I leapt, I fell. I don't know what's wrong with me.
Wonder of wonders, two things from me running on back to back days. As I always say, I may not be able to do much, but I can type fast.
The first one is something I was very much undecided about, but the powers that be liked it and ran it on the front page. I didn't read the comments because it's the type of piece that guarantees that people are just going to hate me. I don't like the title change, as always, but again and again, that's not my call.
This second one is a topic I'm much more interested in, but apparently no one else is! Whatever, I was glad to do it.
The play is going as well as can be expected, what with the awful script, all the technical breakdowns, and about 2/3 of the cast sick. My cold hit its high (or low?) point on Saturday. I sang horribly. One person who came to see it told me I sounded fine. Then she admitted she was drinking before the show. So I guess we'll be okay if we institute a "no sober audience members allowed" policy.
In other news, I find myself wondering what to do.
No, I haven’t quit reading for the year. I just thought it was time for this list again.
I make this list with much less joy than I did last year's; the highs are not as high, and the lows are…well, I’m sure the lows are similarly low (I’m not going to do a 9 worst book list). What I mean is that I could have made this a list of 19 books and it wouldn’t have been a great deal of different than the 9; number 7 would be a close call with number 11, number 5 wouldn’t be very far from number 16, number 2 is almost as good as number 1. But I’ll keep it at 9 for consistency's sake.
I read many books this year that I liked, that were informative, that were useful, that I respected, but none that I loved. I put every book I read to a test that it couldn’t possibly pass, and that wasn’t fair. But it’s what happened. It's the way things are for me right now.
Here’s the criteria again if you missed last year’s list: when I say books I read in 2007, I mean exactly that—books I read in 2007, not books that were published in 2007. I did read quite a few that were new this year, but some of the best were from other years, and I hope they’re remembered.
Everything on the list is nonfiction. I tend to avoid fiction most of the time these days for reasons that probably make sense only to me. I did read a few novels, but didn’t do any write ups of them, so they’re not included. And I guess these reasons, and these titles are amongst the many things that I will keep in my heart and ponder. Here’s the list:
9. London 1945, by Maureen Waller (Life During Wartime) A thorough, engrossing account of life during the Blitz; everything about how the ordinary people lived, from the food they ate to the clothes they wore to the radio programs everyone listened to.
8. Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, by Margaret MacMillan (When the Twain Met, The Power and the Unglory) A carefully orchestrated moment in history with two of the, well, weirder and more dangerous of history's world leaders.
7. Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics, by Gino Segre (Devil's Bargain), A Fly in the Cathedral, by Brian Cathcart (Bigger Faster) These two are so much a part of each other, I'm counting them as one; in fact, I got the name of the Cathcart book from the bibliography of the Segre book. Both deal with physicists in the 1920s-30s, the time when quantum mechanics was really coming into its own and nuclear physics was on the rise. Faust is about the theorists who made their discoveries with pencils, paper, and equations. Fly is about the experimentalists who did their work on actual pieces of equipment. Segre excels at drawing portraits of the scientists in his book, while Cathcart helps make the work of his physicists' accessible through descriptions of the apparatus they constructed and worked with.
6. Transatlantic, by Stephen Fox (Turbinia) Part of the enjoyment of this book came from surprise about how good it was. A history of steamship travel? Who'd have thought it would be so fascinating?
5. Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin, by Neal Bascomb (Sailor, Beware) This is a fine examination of a much mentioned, but little detailed event in history, with moments of sadness that you wouldn't expect.
4. Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, by Bryan Burrough (Heat Wave) A tour of the underworld, with insiders' views of bank robberies, kidnappings, and jailbreaks. I was glad to hear a movie is in the works and hope for the best.
3. A People's Tragedy, by Orlando Figes (Revolution Takes Its Turn, Sailor, Beware) A comprehensive, fascinating account of life in Russia from the 19th century through the early 1920s that explains why the Revolution happened. I came away from this book feeling that I had really learned so much.
1. (tie) Troublesome Young Men, by Lynne Olson (Rebels With a Cause) and Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, by Tim Weiner (Counterintelligence) I found it hard to choose between these two because the intent of each is so different. The former is a tight focus on a pivotal moment in history, when a group of Conservative Party members in Parliament rebelled against their leaders, risking their careers in order to get rid of the weak leadership they felt was endangering Britain. The latter is a vast, epic history of the misadventures of the CIA, in all its unglory. Neither approach to telling history is more valid than the other, thus my refusal to choose. What I can say with absolute decisiveness, though, is that both are more than worthwhile. I learned quite a bit from them and liked them both. And that was it, nothing more.
This is going to be short, badly written and poorly thought out (I know, other than the short part, you’re thinking where’s the difference?). Why? Because I am tired, tired, and tired. And this is all a terrible shame, because I really quite enjoyed A Fly in the Cathedral, by Brian Cathcart.
Set in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge from the late 1920s to 1932, physics’ annus mirabilis, Cathcart’s book tells the story of the race to crack the nucleus of an atom. This became known in the popular press (and thus by me as well) as “splitting the atom,” but that was inaccurate—atoms had been broken, split, shattered and generally kicked around plenty of times in an attempt to understand what was really inside them. The nucleus--the small solid fly in the vast cathedral that is the shell of the atom--was the real mystery.
The Cavendish was run at this time by the imposing Sir Ernest Rutherford, who comes off in the book as sometimes imperious and sometimes set in his ways—he was an experimentalist through and through with little patience for theorists, and old-fashioned in his ideas about what his young physicists needed to do their work. He would say that every experiment should be done with equipment that could be made at a workbench (this included blowing their own glass for tubes and such), boasting that he’d be able to carry on experiments by himself in Antarctica. However, he was always curious and was willing to do anything to help those whose work he believed in. If someone needed equipment that they couldn’t make themselves, he’d find a way to get it for them. Although he usually had a hard and fast rule about shutting down the lab at 6 pm, if something extraordinary was going on, he’d let them stay and work. Probably most importantly, he would go to all lengths to help find grants, scholarships, or any other sources of money necessary to keep the typically impoverished graduate students at the lab.
Ernest Watson, one of the nucleus attackers was one of those poor grad students, always on the verge of running out of money and having to go leave the lab. He was seemingly an odd choice to join Cavendish, having concentrated as an undergrad on hydrodynamics. But he became fascinated by the idea of working with the atom and worked his way into Cavendish. Watson was quiet and religious; he had the social skills you would expect in the popular stereotype of a scientist. Cathcart tells the story of his agonizingly slow courtship of the girl he would eventually marry, and how it took him seemingly years to reach a point where he felt comfortable enough to sign his letters with just his first name. As a physicist, though, he had great ideas, was a careful thinker, and a good writer.
John Cockcroft, the man who became Watson’s partner in the experiment, was quite different. He was older. He had worked for a big London engineering firm, was married and had a nice house, unlike the young Watson who lived in miserably bare student lodgings. He was one of those managerial/organizer types, you know, the kind who is always elected president of this society, chosen to run this project, asked to design a plan for something else. That’s not to say he didn’t have good ideas, but he seemed to be more the person who’d come up with the practical solution for fixing an apparatus than the one who’d say what if… and take the great leap.
The race to split the nucleus wasn’t confined to the Cavendish, though. Russian physicist, George Gamow, for whom the word fun-loving seems to be a remarkably weak description, had laid out the theories for how to do it. After that it became a matter of who would construct the best apparatus, a high-speed particle collider, to do this. Cockcroft and Watson worked on this for a few years, trying to find the best materials, best sizes, best sources of electricity, all the while hearing reports of other similar projects going on in various American labs. Finally, Rutherford had to come in and tell them to just get on with it. Not only did they then do it, but they discovered that they had actually been successful with a previous apparatus a few years ago; they had just been looking for the wrong result and didn’t see the eventual answer was right there.
One of the things that this book impresses upon you is how difficult it was to build all these things that had never been built before and how hard it was to get these disparate parts to hang together. They had to make glass cylinders the right size and had to seal off different pieces of this and that with any kind of material that would hold up under the pressure—sealing wax, plasticine, an oil-based paste. Cockcroft’s connections at his former engineering firm often saved the day, giving them access to things that weren’t out on the market yet, or having pieces designed for them.
Vacuuming the air out of tubes and making sure there were no particles of anything left on the inside was a slow process; finding and fixing leaks could take days. Putting together transformers to create the right amount of electricity was its own battle. At that time (the late 1920s-early 1930s) electricity was still surprisingly not very widespread, with resolutely old-fashioned Cambridge particularly unwired. A national electrical grid wasn’t constructed until later in the decade.
Cathcart’s explanations, though, of the pieces the physicists had to build, and how and why they needed certain amounts of electrical voltage is what makes this book so easily understandable for the nonscientist (as in yours truly). It’s hard for the science impaired (again, me) and math impaired (uh, that too) to sort through extensive equations, but I can understand what’s going on and what the physicists were trying to accomplish by following the story of what they were constructing. It doesn’t hurt either that Cathcart always describes everything simply and clearly, and is never condescending.
As always, I am doing a disservice by trying to even tell too much about this book, as Cathcart does it so much better (have I mentioned that I am an awful writer?). I would recommend it to anyone, scientist or not. An uneducated reader might not be able to set off on their own nucleus splitting adventures after reading this book, but anyone can understand the thrill of discovery, the moments of triumph that these nuclear pioneers experienced. And how, how, how I envied them. I do wish I was a scientist.
(In other news, the play opened. It runs from beginning to end without disaster ensuing. It is relatively short. All this doesn't make it good, though.)
Nearly forgot--this is the latest sorry effort from me. I would have liked another run through it and also didn't particularly like the title change, but that's not my call.
Nightmare-ish two day tech for the play. Dress rehearsal tonight. Doesn't seem to be going well. Maybe things will pull together in time. Maybe.
And in other news, there are things I just don't understand.
In 1932, while the world at large was deep in the grips of an economic depression, those involved in the infinitely tiny worlds of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics were experiencing what would become known as their “miracle year.” With the discovery of the neutron, antimatter and the first artificially induced nuclear transmutations, physicists were on their way from the quantum revolution to the nuclear age. And they were having a whole lot of fun with it all.
Gino Segre’s Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics uses the annual meeting of physicists at Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen Institute as a framework for the story of the rise of quantum mechanics. In Copenhagen that year, the entertainment was a parody of Faust put on by the physicists. Faust was chosen due to the celebration of the centennial of Goethe’s death; later it became seen as a prescient choice that foreshadowed the deadly bargain that was struck by nuclear physicists—they had made discoveries that were tremendous, fascinating, even beautiful but that in time would be used to build instruments of destruction.
The main players in the world of quantum physics were used as characters in the play. Bohr, the beloved elder statesman of quantum physics, stood in for the Lord. Mephistopheles was the mischievous, sarcastic Wolfgang Pauli, who had long gleefully embraced his nickname, “the Scourge of God.” Einstein, estranged from the progress of these physicists and on his own path, was a cameo character. James Chadwick, who had just discovered the neutron was Wagner. The parody was mostly written by Max Delbruck, who later found his way into molecular biology. Audience members included Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, and Lise Meitner. Paul Ehrenfest, a quiet, troubled Austrian, wasn’t a character himself, but played the role of Faust.
Segre keeps bouncing away from the Copenhagen meeting to tell about the lives and achievements of these physicists, most of whom had made their greatest discoveries in their early twenties. Pauli, for all his teasing and biting (sometimes mean) wit, was a careful and critical theoretician. Heisenberg was more daring, but had the talent and intellect to back up the leaps he was willing to take. Dirac had a quiet, unforced brilliance that gave his work grace.
These physicists, from the truly great to the students they inspired, are the heart of the story. Rather than isolated, cold lab rats, they come off as relentlessly collaborative—always writing to each other, proposing new ideas, arguing about others. Put them together and you get practical jokes, drinking, and theater.
Segre, a physicist himself and nephew of Emilio Segre, a Nobel Prize winner who started out working with Enrico Fermi, obviously has a great deal of affection for these scientists and the lives they lead. He describes the joy of seeing a professor surrounded by his students, now with their students, and those students’ new young followers; the moment when he, or any other physicist has an idea and quietly holds onto it for a few days or so, reveling in the joy of its potential before the real work must begin, and failure possibly follow.
Segre teaches at UPenn and it’s easy to imagine taking a class with him. He explains things in ways that even the scientifically uneducated (that would be me) can understand and that’s quite an achievement. The book jumps around from discovery to biography to Copenhagen, but it’s all logical and simple enough to follow.
The 1932 meeting was sort of a last hurrah for this moment in physics. Though other meetings took place throughout the 1930s, soon after the Faust Copenhagen, the physicists began to scatter, to escape the war. Einstein was already gone. Bohr would eventually get out and make his way to Los Alamos. Meitner, who went to Sweden would discover nuclear fission (though I use the word discover carelessly; to say that she and her nephew understood correctly the results of others work would be better, I think). Heisenberg stayed in Germany and became suspect on both sides, either for helping the German nuclear program or not trying hard enough. Pauli went to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and then eventually to Zurich. Ehrenfest committed suicide not long after the 1932 meeting. The very young men who had formulated quantum mechanics suddenly found themselves the grown ups, no longer the rebels and rule breakers. Others came in to take up the next challenges. Physics seemed to be a young person’s game.
I always envy scientists and mathematicians, who are able to determine the worth of a solution in terms of beauty and elegance. How nice it must be to be able to see the world that way, but I don’t know how. There is something in an equation that they can see that I cannot, some kind of symmetry, some kind of line, some kind of grace… Dirac said:
“It was sort of an act of faith with us that any equation which describes fundamental laws of Nature must have great mathematical beauty in them. It was like a religion with us.”
And that is a beautiful idea. And I understand it, but I don’t see it, which, I think, is worse than not understanding.