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Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Books of the year: 2012
Here are my picks for the best books of 2012, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read
in the last twelvemonth. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author's surname.
I am posting these early because I will be travelling and without Internet access at the end of the year. Also, since I'm currently reading volume 3 of The Last Lion
, the monumental biography of Churchill, which I won't finish before the new year, my reading list for 2012
is already complete.
Sunday, December 23, 2012
Reading List: Time Machines
- Greenberg, Stanley.
Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2011.
Should our civilisation collapse due to folly, shortsightedness,
and greed, and an extended dark age ensue, in which not only our
painfully-acquired knowledge is lost, but even the memory of what
we once knew and accomplished forgotten, certainly
among the most impressive of the achievements of our lost age
when discovered by those who rise from the ruins to try again will be
the massive yet delicate apparatus of our great physics experiments.
Many, buried deep in the Earth, will survive the chaos of the dark
age and beckon to pioneers of the next age of discovery just as
the tombs of Egypt did to those in our epoch. Certainly, when
the explorers of that distant time first illuminate the great
detector halls of our experiments, they will answer, as
did when asked by
“Can you see anything?”,
“Yes, wonderful things.”
This book is a collection of photographs of these wonderful things,
made by a master photographer and printed in a large-format
(26×28 cm) coffee-table book. We visit particle
accelerators in Japan, the United States, Canada, Switzerland,
Italy, and Germany; gravitational wave detectors in the U.S. and
Italy; neutrino detectors in Canada, Japan, the U.S., Italy,
and the South Pole; and the 3000 km² cosmic ray observatory
This book is mostly about the photographs, not the physics or
engineering: the photographs are masterpieces. All are
reproduced in monochrome, which emphasises the beautiful symmetries
of these machines without the distractions of candy-coloured cable
bundles. There is an introduction by particle physicist David C.
Cassidy which briefly sketches the motivation for building these
cathedrals of science and end notes which provide additional
details of the hardware in each photograph, but you don't pay the
substantial price of the book for these. The photographs are
obviously large format originals (nobody could achieve this kind of
control of focus and tonal range with a convenient to use
camera) and they are printed exquisitely. The screen is so
fine I have difficulty evaluating it even with a high power
magnifier, but it looks to me like the book was printed using not just
a simple halftone screen but with ink in multiple shades of
The result is just gorgeous. Resist the temptation to casually flip from
image to image—immerse yourself in each of them and work out
the perspective. One challenge is that it's often difficult to determine
the scale of what you're looking at from a cursory glance at the
picture. You have to search for something with which you're familiar
until it all snaps into scale; this is sometimes difficult and I found
the disorientation delightful and ultimately enlightening.
You will learn nothing about physics from this book. You will learn nothing
about photography apart from a goal to which to aspire as you master the art.
But you will see some of the most amazing creations of the human mind, built in
search of the foundations of our understanding of the universe we inhabit,
photographed by a master and reproduced superbly, inviting you to linger
on every image and wish you could see these wonders with your own eyes.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Reading List: Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook
- McCahill, Tom.
Tom McCahill's Car Owner Handbook.
Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1956.
The 1950s in the United States were immersed in the car culture,
and cars meant domestic Detroit iron, not those funny little
bugs from Europe that eccentric people drove. American cars
of the fifties may have lacked refinement and appear somewhat
grotesque to modern eyes, but they were affordable, capacious,
fast, and rugged. Just about anybody with a rudimentary
knowledge of mechanics could work on them, and their simple
design invited customisation and performance tuning.
was the most prominent automotive journalist of this epoch.
His monthly column and reviews of cars in
could make or break a model's prospects in the market. He was known
for his colourful language: a car didn't just go fast, but
“took off like a Killarney bat”, and cornered
“like a bowling ball in a sewer pipe”. McCahill
was one of the first voices to speak out about the poor
build quality of domestic automobiles and their mushy
suspension and handling compared to European imports, and
he was one of the few automotive writers at the time to regularly
In this book, McCahill shares his wisdom on many aspects of
car ownership: buying a new or used car; tune-up tips;
choosing tires, lubricants, and fuel; dealing with break-downs
on the road; long-distance trips; performance tweaks and more.
You'll also encounter long-forgotten parts of the mid-century
car culture such as the whole family making a trip to Detroit
to pick up their new car at the factory and breaking it in on
the way home. Somewhat surprisingly for a publication
from the era of big V-8 engines and twenty-five cent gas,
there's even a chapter on improving mileage. The book concludes
with “When to Phone the Junkman”.
Although cars have been transformed from the straightforward
designs of the 1950s into machines of inscrutable complexity,
often mandated by bureaucrats who ride the bus or subway to
work, there is a tremendous amount of wisdom here about
automobiles and driving, some of it very much ahead of its
This “Fawcett How-To Book” is basically an issue of
consisting entirely of McCahill's work, and even includes the usual
advertisements. This work is, of course, hopelessly out of print. Used
copies are available, but often at absurdly elevated prices for what
amounts to a pulp magazine which sold for 75 cents new. You may
have more luck finding a copy
than through Amazon used book sellers. As best I can determine, this publication
was never assigned a Library of Congress control number, although others
in the series were.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Reading List: Titan
- Baxter, Stephen.
New York: Harper Voyager, 1997.
This novel begins in the latter half of the first decade
of the 21st century. Space shuttle Columbia
has been lost in a re-entry accident, and a demoralised
NASA has decided to wind down the shuttle program, with
whatever is to follow, if anything, ill-defined and subject
to the whims of politicians. The
probe has landed on Saturn's moon Titan and returned intriguing
and enigmatic results which are indicative of a complex chemistry
similar, in a way, to the “primordial soup” from which
life formed on the ancient Earth. As China approaches economic
superpower status, it begins to flex its muscles with a
military build-up, an increasingly aggressive posture toward its
neighbours in the region, and a human spaceflight program which,
while cautious and measured, seems bent on achieving very
ambitious goals. In the United States, as the 2008 presidential
election approaches, the odds on favourite to prevail is a
“thin, jug-eared man of about fifty” (p. 147)
with little or no interest in science and technology and an
agenda of fundamental transformation of the nation. The
younger generation has completely tuned out science, technology,
and the space program, and some even advocate a return to the
Did I mention that this book was published in 1997?
Astronaut Paula Benacerraf has been promoted and given the mission
to shut down the space shuttle program in an orderly fashion,
disposing of its assets responsibly. Isaac Rosenberg, a JPL
scientist working on the Huygens probe results, pitches a mission
which will allow the NASA human spaceflight and solar system
exploration programs to go out in a heroic effort rather than
be ignominiously consigned to museums as relics of a lost age
of greatness. Rosenberg (as he prefers to be addressed), argues
that a space shuttle should be sent on its final mission to
the only place in the solar system where its stubby wings make
With an atmosphere about 50% more dense than that of the Earth,
it is plausible a space shuttle orbiter could make an aerodynamic
entry at Titan. (The profile would be very different, however,
since Titan's low gravity [just 0.14 g] would mean that
entry velocity would be lower and the
of the atmosphere much greater than at Earth.)
Benacerraf recruits a cabal within NASA and begins to put together
a mission plan, using existing hardware, components under
development for future missions, prototypes from laboratories, and
legacy gear liberated from museums and static displays, to see if
such an absurdly ambitious mission might be possible. They
conclude that, while extraordinarily risky, nothing rules it out.
With the alternative a humiliating abandonment of
human spaceflight, and a crew willing to risk their
lives on a mission which may prove one way (their only hope of
survival on Titan being resupply missions and of return to Earth
a crew rotation mission, none of which would be funded at the
time of their departure), the NASA administrator is persuaded to
go for it.
This novel begins as a chronicle of an heroic attempt to expand
the human presence in the solar system, at a time when the
door seems to be closing on the resources, will, and optimistic
view of the future such efforts require. But then, as the story
plays out, it becomes larger and larger, finally concluding in
a breathtaking vista of the destiny of life in the galaxy, while
at the same time, a chronicle of just how gnarly the reality of getting
there is likely to be. I don't think I've ever read science fiction
which so effectively communicated that the life of pioneers who
go to other worlds to stay has a lot more in common with
than Neil Armstrong.
If you're a regular reader of these remarks,
you'll know I enjoy indulging in nitpicking details in
near-future hard science fiction. I'm not going to do that
here, not because there aren't some things the author got
wrong, but because the story is so enthralling and the
characters so compelling that I couldn't care less about
the occasional goof. Of course NASA would never
send a space shuttle to Titan. Certainly if you
worked out the delta-V, consumables requirements, long-term
storability of propellants, reliability of systems over such
an extended mission, and many other details you'd find it
couldn't possibly work. But if these natters made you put
the book down, you'd deprive yourself of a masterpiece
which is simultaneously depressing
in its depiction of human folly and inspiring in the heroism
of individual people and the human prospect. This is a thick
book: 688 pages in the print edition, and I just devoured it,
unable to put it down because I couldn't wait to find out what
The Kindle edition appears to have been created by
scanning a print edition with an optical character recognition program.
There are dozens (I noted 49) of the kind of typographical errors one
expects from such a process, a few of which I'd expect to have been
caught by a spelling checker. I applaud publishers who are bringing out
their back-lists in electronic editions, but for a Kindle edition which
costs just one U.S. dollar less than the mass market paperback, I believe the
reader should be entitled to copy editing comparable to that of
a print edition.
Sunday, December 2, 2012
Reading List: Rockets and People. Vol. 3
- Chertok, Boris E.
Rockets and People. Vol. 3.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  2009.
ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2009-4110.
This is the third book of the author's
four-volume autobiographical history of the Soviet missile
and space program.
was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian
civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the
postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival
politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Born in Poland in
1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. After retiring from the RKK Energia
organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994
and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated
English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the
direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of
Challenge to Apollo (April 2008),
the definitive Western history of the Soviet space
Volume 2 of this memoir chronicled the achievements which thrust
the Soviet Union's missile and space program into the consciousness
of people world-wide and sparked the space race with the
United States: the development of the
Sputnik and its successors, and the first flights
which photographed the far side of the Moon and impacted on its
surface. In this volume, the author describes the projects
and accomplishments which built upon this base and persuaded
many observers of the supremacy of Soviet space technology.
Since the author's speciality was control systems and radio
technology, he had an almost unique perspective upon these
events: unlike other designers who focussed upon one or a few
projects, he was involved in almost all of the principal efforts, from
intermediate range, intercontinental, and submarine-launched ballistic
missiles; air and anti-missile defence; piloted spaceflight;
reconnaissance, weather, and navigation satellites; communication
satellites; deep space missions and the ground support for them; soft
landing on the Moon; and automatic rendezvous and docking. He was
present when it looked like the rudimentary R-7 ICBM might be launched
in anger during the Cuban missile crisis, at the table as chief designers
battled over whether combat missiles should use cryogenic or storable
liquid propellants or solid fuel, and sat on endless boards of inquiry
after mission failures—the first eleven attempts to soft-land
on the Moon failed, and Chertok was there for each launch, subsequent
tracking, and sorting through what went wrong.
This was a time of triumph for the Soviet space program: the first
manned flight, endurance record after endurance record, dual flights,
the first woman in space, the first flight with a crew of more than one,
and the first spacewalk. But from Chertok's perspective inside the
programs, and the freedom he had to write candidly in the 1990s about his
experiences, it is clear that the seeds of tragedy
were being sown. With the quest for one spectacular after another,
each surpassing the last, the Soviets became inoculated with what
NASA came to call “go fever”—a willingness to brush
anomalies under the rug and normalise the abnormal because you'd
gotten away with it before.
One of the most stunning examples of this is
Gagarin's flight. The
spacecraft consisted of a spherical descent module (basically a
cannonball covered with ablative thermal protection material) and an
instrument compartment containing the retro-rocket, attitude control
system, and antennas. After firing the retro-rocket, the instrument
compartment was supposed to separate, allowing the descent module's
heat shield to protect it through atmospheric re-entry. (The Vostok
performed a purely ballistic re-entry, and had no attitude control
thrusters in the descent module; stability was maintained exclusively
by an offset centre of gravity.) In the two unmanned test flights
which preceded Garagin's mission, the instrument module had failed to
cleanly separate from the descent module, but the connection burned
through during re-entry and the descent module survived. Gagarin was
launched in a spacecraft with the same design, and the same thing
happened: there were wild oscillations, but after the link burned
through his spacecraft stabilised. Astonishingly,
Vostok 2 was
launched with Gherman Titov on board with precisely the same
flaw, and suffered the same failure during re-entry. Once
again, the cosmonaut won this orbital game of
One wonders what lessons were learned from this. In this
narrative, Chertok is simply aghast at the decision making here, but
one gets the sense that you had to be there, then, to appreciate what
was going through people's heads.
The author was extensively involved in the development of the
first Soviet communications satellite,
and provides extensive insights into its design, testing, and
early operations. It is often said that the
was chosen because it made the satellite visible from the
where geostationary satellites would be too
close to the horizon for reliable communication. It is certainly
true that today this orbit continues to be used for communications with Russian
arctic territories, but its adoption for the first Soviet
communications satellite had an entirely different motivation.
Due to the high latitude of the
Soviet launch site
R-7 derived booster could place only about 100 kilograms
into a geostationary orbit, which was far too little for a communication
satellite with the technology of the time, but it could loft 1,600 kilograms
into a high-inclination Molniya orbit. The only alternative would have
been for Korolev to have approached
to launch a geostationary
satellite on his
booster, which was unthinkable because at the time the two were bitter
rivals. So much for the frictionless efficiency of central planning!
In engineering, one learns that every corner cut will eventually
come back to cut you. Korolev died at just the time he was most
needed by the Soviet space program due to a botched operation for
a routine condition performed by a surgeon who had spent most of
his time as a Minister of the Soviet Union and not in the operating
room. Gagarin died in a jet fighter training accident which has
been the subject of such an extensive and multi-layered cover-up
and spin that the author simply cites various accounts and leaves it
to the reader to judge. Komarov died in
due to a parachute problem which would have been discovered
had an unmanned flight preceded his. He was a victim of
There is so much insight and wisdom here I cannot possibly summarise it
all; you'll have to read this book to fully appreciate it, ideally
after having first read
Volume 1 (May 2012)
Volume 2 (August 2012).
Apart from the unique insider's perspective on the Soviet missile and
space program, as a person elected a corresponding member of the
Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1968 and a full member (academician)
of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2000, he provides a candid
view of the politics of selection of members of the Academy and
how they influence policy and projects at the national level.
Chertok believes that, even as one who survived Stalin's purges,
there were merits to the Soviet system which have been lost in the
“new Russia”. His observations are worth pondering by
those who instinctively believe the market will always converge upon
the optimal solution.
As with all NASA
publications, the work is in the public domain, and an
edition in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats is available.
A commercial Kindle edition is available which
is perfectly readable but rather cheaply produced. Footnotes simply
appear in the text in-line somewhere after the reference, set in small
red type. The index references page numbers from the print edition
which are not included in the Kindle version, and hence are completely
useless. If you have a suitable application on your reading device
for one of the electronic book formats provided by NASA, I'd opt for
it. They are not only better formatted but free.
Russian edition is available online.