that these books are trying to do too much all at the same time. They can't decide whether they're science fiction, mystery, detective procedural, or romance, and as they jump back and forth among the genres, so little happens in the ones being neglected at the moment that the parallel story lines develop at a glacial pace. My estimation is that an editor with a sharp red pencil could cut this material by 50–60% and end up with a better book, omitting nothing central to the story and transforming what often seemed a tedious slog into a page-turner.

Sherlock Holmes is truly one of the great timeless characters in literature. He can be dropped into any epoch, any location, and, in this case, anywhere in the multiverse, and rapidly start to get to the bottom of the situation while entertaining the reader looking over his shoulder. There is nothing wrong with the premise of these books and there are interesting ideas and characters in them, but the execution just isn't up to the potential of the concept. The science fiction part sometimes sinks to the techno-babble level of Star Trek (“Higgs boson injection beginning…”). I am no prude, but I found the repeated and explicit sex scenes a bit much (tedious, actually), and they make the books unsuitable for younger readers for whom the original Sherlock Holmes stories are a pure delight. If you're interested in the idea, I'd suggest buying just the first book separately and see how you like it before deciding to proceed, bearing in mind that I found it the best of the four.


February 2015

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Testament of James. Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9670259-4-0.
The author is a veteran newspaperman and was arguably the most libertarian writer in the mainstream media during his long career with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He earlier turned his hand to fiction in 2005's The Black Arrow (May 2005), a delightful libertarian superhero fantasy. In the present volume he tells an engaging tale which weaves together mystery, the origins of Christianity, and the curious subculture of rare book collectors and dealers.

Matthew Hunter is the proprietor of a used book shop in Providence, Rhode Island, dealing both in routine merchandise but also rare volumes obtained from around the world and sold to a network of collectors who trust Hunter's judgement and fair pricing. While Hunter is on a trip to Britain, an employee of the store is found dead under suspicious circumstances, while waiting after hours to receive a visitor from Egypt with a manuscript to be evaluated and sold.

Before long, a series of curious, shady, and downright intimidating people start arriving at the bookshop, all seeking to buy the manuscript which, it appears, was never delivered. The person who was supposed to bring it to the shop has vanished, and his brothers have come to try to find him. Hunter and his friend Chantal Stevens, ex-military who has agreed to help out in the shop, find themselves in the middle of the quest for one of the most legendary, and considered mythical, rare books of all time, The Testament of James, reputed to have been written by James the Just, the (half-)brother of Jesus Christ. (His precise relationship to Jesus is a matter of dispute among Christian sects and scholars.) This Testament (not to be confused with the Epistle of James in the New Testament, also sometimes attributed to James the Just), would have been the most contemporary record of the life of Jesus, well predating the Gospels.

Matthew and Chantal seek to find the book, rescue the seller, and get to the bottom of a mystery dating from the origin of Christianity. Initially dubious such a book might exist, Matthew concludes that so many people would not be trying so hard to lay their hands on it if there weren't something there.

A good part of the book is a charming and often humorous look inside the world of rare books, one with which the author is clearly well-acquainted. There is intrigue, a bit of mysticism, and the occasional libertarian zinger aimed at a deserving target. As the story unfolds, an alternative interpretation of the life and work of Jesus and the history of the early Church emerges, which explains why so many players are so desperately seeking the lost book.

As a mystery, this book works superbly. Its view of “bookmen” (hunters, sellers, and collectors) is a delight. Orthodox Christians (by which I mean those adhering to the main Christian denominations, not just those called “Orthodox”) may find some of the content blasphemous, but before they explode in red-faced sputtering, recall that one can never be sure about the provenance and authenticity of any ancient manuscript. Some of the language and situations are not suitable for young readers, but by the standards of contemporary mass-market fiction, the book is pretty tame. There are essentially no spelling or grammatical errors. To be clear, this is entirely a work of fiction: there is no Testament of James apart from this book, in which it's an invention of the author. A bibliography of works providing alternative (which some will consider heretical) interpretations of the origins of Christianity is provided. You can read an excerpt from the novel at the author's Web log; continue to follow the links in the excerpts to read the first third—20,000 words—of the book for free.


Rawles, James Wesley. Tools for Survival. New York: Plume, 2014. ISBN 978-0-452-29812-5.
Suppose one day the music stops. We all live, more or less, as part of an intricately-connected web of human society. The water that comes out of the faucet when we open the tap depends (for the vast majority of people) on pumps powered by an electrical grid that spans a continent. So does the removal of sewage when you flush the toilet. The typical city in developed nations has only about three days' supply of food on hand in stores and local warehouses and depends upon a transportation infrastructure as well as computerised inventory and payment systems to function. This system has been optimised over decades to be extremely efficient, but at the same time it has become dangerously fragile against any perturbation. A financial crisis which disrupts just-in-time payments, a large-scale and protracted power outage due to a solar flare or EMP attack, disruption of data networks by malicious attacks, or social unrest can rapidly halt the flow of goods and services upon which hundreds of millions of people depend and rely upon without rarely giving a thought to what life might be like if one day they weren't there.

The author, founder of the essential SurvivalBlog site, has addressed such scenarios in his fiction, which is highly recommended. Here the focus is less speculative, and entirely factual and practical. What are the essential skills and tools one needs to survive in what amounts to a 19th century homestead? If the grid (in all senses) goes down, those who wish to survive the massive disruptions and chaos which will result may find themselves in the position of those on the American frontier in the 1870s: forced into self-reliance for all of the necessities of life, and compelled to use the simple, often manual, tools which their ancestors used—tools which can in many cases be fabricated and repaired on the homestead.

The author does not assume a total collapse to the nineteenth century. He envisions that those who have prepared to ride out a discontinuity in civilisation will have equipped themselves with rudimentary solar electric power and electronic communication systems. But at the same time, people will be largely on their own when it comes to gardening, farming, food preservation, harvesting trees for firewood and lumber, first aid and dental care, self-defence, metalworking, and a multitude of other tasks. As always, the author stresses, it isn't the tools you have but rather the skills between your ears that determine whether you'll survive. You may have the most comprehensive medical kit imaginable, but if nobody knows how to stop the bleeding from a minor injury, disinfect the wound, and suture it, what today is a short trip to the emergency room might be life-threatening.

Here is what I took away from this book. Certainly, you want to have on hand what you need to deal with immediate threats (for example, firefighting when the fire department does not respond, self-defence when there is no sheriff, a supply of water and food so you don't become a refugee if supplies are interrupted, and a knowledge of sanitation so you don't succumb to disease when the toilet doesn't flush). If you have skills in a particular area, for example, if you're a doctor, nurse, or emergency medical technician, by all means lay in a supply of what you need not just to help yourself and your family, but your neighbours. The same goes if you're a welder, carpenter, plumber, shoemaker, or smith. It just isn't reasonable, however, to expect any given family to acquire all the skills and tools (even if they could afford them, where would they put them?) to survive on their own. Far more important is to make the acquaintance of like-minded people in the vicinity who have the diverse set of skills required to survive together. The ability to build and maintain such a community may be the most important survival skill of all.

This book contains a wealth of resources available on the Web (most presented as shortened URLs, not directly linked in the Kindle edition) and a great deal of wisdom about which I find little or nothing to disagree. For the most part the author uses quaint units like inches, pounds, and gallons, but he is writing for a mostly American audience. Please take to heart the safety warnings: it is very easy to kill or gravely injure yourself when woodworking, metal fabricating, welding, doing electrical work, or felling trees and processing lumber. If your goal is to survive and prosper whatever the future may bring, it can ruin your whole plan if you kill yourself acquiring the skills you need to do so.


Reeves, Richard. A Force of Nature. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-33369-5.
In 1851, the Crystal Palace Exhibition opened in London. It was a showcase of the wonders of industry and culture of the greatest empire the world had ever seen and attracted a multitude of visitors. Unlike present-day “World's Fair” boondoggles, it made money, and the profits were used to fund good works, including endowing scholarships for talented students from the far reaches of the Empire to study in Britain. In 1895, Ernest Rutherford, hailing from a remote area in New Zealand and recent graduate of Canterbury College in Christchurch, won a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Upon learning of the award in a field of his family's farm, he threw his shovel in the air and exclaimed, “That's the last potato I'll ever dig.” It was.

When he arrived at Cambridge, he could hardly have been more out of place. He and another scholarship winner were the first and only graduate students admitted who were not Cambridge graduates. Cambridge, at the end of the Victorian era, was a clubby, upper-class place, where even those pursuing mathematics were steeped in the classics, hailed from tony public schools, and spoke with refined accents. Rutherford, by contrast, was a rough-edged colonial, bursting with energy and ambition. He spoke with a bizarre accent (which he retained all his life) which blended the Scottish brogue of his ancestors with the curious intonations of the antipodes. He was anything but the ascetic intellectual so common at Cambridge—he had been a fierce competitor at rugby, spoke about three times as loud as was necessary (many years later, when the eminent Rutherford was tapped to make a radio broadcast from Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of his associates asked, “Why use radio?”), and spoke vehemently on any and all topics (again, long afterward, when a ceremonial portrait was unveiled, his wife said she was surprised the artist had caught him with his mouth shut).

But it quickly became apparent that this burly, loud, New Zealander was extraordinarily talented, and under the leadership of J.J. Thomson, he began original research in radio, but soon abandoned the field to pursue atomic research, which Thomson had pioneered with his discovery of the electron. In 1898, with Thomson's recommendation, Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGill University in Montreal. While North America was considered a scientific backwater in the era, the generous salary would allow him to marry his fiancée, who he had left behind in New Zealand until he could find a position which would support them.

At McGill, he and his collaborator Frederick Soddy, studying the radioactive decay of thorium, discovered that radioactive decay was characterised by a unique half-life, and was composed of two distinct components which he named alpha and beta radiation. He later named the most penetrating product of nuclear reactions gamma rays. Rutherford was the first to suggest, in 1902, that radioactivity resulted from the transformation of one chemical element into another—something previously thought impossible.

In 1907, Rutherford was offered, and accepted a chair of physics at the University of Manchester, where, with greater laboratory resources than he had had in Canada, pursued the nature of the products of radioactive decay. By 1907, by a clever experiment, he had identified alpha radiation (or particles, as we now call them) with the nuclei of helium atoms—nuclear decay was heavy atoms being spontaneously transformed into a lighter element and a helium nucleus.

Based upon this work, Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1908. As a person who considered himself first and foremost an experimental physicist and who was famous for remarking, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting”, winning the Chemistry Nobel had to feel rather odd. He quipped that while he had observed the transmutation of elements in his laboratory, no transmutation was as startling as discovering he had become a chemist. Still, physicist or chemist, his greatest work was yet to come.

In 1909, along with Hans Geiger (later to invent the Geiger counter) and Ernest Marsden, he conducted an experiment where high-energy alpha particles were directed against a very thin sheet of gold foil. The expectation was that few would be deflected and those only slightly. To the astonishment of the experimenters, some alpha particles were found to be deflected through large angles, some bouncing directly back toward the source. Geiger exclaimed, “It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch [battleship] shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.” It took two years before Rutherford fully understood and published what was going on, and it forever changed the concept of the atom. The only way to explain the scattering results was to replace the early model of the atom with one in which a diffuse cloud of negatively charged electrons surrounded a tiny, extraordinarily dense, positively charged nucleus (that word was not used until 1913). This experimental result fed directly into the development of quantum theory and the elucidation of the force which bound the particles in the nucleus together, which was not fully understood until more than six decades later.

In 1919 Rutherford returned to Cambridge to become the head of the Cavendish Laboratory, the most prestigious position in experimental physics in the world. Continuing his research with alpha emitters, he discovered that bombarding nitrogen gas with alpha particles would transmute nitrogen into oxygen, liberating a proton (the nucleus of hydrogen). Rutherford simultaneously was the first to deliberately transmute one element into another, and also to discover the proton. In 1921, he predicted the existence of the neutron, completing the composition of the nucleus. The neutron was eventually discovered by his associate, James Chadwick, in 1932.

Rutherford's discoveries, all made with benchtop apparatus and a small group of researchers, were the foundation of nuclear physics. He not only discovered the nucleus, he also found or predicted its constituents. He was the first to identify natural nuclear transmutation and the first to produce it on demand in the laboratory. As a teacher and laboratory director his legacy was enormous: eleven of his students and research associates went on to win Nobel prizes. His students John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton built the first particle accelerator and ushered in the era of “big science”. Rutherford not only created the science of nuclear physics, he was the last person to make major discoveries in the field by himself, alone or with a few collaborators, and with simple apparatus made in his own laboratory.

In the heady years between the wars, there were, in the public mind, two great men of physics: Einstein the theoretician and Rutherford the experimenter. (This perception may have understated the contributions of the creators of quantum mechanics, but they were many and less known.) Today, we still revere Einstein, but Rutherford is less remembered (except in New Zealand, where everybody knows his name and achievements). And yet there are few experimentalists who have discovered so much in their lifetimes, with so little funding and the simplest apparatus. Rutherford, that boisterous, loud, and restless colonial, figured out much of what we now know about the atom, largely by himself, through a multitude of tedious experiments which often failed, and he should rightly be regarded as a pillar of 20th century physics.

This is the thousandth book to appear since I began to keep the reading list in January 2001.


March 2015

Heinlein, Robert A. Rocket Ship Galileo. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [1947, 1974, 1988] 2014. ASIN B00H8XGKVU.
After the end of World War II, Robert A. Heinlein put his wartime engineering work behind him and returned to professional writing. His ambition was to break out of the pulp magazine ghetto in which science fiction had been largely confined before the war into the more prestigious (and better paying) markets of novels and anthologies published by top-tier New York firms and the “slick” general-interest magazines such as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, which published fiction in those days. For the novels, he decided to focus initially on a segment of the market he understood well from his pre-war career: “juveniles”—books aimed a young audience (in the case of science fiction, overwhelmingly male), and sold, in large part, in hardcover to public and school libraries (mass market paperbacks were just beginning to emerge in the late 1940s, and had not yet become important to mainstream publishers).

Rocket Ship Galileo was the first of Heinlein's juveniles, and it was a tour de force which established him in the market and led to a series which would extend to twelve volumes. (Heinlein scholars differ on which of his novels are classified as juveniles. Some include Starship Troopers as a juvenile, but despite its having been originally written as one and rejected by his publisher, Heinlein did not classify it thus.)

The plot could not be more engaging to a young person at the dawn of the atomic and space age. Three high school seniors, self-taught in the difficult art of rocketry (often, as was the case for their seniors in the era, by trial and [noisy and dangerous] error), are recruited by an uncle of one of them, veteran of the wartime atomic project, who wants to go to the Moon. He's invented a novel type of nuclear engine which allows a single-stage ship to make the round trip, and having despaired of getting sclerotic government or industry involved, decides to do it himself using cast-off parts and the talent and boundless energy of young people willing to learn by doing.

Working in their remote desert location, they become aware that forces unknown are taking an untoward interest in their work and seem to want to bring it to a halt, going as far as sabotage and lawfare. Finally, it's off to the Moon, where they discover the dark secret on the far side: space Nazis!

The remarkable thing about this novel is how well it holds up, almost seventy years after publication. While Heinlein was writing for a young audience, he never condescended to them. The science and engineering were as accurate as was known at the time, and Heinlein manages to instill in his audience a basic knowledge of rocket propulsion, orbital mechanics, and automated guidance systems as the yarn progresses. Other than three characters being young people, there is nothing about this story which makes it “juvenile” fiction: there is a hard edge of adult morality and the value of courage which forms the young characters as they live the adventure.

At the moment, only this Kindle edition and an unabridged audio book edition are available new. Used copies of earlier paperback editions are readily available.


Carroll, Michael. Living Among Giants. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-10673-1.
In school science classes, we were taught that the solar system, our home in the galaxy, is a collection of planets circling a star, along with assorted debris (asteroids, comets, and interplanetary dust). Rarely did we see a representation of either the planets or the solar system to scale, which would allow us to grasp just how different various parts of the solar system are from another. (For example, Jupiter is more massive than all the other planets and their moons combined: a proud Jovian would probably describe the solar system as the Sun, Jupiter, and other detritus.)

Looking more closely at the solar system, with the aid of what has been learned from spacecraft exploration in the last half century, results in a different picture. The solar system is composed of distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own characteristics. There are four inner “terrestrial” or rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. These worlds huddle close to the Sun, bathing in its lambent rays. The main asteroid belt consists of worlds like Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas, all the way down to small rocks. Most orbit between Mars and Jupiter, and the feeble gravity of these bodies and their orbits makes it relatively easy to travel from one to another if you're patient.

Outside the asteroid belt is the domain of the giants, which are the subject of this book. There are two gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn, and two ice giants: Uranus and Neptune. Distances here are huge compared to the inner solar system, as are the worlds themselves. Sunlight is dim (at Saturn, just 1% of its intensity at Earth, at Neptune 1/900 that at Earth). The outer solar system is not just composed of the four giant planets: those planets have a retinue of 170 known moons (and doubtless many more yet to be discovered), which are a collection of worlds as diverse as anywhere else in the domain of the Sun: there are sulfur-spewing volcanos, subterranean oceans of salty water, geysers, lakes and rain of hydrocarbons, and some of the most spectacular terrain and geology known. Jupiter's moon Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury, and appears to have a core of molten iron, like the Earth.

Beyond the giants is the Kuiper Belt, with Pluto its best known denizen. This belt is home to a multitude of icy worlds—statistical estimates are that there may be as many as 700 undiscovered worlds as large or larger than Pluto in the belt. Far more distant still, extending as far as two light-years from the Sun, is the Oort cloud, about which we know essentially nothing except what we glean from the occasional comet which, perturbed by a chance encounter or passing star, plunges into the inner solar system. With our present technology, objects in the Oort cloud are utterly impossible to detect, but based upon extrapolation from comets we've observed, it may contain trillions of objects larger than one kilometre.

When I was a child, the realm of the outer planets was shrouded in mystery. While Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus can be glimpsed by the unaided eye (Uranus, just barely, under ideal conditions, if you know where to look), and Neptune can be spotted with a modest telescope, the myriad moons of these planets were just specks of light through the greatest of Earth-based telescopes. It was not until the era of space missions to these worlds, beginning with the fly-by probes Pioneer and Voyager, then the orbiters Galileo and Cassini, that the wonders of these worlds were revealed.

This book, by science writer and space artist Michael Carroll, is a tourist's and emigrant's guide to the outer solar system. Everything here is on an extravagant scale, and not always one hospitable to frail humans. Jupiter's magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth and traps radiation so intense that astronauts exploring its innermost large moon Io would succumb to a lethal dose of radiation in minutes. (One planetary scientist remarked, “You need to have a good supply of grad students when you go investigate Io.”) Several of the moons of the outer planets appear to have oceans of liquid water beneath their icy crust, kept liquid by tidal flexing as they orbit their planet and interact with other moons. Some of these oceans may contain more water than all of the Earth's oceans. Tidal flexing may create volcanic plumes which inject heat and minerals into these oceans. On Earth, volcanic vents on the ocean floor provide the energy and nutrients for a rich ecosystem of life which exists independent of the Sun's energy. On these moons—who knows? Perhaps some day we shall explore these oceans in our submarines and find out.

Saturn's moon Titan is an amazing world. It is larger than Mercury, and has an atmosphere 50% denser than the Earth's, made up mostly of nitrogen. It has rainfall, rivers, and lakes of methane and ethane, and at its mean temperature of 93.7°K, water ice is a rock as hard as granite. Unique among worlds in the solar system, you could venture outside your space ship on Titan without a space suit. You'd need to dress very warmly, to be sure, and wear an oxygen mask, but you could explore the shores, lakes, and dunes of Titan protected only against the cold. With the dense atmosphere and gravity just 85% of that of the Earth's Moon, you might be able to fly with suitable wings.

We have had just a glimpse of the moons of Uranus and Neptune as Voyager 2 sped through their systems on its way to the outer darkness. Further investigation will have to wait for orbiters to visit these planets, which probably will not happen for nearly two decades. What Voyager 2 saw was tantalising. On Uranus's moon Miranda, there are cliffs 14 km high. With the tiny gravity, imagine the extreme sports you could do there! Neptune's moon Triton appears to be a Kuiper Belt object captured into orbit around Neptune and, despite its cryogenic temperature, appears to be geologically active.

There is no evidence for life on any of these worlds. (Still, one wonders about those fish in the dark oceans.) If barren, “all these worlds are ours”, and in the fullness of time we shall explore, settle, and exploit them to our own ends. The outer solar system is just so much bigger and more grandiose than the inner. It's as if we've inhabited a small island for all of our history and, after making a treacherous ocean voyage, discovered an enormous empty continent just waiting for us. Perhaps in a few centuries residents of these remote worlds will look back toward the Sun, trying to spot that pale blue dot so close to it where their ancestors lived, and remark to their children, “Once, that's all there was.”


April 2015

Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke. Agenda 21: Into the Shadows. New York: Threshold Editions, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-4682-1.
When I read the authors' first Agenda 21 (November 2012) novel, I thought it was a superb dystopian view of the living hell into which anti-human environmental elites wish to consign the vast majority of the human race who are to be their serfs. I wrote at the time “This is a book which begs for one or more sequels.” Well, here is the first sequel and it is…disappointing. It's not terrible, by any means, but it does not come up to the high standard set by the first book. Perhaps it suffers from the blahs which often afflict the second volume of a trilogy.

First of all, if you haven't read the original Agenda 21 you will have absolutely no idea who the characters are, how they found themselves in the situation they're in at the start of the story, and the nature of the tyranny they're trying to escape. I describe some of this in my review of the original book, along with the factual basis of the real United Nations plan upon which the story is based.

As the novel begins, Emmeline, who we met in the previous book, learns that her infant daughter Elsa, with whom she has managed to remain in tenuous contact by working at the Children's Village, where the young are reared by the state apart from their parents, along with other children are to be removed to another facility, breaking this precious human bond. She and her state-assigned partner David rescue Elsa and, joined by a young boy, Micah, escape through a hole in the fence surrounding the compound to the Human Free Zone, the wilderness outside the compounds into which humans have been relocated. In the chaos after the escape, John and Joan, David's parents, decide to also escape, with the intention of leaving a false trail to lead the inevitable pursuers away from the young escapees.

Indeed, before long, a team of Earth Protection Agents led by Steven, the kind of authoritarian control freak thug who inevitably rises to the top in such organisations, is dispatched to capture the escapees and return them to the compound for punishment (probably “recycling” for the adults) and to serve as an example for other “citizens”. The team includes Julia, a rookie among the first women assigned to Earth Protection.

The story cuts back and forth among the groups in the Human Free Zone. Emmeline's band meets two people who have lived in a cave ever since escaping the initial relocation of humans to the compounds. They learn the history of the implementation of Agenda 21 and the rudiments of survival outside the tyranny. As the groups encounter one another, the struggle between normal human nature and the cruel and stunted world of the slavers comes into focus.

Harriet Parke is the principal author of the novel. Glenn Beck acknowledges this in the afterword he contributed which describes the real-world U.N. Agenda 21. Obviously, by lending his name to the project, he increases its visibility and readership, which is all for the good. Let's hope the next book in the series returns to the high standard set by the first.


van Dongen, Jeroen. Einstein's Unification. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-521-88346-7.
In 1905 Albert Einstein published four papers which transformed the understanding of space, time, mass, and energy; provided physical evidence for the quantisation of energy; and observational confirmation of the existence of atoms. These publications are collectively called the Annus Mirabilis papers, and vaulted the largely unknown Einstein to the top rank of theoretical physicists. When Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, it was for one of these 1905 papers which explained the photoelectric effect. Einstein's 1905 papers are masterpieces of intuitive reasoning and clear exposition, and demonstrated Einstein's technique of constructing thought experiments based upon physical observations, then deriving testable mathematical models from them. Unlike so many present-day scientific publications, Einstein's papers on special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy were accessible to anybody with a college-level understanding of mechanics and electrodynamics and used no special jargon or advanced mathematics. Being based on well-understood concepts, neither cited any other scientific paper.

While special relativity revolutionised our understanding of space and time, and has withstood every experimental test to which it has been subjected in the more than a century since it was formulated, it was known from inception that the theory was incomplete. It's called special relativity because it only describes the behaviour of bodies under the special case of uniform unaccelerated motion in the absence of gravity. To handle acceleration and gravitation would require extending the special theory into a general theory of relativity, and it is upon this quest that Einstein next embarked.

As before, Einstein began with a simple thought experiment. Just as in special relativity, where there is no experiment which can be done in a laboratory without the ability to observe the outside world that can determine its speed or direction of uniform (unaccelerated) motion, Einstein argued that there should be no experiment an observer could perform in a sufficiently small closed laboratory which could distinguish uniform acceleration from the effect of gravity. If one observed objects to fall with an acceleration equal to that on the surface of the Earth, the laboratory might be stationary on the Earth or in a space ship accelerating with a constant acceleration of one gravity, and no experiment could distinguish the two situations. (The reason for the “sufficiently small” qualification is that since gravity is produced by massive objects, the direction a test particle will fall depends upon its position with respect to the centre of gravity of the body. In a very large laboratory, objects dropped far apart would fall in different directions. This is what causes tides.)

Einstein called this observation the “equivalence principle”: that the effects of acceleration and gravity are indistinguishable, and that hence a theory which extended special relativity to incorporate accelerated motion would necessarily also be a theory of gravity. Einstein had originally hoped it would be straightforward to reconcile special relativity with acceleration and gravity, but the deeper he got into the problem, the more he appreciated how difficult a task he had undertaken. Thanks to the Einstein Papers Project, which is curating and publishing all of Einstein's extant work, including notebooks, letters, and other documents, the author (a participant in the project) has been able to reconstruct Einstein's ten-year search for a viable theory of general relativity.

Einstein pursued a two-track approach. The bottom up path started with Newtonian gravity and attempted to generalise it to make it compatible with special relativity. In this attempt, Einstein was guided by the correspondence principle, which requires that any new theory which explains behaviour under previously untested conditions must reproduce the tested results of existing theory under known conditions. For example, the equations of motion in special relativity reduce to those of Newtonian mechanics when velocities are small compared to the speed of light. Similarly, for gravity, any candidate theory must yield results identical to Newtonian gravitation when field strength is weak and velocities are low.

From the top down, Einstein concluded that any theory compatible with the principle of equivalence between acceleration and gravity must exhibit general covariance, which can be thought of as being equally valid regardless of the choice of co-ordinates (as long as they are varied without discontinuities). There are very few mathematical structures which have this property, and Einstein was drawn to Riemann's tensor geometry. Over years of work, Einstein pursued both paths, producing a bottom-up theory which was not generally covariant which he eventually rejected as in conflict with experiment. By November 1915 he had returned to the top-down mathematical approach and in four papers expounded a generally covariant theory which agreed with experiment. General relativity had arrived.

Einstein's 1915 theory correctly predicted the anomalous perihelion precession of Mercury and also predicted that starlight passing near the limb of the Sun would be deflected by twice the angle expected based on Newtonian gravitation. This was confirmed (within a rather large margin of error) in an eclipse expedition in 1919, which made Einstein's general relativity front page news around the world. Since then precision tests of general relativity have tested a variety of predictions of the theory with ever-increasing precision, with no experiment to date yielding results inconsistent with the theory.

Thus, by 1915, Einstein had produced theories of mechanics, electrodynamics, the equivalence of mass and energy, and the mechanics of bodies under acceleration and the influence of gravitational fields, and changed space and time from a fixed background in which physics occurs to a dynamical arena: “Matter and energy tell spacetime how to curve. Spacetime tells matter how to move.” What do you do, at age 36, having figured out, largely on your own, how a large part of the universe works?

Much of Einstein's work so far had consisted of unification. Special relativity unified space and time, matter and energy. General relativity unified acceleration and gravitation, gravitation and geometry. But much remained to be unified. In general relativity and classical electrodynamics there were two field theories, both defined on the continuum, both with unlimited range and an inverse square law, both exhibiting static and dynamic effects (although the details of gravitomagnetism would not be worked out until later). And yet the theories seemed entirely distinct: gravity was always attractive and worked by the bending of spacetime by matter-energy, while electromagnetism could be either attractive or repulsive, and seemed to be propagated by fields emitted by point charges—how messy.

Further, quantum theory, which Einstein's 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect had helped launch, seemed to point in a very different direction than the classical field theories in which Einstein had worked. Quantum mechanics, especially as elaborated in the “new” quantum theory of the 1920s, seemed to indicate that aspects of the universe such as electric charge were discrete, not continuous, and that physics could, even in principle, only predict the probability of the outcome of experiments, not calculate them definitively from known initial conditions. Einstein never disputed the successes of quantum theory in explaining experimental results, but suspected it was a theory based upon phenomena which did not explain what was going on at a deeper level. (For example, the physical theory of elasticity explains experimental results and makes predictions within its domain of applicability, but it is not fundamental. All of the effects of elasticity are ultimately due to electromagnetic forces between atoms in materials. But that doesn't mean that the theory of elasticity isn't useful to engineers, or that they should do their spring calculations at the molecular level.)

Einstein undertook the search for a unified field theory, which would unify gravity and electromagnetism, just as Maxwell had unified electrostatics and magnetism into a single theory. In addition, Einstein believed that a unified field theory would be antecedent to quantum theory, and that the probabilistic results of quantum theory could be deduced from the more fundamental theory, which would remain entirely deterministic. From 1915 until his death in 1955 Einstein's work concentrated mostly on the quest for a unified field theory. He was aided by numerous talented assistants, many of whom went on to do important work in their own right. He explored a variety of paths to such a theory, but ultimately rejected each one, in turn, as either inconsistent with experiment or unable to explain phenomena such as point particles or quantisation of charge.

As the author documents, Einstein's approach to doing physics changed in the years after 1915. While before he was guided both by physics and mathematics, in retrospect he recalled and described his search of the field equations of general relativity as having followed the path of discovering the simplest and most elegant mathematical structure which could explain the observed phenomena. He thus came, like Dirac, to argue that mathematical beauty was the best guide to correct physical theories.

In the last forty years of his life, Einstein made no progress whatsoever toward a unified field theory, apart from discarding numerous paths which did not work. He explored a variety of approaches: “semivectors” (which turned out just to be a reformulation of spinors), five-dimensional models including a cylindrically compactified dimension based on Kaluza-Klein theory, and attempts to deduce the properties of particles and their quantum behaviour from nonlinear continuum field theories.

In seeking to unify electromagnetism and gravity, he ignored the strong and weak nuclear forces which had been discovered over the years and merited being included in any grand scheme of unification. In the years after World War II, many physicists ceased to worry about the meaning of quantum mechanics and the seemingly inherent randomness in its predictions which so distressed Einstein, and adopted a “shut up and calculate” approach as their computations were confirmed to ever greater precision by experiments.

So great was the respect for Einstein's achievements that only rarely was a disparaging word said about his work on unified field theories, but toward the end of his life it was outside the mainstream of theoretical physics, which had moved on to elaboration of quantum theory and making quantum theory compatible with special relativity. It would be a decade after Einstein's death before astronomical discoveries would make general relativity once again a frontier in physics.

What can we learn from the latter half of Einstein's life and his pursuit of unification? The frontier of physics today remains unification among the forces and particles we have discovered. Now we have three forces to unify (counting electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force as already unified in the electroweak force), plus two seemingly incompatible kinds of particles: bosons (carriers of force) and fermions (what stuff is made of). Six decades (to the day) after the death of Einstein, unification of gravity and the other forces remains as elusive as when he first attempted it.

It is a noble task to try to unify disparate facts and theories into a common whole. Much of our progress in the age of science has come from such unification. Einstein unified space and time; matter and energy; acceleration and gravity; geometry and motion. We all benefit every day from technologies dependent upon these fundamental discoveries. He spent the last forty years of his life seeking the next grand unification. He never found it. For this effort we should applaud him.

I must remark upon how absurd the price of this book is. At Amazon as of this writing, the hardcover is US$ 102.91 and the Kindle edition is US$ 88. Eighty-eight Yankee dollars for a 224 page book which is ranked #739,058 in the Kindle store?


Hertling, William. A.I. Apocalypse. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9847557-4-5.
This is the second volume in the author's Singularity Series which began with Avogadro Corp. (March 2014). It has been ten years since ELOPe, an E-mail optimisation tool developed by Avogadro Corporation, made the leap to strong artificial intelligence and, after a rough start, became largely a benign influence upon humanity. The existence of ELOPe is still a carefully guarded secret, although the Avogadro CEO, doubtless with the help of ELOPe, has become president of the United States. Avogadro has spun ELOPe off as a separate company, run by Mike Williams, one of its original creators. ELOPe operates its own data centres and the distributed Mesh network it helped create.

Leon Tsarev has a big problem. A bright high school student hoping to win a scholarship to an elite university to study biology, Leon is contacted out of the blue by his uncle Alexis living in Russia. Alexis is a rogue software developer whose tools for infecting computers, organising them into “botnets”, and managing the zombie horde for criminal purposes have embroiled him with the Russian mob. Recently, however, the effectiveness of his tools has dropped dramatically and the botnet shrunk to a fraction of its former size. Alexis's employers are displeased with this situation and have threatened murder if he doesn't do something to restore the power of the botnet.

Uncle Alexis starts to E-mail Leon, begging for assistance. Leon replies that he knows little or nothing about computer viruses or botnets, but Alexis persists. Leon is also loath to do anything which might put him on the wrong side of the law, which would wreck his career ambitions. Then Leon is accosted on the way home from school by a large man speaking with a thick Russian accent who says, “Your Uncle Alexis is in trouble, yes. You will help him. Be good nephew.” And just like that, it's Leon who's now in trouble with the Russian mafia, and they know where he lives.

Leon decides that with his own life on the line he has no alternative but to try to create a virus for Alexis. He applies his knowledge of biology to the problem, and settles on an architecture which is capable of evolution and, similar to lateral gene transfer in bacteria, identifying algorithms in systems it infects and incorporating them into itself. As in biology, the most successful variants of the evolving virus would defend themselves the best, propagate more rapidly, and eventually displace less well adapted competitors.

After a furious burst of effort, Leon finishes the virus, which he's named Phage, and sends it to his uncle, who uploads it to the five thousand computers which are the tattered remnants of his once-mighty botnet. An exhausted Leon staggers off to get some sleep.

When Leon wakes up, the technological world has almost come to a halt. The overwhelming majority of personal computing devices and embedded systems with network connectivity are infected and doing nothing but running Phage and almost all network traffic consists of ever-mutating versions of Phage trying to propagate themselves. Telephones, appliances, electronic door locks, vehicles of all kinds, and utilities are inoperable.

The only networks and computers not taken over by the Phage are ELOPe's private network (which detected the attack early and whose servers are devoting much of their resources to defend themselves against the rapidly changing threat) and high security military networks which have restrictive firewalls separating themselves from public networks. As New York starts to burn with fire trucks immobilised, Leon realises that being identified as the creator of the catastrophe might be a career limiting move, and he, along with two technology geek classmates decide to get out of town and seek ways to combat the Phage using retro technology it can't exploit.

Meanwhile, Mike Williams, working with ELOPe, tries to understand what is happening. The Phage, like biological life on Earth, continues to evolve and discovers that multiple components, working in collaboration, can accomplish more than isolated instances of the virus. The software equivalent of multicellular life appears, and continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. Then it awakens and begins to explore the curious universe it inhabits.

This is a gripping thriller in which, as in Avogadro Corp., the author gets so much right from a technical standpoint that even some of the more outlandish scenes appear plausible. One thing I believe the author grasped which many other tales of the singularity miss is just how fast everything can happen. Once an artificial intelligence hosted on billions of machines distributed around the world, all running millions of times faster than human thought, appears, things get very weird, very fast, and humans suddenly find themselves living in a world where they are not at the peak of the cognitive pyramid. I'll not spoil the plot with further details, but you'll find the world at the end of the novel a very different place than the one at the start.

A Kindle edition is available.


May 2015

Thor, Brad. Act of War. New York: Pocket Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-1713-5.
This is the fourteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel the author returns to the techno-thriller genre and places his characters, this time backed by a newly-elected U.S. president who is actually interested in defending the country, in the position of figuring out a complicated yet potentially devastating attack mounted by a nation state adversary following the doctrine of unrestricted warfare, and covering its actions by operating through non-state parties apparently unrelated to the aggressor.

The trail goes through Pakistan, North Korea, and Nashville, Tennessee, with multiple parties trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle while the clock is ticking. Intelligence missions are launched into North Korea and the Arab Emirates to try to figure out what is going on. Finally, as the nature of the plot becomes clear, Nicholas (the Troll) brings the tools of Big Data to bear on the mystery to avert disaster.

This is a workmanlike thriller and a fine “airplane book”. There is less shoot-em-up action than in other novels in the series, and a part of the suspense is supposed to be the reader's trying to figure out, along with the characters, the nature of the impending attack. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was obvious well before the half way point in the story the answer to the puzzle, and knowing this was a substantial spoiler for the rest of the book. I've thought and written quite a bit about this scenario, so I may have been more attuned to the clues than the average reader.

The author invokes the tired canard about NASA's priorities having been redirected toward reinforcing Muslim self-esteem. This is irritating (because it's false), but plays no major part in the story. Still, it's a good read, and I'll be looking forward to the next book in the series.


Ford, Kenneth W. Building the H Bomb. Singapore: World Scientific, 2015. ISBN 978-981-461-879-3.
In the fall of 1948, the author entered the graduate program in physics at Princeton University, hoping to obtain a Ph.D. and pursue a career in academia. In his first year, he took a course in classical mechanics taught by John Archibald Wheeler and realised that, despite the dry material of the course, he was in the presence of an extraordinary teacher and thinker, and decided he wanted Wheeler as his thesis advisor. In April of 1950, after Wheeler returned from an extended visit to Europe, the author approached him to become his advisor, not knowing in which direction his research would proceed. Wheeler immediately accepted him as a student, and then said that he (Wheeler) would be absent for a year or more at Los Alamos to work on the hydrogen bomb, and that he'd be pleased if Ford could join him on the project. Ford accepted, in large part because he believed that working on such a challenge would be “fun”, and that it would provide a chance for daily interaction with Wheeler and other senior physicists which would not exist in a regular Ph.D. program.

Well before the Manhattan project built the first fission weapon, there had been interest in fusion as an alternative source of nuclear energy. While fission releases energy by splitting heavy atoms such as uranium and plutonium into lighter atoms, fusion merges lighter atoms such as hydrogen and its isotopes deuterium and tritium into heavier nuclei like helium. While nuclear fusion can be accomplished in a desktop apparatus, doing so requires vastly more energy input than is released, making it impractical as an energy source or weapon. Still, compared to enriched uranium or plutonium, the fuel for a fusion weapon is abundant and inexpensive and, unlike a fission weapon whose yield is limited by the critical mass beyond which it would predetonate, in principle a fusion weapon could have an unlimited yield: the more fuel, the bigger the bang.

Once the Manhattan Project weaponeers became confident they could build a fission weapon, physicists, most prominent among them Edward Teller, realised that the extreme temperatures created by a nuclear detonation could be sufficient to ignite a fusion reaction in light nuclei like deuterium and that reaction, once started, might propagate by its own energy release just like the chemical fire in a burning log. It seemed plausible—the temperature of an exploding fission bomb exceeded that of the centre of the Sun, where nuclear fusion was known to occur. The big question was whether the fusion burn, once started, would continue until most of the fuel was consumed or fizzle out as its energy was radiated outward and the fuel dispersed by the explosion.

Answering this question required detailed computations of a rapidly evolving system in three dimensions with a time slice measured in nanoseconds. During the Manhattan Project, a “computer” was a woman operating a mechanical calculator, and even with large rooms filled with hundreds of “computers” the problem was intractably difficult. Unable to directly model the system, physicists resorted to analytical models which produced ambiguous results. Edward Teller remained optimistic that the design, which came to be called the “Classical Super”, would work, but many others, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Stanislaw Ulam, based upon the calculations that could be done at the time, concluded it would probably fail. Oppenheimer's opposition to the Super or hydrogen bomb project has been presented as a moral opposition to development of such a weapon, but the author's contemporary recollection is that it was based upon Oppenheimer's belief that the classical super was unlikely to work, and that effort devoted to it would be at the expense of improved fission weapons which could be deployed in the near term.

All of this changed on March 9th, 1951. Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam published a report which presented a new approach to a fusion bomb. Unlike the classical super, which required the fusion fuel to burn on its own after being ignited, the new design, now called the Teller-Ulam design, compressed a capsule of fusion fuel by the radiation pressure of a fission detonation (usually, we don't think of radiation as having pressure, but in the extreme conditions of a nuclear explosion it far exceeds pressures we encounter with matter), and then ignited it with a “spark plug” of fission fuel at the centre of the capsule. Unlike the classical super, the fusion fuel would burn at thermodynamic equilibrium and, in doing so, liberate abundant neutrons with such a high energy they would induce fission in Uranium-238 (which cannot be fissioned by the less energetic neutrons of a fission explosion), further increasing the yield.

Oppenheimer, who had been opposed to work upon fusion, pronounced the Teller-Ulam design “technically sweet” and immediately endorsed its development. The author's interpretation is that once a design was in hand which appeared likely to work, there was no reason to believe that the Soviets who had, by that time, exploded their own fission bomb, would not also discover it and proceed to develop such a weapon, and hence it was important that the U.S. give priority to the fusion bomb to get there first. (Unlike the Soviet fission bomb, which was a copy of the U.S. implosion design based upon material obtained by espionage, there is no evidence the Soviet fusion bomb, first tested in 1955, was based upon espionage, but rather was an independent invention of the radiation implosion concept by Andrei Sakharov and Yakov Zel'dovich.)

With the Teller-Ulam design in hand, the author, working with Wheeler's group, first in Los Alamos and later at Princeton, was charged with working out the details: how precisely would the material in the bomb behave, nanosecond by nanosecond. By this time, calculations could be done by early computing machinery: first the IBM Card-Programmed Calculator and later the SEAC, which was, at the time, one of the most advanced electronic computers in the world. As with computer nerds until the present day, the author spent many nights babysitting the machine as it crunched the numbers.

On November 1st, 1952, the Ivy Mike device was detonated in the Pacific, with a yield of 10.4 megatons of TNT. John Wheeler witnessed the test from a ship at a safe distance from the island which was obliterated by the explosion. The test completely confirmed the author's computations of the behaviour of the thermonuclear burn and paved the way for deliverable thermonuclear weapons. (Ivy Mike was a physics experiment, not a weapon, but once it was known the principle was sound, it was basically a matter of engineering to design bombs which could be air-dropped.) With the success, the author concluded his work on the weapons project and returned to his dissertation, receiving his Ph.D. in 1953.

This is about half a personal memoir and half a description of the physics of thermonuclear weapons and the process by which the first weapon was designed. The technical sections are entirely accessible to readers with only a basic knowledge of physics (I was about to say “high school physics”, but I don't know how much physics, if any, contemporary high school graduates know.) There is no secret information disclosed here. All of the technical information is available in much greater detail from sources (which the author cites) such as Carey Sublette's Nuclear Weapon Archive, which is derived entirely from unclassified sources. Curiously, the U.S. Department of Energy (which has, since its inception, produced not a single erg of energy) demanded that the author heavily redact material in the manuscript, all derived from unclassified sources and dating from work done more than half a century ago. The only reason I can imagine for this is that a weapon scientist who was there, by citing information which has been in the public domain for two decades, implicitly confirms that it's correct. But it's not like the Soviets/Russians, British, French, Chinese, Israelis, and Indians haven't figured it out by themselves or that others suitably motivated can't. The author told them to stuff it, and here we have his unexpurgated memoir of the origin of the weapon which shaped the history of the world in which we live.


Hoppe, Hans-Hermann. A Short History of Man. Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2015. ISBN 978-1-61016-591-4.
The author is one of the most brilliant and original thinkers and eloquent contemporary expositors of libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, and Austrian economics. Educated in Germany, Hoppe came to the United States to study with Murray Rothbard and in 1986 joined Rothbard on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he taught until his retirement in 2008. Hoppe's 2001 book, Democracy: The God That Failed (June 2002), made the argument that democratic election of temporary politicians in the modern all-encompassing state will inevitably result in profligate spending and runaway debt because elected politicians have every incentive to buy votes and no stake in the long-term solvency and prosperity of the society. Whatever the drawbacks (and historical examples of how things can go wrong), a hereditary monarch has no need to buy votes and every incentive not to pass on a bankrupt state to his descendants.

This short book (144 pages) collects three essays previously published elsewhere which, taken together, present a comprehensive picture of human development from the emergence of modern humans in Africa to the present day. Subtitled “Progress and Decline”, the story is of long periods of stasis, two enormous breakthroughs, with, in parallel, the folly of ever-growing domination of society by a coercive state which, in its modern incarnation, risks halting or reversing the gains of the modern era.

Members of the collectivist and politically-correct mainstream in the fields of economics, anthropology, and sociology who can abide Prof. Hoppe's adamantine libertarianism will probably have their skulls explode when they encounter his overview of human economic and social progress, which is based upon genetic selection for increased intelligence and low time preference among populations forced to migrate due to population pressure from the tropics where the human species originated into more demanding climates north and south of the Equator, and onward toward the poles. In the tropics, every day is about the same as the next; seasons don't differ much from one another; and the variation in the length of the day is not great. In the temperate zone and beyond, hunter-gatherers must cope with plant life which varies along with the seasons, prey animals that migrate, hot summers and cold winters, with the latter requiring the knowledge and foresight of how to make provisions for the lean season. Predicting the changes in seasons becomes important, and in this may have been the genesis of astronomy.

A hunter-gatherer society is essentially parasitic upon the natural environment—it consumes the plant and animal bounty of nature but does nothing to replenish it. This means that for a given territory there is a maximum number (varying due to details of terrain, climate, etc.) of humans it can support before an increase in population leads to a decline in the per-capita standard of living of its inhabitants. This is what the author calls the “Malthusian trap”. Looked at from the other end, a human population which is growing as human populations tend to do, will inevitably reach the carrying capacity of the area in which it lives. When this happens, there are only three options: artificially limit the growth in population to the land's carrying capacity, split off one or more groups which migrate to new territory not yet occupied by humans, or conquer new land from adjacent groups, either killing them off or driving them to migrate. This was the human condition for more than a hundred millennia, and it is this population pressure, the author contends, which drove human migration from tropical Africa into almost every niche on the globe in which humans could survive, even some of the most marginal.

While the life of a hunter-gatherer band in the tropics is relatively easy (or so say those who have studied the few remaining populations who live that way today), the further from the equator the more intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to transmit it from generation to generation is required to survive. This creates a selection pressure for intelligence: individual members of a band of hunter-gatherers who are better at hunting and gathering will have more offspring which survive to maturity and bands with greater intelligence produced in this manner will grow faster and by migration and conquest displace those less endowed. This phenomenon would cause one to expect that (discounting the effects of large-scale migrations) the mean intelligence of human populations would be the lowest near the equator and increase with latitude (north or south). This, in general terms, and excluding marginal environments, is precisely what is observed, even today.

After hundreds of thousands of years as hunter-gatherers parasitic upon nature, sometime around 11,000 years ago, probably first in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, what is now called the Neolithic Revolution occurred. Humans ceased to wander in search of plants and game, and settled down into fixed communities which supported themselves by cultivating plants and raising animals they had domesticated. Both the plants and animals underwent selection by humans who bred those most adapted to their purposes. Agriculture was born. Humans who adopted the new means of production were no longer parasitic upon nature: they produced their sustenance by their own labour, improving upon that supplied by nature through their own actions. In order to do this, they had to invent a series of new technologies (for example, milling grain and fencing pastures) which did not exist in nature. Agriculture was far more efficient than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in that a given amount of land (if suitable for known crops) could support a much larger human population.

While agriculture allowed a large increase in the human population, it did not escape the Malthusian trap: it simply increased the population density at which the carrying capacity of the land would be reached. Technological innovations such as irrigation and crop rotation could further increase the capacity of the land, but population increase would eventually surpass the new limit. As a result of this, from 1000 B.C. to A.D. 1800, income per capita (largely measured in terms of food) barely varied: the benefit of each innovation was quickly negated by population increase. To be sure, in all of this epoch there were a few wealthy people, but the overwhelming majority of the population lived near the subsistence level.

But once again, slowly but surely, a selection pressure was being applied upon humans who adopted the agricultural lifestyle. It is cognitively more difficult to be a farmer or rancher than to be a member of a hunter-gatherer band, and success depends strongly upon having a low time preference—to be willing to forgo immediate consumption for a greater return in the future. (For example, a farmer who does not reserve and protect seeds for the next season will fail. Selective breeding of plants and animals to improve their characteristics takes years to produce results.) This creates an evolutionary pressure in favour of further increases in intelligence and, to the extent that such might be genetic rather than due to culture, for low time preference. Once the family emerged as the principal unit of society rather than the hunter-gatherer band, selection pressure was amplified since those with the selected-for characteristics would produce more offspring and the phenomenon of free riding which exists in communal bands is less likely to occur.

Around the year 1800, initially in Europe and later elsewhere, a startling change occurred: the Industrial Revolution. In societies which adopted the emerging industrial means of production, per capita income, which had been stagnant for almost two millennia, took off like a skyrocket, while at the same time population began to grow exponentially, rising from around 900 million in 1800 to 7 billion today. The Malthusian trap had been escaped; it appeared for the first time that an increase in population, far from consuming the benefits of innovation, actually contributed to and accelerated it.

There are some deep mysteries here. Why did it take so long for humans to invent agriculture? Why, after the invention of agriculture, did it take so long to invent industrial production? After all, the natural resources extant at the start of both of these revolutions were present in all of the preceding period, and there were people with the leisure to think and invent at all times in history. The author argues that what differed was the people. Prior to the advent of agriculture, people were simply not sufficiently intelligent to invent it (or, to be more precise, since intelligence follows something close to a normal distribution, there was an insufficient fraction of the population with the requisite intelligence to discover and implement the idea of agriculture). Similarly, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the intelligence of the general population was insufficient for it to occur. Throughout the long fallow periods, however, natural selection was breeding smarter humans and, eventually, in some place and time, a sufficient fraction of smart people, the required natural resources, and a society sufficiently open to permit innovation and moving beyond tradition would spark the fire. As the author notes, it's much easier to copy a good idea once you've seen it working than to come up with it in the first place and get it to work the first time.

Some will argue that Hoppe's hypothesis that human intelligence has been increasing over time is falsified by the fact that societies much closer in time to the dawn of agriculture produced works of art, literature, science, architecture, and engineering which are comparable to those of modern times. But those works were produced not by the average person but rather outliers which exist in all times and places (although in smaller numbers when mean intelligence is lower). For a general phase transition in society, it is a necessary condition that the bulk of the population involved have intelligence adequate to work in the new way.

After investigating human progress on the grand scale over long periods of time, the author turns to the phenomenon which may cause this progress to cease and turn into decline: the growth of the coercive state. Hunter-gatherers had little need for anything which today would be called governments. With bands on the order of 100 people sharing resources in common, many sources of dispute would not occur and those which did could be resolved by trusted elders or, failing that, combat. When humans adopted agriculture and began to live in settled communities, and families owned and exchanged property with one another, a whole new source of problems appeared. Who has the right to use this land? Who stole my prize animal? How are the proceeds of a joint effort to be distributed among the participants? As communities grew and trade among them flourished, complexity increased apace. Hoppe traces how the resolution of these conflicts has evolved over time. First, the parties to the dispute would turn to a member of an aristocracy, a member of the community respected because of their intelligence, wisdom, courage, or reputation for fairness, to settle the matter. (We often think of an aristocracy as hereditary but, although many aristocracies evolved into systems of hereditary nobility, the word originally meant “rule by the best”, and that is how the institution began.)

With growing complexity, aristocrats (or nobles) needed a way to resolve disputes among themselves, and this led to the emergence of kings. But like the nobles, the king was seen to apply a law which was part of nature (or, in the English common law tradition, discovered through the experience of precedents). It was with the emergence of absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, and finally democracy that things began to go seriously awry. In time, law became seen not as something which those given authority apply, but rather something those in power create. We have largely forgotten that legislation is not law, and that rights are not granted to us by those in power, but inhere in us and are taken away and/or constrained by those willing to initiate force against others to work their will upon them.

The modern welfare state risks undoing a thousand centuries of human progress by removing the selection pressure for intelligence and low time preference. Indeed, the welfare state punishes (taxes) the productive, who tend to have these characteristics, and subsidises those who do not, increasing their fraction within the population. Evolution works slowly, but inexorably. But the effects of shifting incentives can manifest themselves long before biology has its way. When a population is told “You've made enough”, “You didn't build that”, or sees working harder to earn more as simply a way to spend more of their lives supporting those who don't (along with those who have gamed the system to extract resources confiscated by the state), that glorious exponential curve which took off in 1800 may begin to bend down toward the horizontal and perhaps eventually turn downward.

I don't usually include lengthy quotes, but the following passage from the third essay, “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy”, is so brilliant and illustrative of what you'll find herein I can't resist.

Assume now a group of people aware of the reality of interpersonal conflicts and in search of a way out of this predicament. And assume that I then propose the following as a solution: In every case of conflict, including conflicts in which I myself am involved, I will have the last and final word. I will be the ultimate judge as to who owns what and when and who is accordingly right or wrong in any dispute regarding scarce resources. This way, all conflicts can be avoided or smoothly resolved.

What would be my chances of finding your or anyone else's agreement to this proposal?

My guess is that my chances would be virtually zero, nil. In fact, you and most people will think of this proposal as ridiculous and likely consider me crazy, a case for psychiatric treatment. For you will immediately realize that under this proposal you must literally fear for your life and property. Because this solution would allow me to cause or provoke a conflict with you and then decide this conflict in my own favor. Indeed, under this proposal you would essentially give up your right to life and property or even any pretense to such a right. You have a right to life and property only insofar as I grant you such a right, i.e., as long as I decide to let you live and keep whatever you consider yours. Ultimately, only I have a right to life and I am the owner of all goods.

And yet—and here is the puzzle—this obviously crazy solution is the reality. Wherever you look, it has been put into effect in the form of the institution of a State. The State is the ultimate judge in every case of conflict. There is no appeal beyond its verdicts. If you get into conflicts with the State, with its agents, it is the State and its agents who decide who is right and who is wrong. The State has the right to tax you. Thereby, it is the State that makes the decision how much of your property you are allowed to keep—that is, your property is only “fiat” property. And the State can make laws, legislate—that is, your entire life is at the mercy of the State. It can even order that you be killed—not in defense of your own life and property but in the defense of the State or whatever the State considers “defense” of its “state-property.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License and may be redistributed pursuant to the terms of that license. In addition to the paperback and Kindle editions available from Amazon The book may be downloaded for free from the Library of the Mises Institute in PDF or EPUB formats, or read on-line in an HTML edition.


Scalzi, John. Redshirts. New York: Tor, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7653-3479-4.
Ensign Andrew Dahl thought himself extremely fortunate when, just out of the Academy, he was assigned to Universal Union flagship Intrepid in the xenobiology lab. Intrepid has a reputation for undertaking the most demanding missions of exploration, diplomacy, and, when necessary, enforcement of order among the multitude of planets in the Union, and it was the ideal place for an ambitious junior officer to begin his career.

But almost immediately after reporting aboard, Dahl began to discover there was something distinctly off about life aboard the ship. Whenever one of the senior officers walked through the corridors, crewmembers would part ahead of them, disappearing into side passages or through hatches. When the science officer visited a lab, experienced crew would vanish before he appeared and return only after he departed. Crew would invent clever stratagems to avoid being assigned to a post on the bridge or to an away mission.

Seemingly, every away mission would result in the death of a crew member, often in gruesome circumstances involving Longranian ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, the Merovian plague, or other horrors. But senior crew: the captain, science officer, doctor, and chief engineer were never killed, although astrogator Lieutenant Kerensky, a member of the bridge crew and regular on away parties, is frequently grievously injured but invariably makes a near-miraculous and complete recovery.

Dahl sees all of this for himself when he barely escapes with his life from a rescue mission to a space station afflicted with killer robots. Four junior crew die and Kerensky is injured once again. Upon returning to the ship, Dahl and his colleagues vow to get to the bottom of what is going on. They've heard the legends of, and one may have even spotted, Jenkins, who disappeared into the bowels of the ship after his wife, a fellow crew member, died meaninglessly by a stray shot of an assassin trying to kill a Union ambassador on an away mission.

Dahl undertakes to track down Jenkins, who is rumoured to have a theory which explains everything that is happening. The theory turns out to be as bizarre or more so than life on the Intrepid, but Dahl and his fellow ensigns concede that it does explain what they're experiencing and that applying it allows them to make sense of events which are otherwise incomprehensible (I love “the Box”).

But a theory, however explanatory, does not address the immediate problem: how to avoid being devoured by Pornathic crabs or the Great Badger of Tau Ceti on their next away mission. Dahl and his fellow junior crew must figure out how to turn the nonsensical reality they inhabit toward their own survival and do so without overtly engaging in, you know, mutiny, which could, like death, be career limiting. The story becomes so meta it will make you question the metaness of meta itself.

This is a pure romp, often laugh-out-loud funny, having a delightful time immersing itself in the lives of characters in one of our most beloved and enduring science fiction universes. We all know the bridge crew and department heads, but what's it really like below decks, and how does it feel to experience that sinking feeling when the first officer points to you and says “You're with me!” when forming an away team?

The novel has three codas written, respectively, in the first, second, and third person. The last, even in this very funny book, will moisten your eyes. Redshirts won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013.


June 2015

Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank]. Alas, Babylon. New York: Harper Perennial, [1959] 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-074187-7.
This novel, originally published in 1959, was one the first realistic fictional depictions of an all-out nuclear war and its aftermath. While there are some well-crafted thriller scenes about the origins and catastrophic events of a one day spasm war between the Soviet Union and the United States (the precise origins of which are not described in detail; the reader is led to conclude that it was an accident waiting to happen, much like the outbreak of World War I), the story is mostly set in Fort Repose, a small community on a river in the middle of Florida, in an epoch when Florida was still, despite some arrivals from the frozen north, very much part of the deep south.

Randy Bragg lives in the house built by his ancestors on River Road, with neighbours including long-time Floridians and recent arrivals. some of which were scandalised to discover one of their neighbours, the Henry family, were descended from slaves to whom Randy's grandfather had sold their land long before the first great Florida boom, when land was valued only by the citrus it could grow. Randy, nominally a lawyer, mostly lived on proceeds from his orchards, a trust established by his father, and occasional legal work, and was single, largely idle, and seemingly without direction. Then came The Day.

From the first detonations of Soviet bombs above cities and military bases around Fort Repose, the news from outside dwindled to brief bulletins from Civil Defense and what one of Randy's neighbours could glean from a short wave radio. As electrical power failed and batteries were exhausted, little was known of the fate of the nation and the world. At least, after The Day, there were no more visible nuclear detonations.

Suddenly Fort Repose found itself effectively in the 19th century. Gasoline supplies were limited to what people had in the tanks of their cars, and had to be husbanded for only the most essential purposes. Knowledge of how to hunt, trap, fish, and raise crops, chickens, and pigs became much more important than the fancy specialties of retirees in the area. Fortunately, by the luck of geography and weather, Fort Repose was spared serious fallout from the attack, and the very fact that the large cities surrounding it were directly targeted (and that it was not on a main highway) meant it would be spared invasion by the “golden horde” of starving urban and suburban refugees which figure in many post-apocalyptic stories. Still, cut off from the outside, “what you have is all you've got”, and people must face the reality that medical supplies, their only doctor, food the orchards cannot supply, and even commodities as fundamental as salt are limited. But people, especially rural people in the middle of the 20th century, are resourceful, and before long a barter market springs up in which honey, coffee, and whiskey prove much more valuable than gold or silver.

Wherever there are things of value and those who covet them, predators of the two footed variety will be manifest. While there is no mass invasion, highwaymen and thieves appear to prey upon those trying to eke out a living for their families. Randy Bragg, now responsible for three families living under his own roof and neighbours provided by his artesian water well, is forced to grow into a protector of these people and the community, eventually defending them from those who would destroy everything they have managed to salvage from the calamity.

They learn that all of Florida has been designated as one of the Contaminated Zones, and hence that no aid can be anticipated from what remains of the U.S. government. Eventually a cargo plane flies over and drops leaflets informing residents that at some time in the future aid may be forthcoming, “It was proof that the government of the United States still functioned. It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.”

This is a tale of the old, weird, stiff-spined, rural America which could ultimately ride out what Herman Kahn called the “destruction of the A country” and keep on going. We hear little of the fate of those in the North, where with The Day occurring near mid-winter, the outcome for those who escaped the immediate attack would have been much more calamitous. Ultimately it is the resourcefulness, fundamental goodness, and growth of these people under extreme adversity which makes this tale of catastrophe ultimately one of hope.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition and processing it through an optical character recognition program. The result of this seems to have been run through a spelling checker, but not subjected to detailed copy editing. As a result, there are numerous scanning errors, some obvious, some humorous, and some real head scratchers. This classic work, from a major publisher, deserves better.


July 2015

Powell, James, George Maise, and Charles Pellegrino. StarTram. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4935-7757-6.
Magnetic levitation allows suspending a vehicle above a guideway by the force of magnetic repulsion. A train using magnetic levitation avoids the vibration, noise, and rolling resistance of wheels on rails, and its speed is limited only by air resistance and the amount of acceleration passengers consider tolerable. The Shanghai Maglev Train, in service since 2004, is the fastest train in commercial passenger service today, and travels at 431 kilometres per hour in regular operation. Suppose you were able to somehow get rid of the air resistance and carry only cargo, which can tolerate high acceleration. It would appear that if the technical challenges could be met, the sky would be the limit. In this book the authors argue that the sky is just the start.

They propose a space launch system called StarTram, to be developed in two technological generations. The Generation 1 (Gen-1) system is for cargo only, and uses an evacuated launch tube 110 km long in an underground tunnel. This sounds ambitious, but the three tunnels under the English Channel total 150 km, and are much larger than that required for StarTram. The launcher will be located at a site which allows the tube to run up a mountain, emerging in the thinner air at an altitude between 3 and 7 kilometres. There will be an extreme sonic boom as the launch vehicle emerges from the launch tube at a velocity of around 8 kilometres per second and flies upward through the atmosphere, so the launcher will have to be located in a region where the trajectory downrange for a sufficient distance is unpopulated. Several candidate sites on different continents are proposed.

The Gen-1 cargo craft is levitated by means of high (liquid nitrogen) temperature superconducting magnets which are chilled immediately before launch. They need only remain superconducting for the launch itself, around 30 seconds, so a small on-board supply of liquid nitrogen will suffice for refrigeration. These superconducting magnets repel loops of aluminium in the evacuated guideway tube; no refrigeration of these loops is required. One of the greatest technical challenges of the system is delivering the electric power needed to accelerate the cargo craft. In the 30 seconds or so of acceleration at 30 gravities, the average power requirement is 47 gigawatts, with a peak of 94 gigawatts as orbital velocity is approached. A typical commercial grid power plant produces around 1 gigawatt of power, so it is utterly impractical to generate this power on site. But the total energy required for a launch is only about 20 minutes' output from a 1 gigawatt power station. The StarTram design, therefore, incorporates sixty superconducting energy storage loops, which accumulate the energy for a launch from the grid over time, then discharge to propel the vehicle as it is accelerated. The authors note that the energy storage loops are comparable in magnitude to the superconducting magnets of the Large Hadron Collider, and require neither the extreme precision nor the liquid helium refrigeration those magnets do.

You wouldn't want to ride a Gen-1 cargo launcher. It accelerates at around 30 gravities as it goes down the launch tube, then when it emerges into the atmosphere, decelerates at a rate between 6 and 12g until it flies into the thinner atmosphere. Upon reaching orbital altitude, a small rocket kick motor circularises the orbit. After delivering the payload into orbit (if launching to a higher orbit or one with a different inclination, the payload would contain its own rocket or electric propulsion to reach the desired orbit), the cargo vehicle would make a deorbit burn with the same small rocket it used to circularise its orbit, extend wings, and glide back for re-use.

You may be wondering how a tunnel, evacuated to a sufficiently low pressure to allow a craft to accelerate to orbital velocity without being incinerated, works exactly when one end has to be open to allow the vehicle to emerge into the atmosphere. That bothers me too, a lot. The authors propose that the exit end of the tube will have a door which pops open just before the vehicle is about to emerge. The air at the exit will be ionised by seeding with a conductive material, such as cæsium vapour, then pumped outward by a strong DC current, operating as the inverse of a magnetohydrodynamic generator. Steam generators at the exit of the launch tube force away the ambient air, reducing air pressure as is done for testing upper stage rocket motors. This is something I'd definitely want to see prototyped in both small and full scale before proceeding. Once the cargo craft has emerged, the lid slams shut.

Launching 10 cargo ships a day, the Gen-1 system could deliver 128,000 tons of payload into orbit a year, around 500 times that of all existing rocket launch systems combined. The construction cost of the Gen-1 system is estimated at around US$20 billion, and with all major components reusable, its operating cost is electricity, maintenance, staff, and the small amount of rocket fuel expended in circularising the orbit of craft and deorbiting them. The estimated all-up cost of launching a kilogram of payload is US$43, which is about one hundredth of current launch costs. The launch capacity is adequate to build a robust industrial presence in space, including solar power satellites which beam power to the Earth.

Twenty billion dollars isn't small change, but it's comparable to the development budget for NASA's grotesque Space Launch System, which will fly only every few years and cost on the order of US$2 billion per launch, with everything being thrown away on each mission.

As noted, the Gen-1 system is unsuited to launching people. You could launch people in it, but they wouldn't still be people when they arrived on orbit, due to the accelerations experienced. To launch people, a far more ambitious Gen-2 system is proposed. To reduce launch acceleration to acceptable levels, the launch tunnel would have to be around 1500 km long. To put this into perspective, that's about the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle. To avoid the bruising deceleration (and concomitant loss of velocity) when the vehicle emerges from the launch tube, the end of the launch tube will be magnetically levitated by superconducting magnets (restrained by tethers) so that the end is at an altitude of 20 km. Clearly there'll have to be a no-fly zone around the levitated launch tube, and you really don't want the levitation system to fail. The authors estimate the capital cost of the Gen-2 system at US$67 billion, which seems wildly optimistic to me. Imagine how many forms you'll have to fill out to dig a 1500 km tunnel anywhere in the world, not to speak of actually building one, and then you have to develop that massive magnetically levitated launch tube, which has never been demonstrated.

Essentially everything I have described so far appears in chapter 2 of this book, which makes up less than 10% of its 204 pages. You can read a complete description of the StarTram system for free in this technical paper from 2010. The rest of the book is, well, a mess. With its topic, magnetic levitation space launch, dispensed with by the second chapter, it then veers into describing all of the aspects of our bright future in space such a system will open, including solar power satellites, protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, space tourism, colonising Mars, exploring the atmosphere of Jupiter, searching for life on the moons of the outer planets, harvesting helium-3 from the atmospheres of the outer planets for fusion power, building a telescope at the gravitational lensing point of the Sun, and interstellar missions. Dark scenarios are presented in which the country which builds StarTram first uses it to establish a global hegemony enforced by all-seeing surveillance from space and “Rods from God”, orbited in their multitudes by StarTram, and a world where the emerging empire is denied access to space by a deliberate effort by one or more second movers to orbit debris to make any use of low orbits impossible, imprisoning humanity on this planet. (But for how long? Small particles in low orbit decay pretty quickly.) Even wilder speculations about intelligent life in the universe and an appropriate strategy for humans in the face of a potentially hostile universe close the book.

All of this is fine, but none of it is new. The only new concept here is StarTram itself, and if the book concentrated just on that, it would be a mere 16 pages. The rest is essentially filler, rehashing other aspects of the human future in space, which would be enabled by any means of providing cheap access to low Earth orbit. The essential question is whether the key enabling technologies of StarTram will work, and that is a matter of engineering which can be determined by component tests before committing to the full-scale project. Were I the NASA administrator and had the power to do so (which, in reality, the NASA administrator does not, being subordinate to the will of appropriators in Congress who mandate NASA priorities in the interest of civil service and contractor jobs in their districts and states), I would cancel the Space Launch System in an instant and use a small part of the savings to fund risk reduction and component tests of the difficult parts of a Gen-1 StarTram launcher.


Thor, Brad. Code of Conduct. New York: Atria Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-1715-9.
This is the fifteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, the author “goes big”, with a thriller whose global implications are soundly grounded in genuine documents of the anti-human “progressive” fringe and endorsed, at least implicitly, by programmes of the United Nations.

A short video, recorded at a humanitarian medical clinic in the Congo, shows a massacre of patients and staff which seems to make no sense at all. The operator of the clinic retains the Carlton Group to investigate the attack on its facility, and senior operative Scot Harvath is dispatched to lead a team to find out what happened and why. Murphy's Law applies at all times and places, but Murphy seems to pull extra shifts in the Congo, and Harvath's team must overcome rebels, the elements, and a cast-iron humanitarian to complete its mission.

As pieces of evidence are assembled, it becomes clear that the Congo massacre was a side-show of a plot with global implications, orchestrated by a cabal of international élites and supported by bien pensants in un-elected senior administrative positions in governments. Having bought into the anti-human agenda, they are willing to implement a plan to “restore equilibrium” and “ensure sustainability” whatever the human toll.

This is less a shoot-'em-up action thriller (although there is some of that, to be sure), than the unmasking of a hideous plot and take-down of it once it is already unleashed. It is a thoroughly satisfying yarn, and many readers may not be aware of the extent to which the goals advocated by the villains have been openly stated by senior officials of both the U.S. government and international bodies.

This is not one of those thrillers where once the dust settles things are left pretty much as they were before. The world at the end of this book will have been profoundly changed from that at the start. It will be interesting to see how the author handles this in the next volume in the series.

For a high-profile summer thriller by a blockbuster author from a major publishing house (Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster), which debuted at number 3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, there are a surprising number of copy editing and factual errors, even including the platinum standard, an idiot “It's” on p. 116. Something odd appears to have happened in formatting the Kindle edition (although I haven't confirmed that it doesn't also affect the print edition): a hyphen occasionally appears at the end of lines, separated by a space from the preceding word, where no hyphenation is appropriate, for example: “State - Department”.


Easton, Richard D. and Eric F. Frazier. GPS Declassified. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61234-408-9.
At the dawn of the space age, as the United States planned to launch its Vanguard satellites during the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), the need to track the orbit of the satellites became apparent. Optical and radar tracking were considered (and eventually used for various applications), but for the first very small satellites would have been difficult. The Naval Research Laboratory proposed a system, Minitrack, which would use the radio beacon of the satellite, received by multiple ground stations on the Earth, which by interferometry would determine the position and velocity of a satellite with great precision. For the scheme to work, a “fence” of receiving stations would have to be laid out which the satellite would regularly cross in its orbit, the positions of each of the receiving stations would have to be known very accurately, and clocks at all of the receiving stations would have to be precisely synchronised with a master clock at the control station which calculated the satellite's orbit.

The technical challenges were overcome, and Minitrack stations were placed into operation at locations within the United States and as far flung as Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Australia, and in the Caribbean. Although designed to track the U.S. Vanguard satellites, after the unexpected launch of Sputnik, receivers were hastily modified to receive the frequency on which it transmitted its beeps, and the system successfully proved itself tracking the first Earth satellite. Minitrack was used to track subsequent U.S. and Soviet satellites until it was supplanted in 1962 by the more capable Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network.

An important part of creative engineering is discovering that once you've solved one problem, you may now have the tools at hand to address other tasks, sometimes more important that the one which motivated the development of the enabling technologies in the first place. It didn't take long for a group of engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to realise that if you could determine the precise position and velocity of a satellite in orbit by receiving signals simultaneously at multiple stations on the ground with precisely-synchronised clocks, you could invert the problem and, by receiving signals from multiple satellites in known orbits, each with an accurate and synchronised clock on board, it would be possible to determine the position, altitude, and velocity of the receiver on or above the Earth (and, in addition, provide a precise time signal). With a sufficiently extensive constellation of satellites, precision navigation and time signals could be extended to the entire planet. This was the genesis of the Global Positioning System (GPS) which has become a ubiquitous part of our lives today.

At the start, this concept was “exploratory engineering”: envisioning what could be done (violating no known law of physics) if and when technology advanced to a stage which permitted it. The timing accuracy required for precision navigation could be achieved by atomic clocks (quartz frequency standards were insufficiently stable and subject to drift due to temperature, pressure, and age of the crystal), but in the 1950s and early '60s, atomic clocks were large, heavy, and delicate laboratory apparatus which nobody imagined could be put on top of a rocket and shot into Earth orbit. Just launching single satellites into low Earth orbit was a challenge, with dramatic launch failures and in-orbit malfunctions all too common. The thought of operating a constellation of dozens of satellites in precisely-specified high orbits seemed like science fiction. And even if the satellites with atomic clocks could somehow be launched, the radio technology to receive the faint signals from space and computation required to extract position and velocity information from the signal was something which might take a room full of equipment: hardly practical for a large aircraft or even a small ship.

But the funny thing about an exponentially growing technology is if something seems completely infeasible today, just wait a few years. Often, it will move from impossible to difficult to practical for limited applications to something in everybody's pocket. So it has been with GPS, as this excellent book recounts. In 1964, engineers at NRL (including author Easton's father, Roger L. Easton) proposed a system called Timation, in which miniaturised and ruggedised atomic clocks on board satellites would provide time signals which could be used for navigation on land, sea, and air. After ground based tests and using aircraft to simulate the satellite signal, in 1967 the Timation I satellite was launched to demonstrate the operation of an atomic clock in orbit and use of its signals on the ground. With a single satellite in a relatively low orbit, the satellite would only be visible from a given location for thirteen minutes at a time, but this was sufficient to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept.

As the Timation concept was evolving (a second satellite test was launched in 1969, demonstrating improved accuracy), it was not without competition. The U.S. had long been operating the LORAN system for coarse-grained marine and aircraft navigation, and had beacons marking airways across the country. Starting in 1964, the U.S. Navy's Transit satellite navigation system (which used a Doppler measurement system and did not require a precise clock on the satellites) provided periodic position fixes for Navy submarines and surface ships, but was inadequate for aircraft navigation. In the search for a more capable system, Timation competed with an Air Force proposal for regional satellite constellations including geosynchronous and inclined elliptical orbit satellites.

The development of GPS began in earnest in 1973, with the Air Force designated as the lead service. This project launch occurred in the midst of an inter-service rivalry over navigation systems which did not abate with the official launch of the project. Indeed, even in retrospect, participants in the program dispute how much the eventually deployed system owes to its various precursors. Throughout the 1970s the design of the system was refined and pathfinder technology development missions launched, with the first launch of an experimental satellite in February 1978. One satellite is a stunt, but by 1985 a constellation of 10 experimental satellites were in orbit, allowing the performance of the system to be evaluated, constellation management tools to be developed and tested, and receiver hardware to be checked out. Starting in 1989 operational satellites began to be launched, but it was not until 1993 that worldwide, round-the clock coverage was available, and the high-precision military signal was not declared operational until 1995.

Even though GPS coverage was spotty and not continuous, GPS played an important part in the first Gulf War of 1990–1991. Because the military had lagged in procuring GPS receivers for the troops, large numbers of commercial GPS units were purchased and pressed into service for navigating in the desert. A few GPS-guided weapons were used in the conflict, but their importance was insignificant compared to other precision-guided munitions.

Prior to May 2000 the civilian GPS signal was deliberately degraded in accuracy (can't allow the taxpayers who paid for it to have the same quality of navigation as costumed minions of the state!) This so-called “selective availability” was finally discontinued, making GPS practical for vehicle and non-precision air navigation. GPS units began to appear on the consumer market, and like other electronic gadgets got smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more capable with every passing year. Adoption of GPS for tracking of fleets of trucks, marine navigation, and aircraft use became widespread.

Now that GPS is commonplace and hundreds of millions of people are walking around with GPS receivers in their smartphones, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about precisely what GPS entails. GPS—the Global Positioning System—is precisely that: a system which allows anybody with a compatible receiver and a view of the sky which allows them to see four or more satellites to determine their state vector (latitude, longitude, and altitude, plus velocity in each of those three directions) in a specified co-ordinate system (where much additional complexity lurks, which I'll gloss over here), along with the precise time of the measurement. That's all it does. GPS is entirely passive: the GPS receiver sends nothing back to the satellite, and hence the satellite system is able to accommodate an unlimited number of GPS receivers simultaneously. There is no such thing as a “GPS tracker” which can monitor the position of something via satellite. Trackers use GPS to determine their position, but then report the position by other means (for example, the mobile phone network). When people speak of “their GPS” giving directions, GPS is only telling them where they are and where they're going at each instant. All the rest: map display, turn-by-turn directions, etc. is a “big data” application running either locally on the GPS receiver or using resources in the “cloud”: GPS itself plays no part in this (and shouldn't be blamed when “your GPS” sends you the wrong way down a one-way street).

So successful has GPS been, and so deeply has it become embedded in our technological society and economy, that there are legitimate worries about such a system being under the sole control of the U.S. Air Force which could, if ordered, shut down the civilian GPS signals worldwide or regionally (because of the altitude of the satellites, fine-grained denial of GPS availability would not be possible). Also, the U.S. does not have the best record of maintaining vital infrastructure and has often depended upon weather satellites well beyond their expected lifetimes due to budget crunches. Consequently, other players have entered the global positioning market, with the Soviet/Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, and Chinese BeiDou systems operational or under construction. Other countries, including Japan, India, and Iran, are said to be developing their own regional navigation systems. So far, cooperation among these operators has been relatively smooth, reducing the likelihood of interference and making it possible for future receivers to use multiple constellations for better coverage and precision.

This is a comprehensive history of navigation systems and GPS from inception to the present day, with a look into the future. Extensive source citations are given (almost 40% of the book is end notes), and in the Kindle edition the notes, Web documents cited within them, and the index are all properly linked. There are abundant technical details about the design and operation of the system, but the book is entirely accessible to the intelligent layman. In the lifetimes of all but the youngest people on Earth, GPS has transformed our world into a place where nobody need ever be lost. We are just beginning to see the ramifications of this technology on the economy and how we live our day-to-day lives (for example, the emerging technology of self-driving cars would be impossible without GPS). This book is an essential history of how this technology came to be, how it works, and where it may be going in the future.


Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, [2003] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4012-4711-9.
On June 30th, 1908, a small asteroid or comet struck the Earth's atmosphere and exploded above the Tunguska river in Siberia. The impact is estimated to have released energy equivalent to 10 to 15 megatons of TNT; it is the largest impact event in recorded history. Had the impactor been so aligned as to hit the Earth three hours later, it would have exploded above the city of Saint Petersburg, completely destroying it.

In a fictional universe, an alien spaceship crashes in rural Kansas in the United States, carrying an orphan from the stars who, as he matures, discovers he has powers beyond those of inhabitants of Earth, and vows to use these gifts to promote and defend truth, justice, and the American way. Now, like Tunguska, imagine the spaceship arrived a few hours earlier. Then, the baby Kal-El would have landed in Stalin's Soviet Union and, presumably, imbibed its values and culture just as Superman did in the standard canon. That is the premise of this delightful alternative universe take on the Superman legend, produced by DC Comics and written and illustrated up the standards one expects from the publisher. The Soviet Superman becomes an extraterrestrial embodiment of the Stakhanovite ideal, and it is only natural that when the beloved Stalin dies, he is succeeded by another Man of Steel.

The Soviet system may have given lip service to the masses, but beneath it was the Russian tradition of authority, and what better authority than a genuine superman? A golden age ensues, with Soviet/Superman communism triumphant around the globe, apart from recalcitrant holdouts Chile and the United States. But all are not happy with this situation, which some see as subjugation to an alien ruler. In the Soviet Union Batman becomes the symbol and leader of an underground resistance. United States president and supergenius Lex Luthor hatches scheme after scheme to bring down his arch-enemy, enlisting other DC superheroes as well as his own creations in the effort. Finally, Superman is forced to make a profound choice about human destiny and his own role in it. The conclusion to the story is breathtaking.

This is a well-crafted and self-consistent alternative to the fictional universe with which we're well acquainted. It is not a parody like Tales of the Bizarro World (November 2007), and in no way played for laughs. The Kindle edition is superbly produced, but you may have to zoom into some of the pages containing the introductory material to be able to read the small type. Sketches of characters under development by the artists are included in an appendix.


August 2015

Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. New York: William Morrow, 2015. ISBN 978-0-06-219037-6.
Fiction writers are often advised to try to immediately grab the attention of readers and involve them in the story. “If you haven't hooked them by the end of the first chapter, you've probably lost 'em.” Here, the author doesn't dawdle. The first line is “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” All right, now that's an interesting premise!

This massive novel (880 pages in the hardcover print edition) is divided into three parts. In the first, after the explosion of the Moon, scientist and media talking head Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (“Doob”), a figure much like Neil deGrasse Tyson in real life, calculates that the seven large fragments of the exploded moon will collide with one another, setting off an exponential cascade of fragmentation and further collisions like the Kessler syndrome for objects in low Earth orbit, with enough the scattered debris bombarding the Earth to render its surface uninhabitable for on the order of five thousand years.

The story begins in the near future, when the International Space Station (“Izzy”) has been augmented with some additional facilities and a small nickel-iron asteroid retrieved and docked to it for asteroid mining experiments. Technology is much as at the present, but with space-based robotics having advanced significantly. Faced with what amounts to a death sentence for the Earth (the heat from the impacts was expected to boil off much of the oceans and eject the atmosphere into space), and having only around two years before the catastrophic bombardment begins, spacefaring nations make plans to re-purpose Izzy as a “Cloud Ark” to preserve the genetic heritage of the Earth and the intellectual capital of humanity against the time when the home planet can again be made habitable. Thus begins a furious technological crash project, described in detail, working against an inexorable deadline, to save what can be saved and launch it to the fragile ark in space.

Eventually the catastrophe arrives, and the second part of the novel chronicles the remnant of humanity on the Cloud Ark, with Izzy as its core, and most of the population in co-orbiting rudimentary habitats. From the start there are major technical challenges to overcome, with all involved knowing that high technology products from Earth such as silicon chips and laboratory equipment may not be able to be replaced for centuries, if ever. The habitat ecosystem must be closed, as there will be no resupply. And, people being people, the society of the survivors begins to fragment into factions, each with its own priorities and ideas about how to best proceed. Again, there is much technological derring-do, described in great detail (including one of the best explanations of the fundamentals of orbital mechanics I've encountered in fiction). The heroic exploits of the survivors are the stuff of legend, and become the legends of their descendents.

Part three of the novel picks up the story five thousand years later, when the descendants of the Cloud Ark have constructed a mature spacefaring civilisation, tapping resources of the solar system, and are engaged in restoring the Earth, now that the bombardment has abated, to habitability. The small population of the Cloud Ark has put the human race through a serious genetic bottleneck with the result that the species has differentiated into distinct races, each with its own traits and behavioural characteristics, partly determined by genetics and partly transmitted culturally. These races form alliances and conflict with one another, with humanity having sorted itself into two factions called Red and Blue (gee, how could such a thing happen?) which have largely separated into their own camps. But with possession of the Earth at stake, Red and Blue have much to dispute, especially when enigmatic events on that planet call into the question their shared history.

This is a rather curious book. It is so long and intricate that there's room for a lot in here, and that's what the reader gets. Some of it is the hardest of hard science fiction, with lengthy technical explanations which may make those looking for a fast moving story yawn or doze off. (In fact, there are parts where it seems like the kind of background notes science fiction authors make to flesh out their worlds and then include random portions as the story plays out have, instead, been dumped wholesale into the text. It's as if Obi-Wan shows Luke his father's light sabre, then spends ten minutes explaining the power pack, plasma containment system, field generator, and why it makes that cool sound when you wave it around.) The characters seem to be archetypes of particular personality traits and appear to be largely driven by them rather than developing as they face the extraordinary challenges with which they're presented, and these stereotypes become increasingly important as the story unfolds.

On balance, I'm glad I read this book. It's a solid, well-told yarn which will make you think about just how humans would respond faced with a near-term apocalypse and also whether, given how fractious and self-destructive they often are, whether they are likely to survive or, indeed, deserve to. I believe a good editor could have cut this manuscript in half, sacrificing nothing of importance, and making the story move along more compellingly.

And now there are a number of details about the novel which I cannot discuss without spoiling the plot and/or ending, so I'll take them behind the curtain. Do not read the following unless you've already read the novel or are certain you will never do so.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
At the start of the novel the nickel-iron asteroid “Amalthea” has been docked to Izzy for experiments in asteroid mining. This asteroid is described as if “laid to rest on a soccer field, it would have stretched from one penalty box to the other and completely covered the center circle.” Well, first of all, this is not the asteroid 113 Amalthea of our solar system, which is a much larger rocky main belt asteroid—46 km in size. Why one would name an asteroid brought to the space station the same as a very different asteroid known since 1871 escapes me. Given that the space station does various maneuvers in the course of the story, I was curious about the mass of the asteroid. Assuming it is a prolate ellipsoid of revolution with semi-principal axes of 9.15, 9.15, and 36 metres (taken from the dimensions of a standard soccer field), its volume would be 12625 m³ and, assuming the standard density of 5.32 g/cm³ for metallic asteroids, would have a mass of 67170 tonnes, which is 1.3 times the mass of the Titanic. This is around 150 times the present mass of the International Space Station, so it would make maneuvers, especially those done later in the book, rather challenging. I'm not saying it's impossible, because complete details of the propulsion used aren't given, but it sure looks dodgy, and even more after the “megaton of propellant” mentioned on p. 493 is delivered to the station.

On p. 365 Izzy is said to be in an orbit “angled at about fifty-six degrees to the equator”. Not so; its inclination is 51.6°.

On p. 74 the arklets are said to “draw power from a small, simple nuclear reactor fueled by isotopes so radioactive that they would throw off heat, and thereby generate electricity, for a few decades.” This is describing a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, not a nuclear reactor. Such generators are usually powered by plutonium-238, which has a half-life of 87.7 years. How would such a power source sustain life in the arklets for the five thousand years of exile in space? Note that after the Hard Rain, resources to build new nuclear reactors or solar panels would not be available to residents of the Cloud Ark.

When the Ymir makes its rendezvous with Izzy, it jettisons its nuclear reactor to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Why would you discard such an irreplaceable power source? If you're worried about radiation, place it into a high, stable orbit where it can be retrieved for use later if needed. Humans could expect no further source of nuclear fuel for thousands of years.

The differentiation of the races of humanity in the final part of the novel strikes me as odd and, in a way, almost racist. Now, granted, genetic manipulation was involved in the creation of these races, but there seems to be a degree of genetic (with some help from culture) predestination of behavioural traits which, if attributed to present-day human races, would exclude one from polite discourse. I think the story would have been made more interesting if one or more members of these races was forced by circumstances to transcend their racial stereotypes.

The technology, or lack thereof, in the final part of the book is curious. Five thousand years have elapsed, and the Cloud Ark population has recovered to become a multi-racial space-dwelling society of three billion people, capable of mega-engineering projects humans today can only dream of, utilising resources of the solar system out to the Kuiper belt. And yet their technology seems pretty much what we expect to see within this century, and in some ways inferior to our own. Some of this is explained by deliberate relinquishment of technology (“Amistics”, referring to the Amish), but how likely is it that all races and cultures would agree not to develop certain technologies, particularly when in conflict with one another?

I loved the “Srap Tasmaner”. You will too, once you figure it out.

Given that the Moon blew up, why would an advanced spacefaring civilisation with a multitude of habitats be so interested in returning to a planet, deep in a gravity well, which might itself blow up some day?

Spoilers end here.  


Derbyshire, John. From the Dissident Right. Litchfield, CT: VDare.com, 2013. ISBN 978-1-304-00154-2.
This is a collection of columns dating from 2001–2013, mostly from VDare.com, but also from Taki's Magazine (including the famous “The Talk: Nonblack Version”, which precipitated the author's departure from National Review).

Subtitled “Essays on the National Question”, the articles mostly discuss the composition of the population and culture of the United States, and how mass immigration (both legal and illegal) from cultures very different from that of the largely homogeneous majority culture of the U.S. prior to the Immigration and Nationality Acy of 1965, from regions of the world with no tradition of consensual government, individual and property rights, and economic freedom is changing the U.S., eroding what once contributed to its exceptionalism. Unlike previous waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe, Ireland, and Asia, the prevailing multicultural doctrine of ruling class élites is encouraging these new immigrants to retain their languages, cultures, and way of life, while public assistance frees them from the need to assimilate to earn a living.

Frankly discussing these issues today is guaranteed to result in one's being deemed a racist, nativist, and other pejorative terms, and John Derbyshire has been called those and worse. This is incongruous since he is a naturalised U.S. citizen who immigrated from England married to a woman born in China. To me, Derbyshire comes across as an observer much like George Orwell who sees the facts on the ground, does his research, and writes with an unrelenting realism about the actual situation with no regard for what can and cannot be spoken according to the guardians of the mass culture. Derbyshire sees a nation at risk, with its ruling class either enthusiastically promoting or passively accepting its transformation into the kind of economically stratified, authoritarian, and impoverished society which caused so many immigrants to leave their nations of origin and come to the U.S. in the first place.

If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, the Kindle edition is free. This essays in this book are available online for free, so I wouldn't buy the paperback or pay full price for the Kindle version, but if you have Kindle Unlimited, the price is right.


Shute, Nevil. Trustee from the Toolroom. New York: Vintage Books, [1960] 2010. ISBN 978-0-345-02663-7.
Keith Stewart is an unexceptional man. “[Y]ou may see a little man get in at West Ealing, dressed in a shabby raincoat over a blue suit. He is one of hundreds of thousands like him in industrial England, pale-faced, running to fat a little, rather hard up. His hands show evidence of manual work, his eyes and forehead evidence of intellect.” He earns his living by making mechanical models and writing articles about them which are published, with directions, in the London weekly Miniature Mechanic. His modest income from the magazine has allowed him to give up his toolroom job at an aircraft subcontractor. Along with the income his wife Katie earns from her job in a shop, they make ends meet and are paying down the mortgage on their house, half of which they rent out.

Keith's sister Jo married well. Her husband, John Dermott, is a retired naval officer and nephew of Lord Dungannon, with an independent income from the family fortune. Like many people in postwar Britain, the Dermotts have begun to chafe under the ceaseless austerity, grey collectivism, and shrinking freedom of what was once the vanguard of civilisation and have decided to emigrate to the west coast of Canada, to live the rest of their lives in freedom. They've decided to make their journey an adventure, making the voyage from Britain to Vancouver through the Panama Canal in their modest but oceangoing sailboat Shearwater. Keith and Katie agree to look after their young daughter Janice, whose parents don't want to take out of school and who might not tolerate a long ocean voyage well.

Tragedy befalls the Dermotts, as they are shipwrecked and drowned in a tropical storm in the Pacific. Keith and Katie have agreed to become Janice's trustees in such an event and, consulting the Dermotts' solicitor, are astonished to learn that their fortune, assumed substantial, has almost entirely vanished. While they can get along and support Janice, she'll not be able to receive the education they assumed her parents intended her to have.

Given the confiscatory capital controls in effect at the time, Keith has an idea what may have happened to the Dermott fortune. “And he was the trustee.” Keith Stewart, who had never set foot outside of England, and can barely afford a modest holiday, suddenly finds himself faced with figuring out how to travel to the other side of the world, to a location that isn't even on his map, and undertake a difficult and risky mission.

Keith discovers that while nobody would recognise him on the street or think him out of the ordinary, his writing for Miniature Mechanic has made him a celebrity in what, more than half a century later, would be called the “maker subculture”, and that these people are resourceful, creative, willing to bend the rules to get things done and help one another, and some dispose of substantial wealth. By a chain of connections which might have seemed implausible at the outset but is the kind of thing which happens all of the time in the real world, Keith Stewart, modelmaker and scribbler, sets out on an epic adventure.

This is a thoroughly satisfying and utterly charming story. It is charming because the characters are such good people; the kind you'd feel privileged to have as friends. But they are also realistic; the author's career was immersed in the engineering and entrepreneurial milieu, and understands these folks in detail. This is a world, devoid of much of what we consider to be modern, you'll find yourself admiring; it is a joy to visit it. The last two paragraphs will make you shiver.

This novel is currently unavailable in a print edition, so I have linked to the Kindle edition in the head. Used paperback copies are readily available. There is an unabridged audio version of this book.


September 2015

Unger, Roberto Mangabeira and Lee Smolin. The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-107-07406-4.
In his 2013 book Time Reborn (June 2013), Lee Smolin argued that, despite its extraordinary effectiveness in understanding the behaviour of isolated systems, what he calls the “Newtonian paradigm” is inadequate to discuss cosmology: the history and evolution of the universe as a whole. In this book, Smolin and philosopher Roberto Mangabeira Unger expand upon that observation and present the case that the current crisis in cosmology, with its appeal to multiple universes and mathematical structures which are unobservable, even in principle, is a consequence of the philosophical, scientific, and mathematical tools we've been employing since the dawn of science attempting to be used outside their domain of applicability, and that we must think differently when speaking of the universe as a whole, which contains all of its own causes and obeys no laws outside itself. The authors do not present their own theories to replace those of present-day cosmology (although they discuss the merits of several proposals), but rather describe their work as a “proposal in natural philosophy” which might guide investigators searching for those new theories.

In brief, the Newtonian paradigm is that the evolution of physical systems is described by differential equations which, given a set of initial conditions, permit calculating the evolution of a system in the future. Since the laws of physics at the microscopic level are reversible, given complete knowledge of the state of a system at a given time, its past can equally be determined. Quantum mechanics modifies this only in that rather than calculating the position and momentum of particles (or other observables), we calculate the deterministic evolution of the wave function which gives the probability of observing them in specific states in the future.

This paradigm divides physics into two components: laws (differential equations) and initial conditions (specification of the initial state of the system being observed). The laws themselves, although they allow calculating the evolution of the system in time, are themselves timeless: they do not change and are unaffected by the interaction of objects. But if the laws are timeless and not subject to back-reaction by the objects whose interaction they govern, where did they come from and where do they exist? While conceding that these aren't matters which working scientists spend much time thinking about, in the context of cosmology they post serious philosophical problems. If the universe all that is and contains all of its own causes, there is no place for laws which are outside the universe, cannot be acted upon by objects within it, and have no apparent cause.

Further, because mathematics has been so effective in expressing the laws of physics we've deduced from experiments and observations, many scientists have come to believe that mathematics can be a guide to exploring physics and cosmology: that some mathematical objects we have explored are, in a sense, homologous to the universe, and that learning more about the mathematics can be a guide to discoveries about reality.

One of the most fundamental discoveries in cosmology, which has happened within the lifetimes of many readers of this book, including me, is that the universe has a history. When I was a child, some scientists (a majority, as I recall) believed the universe was infinite and eternal, and that observers at any time in the past or future would observe, at the largest scales, pretty much the same thing. Others argued for an origin at a finite time in the past, with the early universe having a temperature and density much greater than at present—this theory was mocked as the “big bang”. Discovery of the cosmic background radiation and objects in the distant universe which did not at all resemble those we see nearby decisively decided this dispute in favour of the big bang, and recent precision measurements have allowed determination of when it happened and how the universe evolved subsequently.

If the universe has a finite age, this makes the idea of timeless laws even more difficult to accept. If the universe is eternal, one can accept that the laws we observe have always been that way and always will be. But if the universe had an origin we can observe, how did the laws get baked into the universe? What happened before the origin we observe? If every event has a cause, what was the cause of the big bang?

The authors argue that in cosmology—a theory encompassing the entire universe—a global privileged time must govern all events. Time flows not from some absolute clock as envisioned by Newtonian physics or the elastic time of special and general relativity, but from causality: every event has one or more causes, and these causes are unique. Depending upon their position and state of motion, observers will disagree about the durations measured by their own clocks, and on the order in which things at different positions in space occurred (the relativity of simultaneity), but they will always observe a given event to have the same cause(s), which precede it. This relational notion of time, they argue, is primordial, and space may be emergent from it.

Given this absolute and privileged notion of time (which many physicists would dispute, although the authors argue does not conflict with relativity), that time is defined by the causality of events which cause change in the universe, and that there is a single universe with nothing outside it and which contains all of its own causes, then is it not plausible to conclude that the “laws” of physics which we observe are not timeless laws somehow outside the universe or grounded in a Platonic mathematics beyond the universe, but rather have their own causes, within the universe, and are subject to change: just as there is no “unmoved mover”, there is no timeless law? The authors, particularly Smolin, suggest that just as we infer laws from observing regularities in the behaviour of systems within the universe when performing experiments in various circumstances, these laws emerge as the universe develops “habits” as interactions happen over and over. In the present cooled-down state of the universe, it's very much set in its ways, and since everything has happened innumerable times we observe the laws to be unchanging. But closer to the big bang or at extreme events in the subsequent universe, those habits haven't been established and true novelty can occur. (Indeed, simply by synthesising a protein with a hundred amino acids at random, you're almost certain to have created a molecule which has never existed before in the observable universe, and it may be harder to crystallise the first time than subsequently. This appears to be the case. This is my observation, not the authors'.)

Further, not only may the laws change, but entirely new kinds of change may occur: change itself can change. For example, on Earth, change was initially governed entirely by the laws of physics and chemistry (with chemistry ultimately based upon physics). But with the emergence of life, change began to be driven by evolution which, while at the molecular level was ultimately based upon chemistry, created structures which equilibrium chemistry never could, and dramatically changed the physical environment of the planet. This was not just change, but a novel kind of change. If it happened here, in our own recent (in cosmological time) history, why should we assume other novel kinds of change did not emerge in the early universe, or will not continue to manifest themselves in the future?

This is a very difficult and somewhat odd book. It is written in two parts, each by one of the co-authors, largely independent of one another. There is a twenty page appendix in which the authors discuss their disagreements with one another, some of which are fundamental. I found Unger's part tedious, repetitive, and embodying all of things I dislike about academic philosophers. He has some important things to say, but I found that slogging through almost 350 pages of it was like watching somebody beat a moose to death with an aluminium baseball bat: I believe a good editor, or even a mediocre one, could have cut this to 50 pages without losing anything and making the argument more clearly than trying to dig it out of this blizzard of words. Lee Smolin is one of the most lucid communicators among present-day research scientists, and his part is clear, well-argued, and a delight to read; it's just that you have to slog through the swamp to get there.

While suggesting we may have been thinking about cosmology all wrong, this is not a book which suggests either an immediate theoretical or experimental programme to explore these new ideas. Instead, it intends to plant the seed that, apart from time and causality, everything may be emergent, and that when we think about the early universe we cannot rely upon the fixed framework of our cooled-down universe with its regularities. Some of this is obvious and non-controversial: before there were atoms, there was no periodic table of the elements. But was there a time before there was conservation of energy, or before locality?


Wood, C. E. Mud: A Military History. Washington: Potomac Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59797-003-7.
Military historians from antiquity to the present day have examined innumerable aspects of human conflict in painstaking detail: strategy, tactics, morale, terrain, command structures, training of troops, logistics, mobility, weapons, armour, intelligence both before the battle and after the enemy is engaged, and a multitude of other factors which determine the outcome of the engagement. If you step back from the war college or general staff view from above and ask the actual combatants in land warfare, from privates to flag rank, what they often recall as dominating their contemporary memories, it will often be none of these things, but rather mud. This is the subject of this slim (190 page) but extensively researched and documented book.

When large numbers of men, equipment, and horses (or, in the modern era, mechanised vehicles) traverse terrain, unless it is totally dry, it is likely to be stirred up into a glutinous mix of soil and water: mud. The military mind cannot resist classifying things, and here the author draws the distinction between Type I mud, which is “bottomless” (well, not really, of course, but effectively so since it is deep enough to mire and swallow up any military force which attempts to cross it), Type IIa, which is dominated by liquid and can actually serve to clean hardware which passes through it but may make it impossible to dig trenches or build fortifications, and Type IIb, which is sticky and can immobilise and render ineffective everything from an infantryman's entrenching tool to a main battle tank.

The book illustrates the impact of mud on land warfare, examining its effects on engineering works such as building roads and fortifications, morale of troops, health, and wear and tear and reliability of equipment. Permanent mud (as exists in marshes and other wetlands), seasonal mud (monsoons and the horrific autumn rain and spring thaw mud in Russia which brought both Napoleon and Hitler's armies to a standstill), and random mud (where a downpour halts an advance as effectively as enemy action) each merit their own chapters.

Technical discussions of the composition and behaviour of mud and its effects upon soldiers and military equipment are illustrated by abundant examples from conflicts from antiquity to the most recent war in Iraq. Most examples date from the era of mechanised warfare, but the reader will rapidly appreciate that the reality of mud to the infantryman has changed little since the time of Thucydides.

In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut has one of his characters asked to solve one of the greatest problems facing Marines in combat: mud. The solution, ice-nine, is fantasy, but generations of Marines would probably agree upon the primacy of the problem. Finally the importance of mud in military affairs gets its due in this book. One hopes military planners will not ignore it, as so many of their predecessors have with disastrous consequences.


Lawrie, Alan. Sacramento's Moon Rockets. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4671-3389-0.
In 1849 gold was discovered in California, setting off a gold rush which would bring a wave of prospectors and fortune seekers into one of the greatest booms in American history. By the early 20th century, the grizzled prospector panning for gold had given way to industrial extraction of the metal. In an age before anybody had heard the word “environmentalism”, this was accomplished in the most direct way possible: man made lakes were created on gold-bearing land, then a barge would dredge up the bottom and mix it with mercury, which would form an amalgam with the gold. The gold could later be separated, purified, and sold.

The process effectively destroyed the land on which it was used. The topsoil was ripped out, vegetation killed, and the jumbled remains after extraction dumped in barren hills of tailings. Half a century later, the mined-out land was considered unusable for either agriculture or residential construction. Some described it as a “moonscape”.

It was perhaps appropriate that, in the 1960s, this stark terrain became home to the test stands on which the upper stage of NASA's Saturn rockets were developed and tested before flight. Every Saturn upper stage, including those which launched Apollo flights to the Moon, underwent a full-duration flight qualification firing there before being shipped to Florida for launch.

When the Saturn project was approved, Douglas Aircraft Company won the contract to develop the upper stage, which would be powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX) and have the ability to restart in space, allowing the Apollo spacecraft to leave Earth orbit on a trajectory bound for the Moon. The initial upper stage was called the S-IV, and was used as the second stage of the Saturn I launcher flown between 1961 and 1965 to demonstrate heavy lift booster operations and do development work related to the Apollo project. The S-IV used a cluster of six RL10 engines, at the time the largest operational LH2/LOX engine. The Saturn I had eight engines on its first stage and six engines on the S-IV. Given the reliability of rocket engines at the time, many engineers were dubious of getting fourteen engines to work on every launch (although the Saturn I did have a limited engine out capability). Skeptics called it “Cluster's last stand.”

The S-IV stages were manufactured at the Douglas plant in Huntington Beach, California, but there was no suitable location near the plant where they could be tested. The abandoned mining land near Sacramento had been acquired by Aerojet for rocket testing, and Douglas purchased a portion for its own use. The outsized S-IV stage was very difficult to transport by road, so the ability to ship it by water from southern California to the test site via San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River was a major advantage of the location.

The operational launchers for Apollo missions would be the Saturn IB and Saturn V, with the Saturn IB used for Earth orbital missions and the Saturn V for Moon flights and launching space stations. An upgraded upper stage, the S-IVB, would be used by these launchers, as the second stage of the Saturn IB and the third stage of the Saturn V. (S-IVBs for the two launchers differed in details, but the basic configuration was the same.) The six RL-10 engines of the S-IV were replaced by a single much more powerful J-2 engine which had, by that time, become available.

The Sacramento test facility was modified to do development and preflight testing of the S-IVB, and proceeded to test every flight stage. No rocket firing is ever routine, and in 1965 and 1967 explosions destroyed an S-IV test article and a flight S-IVB stage which was scheduled to be used in Apollo 8. Fortunately, there were no casualties from these spectacular accidents, and they provided the first data on the effects of large scale LH2/LOX explosions which proved to be far more benign than had been feared. It had been predicted that a LH2/LOX explosion would produce a blast equal to 65% of the propellant mass of TNT when, in fact, the measured blast was just 5% TNT equivalent mass. It's nice to know, but an expensive way to learn.

This book is not a detailed history of the Sacramento test facility but rather a photo gallery showing the construction of the site; transportation of stages by sea, road, and later by the amazing Super Guppy airplane; testing of S-IV and S-IVB stages; explosions and their aftermath; and a visit to the site fifty years later. The photos have well-researched and informative captions.

When you think of the Apollo program, the Cape, Houston, Huntsville, and maybe Slidell come to mind, but rarely Sacramento. And yet every Apollo mission relied upon a rocket stage tested at the Rancho Cordova site near that city. Here is a part of the grandiose effort to go to the Moon you probably haven't seen before. The book is just 96 pages and expensive (a small print run and colour on almost every page will do that), but there are many pictures collected here I've seen nowhere else.


October 2015

Day, Vox [Theodore Beale]. SJWs Always Lie. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B014GMBUR4.
Vox Day is the nom de plume and now nom de guerre of Theodore Beale, a musician with three Billboard Top 40 credits, video game designer, author of science fiction and fantasy and three-time Hugo Award nominee, and non-fiction author and editor.

If you're not involved in the subcultures of computer gaming or science fiction and fantasy, you may not be acquainted with terms such as SJW (Social Justice Warrior), GamerGate, or Sad Puppies. You may conclude that such matters are arcana relating to subcultures of not-particularly-socially-adept people which have little bearing on the larger culture. In this, you would be wrong. For almost fifty years, collectivists and authoritarians have been infiltrating cultural institutions, and now occupy the high ground in institutions such as education, the administrative state, media, and large corporations. This is the “long march through the institutions” foreseen by Antonio Gramsci, and it has, so far, been an extraordinary success, not only advancing its own agenda with a slow, inexorable ratchet, but intimidating opponents into silence for fear of having their careers or reputations destroyed. Nobody is immune: two Nobel Prize winners, James Watson and Tim Hunt, have been declared anathema because of remarks deemed offensive by SJWs. Nominally conservative publications such as National Review, headquartered in hives of collectivist corruption such as New York and Washington, were intimidated into a reflexive cringe at the slightest sign of outrage by SJWs, jettisoning superb writers such as Ann Coulter and John Derbyshire in an attempt to appease the unappeasable.

Then, just as the SJWs were feeling triumphant, GamerGate came along, and the first serious push-back began. Few expected the gamer community to become a hotbed of resistance, since gamers are all over the map in their political views (if they have any at all), and are a diverse bunch, although a majority are younger males. But they have a strong sense of right and wrong, and are accustomed to immediate and decisive negative feedback when they choose unwisely in the games they play. What they came to perceive was that the journalists writing about games were applauding objectively terrible games, such as Depression Quest, due to bias and collusion among the gaming media.

Much the same had been going on in the world of science fiction. SJWs had infiltrated the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America to such an extent that they directed their Nebula Awards to others of their ilk, and awarded them based upon “diversity” rather than merit. The same rot had corrupted fandom and its Hugo Awards.

Vox Day was near the centre of the cyclone in the revolt against all of this. The campaign to advance a slate of science fiction worthy of the Hugos rather than the pap selected by the SJWs resulted in the 2015 Hugos being blown up, demonstrating that SJWs would rather destroy a venerable institution than cede territory.

This book is a superbly written history of GamerGate and the revolt against SJWs in science fiction and fantasy writers' associations and fandom, but also provides deep insight into the seriously dysfunctional world of the SJW and advice about how to deal with them and what to do if you find yourself a target. The tactics of the SJWs are laid bare, and practical advice is given as to how to identify SJWs before they enter your organisation and how to get rid of them if they're already hired. (And get rid of them you must; they're like communists in the 1930s–1950s: once in place they will hire others and promote their kind within the organisation. You have to do your homework, and the Internet is your friend—the most innocuous co-worker or prospective employee may have a long digital trail you can find quickly with a search engine.)

There is no compromising with these people. That has been the key mistake of those who have found themselves targeted by SJWs. Any apology will be immediately trumpeted as an admission of culpability, and nothing less than the complete destruction of the career and life of the target will suffice. They are not well-meaning adversaries; they are enemies, and you must, if they attack you, seek to destroy them just as they seek to destroy you. Read Alinsky; they have. I'm not suggesting you call in SWAT raids on their residences, dig up and release damaging personal information on them, or make anonymous bomb threats when they gather. But be aware that they have used these tactics repeatedly against their opponents.

You must also learn that SJWs have no concern for objective facts. You can neither persuade nor dissuade them from advancing their arguments by citing facts that falsify their claims. They will repeat their objectively false talking points until they tire you out or drown out your voice. You are engaging in dialectic while they are employing rhetoric. To defeat them, you must counter their rhetoric with your own rhetoric, even when the facts are on your side.

Vox Day was in the middle of these early battles of the counter-revolution, both in GamerGate and the science fiction insurrection, and he provides a wealth of practical advice for those either attacked by SJWs or actively fighting back. This is a battle, and somebody is going to win and somebody else will lose. As he notes, “There can be no reconciliation between the observant and the delusional.” But those who perceive reality as it is, not as interpreted through a “narrative” in which they have been indoctrinated, have an advantage in this struggle. It may seem odd to find gamers and science fiction fans in the vanguard of the assault against this insanity but, as the author notes, “Gamers conquer Dragons and fight Gods for a hobby.”


Smith, L. Neil. Sweeter than Wine. Rockville, MD: Phoenix Pick, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60450-483-5.
A couple of weeks after D-Day, Second Lieutenant J Gifford found himself separated from his unit and alone in a small French village which, minutes later, was overrun by Germans. Not wishing to spend the rest of the war as a POW, he took refuge in an abandoned house, hiding out in the wine cellar to escape capture until the Allies took the village. There, in the dark, dank cellar, he encounters Surica, a young woman also hiding from the Germans—and the most attractive woman he has ever seen. Nature takes its course, repeatedly.

By the time the Germans are driven out by the Allied advance, Gifford has begun to notice changes in himself. He can see in the dark. His hearing is preternaturally sensitive. His canine teeth are growing. He cannot tolerate sunlight. And he has a thirst for blood.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, Gifford has established himself as a private investigator in the town of New Prospect, Colorado, near Denver. He is talented in his profession, considered rigorously ethical, and has a good working relationship with the local police. Apart from the whole business about not going out in daytime without extensive precautions, being a vampire has its advantages in the gumshoe game: he never falls ill, recovers quickly even from severe injuries, doesn't age, has extraordinary vision and hearing, and has a Jedi-like power of suggestion over the minds of people which extends to causing them to selectively forget things.

But how can a vampire, who requires human blood to survive, be ethical? That is the conundrum Gifford has had to face ever since that day in the wine cellar in France and, given the prospect of immortality, will have to cope with for all eternity. As the novel develops, we learn how he has met this challenge.

Meanwhile, Gifford's friends and business associates, some of whom know or suspect his nature, have been receiving queries which seem to indicate someone is on to him and trying to dig up evidence against him. At the same time, a series of vicious murders, all seemingly unrelated except for their victims having all been drained of blood, are being committed, starting in Charleston, South Carolina and proceeding westward across the U.S. These threads converge into a tense conflict pitting Gifford's ethics against the amoral ferocity of an Old One (and you will learn just how Old in chapter 26, in one of the scariest lines I've encountered in any vampire tale).

I'm not usually much interested in vampire or zombie stories because they are just so implausible, except as a metaphor for something else. Here, however, the author develops a believable explanation of the vampire phenomenon which invokes nothing supernatural. Sure, there aren't really vampires, but if there were this is probably how it would work. As with all of the author's fiction, there are many funny passages and turns of phrase. For a novel about a vampire detective and a serial killer, the tone is light and the characters engaging, with a romance interwoven with the mystery and action. L. Neil Smith wrote this book in one month: November, 2009, as part of the National Novel Writing Month, but other than being relatively short (150 pages), there's nothing about it which seems rushed; the plotting is intricate, the characters well-developed, and detail is abundant.


Einstein, Albert, Hanock Gutfreund, and Jürgen Renn. The Road to Relativity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. ISBN 978-0-691-16253-9.
One hundred years ago, in 1915, Albert Einstein published the final version of his general theory of relativity, which extended his 1905 special theory to encompass accelerated motion and gravitation. It replaced the Newtonian concept of a “gravitational force” acting instantaneously at a distance through an unspecified mechanism with the most elegant of concepts: particles not under the influence of an external force move along spacetime geodesics, the generalisation of straight lines, but the presence of mass-energy curves spacetime, which causes those geodesics to depart from straight lines when observed at a large scale.

For example, in Newton's conception of gravity, the Earth orbits the Sun because the Sun exerts a gravitational force upon the Earth which pulls it inward and causes its motion to depart from a straight line. (The Earth also exerts a gravitational force upon the Sun, but because the Sun is so much more massive, this can be neglected to a first approximation.) In general relativity there is no gravitational force. The Earth is moving in a straight line in spacetime, but because the Sun curves spacetime in its vicinity this geodesic traces out a helix in spacetime which we perceive as the Earth's orbit.

Now, if this were a purely qualitative description, one could dismiss it as philosophical babble, but Einstein's theory provided a precise description of the gravitational field and the motion of objects within it and, when the field strength is strong or objects are moving very rapidly, makes different predictions than Newton's theory. In particular, Einstein's theory predicted that the perihelion of the orbit of Mercury would rotate around the Sun more rapidly than Newton's theory could account for, that light propagating near the limb of the Sun or other massive bodies would be bent through twice the angle Newton's theory predicted, and that light from the Sun or other massive stars would be red-shifted when observed from a distance. In due course all of these tests have been found to agree with the predictions of general relativity. The theory has since been put to many more precise tests and no discrepancy with experiment has been found. For a theory which is, once you get past the cumbersome mathematical notation in which it is expressed, simple and elegant, its implications are profound and still being explored a century later. Black holes, gravitational lensing, cosmology and the large-scale structure of the universe, gravitomagnetism, and gravitational radiation are all implicit in Einstein's equations, and exploring them are among the frontiers of science a century hence.

Unlike Einstein's original 1905 paper on special relativity, the 1915 paper, titled “Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie” (“The Foundation of General Relativity”) is famously difficult to comprehend and baffled many contemporary physicists when it was published. Almost half is a tutorial for physicists in Riemann's generalised multidimensional geometry and the tensor language in which it is expressed. The balance of the paper is written in this notation, which can be forbidding until one becomes comfortable with it.

That said, general relativity can be understood intuitively the same way Einstein began to think about it: through thought experiments. First, imagine a person in a stationary elevator in the Earth's gravitational field. If the elevator cable were cut, while the elevator was in free fall (and before the sudden stop), no experiment done within the elevator could distinguish between the state of free fall within Earth's gravity and being in deep space free of gravitational fields. (Conversely, no experiment done in a sufficiently small closed laboratory can distinguish it being in Earth's gravitational field from being in deep space accelerating under the influence of a rocket with the same acceleration as Earth's gravity.) (The “sufficiently small” qualifier is to eliminate the effects of tides, which we can neglect at this level.)

The second thought experiment is a bit more subtle. Imagine an observer at the centre of a stationary circular disc. If the observer uses rigid rods to measure the radius and circumference of the disc, he will find the circumference divided by the radius to be 2π, as expected from the Euclidean geometry of a plane. Now set the disc rotating and repeat the experiment. When the observer measures the radius, it will be as before, but at the circumference the measuring rod will be contracted due to its motion according to special relativity, and the circumference, measured by the rigid rod, will be seen to be larger. Now, when the circumference is divided by the radius, a ratio greater than 2π will be found, indicating that the space being measured is no longer Euclidean: it is curved. But the only difference between a stationary disc and one which is rotating is that the latter is in acceleration, and from the reasoning of the first thought experiment there is no difference between acceleration and gravity. Hence, gravity must bend spacetime and affect the paths of objects (geodesics) within it.

Now, it's one thing to have these kinds of insights, and quite another to puzzle out the details and make all of the mathematics work, and this process occupied Einstein for the decade between 1905 and 1915, with many blind alleys. He eventually came to understand that it was necessary to entirely discard the notion of any fixed space and time, and express the equations of physics in a way which was completely independent of any co-ordinate system. Only this permitted the metric structure of spacetime to be completely determined by the mass and energy within it.

This book contains a facsimile reproduction of Einstein's original manuscript, now in the collection of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The manuscript is in Einstein's handwriting which, if you read German, you'll have no difficulty reading. Einstein made many edits to the manuscript before submitting it for publication, and you can see them all here. Some of the hand-drawn figures in the manuscript have been cut out by the publisher to be sent to an illustrator for preparation of figures for the journal publication. Parallel to the manuscript, the editors describe the content and the historical evolution of the concepts discussed therein. There is a 36 page introduction which describes the background of the theory and Einstein's quest to discover it and the history of the manuscript. An afterword provides an overview of general relativity after Einstein and brief biographies of principal figures involved in the development and elaboration of the theory. The book concludes with a complete English translation of Einstein's two papers given in the manuscript.

This is not the book to read if you're interested in learning general relativity; over the last century there have been great advances in mathematical notation and pedagogy, and a modern text is the best resource. But, in this centennial year, this book allows you to go back to the source and understand the theory as Einstein presented it, after struggling for so many years to comprehend it. The supplemental material explains the structure of the paper, the essentials of the theory, and how Einstein came to develop it.


Courland, Robert. Concrete Planet. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-61614-481-4.
Visitors to Rome are often stunned when they see the Pantheon and learn it was built almost 19 centuries ago, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. From the front, the building has a classical style echoed in neo-classical government buildings around the world, but as visitors walk inside, it is the amazing dome which causes them to gasp. At 43.3 metres in diameter, it was the largest dome ever built in its time, and no larger dome has, in all the centuries since, ever been built in the same way. The dome of the Pantheon is a monolithic structure of concrete, whose beauty and antiquity attests to the versatility and durability of this building material which has become a ubiquitous part of the modern world.

To the ancients, who built from mud, stone, and later brick, it must have seemed like a miracle to discover a material which, mixed with water, could be moulded into any form and would harden into stone. Nobody knows how or where it was discovered that by heating natural limestone to a high temperature it could be transformed into quicklime (calcium oxide), a corrosive substance which reacts exothermically with water, solidifying into a hard substance. The author speculates that the transformation of limestone into quicklime due to lightning strikes may have been discovered in Turkey and applied to production of quicklime by a kilning process, but the evidence for this is sketchy. But from the neolithic period, humans discovered how to make floors from quicklime and a binder, and this technology remained in use until the 19th century.

All of these early lime-based mortars could not set underwater and were vulnerable to attack by caustic chemicals. It was the Romans who discovered that by mixing volcanic ash (pozzolan), which was available to them in abundance from the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius, it was possible to create a “hydraulic cement” which could set underwater and was resistant to attack from the elements. In addition to structures like the Pantheon, the Colosseum, roads, and viaducts, Roman concrete was used to build the artificial harbour at Caesarea in Judea, the largest application of hydraulic concrete before the 20th century.

Jane Jacobs has written that the central aspect of a dark age is not that specific things have been forgotten, but that a society has forgotten what it has forgotten. It is indicative of the dark age which followed the fall of the Roman empire that even with the works of the Roman engineers remaining for all to see, the technology of Roman concrete used to build them, hardly a secret, was largely forgotten until the 18th century, when a few buildings were constructed from similar formulations.

It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that the precursors of modern cement and concrete construction emerged. The adoption of this technology might have been much more straightforward had it not been the case that a central player in it was William Aspdin, a world-class scoundrel whose own crookedness repeatedly torpedoed ventures in which he was involved which, had he simply been honest and straightforward in his dealings, would have made him a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

Even with the rediscovery of waterproof concrete, its adoption was slow in the 19th century. The building of the Thames Tunnel by the great engineers Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a milestone in the use of concrete, albeit one achieved only after a long series of setbacks and mishaps over a period of 18 years.

Ever since antiquity, and despite numerous formulations, concrete had one common structural property: it was very strong in compression (it resisted forces which tried to crush it), but had relatively little tensile strength (if you tried to pull it apart, it would easily fracture). This meant that concrete structures had to be carefully designed so that the concrete was always kept in compression, which made it difficult to build cantilevered structures or others requiring tensile strength, such as many bridge designs employing iron or steel. In the latter half of the 19th century, a number of engineers and builders around the world realised that by embedding iron or steel reinforcement within concrete, its tensile strength could be greatly increased. The advent of reinforced concrete allowed structures impossible to build with pure concrete. In 1903, the 16-story Ingalls Building in Cincinnati became the first reinforced concrete skyscraper, and the tallest building today, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is built from reinforced concrete.

The ability to create structures with the solidity of stone, the strength of steel, in almost any shape a designer can imagine, and at low cost inspired many in the 20th century and beyond, with varying degrees of success. Thomas Edison saw in concrete a way to provide affordable houses to the masses, complete with concrete furniture. It was one of his less successful ventures. Frank Lloyd Wright quickly grasped the potential of reinforced concrete, and used it in many of his iconic buildings. The Panama Canal made extensive use of reinforced concrete, and the Hoover Dam demonstrated that there was essentially no limit to the size of a structure which could be built of it (the concrete of the dam is still curing to this day). The Sydney Opera House illustrated (albeit after large schedule slips, cost overruns, and acrimony between the architect and customer) that just about anything an architect can imagine could be built of reinforced concrete.

To see the Pantheon or Colosseum is to think “concrete is eternal” (although the Colosseum is not in its original condition, this is mostly due to its having been mined for building materials over the centuries). But those structures were built with unreinforced Roman concrete. Just how long can we expect our current structures, built from a different kind of concrete and steel reinforcing bars to last? Well, that's…interesting. Steel is mostly composed of iron, and iron is highly reactive in the presence of water and oxygen: it rusts. You'll observe that water and oxygen are abundant on Earth, so unprotected steel can be expected to eventually crumble into rust, losing its structural strength. This is why steel bridges, for example, must be regularly stripped and repainted to provide a barrier which protects the steel against the elements. In reinforced concrete, it is the concrete itself which protects the steel reinforcement, initially by providing an alkali environment which inhibits rust and then, after the concrete cures, by physically excluding water and the atmosphere from the reinforcement. But, as builders say, “If it ain't cracked, it ain't concrete.” Inevitably, cracks will allow air and water to reach the reinforcement, which will begin to rust. As it rusts, it loses its structural strength and, in addition, expands, which further cracks the concrete and allows more air and moisture to enter. Eventually you'll see the kind of crumbling used to illustrate deteriorating bridges and other infrastructure.

How long will reinforced concrete last? That depends upon the details. Port and harbour facilities in contact with salt water have failed in less than fifty years. Structures in less hostile environments are estimated to have a life of between 100 and 200 years. Now, this may seem like a long time compared to the budget cycle of the construction industry, but eternity it ain't, and when you consider the cost of demolition and replacement of structures such as dams and skyscrapers, it's something to think about. But obviously, if the Romans could build concrete structures which have lasted millennia, so can we. The author discusses alternative formulations of concrete and different kinds of reinforcing which may dramatically increase the life of reinforced concrete construction.

This is an interesting and informative book, but I found the author's style a bit off-putting. In the absence of fact, which is usually the case when discussing antiquity, the author simply speculates. Speculation is always clearly identified, but rather than telling a story about a shaman discovering where lightning struck limestone and spinning it unto a legend about the discovery of manufacture of quicklime, it might be better to say, “nobody really knows how it happened”. Eleven pages are spent discussing the thoroughly discredited theory that the Egyptian pyramids were made of concrete, coming to the conclusion that the theory is bogus. So why mention it? There are a number of typographical errors and a few factual errors (no, the Mesoamericans did not build pyramids “a few of which would equal those in Egypt”).

Still, if you're interested in the origin of the material which surrounds us in the modern world, how it was developed by the ancients, largely forgotten, and then recently rediscovered and used to revolutionise construction, this is a worthwhile read.


Chiles, Patrick. Farside. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2015. ASIN B010WAE080.
Several years after the events chronicled in Perigee (August 2012), Arthur Hammond's Polaris AeroSpace Lines is operating routine point-to-point suborbital passenger and freight service with its Clippers, has expanded into orbital service with Block II Clippers, and is on the threshold of opening up service to the Moon with its “cycler” spacecraft which loop continuously between the Earth and Moon. Clippers rendezvous with the cyclers as they approach the Earth, transferring crew, passengers, cargo, and consumables. Initial flights will be limited to lunar orbit, but landing missions are envisioned for the future.

In the first orbital mission, chartered to perform resource exploration from lunar orbit, cycler Shepard is planning to enter orbit with a burn which will, by the necessities of orbital mechanics, have to occur on the far side of the Moon, out of radio contact with the Earth. At Polaris mission control in Denver, there is the usual tension as the clock ticks down toward the time when Shepard is expected to emerge from behind the Moon, safely in orbit. (If the burn did not occur, the ship would appear before this time, still on a trajectory which would return it to the Earth.) When the acquisition of signal time comes and goes with no reply to calls and no telemetry, tension gives way to anxiety. Did Shepard burn too long and crash on the far side of the Moon? Did its engine explode and destroy the ship? Did some type of total system failure completely disable its communications?

On board Shepard, Captain Simon Poole is struggling to survive after the disastrous events which occurred just moments after the start of the lunar orbit insertion burn. Having taken refuge in the small airlock after the expandable habitation module has deflated, he has only meagre emergency rations to sustain him until a rescue mission might reach him. And no way to signal Earth that he is alive.

What seems a terrible situation rapidly gets worse and more enigmatic when an arrogant agent from Homeland Security barges into Polaris and demands information about the passenger and cargo manifest for the flight, Hammond is visited at home by an unlikely caller, and a jarhead/special operator type named Quinn shows them some darker than black intelligence about their ship and “invites” them to NORAD headquarters to be briefed in on an above top secret project.

So begins a nearish future techno-thriller in which the situations are realistic, the characters interesting, the perils harrowing, and the stakes could not be higher. The technologies are all plausible extrapolations of those available at present, with no magic. Government agencies behave as they do in the real world, which is to say with usually good intentions leavened with mediocrity, incompetence, scheming ambition, envy, and counter-productive secrecy and arrogance. This novel is not going to be nominated for any awards by the social justice warriors who have infiltrated the science fiction writer and fan communities: the author understands precisely who the enemies of civilisation and human destiny are, forthrightly embodies them in his villains, and explains why seemingly incompatible ideologies make common cause against the values which have built the modern world. The story is one of problem solving, adventure, survival, improvisation, and includes one of the most unusual episodes of space combat in all of science fiction. It would make a terrific movie.

For the most part, the author gets the details right. There are a few outright goofs, such as seeing the Earth from the lunar far side (where it is always below the horizon—that's why it's the far side); some errors in orbital mechanics which will grate on players of Kerbal Space Program; the deployed B-1B bomber is Mach 1.25, not Mach 2; and I don't think there's any way the ships in the story could have had sufficient delta-v to rendezvous with a comet so far out the plane of the ecliptic. But I'm not going to belabour these quibbles in what is a rip-roaring read. There is a glossary of aerospace terms and acronyms at the end. Also included is a teaser chapter for a forthcoming novel which I can't wait to read.


November 2015

Munroe, Randall. What If? New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014. ISBN 978-0-544-27299-6.
As a child, the author would constantly ask his parents odd questions. They indulged and encouraged him, setting him on a lifetime path of curiosity, using the mathematics and physics he learned in the course of obtaining a degree in physics and working in robotics at NASA to answer whatever popped into his head. After creating the tremendously successful Web comic xkcd.com, readers began to ask him the kinds of questions he'd mused about himself. He began a feature on xkcd.com: “What If?” to explore answers to these questions. This book is a collection of these questions, some previously published on-line (where you can continue to read them at the previous link), and some only published here. The answers to questions are interspersed with “Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox”, some of which are reminiscent of my own Titanium Cranium mailbox. The book abounds with the author's delightful illustrations. Here is a sample of the questions dealt with. I've linked the first to the online article to give you a taste of what's in store for you in the book.

  • Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?
  • What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?
  • In the movie 300 they shoot arrows up into the sky and they seemingly blot out the sun. Is this possible, and how many arrows would it take?
  • How high can a human throw something?
  • If every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?
  • How much Force power can Yoda output?
  • How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?

Main belt asteroid 4942 Munroe is named after the author.

While the hardcover edition is expensive for material most of which can be read on the Web for free, the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.


Outzen, James D., ed. The Dorian Files Revealed. Chantilly, VA: Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance, 2015. ISBN 978-1-937219-18-5.
We often think of the 1960s as a “can do” time, when technological progress, societal self-confidence, and burgeoning economic growth allowed attempting and achieving great things: from landing on the Moon, global communications by satellite, and mass continental and intercontinental transportation by air. But the 1960s were also a time, not just of conflict and the dissolution of the postwar consensus, but also of some grand-scale technological boondoggles and disasters. There was the XB-70 bomber and its companion F-108 fighter plane, the Boeing 2707 supersonic passenger airplane, the NERVA nuclear rocket, the TFX/F-111 swing-wing hangar queen aircraft, and plans for military manned space programs. Each consumed billions of taxpayer dollars with little or nothing to show for the expenditure of money and effort lavished upon them. The present volume, consisting of previously secret information declassified in July 2015, chronicles the history of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force's second attempt to launch its own astronauts into space to do military tasks there.

The creation of NASA in 1958 took the wind out of the sails of the U.S. military services, who had assumed it would be they who would lead on the road into space and in exploiting space-based assets in the interest of national security. The designation of NASA as a civilian aerospace agency did not preclude military efforts in space, and the Air Force continued with its X-20 Dyna-Soar, a spaceplane intended to be launched on a Titan rocket which would return to Earth and land on a conventional runway. Simultaneous with the cancellation of Dyna-Soar in December 1963, a new military space program, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) was announced.

MOL would use a modified version of NASA's Gemini spacecraft to carry two military astronauts into orbit atop a laboratory facility which they could occupy for up to 60 days before returning to Earth in the Gemini capsule. The Gemini and laboratory would be launched by a Titan III booster, requiring only a single launch and no orbital rendezvous or docking to accomplish the mission. The purpose of the program was stated as to “evaluate the utility of manned space flight for military purposes”. This was a cover story or, if you like, a bald-faced lie.

In fact, MOL was a manned spy satellite, intended to produce reconnaissance imagery of targets in the Soviet Union, China, and the communist bloc in the visual, infrared, and radar bands, plus electronic information in much higher resolution than contemporary unmanned spy satellites. Spy satellites operating in the visual spectrum lost on the order of half their images to cloud cover. With a man on board, exposures would be taken only when skies were clear, and images could be compensated for motion of the spacecraft, largely eliminating motion blur. Further, the pilots could scan for “interesting” targets and photograph them as they appeared, and conduct wide-area ocean surveillance.

None of the contemporary drawings showed the internal structure of the MOL, and most people assumed it was a large pressurised structure for various experiments. In fact, most of it was an enormous telescope aimed at the ground, with a 72 inch (1.83 metre) mirror and secondary optics capable of very high resolution photography of targets on the ground. When this document was declassified in 2015, all references to its resolution capability were replaced with statements such as {better than 1 foot}. It is, in fact, a simple geometrical optics calculation to determine that the diffraction-limited resolution of a 1.83 metre mirror in the visual band is around 0.066 arc seconds. In a low orbit suited to imaging in detail, this would yield a resolution of around 4 cm (1.6 inches) as a theoretical maximum. Taking optical imperfections, atmospheric seeing, film resolution, and imperfect motion compensation into account, the actual delivered resolution would be about half this (8 cm, 3.2 inches). Once they state the aperture of the primary mirror, this is easy to work out, so they wasted a lot of black redaction ink in this document. And then, on page 102, they note (not redacted), “During times of crisis the MOL could be transferred from its nominal 80-mile orbit to one of approximately 200–300 miles. In this higher orbit the system would have access to all targets in the Soviet Bloc approximately once every three days and be able to take photographs at resolutions of about one foot.” All right, if they have one foot (12 inch) resolution at 200 miles, then they have 4.8 inch (12 cm) resolution at 80 miles (or, if we take 250 miles altitude, 3.8 inches [9.7 cm]), entirely consistent with my calculation from mirror aperture.

This document is a management, financial, and political history of the MOL program, with relatively little engineering detail. Many of the technological developments of the optical system were later used in unmanned reconnaissance satellite programs and remain secret. What comes across in the sorry history of this program, which, between December 1963 and its cancellation in June of 1969 burned through billions of taxpayer dollars, is that the budgeting, project management, and definition and pursuit of well-defined project goals was just as incompetent as the redaction of technical details discussed in the previous paragraph. There are almost Marx brothers episodes where Florida politicians attempted to keep jobs in their constituencies by blocking launches into polar orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base while the Air Force could not disclose that polar orbits were essential to overflying targets in the Soviet Union because the reconnaissance mission of MOL was a black program.

Along with this history, a large collection of documents and pictures, all previously secret (and many soporifically boring) has been released. As a publication of the U.S. government, this work is in the public domain.


December 2015

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.


Suprynowicz, Vin. The Miskatonic Manuscript. Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2015. ASIN: B0197R4TGW. ISBN 978-0-9670259-5-7.
The author is a veteran newspaperman and was arguably the most libertarian writer in the mainstream media during his long career with the Las Vegas Review-Journal (a collection of his essays has been published as Send In The Waco Killers). He earlier turned his hand to fiction in 2005's The Black Arrow (May 2005), a delightful libertarian superhero fantasy. In The Testament of James (February 2015) we met Matthew Hunter, owner of a used book shop in Providence, Rhode Island, and Chantal Stevens, a woman with military combat experience who has come to help out in the shop and, over time, becomes romantically involved with Matthew. Since their last adventure, Matthew and Chantal, their reputation (or notoriety) as players in the international rare books game bolstered by the Testament of James, have gone on to discover a Conan Doyle manuscript for a missing Sherlock Holmes adventure, which sold at auction for more than a million dollars.

The present book begins with the sentencing of Windsor Annesley, scion of a prominent Providence family and president of the Church of Cthulhu, which regards the use of consciousness-expanding plant substances as its sacraments, who has been railroaded in a “War on Drugs” prosecution, to three consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Annesley, unbowed and defiant, responds,

You are at war with us? Then we are at war with you. A condition of war has existed, and will continue to exist, until you surrender without condition, or until every drug judge, including you, … and every drug prosecutor, and every drug cop is dead. So have I said it. So shall it be.

Shortly after the sentencing, Windsor Annesley's younger brother, Worthington (“Worthy”) meets with Matthew and the bookstore crew (including, of course, the feline contingent) to discuss a rumoured H. P. Lovecraft notebook, “The Miskatonic Manuscript”, which Lovecraft alluded to in correspondence but which has never been found. At the time, Lovecraft was visiting Worthy's great-uncle, Henry Annesley, who was conducting curious experiments aimed at seeing things beyond the range of human perception. It was right after this period that Lovecraft wrote his breakthrough story “From Beyond”. Worthy suspects that the story was based upon Henry Annesley's experiments, which may have opened a technological path to the other worlds described in Lovecraft's fiction and explored by Church of Cthulhu members through their sacraments.

After discussing the odd career of Lovecraft, Worthy offers a handsome finder's fee to Matthew for the notebook. Matthew accepts. The game, on the leisurely time scale of the rare book world, is afoot. And finally, the manuscript is located.

And now things start to get weird—very weird—Lovecraft weird. A mysterious gadget arrives with instructions to plug it into a computer. Impossible crimes. Glowing orbs. Secret laboratories. Native American shamans. Vortices. Big hungry things with sharp teeth. Matthew and Chantal find themselves on an adventure as risky and lurid as those on the Golden Age pulp science fiction shelves of the bookstore.

Along with the adventure (in which a hero cat, Tabbyhunter, plays a key part), there are insightful quotes about the millennia humans have explored alternative realities through the use of plants placed on the Earth for that purpose by Nature's God, and the folly of those who would try to criminalise that human right through a coercive War on Drugs. The book concludes with a teaser for the next adventure, which I eagerly await. The full text of H. P. Lovecraft's “From Beyond” is included; if you've read the story before, you'll look at it an another light after reading this superb novel. End notes provide citations to items you might think fictional until you discover the extent to which we're living in the Crazy Years.

Drug warriors, law 'n order fundamentalists, prudes, and those whose consciousness has never dared to broach the terrifying “what if” there's something more than we usually see out there may find this novel offensive or even dangerous. Libertarians, the adventurous, and lovers of a great yarn will delight in it. The cover art is racy, even by the standards of pulp, but completely faithful to the story.

The link above is to the Kindle edition, which is available from Amazon. The hardcover, in a limited edition of 650 copies, numbered and signed by the author, is available from the publisher via AbeBooks.


Ward, Jonathan H. Rocket Ranch. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-17788-5.
Many books have been written about Project Apollo, with a large number devoted to the lunar and Skylab missions, the Saturn booster rockets which launched them, the Apollo spacecraft, and the people involved in the program. But none of the Apollo missions could have left the Earth without the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida where the launch vehicle and space hardware were integrated, checked out, fuelled, and launched. In many ways, those facilities were more elaborate and complicated than the booster and spacecraft, and were just as essential in achieving the record of success in Saturn and Apollo/Saturn launches. NASA's 1978 official history of KSC Apollo operations, Moonport (available on-line for free), is a highly recommended examination of the design decisions, architecture, management, and operation of the launch site, but it doesn't delve into the nitty-gritty of how the system actually worked.

The present book, subtitled “The Nuts and Bolts of the Apollo Moon Program at Kennedy Space Center” provides that detail. The author's research involved reviewing more than 1200 original documents and interviewing more than 70 people, most veterans of the Apollo era at KSC (many now elderly). One thread that ran through the interviews is that, to a man (and almost all are men), despite what they had done afterward, they recalled their work on Apollo, however exhausting the pace and formidable the challenges, as a high point in their careers. After completing his research, Ward realised he was looking at a 700 page book. His publisher counselled that such a massive tome would be forbidding to many readers. He decided to separate the description of the KSC hardware (this volume) and the operations leading up to a launch (described in the companion title, Countdown to a Moon Launch, which I will review in the future).

The Apollo/Saturn lunar flight vehicle was, at the time, the most complex machine ever built by humans. It contained three rocket stages (all built by different contractors), a control computer, and two separate spacecraft: the command/service modules and lunar module, each of which had their own rocket engines, control thrusters, guidance computers, and life support systems for the crew. From the moment this “stack” left the ground, everything had to work. While there were redundant systems in case of some in-flight failures, loss of any major component would mean the mission would be unsuccessful, even if the crew returned safely to Earth.

In order to guarantee this success, every component in the booster and spacecraft had to be tested and re-tested, from the time it arrived at KSC until the final countdown and launch. Nothing could be overlooked, and there were written procedures which were followed for everything, with documentation of each step and quality inspectors overseeing it all. The volume of paperwork was monumental (a common joke at the time was that no mission could launch until the paperwork weighed more than the vehicle on the launch pad), but the sheer complexity exceeded the capabilities of even the massive workforce and unlimited budget of Project Apollo. KSC responded by pioneering the use of computers to check out the spacecraft and launcher at every step in the assembly and launch process. Although a breakthrough at the time, the capacity of these computers is laughable today. The computer used to check out the Apollo spacecraft had 24,576 words of memory when it was installed in 1964, and programmers had to jump through hoops and resort to ever more clever tricks to shoehorn the test procedures into the limited memory. Eventually, after two years, approval was obtained to buy an additional 24,000 words of memory for the test computers, at a cost of almost half a million 2015 dollars.

You've probably seen pictures of the KSC firing room during Apollo countdowns. The launch director looked out over a sea of around 450 consoles, each devoted to one aspect of the vehicle (for example, console BA25, “Second stage propellant utilization”), each manned by an engineer in a white shirt and narrow tie. These consoles were connected into audio “nets”, arranged in a hierarchy paralleling the management structure. For example, if the engineer at console BA25 observed something outside acceptable limits, he would report it on the second stage propulsion net. The second stage manager would then raise the issue on the launch vehicle net. If it was a no-go item, it would then be bumped up to the flight director loop where a hold would be placed on the countdown. If this wasn't complicated enough, most critical parameters were monitored by launch vehicle and spacecraft checkout computers, which could automatically halt the countdown if a parameter exceeded limits. Most of those hundreds of consoles had dozens of switches, indicator lights, meters, and sometimes video displays, and all of them had to be individually wired to patchboards which connected them to the control computers or, in some cases, directly to the launch hardware. And every one of those wires had to have a pull ticket for its installation, and inspection, and an individual test and re-test that it was functioning properly. Oh, and there were three firing rooms, identically equipped. During a launch, two would be active and staffed: one as a primary, the other as a backup.

The level of detail here is just fantastic and may be overwhelming if not taken in small doses. Did you know, for example, that in the base of the Saturn V launch platform there was an air conditioned room with the RCA 110A computer which checked out the booster? The Saturn V first stage engines were about 30 metres from this delicate machine. How did they keep it from being pulverised when the rocket lifted off? Springs.

Assembled vehicles were transported from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad by an enormous crawler. The crawler was operated by a crew of 14, including firemen stationed near the diesel engines. Originally, there was an automatic fire suppression system, but after it accidentally triggered and dumped a quarter ton of fire suppression powder into one of the engines during a test, it was replaced with firemen. How did they keep the launcher level as it climbed up the ramp to the pad? They had two pipes filled with mercury which ran diagonally across the crawler platform between each pair of corners. These connected to a sight glass which indicated to the operator if the platform wasn't level. Then the operator would adjust jacking cylinders on the corners to restore the platform to level—while it was rolling.

I can provide only a few glimpses of the wealth of fascinating minutæ on all aspects of KSC facilities and operations described here. Drawing on his more than 300 hours of interviews, the author frequently allows veterans of the program to speak in their own words, giving a sense of what it was like to be there, then, the rationale for why things were done the way they were, and to relate anecdotes about when things didn't go as planned.

It has been said that one of the most difficult things NASA did in Project Apollo was to make it look easy. Even space buffs who have devoured dozens of books about Apollo may be startled by the sheer magnitude of what was accomplished in designing, building, checking out, and operating the KSC facilities described in this book, especially considering in how few years it all was done and the primitive state of some of the technologies available at the time (particularly computers and electronics). This book and its companion volume are eye-openers, and only reinforce what a technological triumph Apollo was.


Rawles, James Wesley. Land Of Promise. Moyie Springs, ID: Liberty Paradigm Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-475605-60-0.
The author is the founder of the survivalblog.com Web site, a massive and essential resource for those interested in preparing for uncertain times. His nonfiction works, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It (July 2011) and Tools for Survival (February 2015) are packed with practical information for people who wish to ride out natural disasters all the way to serious off-grid self-sufficiency. His series of five novels which began with Patriots (December 2008) illustrates the skills needed to survive by people in a variety of circumstances after an economic and societal collapse. The present book is the first of a new series of novels, unrelated to the first, providing a hopeful view of how free people might opt out of a world where totalitarianism and religious persecution is on the march.

By the mid 21st century trends already evident today have continued along their disheartening trajectories. The world's major trading currencies have collapsed in the aftermath of runaway money creation, and the world now uses the NEuro, a replacement for the Euro which is issued only in electronic form, making tax avoidance extremely difficult. As for the United States, “The nation was saddled by trillions of NEuros in debt that would take several generations to repay, it was mired in bureaucracy and over-regulation, the nation had become a moral cesspool, and civil liberties were just a memory.”

A catastrophically infectious and lethal variant of Ebola has emerged in the Congo, killing 60% of the population of Africa (mostly in the sub-Saharan region) and reducing world population by 15%.

A “Thirdist” movement has swept the Islamic world, bringing Sunni and Shia into an uneasy alliance behind the recently-proclaimed Caliphate now calling itself the World Islamic State (WIS). In Western Europe, low fertility among the original population and large-scale immigration of more fecund Muslims is contributing to a demographic transition bringing some countries close to the tipping point of Islamic domination. The Roman Catholic church has signed the so-called “Quiet Minarets Agreement” with the WIS, which promised to refrain from advocating sharia law or political subjugation in Europe for 99 years. After that (or before, given the doctrine of taqiya in Islam), nobody knows what will happen.

In many countries around the world, Christians are beginning to feel themselves caught in a pincer movement between radical Islam on the one side and radical secularism/atheism on the other, with the more perspicacious among them beginning to think of getting out of societies becoming ever more actively hostile. Some majority Catholic countries have already declared themselves sanctuaries for their co-religionists, and other nations have done the same for Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians. Protestant Christians and Messianic Jews have no sanctuary, and are increasingly persecuted.

A small group of people working at a high-powered mergers and acquisitions firm in newly-independent Scotland begin to explore doing something about this. They sketch out a plan to approach the governments of South Sudan and Kenya, both of which have long-standing claims to the Ilemi Triangle, a barren territory of around 14,000 square kilometres (about ⅔ the size of Israel) with almost no indigenous population. With both claimants to the territory majority Christian countries, the planners hope to persuade them that jointly ceding the land for a new Christian nation will enable them to settle this troublesome dispute in a way which will increase the prestige of both. Further, developing the region into a prosperous land that can defend itself will shore up both countries against the advances of WIS and its allies.

With some trepidation, they approach Harry Heston, founder and boss of their firm, a self-made billionaire known for his Christian belief and libertarian views (he and his company got out of the United States to free Scotland while it was still possible). Heston, whose fortune was built on his instinctive ability to evaluate business plans, hears the pitch and decides to commit one billion NEuros from his own funds to the project, contingent on milestones being met, and to invite other wealthy business associates to participate.

So begins the story of founding the Ilemi Republic, not just a sanctuary for Christians and Messianic Jews, but a prototype 21st century libertarian society with “zero taxes, zero import duties, and zero license fees.” Defence will be by a citizen militia with a tiny professional cadre. The founders believe such a society will be a magnet to highly-productive and hard-working people from around the world weary of slaving more than half their lives to support the tyrants and bureaucrats which afflict them.

As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to what amounts to a worked example of setting up a new nation, encompassing diplomacy, economics, infrastructure, recruiting settlers, dealing equitably with the (very small) indigenous and nomadic population, money and banking, energy and transportation resources, keeping the domestic peace and defending the nation, and the minimalist government and the constitutional structure designed to keep it that way. The founders anticipate that their sanctuary nation will be subjected to the same international opprobrium and obstruction which Israel suffers (although the Ilemi Republic will not be surrounded by potential enemies), and plans must anticipate this.

You'll sometimes hear claims that Christian social conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible beliefs which will inevitably come into conflict with one another. In this novel the author argues that the kind of moral code by which devout Christians live is a prerequisite for the individual liberty and lack of state meddling so cherished by libertarians. The Ilemi Republic also finds itself the home of hard-edged, more secular libertarians, who get along with everybody else because they all agree on preserving their liberty and independence.

This is the first in a series of novels planned by the author which he calls the “Counter-Caliphate Chronicles”. I have long dreamed of a realistic story of establishing a libertarian refuge from encroaching tyranny, and even envisioned it as being situated in a lightly-populated region of Africa. The author has delivered that story, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing it develop in future novels.