Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reading List: Hitler in Hell

van Creveld, Martin. Hitler in Hell. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ASIN B0738YPW2M.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military theorist and historian, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of seventeen books of military history and strategy, including The Transformation of War, which has been hailed as one of the most significant recent works on strategy. In this volume he turns to fiction, penning the memoirs of the late, unlamented Adolf Hitler from his current domicile in Hell, “the place to which the victors assign their dead opponents.” In the interest of concision, in the following discussion I will use “Hitler” to mean the fictional Hitler in this work.

Hitler finds Hell more boring than hellish—“in some ways it reminds me of Landsberg Prison”. There is no torture or torment, just a never-changing artificial light and routine in which nothing ever happens. A great disappointment is that neither Eva Braun nor Blondi is there to accompany him. As to the latter, apparently all dogs go to heaven. Rudolf Hess is there, however, and with that 1941 contretemps over the flight to Scotland put behind them, has resumed helping Hitler with his research and writing as he did during the former's 1924 imprisonment. Hell has broadband!—Hitler is even able to access the “Black Internetz” and read, listen to, and watch everything up to the present day. (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

Hitler tells the story of his life: from childhood, his days as a struggling artist in Vienna and Munich, the experience of the Great War, his political awakening in the postwar years, rise to power, implementation of his domestic and foreign policies, and the war and final collapse of Nazi Germany. These events, and the people involved in them, are often described from the viewpoint of the present day, with parallels drawn to more recent history and figures.

What makes this book work so well is that van Creveld's Hitler makes plausible arguments supporting decisions which many historians argue were irrational or destructive: going to war over Poland, allowing the British evacuation from Dunkirk, attacking the Soviet Union while Britain remained undefeated in the West, declaring war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, forbidding an orderly retreat from Stalingrad, failing to commit armour to counter the Normandy landings, and fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences to Germany and the German people. Each decision is justified with arguments which are plausible when viewed from what is known of Hitler's world view, the information available to him at the time, and the constraints under which he was operating.

Much is made of those constraints. Although embracing totalitarianism (“My only regret is that, not having enough time, we did not make it more totalitarian still”), he sees himself surrounded by timid and tradition-bound military commanders and largely corrupt and self-serving senior political officials, yet compelled to try to act through them, as even a dictator can only dictate, then hope others implement his wishes. “Since then, I have often wondered whether, far from being too ruthless, I had been too soft and easygoing.” Many apparent blunders are attributed to lack of contemporary information, sometimes due to poor intelligence, but often simply by not having the historians' advantage of omniscient hindsight.

This could have been a parody, but in the hands of a distinguished historian like the author, who has been thinking about Hitler for many years (he wrote his 1971 Ph.D. thesis on Hitler's Balkan strategy in World War II), it provides a serious look at how Hitler's policies and actions, far from being irrational or a madman's delusions, may make perfect sense when one starts from the witches' brew of bad ideas and ignorance which the real Hitler's actual written and spoken words abundantly demonstrate. The fictional Hitler illustrates this in many passages, including this particularly chilling one where, after dismissing those who claim he was unaware of the extermination camps, says “I particularly needed to prevent the resurgence of Jewry by exterminating every last Jewish man, woman, and child I could. Do you say they were innocent? Bedbugs are innocent! They do what nature has destined them to, no more, no less. But is that any reason to spare them?” Looking backward, he observes that notwithstanding the utter defeat of the Third Reich, the liberal democracies that vanquished it have implemented many of his policies in the areas of government supervision of the economy, consumer protection, public health (including anti-smoking policies), environmentalism, shaping the public discourse (then, propaganda, now political correctness), and implementing a ubiquitous surveillance state of which the Gestapo never dreamed.

In an afterword, van Creveld explains that, after on several occasions having started to write a biography of Hitler and then set the project aside, concluding he had nothing to add to existing works, in 2015 it occurred to him that the one perspective which did not exist was Hitler's own, and that the fictional device of a memoir from Hell, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary events, would provide a vehicle to explore the reasoning which led to the decisions Hitler made. The author concludes, “…my goal was not to set forth my own ideas. Instead, I tried to understand Hitler's actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them. So let the reader judge how whether I have succeeded in this objective.” In the opinion of this reader, he has succeeded, and brilliantly.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition; it is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 20:49 Permalink

Little Wars by H. G. Wells

In 1913, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games that can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

This new public domain Web edition of Little Wars includes all of the photographs and marginal drawings from the 1913 first edition of the book. Some readers may find the marginal illustrations, which are mostly purely decorative, distracting, while others consider them charming. There's a check box at the top of the document that lets you hide them if you wish. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the sixth paragraph of chapter II.

The book is published using XHTML 1.0 Strict with CSS3 and Unicode typography.

Posted at 12:25 Permalink

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reading List: The Survivor

Mills, Kyle. The Survivor. New York: Pocket Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-8346-8.
Over the last fifteen years, CIA counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) has survived myriad adventures and attempts to take him out by terrorists, hostile governments, subversive forces within his own agency, and ambitious and unscrupulous Washington politicians looking to nail his scalp to their luxuriously appointed office walls, chronicled in the thirteen thrillers by his creator, Vince Flynn. Now, Rapp must confront one of the most formidable challenges any fictional character can face—outliving the author who invented him. With the death of Vince Flynn in 2013 from cancer, the future of the Mitch Rapp series was uncertain. Subsequently, Flynn's publisher announced that veteran thriller writer Kyle Mills, with fourteen novels already published, would be continuing the Mitch Rapp franchise. This is the first novel in the series by Mills. Although the cover has Flynn's name in much larger type than Mills', the latter is the sole author.

In this installment of the Rapp saga, Mills opted to dive right in just days after the events in the conclusion of the previous novel, The Last Man (February 2013). The CIA is still reeling from its genius black operations mastermind, Joseph Rickman, having gone rogue, faked his own kidnapping, and threatened to reveal decades of the CIA's secrets, including deep cover agents in place around the world and operations in progress, potentially crippling the CIA and opening up enough cans of worms to sustain the congressional committee surrender-poultry for a decade. With the immediate Rickman problem dealt with in the previous novel, the CIA is dismayed to learn that the ever-clever Rickman is himself a survivor, and continues to wreak his havoc on the agency from beyond the grave, using an almost impenetrable maze of digital and human cut-outs devised by his wily mind.

Not only is the CIA at risk of embarrassment and exposure of its most valuable covert assets, an ambitious spymaster in Pakistan sees the Rickman intelligence trove as not only a way to destroy the CIA's influence in his country and around the world, but the means to co-opt its network for his own ends, providing his path to slither to the top of the seething snake-mountain which is Pakistani politics, and, with control over his country's nuclear arsenal and the CIA's covert resources, become a player on the regional, if not world scale.

Following Rickman's twisty cyber trail as additional disclosure bombshells drop on the CIA, Rapp and his ailing but still prickly mentor Stan Hurley must make an uneasy but unavoidable alliance with Louis Gould, the murderer of Rapp's wife and unborn child, who almost killed him in the previous novel, in order to penetrate the armed Swiss compound (which has me green with envy and scribbling notes) of Leo Obrecht, rogue private banker implicated in the Rickman operation and its Pakistani connections.

The action takes Rapp and his team to a remote location in Russia, and finally to a diplomatic banquet in Islamabad where Rapp reminds an American politician which fork to use, and how.

Mitch Rapp has survived. I haven't read any of Kyle Mills' other work, so I don't know whether it's a matter of his already aligning with Vince Flynn's style or, as a professional author, adopting it along with Flynn's worldview, but had I not known this was the work of a different author, I'd never have guessed. I enjoyed this story and look forward to further Mitch Rapp adventures by Kyle Mills.

Posted at 22:09 Permalink

Thursday, July 6, 2017

New: Decide Utility

New at Fourmilab, Decide is a Unix utility, written in Perl, which helps you make decisions with the aid of (pseudo)random numbers from HotBits, the system's /dev/urandom generator, or, if none of the previous two are available, Perl's built-in rand() function.

Based upon the name by which it is invoked and/or options on the command line, Decide can respond with a “Yes” or “No” answer, a binary 1 or 0, one of the twenty responses of the Magic 8-Ball, or with the result of a dice roll specified in the dice notation used by role-playing and war games, including algebraic expressions involving multiple dice throws and constants.

By default, data from the HotBits pseudorandom generator are used, but if you obtain a HotBits API Key, you can base your decisions on radioactively-generated true random numbers.

Decide is intended to run on Unix-like systems. Whether it works on other systems which provide an implementation of Perl depends how faithfully the system implements the LWP::Simple Web access module and the /dev/urandom pseudorandom generator.

Complete documentation and a link to download the utility are available on the Decide home page.

Posted at 20:16 Permalink

Monday, July 3, 2017

Reading List: The Robert Heinlein Interview

Schulman, J. Neil. The Robert Heinlein Interview. Pahrump, NV: Pulpless.Com, [1990, 1996, 1999] 2017. ISBN 978-1-58445-015-3.
Today, J. Neil Schulman is an accomplished novelist, filmmaker, screenwriter, actor, journalist, and publisher: winner of the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction. In the summer of 1973, he was none of those things: just an avid twenty year old science fiction fan who credited the works of Robert A. Heinlein for saving his life—replacing his teenage depression with visions of a future worth living for and characters worthy of emulation who built that world. As Schulman describes it, Heinlein was already in his head, and he wanted nothing more in his ambition to follow in the steps of Heinlein than to get into the head of the master storyteller. He managed to parlay a book review into a commission to interview Heinlein for the New York Sunday News. Heinlein consented to a telephone interview, and on June 30, 1973, Schulman and Heinlein spoke for three and a half hours, pausing only for hourly changes of cassettes.

The agenda for the interview had been laid out in three pages of questions Schulman had mailed Heinlein a few days before, but the letter had only arrived shortly before the call and Heinlein hadn't yet read the questions, so he read them as they spoke. After the interview, Schulman prepared a transcript, which was edited by Robert Heinlein and Virginia, his wife. The interview was published by the newspaper in a much abridged and edited form, and did not see print in its entirety until 1990, two years after Heinlein's death. On the occasion of its publication, Virginia Heinlein said “To my knowledge, this is the longest interview Robert ever gave. Here is a book that should be on the shelves of everyone interested in science fiction. Libertarians will be using it as a source for years to come.”

Here you encounter the authentic Heinlein, consistent with the description from many who knew him over his long career: simultaneously practical, visionary, contrary, ingenious, inner-directed, confident, and able to observe the world and humanity without the filter of preconceived notions. Above all, he was a master storyteller who never ceased to be amazed people would pay him to spin yarns. As Schulman describes it, “Talking with Robert Heinlein is talking with the Platonic archetype of all his best characters.”

If you have any interest in Heinlein or the craft of science fiction, this should be on your reading list. I will simply quote a few morsels chosen from the wealth of insights and wisdom in these pages.

On aliens and first contact:
The universe might turn out to be a hell of a sight nastier and tougher place than we have any reason to guess at this point. That first contact just might wipe out the human race, because we would encounter somebody who was meaner and tougher, and not at all inclined to be bothered by genocide. Be no more bothered by genocide than I am when I put out ant poison in the kitchen when the ants start swarming in.
On the search for deep messages in his work:
[Quoting Schulman's question] “Isn't ‘Coventry’ still an attempt by the state (albeit a relatively benign one) to interfere with the natural market processes and not let the victim have his restitution?” Well, “Coventry” was an attempt on the part of a writer to make a few hundred dollars to pay off a mortgage.
On fans who complain his new work isn't consistent with his earlier writing:
Over the course of some thirty-four years of writing, every now and then I receive things from people condemning me for not having written a story just like my last one. I never pay attention to this, Neil, because it has been my intention—my purpose—to make every story I've written—never to write a story just like my last one…I'm going to write what it suits me to write and if I write another story that's just like any other story I've ever written, I'll be slipping. … I'm trying to write to please not even as few as forty thousand people in the hardcover, but a million and up in the softcover. If an author let these self-appointed mentors decide for him what he's going to write and how he's going to write it, he'd never get anywhere….
On his writing and editing habits:
I've never written more than about three months of the year the whole time I've been writing. Part of that is because I never rewrite. I cut, but I don't rewrite.
On the impact of technologies:
When I see how far machine computation has gone since that time [the 1930s], I find it the most impressive development—more impressive than the atom bomb, more impressive than space travel—in its final consequences.
On retirement:
Well, Tony Boucher pointed that out to me years ago. He said that there are retired everything else—retired schoolteachers, retired firemen, retired bankers—but there are no retired writers. There are simply writers who are no longer selling. [Heinlein's last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was published in 1987, the year before his death at age 80. —JW]
On the conflict between high technology and personal liberty:
The question of how many mega-men [millions of population] it takes to maintain a high-technology society and how many mega-men it takes to produce oppressions simply through the complexity of the society is a matter I have never satisfactorily solved in my own mind. But I am quite sure that one works against the other, that it takes a large-ish population for a high technology, but if you get large populations human liberties are automatically restricted even if you don't have legislation about it. In fact, the legislation in many cases is intended to—and sometimes does—lubricate the frictions that take place between people simply because they're too close together.
On seeking solutions to problems:
I got over looking for final solutions a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and it's been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. … It is the common human condition all through history that every time you solve a problem you discover that you've created a new problem.

I did not cherry pick these: they are but a few of a multitude from the vast cherry tree which is this interview. Enjoy! Also included in the book are other Heinlein-related material by Schulman: book reviews, letters, and speeches.

I must caution prospective readers that the copy-editing of this book is embarrassingly bad. I simply do not understand how a professional author—one who owns his own publishing house—can bring a book to market which clearly nobody has ever read with a critical eye, even at a cursory level. There are dozens of howlers here: not subtle things, but words run together, sentences which don't begin with a capital letter, spaces in the middle of hyphenated words, commas where periods were intended, and apostrophes transformed into back-tick characters surrounded by spaces. And this is not a bargain-bin special—the paperback has a list price of US$19.95 and is listed at this writing at US$18.05 at Amazon. The Heinlein interview was sufficiently enlightening I was willing to put up with the production values, which made something which ought to be a triumph look just shabby and sad, but then I obtained the Kindle edition for free (see below). If I'd paid full freight for the paperback, I'm not sure even my usually mellow disposition would have remained unperturbed by the desecration of the words of an author I cherish and the feeling my pocket had been picked.

The Kindle edition is available for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 23:37 Permalink

Friday, June 30, 2017

Reading List: The Pope of Physics

Segrè, Gino and Bettina Hoerlin. The Pope of Physics. New York: Henry Holt, 2016. ISBN 978-1-6277-9005-5.
By the start of the 20th century, the field of physics had bifurcated into theoretical and experimental specialties. While theorists and experimenters were acquainted with the same fundamentals and collaborated, with theorists suggesting phenomena to be explored in experiments and experimenters providing hard data upon which theorists could build their models, rarely did one individual do breakthrough work in both theory and experiment. One outstanding exception was Enrico Fermi, whose numerous achievements seemed to jump effortlessly between theory and experiment.

Fermi was born in 1901 to a middle class family in Rome, the youngest of three children born in consecutive years. As was common at the time, Enrico and his brother Giulio were sent to be wet-nursed and raised by a farm family outside Rome and only returned to live with their parents when two and a half years old. His father was a division head in the state railway and his mother taught elementary school. Neither parent had attended university, but hoped all of their children would have the opportunity. All were enrolled in schools which concentrated on the traditional curriculum of Latin, Greek, and literature in those languages and Italian. Fermi was attracted to mathematics and science, but little instruction was available to him in those fields.

At age thirteen, the young Fermi made the acquaintance of Adolfo Amidei, an engineer who worked with his father. Amidei began to loan the lad mathematics and science books, which Fermi devoured—often working out solutions to problems which Amidei was unable to solve. Within a year, studying entirely on his own, he had mastered geometry and calculus. In 1915, Fermi bought a used book, Elementorum Physicæ Mathematica, at a flea market in Rome. Published in 1830 and written entirely in Latin, it was a 900 page compendium covering mathematical physics of that era. By that time, he was completely fluent in the language and the mathematics used in the abundant equations, and worked his way through the entire text. As the authors note, “Not only was Fermi the only twentieth-century physics genius to be entirely self-taught, he surely must be the only one whose first acquaintance with the subject was through a book in Latin.”

At sixteen, Fermi skipped the final year of high school, concluding it had nothing more to teach him, and with Amidei's encouragement, sat for a competitive examination for a place at the elite Sculoa Normale Superiore, which provided a complete scholarship including room and board to the winners. He ranked first in all of the examinations and left home to study in Pisa. Despite his talent for and knowledge of mathematics, he chose physics as his major—he had always been fascinated by mechanisms and experiments, and looked forward to working with them in his career. Italy, at the time a leader in mathematics, was a backwater in physics. The university in Pisa had only one physics professor who, besides having already retired from research, had knowledge in the field not much greater than Fermi's own. Once again, this time within the walls of a university, Fermi would teach himself, taking advantage of the university's well-equipped library. He taught himself German and English in addition to Italian and French (in which he was already fluent) in order to read scientific publications. The library subscribed to the German journal Zeitschrift für Physik, one of the most prestigious sources for contemporary research, and Fermi was probably the only person to read it there. In 1922, after completing a thesis on X-rays and having already published three scientific papers, two on X-rays and one on general relativity (introducing what are now called Fermi coordinates, the first of many topics in physics which would bear his name), he received his doctorate in physics, magna cum laude. Just twenty-one, he had his academic credential, published work to his name, and the attention of prominent researchers aware of his talent. What he lacked was the prospect of a job in his chosen field.

Returning to Rome, Fermi came to the attention of Orso Mario Corbino, a physics professor and politician who had become a Senator of the Kingdom and appointed minister of public education. Corbino's ambition was to see Italy enter the top rank of physics research, and saw in Fermi the kind of talent needed to achieve this goal. He arranged a scholarship so Fermi could study physics in one the centres of research in northern Europe. Fermi chose Göttingen, Germany, a hotbed of work in the emerging field of quantum mechanics. Fermi was neither particularly happy nor notably productive during his eight months there, but was impressed with the German style of research and the intellectual ferment of the large community of German physicists. Henceforth, he published almost all of his research in either German or English, with a parallel paper submitted to an Italian journal. A second fellowship allowed him to spend 1924 in the Netherlands, working with Paul Ehrenfest's group at Leiden, deepening his knowledge of statistical and quantum mechanics.

Finally, upon returning to Italy, Corbino and his colleague Antonio Garbasso found Fermi a post as a lecturer in physics in Florence. The position paid poorly and had little prestige, but at least it was a step onto the academic ladder, and Fermi was happy to accept it. There, Fermi and his colleague Franco Rasetti did experimental work measuring the spectra of atoms under the influence of radio frequency fields. Their work was published in prestigious journals such as Nature and Zeitschrift für Physik.

In 1925, Fermi took up the problem of reconciling the field of statistical mechanics with the discovery by Wolfgang Pauli of the exclusion principle, a purely quantum mechanical phenomenon which restricts certain kinds of identical particles from occupying the same state at the same time. Fermi's paper, published in 1926, resolved the problem, creating what is now called Fermi-Dirac statistics (British physicist Paul Dirac independently discovered the phenomenon, but Fermi published first) for the particles now called fermions, which include all of the fundamental particles that make up matter. (Forces are carried by other particles called bosons, which go beyond the scope of this discussion.)

This paper immediately elevated the twenty-five year old Fermi to the top tier of theoretical physicists. It provided the foundation for understanding of the behaviour of electrons in solids, and thus the semiconductor technology upon which all our modern computing and communications equipment is based. Finally, Fermi won what he had aspired to: a physics professorship in Rome. In 1928, he married Laura Capon, whom he had first met in 1924. The daughter of an admiral in the World War I Italian navy, she was a member of one of the many secular and assimilated Jewish families in Rome. She was less than impressed on first encountering Fermi:

He shook hands and gave me a friendly grin. You could call it nothing but a grin, for his lips were exceedingly thin and fleshless, and among his upper teeth a baby tooth too lingered on, conspicuous in its incongruity. But his eyes were cheerful and amused.

Both Laura and Enrico shared the ability to see things precisely as they were, then see beyond that to what they could become.

In Rome, Fermi became head of the mathematical physics department at the Sapienza University of Rome, which his mentor, Corbino, saw as Italy's best hope to become a world leader in the field. He helped Fermi recruit promising physicists, all young and ambitious. They gave each other nicknames: ecclesiastical in nature, befitting their location in Rome. Fermi was dubbed Il Papa (The Pope), not only due to his leadership and seniority, but because he had already developed a reputation for infallibility: when he made a calculation or expressed his opinion on a technical topic, he was rarely if ever wrong. Meanwhile, Mussolini was increasing his grip on the country. In 1929, he announced the appointment of the first thirty members of the Royal Italian Academy, with Fermi among the laureates. In return for a lifetime stipend which would put an end to his financial worries, he would have to join the Fascist party. He joined. He did not take the Academy seriously and thought its comic opera uniforms absurd, but appreciated the money.

By the 1930s, one of the major mysteries in physics was beta decay. When a radioactive nucleus decayed, it could emit one or more kinds of radiation: alpha, beta, or gamma. Alpha particles had been identified as the nuclei of helium, beta particles as electrons, and gamma rays as photons: like light, but with a much shorter wavelength and correspondingly higher energy. When a given nucleus decayed by alpha or gamma, the emission always had the same energy: you could calculate the energy carried off by the particle emitted and compare it to the nucleus before and after, and everything added up according to Einstein's equation of E=mc². But something appeared to be seriously wrong with beta (electron) decay. Given a large collection of identical nuclei, the electrons emitted flew out with energies all over the map: from very low to an upper limit. This appeared to violate one of the most fundamental principles of physics: the conservation of energy. If the nucleus after plus the electron (including its kinetic energy) didn't add up to the energy of the nucleus before, where did the energy go? Few physicists were ready to abandon conservation of energy, but, after all, theory must ultimately conform to experiment, and if a multitude of precision measurements said that energy wasn't conserved in beta decay, maybe it really wasn't.

Fermi thought otherwise. In 1933, he proposed a theory of beta decay in which the emission of a beta particle (electron) from a nucleus was accompanied by emission of a particle he called a neutrino, which had been proposed earlier by Pauli. In one leap, Fermi introduced a third force, alongside gravity and electromagnetism, which could transform one particle into another, plus a new particle: without mass or charge, and hence extraordinarily difficult to detect, which nonetheless was responsible for carrying away the missing energy in beta decay. But Fermi did not just propose this mechanism in words: he presented a detailed mathematical theory of beta decay which made predictions for experiments which had yet to be performed. He submitted the theory in a paper to Nature in 1934. The editors rejected it, saying “it contained abstract speculations too remote from physical reality to be of interest to the reader.” This was quickly recognised and is now acknowledged as one of the most epic face-plants of peer review in theoretical physics. Fermi's theory rapidly became accepted as the correct model for beta decay. In 1956, the neutrino (actually, antineutrino) was detected with precisely the properties predicted by Fermi. This theory remained the standard explanation for beta decay until it was extended in the 1970s by the theory of the electroweak interaction, which is valid at higher energies than were available to experimenters in Fermi's lifetime.

Perhaps soured on theoretical work by the initial rejection of his paper on beta decay, Fermi turned to experimental exploration of the nucleus, using the newly-discovered particle, the neutron. Unlike alpha particles emitted by the decay of heavy elements like uranium and radium, neutrons had no electrical charge and could penetrate the nucleus of an atom without being repelled. Fermi saw this as the ideal probe to examine the nucleus, and began to use neutron sources to bombard a variety of elements to observe the results. One experiment directed neutrons at a target of silver and observed the creation of isotopes of silver when the neutrons were absorbed by the silver nuclei. But something very odd was happening: the results of the experiment seemed to differ when it was run on a laboratory bench with a marble top compared to one of wood. What was going on? Many people might have dismissed the anomaly, but Fermi had to know. He hypothesised that the probability a neutron would interact with a nucleus depended upon its speed (or, equivalently, energy): a slower neutron would effectively have more time to interact than one which whizzed through more rapidly. Neutrons which were reflected by the wood table top were “moderated” and had a greater probability of interacting with the silver target.

Fermi quickly tested this supposition by using paraffin wax and water as neutron moderators and measuring the dramatically increased probability of interaction (or as we would say today, neutron capture cross section) when neutrons were slowed down. This is fundamental to the design of nuclear reactors today. It was for this work that Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1938.

By 1938, conditions for Italy's Jewish population had seriously deteriorated. Laura Fermi, despite her father's distinguished service as an admiral in the Italian navy, was now classified as a Jew, and therefore subject to travel restrictions, as were their two children. The Fermis went to their local Catholic parish, where they were (re-)married in a Catholic ceremony and their children baptised. With that paperwork done, the Fermi family could apply for passports and permits to travel to Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize. The Fermis locked their apartment, took a taxi, and boarded the train. Unbeknownst to the fascist authorities, they had no intention of returning.

Fermi had arranged an appointment at Columbia University in New York. His Nobel Prize award was US$45,000 (US$789,000 today). If he returned to Italy with the sum, he would have been forced to convert it to lire and then only be able to take the equivalent of US$50 out of the country on subsequent trips. Professor Fermi may not have been much interested in politics, but he could do arithmetic. The family went from Stockholm to Southampton, and then on an ocean liner to New York, with nothing other than their luggage, prize money, and, most importantly, freedom.

In his neutron experiments back in Rome, there had been curious results he and his colleagues never explained. When bombarding nuclei of uranium, the heaviest element then known, with neutrons moderated by paraffin wax, they had observed radioactive results which didn't make any sense. They expected to create new elements, heavier than uranium, but what they saw didn't agree with the expectations for such elements. Another mystery…in those heady days of nuclear physics, there was one wherever you looked. At just about the time Fermi's ship was arriving in New York, news arrived from Germany about what his group had observed, but not understood, four years before. Slow neutrons, which Fermi's group had pioneered, were able to split, or fission the nucleus of uranium into two lighter elements, releasing not only a large amount of energy, but additional neutrons which might be able to propagate the process into a “chain reaction”, producing either a large amount of energy or, perhaps, an enormous explosion.

As one of the foremost researchers in neutron physics, it was immediately apparent to Fermi that his new life in America was about to take a direction he'd never anticipated. By 1941, he was conducting experiments at Columbia with the goal of evaluating the feasibility of creating a self-sustaining nuclear reaction with natural uranium, using graphite as a moderator. In 1942, he was leading a project at the University of Chicago to build the first nuclear reactor. On December 2nd, 1942, Chicago Pile-1 went critical, producing all of half a watt of power. But the experiment proved that a nuclear chain reaction could be initiated and controlled, and it paved the way for both civil nuclear power and plutonium production for nuclear weapons. At the time he achieved one of the first major milestones of the Manhattan Project, Fermi's classification as an “enemy alien” had been removed only two months before. He and Laura Fermi did not become naturalised U.S. citizens until July of 1944.

Such was the breakneck pace of the Manhattan Project that even before the critical test of the Chicago pile, the DuPont company was already at work planning for the industrial scale production of plutonium at a facility which would eventually be built at the Hanford site near Richland, Washington. Fermi played a part in the design and commissioning of the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which served as a pathfinder and began operation in November, 1943, operating at a power level which was increased over time to 4 megawatts. This reactor produced the first substantial quantities of plutonium for experimental use, revealing the plutonium-240 contamination problem which necessitated the use of implosion for the plutonium bomb. Concurrently, he contributed to the design of the B Reactor at Hanford, which went critical in September 1944, running at 250 megawatts, that produced the plutonium for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

During the war years, Fermi divided his time among the Chicago research group, Oak Ridge, Hanford, and the bomb design and production group at Los Alamos. As General Leslie Groves, head of Manhattan Project, had forbidden the top atomic scientists from travelling by air, “Henry Farmer”, his wartime alias, spent much of his time riding the rails, accompanied by a bodyguard. As plutonium production ramped up, he increasingly spent his time with the weapon designers at Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer appointed him associate director and put him in charge of “Division F” (for Fermi), which acted as a consultant to all of the other divisions of the laboratory.

Fermi believed that while scientists could make major contributions to the war effort, how their work and the weapons they created were used were decisions which should be made by statesmen and military leaders. When appointed in May 1945 to the Interim Committee charged with determining how the fission bomb was to be employed, he largely confined his contributions to technical issues such as weapons effects. He joined Oppenheimer, Compton, and Lawrence in the final recommendation that “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

On July 16, 1945, Fermi witnessed the Trinity test explosion in New Mexico at a distance of ten miles from the shot tower. A few seconds after the blast, he began to tear little pieces of paper from fron a sheet and drop them toward the ground. When the shock wave arrived, he paced out the distance it had blown them and rapidly computed the yield of the bomb as around ten kilotons of TNT. Nobody familiar with Fermi's reputation for making off-the-cuff estimates of physical phenomena was surprised that his calculation, done within a minute of the explosion, agreed within the margin of error with the actual yield of 20 kilotons, determined much later.

After the war, Fermi wanted nothing more than to return to his research. He opposed the continuation of wartime secrecy to postwar nuclear research, but, unlike some other prominent atomic scientists, did not involve himself in public debates over nuclear weapons and energy policy. When he returned to Chicago, he was asked by a funding agency simply how much money he needed. From his experience at Los Alamos he wanted both a particle accelerator and a big computer. By 1952, he had both, and began to produce results in scattering experiments which hinted at the new physics which would be uncovered throughout the 1950s and '60s. He continued to spend time at Los Alamos, and between 1951 and 1953 worked two months a year there, contributing to the hydrogen bomb project and analysis of Soviet atomic tests.

Everybody who encountered Fermi remarked upon his talents as an explainer and teacher. Seven of his students: six from Chicago and one from Rome, would go on to win Nobel Prizes in physics, in both theory and experiment. He became famous for posing “Fermi problems”, often at lunch, exercising the ability to make and justify order of magnitude estimates of difficult questions. When Freeman Dyson met with Fermi to present a theory he and his graduate students had developed to explain the scattering results Fermi had published, Fermi asked him how many free parameters Dyson had used in his model. Upon being told the number was four, he said, “I remember my old friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” Chastened, Dyson soon concluded his model was a blind alley.

After returning from a trip to Europe in the fall of 1954, Fermi, who had enjoyed robust good health all his life, began to suffer from problems with digestion. Exploratory surgery found metastatic stomach cancer, for which no treatment was possible at the time. He died at home on November 28, 1954, two months past his fifty-third birthday. He had made a Fermi calculation of how long to rent the hospital bed in which he died: the rental expired two days after he did.

There was speculation that Fermi's life may have been shortened by his work with radiation, but there is no evidence of this. He was never exposed to unusual amounts of radiation in his work, and none of his colleagues, who did the same work at his side, experienced any medical problems.

This is a masterful biography of one of the singular figures in twentieth century science. The breadth of his interests and achievements is reflected in the list of things named after Enrico Fermi. Given the hyper-specialisation of modern science, it is improbable we will ever again see his like.

Posted at 21:00 Permalink

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Reading List: Defying Hitler

Haffner, Sebastian [Raimund Pretzel]. Defying Hitler. New York: Picador, [2000] 2003. ISBN 978-0-312-42113-7.
In 1933, the author was pursuing his ambition to follow his father into a career in the Prussian civil service. While completing his law degree, he had obtained a post as a Referendar, the lowest rank in the civil service, performing what amounted to paralegal work for higher ranking clerks and judges. He enjoyed the work, especially doing research in the law library and drafting opinions, and was proud to be a part of the Prussian tradition of an independent judiciary. He had no strong political views nor much interest in politics. But, as he says, “I have a fairly well developed figurative sense of smell, or to put it differently, a sense of the worth (or worthlessness!) of human, moral, political views and attitudes. Most Germans unfortunately lack this sense almost completely.”

When Hitler came to power in January 1933, “As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. … How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset. What was not at all clear to me was what terrible enemies they would turn out to be.” Initially, little changed: it was a “matter for the press”. The new chancellor might rant to enthralled masses about the Jews, but in the court where Haffner clerked, a Jewish judge continued to sit on the bench and work continued as before. He hoped that the political storm on the surface would leave the depths of the civil service unperturbed. This was not to be the case.

Haffner was a boy during the First World War, and, like many of his schoolmates, saw the war as a great adventure which unified the country. Coming of age in the Weimar Republic, he experienced the great inflation of 1921–1924 as up-ending the society: “Amid all the misery, despair, and poverty there was an air of light-headed youthfulness, licentiousness, and carnival. Now, for once, the young had money and the old did not. Its value lasted only a few hours. It was spent as never before or since; and not on the things old people spend their money on.” A whole generation whose ancestors had grown up in a highly structured society where most decisions were made for them now were faced with the freedom to make whatever they wished of their private lives. But they had never learned to cope with such freedom.

After the Reichstag fire and the Nazi-organised boycott of Jewish businesses (enforced by SA street brawlers standing in doors and intimidating anybody who tried to enter), the fundamental transformation of the society accelerated. Working in the library at the court building, Haffner is shocked to see this sanctum of jurisprudence defiled by the SA, who had come to eject all Jews from the building. A Jewish colleague is expelled from university, fired from the civil service, and opts to emigrate.

The chaos of the early days of the Nazi ascendency gives way to Gleichschaltung, the systematic takeover of all institutions by placing Nazis in key decision-making positions within them. Haffner sees the Prussian courts, which famously stood up to Frederick the Great a century and a half before, meekly toe the line.

Haffner begins to consider emigrating from Germany, but his father urges him to complete his law degree before leaving. His close friends among the Referendars run the gamut from Communist sympathisers to ardent Nazis. As he is preparing for the Assessor examination (the next rank in the civil service, and the final step for a law student), he is called up for mandatory political and military indoctrination now required for the rank. The barrier between the personal, professional, and political had completely fallen. “Four weeks later I was wearing jackboots and a uniform with a swastika armband, and spent many hours each day marching in a column in the vicinity of Jüterbog.”

He discovers that, despite his viewing the Nazis as essentially absurd, there is something about order, regimentation, discipline, and forced camaraderie that resonates in his German soul.

Finally, there was a typically German aspiration that began to influence us strongly, although we hardly noticed it. This was the idolization of proficiency for its own sake, the desire to do whatever you are assigned to do as well as it can possibly be done. However senseless, meaningless, or downright humiliating it may be, it should be done as efficiently, thoroughly, and faultlessly as could be imagined. So we should clean lockers, sing, and march? Well, we would clean them better than any professional cleaner, we would march like campaign veterans, and we would sing so ruggedly that the trees bent over. This idolization of proficiency for its own sake is a German vice; the Germans think it is a German virtue.

That was our weakest point—whether we were Nazis or not. That was the point they attacked with remarkable psychological and strategic insight.

And here the memoir comes to an end; the author put it aside. He moved to Paris, but failed to become established there and returned to Berlin in 1934. He wrote apolitical articles for art magazines, but as the circle began to close around him and his new Jewish wife, in 1938 he obtained a visa for the U.K. and left Germany. He began a writing career, using the nom de plume Sebastian Haffner instead of his real name, Raimund Pretzel, to reduce the risk of reprisals against his family in Germany. With the outbreak of war, he was deemed an enemy alien and interned on the Isle of Man. His first book written since emigration, Germany: Jekyll and Hyde, was a success in Britain and questions were raised in Parliament why the author of such an anti-Nazi work was interned: he was released in August, 1940, and went on to a distinguished career in journalism in the U.K. He never prepared the manuscript of this work for publication—he may have been embarrassed at the youthful naïveté in evidence throughout. After his death in 1999, his son, Oliver Pretzel (who had taken the original family name), prepared the manuscript for publication. It went straight to the top of the German bestseller list, where it remained for forty-two weeks. Why? Oliver Pretzel says, “Now I think it was because the book offers direct answers to two questions that Germans of my generation had been asking their parents since the war: ‘How were the Nazis possible?’ and ‘Why didn't you stop them?’ ”.

This is a period piece, not a work of history. Set aside by the author in 1939, it provides a look through the eyes of a young man who sees his country becoming something which repels him and the madness that ensues when the collective is exalted above the individual. The title is somewhat odd—there is precious little defying of Hitler here—the ultimate defiance is simply making the decision to emigrate rather than give tacit support to the madness by remaining. I can appreciate that.

This edition was translated from the original German and annotated by the author's son, Oliver Pretzel, who wrote the introduction and afterword which place the work in the context of the author's career and describe why it was never published in his lifetime. A Kindle edition is available.

Thanks to Glenn Beck for recommending this book.

Posted at 00:28 Permalink

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reading List: Into the Looking Glass

Ringo, John. Into the Looking Glass. Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4165-2105-1.
Without warning, on a fine spring day in central Florida, an enormous explosion destroys the campus of the University of Central Florida and the surrounding region. The flash, heat pulse, and mushroom cloud are observed far from the site of the detonation. It is clear that casualties will be massive. First responders, fearing the worst, break out their equipment to respond to what seems likely to be nuclear terrorism. The yield of the explosion is estimated at 60 kilotons of TNT.

But upon closer examination, things seem distinctly odd. There is none of the residual radiation one would expect from a nuclear detonation, nor evidence of the prompt radiation nor electromagnetic pulse expected from a nuclear blast. A university campus seems an odd target for nuclear terrorism, in any case. What else could cause such a blast of such magnitude? Well, an asteroid strike could do it, but the odds against such an event are very long, and there was no evidence of ejecta falling back as you'd expect from an impact.

Faced with a catastrophic yet seemingly inexplicable event, senior government officials turn to a person with the background and security clearances to investigate further: Dr. Bill Weaver, a “redneck physicist” from Huntsville who works as a consultant to one of the “Beltway bandit” contractors who orbit the Pentagon. Weaver recalls that a physicist at the university, Ray Chen, was working on shortcut to produce a Higgs boson, bypassing the need for an enormous particle collider. Weaver's guess is that Chen's idea worked better than he imagined, releasing a pulse of energy which caused the detonation.

If things so far seemed curious, now they began to get weird. Approaching the site of the detonation, teams observed a black globe, seemingly absorbing all light, where Dr. Chen's laboratory used to be. Then one, and another, giant bug emerge from the globe. Floridians become accustomed to large, ugly-looking bugs, but nothing like this—these are creatures from another world, or maybe universe. A little girl, unharmed, wanders into the camp, giving her home address as in an area completely obliterated by the explosion. She is clutching a furry alien with ten legs: “Tuffy”, who she says speaks to her. Scientists try to examine the creature and quickly learn the wisdom of the girl's counsel to not mess with Tuffy.

Police respond to a home invasion call some distance from the site of the detonation: a report that demons are attacking their house. Investigating, another portal is discovered in the woods behind the house, from which monsters begin to issue, quickly overpowering the light military force summoned to oppose them. It takes a redneck militia to reinforce a perimeter around the gateway, while waiting for the Army to respond.

Apparently, whatever happened on the campus not only opened a gateway there, but is spawning gateways further removed. Some connect to worlds seemingly filled with biologically-engineered monsters bent upon conquest, while others connect to barren planets, a race of sentient felines, and other aliens who may be allies or enemies. Weaver has to puzzle all of this out, while participating in the desperate effort to prevent the invaders, “T!Ch!R!” or “Titcher”, from establishing a beachhead on Earth. And the stakes may be much greater than the fate of the Earth.

This is an action-filled romp, combining the initiation of humans into a much larger universe worthy of Golden Age science fiction with military action fiction. I doubt that in the real world Weaver, the leading expert on the phenomenon and chief investigator into it, would be allowed to participate in what amounts to commando missions in which his special skills are not required but, hey, it makes the story more exciting, and if a thriller doesn't thrill, it has failed in its mission.

I loved one aspect of the conclusion: never let an alien invasion go to waste. You'll understand what I'm alluding to when you get there. And, in the Golden Age tradition, the story sets up for further adventures. While John Ringo wrote this book by himself, the remaining three novels in the Looking Glass series are co-authored with Travis S. Taylor, upon whom the character of Bill Weaver was modeled.

Posted at 21:50 Permalink

Cellular Automata Laboratory: Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld Sandpile Model

A new rule in Cellular Automata Laboratory (CelLab) implements the Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld sandpile model [BakTang&Wiesenfeld87]. In each generation, a single grain of sand falls on the cell at the center of the map. When the pile of sand in any cell reaches a height of four grains, it becomes unstable and topples, with the four grains it contains distributed to its four von Neumann neighbors. If this process results in one of more of the neighbors containing four grains, they in turn topple and the process continues until no cell contains four grains. This was the first model discovered which exhibits the property of self-organized criticality. The system exhibits avalanches whose size follows a power law: many small, local events, and a few rare large ones.

Color is used to represent the number of grains in each cell: grey for none, blue for 1, yellow for 2, and red for 3. Since a cell with four grains immediately topples, no cell can contain more than three grains. As the pile grows, you will see how the addition of a single grain can cause cascades of all sizes. While you might expect a smoothly growing structure, in fact the depth of the sand in the pile exhibits a complex fractal pattern that emerges as the pile grows. The edges of the map consume any grains which reach them: they limit the growth of the pile.

If you're patient and have a high-resolution screen, try running Sand in the double-wide simulator—it will produce intricate mandala patterns. The Sand rule is entirely implemented within the sand user evaluator. This is an interesting mathematical model which has proved useful in analyzing emergent processes in a variety of fields. It does not, however, accurately model the behavior of actual piles of sand.

Run the Sandpile simulation in CelLab
Run the Sandpile simulation (double-wide)

Posted at 13:03 Permalink

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cellular Automata Laboratory: Reproduction, Evolution, Abiogenesis, and Sex

The latest collection of rules for Cellular Automata Laboratory (CelLab) illustrates aspects of self-reproduction and analogues to biological systems. Basic self-reproduction is demonstrated by the Langton rule, in which a loop of digital “DNA” provides the instructions to replicate itself and its enclosing structure, creating new identical digital organisms.

Ever since John von Neumann discovered the first self-reproducing cellular automaton rule in 1952, a challenge has been to find simpler and faster-replicating rules. Von Neumann's original rule used 29 states, while Langton, in 1984, simplified this to just 8 states, an initial pattern of 86 cells, and 151 generations to replicate. The latest update to CelLab includes the Byl and Chou-Reggia rules, which further simplify a replicator to (Byl) 12 cells, 6 states, and 25 generations to replicate; and (Chou-Reggia) 5 cells, 8 states, and replication in just 15 generations.

These are all exact replication: every descendant is a precise copy of its ancestor. Biological replication is messier yet more powerful, since it permits evolutionary change and adaptation to the environment. In 1998, Hirokia Sayama published Evoloops, a generalisation of Langton's replicator which allows individual replicators that collide in a world of limited space to mutate, often leading to selection for smaller, faster-replicating organisms not present in the original simulation. Precisely the same phenomenon is observed in bacteria grown with limited resources. Evoloops can also demonstrate abiogenesis: the appearance of replicators from random interactions of non-replicating structures in a “primordial soup”.

In 2007 and 2009, Nicholas Oros further generalised Evoloops to create Sexyloop, which stirs recombination of genetic information, similar to that which occurs in sexual reproduction, into the mix. Now, when digital organisms interact, they can exchange genetic information, so a behaviour which appears spontaneously in one organism can propagate to others, similar to gene transmission in bacterial conjugation and, if adaptive, come to dominate the population.

Run the Byl replicator in CelLab
Run the Chou-Reggia replicator
Run Evoloops evolution experiment
Run Evoloops abiogenesis experiment
Run Sexyloop simulation

Posted at 23:27 Permalink