Clarence King was a well-known geologist in the late 19th-century, who became famous for his work surveying and studying the mountains of California. He was a man about town, a bon vivant who lived in gentlemen's clubs and hotels, and who was friends with men like Henry Adams and John Hay. He socialized in Washington, New York, and Newport's best circles, and traveled to Europe, where he collected art. He also had another identity--in Brooklyn, then Queens, he was known as James Todd. He had a wife, Ada Copeland Todd, who had been born a slave in Georgia, right before the Civil War. They had five children together (one died in infancy). Ada didn't find out about Todd's true identity until right before he died in the early 1900s, and the real story of his double life didn't come out until decades later, when Ada went to court to try to track down a trust fund Clarence had told her about.
In 1905, Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, the Secretary of War, were sent on a goodwill mission to visit Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, China, and Korea. Alice was a good stand-in for her father--an early twentieth-celebrity and press darling, she was beloved by the public for her neverending ability to shock and entertain them with her antics. She provided the glamour for the foreign notables they would meet, and Taft provided the authority and political heft that made it seem like the US was taking the savages seriously.
That's right, savages. In Imperial Cruise, James Bradley uses the Alice Roosevelt-Taft trip to Asia as a backdrop to a history of US imperialism in the Pacific and Asia, particularly the effect of Theodore Roosevelt's policies--hamhanded, misbegotten diplomatic efforts with Japan led thirty some years later to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much of the book, though, is devoted to examples of US White Supremacist Beliefs in the late 19th and early 20th century, and horrifying mistreatment by Americans of Other Races.
I use the capitals for a reason, which is that Bradley does throughout his book. All the time. He uses White Men, Elder Brother, Little Brother, Others, etc. If there's a category, he'll capitalize it. The intent, I believe, is sarcasm; the effect on me, though, was just weariness.
The prologue to Graham Farmelo's The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, tells how Dirac, teaching at a Florida university late in life, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, told a friend the story of his seemingly miserable childhood; unloved, misunderstood, tormented by his father. For Dirac, usually the master of the monosyllabic answer, speaking this fluidly about anything was incredible; for him to speak with such detail and emotion--anger and bitterness at his father, some seventy years after the fact--was doubly amazing. The friend left, stunned by the story he'd heard that evening. Dirac never spoke at any such length about his past, to him again.
I had read a stellar review of Farmelo's book, and eagerly put it on hold at the library. I had run across Dirac in a few other books about the history of quantum physics and thought he sounded like an intriguing character, so I really was looking forward to it. I had to wait a few months for it, and when it came at the same time as three other books I'd reserved (a circumstance which eventually resulted in a hefty overdue fine). Unfortunately, that prologue was the highlight of this book for me; the rest somehow just didn't click for me the way it had for the writer of the review that caught my attention.
That's not to say this is a bad book--I think in terms of writing and research, it should be regarded as a very fine book; Farmelo is clearly an elegant, evocative writer. Yet as much as I admired those qualities, "The Strangest Man" just never grabbed hold of me, and I struggled to finish it. To be totally honest, I ended up skimming through the last hundred pages or so. After I finished (or read to the end, if you justifiably want to say I didn't really read the last third), I tried to think about why I found such an elegantly written book about a truly important figure in the history of physics so uncompelling. The best answer I could come up with is that Dirac never changed throughout his life. He was always monosyllabic, always solitary, always guided by the same scientific beliefs. Many things happened to him--he had that odd, cold childhood and, not coming from an upper-clas public school background, struggled to get a scholarship to Cambridge; once there, he had to survive on a tiny amount of money. His older brother committed suicide, and as his parents marriage fell apart, he became the focus of his increasingly needy mother's confidances and pleas. He made discoveries that won him acclaim and admiration from the giants of his field. He made some sort of friends, traveled, got married, and had children. Yet throughout the book, there is never any question about how Dirac will react to something, or how others will describe him; monosyllabic, unemotional, solitary. At the end of the book, Farmelo discusses the possibility that not only Dirac, but also his father may have been autistic; I'm not an expert, and it's never a smart idea to try to diagnose someone you've never met, but I think it sounds like a good explanation. As much as that may provide a satisfactory explanation for Dirac's behavior, though, it doesn't make him any more of a satisfactory subject for me to read about. But if you want to, I won't stop you.
I haven't found a citable source for this, but I'm still willing to guarantee that on January 1, 1910, someone somewhere said, "Finally! I had no idea what to call that decade. The aughts? The naughts? The zeros? 'The teens' is going to sound a lot better."
So what happened in 1910? What was life like in 1910? Enter and find out from the following categories: