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Friday, August 29, 2014
Reading List: The Man Who Changed Everything
- Mahon, Basil.
The Man Who Changed Everything.
Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
In the 19th century, science in general and physics in particular grew up,
assuming their modern form which is still recognisable today. At the start
of the century, the word “scientist” was not yet in use, and
the natural philosophers of the time were often amateurs. University
research in the sciences, particularly in Britain, was rare. Those
working in the sciences were often occupied by cataloguing natural
phenomena, and apart from Newton's monumental achievements, few people
focussed on discovering mathematical laws to explain the new physical
phenomena which were being discovered such as electricity and magnetism.
One person, James Clerk Maxwell, was largely responsible for creating the
way modern science is done and the way we think about theories of physics,
while simultaneously restoring Britain's standing in physics compared to
work on the Continent, and he created an institution which would continue
to do important work from the time of his early death until the present day.
While every physicist and electrical engineer knows of Maxwell and his
work, he is largely unknown to the general public, and even those who are
aware of his seminal work in electromagnetism may be unaware of the extent
his footprints are found all over the edifice of 19th century physics.
Maxwell was born in 1831 to a Scottish lawyer, John Clerk, and his wife Frances Cay.
Clerk subsequently inherited a country estate, and added “Maxwell”
to his name in honour of the noble relatives from whom he inherited it. His
son's first name, then was “James” and his surname “Clerk Maxwell”:
this is why his full name is always used instead of “James Maxwell”.
From childhood, James was curious about everything he encountered, and instead
of asking “Why?” over and over like many children, he drove his
parents to distraction with “What's the go o' that?”. His father
did not consider science a suitable occupation for his son and tried to direct
him toward the law, but James's curiosity did not extend to legal tomes and
he concentrated on topics that interested him. He published his first
scientific paper, on curves with more than two foci, at the age of 14.
He pursued his scientific education first at the University of Edinburgh
and later at Cambridge, where he graduated in 1854 with a degree in mathematics.
He came in second in the prestigious Tripos examination, earning the title of
Maxwell was now free to begin his independent research, and he turned
to the problem of human colour vision. It had been established that
colour vision worked by detecting the mixture of three primary colours,
but Maxwell was the first to discover that these primaries were red,
green, and blue, and that by mixing them in the correct proportion,
white would be produced. This was a matter to which Maxwell would
return repeatedly during his life.
In 1856 he accepted an appointment as a full professor and department head
at Marischal College, in Aberdeen Scotland. In 1857, the topic for the
prestigious Adams Prize was the nature of the rings of Saturn. Maxwell's
submission was a tour de force which
proved that the rings could not be either solid nor a liquid, and hence
had to be made of an enormous number of individually orbiting bodies.
Maxwell was awarded the prize, the significance of which was magnified
by the fact that his was the only submission: all of the others who
aspired to solve the problem had abandoned it as too difficult.
Maxwell's next post was at King's College London, where he investigated
the properties of gases and strengthened the evidence for the molecular
theory of gases. It was here that he first undertook to explain the
relationship between electricity and magnetism which had been discovered
by Michael Faraday. Working in the old style of physics, he constructed
an intricate mechanical thought experiment model which might explain the
lines of force that Faraday had introduced but which many scientists
thought were mystical mumbo-jumbo. Maxwell believed the alternative
of action at a distance without any intermediate mechanism was
wrong, and was able, with his model, to explain the phenomenon of
rotation of the plane of polarisation of light by a magnetic field,
which had been discovered by Faraday. While at King's College, to
demonstrate his theory of colour vision, he took and displayed the
first colour photograph.
Maxwell's greatest scientific achievement was done while living the life
of a country gentleman at his estate, Glenair. In his textbook,
A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, he presented
which showed that electricity and magnetism were
two aspects of the same phenomenon. This was the first of the great unifications
of physical laws which have continued to the present day. But that isn't
all they showed. The speed of light appeared as a conversion factor between
the units of electricity and magnetism, and the equations allowed solutions
of waves oscillating between an electric and magnetic field which could
propagate through empty space at the speed of light. It was compelling
to deduce that light was just such an electromagnetic wave, and that
waves of other frequencies outside the visual range must exist. Thus
was laid the foundation of wireless communication, X-rays, and gamma rays.
The speed of light is a constant in Maxwell's equations, not depending upon
the motion of the observer. This appears to conflict with Newton's laws
of mechanics, and it was not until Einstein's 1905 paper on
that the mystery would be resolved. In essence, faced with a dispute between
Newton and Maxwell, Einstein decided to bet on Maxwell, and he chose wisely.
Finally, when you look at Maxwell's equations (in their modern form, using
the notation of vector calculus), they appear lopsided. While they unify
electricity and magnetism, the symmetry is imperfect in that while a moving
electric charge generates a magnetic field, there is no magnetic charge which,
when moved, generates an electric field. Such a charge would be a
and despite extensive experimental searches, none has ever been found. The
existence of monopoles would make Maxwell's equations even more beautiful, but
sometimes nature doesn't care about that. By all evidence to date, Maxwell got it
In 1871 Maxwell came out of retirement to accept a professorship at Cambridge
and found the
which would focus on experimental science and elevate Cambridge to world-class
status in the field. To date, 29 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work done
at the Cavendish.
Maxwell's theoretical and experimental work on heat and gases revealed
discrepancies which were not explained until the development of quantum
theory in the 20th century. His suggestion of
posed a deep puzzle in the foundations of thermodynamics which eventually,
a century later, showed the deep connections between information theory
and statistical mechanics. His practical work on automatic governors for
steam engines foreshadowed what we now call control theory. He played a key
part in the development of the units we use for electrical quantities.
By all accounts Maxwell was a modest, generous, and well-mannered man. He
wrote whimsical poetry, discussed a multitude of topics (although he had little
interest in politics), was an enthusiastic horseman and athlete (he would swim
in the sea off Scotland in the winter), and was happily married, with his wife
Katherine an active participant in his experiments. All his life, he supported
general education in science, founding a working men's college in Cambridge and
lecturing at such colleges throughout his career.
Maxwell lived only 48 years—he died in 1879 of the same cancer which had
killed his mother when he was only eight years old. When he fell ill, he was
engaged in a variety of research while presiding at the Cavendish Laboratory.
We shall never know what he might have done had he been granted another two
Apart from the significant achievements Maxwell made in a wide variety of
fields, he changed the way physicists look at, describe, and think about
natural phenomena. After using a mental model to explore electromagnetism,
he discarded it in favour of a mathematical description of its behaviour.
There is no theory behind Maxwell's equations: the equations are
the theory. To the extent they produce the correct results when
experimental conditions are plugged in, and predict new phenomena which
are subsequently confirmed by experiment, they are valuable. If they
err, they should be supplanted by something more precise. But they say
nothing about what is really going on—they only seek to
model what happens when you do experiments. Today, we are so accustomed
to working with theories of this kind: quantum mechanics, special and general
relativity, and the standard model of particle physics, that we don't think
much about it, but it was revolutionary in Maxwell's time. His mathematical
approach, like Newton's, eschewed explanation in favour of prediction: “We
have no idea how it works, but here's what will happen if you do this experiment.”
This is perhaps Maxwell's greatest legacy.
This is an excellent scientific biography of Maxwell which also gives the reader
a sense of the man. He was such a quintessentially normal person there aren't
a lot of amusing anecdotes to relate. He loved life, loved his work, cherished his
friends, and discovered the scientific foundations of the technologies which
allow you to read this. In the
Kindle edition, at least as read on an iPad, the text
appears in a curious, spidery, almost vintage, font in which periods are difficult to
distinguish from commas. Numbers sometimes have spurious spaces embedded within them,
and the index cites pages in the print edition which are useless since the Kindle
edition does not include real page numbers.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Reading List: Savage Continent
- Lowe, Keith.
New York: Picador,  2013.
On May 8th, 1945, World War II in Europe formally ended when the Allies
accepted the unconditional surrender of Germany. In popular myth,
especially among those too young to have lived through the war and
its aftermath, the defeat of Italy and Germany ushered in, at least
in Western Europe not occupied by Soviet troops, a period of rebuilding
and rapid economic growth, spurred by the
Marshall Plan. The French
refer to the three decades from 1945 to 1975 as
Les Trente Glorieuses.
But that isn't what actually happened, as this book documents in detail.
Few books cover the immediate aftermath of the war, or concentrate
exclusively upon that chaotic period. The author has gone to great lengths
to explore little-known conflicts and sort out conflicting accounts of
what happened still disputed today by descendants of those involved.
The devastation wreaked upon cities where the conflict raged was extreme.
In Germany, Berlin, Hanover, Duisburg, Dortmund, and Cologne lost more
than half their habitable buildings, with the figure rising to 70% in
the latter city. From Stalingrad to Warsaw to Caen in France, destruction
was general with survivors living in the rubble. The transportation
infrastructure was almost completely obliterated, along with services
such as water, gas, electricity, and sanitation. The industrial plant
was wiped out, and along with it the hope of employment. This was the
state of affairs in May 1945, and the Marshall Plan did not begin to
deliver assistance to Western Europe until three years later,
in April 1948. Those three years were grim, and compounded by score-settling,
revenge, political instability, and multitudes of displaced people
returning to areas with no infrastructure to support them.
And this was in Western Europe. As is the case with just about everything
regarding World War II in Europe, the further east you go, the worse things
get. In the Soviet Union, 70,000 villages were destroyed, along with
32,000 factories. The redrawing of borders, particularly those of Poland
and Germany, set the stage for a paroxysm of ethnic cleansing and mass
migration as Poles were expelled from territory now incorporated into the
Soviet Union and Germans from the western part of Poland. Reprisals against
those accused of collaboration with the enemy were widespread, with
murder not uncommon. Thirst for revenge extended to the innocent, including
children fathered by soldiers of occupying armies.
The end of the War did not mean an end to the wars. As the author writes,
“The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional
conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war
of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for
purely local reasons.” Defeat of Germany did nothing to bring these
other conflicts to an end. Guerrilla wars continued in the Baltic states
annexed by the Soviet Union as partisans resisted the invader. An all-out
civil war between communists and anti-communists erupted in Greece and
was ended only through British and American aid to the anti-communists.
Communist agitation escalated to violence in Italy and France. And
country after country in Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination as
puppet regimes were installed through coups, subversion, or rigged
When reading a detailed history of a period most historians ignore, one
finds oneself exclaiming over and over, “I didn't know that!”,
and that is certainly the case here. This was a dark period, and no group
seemed immune from regrettable acts, including Jews liberated from Nazi
death camps and slave labourers freed as the Allies advanced: both sometimes
took their revenge upon German civilians. As the author demonstrates,
the aftermath of this period still simmers beneath the surface among the people
involved—it has become part of the identity of ethnic groups which will
outlive any person who actually remembers the events of the immediate
In addition to providing an enlightening look at this neglected period, the
events in the years following 1945 have much to teach us about those playing
out today around the globe. We are seeing long-simmering ethnic and religious
strife boil into open conflict as soon as the system is perturbed enough to
knock the lid off the kettle. Borders drawn by politicians mean little when
people's identity is defined by ancestry or faith, and memories are very long,
measured sometimes in centuries. Even after a cataclysmic conflict which levels
cities and reduces populations to near-medieval levels of subsistence, many
people do not long for peace but instead seek revenge. Economic growth
and prosperity can, indeed, change the attitude of societies and allow for
alliances among former enemies (imagine how odd the phrase
“Paris-Berlin axis”, heard today in discussions of the European
Union, would have sounded in 1946), but the results of a protracted
conflict can prevent the emergence of the very prosperity which might allow
consigning it to the past.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Reading List: Black List
- Thor, Brad.
New York: Pocket Books, 2012.
This is the twelfth in the author's
Harvath series, which began with
The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010).
Brad Thor has remarked in interviews that he strives to write thrillers
which anticipate headlines which will break after their publication,
and with this novel he hits a grand slam.
Scot Harvath is ambushed in Paris by professional killers who murder
a member of his team. After narrowly escaping, he goes to ground and
covertly travels to a remote region in Basque country where he has
trusted friends. He is then attacked there, again by
trained killers, and he has to conclude that the probability is high
that the internal security of his employer, the Carlton Group, has
been breached, perhaps from inside.
Meanwhile, his employer, Reed Carlton, is attacked at his secure compound
by an assault team and barely escapes with his life. When Carlton tries
to use his back channels to contact members of his organisation, they all
appear to have gone dark. To Carlton, a career spook with tradecraft flowing
in his veins, this indicates his entire organisation has been wiped out,
for no apparent motive and by perpetrators unknown.
Harvath, Carlton, and the infovore dwarf Nicholas, operating independently,
must begin to pick up the pieces to figure out what is going on, while
staying under the radar of a pervasive surveillance state which employs
every technological means to track them down and target them for
summary extra-judicial elimination.
If you pick up this book and read it today, you might think it's based
upon the revelations of
about the abuses of the NSA
conducting warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens. But it was published
in 2012, a full year before the first of Snowden's disclosures.
The picture of the total information awareness state here is,
if anything, more benign than what we now know to be the case in reality.
What is different is that when Harvath, Carlton, and Nicholas get to the
bottom of the mystery, the reaction in high places is what one would
hope for in a constitutional republic, as opposed to the
“USA! USA! USA!” cheerleading or silence which
has greeted the exposure of abuses by the NSA on the part of all too many
This is a prophetic thriller which demonstrates how the smallest compromises
of privacy: credit card transactions, telephone call metadata, license
plate readers, facial recognition, Web site accesses, search engine queries,
etc. can be woven into a dossier on any person of interest which makes going
dark to the snooper state equivalent to living technologically in 1950.
This not just a cautionary tale for individuals who wish to preserve a
wall of privacy around themselves from the state, but also a challenge for
writers of thrillers. Just as mobile telephones would have wrecked the
plots of innumerable mystery and suspense stories written before their
existence, the emergence of the
state will make it difficult for thriller writers to have both their
heroes and villains operating in the dark. I am sure the author will
rise to this challenge.