« January 2015 | Main | March 2015 »

Friday, February 20, 2015

Reading List: A Force of Nature

Reeves, Richard. A Force of Nature. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. ISBN 978-0-393-33369-5.
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 J.J. Thomson, 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 Frederick Soddy, studying the radioactive decay of thorium, discovered that radioactive decay was characterised by a unique half-life, and was composed of two distinct components which he named alpha and beta radiation. He later named the most penetrating product of nuclear reactions gamma rays. 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 come.

In 1909, along with Hans Geiger (later to invent the Geiger counter) and Ernest Marsden, 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 Cavendish Laboratory, 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 his associate, James Chadwick, in 1932.

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 John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton built the 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 reading list in January 2001.

Posted at 21:01 Permalink

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading List: Tools for Survival

Rawles, James Wesley. Tools for Survival. New York: Plume, 2014. ISBN 978-0-452-29812-5.
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 there.

The author, founder of the essential SurvivalBlog 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.

Posted at 22:14 Permalink

Monday, February 9, 2015

Reading List: The Testament of James

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Testament of James. Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2014. ISBN 978-0-9670259-4-0.
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 Gospels.

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 something there.

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.

Posted at 23:45 Permalink