« November 2012 | Main | January 2013 »

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.


Winner: Runners up:


Winner: Runners up:

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.

Posted at 22:23 Permalink

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reading List: Time Machines

Greenberg, Stanley. Time Machines. Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2011. ISBN 978-3-7774-4041-5.
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 Howard Carter did when asked by Lord Carnarvon, “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 in Argentina.

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 grey.

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.

Posted at 23:24 Permalink

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. Tom McCahill was the most prominent automotive journalist of this epoch. His monthly column and reviews of cars in Mechanix Illustrated 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 review imports.

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 time.

This “Fawcett How-To Book” is basically an issue of Mechanix Illustrated 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 on eBay 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.

Posted at 17:13 Permalink

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Reading List: Titan

Baxter, Stephen. Titan. New York: Harper Voyager, 1997. ISBN 978-0-06-105713-7.
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 Huygens 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 hunter-gatherer lifestyle (p. 450).

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 any sense: Titan. 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 scale height 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 Ernest Shackleton 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 happens next.

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.

Posted at 22:00 Permalink

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, [1999] 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. Boris Chertok 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 program.

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 R-7 ICBM, 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 Vostok 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 Russian roulette. 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, Molniya, and provides extensive insights into its design, testing, and early operations. It is often said that the Molniya orbit was chosen because it made the satellite visible from the Soviet far North 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 in Kazakhstan, Korolev's 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 Chelomey to launch a geostationary satellite on his UR-500 (Proton) 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 Soyuz 1 due to a parachute problem which would have been discovered had an unmanned flight preceded his. He was a victim of “go fever”.

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) and 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 online 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.

The original Russian edition is available online.

Posted at 00:16 Permalink