Monday, June 17, 2019

Reading List: Michoud Assembly Facility

Manto, Cindy Donze. Michoud Assembly Facility. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-5316-6969-0.
In March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.

The land remained in the Michoud family until 1910, when it was sold in its entirety for US$410,000 in cash (around US$11 million today) to a developer who promptly defaulted, leading to another series of changes of ownership and dodgy plans for the land, which most people continued to refer to as the Michoud Tract. At the start of World War II, the U.S. government bought a large parcel, initially intended for construction of Liberty ships. Those plans quickly fell through, but eventually a huge plant was erected on the site which, starting in 1943, began to manufacture components for cargo aircraft, lifeboats, and components which were used in the Manhattan Project's isotope separation plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At the end of the war, the plant was declared surplus but, a few years later, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was re-purposed to manufacture engines for Army tanks. It continued in that role until 1954 when it was placed on standby and, in 1958, once again declared surplus. There things stood until mid-1961 when NASA, charged by the new Kennedy administration to “put a man on the Moon” was faced with the need to build rockets in sizes and quantities never before imagined, and to do so on a tight schedule, racing against the Soviet Union.

In June, 1961, Wernher von Braun, director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, responsible for designing and building those giant boosters, visited the then-idle Michoud Ordnance Plant and declared it ideal for NASA's requirements. It had 43 acres (17 hectares) under one roof, the air conditioning required for precision work in the Louisiana climate, and was ready to occupy. Most critically, it was located adjacent to navigable waters which would allow the enormous rocket stages, far too big to be shipped by road, rail, or air, to be transported on barges to and from Huntsville for testing and Cape Canaveral in Florida to be launched.

In September 1961 NASA officially took over the facility, renaming it “Michoud Operations”, to be managed by NASA Marshall as the manufacturing site for the rockets they designed. Work quickly got underway to set up manufacturing of the first stage of the Saturn I and 1B rockets and prepare to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Before long, new buildings dedicated to assembly and test of the new rockets, occupied both by NASA and its contractors, began to spring up around the original plant. In 1965, the installation was renamed the Michoud Assembly Facility, which name it bears to this day.

With the end of the Apollo program, it looked like Michoud might once again be headed for white elephant status, but the design selected for the Space Shuttle included a very large External Tank comparable in size to the first stage of the Saturn V) which would be discarded on every flight. Michoud's fabrication and assembly facilities, and its access to shipping by barge were ideal for this component of the Shuttle, and a total of 135 tanks built at Michoud were launched on Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle once again put the future of Michoud in doubt. It was originally tapped to build the core stage of the Constellation program's Ares V booster, which was similar in size and construction to the Shuttle External Tank. The cancellation of Constellation in 2010 brought that to a halt, but then Congress and NASA rode to the rescue with the absurd-as-a-rocket but excellent-as-a-jobs-program Space Launch System (SLS), whose centre core stage also resembles the External Tank and Ares V. SLS first stage fabrication is presently underway at Michoud. Perhaps when the schedule-slipping, bugget-busting SLS is retired after a few flights (if, in fact, it ever flies at all), bringing to a close the era of giant taxpayer-funded throwaway rockets, the Michoud facility can be repurposed to more productive endeavours.

This book is largely a history of Michoud in photos and captions, with text introducing chapters on each phase of the facility's history. All of the photos are in black and white, and are well-reproduced. In the Kindle edition many can be expanded to show more detail. There are a number of copy-editing and factual errors in the text and captions, but not too many to distract or mislead the reader. The unidentified “visitors” shown touring the Michoud facility in July 1967 (chapter 3, Kindle location 392) are actually the Apollo 7 crew, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham, who would fly on a Michoud-built Saturn 1B in October 1968.

For a book of just 130 pages, most of which are black and white photographs, the hardcover is hideously expensive (US$29 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 13:07 Permalink

Friday, June 14, 2019

Reading List: Five Million Watts

Wood, Fenton. Five Million Watts. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B07R6X973N.
This is the second short novel/novella (123 pages) in the author's Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (May 2019), as “utterly charming”, and this sequel turns it all the way up to “enchanting”. As with the first book, you're reading along thinking this is a somewhat nerdy young adult story, then something happens or is mentioned in passing and suddenly, “Whoa—I didn't see that coming!”, and you realise the Yankee Republic is a strange and enchanted place, and that, as in the work of Philip K. Dick, there is a lot more going on than you suspected, and much more to be discovered in future adventures.

This tale begins several years after the events of the first book. Philo Hergenschmidt (the only character from Pirates to appear here) has grown up, graduated from Virginia Tech, and after a series of jobs keeping antiquated equipment at rural radio stations on the air, arrives in the Republic's storied metropolis of Iburakon to seek opportunity, adventure, and who knows what else. (If you're curious where the name of the city came from, here's a hint, but be aware it may be a minor spoiler.) Things get weird from the very start when he stops at an information kiosk and encounters a disembodied mechanical head who says it has a message for him. The message is just an address, and when he goes there he meets a very curious character who goes by a variety of names ranging from Viridios to Mr Green, surrounded by a collection of keyboard instruments including electronic synthesisers with strange designs.

Viridios suggests Philo aim for the very top and seek employment at legendary AM station 2XG, a broadcasting pioneer that went on the air in 1921, before broadcasting was regulated, and which in 1936 increased its power to five million watts. When other stations' maximum power was restricted to 50,000 watts, 2XG was grandfathered and allowed to continue to operate at 100 times more, enough to cover the continent far beyond the borders of the Yankee Republic into the mysterious lands of the West.

Not only does 2XG broadcast with enormous power, it was also permitted to retain its original 15 kHz bandwidth, allowing high-fidelity broadcasting and even, since the 1950s, stereo (for compatible receivers). However, in order to retain its rights to the frequency and power, the station was required to stay on the air continuously, with any outage longer than 24 hours forfeiting its rights to hungry competitors.

The engineers who maintained this unique equipment were a breed apart, the pinnacle of broadcast engineering. Philo manages to secure a job as a junior technician, which means he'll never get near the high power RF gear or antenna (all of which are one-off custom), but sets to work on routine maintenance of studio gear and patching up ancient tube gear when it breaks down. Meanwhile, he continues to visit Viridios and imbibe his tales of 2XG and the legendary Zaros the Electromage who designed its transmitter, the operation of which nobody completely understands today.

As he hears tales of the Old Religion, the gods of the spring and grain, and the time of the last ice age, Philo concludes Viridios is either the most magnificent liar he has ever encountered or—something else again.

Climate change is inexorably closing in on Iburakon. Each year is colder than the last, the growing season is shrinking, and it seems inevitable that before long the glaciers will resume their march from the north. Viridios is convinced that the only hope lies in music, performing a work rooted in that (very) Old Time Religion which caused a riot in its only public performance decades before, broadcast with the power of 2XG and performed with breakthrough electronic music instruments of his own devising.

Viridios is very odd, but also persuasive, and he has a history with 2XG. The concert is scheduled, and Philo sets to work restoring long-forgotten equipment from the station's basement and building new instruments to Viridios' specifications. It is a race against time, as the worst winter storm in memory threatens 2XG and forces Philo to confront one of his deepest fears.

Working on a project on the side, Philo discovers what may be the salvation of 2XG, but also as he looks deeper, possibly the door to a new universe. Once again, we have a satisfying, heroic, and imaginative story, suitable for readers of all ages, that leaves you hungry for more.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is inexpensive to buy. Those eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to visit the Yankee Republic will look forward to the publication of volume 3, The Tower of the Bear, in October, 2019.

Posted at 14:10 Permalink

Monday, June 10, 2019

Reading List: The Case for Trump

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Case for Trump. New York: Basic Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5416-7354-0.
The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 was a singular event in the history of the country. Never before had anybody been elected to that office without any prior experience in either public office or the military. Trump, although running as a Republican, had no long-term affiliation with the party and had cultivated no support within its establishment, elected officials, or the traditional donors who support its candidates. He turned his back on the insider consultants and “experts” who had advised GOP candidate after candidate in their “defeat with dignity” at the hands of a ruthless Democrat party willing to burn any bridge to win. From well before he declared his candidacy he established a direct channel to a mass audience, bypassing media gatekeepers via Twitter and frequent appearances in all forms of media, who found him a reliable boost to their audience and clicks. He was willing to jettison the mumbling points of the cultured Beltway club and grab “third rail” issues of which they dared not speak such as mass immigration, predatory trade practices, futile foreign wars, and the exporting of jobs from the U.S. heartland to low-wage sweatshops overseas.

He entered a free-for-all primary campaign as one of seventeen major candidates, including present and former governors, senators, and other well-spoken and distinguished rivals and, one by one, knocked them out, despite resolute and sometimes dishonest bias by the media hosting debates, often through “verbal kill shots” which made his opponents the target of mockery and pinned sobriquets on them (“low energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, “lyin' Ted”) they couldn't shake. His campaign organisation, if one can dignify it with the term, was completely chaotic and his fund raising nothing like the finely-honed machines of establishment favourites like Jeb Bush, and yet his antics resulted in his getting billions of dollars worth of free media coverage even on outlets who detested and mocked him.

One by one, he picked off his primary opponents and handily won the Republican presidential nomination. This unleashed a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen since the Goldwater insurgency of 1964, but far more virulent. Pillars of the Republican establishment and Conservatism, Inc. were on the verge of cardiac arrest, advancing fantasy scenarios to deny the nomination to its winner, publishing issues of their money-losing and subscription-shedding little magazines dedicated to opposing the choice of the party's voters, and promoting insurgencies such as the candidacy of Egg McMuffin, whose bona fides as a man of the people were evidenced by his earlier stints with the CIA and Goldman Sachs.

Predictions that post-nomination, Trump would become “more presidential” were quickly falsified as the chaos compounded, the tweets came faster and funnier, and the mass rallies became ever more frequent and raucous. One thing that was obvious to anybody looking dispassionately at what was going on, without the boiling blood of hatred and disdain of the New York-Washington establishment, was that the candidate was having the time of his life and so were the people who attended the rallies. But still, all of the wise men of the coastal corridor knew what must happen. On the eve of the general election, polls put the probability of a Trump victory somewhere between 1 and 15 percent. The outlier was Nate Silver, who went out on a limb and went all the way up to 29% chance of Trump's winning to the scorn of his fellow “progressives” and pollsters.

And yet, Trump won, and handily. Yes, he lost the popular vote, but that was simply due to the urban coastal vote for which he could not contend and wisely made no attempt to attract, knowing such an effort would be futile and a waste of his scarce resources (estimates are his campaign spent around half that of Clinton's). This book by classicist, military historian, professor, and fifth-generation California farmer Victor Davis Hanson is an in-depth examination of, in the words of the defeated candidate, “what happened”. There is a great deal of wisdom here.

First of all, a warning to the prospective reader. If you read Dr Hanson's columns regularly, you probably won't find a lot here that's new. This book is not one of those that's obviously Frankenstitched together from previously published columns, but in assembling their content into chapters focussing on various themes, there's been a lot of cut and paste, if not literally at the level of words, at least in terms of ideas. There is value in seeing it all presented in one package, but be prepared to say, from time to time, “Haven't I've read this before?”

That caveat lector aside, this is a brilliant analysis of the Trump phenomenon. Hanson argues persuasively that it is very unlikely any of the other Republican contenders for the nomination could have won the general election. None of them were talking about the issues which resonated with the erstwhile “Reagan Democrat” voters who put Trump over the top in the so-called “blue wall” states, and it is doubtful any of them would have ignored their Beltway consultants and campaigned vigorously in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania which were key to Trump's victory. Given that the Republican defeat which would likely have been the result of a Bush (again?), Rubio, or Cruz candidacy would have put the Clinton crime family back in power and likely tipped the Supreme Court toward the slaver agenda for a generation, that alone should give pause to “never Trump” Republicans.

How will it all end? Nobody knows, but Hanson provides a variety of perspectives drawn from everything from the Byzantine emperor Justinian's battle against the deep state to the archetype of the rough-edged outsider brought in to do what the more civilised can't or won't—the tragic hero from Greek drama to Hollywood westerns. What is certain is that none of what Trump is attempting, whether it ends in success or failure, would be happening if any of his primary opponents or the Democrat in the general election had prevailed.

I believe that Victor Davis Hanson is one of those rare people who have what I call the “Orwell gift”. Like George Orwell, he has the ability to look at the facts, evaluate them, and draw conclusions without any preconceived notions or filtering through an ideology. What is certain is that with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 the U.S. dodged a bullet. Whether that election will be seen as a turning point which reversed the decades-long slide toward tyranny by the administrative state, destruction of the middle class, replacement of the electorate by imported voters dependent upon the state, erosion of political and economic sovereignty in favour of undemocratic global governance, and the eventual financial and moral bankruptcy which are the inevitable result of all of these, or just a pause before the deluge, is yet to be seen. Hanson's book is an excellent, dispassionate, well-reasoned, and thoroughly documented view of where things stand today.

Posted at 11:34 Permalink

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Reading List: Planetary: Earth

Witzke, Dawn, ed. Planetary: Earth. Narara, NSW, Australia: Superversive Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-925645-24-8.
This is the fourth book in the publisher's Planetary Anthology series. Each volume contain stories set on, or figuring in the plot, the named planet. Previous collections have featured Mercury, Venus, and Mars. This installment contains stories related in some way to Earth, although in several none of the action occurs on that planet.

Back the day (1930s through 1980s) monthly science fiction magazines were a major venue for the genre and the primary path for aspiring authors to break into print. Sold on newsstands for the price of a few comic books, they were the way generations of young readers (including this one) discovered the limitless universe of science fiction. A typical issue might contain five or six short stories, a longer piece (novella or novelette), and a multi-month serialisation of a novel, usually by an established author known to the readers. For example, Frank Herbert's Dune was serialised in two long runs in Analog in 1963 and 1965 before its hardcover publication in 1965. In addition, there were often book reviews, a column about science fact (Fantasy and Science Fiction published a monthly science column by Isaac Asimov which ran from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1992—a total of 399 in all), a lively letters to the editor section, and an editorial. All of the major science fiction monthlies welcomed unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors, and each issue was likely to contain one or two stories from the “slush pile” which the editor decided made the cut for the magazine. Most of the outstanding authors of the era broke into the field this way, and some editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding (later Analog) invested much time and effort in mentoring promising talents and developing them into a reliable stable of writers to fill the pages of their magazines.

By the 1990s, monthly science fiction magazines were in decline, and the explosion of science fiction novel publication had reduced the market for short fiction. By the year 2000, only three remained in the U.S., and their circulations continued to erode. Various attempts to revive a medium for short fiction have been tried, including Web magazines. This collection is an example of another genre: the original anthology. While most anthologies published in book form in the heyday of the magazines had previously been published in the magazines (authors usually only sold the magazine “first North American serial rights” and retained the right to subsequently sell the story to the publisher of an anthology), original anthologies contain never-before-published stories, usually collected around a theme such as the planet Earth here.

I got this book (I say “got” as opposed to “bought” because the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and I “borrowed” it as one of the ten titles I can check out for reading at a given time) because it contained the short story, “The Hidden Conquest”, by Hans G. Schantz, author of the superb Hidden Truth series of novels (1, 2, 3), which was said to be a revealing prequel to the story in the books. It is, and it is excellent, although you probably won't appreciate how much of a reveal it is unless you've read the books, especially 2018's The Brave and the Bold.

The rest of the stories are…uneven: about what you'd expect from a science fiction magazine in the 1950s or '60s. Some are gimmick stories, others are shoot-em-up action tales, while still others are just disappointing and probably should have remained in the slush pile or returned to their authors with a note attached to the rejection slip offering a few suggestions and encouragement to try again. Copy editing is sloppy, complete with a sprinkling of idiot “its/it's” plus the obligatory “pulled hard on the reigns” “miniscule”, and take your “breathe” away.

But hey, if you got it from Kindle Unlimited, you can hardly say you didn't get your money's worth, and you're perfectly free to borrow it, read the Hans Schantz story, and return it same day. I would not pay the US$4 to buy the Kindle edition outright, and fifteen bucks for a paperback is right out.

Posted at 20:07 Permalink

Reading List: The Case for Space

Zubrin, Robert. The Case for Space. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-534-9.
Fifty years ago, with the successful landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, it appeared that the road to the expansion of human activity from its cradle on Earth into the immensely larger arena of the solar system was open. The infrastructure built for Project Apollo, including that in the original 1963 development plan for the Merritt Island area could support Saturn V launches every two weeks. Equipped with nuclear-powered upper stages (under active development by Project NERVA, and accommodated in plans for a Nuclear Assembly Building near the Vehicle Assembly Building), the launchers and support facilities were more than adequate to support construction of a large space station in Earth orbit, a permanently-occupied base on the Moon, exploration of near-Earth asteroids, and manned landings on Mars in the 1980s.

But this was not to be. Those envisioning this optimistic future fundamentally misunderstood the motivation for Project Apollo. It was not about, and never was about, opening the space frontier. Instead, it was a battle for prestige in the Cold War and, once won (indeed, well before the Moon landing), the budget necessary to support such an extravagant program (which threw away skyscraper-sized rockets with every launch), began to evaporate. NASA was ready to do the Buck Rogers stuff, but Washington wasn't about to come up with the bucks to pay for it. In 1965 and 1966, the NASA budget peaked at over 4% of all federal government spending. By calendar year 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, it had already fallen to 2.31% of the federal budget, and with relatively small year to year variations, has settled at around one half of one percent of the federal budget in recent years. Apart from a small band of space enthusiasts, there is no public clamour for increasing NASA's budget (which is consistently over-estimated by the public as a much larger fraction of federal spending than it actually receives), and there is no prospect for a political consensus emerging to fund an increase.

Further, there is no evidence that dramatically increasing NASA's budget would actually accomplish anything toward the goal of expanding the human presence in space. While NASA has accomplished great things in its robotic exploration of the solar system and building space-based astronomical observatories, its human space flight operations have been sclerotic, risk-averse, loath to embrace new technologies, and seemingly more oriented toward spending vast sums of money in the districts and states of powerful representatives and senators than actually flying missions.

Fortunately, NASA is no longer the only game in town (if it can even be considered to still be in the human spaceflight game, having been unable to launch its own astronauts into space without buying seats from Russia since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011). In 2009, the commission headed by Norman Augustine recommended cancellation of NASA's Constellation Program, which aimed at a crewed Moon landing in 2020, because they estimated that the heavy-lift booster it envisioned (although based largely on decades-old Space Shuttle technology) would take twelve years and US$36 billion to develop under NASA's business-as-usual policies; Constellation was cancelled in 2010 (although its heavy-lift booster, renamed. de-scoped, re-scoped, schedule-slipped, and cost-overrun, stumbles along, zombie-like, in the guise of the Space Launch System [SLS] which has, to date, consumed around US$14 billion in development costs without producing a single flight-ready rocket, and will probably cost between one and two billion dollars for each flight, every year or two—this farce will probably continue as long as Richard Shelby, the Alabama Senator who seems to believe NASA stands for “North Alabama Spending Agency”, remains in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body).

In February 2018, SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy booster, which has a payload capacity to low Earth orbit comparable to the initial version of the SLS, and was developed with private funds in half the time at one thirtieth the cost (so far) of NASA's Big Rocket to Nowhere. Further, unlike the SLS, which on each flight will consign Space Shuttle Main Engines and Solid Rocket Boosters (which were designed to be reusable and re-flown many times on the Space Shuttle) to a watery grave in the Atlantic, three of the four components of the Falcon Heavy (excluding only its upper stage, with a single engine) are reusable and can be re-flown as many as ten times. Falcon Heavy customers will pay around US$90 million for a launch on the reusable version of the rocket, less than a tenth of what NASA estimates for an SLS flight, even after writing off its enormous development costs.

On the heels of SpaceX, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin is developing its New Glenn orbital launcher, which will have comparable payload capacity and a fully reusable first stage. With competition on the horizon, SpaceX is developing the Super Heavy/Starship completely-reusable launcher with a payload of around 150 tonnes to low Earth orbit: more than any past or present rocket. A fully-reusable launcher with this capacity would also be capable of delivering cargo or passengers between any two points on Earth in less than an hour at a price to passengers no more than a first class ticket on a present-day subsonic airliner. The emergence of such a market could increase the demand for rocket flights from its current hundred or so per year to hundreds or thousands a day, like airline operations, with consequent price reductions due to economies of scale and moving all components of the transportation system down the technological learning curve.

Competition-driven decreases in launch cost, compounded by partially- or fully-reusable launchers, is already dramatically decreasing the cost of getting to space. A common metric of launch cost is the price to launch one kilogram into low Earth orbit. This remained stubbornly close to US$10,000/kg from the 1960s until the entry of SpaceX's Falcon 9 into the market in 2010. Purely by the more efficient design and operations of a profit-driven private firm as opposed to a cost-plus government contractor, the first version of the Falcon 9 cut launch costs to around US$6,000/kg. By reusing the first stage of the Falcon 9 (which costs around three times as much as the expendable second stage), this was cut by another factor of two, to US$3,000/kg. The much larger fully reusable Super Heavy/Starship is projected to reduce launch cost (if its entire payload capacity can be used on every flight, which probably isn't the way to bet) to the vicinity of US$250/kg, and if the craft can be flown frequently, say once a day, as somebody or other envisioned more than a quarter century ago, amortising fixed costs over a much larger number of launches could reduce cost per kilogram by another factor of ten, to something like US$25/kg.

Such cost reductions are an epochal change in the space business. Ever since the first Earth satellites, launch costs have dominated the industry and driven all other aspects of spacecraft design. If you're paying US$10,000 per kilogram to put your satellite in orbit, it makes sense to spend large sums of money not only on reducing its mass, but also making it extremely reliable, since launching a replacement would be so hideously expensive (and with flight rates so low, could result in a delay of a year or more before a launch opportunity became available). But with a hundred-fold or more reduction in launch cost and flights to orbit operating weekly or daily, satellites need no longer be built like precision watches, but rather industrial gear like that installed in telecom facilities on the ground. The entire cost structure is slashed across the board, and space becomes an arena accessible for a wide variety of commercial and industrial activities where its unique characteristics, such as access to free, uninterrupted solar power, high vacuum, and weightlessness are an advantage.

But if humanity is truly to expand beyond the Earth, launching satellites that go around and around the Earth providing services to those on its surface is just the start. People must begin to homestead in space: first hundreds, then thousands, and eventually millions and more living, working, building, raising families, with no more connection to the Earth than immigrants to the New World in the 1800s had to the old country in Europe or Asia. Where will they be living, and what will they be doing?

In order to think about the human future in the solar system, the first thing you need to do is recalibrate how you think about the Earth and its neighbours orbiting the Sun. Many people think of space as something like Antarctica: barren, difficult and expensive to reach, unforgiving, and while useful for some forms of scientific research, no place you'd want to set up industry or build communities where humans would spend their entire lives. But space is nothing like that. Ninety-nine percent or more of the matter and energy resources of the solar system—the raw material for human prosperity—are found not on the Earth, but rather elsewhere in the solar system, and they are free for the taking by whoever gets there first and figures out how to exploit them. Energy costs are a major input to most economic activity on the Earth, and wars are regularly fought over access to scarce energy resources on the home planet. But in space, at the distance Earth orbits the Sun, 1.36 kilowatts of free solar power are available for every square metre of collector you set up. And, unlike on the Earth's surface, that power is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and will continue to flow for billions of years into the future.

Settling space will require using the resources available in space, not just energy but material. Trying to make a space-based economy work by launching everything from Earth is futile and foredoomed. Regardless of how much you reduce launch costs (even with exotic technologies which may not even be possible given the properties of materials, such as space elevators or launch loops), the vast majority of the mass needed by a space-based civilisation will be dumb bulk materials, not high-tech products such as microchips. Water; hydrogen and oxygen for rocket fuel (which are easily made from water using electricity from solar power); aluminium, titanium, and steel for structural components; glass and silicon; rocks and minerals for agriculture and bulk mass for radiation shielding; these will account for the overwhelming majority of the mass of any settlement in space, whether in Earth orbit, on the Moon or Mars, asteroid mining camps, or habitats in orbit around the Sun. People and low-mass, high-value added material such as electronics, scientific instruments, and the like will launch from the Earth, but their destinations will be built in space from materials found there.

Why? As with most things in space, it comes down to delta-v (pronounced delta-vee), the change in velocity needed to get from one location to another. This, not distance, determines the cost of transportation in space. The Earth's mass creates a deep gravity well which requires around 9.8 km/sec of delta-v to get from the surface to low Earth orbit. It is providing this boost which makes launching payloads from the Earth so expensive. If you want to get to geostationary Earth orbit, where most communication satellites operate, you need another 3.8 km/sec, for a total of 13.6 km/sec launching from the Earth. By comparison, delivering a payload from the surface of the Moon to geostationary Earth orbit requires only 4 km/sec, which can be provided by a simple single-stage rocket. Delivering material from lunar orbit (placed there, for example, by a solar powered electromagnetic mass driver on the lunar surface) to geostationary orbit needs just 2.4 km/sec. Given that just about all of the materials from which geostationary satellites are built are available on the Moon (if you exploit free solar power to extract and refine them), it's clear a mature spacefaring economy will not be launching them from the Earth, and will create large numbers of jobs on the Moon, in lunar orbit, and in ferrying cargos among various destinations in Earth-Moon space.

The author surveys the resources available on the Moon, Mars, near-Earth and main belt asteroids, and, looking farther into the future, the outer solar system where, once humans have mastered controlled nuclear fusion, sufficient Helium-3 is available for the taking to power a solar system wide human civilisation of trillions of people for billions of years and, eventually, the interstellar ships they will use to expand out into the galaxy. Detailed plans are presented for near-term human missions to the Moon and Mars, both achievable within the decade of the 2020s, which will begin the process of surveying the resources available there and building the infrastructure for permanent settlement. These mission plans, unlike those of NASA, do not rely on paper rockets which have yet to fly, costly expendable boosters, or detours to “gateways” and other diversions which seem a prime example of (to paraphrase the author in chapter 14), “doing things in order to spend money as opposed to spending money in order to do things.”

This is an optimistic and hopeful view of the future, one in which the human adventure which began when our ancestors left Africa to explore and settle the far reaches of their home planet continues outward into its neighbourhood around the Sun and eventually to the stars. In contrast to the grim Malthusian vision of mountebanks selling nostrums like a “Green New Deal”, which would have humans huddled on an increasingly crowded planet, shivering in the cold and dark when the Sun and wind did not cooperate, docile and bowed to their enlightened betters who instruct them how to reduce their expectations and hopes for the future again and again as they wait for the asteroid impact to put an end to their misery, Zubrin sketches millions of diverse human (and eventually post-human, evolving in different directions) societies, exploring and filling niches on a grand scale that dwarfs that of the Earth, inventing, building, experimenting, stumbling, and then creating ever greater things just as humans have for millennia. This is a future not just worth dreaming of, but working to make a reality. We have the enormous privilege of living in the time when, with imagination, courage, the willingness to take risks and to discard the poisonous doctrines of those who preach “sustainability” but whose policies always end in resource wars and genocide, we can actually make it happen and see the first steps taken in our lifetimes.

Here is an interview with the author about the topics discussed in the book.

This is a one hour and forty-two minute interview (audio only) from “The Space Show” which goes into the book in detail.

Posted at 00:21 Permalink

Monday, May 27, 2019

Reading List: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

Kroese, Robert. The Dawn of the Iron Dragon. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2018. ISBN 978-1-7220-2331-7.
This is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon (August 2018). At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship's computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren't any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that's just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.

But the spacemen were survivors, and they knew that the entire future of the human species, driven in the future they had come from to near-extinction by the relentless Cho-ta'an, depended upon their getting off the Earth and delivering the planet-busting weapon which might turn the tide for their descendants centuries hence. While they needed just about everything, what they needed most was minds: human brainpower and the skills flowing from it to find and process the materials to build the machines to build the machines to build the machines which, after a decades-long process of recapitulating centuries of human technological progress, would enable them to accomplish their ambitious yet utterly essential mission.

People in the 9th century were just as intelligent as those today, but in most of the world literacy was rare and even more scarce was the acquired intellectual skill of thinking logically, breaking down a problem into its constituent parts, and the mental flexibility to learn and apply mind tools, such as algebra, trigonometry, calculus, Newton's and Kepler's laws, and a host of others which had yet to be discovered. These rare people were to be found in the emerging cities, where learning and the embryos of what would become the great universities of the later Middle Ages were developing. And so missions were dispatched to Constantinople, the greatest of these cities, and other centres of learning and innovation, to recruit not the famous figures recorded in history (whose disappearance into a secret project was inconsistent with that history, and hence impossible), but their promising young followers. These cities were cosmopolitan crossroads, dangerous but also sufficiently diverse that a Viking longboat showing up with people who barely spoke any known language would not attract undue attention. But the rulers of these cities appreciated the value of their learned people, and trying to attract them was perilous and could lead to hazards and misadventures.

On top of all of these challenges, a Cho-ta'an ship had followed the Andrea Luhman through the hyperspace gate and whatever had caused them to be thrown back in time, and a small contingent of the aliens had made it to Earth, bent on stopping the spacemen's getting off the planet at any cost. The situation was highly asymmetrical: while the spacemen had to accomplish a near-impossible task, the Cho-ta'an need only prevent them by any means possible. And being Cho-ta'an, if those means included loosing a doomsday plague to depopulate Europe, well, so be it. And the presence of the Cho-ta'an, wherever they might be hiding, redoubled the need for secrecy in every aspect of the Iron Dragon project.

Another contingent of the recruiting project finds itself in the much smaller West Francia city of Paris, just as Viking forces are massing for what history would record as the Siege of Paris in A.D. 885–886. In this epic raid, a force of tens of thousands (today estimated around 20,000, around half that claimed in the account by the monk Abbo Cernuus, who has been called “in a class of his own as an exaggerator”) of Vikings in hundreds (300, probably, 700 according to Abbo) laid siege to a city defended by just two hundred Parisian men-at-arms. In this account, the spacemen, with foreknowledge of how it was going to come out, provide invaluable advice to Count Odo of Paris and Gozlin, the “fighting Bishop” of Paris, in defending their city as it was simultaneously ravaged by a plague (wonder where that came from?), and in persuading King Charles (“the Fat”) to come to the relief of the city. The epic battle for Paris, which ended not in triumph but rather a shameful deal, was a turning point in the history of France. The efforts of the spacemen, while critical and perhaps decisive, remained consistent with written history, at least that written by Abbo, who they encouraged in his proclivity for exaggeration.

Meanwhile, back at the secret base in Iceland, chosen to stay out of the tangles of European politics and out of the way of their nemesis Harald Fairhair, the first King of Norway, local rivalries intrude upon the desired isolation. It appears another, perhaps disastrous, siege may be in the offing, putting the entire project at risk. And with all of this, one of those knock-you-off-your-feet calamities the author is so fond of throwing at his characters befalls them, forcing yet another redefinition of their project and a breathtaking increase in its ambition and complexity, just as they have to contemplate making new and perilous alliances simply to survive.

The second volume of a trilogy is often the most challenging to write. In the first, everything is new, and the reader gets to meet the characters, the setting, and the challenges to be faced in the story. In the conclusion, everything is pulled together into a satisfying resolution. But in that one in the middle, it's mostly developing characters, plots, introducing new (often subordinate) characters, and generally moving things along—one risks readers' regarding it as “filler”. In this book, the author artfully avoids that risk by making a little-known but epic battle the centrepiece of the story, along with intrigue, a thorny ethical dilemma, and multiple plot threads playing out from Iceland to North Africa to the Dardanelles. You absolutely should read the first volume, The Dream of the Iron Dragon, before starting this one—although there is a one page summary of that book at the start, it isn't remotely adequate to bring you up to speed and avoid your repeatedly exclaiming “Who?”, “What?”, and “How?” as you enjoy this story.

When you finish this volume, the biggest question in your mind will probably be “How in the world is he going to wrap all of this up in just one more book?” The only way to find out is to pick up The Voyage of the Iron Dragon, which I will be reviewing here in due course. This saga (what else can you call an epic with Vikings and spaceships?) will be ranked among the very best of alternative history science fiction, and continues to demonstrate why independent science fiction is creating a new Golden Age for readers and rendering the legacy publishers of tedious “diversity” propaganda impotent and obsolete.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 23:07 Permalink

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Reading List: Churchill: Walking with Destiny

Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.
At the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion (January 2013) by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins' single-volume Churchill: A Biography (February 2004), which concentrates on Churchill's political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?

As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill's papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King's wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King's daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill's candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain's situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill's mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.

The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill's life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill's part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.

Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston's birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.

In terms of his subsequent career, his father's early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill's life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.

Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.

He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.

Churchill's formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.

He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.

Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,

Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.

This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.

Churchill's views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,

A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.

Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.

Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin's annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet's Government's latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler's potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”

Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.

And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill's every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.

Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,

Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill's first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.

This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill's career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill's work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.

Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.

This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.

Posted at 22:01 Permalink

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Reading List: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves

Wood, Fenton. Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2018. ASIN B07H2RJK8J.
This is an utterly charming short novel (or novella: it is just 123 pages) which, on the surface, reads like a young adult adventure from the golden age, along the lines of the original Tom Swift or Hardy Boys series. But as you get deeper into the story, you discover clues there is much more going on than you first suspected, and that this may be the beginning of a wonderful exploration of an alternative reality which is a delight to visit and you may wish were your home.

Philo Hergenschmidt, Randall Quinn, and their young friends live in Porterville, deep in the mountain country of the Yankee Republic. The mountains that surround it stopped the glaciers when they came down from the North a hundred thousand years ago, and provided a refuge for the peace-loving, self-sufficient, resourceful, and ornery people who fled the wars. Many years later, they retain those properties, and most young people are members of the Survival Scouts, whose eight hundred page Handbook contains every thing a mountain man needs to know to survive and prosper under any circumstances.

Porterville is just five hundred miles from the capital of Iburakon, but might as well be on a different planet. Although the Yankee Republic's technology is in many ways comparable to our own, the mountains shield Porterville from television and FM radio broadcasts and, although many families own cars with radios installed by default, the only thing they can pick up is a few scratchy AM stations from far away when the skywave opens up at night. Every summer, Randall spends two weeks with his grandparents in Iburakon and comes back with tales of wonders which enthrall his friends like an explorer of yore returned from Shangri-La. (Randall is celebrated as a raconteur—and some of his tales may be true.) This year he told of the marvel of television and a science fiction series called Xenotopia, and for weeks the boys re-enacted battles from his descriptions. Broadcasting: that got Philo thinking….

One day Philo calls up Randall and asks him to dig out an old radio he recalled him having and tune it to the usually dead FM band. Randall does, and is astonished to hear Philo broadcasting on “Station X” with amusing patter. It turns out he found a book in the attic, 101 Radio Projects for Boys, written by a creative and somewhat subversive author, and following the directions, put together a half watt FM transmitter from scrounged spare parts. Philo briefs Randall on pirate radio stations: although the penalties for operating without a license appear severe, in fact, unless you willingly interfere with a licensed broadcaster, you just get a warning the first time and a wrist-slap ticket thereafter unless you persist too long.

This gets them both thinking…. With the help of adults willing to encourage youth in their (undisclosed) projects, or just to look the other way (the kids of Porterville live free-range lives, as I did in my childhood, as their elders have not seen fit to import the vibrant diversity into their community which causes present-day youth to live under security lock-down), and a series of adventures, radio station 9X9 goes on the air, announced with great fanfare in handbills posted around the town. Suddenly, there is something to listen to, and people start tuning in. Local talent tries their hands at being a DJ, and favourites emerge. Merchants start to sign up for advertisements. Church services are broadcast for shut-ins. Even though no telephone line runs anywhere near the remote and secret studio, ingenuity and some nineteenth-century technology allow them to stage a hit call-in show. And before long, live talent gets into the act. A big baseball game provides both a huge opportunity and a seemingly insurmountable challenge until the boys invent an art which, in our universe, was once masterfully performed by a young Ronald Reagan.

Along the way, we learn of the Yankee Republic in brief, sometimes jarring, strokes of the pen, as the author masterfully follows the science fiction principle of “show, don't tell”.

Just imagine if William the Bastard had succeeded in conquering England. We'd probably be speaking some unholy crossbreed of French and English….

The Republic is the only country in the world that recognizes allodial title,….

When Congress declares war, they have to elect one of their own to be a sacrificial victim,….

“There was a man from the state capitol who wanted to give us government funding to build what he called a ‘proper’ school, but he was run out of town, the poor dear.”

Pirates, of course, must always keenly scan the horizon for those who might want to put an end to the fun. And so it is for buccaneers sailing the Hertzian waves. You'll enjoy every minute getting to the point where you find out how it ends. And then, when you think it's all over, another door opens into a wider, and weirder, world in which we may expect further adventures. The second volume in the series, Five Million Watts, was published in April, 2019.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is very inexpensive.

Posted at 14:52 Permalink

Friday, May 17, 2019

Reading List: Stalin, Vol. 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin, Vol. 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1-59420-380-0.
This is the second volume in the author's monumental projected three-volume biography of Joseph Stalin. The first volume, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 (December 2018) covers the period from Stalin's birth through the consolidation of his sole power atop the Soviet state after the death of Lenin. The third volume, which will cover the period from the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 through the death of Stalin in 1953 has yet to be published.

As this volume begins in 1928, Stalin is securely in the supreme position of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and having over the years staffed the senior ranks of the party and the Soviet state (which the party operated like the puppet it was) with loyalists who owed their positions to him, had no serious rivals who might challenge him. (It is often claimed that Stalin was paranoid and feared a coup, but would a despot fearing for his position regularly take summer holidays, months in length, in Sochi, far from the capital?)

By 1928, the Soviet Union had largely recovered from the damage inflicted by the Great War, Bolshevik revolution, and subsequent civil war. Industrial and agricultural production were back to around their 1914 levels, and most measures of well-being had similarly recovered. To be sure, compared to the developed industrial economies of countries such as Germany, France, or Britain, Russia remained a backward economy largely based upon primitive agriculture, but at least it had undone the damage inflicted by years of turbulence and conflict.

But in the eyes of Stalin and his close associates, who were ardent Marxists, there was a dangerous and potentially deadly internal contradiction in the Soviet system as it then stood. In 1921, in response to the chaos and famine following the 1917 revolution and years-long civil war, Lenin had proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which tempered the pure collectivism of original Bolshevik doctrine by introducing a mixed economy, where large enterprises would continue to be owned and managed by the state, but small-scale businesses could be privately owned and run for profit. More importantly, agriculture, which had previously been managed under a top-down system of coercive requisitioning of grain and other products by the state, was replaced by a market system where farmers could sell their products freely, subject to a tax, payable in product, proportional to their production (and thus creating an incentive to increase production).

The NEP was a great success, and shortages of agricultural products were largely eliminated. There was grousing about the growing prosperity of the so-called NEPmen, but the results of freeing the economy from the shackles of state control were evident to all. But according to Marxist doctrine, it was a dagger pointed at the heart of the socialist state.

By 1928, the Soviet economy could be described, in Marxist terms, as socialism in the industrial cities and capitalism in the agrarian countryside. But, according to Marx, the form of politics was determined by the organisation of the means of production—paraphrasing Brietbart, politics is downstream of economics. This meant that preserving capitalism in a large sector of the country, one employing a large majority of its population and necessary to feed the cities, was an existential risk. In such a situation it would only be normal for the capitalist peasants to eventually prevail over the less numerous urbanised workers and destroy socialism.

Stalin was a Marxist. He was not an opportunist who used Marxism-Leninism to further his own ambitions. He really believed this stuff. And so, in 1928, he proclaimed an end to the NEP and began the forced collectivisation of Soviet agriculture. Private ownership of land would be abolished, and the 120 million peasants essentially enslaved as “workers” on collective or state farms, with planting, quotas to be delivered, and management essentially controlled by the party. After an initial lucky year, the inevitable catastrophe ensued. Between 1931 and 1933 famine and epidemics resulting from it killed between five and seven million people. The country lost around half of its cattle and two thirds of its sheep. In 1929, the average family in Kazakhstan owned 22.6 cattle; in 1933 3.7. This was a calamity on the same order as the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, and just as man-made: during this period there was a global glut of food, but Stalin refused to admit the magnitude of the disaster for fear of inciting enemies to attack and because doing so would concede the failure of his collectivisation project. In addition to the famine, the process of collectivisation resulted in between four and five million people being arrested, executed, deported to other regions, or jailed.

Many in the starving countryside said, “If only Stalin knew, he would do something.” But the evidence is overwhelming: Stalin knew, and did nothing. Marxist theory said that agriculture must be collectivised, and by pure force of will he pushed through the project, whatever the cost. Many in the senior Soviet leadership questioned this single-minded pursuit of a theoretical goal at horrendous human cost, but they did not act to stop it. But Stalin remembered their opposition and would settle scores with them later.

By 1936, it appeared that the worst of the period of collectivisation was over. The peasants, preferring to live in slavery than starve to death, had acquiesced to their fate and resumed production, and the weather co-operated in producing good harvests. And then, in 1937, a new horror was unleashed upon the Soviet people, also completely man-made and driven by the will of Stalin, the Great Terror. Starting slowly in the aftermath of the assassination of Sergey Kirov in 1934, by 1937 the absurd devouring of those most loyal to the Soviet regime, all over Stalin's signature, reached a crescendo. In 1937 and 1938 1,557,259 people would be arrested and 681,692 executed, the overwhelming majority for political offences, this in a country with a working-age population of 100 million. Counting deaths from other causes as a result of the secret police, the overall death toll was probably around 830,000. This was so bizarre, and so unprecedented in human history, it is difficult to find any comparable situation, even in Nazi Germany. As the author remarks,

To be sure, the greater number of victims were ordinary Soviet people, but what regime liquidates colossal numbers of loyal officials? Could Hitler—had he been so inclined—have compelled the imprisonment or execution of huge swaths of Nazi factory and farm bosses, as well as almost all of the Nazi provincial Gauleiters and their staffs, several times over? Could he have executed the personnel of the Nazi central ministries, thousands of his Wehrmacht officers—including almost his entire high command—as well as the Reich's diplomatic corps and its espionage agents, its celebrated cultural figures, and the leadership of Nazi parties throughout the world (had such parties existed)? Could Hitler also have decimated the Gestapo even while it was carrying out a mass bloodletting? And could the German people have been told, and would the German people have found plausible, that almost everyone who had come to power with the Nazi revolution turned out to be a foreign agent and saboteur?

Stalin did all of these things. The damage inflicted upon the Soviet military, at a time of growing threats, was horrendous. The terror executed or imprisoned three of the five marshals of the Soviet Union, 13 of 15 full generals, 8 of the 9 admirals of the Navy, and 154 of 186 division commanders. Senior managers, diplomats, spies, and party and government officials were wiped out in comparable numbers in the all-consuming cataclysm. At the very moment the Soviet state was facing threats from Nazi Germany in the west and Imperial Japan in the east, it destroyed those most qualified to defend it in a paroxysm of paranoia and purification from phantasmic enemies.

And then, it all stopped, or largely tapered off. This did nothing for those who had been executed, or who were still confined in the camps spread all over the vast country, but at least there was a respite from the knocks in the middle of the night and the cascading denunciations for fantastically absurd imagined “crimes”. (In June 1937, eight high-ranking Red Army officers, including Marshal Tukachevsky, were denounced as “Gestapo agents”. Three of those accused were Jews.)

But now the international situation took priority over domestic “enemies”. The Bolsheviks, and Stalin in particular, had always viewed the Soviet Union as surrounded by enemies. As the vanguard of the proletarian revolution, by definition those states on its borders must be reactionary capitalist-imperialist or fascist regimes hostile to or actively bent upon the destruction of the peoples' state.

With Hitler on the march in Europe and Japan expanding its puppet state in China, potentially hostile powers were advancing toward Soviet borders from two directions. Worse, there was a loose alliance between Germany and Japan, raising the possibility of a two-front war which would engage Soviet forces in conflicts on both ends of its territory. What Stalin feared most, however, was an alliance of the capitalist states (in which he included Germany, despite its claim to be “National Socialist”) against the Soviet Union. In particular, he dreaded some kind of arrangement between Britain and Germany which might give Britain supremacy on the seas and its far-flung colonies, while acknowledging German domination of continental Europe and a free hand to expand toward the East at the expense of the Soviet Union.

Stalin was faced with an extraordinarily difficult choice: make some kind of deal with Britain (and possibly France) in the hope of deterring a German attack upon the Soviet Union, or cut a deal with Germany, linking the German and Soviet economies in a trade arrangement which the Germans would be loath to destroy by aggression, lest they lose access to the raw materials which the Soviet Union could supply to their war machine. Stalin's ultimate calculation, again grounded in Marxist theory, was that the imperialist powers were fated to eventually fall upon one another in a destructive war for domination, and that by standing aloof, the Soviet Union stood to gain by encouraging socialist revolutions in what remained of them after that war had run its course.

Stalin evaluated his options and made his choice. On August 27, 1939, a “non-aggression treaty” was signed in Moscow between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But the treaty went far beyond what was made public. Secret protocols defined “spheres of influence”, including how Poland would be divided among the two parties in the case of war. Stalin viewed this treaty as a triumph: yes, doctrinaire communists (including many in the West) would be aghast at a deal with fascist Germany, but at a blow, Stalin had eliminated the threat of an anti-Soviet alliance between Germany and Britain, linked Germany and the Soviet Union in a trade arrangement whose benefits to Germany would deter aggression and, in the case of war between Germany and Britain and France (for which he hoped), might provide an opportunity to recover territory once in the czar's empire which had been lost after the 1917 revolution.

Initially, this strategy appeared to be working swimmingly. The Soviets were shipping raw materials they had in abundance to Germany and receiving high-technology industrial equipment and weapons which they could immediately put to work and/or reverse-engineer to make domestically. In some cases, they even received blueprints or complete factories for making strategic products. As the German economy became increasingly dependent upon Soviet shipments, Stalin perceived this as leverage over the actions of Germany, and responded to delays in delivery of weapons by slowing down shipments of raw materials essential to German war production.

On September 1st, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, just a week after the signing of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. On September 3rd, France and Britain declared war on Germany. Here was the “war among the imperialists” of which Stalin had dreamed. The Soviet Union could stand aside, continue to trade with Nazi Germany, while the combatants bled each other white, and then, in the aftermath, support socialist revolutions in their countries. On September 17th the Soviet Union, pursuant to the secret protocol, invaded Poland from the east and joined the Nazi forces in eradicating that nation. Ominously, greater Germany and the Soviet Union now shared a border.

After the start of hostilities, a state of “phoney war” existed until Germany struck against Denmark, Norway, and France in April and May 1940. At first, this appeared precisely what Stalin had hoped for: a general conflict among the “imperialist powers” with the Soviet Union not only uninvolved, but having reclaimed territory in Poland, the Baltic states, and Bessarabia which had once belonged to the Tsars. Now there was every reason to expect a long war of attrition in which the Nazis and their opponents would grind each other down, as in the previous world war, paving the road for socialist revolutions everywhere.

But then, disaster ensued. In less than six weeks, France collapsed and Britain evacuated its expeditionary force from the Continent. Now, it appeared, Germany reigned supreme, and might turn its now largely idle army toward conquest in the East. After consolidating the position in the west and indefinitely deferring an invasion of Britain due to inability to obtain air and sea superiority in the English Channel, Hitler began to concentrate his forces on the eastern frontier. Disinformation, spread where Soviet spy networks would pick it up and deliver it to Stalin, whose prejudices it confirmed, said that the troop concentrations were in preparation for an assault on British positions in the Near East or to blackmail the Soviet Union to obtain, for example, a long term lease on its breadbasket, the Ukraine.

Hitler, acutely aware that it was a two-front war which spelled disaster to Germany in the last war, rationalised his attack on the Soviet Union as follows. Yes, Britain had not been defeated, but their only hope was an eventual alliance with the Soviet Union, opening a second front against Germany. Knocking out the Soviet Union (which should be no more difficult than the victory over France, which took just six weeks), would preclude this possibility and force Britain to come to terms. Meanwhile, Germany would have secured access to raw materials in Soviet territory for which it was previously paying market prices, but were now available for the cost of extraction and shipping.

The volume concludes on June 21st, 1941, the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. There could not have been more signs that this was coming: Soviet spies around the world sent evidence, and Britain even shared (without identifying the source) decrypted German messages about troop dispositions and war plans. But none of this disabused Stalin of his idée fixe: Germany would not attack because Soviet exports were so important. Indeed, in 1940, 40 percent of nickel, 55 percent of manganese, 65 percent of chromium, 67% of asbestos, 34% of petroleum, and a million tonnes of grain and timber which supported the Nazi war machine were delivered by the Soviet Union. Hours before the Nazi onslaught began, well after the order for it was given, a Soviet train delivering grain, manganese, and oil crossed the border between Soviet-occupied and German-occupied Poland, bound for Germany. Stalin's delusion persisted until reality intruded with dawn.

This is a magisterial work. It is unlikely it will ever be equalled. There is abundant rich detail on every page. Want to know what the telephone number for the Latvian consulate in Leningrad was 1934? It's right here on page 206 (5-50-63). Too often, discussions of Stalin assume he was a kind of murderous madman. This book is a salutary antidote. Everything Stalin did made perfect sense when viewed in the context of the beliefs which Stalin held, shared by his Bolshevik contemporaries and those he promoted to the inner circle. Yes, they seem crazy, and they were, but no less crazy than politicians in the United States advocating the abolition of air travel and the extermination of cows in order to save a planet which has managed just fine for billions of years without the intervention of bug-eyed, arm-waving ignoramuses.

Reading this book is a major investment of time. It is 1154 pages, with 910 pages of main text and illustrations, and will noticeably bend spacetime in its vicinity. But there is so much wisdom, backed with detail, that you will savour every page and, when you reach the end, crave the publication of the next volume. If you want to understand totalitarian dictatorship, you have to ultimately understand Stalin, who succeeded at it for more than thirty years until ultimately felled by illness, not conquest or coup, and who built the primitive agrarian nation he took over into a superpower. Some of us thought that the death of Stalin and, decades later, the demise of the Soviet Union, brought an end to all that. And yet, today, in the West, we have politicians advocating central planning, collectivisation, and limitations on free speech which are entirely consistent with the policies of Uncle Joe. After reading this book and thinking about it for a while, I have become convinced that Stalin was a patriot who believed that what he was doing was in the best interest of the Soviet people. He was sure the (laughably absurd) theories he believed and applied were the best way to build the future. And he was willing to force them into being whatever the cost may be. So it is today, and let us hope those made aware of the costs documented in this history will be immunised against the siren song of collectivist utopia.

Author Stephen Kotkin did a two-part Uncommon Knowledge interview about the book in 2018. In the first part he discusses collectivisation and the terror. In the second, he discusses Stalin and Hitler, and the events leading up to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Posted at 13:34 Permalink

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reading List: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution

Smolin, Lee. Einstein's Unfinished Revolution. New York: Penguin Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-59420-619-1.
In the closing years of the nineteenth century, one of those nagging little discrepancies vexing physicists was the behaviour of the photoelectric effect. Originally discovered in 1887, the phenomenon causes certain metals, when illuminated by light, to absorb the light and emit electrons. The perplexing point was that there was a minimum wavelength (colour of light) necessary for electron emission, and for longer wavelengths, no electrons would be emitted at all, regardless of the intensity of the beam of light. For example, a certain metal might emit electrons when illuminated by green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet light, with the intensity of electron emission proportional to the light intensity, but red or yellow light, regardless of how intense, would not result in a single electron being emitted.

This didn't make any sense. According to Maxwell's wave theory of light, which was almost universally accepted and had passed stringent experimental tests, the energy of light depended upon the amplitude of the wave (its intensity), not the wavelength (or, reciprocally, its frequency). And yet the photoelectric effect didn't behave that way—it appeared that whatever was causing the electrons to be emitted depended on the wavelength of the light, and what's more, there was a sharp cut-off below which no electrons would be emitted at all.

In 1905, in one of his “miracle year” papers, “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light”, Albert Einstein suggested a solution to the puzzle. He argued that light did not propagate as a wave at all, but rather in discrete particles, or “quanta”, later named “photons”, whose energy was proportional to the wavelength of the light. This neatly explained the behaviour of the photoelectric effect. Light with a wavelength longer than the cut-off point was transmitted by photons whose energy was too low to knock electrons out of metal they illuminated, while those above the threshold could liberate electrons. The intensity of the light was a measure of the number of photons in the beam, unrelated to the energy of the individual photons.

This paper became one of the cornerstones of the revolutionary theory of quantum mechanics, the complete working out of which occupied much of the twentieth century. Quantum mechanics underlies the standard model of particle physics, which is arguably the most thoroughly tested theory in the history of physics, with no experiment showing results which contradict its predictions since it was formulated in the 1970s. Quantum mechanics is necessary to explain the operation of the electronic and optoelectronic devices upon which our modern computing and communication infrastructure is built, and describes every aspect of physical chemistry.

But quantum mechanics is weird. Consider: if light consists of little particles, like bullets, then why when you shine a beam of light on a barrier with two slits do you get an interference pattern with bright and dark bands precisely as you get with, say, water waves? And if you send a single photon at a time and try to measure which slit it went through, you find it always went through one or the other, but then the interference pattern goes away. It seems like whether the photon behaves as a wave or a particle depends upon how you look at it. If you have an hour, here is grand master explainer Richard Feynman (who won his own Nobel Prize in 1965 for reconciling the quantum mechanical theory of light and the electron with Einstein's special relativity) exploring how profoundly weird the double slit experiment is.

Fundamentally, quantum mechanics seems to violate the principle of realism, which the author defines as follows.

The belief that there is an objective physical world whose properties are independent of what human beings know or which experiments we choose to do. Realists also believe that there is no obstacle in principle to our obtaining complete knowledge of this world.

This has been part of the scientific worldview since antiquity and yet quantum mechanics, confirmed by innumerable experiments, appears to indicate we must abandon it. Quantum mechanics says that what you observe depends on what you choose to measure; that there is an absolute limit upon the precision with which you can measure pairs of properties (for example position and momentum) set by the uncertainty principle; that it isn't possible to predict the outcome of experiments but only the probability among a variety of outcomes; and that particles which are widely separated in space and time but which have interacted in the past are entangled and display correlations which no classical mechanistic theory can explain—Einstein called the latter “spooky action at a distance”. Once again, all of these effects have been confirmed by precision experiments and are not fairy castles erected by theorists.

From the formulation of the modern quantum theory in the 1920s, often called the Copenhagen interpretation after the location of the institute where one of its architects, Neils Bohr, worked, a number of eminent physicists including Einstein and Louis de Broglie were deeply disturbed by its apparent jettisoning of the principle of realism in favour of what they considered a quasi-mystical view in which the act of “measurement” (whatever that means) caused a physical change (wave function collapse) in the state of a system. This seemed to imply that the photon, or electron, or anything else, did not have a physical position until it interacted with something else: until then it was just an immaterial wave function which filled all of space and (when squared) gave the probability of finding it at that location.

In 1927, de Broglie proposed a pilot wave theory as a realist alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation. In the pilot wave theory there is a real particle, which has a definite position and momentum at all times. It is guided in its motion by a pilot wave which fills all of space and is defined by the medium through which it propagates. We cannot predict the exact outcome of measuring the particle because we cannot have infinitely precise knowledge of its initial position and momentum, but in principle these quantities exist and are real. There is no “measurement problem” because we always detect the particle, not the pilot wave which guides it. In its original formulation, the pilot wave theory exactly reproduced the predictions of the Copenhagen formulation, and hence was not a competing theory but rather an alternative interpretation of the equations of quantum mechanics. Many physicists who preferred to “shut up and calculate” considered interpretations a pointless exercise in phil-oss-o-phy, but de Broglie and Einstein placed great value on retaining the principle of realism as a cornerstone of theoretical physics. Lee Smolin sketches an alternative reality in which “all the bright, ambitious students flocked to Paris in the 1930s to follow de Broglie, and wrote textbooks on pilot wave theory, while Bohr became a footnote, disparaged for the obscurity of his unnecessary philosophy”. But that wasn't what happened: among those few physicists who pondered what the equations meant about how the world really works, the Copenhagen view remained dominant.

In the 1950s, independently, David Bohm invented a pilot wave theory which he developed into a complete theory of nonrelativistic quantum mechanics. To this day, a small community of “Bohmians” continue to explore the implications of his theory, working on extending it to be compatible with special relativity. From a philosophical standpoint the de Broglie-Bohm theory is unsatisfying in that it involves a pilot wave which guides a particle, but upon which the particle does not act. This is an “unmoved mover”, which all of our experience of physics argues does not exist. For example, Newton's third law of motion holds that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and in Einstein's general relativity, spacetime tells mass-energy how to move while mass-energy tells spacetime how to curve. It seems odd that the pilot wave could be immune from influence of the particle it guides. A few physicists, such as Jack Sarfatti, have proposed “post-quantum” extensions to Bohm's theory in which there is back-reaction from the particle on the pilot wave, and argue that this phenomenon might be accessible to experimental tests which would distinguish post-quantum phenomena from the predictions of orthodox quantum mechanics. A few non-physicist crackpots have suggested these phenomena might even explain flying saucers.

Moving on from pilot wave theory, the author explores other attempts to create a realist interpretation of quantum mechanics: objective collapse of the wave function, as in the Penrose interpretation; the many worlds interpretation (which Smolin calls “magical realism”); and decoherence of the wavefunction due to interaction with the environment. He rejects all of them as unsatisfying, because they fail to address glaring lacunæ in quantum theory which are apparent from its very equations.

The twentieth century gave us two pillars of theoretical physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity—Einstein's geometric theory of gravitation. Both have been tested to great precision, but they are fundamentally incompatible with one another. Quantum mechanics describes the very small: elementary particles, atoms, and molecules. General relativity describes the very large: stars, planets, galaxies, black holes, and the universe as a whole. In the middle, where we live our lives, neither much affects the things we observe, which is why their predictions seem counter-intuitive to us. But when you try to put the two theories together, to create a theory of quantum gravity, the pieces don't fit. Quantum mechanics assumes there is a universal clock which ticks at the same rate everywhere in the universe. But general relativity tells us this isn't so: a simple experiment shows that a clock runs slower when it's in a gravitational field. Quantum mechanics says that it isn't possible to determine the position of a particle without its interacting with another particle, but general relativity requires the knowledge of precise positions of particles to determine how spacetime curves and governs the trajectories of other particles. There are a multitude of more gnarly and technical problems in what Stephen Hawking called “consummating the fiery marriage between quantum mechanics and general relativity”. In particular, the equations of quantum mechanics are linear, which means you can add together two valid solutions and get another valid solution, while general relativity is nonlinear, where trying to disentangle the relationships of parts of the systems quickly goes pear-shaped and many of the mathematical tools physicists use to understand systems (in particular, perturbation theory) blow up in their faces.

Ultimately, Smolin argues, giving up realism means abandoning what science is all about: figuring out what is really going on. The incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity provides clues that there may be a deeper theory to which both are approximations that work in certain domains (just as Newtonian mechanics is an approximation of special relativity which works when velocities are much less than the speed of light). Many people have tried and failed to “quantise general relativity”. Smolin suggests the problem is that quantum theory itself is incomplete: there is a deeper theory, a realistic one, to which our existing theory is only an approximation which works in the present universe where spacetime is nearly flat. He suggests that candidate theories must contain a number of fundamental principles. They must be background independent, like general relativity, and discard such concepts as fixed space and a universal clock, making both dynamic and defined based upon the components of a system. Everything must be relational: there is no absolute space or time; everything is defined in relation to something else. Everything must have a cause, and there must be a chain of causation for every event which traces back to its causes; these causes flow only in one direction. There is reciprocity: any object which acts upon another object is acted upon by that object. Finally, there is the “identity of indescernibles”: two objects which have exactly the same properties are the same object (this is a little tricky, but the idea is that if you cannot in some way distinguish two objects [for example, by their having different causes in their history], then they are the same object).

This argues that what we perceive, at the human scale and even in our particle physics experiments, as space and time are actually emergent properties of something deeper which was manifest in the early universe and in extreme conditions such as gravitational collapse to black holes, but hidden in the bland conditions which permit us to exist. Further, what we believe to be “laws” and “constants” may simply be precedents established by the universe as it tries to figure out how to handle novel circumstances. Just as complex systems like markets and evolution in ecosystems have rules that change based upon events within them, maybe the universe is “making it up as it goes along”, and in the early universe, far from today's near-equilibrium, wild and crazy things happened which may explain some of the puzzling properties of the universe we observe today.

This needn't forever remain in the realm of speculation. It is easy, for example, to synthesise a protein which has never existed before in the universe (it's an example of a combinatorial explosion). You might try, for example, to crystallise this novel protein and see how difficult it is, then try again later and see if the universe has learned how to do it. To be extra careful, do it first on the International Space Station and then in a lab on the Earth. I suggested this almost twenty years ago as a test of Rupert Sheldrake's theory of morphic resonance, but (although doubtless Smolin would shun me for associating his theory with that one), it might produce interesting results.

The book concludes with a very personal look at the challenges facing a working scientist who has concluded the paradigm accepted by the overwhelming majority of his or her peers is incomplete and cannot be remedied by incremental changes based upon the existing foundation. He notes:

There is no more reasonable bet than that our current knowledge is incomplete. In every era of the past our knowledge was incomplete; why should our period be any different? Certainly the puzzles we face are at least as formidable as any in the past. But almost nobody bets this way. This puzzles me.

Well, it doesn't puzzle me. Ever since I learned classical economics, I've always learned to look at the incentives in a system. When you regard academia today, there is huge risk and little reward to get out a new notebook, look at the first blank page, and strike out in an entirely new direction. Maybe if you were a twenty-something patent examiner in a small city in Switzerland in 1905 with no academic career or reputation at risk you might go back to first principles and overturn space, time, and the wave theory of light all in one year, but today's institutional structure makes it almost impossible for a young researcher (and revolutionary ideas usually come from the young) to strike out in a new direction. It is a blessing that we have deep thinkers such as Lee Smolin setting aside the easy path to retirement to ask these deep questions today.

Here is a lecture by the author at the Perimeter Institute about the topics discussed in the book. He concentrates mostly on the problems with quantum theory and not the speculative solutions discussed in the latter part of the book.

Posted at 14:23 Permalink