« January 2015 |
| March 2015 »
Friday, February 20, 2015
Reading List: A Force of Nature
- Reeves, Richard.
A Force of Nature.
New York: W. W. Norton, 2008.
In 1851, the
Crystal Palace Exhibition
opened in London. It was a showcase of the wonders of industry and culture of
the greatest empire the world had ever seen and attracted a multitude of
visitors. Unlike present-day “World's Fair” boondoggles, it
made money, and the profits were used to fund good works, including
endowing scholarships for talented students from the far reaches of the
Empire to study in Britain. In 1895, Ernest Rutherford, hailing from
a remote area in New Zealand and recent graduate of Canterbury College in
Christchurch, won a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Upon learning of
the award in a field of his family's farm, he threw his shovel in the
air and exclaimed, “That's the last potato I'll ever dig.” It was.
When he arrived at Cambridge, he could hardly have been more out of place.
He and another scholarship winner were the first and only graduate students
admitted who were not Cambridge graduates. Cambridge, at the end of the
Victorian era, was a clubby, upper-class place, where even those pursuing
mathematics were steeped in the classics, hailed from tony public schools,
and spoke with refined accents. Rutherford, by contrast, was a rough-edged
colonial, bursting with energy and ambition. He spoke with a bizarre
accent (which he retained all his life) which blended the Scottish brogue
of his ancestors with the curious intonations of the antipodes. He
was anything but the ascetic intellectual so common at
Cambridge—he had been a fierce competitor at rugby, spoke
about three times as loud as was necessary (many years later, when the
eminent Rutherford was tapped to make a radio broadcast from
Cambridge, England to Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of his associates
asked, “Why use radio?”), and spoke vehemently on any and
all topics (again, long afterward, when a ceremonial portrait was
unveiled, his wife said she was surprised the artist had caught him with
his mouth shut).
But it quickly became apparent that this burly, loud, New Zealander was
extraordinarily talented, and under the leadership of
he began original research in radio, but soon abandoned the field to
pursue atomic research, which Thomson had pioneered with his
discovery of the electron. In 1898, with Thomson's recommendation,
Rutherford accepted a professorship at McGill University in
Montreal. While North America was considered a scientific backwater in
the era, the generous salary would allow him to marry his fiancée,
who he had left behind in New Zealand until he could find a position which
would support them.
At McGill, he and his collaborator
radioactive decay of thorium, discovered that radioactive decay was
characterised by a unique
was composed of two distinct components which he named
radiation. He later named the most penetrating product of
Rutherford was the first to suggest, in 1902, that radioactivity resulted from
the transformation of one chemical element into another—something
previously thought impossible.
In 1907, Rutherford was offered, and accepted a chair of physics at
the University of Manchester, where, with greater laboratory resources
than he had had in Canada, pursued the nature of the products of
radioactive decay. By 1907, by a clever experiment, he had identified
alpha radiation (or particles, as we now call them) with the
nuclei of helium atoms—nuclear decay was heavy atoms being
spontaneously transformed into a lighter element and a helium nucleus.
Based upon this work, Rutherford won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
in 1908. As a person who considered himself first and foremost an
experimental physicist and who was famous for remarking, “All
science is either physics or stamp collecting”, winning the
Chemistry Nobel had to feel rather odd. He quipped that while he
had observed the transmutation of elements in his laboratory, no
transmutation was as startling as discovering he had become a
chemist. Still, physicist or chemist, his greatest work was yet to
In 1909, along with
(later to invent the Geiger counter)
he conducted an experiment where high-energy
alpha particles were directed against a very thin sheet of gold foil.
The expectation was that few would be deflected and those only slightly.
To the astonishment of the experimenters, some alpha particles were
found to be deflected through large angles, some bouncing directly back
toward the source. Geiger exclaimed, “It was almost as incredible
as if you fired a 15-inch [battleship] shell at a piece of tissue paper
and it came back and hit you.” It took two years before Rutherford
fully understood and published what was going on, and it forever changed
the concept of the atom. The only way to explain the scattering results
was to replace the early model of the atom with one in which a diffuse
cloud of negatively charged electrons surrounded a tiny, extraordinarily
dense, positively charged nucleus (that word was not used
until 1913). This experimental result fed directly into the development
of quantum theory and the elucidation of the force which bound the
particles in the nucleus together, which was not fully understood until
more than six decades later.
In 1919 Rutherford returned to Cambridge to become the head of the
the most prestigious position in experimental
physics in the world. Continuing his research with alpha emitters, he
discovered that bombarding nitrogen gas with alpha particles would
transmute nitrogen into oxygen, liberating a proton (the nucleus of
hydrogen). Rutherford simultaneously was the first to deliberately
transmute one element into another, and also to discover the proton.
In 1921, he predicted the existence of the neutron, completing the
composition of the nucleus. The neutron was eventually discovered by
Rutherford's discoveries, all made with benchtop apparatus and a
small group of researchers, were the foundation of nuclear physics.
He not only discovered the nucleus, he also found or predicted its
constituents. He was the first to identify natural nuclear transmutation
and the first to produce it on demand in the laboratory. As a teacher
and laboratory director his legacy was enormous: eleven of his students
and research associates went on to win Nobel prizes. His students
and Ernest Walton
first particle accelerator
and ushered in the era of “big science”. Rutherford not
only created the science of nuclear physics, he was the last person to
make major discoveries in the field by himself, alone or with a few
collaborators, and with simple apparatus made in his own laboratory.
In the heady years between the wars, there were, in the public mind,
two great men of physics: Einstein the theoretician and Rutherford
the experimenter. (This perception may have understated the contributions
of the creators of quantum mechanics, but they were many and less known.)
Today, we still revere Einstein, but Rutherford is less remembered (except
in New Zealand, where everybody knows his name and achievements). And
yet there are few experimentalists who have discovered so much in
their lifetimes, with so little funding and the simplest apparatus.
Rutherford, that boisterous, loud, and restless colonial, figured out
much of what we now know about the atom, largely by himself, through a
multitude of tedious experiments which often failed, and he should
rightly be regarded as a pillar of 20th century physics.
This is the thousandth book to appear since I began to keep the
in January 2001.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Reading List: Tools for Survival
- Rawles, James Wesley.
Tools for Survival.
New York: Plume, 2014.
Suppose one day the music stops. We all live, more or less, as
part of an intricately-connected web of human society. The water that
comes out of the faucet when we open the tap depends (for the vast majority
of people) on pumps powered by an electrical grid that spans a continent.
So does the removal of sewage when you flush the toilet. The typical
city in developed nations has only about three days' supply of food on hand
in stores and local warehouses and depends upon a transportation
infrastructure as well as computerised inventory and payment systems
to function. This system has been optimised over decades to be
extremely efficient, but at the same time it has become dangerously
fragile against any perturbation. A financial crisis which disrupts
just-in-time payments, a large-scale and protracted power outage due to
a solar flare or EMP attack, disruption of data networks by malicious
attacks, or social unrest can rapidly halt the flow of goods and services
upon which hundreds of millions of people depend and rely upon without
rarely giving a thought to what life might be like if one day they weren't
The author, founder of the essential
site, has addressed such scenarios
in his fiction,
which is highly recommended. Here the focus is less speculative,
and entirely factual and practical. What are the essential skills and
tools one needs to survive in what amounts to a 19th century
homestead? If the grid (in all senses) goes down, those who
wish to survive the massive disruptions and chaos which will result
may find themselves in the position of those on the American frontier
in the 1870s: forced into self-reliance for all of the necessities
of life, and compelled to use the simple, often manual, tools which
their ancestors used—tools which can in many cases be fabricated
and repaired on the homestead.
The author does not assume a total collapse to the nineteenth century.
He envisions that those who have prepared to ride out a discontinuity
in civilisation will have equipped themselves with rudimentary
solar electric power and electronic communication systems. But at
the same time, people will be largely on their own when it comes to
gardening, farming, food preservation, harvesting trees for firewood
and lumber, first aid and dental care, self-defence,
metalworking, and a multitude of other tasks. As always, the
author stresses, it isn't the tools you have but rather the skills
between your ears that determine whether you'll survive. You may
have the most comprehensive medical kit imaginable, but if nobody
knows how to stop the bleeding from a minor injury, disinfect the
wound, and suture it, what today is a short trip to the emergency
room might be life-threatening.
Here is what I took away from this book. Certainly, you want to have
on hand what you need to deal with immediate threats (for example,
firefighting when the fire department does not respond, self-defence
when there is no sheriff, a supply of water and food so you don't become
a refugee if supplies are interrupted, and a knowledge of sanitation
so you don't succumb to disease when the toilet doesn't flush). If you have
skills in a particular area, for example, if you're a doctor, nurse, or
emergency medical technician, by all means lay in a supply of what you
need not just to help yourself and your family, but your neighbours.
The same goes if you're a welder, carpenter, plumber, shoemaker, or smith.
It just isn't reasonable, however, to expect any given family to acquire
all the skills and tools (even if they could afford them, where would they
put them?) to survive on their own. Far more important is to make the
acquaintance of like-minded people in the vicinity who have the diverse
set of skills required to survive together. The ability to build and maintain such
a community may be the most important survival skill of all.
This book contains a wealth of resources available on the Web (most
presented as shortened URLs, not directly linked in the Kindle edition)
and a great deal of wisdom about which I find little or nothing to
disagree. For the most part the author uses quaint units like inches,
pounds, and gallons, but he is writing for a mostly American audience. Please
take to heart the safety warnings: it is very easy to kill or gravely
injure yourself when woodworking, metal fabricating, welding,
doing electrical work, or felling trees and processing lumber. If
your goal is to survive and prosper whatever the future may bring,
it can ruin your whole plan if you kill yourself acquiring the
skills you need to do so.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Reading List: The Testament of James
- Suprynowicz, Vin.
The Testament of James.
Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2014.
The author is a veteran newspaperman and was arguably the most libertarian
writer in the mainstream media during his long career with the
Las Vegas Review-Journal. He earlier turned his hand to
fiction in 2005's The Black Arrow (May 2005),
a delightful libertarian superhero fantasy. In the present volume he
tells an engaging tale which weaves together mystery, the origins of
Christianity, and the curious subculture of rare book collectors and dealers.
Matthew Hunter is the proprietor of a used book shop in Providence,
Rhode Island, dealing both in routine merchandise but also rare volumes
obtained from around the world and sold to a network of collectors who
trust Hunter's judgement and fair pricing. While Hunter is on a trip to Britain,
an employee of the store is found dead under suspicious circumstances,
while waiting after hours to receive a visitor from Egypt with a
manuscript to be evaluated and sold.
Before long, a series of curious, shady, and downright intimidating people
start arriving at the bookshop, all seeking to buy the manuscript which,
it appears, was never delivered. The person who was supposed to bring it
to the shop has vanished, and his brothers have come to try to find him.
Hunter and his friend Chantal Stevens, ex-military who has agreed to help
out in the shop, find themselves in the middle of the quest for one of
the most legendary, and considered mythical, rare books of all time, The
Testament of James, reputed to have been written by
James the Just,
the (half-)brother of Jesus Christ. (His precise relationship to Jesus is
a matter of dispute among Christian sects and scholars.) This Testament
(not to be confused with the
Epistle of James
in the New Testament, also sometimes attributed to James the Just), would
have been the most contemporary record of the life of Jesus, well predating the
Matthew and Chantal seek to find the book, rescue the seller, and get to the
bottom of a mystery dating from the origin of Christianity. Initially
dubious such a book might exist, Matthew concludes that so many people
would not be trying so hard to lay their hands on it if there weren't
A good part of the book is a charming and often humorous look inside the
world of rare books, one with which the author is clearly well-acquainted.
There is intrigue, a bit of mysticism, and the occasional libertarian
zinger aimed at a deserving target. As the story unfolds, an alternative
interpretation of the life and work of Jesus and the history of the early
Church emerges, which explains why so many players are so desperately
seeking the lost book.
As a mystery, this book works superbly. Its view of “bookmen”
(hunters, sellers, and collectors) is a delight. Orthodox Christians (by which I mean
those adhering to the main Christian denominations, not just those called
“Orthodox”) may find some of the content blasphemous, but before
they explode in red-faced sputtering, recall that one can never be sure about the
provenance and authenticity of any ancient manuscript. Some of the language
and situations are not suitable for young readers, but by the standards of
contemporary mass-market fiction, the book is pretty tame. There are essentially
no spelling or grammatical errors. To be clear, this is entirely a work of fiction:
there is no Testament of James apart from this book, in which
it's an invention of the author. A bibliography of works providing alternative
(which some will consider heretical) interpretations of the origins of
Christianity is provided. You can read an
excerpt from the novel
at the author's Web log; continue to follow the links in the excerpts to read
the first third—20,000 words—of the book for free.