Monday, May 23, 2016

Reading List: Arkwright

Steele, Allen. Arkwright. New York: Tor, 2016. ISBN 978-0-7653-8215-3.
Nathan Arkwright was one of the “Big Four” science fiction writers of the twentieth century, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein. Launching his career in the Golden Age of science fiction, he created the Galaxy Patrol space adventures, with 17 novels from 1950 to 1988, a radio drama, television series, and three movies. The royalties from his work made him a wealthy man. He lived quietly in his home in rural Massachusetts, dying in 2006.

Arkwright was estranged from his daughter and granddaughter, Kate Morressy, a freelance science journalist. Kate attends the funeral and meets Nathan's long-term literary agent, Margaret (Maggie) Krough, science fiction writer Harry Skinner, and George Hallahan, a research scientist long involved with military and aerospace projects. After the funeral, the three meet with Kate, and Maggie explains that Arkwright's will bequeaths all of his assets including future royalties from his work to the non-profit Arkwright Foundation, which Kate is asked to join as a director representing the family. She asks the mission of the foundation, and Maggie responds by saying it's a long and complicated story which is best answered by her reading the manuscript of Arkwright's unfinished autobiography, My Life in the Future.

It is some time before Kate gets around to reading the manuscript. When she does, she finds herself immersed in the Golden Age of science fiction, as her father recounts attending the first World's Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. An avid science fiction fan and aspiring writer, Arkwright rubs elbows with figures he'd known only as names in magazines such as Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth, Forrest Ackerman, and Isaac Asimov. Quickly learning that at a science fiction convention is isn't just elbows that rub but also egos, he runs afoul of one of the clique wars that are incomprehensible to those outside of fandom and finds himself ejected from the convention, sitting down for a snack at the Automat across the street with fellow banished fans Maggie, Harry, and George. The four discuss their views of the state of science fiction and their ambitions, and pledge to stay in touch. Any group within fandom needs a proper name, and after a brief discussion “The Legion of Tomorrow” was born. It would endure for decades.

The manuscript comes to an end, leaving Kate still in 1939. She then meets in turn with the other three surviving members of the Legion, who carry the story through Arkwright's long life, and describe the events which shaped his view of the future and the foundation he created. Finally, Kate is ready to hear the mission of the foundation—to make the future Arkwright wrote about during his career a reality—to move humanity off the planet and enter the era of space colonisation, and not just the planets but, in time, the stars. And the foundation will be going it alone. As Harry explains (p. 104), “It won't be made public, and there won't be government involvement either. We don't want this to become another NASA project that gets scuttled because Congress can't get off its dead ass and give it decent funding.”

The strategy is bet on the future: invest in the technologies which will be needed for and will profit from humanity's expansion from the home planet, and then reinvest the proceeds in research and development and new generations of technology and enterprises as space development proceeds. Nobody expects this to be a short-term endeavour: decades or generations may be required before the first interstellar craft is launched, but the structure of the foundation is designed to persist for however long it takes. Kate signs on, “Forward the Legion.”

So begins a grand, multi-generation saga chronicling humanity's leap to the stars. Unlike many tales of interstellar flight, no arm-waving about faster than light warp drives or other technologies requiring new physics is invoked. Based upon information presented at the DARPA/NASA 100 Year Starship Symposium in 2011 and the 2013 Starship Century conference, the author uses only technologies based upon well-understood physics which, if economic growth continues on the trajectory of the last century, are plausible for the time in the future at which the story takes place. And lest interstellar travel and colonisation be dismissed as wasteful, no public resources are spent on it: coercive governments have neither the imagination nor the attention span to achieve such grand and long-term goals. And you never know how important the technological spin-offs from such a project may prove in the future.

As noted, the author is scrupulous in using only technologies consistent with our understanding of physics and biology and plausible extrapolations of present capabilities. There are a few goofs, which I'll place behind the curtain since some are plot spoilers.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
On p. 61, a C-53 transport plane is called a Dakota. The C-53 is a troop transport variant of the C-47, referred to as the Skytrooper. But since the planes were externally almost identical, the observer may have confused them. “Dakota” was the RAF designation for the C-47; the U.S. Army Air Forces called it the Skytrain.

On the same page, planes arrive from “Kirtland Air Force Base in Texas”. At the time, the facility would have been called “Kirtland Field”, part of the Albuquerque Army Air Base, which is located in New Mexico, not Texas. It was not renamed Kirtland Air Force Base until 1947.

In the description of the launch of Apollo 17 on p. 71, after the long delay, the count is recycled to T−30 seconds. That isn't how it happened. After the cutoff in the original countdown at thirty seconds, the count was recycled to the T−22 minute mark, and after the problem was resolved, resumed from there. There would have been plenty of time for people who had given up and gone to bed to be awakened when the countdown was resumed and observe the launch.

On p. 214, we're told the Doppler effect of the ship's velocity “caused the stars around and in front of the Galactique to redshift”. In fact, the stars in front of the ship would be blueshifted, while those behind it would be redshifted.

On p. 230, the ship, en route, is struck by a particle of interstellar dust which is described as “not much larger than a piece of gravel”, which knocks out communications with the Earth. Let's assume it wasn't the size of a piece of gravel, but only that of a grain of sand, which is around 20 milligrams. The energy released in the collision with the grain of sand is 278 gigajoules, or 66 tons of TNT. The damage to the ship would have been catastrophic, not something readily repaired.

On the same page, “By the ship's internal chronometer, the repair job probably only took a few days, but time dilation made it seem much longer to observers back on Earth.” Nope—at half the speed of light, time dilation is only 15%. Three days' ship's time would be less than three and a half days on Earth.

On p. 265, “the DNA of its organic molecules was left-handed, which was crucial to the future habitability…”. What's important isn't the handedness of DNA, but rather the chirality of the organic molecules used in cells. The chirality of DNA is many levels above this fundamental property of biochemistry and, in fact, the DNA helix of terrestrial organisms is right-handed. (The chirality of DNA actually depends upon the nucleotide sequence, and there is a form, called Z-DNA, in which the helix is left-handed.)

Spoilers end here.  

This is an inspiring and very human story, with realistic and flawed characters, venal politicians, unanticipated adversities, and a future very different than envisioned by many tales of the great human expansion, even those by the legendary Nathan Arkwright. It is an optimistic tale of the human future, grounded in the achievements of individuals who build it, step by step, in the unbounded vision of the Golden Age of science fiction. It is ours to make reality.

Here is a podcast interview with the author by James Pethokoukis.

Posted at 11:27 Permalink

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reading List: Cuckservative

Red Eagle, John and Vox Day [Theodore Beale]. Cuckservative. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2015. ASIN B018ZHHA52.
Yes, I have read it. So read me out of the polite genteel “conservative” movement. But then I am not a conservative. Further, I enjoyed it. The authors say things forthrightly that many people think and maybe express in confidence to their like-minded friends, but reflexively cringe upon even hearing in public. Even more damning, I found it enlightening on a number of topics, and I believe that anybody who reads it dispassionately is likely to find it the same. And finally, I am reviewing it. I have reviewed (or noted) every book I have read since January of 2001. Should I exclude this one because it makes some people uncomfortable? I exist to make people uncomfortable. And so, onward….

The authors have been called “racists”, which is rather odd since both are of Native American ancestry and Vox Day also has Mexican ancestors. Those who believe ancestry determines all will have to come to terms with the fact that these authors defend the values which largely English settlers brought to America, and were the foundation of American culture until it all began to come apart in the 1960s.

In the view of the authors, as explained in chapter 4, the modern conservative movement in the U.S. dates from the 1950s. Before that time both the Democrat and Republican parties contained politicians and espoused policies which were both conservative and progressive (with the latter word used in the modern sense), often with regional differences. Starting with the progressive era early in the 20th century and dramatically accelerating during the New Deal, the consensus in both parties was centre-left liberalism (with “liberal” defined in the corrupt way it is used in the U.S.): a belief in a strong central government, social welfare programs, and active intervention in the economy. This view was largely shared by Democrat and Republican leaders, many of whom came from the same patrician class in the Northeast. At its outset, the new conservative movement, with intellectual leaders such as Russell Kirk and advocates like William F. Buckley, Jr., was outside the mainstream of both parties, but more closely aligned with the Republicans due to their wariness of big government. (But note that the Eisenhower administration made no attempt to roll back the New Deal, and thus effectively ratified it.)

They argue that since the new conservative movement was a coalition of disparate groups such as libertarians, isolationists, southern agrarians, as well as ex-Trotskyites and former Communists, it was an uneasy alliance, and in forging it Buckley and others believed it was essential that the movement be seen as socially respectable. This led to a pattern of conservatives ostracising those who they feared might call down the scorn of the mainstream press upon them. In 1957, a devastating review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers marked the break with Ayn Rand's Objectivists, and in 1962 Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and read it out of the conservative movement. This established a pattern which continues to the present day: when an individual or group is seen as sufficiently radical that they might damage the image of conservatism as defined by the New York and Washington magazines and think tanks, they are unceremoniously purged and forced to find a new home in institutions viewed with disdain by the cultured intelligentsia. As the authors note, this is the exact opposite of the behaviour of the Left, which fiercely defends its most radical extremists. Today's Libertarian Party largely exists because its founders were purged from conservatism in the 1970s.

The search for respectability and the patient construction of conservative institutions were successful in aligning the Republican party with the new conservatism. This first manifested itself in the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Following his disastrous defeat, conservatives continued their work, culminating in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. But even then, and in the years that followed, including congressional triumphs in 1994, 2010, and 2014, Republicans continued to behave as a minority party: acting only to slow the rate of growth of the Left's agenda rather than roll it back and enact their own. In the words of the authors, they are “calling for the same thing as the left, but less of it and twenty years later”.

The authors call these Republicans “cuckservative” or “cuck” for short. The word is a portmanteau of “cuckold” and “conservative”. “Cuckold” dates back to A.D. 1250, and means the husband of an unfaithful wife, or a weak and ineffectual man. Voters who elect these so-called conservatives are cuckolded by them, as through their fecklessness and willingness to go along with the Left, they bring into being and support the collectivist agenda which they were elected to halt and roll back. I find nothing offensive in the definition of this word, but I don't like how it sounds—in part because it rhymes with an obscenity which has become an all-purpose word in the vocabulary of the Left and, increasingly, the young. Using the word induces a blind rage in some of those to whom it is applied, which may be its principal merit.

But this book, despite bearing it as a title, is not about the word: only three pages are devoted to defining it. The bulk of the text is devoted to what the authors believe are the central issues facing the U.S. at present and an examination of how those calling themselves conservatives have ignored, compromised away, or sold out the interests of their constituents on each of these issues, including immigration and the consequences of a change in demographics toward those with no experience of the rule of law, the consequences of mass immigration on workers in domestic industries, globalisation and the flight of industries toward low-wage countries, how immigration has caused other societies in history to lose their countries, and how mainstream Christianity has been subverted by the social justice agenda and become an ally of the Left at the same time its pews are emptying in favour of evangelical denominations. There is extensive background information about the history of immigration in the United States, the bizarre “Magic Dirt” theory (that, for example, transplanting a Mexican community across the border will, simply by changing its location, transform its residents, in time, into Americans or, conversely, that “blighted neighbourhoods” are so because there's something about the dirt [or buildings] rather than the behaviour of those who inhabit them), and the overwhelming and growing scientific evidence for human biodiversity and the coming crack-up of the “blank slate” dogma. If the Left continues to tighten its grip upon the academy, we can expect to see research in this area be attacked as dissent from the party line on climate science is today.

This is an excellent book: well written, argued, and documented. For those who have been following these issues over the years and observed the evolution of the conservative movement over the decades, there may not be much here that's new, but it's all tied up into one coherent package. For the less engaged who've just assumed that by voting for Republicans they were advancing the conservative cause, this may prove a revelation. If you're looking to find racism, white supremacy, fascism, authoritarianism, or any of the other epithets hurled against the dissident right, you won't find them here unless, as the Left does, you define the citation of well-documented facts as those things. What you will find is two authors who love America and believe that American policy should put the interests of Americans before those of others, and that politicians elected by Americans should be expected to act in their interest. If politicians call themselves “conservatives”, they should act to conserve what is great about America, not compromise it away in an attempt to, at best, delay the date their constituents are delivered into penury and serfdom.

You may have to read this book being careful nobody looks over your shoulder to see what you're reading. You may have to never admit you've read it. You may have to hold your peace when somebody goes on a rant about the “alt-right”. But read it, and judge for yourself. If you believe the facts cited are wrong, do the research, refute them with evidence, and publish a response (under a pseudonym, if you must). But before you reject it based upon what you've heard, read it—it's only five bucks—and make up your own mind. That's what free citizens do.

As I have come to expect in publications from Castalia House, the production values are superb. There are only a few (I found just three) copy editing errors. At present the book is available only in Kindle and Audible audiobook editions.

Posted at 12:19 Permalink

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reading List: The Relic Master

Buckley, Christopher. The Relic Master. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN 978-1-5011-2575-1.
The year is 1517. The Holy Roman Empire sprawls across central Europe, from the Mediterranean in the south to the North Sea and Baltic in the north, from the Kingdom of France in the west to the Kingdoms of Poland and Hungary in the east. In reality the structure of the empire is so loose and complicated it defies easy description: independent kings, nobility, and prelates all have their domains of authority, and occasionally go to war against one another. Although the Reformation is about to burst upon the scene, the Roman Catholic Church is supreme, and religion is big business. In particular, the business of relics and indulgences.

Commit a particularly heinous sin? If you're sufficiently well-heeled, you can obtain an indulgence through prayer, good works, or making a pilgrimage to a holy site. Over time, “good works” increasingly meant, for the prosperous, making a contribution to the treasury of the local prince or prelate, a percentage of which was kicked up to higher-ranking clergy, all the way to Rome. Or, an enterprising noble or churchman could collect relics such as the toe bone of a saint, a splinter from the True Cross, or a lock of hair from one of the camels the Magi rode to Bethlehem. Pilgrims would pay a fee to see, touch, have their sins erased, and be healed by these holy trophies. In short, the indulgence and relic business was selling “get out of purgatory for a price”. The very best businesses are those in which the product is delivered only after death—you have no problems with dissatisfied customers.

To flourish in this trade, you'll need a collection of relics, all traceable to trustworthy sources. Relics were in great demand, and demand summons supply into being. All the relics of the True Cross, taken together, would have required the wood from a medium-sized forest, and even the most sacred and unique of relics, the burial shroud of Christ, was on display in several different locations. It's the “trustworthy” part that's difficult, and that's where Dismas comes in. A former Swiss mercenary, his resourcefulness in obtaining relics had led to his appointment as Relic Master to His Grace Albrecht, Archbishop of Brandenburg and Mainz, and also to Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. These two customers were rivals in the relic business, allowing Dismas to play one against the other to his advantage. After visiting the Basel Relic Fair and obtaining some choice merchandise, he visits his patrons to exchange them for gold. While visiting Frederick, he hears that a monk has nailed ninety-five denunciations of the Church, including the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church. This is interesting, but potentially bad for business.

Dismas meets his friend, Albrecht Dürer, who he calls “Nars” due to Dürer's narcissism: among other things including his own visage in most of his paintings. After months in the south hunting relics, he returns to visit Dürer and learns that the Swiss banker with whom he's deposited his fortune has been found to be a 16th century Bernie Madoff and that he has only the money on his person.

Destitute, Dismas and Dürer devise a scheme to get back into the game. This launches them into a romp across central Europe visiting the castles, cities, taverns, dark forbidding forests, dungeons, and courts of nobility. We encounter historical figures including Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus), who lends his scientific insight to the effort. All of this is recounted with the mix of wry and broad humour which Christopher Buckley uses so effectively in all of his novels. There is a tableau of the Last Supper, identity theft, and bombs. An appendix gives background on the historical figures who appear in the novel.

This is a pure delight and illustrates how versatile is the talent of the author. Prepare yourself for a treat; this novel delivers. Here is an interview with the author.

Posted at 11:36 Permalink

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Reading List: Abandoned in Place

Miller, Roland. Abandoned in Place. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-8263-5625-3.
Between 1945 and 1970 humanity expanded from the surface of Earth into the surrounding void, culminating in 1969 with the first landing on the Moon. Centuries from now, when humans and their descendents populate the solar system and exploit resources dwarfing those of the thin skin and atmosphere of the home planet, these first steps may be remembered as the most significant event of our age, with all of the trivialities that occupy our quotidian attention forgotten. Not only were great achievements made, but grand structures built on Earth to support them; these may be looked upon in the future as we regard the pyramids or the great cathedrals.

Or maybe not. The launch pads, gantry towers, assembly buildings, test facilities, blockhouses, bunkers, and control centres were not built as monuments for the ages, but rather to accomplish time-sensitive goals under tight budgets, by the lowest bidder, and at the behest of a government famous for neglecting infrastructure. Once the job was done, the mission accomplished, the program concluded; the facilities that supported it were simply left at the mercy of the elements which, in locations like coastal Florida, immediately began to reclaim them. Indeed, half of the facilities pictured here no longer exist.

For more than two decades, author and photographer Roland Miller has been documenting this heritage before it succumbs to rust, crumbling concrete, and invasive vegetation. With unparalleled access to the sites, he has assembled this gallery of these artefacts of a great age of exploration. In a few decades, this may be all we'll have to remember them. Although there is rudimentary background information from a variety of authors, this is a book of photography, not a history of the facilities. In some cases, unless you know from other sources what you're looking at, you might interpret some of the images as abstract.

The hardcover edition is a “coffee table book”: large format and beautifully printed, with a corresponding price. The Kindle edition is, well, a Kindle book, and grossly overpriced for 193 pages with screen-resolution images and a useless index consisting solely of search terms.

A selection of images from the book may be viewed on the Abandoned in Place Web site.

Posted at 12:37 Permalink

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Reading List: The Circle

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-345-80729-8.
There have been a number of novels, many in recent years, which explore the possibility of human society being taken over by intelligent machines. Some depict the struggle between humans and machines, others envision a dystopian future in which the machines have triumphed, and a few explore the possibility that machines might create a “new operating system” for humanity which works better than the dysfunctional social and political systems extant today. This novel goes off in a different direction: what might happen, without artificial intelligence, but in an era of exponentially growing computer power and data storage capacity, if an industry leading company with tendrils extending into every aspect of personal interaction and commerce worldwide, decided, with all the best intentions, “What the heck? Let's be evil!”

Mae Holland had done everything society had told her to do. One of only twelve of the 81 graduates of her central California high school to go on to college, she'd been accepted by a prestigious college and graduated with a degree in psychology and massive student loans she had no prospect of paying off. She'd ended up moving back in with her parents and taking a menial cubicle job at the local utility company, working for a creepy boss. In frustration and desperation, Mae reaches out to her former college roommate, Annie, who has risen to an exalted position at the hottest technology company on the globe: The Circle. The Circle had started by creating the Unified Operating System, which combined all aspects of users' interactions—social media, mail, payments, user names—into a unique and verified identity called TruYou. (Wonder where they got that idea?)

Before long, anonymity on the Internet was a thing of the past as merchants and others recognised the value of knowing their customers and of information collected across their activity on all sites. The Circle and its associated businesses supplanted existing sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and with the tight integration provided by TruYou, created new kinds of interconnection and interaction not possible when information was Balkanised among separate sites. With the end of anonymity, spam and fraudulent schemes evaporated, and with all posters personally accountable, discussions became civil and trolls slunk back under the bridge.

With an effective monopoly on electronic communication and commercial transactions (if everybody uses TruYou to pay, what option does a merchant have but to accept it and pay The Circle's fees?), The Circle was assured a large, recurring, and growing revenue stream. With the established businesses generating so much cash, The Circle invested heavily in research and development of new technologies: everything from sustainable housing, access to DNA databases, crime prevention, to space applications.

Mae's initial job was far more mundane. In Customer Experience, she was more or less working in a call centre, except her communications with customers were over The Circle's message services. The work was nothing like that at the utility company, however. Her work was monitored in real time, with a satisfaction score computed from follow-ups surveys by clients. To advance, a score near 100 was required, and Mae had to follow-up any scores less than that to satisfy the customer and obtain a perfect score. On a second screen, internal “zing” messages informed her of activity on the campus, and she was expected to respond and contribute.

As she advances within the organisation, Mae begins to comprehend the scope of The Circle's ambitions. One of the founders unveils a plan to make always-on cameras and microphones available at very low cost, which people can install around the world. All the feeds will be accessible in real time and archived forever. A new slogan is unveiled: “All that happens must be known.

At a party, Mae meets a mysterious character, Kalden, who appears to have access to parts of The Circle's campus unknown to her associates and yet doesn't show up in the company's exhaustive employee social networks. Her encounters and interactions with him become increasingly mysterious.

Mae moves up, and is chosen to participate to a greater extent in the social networks, and to rate products and ideas. All of this activity contributes to her participation rank, computed and displayed in real time. She swallows a sensor which will track her health and vital signs in real time, display them on a wrist bracelet, and upload them for analysis and early warning diagnosis.

Eventually, she volunteers to “go transparent”: wear a body camera and microphone every waking moment, and act as a window into The Circle for the general public. The company had pushed transparency for politicians, and now was ready to deploy it much more widely.

Secrets Are Lies
Sharing Is Caring
Privacy Is Theft

To Mae's family and few remaining friends outside The Circle, this all seems increasingly bizarre: as if the fastest growing and most prestigious high technology company in the world has become a kind of grotesque cult which consumes the lives of its followers and aspires to become universal. Mae loves her sense of being connected, the interaction with a worldwide public, and thinks it is just wonderful. The Circle internally tests and begins to roll out a system of direct participatory democracy to replace existing political institutions. Mae is there to report it. A plan to put an end to most crime is unveiled: Mae is there.

The Circle is closing. Mae is contacted by her mysterious acquaintance, and presented with a moral dilemma: she has become a central actor on the stage of a world which is on the verge of changing, forever.

This is a superbly written story which I found both realistic and chilling. You don't need artificial intelligence or malevolent machines to create an eternal totalitarian nightmare. All it takes a few years' growth and wider deployment of technologies which exist today, combined with good intentions, boundless ambition, and fuzzy thinking. And the latter three commodities are abundant among today's technology powerhouses.

Lest you think the technologies which underlie this novel are fantasy or far in the future, they were discussed in detail in David Brin's 1999 The Transparent Society and my 1994 “Unicard” and 2003 “The Digital Imprimatur”. All that has changed is that the massive computing, communication, and data storage infrastructure envisioned in those works now exists or will within a few years.

What should you fear most? Probably the millennials who will read this and think, “Wow! This will be great.” “Democracy is mandatory here!

Posted at 16:44 Permalink

Monday, May 9, 2016

Transit of Mercury

I was clouded out for most of today's transit of Mercury, but in mid-afternoon the skies cleared briefly and I was able to observe the transit visually and capture the following picture through thin clouds.


Mercury is the dark black dot at the left, along the 10 o'clock direction from the centre of the Sun. The shading on the Sun's surface is due to the thin clouds through which I took this picture. Note how much darker Mercury's disc is than the sunspot group (Active Region 12542).

The photo was taken at 13:43 UTC from the Fourmilab driveway with a Nikon D600 camera. Exposure was 1/1250 second at the fixed f/8 aperture of the Nikon 500 mm catadioptric "mirror lens" with ISO 400 sensitivity. A full aperture Orion solar filter was mounted on the front of the lens. This image is cropped from the full frame and scaled down to fit on the page. Minor contrast stretching and sharpening was done with GIMP.

For comparison, below is an image of the transit from space, captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory's (SDO) Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager.


The image appears rotated with respect to mine because solar north is up in the SDO image, while mine shows the Sun as it appears from my location at 47° north latitude.

Posted at 19:49 Permalink

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Reading List: Black Hole Blues

Levin, Janna. Black Hole Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. ISBN 978-0-307-95819-8.
In Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity, gravitation does not propagate instantaneously as it did in Newton's theory, but at the speed of light. According to relativity, nothing can propagate faster than light. This has a consequence which was not originally appreciated when the theory was published: if you move an object here, its gravitational influence upon an object there cannot arrive any faster than a pulse of light travelling between the two objects. But how is that change in the gravitational field transmitted? For light, it is via the electromagnetic field, which is described by Maxwell's equations and implies the existence of excitations of the field which, according to their wavelength, we call radio, light, and gamma rays. Are there, then, equivalent excitations of the gravitational field (which, according to general relativity, can be thought of as curvature of spacetime), which transmit the changes due to motion of objects to distant objects affected by their gravity and, if so, can we detect them? By analogy to electromagnetism, where we speak of electromagnetic waves or electromagnetic radiation, these would be gravitational waves or gravitational radiation.

Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves in a 1916 paper, but he made a mathematical error in the nature of sources and the magnitude of the effect. This was corrected in a paper he published in 1918 which describes gravitational radiation as we understand it today. According to Einstein's calculations, gravitational waves were real, but interacted so weakly that any practical experiment would never be able to detect them. If gravitation is thought of as the bending of spacetime, the equations tell us that spacetime is extraordinarily stiff: when you encounter an equation with the speed of light, c, raised to the fourth power in the denominator, you know you're in trouble trying to detect the effect.

That's where the matter rested for almost forty years. Some theorists believed that gravitational waves existed but, given the potential sources we knew about (planets orbiting stars, double and multiple star systems), the energy emitted was so small (the Earth orbiting the Sun emits a grand total of 200 watts of energy in gravitational waves, which is absolutely impossible to detect with any plausible apparatus), we would never be able to detect it. Other physicists doubted the effect was real, and that gravitational waves actually carried energy which could, even in principle, produce effects which could be detected. This dispute was settled to the satisfaction of most theorists by the sticky bead argument, proposed in 1957 by Richard Feynman and Hermann Bondi. Although a few dissenters remained, most of the small community interested in general relativity agreed that gravitational waves existed and could carry energy, but continued to believe we'd probably never detect them.

This outlook changed in the 1960s. Radio astronomers, along with optical astronomers, began to discover objects in the sky which seemed to indicate the universe was a much more violent and dynamic place than had been previously imagined. Words like “quasar”, “neutron star”, “pulsar”, and “black hole” entered the vocabulary, and suggested there were objects in the universe where gravity might be so strong and motion so fast that gravitational waves could be produced which might be detected by instruments on Earth.

Joseph Weber, an experimental physicist at the University of Maryland, was the first to attempt to detect gravitational radiation. He used large bars, now called Weber bars, of aluminium, usually cylinders two metres long and one metre in diameter, instrumented with piezoelectric sensors. The bars were, based upon their material and dimensions, resonant at a particular frequency, and could detect a change in length of the cylinder of around 10−16 metres. Weber was a pioneer in reducing noise of his detectors, and operated two detectors at different locations so that signals would only be considered valid if observed nearly simultaneously by both.

What nobody knew was how “noisy” the sky was in gravitational radiation: how many sources there were and how strong they might be. Theorists could offer little guidance: ultimately, you just had to listen. Weber listened, and reported signals he believed consistent with gravitational waves. But others who built comparable apparatus found nothing but noise and theorists objected that if objects in the universe emitted as much gravitational radiation as Weber's detections implied, it would convert all of its mass into gravitational radiation in just fifty million years. Weber's claims of having detected gravitational radiation are now considered to have been discredited, but there are those who dispute this assessment. Still, he was the first to try, and made breakthroughs which informed subsequent work.

Might there be a better way, which could detect even smaller signals than Weber's bars, and over a wider frequency range? (Since the frequency range of potential sources was unknown, casting the net as widely as possible made more potential candidate sources accessible to the experiment.) Independently, groups at MIT, the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany began to investigate interferometers as a means of detecting gravitational waves. An interferometer had already played a part in confirming Einstein's special theory of relativity: could it also provide evidence for an elusive prediction of the general theory?

An interferometer is essentially an absurdly precise ruler where the markings on the scale are waves of light. You send beams of light down two paths, and adjust them so that the light waves cancel (interfere) when they're combined after bouncing back from mirrors at the end of the two paths. If there's any change in the lengths of the two paths, the light won't interfere precisely, and its intensity will increase depending upon the difference. But when a gravitational wave passes, that's precisely what happens! Lengths in one direction will be squeezed while those orthogonal (at a right angle) will be stretched. In principle, an interferometer can be an exquisitely sensitive detector of gravitational waves. The gap between principle and practice required decades of diligent toil and hundreds of millions of dollars to bridge.

From the beginning, it was clear it would not be easy. The field of general relativity (gravitation) had been called “a theorist's dream, an experimenter's nightmare”, and almost everybody working in the area were theorists: all they needed were blackboards, paper, pencils, and lots of erasers. This was “little science”. As the pioneers began to explore interferometric gravitational wave detectors, it became clear what was needed was “big science”: on the order of large particle accelerators or space missions, with budgets, schedules, staffing, and management comparable to such projects. This was a culture shock to the general relativity community as violent as the astrophysical sources they sought to detect. Between 1971 and 1989, theorists and experimentalists explored detector technologies and built prototypes to demonstrate feasibility. In 1989, a proposal was submitted to the National Science Foundation to build two interferometers, widely separated geographically, with an initial implementation to prove the concept and a subsequent upgrade intended to permit detection of gravitational radiation from anticipated sources. After political battles, in 1995 construction of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, began at the two sites located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, and in 2001, commissioning of the initial detectors was begun; this would take four years. Between 2005 and 2007 science runs were made with the initial detectors; much was learned about sources of noise and the behaviour of the instrument, but no gravitational waves were detected.

Starting in 2007, based upon what had been learned so far, construction of the advanced interferometer began. This took three years. Between 2010 and 2012, the advanced components were installed, and another three years were spent commissioning them: discovering their quirks, fixing problems, and increasing sensitivity. Finally, in 2015, observations with the advanced detectors began. The sensitivity which had been achieved was astonishing: the interferometers could detect a change in the length of their four kilometre arms which was one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton (the nucleus of a hydrogen atom). In order to accomplish this, they had to overcome noise which ranged from distant earthquakes, traffic on nearby highways, tides raised in the Earth by the Sun and Moon, and a multitude of other sources, via a tower of technology which made the machine, so simple in concept, forbiddingly complex.

September 14, 2015, 09:51 UTC: Chirp!

A hundred years after the theory that predicted it, 44 years after physicists imagined such an instrument, 26 years after it was formally proposed, 20 years after it was initially funded, a gravitational wave had been detected, and it was right out of the textbook: the merger of two black holes with masses around 29 and 36 times that of the Sun, at a distance of 1.3 billion light years. A total of three solar masses were converted into gravitational radiation: at the moment of the merger, the gravitational radiation emitted was 50 times greater than the light from all of the stars in the universe combined. Despite the stupendous energy released by the source, when it arrived at Earth it could only have been detected by the advanced interferometer which had just been put into service: it would have been missed by the initial instrument and was orders of magnitude below the noise floor of Weber's bar detectors.

For only the third time since proto-humans turned their eyes to the sky a new channel of information about the universe we inhabit was opened. Most of what we know comes from electromagnetic radiation: light, radio, microwaves, gamma rays, etc. In the 20th century, a second channel opened: particles. Cosmic rays and neutrinos allow exploring energetic processes we cannot observe in any other way. In a real sense, neutrinos let us look inside the Sun and into the heart of supernovæ and see what's happening there. And just last year the third channel opened: gravitational radiation. The universe is almost entirely transparent to gravitational waves: that's why they're so difficult to detect. But that means they allow us to explore the universe at its most violent: collisions and mergers of neutron stars and black holes—objects where gravity dominates the forces of the placid universe we observe through telescopes. What will we see? What will we learn? Who knows? If experience is any guide, we'll see things we never imagined and learn things even the theorists didn't anticipate. The game is afoot! It will be a fine adventure.

Black Hole Blues is the story of gravitational wave detection, largely focusing upon LIGO and told through the eyes of Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne, two of the principals in its conception and development. It is an account of the transition of a field of research from a theorist's toy to Big Science, and the cultural, management, and political problems that involves. There are few examples in experimental science where so long an interval has elapsed, and so much funding expended, between the start of a project and its detecting the phenomenon it was built to observe. The road was bumpy, and that is documented here.

I found the author's tone off-putting. She, a theoretical cosmologist at Barnard College, dismisses scientists with achievements which dwarf her own and ideas which differ from hers in the way one expects from Social Justice Warriors in the squishier disciplines at the Seven Sisters: “the notorious Edward Teller”, “Although Kip [Thorne] outgrew the tedious moralizing, the sexism, and the religiosity of his Mormon roots”, (about Joseph Weber) “an insane, doomed, impossible bar detector designed by the old mad guy, crude laboratory-scale slabs of metal that inspired and encouraged his anguished claims of discovery”, “[Stephen] Hawking made his oddest wager about killer aliens or robots or something, which will not likely ever be resolved, so that might turn out to be his best bet yet”, (about Richard Garwin) “He played a role in halting the Star Wars insanity as well as potentially disastrous industrial escalations, like the plans for supersonic airplanes…”, and “[John Archibald] Wheeler also was not entirely against the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was not entirely against the anticommunist fervor that purged academics from their ivory-tower ranks for crimes of silence, either.” … “I remember seeing him at the notorious Princeton lunches, where visitors are expected to present their research to the table. Wheeler was royalty, in his eighties by then, straining to hear with the help of an ear trumpet. (Did I imagine the ear trumpet?)”. There are also a number of factual errors (for example, a breach in the LIGO beam tube sucking out all of the air from its enclosure and suffocating anybody inside), which a moment's calculation would have shown was absurd.

The book was clearly written with the intention of being published before the first detection of a gravitational wave by LIGO. The entire story of the detection, its validation, and public announcement is jammed into a seven page epilogue tacked onto the end. This epochal discovery deserves being treated at much greater length.

Posted at 14:55 Permalink

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Reading List: Coming Home

Launius, Roger D. and Dennis R. Jenkins. Coming Home. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2012. ISBN 978-0-16-091064-7. NASA SP-2011-593.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, when visionaries such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert H. Goddard started to think seriously about how space travel might be accomplished, most of the focus was on how rockets might be designed and built which would enable their payloads to be accelerated to reach the extreme altitude and velocity required for long-distance ballistic or orbital flight. This is a daunting problem. The Earth has a deep gravity well: so deep that to place a satellite in a low orbit around it, you must not only lift the satellite from the Earth's surface to the desired orbital altitude (which isn't particularly difficult), but also impart sufficient velocity to it so that it does not fall back but, instead, orbits the planet. It's the speed that makes it so difficult.

Recall that the kinetic energy of a body is given by ½mv². If mass (m) is given in kilograms and velocity (v) in metres per second, energy is measured in joules. Note that the square of the velocity appears in the formula: if you triple the velocity, you need nine times the energy to accelerate the mass to that speed. A satellite must have a velocity of around 7.8 kilometres/second to remain in a low Earth orbit. This is about eight times the muzzle velocity of the 5.56×45mm NATO round fired by the M-16 and AR-15 rifles. Consequently, the satellite has sixty-four times the energy per unit mass of the rifle bullet, and the rocket which places it into orbit must expend all of that energy to launch it.

Every kilogram of a satellite in a low orbit has a kinetic energy of around 30 megajoules (thirty million joules). By comparison, the energy released by detonating a kilogram of TNT is 4.7 megajoules. The satellite, purely due to its motion, has more than six times the energy as an equal mass of TNT. The U.S. Space Shuttle orbiter had a mass, without payload, of around 70,000 kilograms. When preparing to leave orbit and return to Earth, its kinetic energy was about that of half a kiloton of TNT. During the process of atmospheric reentry and landing, in about half an hour, all of that energy must be dissipated in a non-destructive manner, until the orbiter comes to a stop on the runway with kinetic energy zero.

This is an extraordinarily difficult problem, which engineers had to confront as soon as they contemplated returning payloads from space to the Earth. The first payloads were, of course, warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. While these missiles did not go into orbit, they achieved speeds which were sufficiently fast as to present essentially the same problems as orbital reentry. When the first reconnaissance satellites were developed by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the technology to capture images electronically and radio them to ground stations did not yet exist. The only option was to expose photographic film in orbit then physically return it to Earth for processing and interpretation. This was the requirement which drove the development of orbital reentry. The first manned orbital capsules employed technology proven by film return spy satellites. (In the case of the Soviets, the basic structure of the Zenit reconnaissance satellites and manned Vostok capsules was essentially the same.)

This book chronicles the history and engineering details of U.S. reentry and landing technology, for both unmanned and manned spacecraft. While many in the 1950s envisioned sleek spaceplanes as the vehicle of choice, when the time came to actually solve the problems of reentry, a seemingly counterintuitive solution came to the fore: the blunt body. We're all acquainted with the phenomenon of air friction: the faster an airplane flies, the hotter its skin gets. The SR-71, which flew at three times the speed of sound, had to be made of titanium since aluminium would have lost its strength at the temperatures which resulted from friction. But at the velocity of a returning satellite, around eight times faster than an SR-71, air behaves very differently. The satellite is moving so fast that air can't get out of the way and piles up in front of it. As the air is compressed, its temperature rises until it equals or exceeds that of the surface of the Sun. This heat is then radiated in all directions. That impinging upon the reentering body can, if not dealt with, destroy it.

A streamlined shape will cause the compression to be concentrated at the nose, leading to extreme heating. A blunt body, however, will cause a shock wave to form which stands off from its surface. Since the compressed air radiates heat in all directions, only that radiated in the direction of the body will be absorbed; the rest will be harmlessly radiated away into space, reducing total heating. There is still, however, plenty of heat to worry about.

Let's consider the Mercury capsules in which the first U.S. astronauts flew. They reentered blunt end first, with a heat shield facing the air flow. Compression in the shock layer ahead of the heat shield raised the air temperature to around 5800° K, almost precisely the surface temperature of the Sun. Over the reentry, the heat pulse would deposit a total of 100 megajoules per square metre of heat shield. The astronaut was just a few centimetres from the shield, and the temperature on the back side of the shield could not be allowed to exceed 65° C. How in the world do you accomplish that?

Engineers have investigated a wide variety of ways to beat the heat. The simplest are completely passive systems: they have no moving parts. An example of a passive system is a “heat sink”. You simply have a mass of some substance with high heat capacity (which means it can absorb a large amount of energy with a small rise in temperature), usually a metal, which absorbs the heat during the pulse, then slowly releases it. The heat sink must be made of a material which doesn't melt or corrode during the heat pulse. The original design of the Mercury spacecraft specified a beryllium heat sink design, and this was flown on the two suborbital flights, but was replaced for the orbital missions. The Space Shuttle used a passive heat shield of a different kind: ceramic tiles which could withstand the heat on their surface and provided insulation which prevented the heat from reaching the aluminium structure beneath. The tiles proved very difficult to manufacture, were fragile, and required a great deal of maintenance, but they were, in principle, reusable.

The most commonly used technology for reentry is ablation. A heat shield is fabricated of a material which, when subjected to reentry heat, chars and releases gases. The gases carry away the heat, while the charred material which remains provides insulation. A variety of materials have been used for ablative heat shields, from advanced silicone and carbon composites to oak wood, on some early Soviet and Chinese reentry experiments. Ablative heat shields were used on Mercury orbital capsules, in projects Gemini and Apollo, all Soviet and Chinese manned spacecraft, and will be used by the SpaceX and Boeing crew transport capsules now under development.

If the heat shield works and you make it through the heat pulse, you're still falling like a rock. The solution of choice for landing spacecraft has been parachutes, and even though they seem simple conceptually, in practice there are many details which must be dealt with, such as stabilising the falling craft so it won't tumble and tangle the parachute suspension lines when the parachute is deployed, and opening the canopy in multiple stages to prevent a jarring shock which might damage the parachute or craft.

The early astronauts were pilots, and never much liked the idea of having to be fished out of the ocean by the Navy at the conclusion of their flights. A variety of schemes were explored to allow piloted flight to a runway landing, including inflatable wings and paragliders, but difficulties developing the technologies and schedule pressure during the space race caused the Gemini and Apollo projects to abandon them in favour of parachutes and a splashdown. Not until the Space Shuttle were precision runway landings achieved, and now NASA has abandoned that capability. SpaceX hopes to eventually return their Crew Dragon capsule to a landing pad with a propulsive landing, but that is not discussed here.

In the 1990s, NASA pursued a variety of spaceplane concepts: the X-33, X-34, and X-38. These projects pioneered new concepts in thermal protection for reentry which would be less expensive and maintenance-intensive than the Space Shuttle's tiles. In keeping with NASA's practice of the era, each project was cancelled after consuming a large sum of money and extensive engineering development. The X-37 was developed by NASA, and when abandoned, was taken over by the Air Force, which operates it on secret missions. Each of these projects is discussed here.

This book is the definitive history of U.S. spacecraft reentry systems. There is a wealth of technical detail, and some readers may find there's more here than they wanted to know. No specialised knowledge is required to understand the descriptions: just patience. In keeping with NASA tradition, quaint units like inches, pounds, miles per hour, and British Thermal Units are used in most of the text, but then in the final chapters, the authors switch back and forth between metric and U.S. customary units seemingly at random. There are some delightful anecdotes, such as when the designers of NASA's new Orion capsule had to visit the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum to examine an Apollo heat shield to figure out how it was made, attached to the spacecraft, and the properties of the proprietary ablative material it employed.

As a NASA publication, this book is in the public domain. The paperback linked to above is a republication of the original NASA edition. The book may be downloaded for free from the book's Web page in three electronic formats: PDF, MOBI (Kindle), and EPUB. Get the PDF! While the PDF is a faithful representation of the print edition, the MOBI edition is hideously ugly and mis-formatted. Footnotes are interleaved in the text at random locations in red type (except when they aren't in red type), block quotes are not set off from the main text, dozens of hyphenated words and adjacent words are run together, and the index is completely useless: citing page numbers in the print edition which do not appear in the electronic edition; for some reason large sections of the index are in red type. I haven't looked at the EPUB edition, but given the lack of attention to detail evident in the MOBI, my expectations for it are not high.

Posted at 19:25 Permalink

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Reading List: Obsessive Genius

Goldsmith, Barbara. Obsessive Genius. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. ISBN 978-0-393-32748-9.
Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in 1867 in Warsaw, Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. She was the fifth and last child born to her parents, Władysław and Bronisława Skłodowski, both teachers. Both parents were members of a lower class of the aristocracy called the Szlachta, but had lost their wealth through involvement in the Polish nationalist movement opposed to Russian rule. They retained the love of learning characteristic of their class, and had independently obtained teaching appointments before meeting and marrying. Their children were raised in an intellectual atmosphere, with their father reading books aloud to them in Polish, Russian, French, German, and English, all languages in which he was fluent.

During Maria's childhood, her father lost his teaching position after his anti-Russian sentiments and activities were discovered, and supported himself by operating a boarding school for boys from the provinces. In cramped and less than sanitary conditions, one of the boarders infected two of the children with typhus: Marie's sister Zofia died. Three years later, her mother, Bronisława, died of tuberculosis. Maria experienced her first episode of depression, a malady which would haunt her throughout life.

Despite having graduated from secondary school with honours, Marie and her sister Bronisława could not pursue their education in Poland, as the universities did not admit women. Marie made an agreement with her older sister: she would support Bronisława's medical education at the Sorbonne in Paris in return for her supporting Maria's studies there after she graduated and entered practice. Maria worked as a governess, supporting Bronisława. Finally, in 1891, she was able to travel to Paris and enroll in the Sorbonne. On the registration forms, she signed her name as “Marie”.

One of just 23 women among the two thousand enrolled in the School of Sciences, Marie studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics under an eminent faculty including luminaries such as Henri Poincaré. In 1893, she earned her degree in physics, one of only two women to graduate with a science degree that year, and in 1894 obtained a second degree in mathematics, ranking second in her class.

Finances remained tight, and Marie was delighted when one of her professors, Gabriel Lippman, arranged for her to receive a grant to study the magnetic properties of different kinds of steel. She set to work on the project but made little progress because the equipment she was using in Lippman's laboratory was cumbersome and insensitive. A friend recommended she contact a little-known physicist who was an expert on magnetism in metals and had developed instruments for precision measurements. Marie arranged to meet Pierre Curie to discuss her work.

Pierre was working at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry of the City of Paris (EPCI), an institution much less prestigious than the Sorbonne, in a laboratory which the visiting Lord Kelvin described as “a cubbyhole between the hallway and a student laboratory”. Still, he had major achievements to his credit. In 1880, with his brother Jacques, he had discovered the phenomenon of piezoelectricity, the interaction between electricity and mechanical stress in solids. Now the foundation of many technologies, the Curies used piezoelectricity to build an electrometer much more sensitive than previous instruments. His doctoral dissertation on the effects of temperature on the magnetism of metals introduced the concept of a critical temperature, different for each metal or alloy, at which permanent magnetism is lost. This is now called the Curie temperature.

When Pierre and Marie first met, they were immediately taken with one another: both from families of modest means, largely self-educated, and fascinated by scientific investigation. Pierre rapidly fell in love and was determined to marry Marie, but she, having been rejected in an earlier relationship in Poland, was hesitant and still planned to return to Warsaw. Pierre eventually persuaded Marie, and the two were married in July 1895. Marie was given a small laboratory space in the EPCI building to pursue work on magnetism, and henceforth the Curies would be a scientific team.

In the final years of the nineteenth century “rays” were all the rage. In 1896, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered penetrating radiation produced by accelerating electrons (which he called “cathode rays”, as the electron would not be discovered until the following year) into a metal target. He called them “X-rays”, using “X” as the symbol for the unknown. The same year, Henri Becquerel discovered that a sample of uranium salts could expose a photographic plate even if the plate were wrapped in a black cloth. In 1897 he published six papers on these “Becquerel rays”. Both discoveries were completely accidental.

The year that Marie was ready to begin her doctoral research, 65 percent of the papers presented at the Academy of Sciences in Paris were devoted to X-rays. Pierre suggested that Marie investigate the Becquerel rays produced by uranium, as they had been largely neglected by other scientists. She began a series of experiments using an electrometer designed by Pierre. The instrument was sensitive but exasperating to operate: Lord Rayleigh later wrote that electrometers were “designed by the devil”. Patiently, Marie measured the rays produced by uranium and then moved on to test samples of other elements. Among them, only thorium produced detectable rays.

She then made a puzzling observation. Uranium was produced from an ore called pitchblende. When she tested a sample of the residue of pitchblende from which all of the uranium had been extracted, she measured rays four times as energetic as those from pure uranium. She inferred that there must be a substance, perhaps a new chemical element, remaining in the pitchblende residue which was more radioactive than uranium. She then tested a thorium ore and found it also to produce rays more energetic than pure thorium. Perhaps here was yet another element to be discovered.

In March 1898, Marie wrote a paper in which she presented her measurements of the uranium and thorium ores, introduced the word “radioactivity” to describe the phenomenon, put forth the hypothesis that one or more undiscovered elements were responsible, suggested that radioactivity could be used to discover new elements, and, based upon her observations that radioactivity was unaffected by chemical processes, that it must be “an atomic property”. Neither Pierre nor Marie were members of the Academy of Sciences; Marie's former professor, Gabriel Lippman, presented the paper on her behalf.

It was one thing to hypothesise the existence of a new element or elements, and entirely another to isolate the element and determine its properties. Ore, like pitchblende, is a mix of chemical compounds. Starting with ore from which the uranium had been extracted, the Curies undertook a process to chemically separate these components. Those found to be radioactive were then distilled to increase their purity. With each distillation their activity increased. They finally found two of these fractions contained all the radioactivity. One was chemically similar to barium, while the other resembled bismuth. Measuring the properties of the fractions indicated they must be a mixture of the new radioactive elements and other, lighter elements.

To isolate the new elements, a process called “fractionation” was undertaken. When crystals form from a solution, the lighter elements tend to crystallise first. By repeating this process, the heavier elements could slowly be concentrated. With each fractionation the radioactivity increased. Working with the fraction which behaved like bismuth, the Curies eventually purified it to be 400 times as radioactive as uranium. No spectrum of the new element could yet be determined, but the Curies were sufficiently confident in the presence of a new element to publish a paper in July 1898 announcing the discovery and naming the new element “polonium” after Marie's native Poland. In December, working with the fraction which chemically resembled barium, they produced a sample 900 times as radioactive as uranium. This time a clear novel spectral line was found, and at the end of December 1898 they announced the discovery of a second new element, which they named “radium”.

Two new elements had been discovered, with evidence sufficiently persuasive that their existence was generally accepted. But the existing samples were known to be impure. The physical and chemical properties of the new elements, allowing their places in the periodic table to be determined, would require removal of the impurities and isolation of pure samples. The same process of fractionation could be used, but since it quickly became clear that the new radioactive elements were a tiny fraction of the samples in which they had been discovered, it would be necessary to scale up the process to something closer to an industrial scale. (The sample in which radium had been identified was 900 times more radioactive than uranium. Pure radium was eventually found to be ten million times as radioactive as uranium.)

Pierre learned that the residue from extracting uranium from pitchblende was dumped in a forest near the uranium mine. He arranged to have the Austrian government donate the material at no cost, and found the funds to ship it to the laboratory in Paris. Now, instead of test tubes, they were working with tons of material. Pierre convinced a chemical company to perform the first round of purification, persuading them that other researchers would be eager to buy the resulting material. Eventually, they delivered twenty kilogram lots of material to the Curies which were fifty times as radioactive as uranium. From there the Curie laboratory took over the subsequent purification. After four years, processing ten tons of pitchblende residue, hundreds of tons of rinsing water, thousands of fractionations, one tenth of a gram of radium chloride was produced that was sufficiently pure to measure its properties. In July 1902 Marie announced the isolation of radium and placed it on the periodic table as element 88.

In June of 1903, Marie defended her doctoral thesis, becoming the first woman in France to obtain a doctorate in science. With the discovery of radium, the source of the enormous energy it and other radioactive elements released became a major focus of research. Ernest Rutherford argued that radioactivity was a process of “atomic disintegration” in which one element was spontaneously transmuting to another. The Curies originally doubted this hypothesis, but after repeating the experiments of Rutherford, accepted his conclusion as correct.

In 1903, the Nobel Prize for Physics was shared by Marie and Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, awarded for the discovery of radioactivity. The discovery of radium and polonium was not mentioned. Marie embarked on the isolation of polonium, and within two years produced a sample sufficiently pure to place it as element 84 on the periodic table with an estimate of its half-life of 140 days (the modern value is 138.4 days). Polonium is about 5000 times as radioactive as radium. Polonium and radium found in nature are the products of decay of primordial uranium and thorium. Their half-lives are so short (radium's is 1600 years) that any present at the Earth's formation has long since decayed.

After the announcement of the discovery of radium and the Nobel prize, the Curies, and especially Marie, became celebrities. Awards, honorary doctorates, and memberships in the academies of science of several countries followed, along with financial support and the laboratory facilities they had lacked while performing the work which won them such acclaim. Radium became a popular fad, hailed as a cure for cancer and other diseases, a fountain of youth, and promoted by quacks promising all kinds of benefits from the nostrums they peddled, some of which, to the detriment of their customers, actually contained minute quantities of radium.

Tragedy struck in April 1906 when Pierre was killed in a traffic accident: run over on a Paris street in a heavy rainstorm by a wagon pulled by two horses. Marie was inconsolable, immersing herself in laboratory work and neglecting her two young daughters. Her spells of depression returned. She continued to explore the properties of radium and polonium and worked to establish a standard unit to measure radioactive decay, calibrated by radium. (This unit is now called the curie, but is no longer defined based upon radium and has been replaced by the becquerel, which is simply an inverse second.) Marie Curie was not interested or involved in the work to determine the structure of the atom and its nucleus or the development of quantum theory. The Curie laboratory continued to grow, but focused on production of radium and its applications in medicine and industry. Lise Meitner applied for a job at the laboratory and was rejected. Meitner later said she believed that Marie thought her a potential rival to Curie's daughter Irène. Meitner joined the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin and went on to co-discover nuclear fission. The only two chemical elements named in whole or part for women are curium (element 96, named for both Pierre and Marie) and meitnerium (element 109).

In 1910, after three years of work with André-Louis Debierne, Marie managed to produce a sample of metallic radium, allowing a definitive measurement of its properties. In 1911, she won a second Nobel prize, unshared, in chemistry, for the isolation of radium and polonium. At the moment of triumph, news broke of a messy affair she had been carrying on with Pierre's successor at the EPCI, Paul Langevin, a married man. The popular press, who had hailed Marie as a towering figure of French science, went after her with bared fangs and mockery, and she went into seclusion under an assumed name.

During World War I, she invented and promoted the use of mobile field X-ray units (called “Les Petites Curies”) and won acceptance for women to operate them near the front, with her daughter Irène assisting in the effort. After the war, her reputation largely rehabilitated, Marie not only accepted but contributed to the growth of the Curie myth, seeing it as a way to fund her laboratory and research. Irène took the lead at the laboratory.

As co-discoverer of the phenomenon of radioactivity and two chemical elements, Curie's achievements were well recognised. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize, the first person to win two Nobel prizes, and the only person so far to win Nobel prizes in two different sciences. (The third woman to win a Nobel prize was her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.) She was the first woman to be appointed a full professor at the Sorbonne.

Marie Curie died of anæmia in 1934, probably brought on by exposure to radiation over her career. She took few precautions, and her papers and personal effects remain radioactive to this day. Her legacy is one of dedication and indefatigable persistence in achieving the goals she set for herself, regardless of the scientific and technical challenges and the barriers women faced at the time. She demonstrated that pure persistence, coupled with a brilliant intellect, can overcome formidable obstacles.

Posted at 20:46 Permalink

Monday, April 11, 2016

Reading List: Blue Gemini

Jenne, Mike. Blue Gemini. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-1-63158-047-5.
It is the late 1960s, and the Apollo project is racing toward the Moon. The U.S. Air Force has not abandoned its manned space flight ambitions, and is proceeding with its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, nominally to explore the missions military astronauts can perform in an orbiting space station, but in reality a large manned reconnaissance satellite. Behind the curtain of secrecy and under the cover of the blandly named “Aerospace Support Project”, the Air Force was simultaneously proceeding with a much more provocative project: Blue Gemini. Using the Titan II booster and a modified version of the two-man spacecraft from NASA's recently-concluded Gemini program, its mission was to launch on short notice, rendezvous with and inspect uncooperative targets (think Soviet military satellites), and optionally attach a package to them which, on command from the ground, could destroy the satellite, de-orbit it, or throw it out of control. All of this would have to be done covertly, without alerting the Soviets to the intrusion.

Inconclusive evidence and fears that the Soviets, in response to the U.S. ballistic missile submarine capability, were preparing to place nuclear weapons in orbit, ready to rain down onto the U.S. upon command, even if the Soviet missile and bomber forces were destroyed, gave Blue Gemini a high priority. Operating out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, flight hardware for the Gemini-I interceptor spacecraft, Titan II missiles modified for man-rating, and a launching site on Johnston Island in the Pacific were all being prepared, and three flight crews were in training.

Scott Ourecky had always dreamed of flying. In college, he enrolled in Air Force ROTC, underwent primary flight training, and joined the Air Force upon graduation. Once in uniform, his talent for engineering and mathematics caused him to advance, but his applications for flight training were repeatedly rejected, and he had resigned himself to a technical career in advanced weapon development, most recently at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. There he is recruited to work part-time on the thorny technical problems of a hush-hush project: Blue Gemini.

Ourecky settles in and undertakes the formidable challenges faced by the mission. (NASA's Gemini rendezvous targets were cooperative: they had transponders and flashing beacons which made them easier to locate, and missions could be planned so that rendezvous would be accomplished when communications with ground controllers would be available. In Blue Gemini the crew would be largely on their own, with only brief communication passes available.) Finally, after an incident brought on by the pressure and grueling pace of training, he finds himself in the right seat of the simulator, paired with hot-shot pilot Drew Carson (who views non-pilots as lesser beings, and would rather be in Vietnam adding combat missions to his service record rather than sitting in a simulator in Ohio on a black program which will probably never be disclosed).

As the story progresses, crisis after crisis must be dealt with, all against a deadline which, if not met, will mean the almost-certain cancellation of the project.

This is fiction: no Gemini interceptor program ever existed (although one of the missions for which the Space Shuttle was designed was essentially the same: a one orbit inspection or snatch-and-return of a hostile satellite). But the remarkable thing about this novel is that, unlike many thrillers, the author gets just about everything absolutely right. This does not stop with the technical details of the Gemini and Titan hardware, but also Pentagon politics, inter-service rivalry, the interaction of military projects with political forces, and the dynamics of the relations between pilots, engineers, and project administrators. It works as a thriller, as a story with characters who develop in interesting ways, and there are no jarring goofs to distract you from the narrative. (Well, hardly any: the turbine engines of a C-130 do not “cough to life”.)

There are numerous subplots and characters involved in them, and when this book comes to an end, they're just left hanging in mid-air. That's because this is the first of a multi-volume work in progress. The second novel, Blue Darker than Black, picks up where the first ends. The third, Pale Blue, is scheduled to be published in August 2016.

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