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Monday, October 31, 2016

Reading List: Speculator

Casey, Doug and John Hunt. Speculator. Charlottesville, VA: HighGround Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-047-5.
Doug Casey has been a leading voice for sound money, individual liberty, and rolling back coercive and intrusive government since the 1970s. Unlike some more utopian advocates of free markets and free people, Casey has always taken a thoroughly pragmatic approach in his recommendations. If governments are bent on debasing their paper money, how can individual investors protect themselves from erosion of their hard-earned assets and, ideally, profit from the situation? If governments are intent on reducing their citizens to serfdom, how can those who see what is coming not only avoid that fate by getting assets out of the grasp of those who would confiscate them, but also protect themselves by obtaining one or more additional nationalities and being ready to pull up stakes in favour of better alternatives around the world. His 1976 book, The International Man, is a classic (although now dated) about the practical steps people can take to escape before it's too late from countries in the fast lane on the road to serfdom. I credit this book, which I read around 1978, with much of the trajectory my life has followed since. (The forbidding prices quoted for used copies of The International Man are regrettable but an indication of the wisdom therein; it has become a collector's item.)

Over his entire career, Casey has always been provocative, seeing opportunities well before they come onto the radar of mainstream analysts and making recommendations that seem crazy until, several years later, they pay off. Recently, he has been advising young people seeking fortune and adventure to go to Africa instead of college. Now, in collaboration with medical doctor and novelist John Hunt, he has written a thriller about a young man, Charles Knight, who heeds that advice. Knight dropped out of high school and was never tempted by college once he discovered he could learn far more about what he wanted to know on his own in libraries than by spending endless tedious hours in boring classrooms listening to uninspiring and often ignorant teachers drone on endlessly in instruction aimed at the slowest students in the class, admixed with indoctrination in the repellent ideology of the collectivist slavers.

Charles has taken a flyer in a gold mining stock called B-F Explorations, traded on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the closest thing to the Wild West that exists in financial markets today. Many stocks listed in Vancouver are “exploration companies”, which means in practice they've secured mineral rights on some basis (often conditional upon meeting various milestones) to a piece of property, usually located in some remote, God-forsaken, and dangerous part of the world, which may or may not (the latter being the way to bet) contain gold and, if it does, might have sufficient concentration and ease of extraction that mining it will be profitable at the anticipated price of gold when it is eventually developed. Often, the assets of one of these companies will be nothing more than a limited-term lease on a piece of land which geologists believe may contain subterranean rock formations similar to those in which gold has been found elsewhere. These so-called “junior mining companies” are the longest of long shots, and their stocks often sell for pennies a share. Investors burned by these stocks warn, “A junior mining company takes your money and their dream, and turns it into your dream and their money.”

Why, then, do people buy these stocks? Every now and then one of these exploration companies happens upon a deposit of gold which is profitable to exploit, and when that occurs the return to investors can be enormous: a hundred to one or more. First, the exploration company will undertake drilling to establish whether gold is present and, if so, the size and grade of the ore body. As promising assay results are published, the stock may begin to move up in the market, attracting “momentum investors” who chase rising trends. The exit strategy for a junior gold stock is almost always to be acquired by one of the “majors”—the large gold mining companies with the financial, human, and infrastructure resources required to develop the find into a working mine. As large, easily-mined gold resources have largely already been exploited, the major miners must always be on the lookout for new properties to replace their existing mines as they are depleted. A major, after evaluating results from preliminary drilling by the exploration company, will often negotiate a contract which allows it to perform its own evaluation of the find which, if it confirms the early results, will be the basis for the acquisition of the junior company, whose shareholders will receive stock in the major worth many times their original investment.

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at its entrance.” Everybody in the gold business—explorers, major miners, and wise investors—knows that the only results which can be relied upon are those which are independently verified by reputable observers who follow the entire chain from drilling to laboratory analysis, with evaluation by trusted resource geologists of inferences made from the drilling results.

Charles Knight had bought 15,000 shares of B-F stock on a tip from a broker in Vancouver for pennies per share, and seen it climb to more than $150 per share. His modest investment had grown to a paper profit of more than two million dollars which, if rumours about the extent of the discovery proved to be true, might increase to far more than that. Having taken a flyer, he decided to catch a flight to Africa and see the site with his own eyes. The B-F exploration concession is located in the fictional West African country of Gondwana (where Liberia appears on the map in the real world; author John Hunt has done charitable medical work in that country). Gondwana has experienced the violence so common in sub-Saharan Africa, but, largely due to exhaustion, is relatively stable and safe (by African standards) at present. Charles and other investors are regaled by company personnel with descriptions of the potential of the find, a new kind of gold deposit where nanoparticles of gold are deposited in a limestone matrix. The gold, while invisible to the human eye and even through a light microscope, can be detected chemically and should be easy to separate when mining begins. Estimates of the size of the deposit range from huge to stupendous: perhaps as large as three times the world's annual production of gold. If this proves to be the case, B-F stock is cheap even at its current elevated price.

Charles is neither a geologist nor a chemist, but something seems “off” to him—maybe it was the “nano”—like “cyber”, it's like a sticker on the prospectus warning investors “bullshit inside”. He makes the acquaintance of Xander Winn, a Dutch resource investor, true international man, and permanent tourist, who has seen it all before and shares, based upon his experience, the disquiet that Charles perceived by instinct. Together, they decide to investigate further and quickly find themselves engaged in a dangerous endeavour where not only are the financial stakes high but their very lives may be at risk. But with risk comes opportunity.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Charles has come into the sights of an IRS agent named Sabina Heidel, whose raw ambition is tempered by neither morality nor the law. As she begins to dig into his activities and plans for his B-F investment, she comes to see him as a trophy which will launch her career in government. Sabina is the mirror image of Charles: as he is learning how to become productive, she is mastering the art of extracting the fruits of the labour of others and gain power over their lives by deception, manipulation, and intimidation.

Along with the adventure and high-stakes financial operations, Charles learns a great deal about how the world really works, and how in a time when coercive governments and their funny money and confiscatory taxation have made most traditional investments a sucker's game, it is the speculator with an anarcho-capitalist outlook on the world who is best equipped to win. Charles also discovers that when governments and corporations employ coercion, violence, and fraud, what constitutes ethical behaviour on the part of an individual confronted with them is not necessarily easy to ascertain. While history demonstrates how easy it can be to start a war in Africa, Charles and Xander find themselves, almost alone, faced with the task of preventing one.

For those contemplating a life of adventure in Africa, the authors provide an unvarnished look at what one is getting into. There is opportunity there, but also rain, mud, bugs, endemic corruption, heat, tropical diseases, roads which can demolish all but the most robust vehicles, poverty, the occasional charismatic murderous warlord, mercenaries, but also many good and honest people, wealth just waiting to be created, and freedom from the soul-crushing welfare/warfare/nanny state which “developed” countries have allowed to metastasise within their borders. But it's never been easy for those seeking opportunity, adventure, riches, and even love; the rewards await the ambitious and intrepid.

I found this book not only a page-turning thriller, but also one of the most inspiring books I've read in some time. In many ways it reminds me of The Fountainhead, but is more satisfying because unlike Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's novel, whose principles were already in place from the first page, Charles Knight grows into his as the story unfolds, both from his own experiences and wisdom imparted by those he encounters. The description of the junior gold mining sector and the financial operations associated with speculation is absolutely accurate, informed by Doug Casey's lifetime of experience in the industry, and the education in free market principles and the virtues of entrepreneurship and speculation is an excellent starting point for those indoctrinated in collectivism who've never before encountered this viewpoint.

This is the first in what is planned to be a six volume series featuring Charles Knight, who, as he progresses through life, applies what he has learned to new situations, and continues to grow from his adventures. I eagerly anticipate the next episode.

Here is a Lew Rockwell interview with Doug Casey about the novel and the opportunities in Africa for the young and ambitious. The interview contains minor spoilers for this novel and forthcoming books in the series.

Posted at 16:11 Permalink

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Reading List: Zero Phase

Brennan, Gerald. Zero Phase. Chicago: Tortoise Books, [2013, 2015]. ISBN 978-0-9860922-2-0.
On April 14, 1970, while Apollo 13 was en route to the Moon, around 56 hours after launch and at a distance of 321,860 km from Earth, a liquid oxygen tank in the service module exploded during a routine stir of its cryogenic contents. The explosion did severe damage to the service module bay in which the tank was installed, most critically to the other oxygen tank, which quickly vented its contents into space. Deprived of oxygen reactant, all three fuel cells, which provided electrical power and water to the spacecraft, shut down. The command module had only its batteries and limited on-board oxygen and water supplies, which were reserved for re-entry and landing.

Fortunately, the lunar module was still docked to the command module and not damaged by the explosion. While mission planners had envisioned scenarios in which the lunar module might serve as a lifeboat for the crew, none of these had imagined the complete loss of the service module, nor had detailed procedures been worked out for how to control, navigate, maneuver, and provide life support for the crew using only the resources of the lunar module. In one of its finest moments, NASA rose to the challenge, and through improvisation and against the inexorable deadlines set by orbital mechanics, brought the crew home.

It may seem odd to consider a crew who barely escaped from an ordeal like Apollo 13 with their lives, losing the opportunity to complete a mission for which they'd trained for years, lucky, but as many observed at the time, it was indeed a stroke of luck that the explosion occurred on the way to the Moon, not while two of the astronauts were on the surface or on the way home. In the latter cases, with an explosion like that in Apollo 13, there would be no lunar module with the resources to sustain them on the return journey; they would have died in lunar orbit or before reaching the Earth. The post-flight investigation of the accident concluded that the oxygen tank explosion was due to errors in processing the tank on the ground. It could have exploded at any time during the flight. Suppose it didn't explode until after Apollo 13's lunar module Aquarius had landed on the Moon?

That is the premise for this novella (68 pages, around 20,000 words), first in the author's “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Now the astronauts and Mission Control are presented with an entirely different set of circumstances and options. Will it be possible to bring the crew home?

The story is told in first person by mission commander James Lovell, interleaving personal reminiscences with mission events. The description of spacecraft operations reads very much like a post-mission debriefing, with NASA jargon and acronyms present in abundance. It all seemed authentic to me, but I didn't bother fact checking it in detail because the actual James Lovell read the manuscript and gave it his endorsement and recommendation. This is a short but engaging look at an episode in space history which never happened, but very well might have.

The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 22:51 Permalink

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reading List: The 900 Days

Salisbury, Harrison E. The 900 Days. New York: Da Capo Press, [1969, 1985] 2003. ISBN 978-0-306-81298-9.
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany, without provocation or warning, violated its non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and invaded from the west. The German invasion force was divided into three army groups. Army Group North, commanded by Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, was charged with advancing through and securing the Baltic states, then proceeding to take or destroy the city of Leningrad. Army Group Centre was to invade Byelorussia and take Smolensk, then advance to Moscow. After Army Group North had reduced Leningrad, it was to detach much of its force for the battle for Moscow. Army Group South's objective was to conquer the Ukraine, capture Kiev, and then seize the oil fields of the Caucasus.

The invasion took the Soviet government and military completely by surprise, despite abundant warnings from foreign governments of German troops massing along its western border and reports from Soviet spies indicating an invasion was imminent. A German invasion did not figure in Stalin's world view and, in the age of the Great Terror, nobody had the standing or courage to challenge Stalin. Indeed, Stalin rejected proposals to strengthen defenses on the western frontiers for fear of provoking the Germans. The Soviet military was in near-complete disarray. The purges which began in the 1930s had wiped out not only most of the senior commanders, but the officer corps as a whole. By 1941, only 7 percent of Red Army officers had any higher military education and just 37% had any military instruction at all, even at a high school level.

Thus, it wasn't a surprise that the initial German offensive was even more successful than optimistic German estimates. Many Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and German air strikes deep into Soviet territory disrupted communications in the battle area and with senior commanders in Moscow. Stalin appeared to be paralysed by the shock; he did not address the Soviet people until the 3rd of July, a week and a half after the invasion, by which time large areas of Soviet territory had already been lost.

Army Group North's advance toward Leningrad was so rapid that the Soviets could hardly set up new defensive lines before they were overrun by German forces. The administration in Leningrad mobilised a million civilians (out of an initial population of around three million) to build fortifications around the city and on the approaches to it. By August, German forces were within artillery range of the city and shells began to fall throughout Leningrad. On August 21st, Hitler issued a directive giving priority to the encirclement of Leningrad and linking up with the advancing Finnish army over the capture of Moscow, so Army Group North would receive what it needed for the task. When the Germans captured the town of Mga on August 30, the last rail link between Leningrad and the rest of Russia was severed. Henceforth, the only way in or out of Leningrad was across Lake Lagoda, running the gauntlet of German ships and mines, or by air. The siege of Leningrad had begun. The battle for the city was now in the hands of the Germans' most potent allies: Generals Hunger, Cold, and Terror.

The civil authorities were as ill-prepared for what was to come as the military commanders had been to halt the German advance before it invested the city. The dire situation was compounded when, on September 8th, a German air raid burned to the ground the city's principal food warehouses, built of wood and packed next to one another, destroying all the reserves stored there. An inventory taken after the raid revealed that, at normal rates of consumption, only between two and three weeks' supply of food remained for the population. Rationing had already been imposed, and rations were immediately cut to 500 grams of bread per day for workers and 300 grams for office employees and children. This was to be just the start. The total population of encircled Leningrad, civilian and military, totalled around 3.4 million.

While military events and the actions of the city government are described, most of the book recounts the stories of people who lived through the siege. The accounts are horrific, with the previous unimaginable becoming the quotidian experience of residents of the city. The frozen bodies of victims of starvation were often stacked like cordwood outside apartment buildings or hauled on children's sleds to common graves. Very quickly, Leningrad became exclusively a city of humans: dogs, cats, and pigeons quickly disappeared, eaten as food supplies dwindled. Even rats vanished. While some were doubtless eaten, most seemed to have deserted the starving metropolis for the front, where food was more abundant. Cannibalism was not just rumoured, but documented, and parents were careful not to let children out of their sight.

Even as privation reached extreme levels (at one point, the daily bread ration for workers fell to 300 grams and for children and dependents 125 grams—and that is when bread was available at all), Stalin's secret police remained up and running, and people were arrested in the middle of the night for suspicion of espionage, contacts with foreigners, shirking work, or for no reason at all. The citizenry observed that the NKVD seemed suspiciously well-fed throughout the famine, and they wielded the power of life and death when denial of a ration card was a sentence of death as certain as a bullet in the back of the head.

In the brutal first winter of 1941–1942, Leningrad was sustained largely by truck traffic over the “Road of Life”, constructed over the ice of frozen Lake Lagoda. Operating from November through April, and subject to attack by German artillery and aircraft, thousands of tons of supplies, civilian and military, were brought into the city and the wounded and noncombatants evacuated over the road. The road was rebuilt during the following winter and continued to be the city's lifeline.

The siege of Leningrad was unparalleled in the history of urban sieges. Counting from the fall of Mga on September 8, 1941 until the lifting of the siege on January 27, 1944, the siege had lasted 872 days. By comparison, the siege of Paris in 1870–1871 lasted just 121 days. The siege of Vicksburg in the American war of secession lasted 47 days and involved only 4000 civilians. Total civilian casualties during the siege of Paris were less than those in Leningrad every two or three winter days. Estimates of total deaths in Leningrad due to starvation, disease, and enemy action vary widely. Official Soviet sources tried to minimise the toll to avoid recriminations among Leningraders who felt they had been abandoned to their fate. The author concludes that starvation deaths in Leningrad and the surrounding areas were on the order of one million, with a total of all deaths, civilian and military, between 1.3 and 1.5 million.

The author, then a foreign correspondent for United Press, was one of the first reporters to visit Leningrad after the lifting of the siege. The people he met then and their accounts of life during the siege were unfiltered by the edifice of Soviet propaganda later erected over life in besieged Leningrad. On this and subsequent visits, he was able to reconstruct the narrative, both at the level of policy and strategy and of individual human stories, which makes up this book. After its initial publication in 1969, the book was fiercely attacked in the Soviet press, with Pravda publishing a full page denunciation. Salisbury's meticulously documented account of the lack of preparedness, military blunders largely due to Stalin's destruction of the officer corps in his purges, and bungling by the Communist Party administration of the city did not fit with the story of heroic Leningrad standing against the Nazi onslaught in the official Soviet narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and copies brought by tourists seized by customs. The author, who had been Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1949 through 1954, was for years denied a visa to visit the Soviet Union. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the work became generally available in Russia.

I read the Kindle edition, which is a shameful and dismaying travesty of this classic and important work. It's not a cheap knock-off: the electronic edition is issued by the publisher at a price (at this writing) of US$ 13, only a few dollars less than the paperback edition. It appears to have been created by optical character recognition of a print edition without the most rudimentary copy editing of the result of the scan. Hundreds of words which were hyphenated at the ends of lines in the print edition occur here with embedded hyphens. The numbers ‘0’ and ‘1’ are confused with the letters ‘o’ and ‘i’ in numerous places. Somebody appears to have accidentally done a global replace of the letters “charge” with “chargé”, both in stand-alone words and within longer words. Embarrassingly, for a book with “900” in its title, the number often appears in the text as “poo”. Poetry is typeset with one character per line. I found more than four hundred mark-ups in the text, which even a cursory examination by a copy editor would have revealed. The index is just a list of searchable items, not linked to their references in the text. I have compiled a list of my mark-ups to this text, which I make available to readers and the publisher, should the latter wish to redeem this electronic edition by correcting them. I applaud publishers who make valuable books from their back-lists available in electronic form. But respect your customers! When you charge us almost as much as the paperback and deliver a slapdash product which clearly hasn't been read by anybody on your staff before it reached my eyes, I'm going to savage it. Consider it savaged. Should the publisher supplant this regrettable edition with one worthy of its content, I will remove this notice.

Posted at 15:35 Permalink

Friday, October 21, 2016

Reading List: Come and Take It

Wilson, Cody. Come and Take It. New York: Gallery Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-7826-6.
Cody Wilson is the founder of Defense Distributed, best known for producing the Liberator single-shot pistol, which can be produced largely by additive manufacturing (“3D printing”) from polymer material. The culmination of the Wiki Weapon project, the Liberator, whose plans were freely released on the Internet, demonstrated that antiquated organs of the state who thought they could control the dissemination of simple objects and abridge the inborn right of human beings to defend themselves has been, like so many other institutions dating from the era of railroad-era continental-scale empires, transcended by the free flow of information and the spontaneous collaboration among like-minded individuals made possible by the Internet. The Liberator is a highly visible milestone in the fusion of the world of bits (information) with the world of atoms: things. Earlier computer technologies put the tools to produce books, artwork, photography, music, and motion pictures into the hands of creative individuals around the world, completely bypassing the sclerotic gatekeepers in those media whose offerings had become all too safe and predictable, and who never dared to challenge the economic and political structures in which they were embedded.

Now this is beginning to happen with physical artifacts. Additive manufacturing—building up a structure by adding material based upon a digital model of the desired object—is still in its infancy. The materials which can be used by readily-affordable 3D printers are mostly various kinds of plastics, which are limited in structural strength and thermal and electrical properties, and resolution has not yet reached that achievable by other means of precision manufacturing. Advanced additive manufacturing technologies, such as various forms of metal sintering, allow use of a wider variety of materials including high-performance metal alloys, but while finding applications in the aerospace industry, are currently priced out of the reach of individuals.

But if there's one thing we've learned from the microelectronics and personal computer revolutions since the 1970s, it's that what's scoffed at as a toy today is often at the centre of tomorrow's industrial revolution and devolution of the means of production (as somebody said, once upon a time) into the hands of individuals who will use it in ways incumbent industries never imagined. The first laser printer I used in 1973 was about the size of a sport-utility vehicle and cost more than a million dollars. Within ten years, a laser printer was something I could lift and carry up a flight of stairs, and buy for less than two thousand dollars. A few years later, laser and advanced inkjet printers were so good and so inexpensive people complained more about the cost of toner and ink than the printers themselves.

I believe this is where we are today with mass-market additive manufacturing. We're still in an era comparable to the personal computer world prior to the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981: early adopters tend to be dedicated hobbyists such as members of the “maker subculture”, the available hardware is expensive and limited in its capabilities, and evolution is so fast that it's hard to keep up with everything that's happening. But just as with personal computers, it is in this formative stage that the foundations are being laid for the mass adoption of the technology in the future.

This era of what I've come to call “personal manufacturing” will do to artifacts what digital technology and the Internet did to books, music, and motion pictures. What will be of value is not the artifact (book, CD, or DVD), but rather the information it embodies. So it will be with personal manufacturing. Anybody with the design file for an object and access to a printer that works with material suitable for its fabrication will be able to make as many of that object as they wish, whenever they want, for nothing more than the cost of the raw material and the energy consumed by the printer. Before this century is out, I believe these personal manufacturing appliances will be able to make anything, ushering in the age of atomically precise manufacturing and the era of Radical Abundance (August 2013), the most fundamental change in the economic organisation of society since the industrial revolution.

But that is then, and this book is about now, or the recent past. The author, who describes himself as an anarchist (although I find his views rather more heterodox than other anarchists of my acquaintance), sees technologies such as additive manufacturing and Bitcoin as ways not so much to defeat the means of control of the state and the industries who do its bidding, but to render them irrelevant and obsolete. Let them continue to legislate in their fancy marble buildings, draw their plans for passive consumers in their boardrooms, and manufacture funny money they don't even bother to print any more in their temples of finance. Lovers of liberty and those who cherish the creativity that makes us human will be elsewhere, making our own future with tools we personally understand and control.

Including guns—if you believe the most fundamental human right is the right to one's own life, then any infringement upon one's ability to defend that life and the liberty that makes it worth living is an attempt by the state to reduce the citizen to the station of a serf: dependent upon the state for his or her very life. The Liberator is hardly a practical weapon: it is a single-shot pistol firing the .380 ACP round and, because of the fragile polymer material from which it is manufactured, often literally a single-shot weapon: failing after one or at most a few shots. Manufacturing it requires an additive manufacturing machine substantially more capable and expensive than those generally used by hobbyists, and post-printing steps described in Part XIV which are rarely mentioned in media coverage. Not all components are 3D printed: part of the receiver is made of steel which is manufactured with a laser cutter (the steel block is not functional; it is only there to comply with the legal requirement that the weapon set off a metal detector). But it is as a proof of concept that the Liberator has fulfilled its mission. It has demonstrated that even with today's primitive technology, access to firearms can no longer be restricted by the state, and that crude attempts to control access to design and manufacturing information, as documented in the book, will be no more effective than any other attempt to block the flow of information across the Internet.

This book is the author's personal story of the creation of the first 3D printed pistol, and of his journey from law student to pioneer in using this new technology in the interest of individual liberty and, along the way, becoming somewhat of a celebrity, dubbed by Wired magazine “one of the most dangerous men in the world”. But the book is much more than that. Wilson thinks like a philosopher and writes like a poet. He describes a new material for 3D printing:

In this new material I saw another confirmation. Its advent was like the signature of some elemental arcanum, complicit with forces not at all interested in human affairs. Carbomorph. Born from incomplete reactions and destructive distillation. From tar and pitch and heavy oils, the black ichor that pulsed thermonous through the arteries of the very earth.

On the “Makers”:

This insistence on the lightness and whimsy of farce. The romantic fetish and nostalgia, to see your work as instantly lived memorabilia. The event was modeled on Renaissance performance. This was a crowd of actors playing historical figures. A living charade meant to dislocate and obscure their moment with adolescent novelty. The neckbeard demiurge sees himself keeling in the throes of assembly. In walks the problem of the political and he hisses like the mathematician at Syracuse: “Just don't molest my baubles!”

But nobody here truly meant to give you a revolution. “Making” was just another way of selling you your own socialization. Yes, the props were period and we had kept the whole discourse of traditional production, but this was parody to better hide the mechanism.

We were “making together,” and “making for good” according to a ritual under the signs of labor. And now I knew this was all apolitical on purpose. The only goal was that you become normalized. The Makers had on their hands a Last Man's revolution whose effeminate mascots could lead only state-sanctioned pep rallies for feel-good disruption.

The old factory was still there, just elevated to the image of society itself. You could buy Production's acrylic coffins, but in these new machines was the germ of the old productivism. Dead labor, that vampire, would still glamour the living.

This book recounts the history of the 3D printed pistol, the people who made it happen, and why they did what they did. It recounts recent history during the deployment of a potentially revolutionary technology, as seen from the inside, and the way things actually happen: where nobody really completely understands what is going on and everybody is making things up as they go along. But if the promise of this technology allows the forces of liberty and creativity to prevail over the grey homogenisation of the state and the powers that serve it, this is a book which will be read many years from now by those who wish to understand how, where, and when it all began.

Posted at 00:57 Permalink

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reading List: Time in Powers of Ten

't Hooft, Gerard and Stefan Vandoren. Time in Powers of Ten. Singapore: World Scientific, 2014. ISBN 978-981-4489-81-2.

Phenomena in the universe take place over scales ranging from the unimaginably small to the breathtakingly large. The classic film, Powers of Ten, produced by Charles and Ray Eames, and the companion book explore the universe at length scales in powers of ten: from subatomic particles to the most distant visible galaxies. If we take the smallest meaningful distance to be the Planck length, around 10−35 metres, and the diameter of the observable universe as around 1027 metres, then the ratio of the largest to smallest distances which make sense to speak of is around 1062. Another way to express this is to answer the question, “How big is the universe in Planck lengths?” as “Mega, mega, yotta, yotta big!”

But length isn't the only way to express the scale of the universe. In the present book, the authors examine the time intervals at which phenomena occur or recur. Starting with one second, they take steps of powers of ten (10, 100, 1000, 10000, etc.), arriving eventually at the distant future of the universe, after all the stars have burned out and even black holes begin to disappear. Then, in the second part of the volume, they begin at the Planck time, 5×10−44 seconds, the shortest unit of time about which we can speak with our present understanding of physics, and again progress by powers of ten until arriving back at an interval of one second.

Intervals of time can denote a variety of different phenomena, which are colour coded in the text. A period of time can mean an epoch in the history of the universe, measured from an event such as the Big Bang or the present; a distance defined by how far light travels in that interval; a recurring event, such as the orbital period of a planet or the frequency of light or sound; or the half-life of a randomly occurring event such as the decay of a subatomic particle or atomic nucleus.

Because the universe is still in its youth, the range of time intervals discussed here is much larger than those when considering length scales. From the Planck time of 5×10−44 seconds to the lifetime of the kind of black hole produced by a supernova explosion, 1074 seconds, the range of intervals discussed spans 118 orders of magnitude. If we include the evaporation through Hawking radiation of the massive black holes at the centres of galaxies, the range is expanded to 143 orders of magnitude. Obviously, discussions of the distant future of the universe are highly speculative, since in those vast depths of time physical processes which we have never observed due to their extreme rarity may dominate the evolution of the universe.

Among the fascinating facts you'll discover is that many straightforward physical processes take place over an enormous range of time intervals. Consider radioactive decay. It is possible, using a particle accelerator, to assemble a nucleus of hydrogen-7, an isotope of hydrogen with a single proton and six neutrons. But if you make one, don't grow too fond of it, because it will decay into tritium and four neutrons with a half-life of 23×10−24 seconds, an interval usually associated with events involving unstable subatomic particles. At the other extreme, a nucleus of tellurium-128 decays into xenon with a half-life of 7×1031 seconds (2.2×1024 years), more than 160 trillion times the present age of the universe.

While the very short and very long are the domain of physics, intermediate time scales are rich with events in geology, biology, and human history. These are explored, along with how we have come to know their chronology. You can open the book to almost any page and come across a fascinating story. Have you ever heard of the ocean quahog (Arctica islandica)? They're clams, and the oldest known has been determined to be 507 years old, born around 1499 and dredged up off the coast of Iceland in 2006. People eat them.

Or did you know that if you perform carbon-14 dating on grass growing next to a highway, the lab will report that it's tens of thousands of years old? Why? Because the grass has incorporated carbon from the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels which are millions of years old and contain little or no carbon-14.

This is a fascinating read, and one which uses the framework of time intervals to acquaint you with a wide variety of sciences, each inviting further exploration. The writing is accessible to the general reader, young adult and older. The individual entries are short and stand alone—if you don't understand something or aren't interested in a topic, just skip to the next. There are abundant colour illustrations and diagrams.

Author Gerard 't Hooft won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the quantum mechanics of the electroweak interaction. The book was originally published in Dutch in the Netherlands in 2011. The English translation was done by 't Hooft's daughter, Saskia Eisberg-'t Hooft. The translation is fine, but there are a few turns of phrase which will seem odd to an English mother tongue reader. For example, matter in the early universe is said to “clot” under the influence of gravity; the common English term for this is “clump”. This is a translation, not a re-write: there are a number of references to people, places, and historical events which will be familiar to Dutch readers but less so to those in the Anglosphere. In the Kindle edition notes, cross-references, the table of contents, and the index are all properly linked, and the illustrations are reproduced well.

Posted at 13:08 Permalink

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Reading List: The Perfect Machine

Florence, Ronald. The Perfect Machine. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. ISBN 978-0-06-092670-0.
George Ellery Hale was the son of a wealthy architect and engineer who made his fortune installing passenger elevators in the skyscrapers which began to define the skyline of Chicago as it rebuilt from the great fire of 1871. From early in his life, the young Hale was fascinated by astronomy, building his own telescope at age 14. Later he would study astronomy at MIT, the Harvard College Observatory, and in Berlin. Solar astronomy was his first interest, and he invented new instruments for observing the Sun and discovered the magnetic fields associated with sunspots.

His work led him into an academic career, culminating in his appointment as a full professor at the University of Chicago in 1897. He was co-founder and first editor of the Astrophysical Journal, published continuously since 1895. Hale's greatest goal was to move astronomy from its largely dry concentration on cataloguing stars and measuring planetary positions into the new science of astrophysics: using observational techniques such as spectroscopy to study the composition of stars and nebulæ and, by comparing them, begin to deduce their origin, evolution, and the mechanisms that made them shine. His own work on solar astronomy pointed the way to this, but the Sun was just one star. Imagine how much more could be learned when the Sun was compared in detail to the myriad stars visible through a telescope.

But observing the spectra of stars was a light-hungry process, especially with the insensitive photographic material available around the turn of the 20th century. Obtaining the spectrum of all but a few of the brightest stars would require exposure times so long they would exceed the endurance of observers to operate the small telescopes which then predominated, over multiple nights. Thus, Hale became interested in larger telescopes, and the quest for ever more light from the distant universe would occupy him for the rest of his life.

First, he promoted the construction of a 40 inch (102 cm) refractor telescope, accessible from Chicago at a dark sky site in Wisconsin. At the epoch, universities, government, and private foundations did not fund such instruments. Hale persuaded Chicago streetcar baron Charles T. Yerkes to pick up the tab, and Yerkes Observatory was born. Its 40 inch refractor remains the largest telescope of that kind used for astronomy to this day.

There are two principal types of astronomical telescopes. A refracting telescope has a convex lens at one end of a tube, which focuses incoming light to an eyepiece or photographic plate at the other end. A reflecting telescope has a concave mirror at the bottom of the tube, the top end of which is open. Light enters the tube and falls upon the mirror, which reflects and focuses it upward, where it can be picked off by another mirror, directly focused on a sensor, or bounced back down through a hole in the main mirror. There are a multitude of variations in the design of both types of telescopes, but the fundamental principles of refraction and reflection remain the same.

Refractors have the advantages of simplicity, a sealed tube assembly which keeps out dust and moisture and excludes air currents which might distort the image but, because light passes through the lens, must use clear glass free of bubbles, strain lines, or other irregularities that might interfere with forming a perfect focus. Further, refractors tend to focus different colours of light at different distances. This makes them less suitable for use in spectroscopy. Colour performance can be improved by making lenses of two or more different kinds of glass (an achromatic or apochromatic design), but this further increases the complexity, difficulty, and cost of manufacturing the lens. At the time of the construction of the Yerkes refractor, it was believed the limit had been reached for the refractor design and, indeed, no larger astronomical refractor has been built since.

In a reflector, the mirror (usually made of glass or some glass-like substance) serves only to support an extremely thin (on the order of a thousand atoms) layer of reflective material (originally silver, but now usually aluminium). The light never passes through the glass at all, so as long as it is sufficiently uniform to take on and hold the desired shape, and free of imperfections (such as cracks or bubbles) that would make the reflecting surface rough, the optical qualities of the glass don't matter at all. Best of all, a mirror reflects all colours of light in precisely the same way, so it is ideal for spectrometry (and, later, colour photography).

With the Yerkes refractor in operation, it was natural that Hale would turn to a reflector in his quest for ever more light. He persuaded his father to put up the money to order a 60 inch (1.5 metre) glass disc from France, and, when it arrived months later, set one of his co-workers at Yerkes, George W. Ritchey, to begin grinding the disc into a mirror. All of this was on speculation: there were no funds to build a telescope, an observatory to house it, nor to acquire a site for the observatory. The persistent and persuasive Hale approached the recently-founded Carnegie Institution, and eventually secured grants to build the telescope and observatory on Mount Wilson in California, along with an optical laboratory in nearby Pasadena. Components for the telescope had to be carried up the crude trail to the top of the mountain on the backs of mules, donkeys, or men until a new road allowing the use of tractors was built. In 1908 the sixty inch telescope began operation, and its optics and mechanics performed superbly. Astronomers could see much deeper into the heavens. But still, Hale was not satisfied.

Even before the sixty inch entered service, he approached John D. Hooker, a Los Angeles hardware merchant, for seed money to fund the casting of a mirror blank for an 84 inch telescope, requesting US$ 25,000 (around US$ 600,000 today). Discussing the project, Hooker and Hale agreed not to settle for 84, but rather to go for 100 inches (2.5 metres). Hooker pledged US$ 45,000 to the project, with Hale promising the telescope would be the largest in the world and bear Hooker's name. Once again, an order for the disc was placed with the Saint-Gobain glassworks in France, the only one with experience in such large glass castings. Problems began almost immediately. Saint-Gobain did not have the capacity to melt the quantity of glass required (four and a half tons) all at once: they would have to fill the mould in three successive pours. A massive piece of cast glass (101 inches in diameter and 13 inches thick) cannot simply be allowed to cool naturally after being poured. If that were to occur, shrinkage of the outer parts of the disc as it cooled while the inside still remained hot would almost certainly cause the disc to fracture and, even if it didn't, would create strains within the disc that would render it incapable of holding the precise figure (curvature) required by the mirror. Instead, the disc must be placed in an annealing oven, where the temperature is reduced slowly over a period of time, allowing the internal stresses to be released. So massive was the 100 inch disc that it took a full year to anneal.

When the disc finally arrived in Pasadena, Hale and Ritchey were dismayed by what they saw, There were sheets of bubbles between the three layers of poured glass, indicating they had not fused. There was evidence the process of annealing had caused the internal structure of the glass to begin to break down. It seemed unlikely a suitable mirror could be made from the disc. After extended negotiations, Saint-Gobain decided to try again, casting a replacement disc at no additional cost. Months later, they reported the second disc had broken during annealing, and it was likely no better disc could be produced. Hale decided to proceed with the original disc. Patiently, he made the case to the Carnegie Institution to fund the telescope and observatory on Mount Wilson. It would not be until November 1917, eleven years after the order was placed for the first disc, that the mirror was completed, installed in the massive new telescope, and ready for astronomers to gaze through the eyepiece for the first time. The telescope was aimed at brilliant Jupiter.

Observers were horrified. Rather than a sharp image, Jupiter was smeared out over multiple overlapping images, as if multiple mirrors had been poorly aimed into the eyepiece. Although the mirror had tested to specification in the optical shop, when placed in the telescope and aimed at the sky, it appeared to be useless for astronomical work. Recalling that the temperature had fallen rapidly from day to night, the observers adjourned until three in the morning in the hope that as the mirror continued to cool down to the nighttime temperature, it would perform better. Indeed, in the early morning hours, the images were superb. The mirror, made of ordinary plate glass, was subject to thermal expansion as its temperature changed. It was later determined that the massive disc took twenty-four hours to cool ten degrees Celsius. Rapid changes in temperature on the mountain could cause the mirror to misbehave until its temperature stabilised. Observers would have to cope with its temperamental nature throughout the decades it served astronomical research.

As the 1920s progressed, driven in large part by work done on the 100 inch Hooker telescope on Mount Wilson, astronomical research became increasingly focused on the “nebulæ”, many of which the great telescope had revealed were “island universes”, equal in size to our own Milky Way and immensely distant. Many were so far away and faint that they appeared as only the barest smudges of light even in long exposures through the 100 inch. Clearly, a larger telescope was in order. As always, Hale was interested in the challenge. As early as 1921, he had requested a preliminary design for a three hundred inch (7.6 metre) instrument. Even based on early sketches, it was clear the magnitude of the project would surpass any scientific instrument previously contemplated: estimates came to around US$ 12 million (US$ 165 million today). This was before the era of “big science”. In the mid 1920s, when Hale produced this estimate, one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, had an annual research budget of less than £ 1000 (around US$ 66,500 today). Sums in the millions and academic science simply didn't fit into the same mind, unless it happened to be that of George Ellery Hale. Using his connections, he approached people involved with foundations endowed by the Rockefeller fortune. Rockefeller and Carnegie were competitors in philanthropy: perhaps a Rockefeller institution might be interested in outdoing the renown Carnegie had obtained by funding the largest telescope in the world. Slowly, and with an informality which seems unimaginable today, Hale negotiated with the Rockefeller foundation, with the brash new university in Pasadena which now called itself Caltech, and with a prickly Carnegie foundation who saw the new telescope as trying to poach its painfully-assembled technical and scientific staff on Mount Wilson. By mid-1928 a deal was in hand: a Rockefeller grant for US$ 6 million (US$ 85 million today) to design and build a 200 inch (5 metre) telescope. Caltech was to raise the funds for an endowment to maintain and operate the instrument once it was completed. Big science had arrived.

In discussions with the Rockefeller foundation, Hale had agreed on a 200 inch aperture, deciding the leap to an instrument three times the size of the largest existing telescope and the budget that would require was too great. Even so, there were tremendous technical challenges to be overcome. The 100 inch demonstrated that plate glass had reached or exceeded its limits. The problems of distortion due to temperature changes only increase with the size of a mirror, and while the 100 inch was difficult to cope with, a 200 inch would be unusable, even if it could be somehow cast and annealed (with the latter process probably taking several years). Two promising alternatives were fused quartz and Pyrex borosilicate glass. Fused quartz has hardly any thermal expansion at all. Pyrex has about three times greater expansion than quartz, but still far less than plate glass.

Hale contracted with General Electric Company to produce a series of mirror blanks from fused quartz. GE's legendary inventor Elihu Thomson, second only in reputation to Thomas Edison, agreed to undertake the project. Troubles began almost immediately. Every attempt to get rid of bubbles in quartz, which was still very viscous even at extreme temperatures, failed. A new process, which involved spraying the surface of cast discs with silica passed through an oxy-hydrogen torch was developed. It required machinery which, in operation, seemed to surpass visions of hellfire. To build up the coating on a 200 inch disc would require enough hydrogen to fill two Graf Zeppelins. And still, not a single suitable smaller disc had been produced from fused quartz.

In October 1929, just a year after the public announcement of the 200 inch telescope project, the U.S. stock market crashed and the economy began to slow into the great depression. Fortunately, the Rockefeller foundation invested very conservatively, and lost little in the market chaos, so the grant for the telescope project remained secure. The deepening depression and the accompanying deflation was a benefit to the effort because raw material and manufactured goods prices fell in terms of the grant's dollars, and industrial companies which might not have been interested in a one-off job like the telescope were hungry for any work that would help them meet their payroll and keep their workforce employed.

In 1931, after three years of failures, expenditures billed at manufacturing cost by GE which had consumed more than one tenth the entire budget of the project, and estimates far beyond that for the final mirror, Hale and the project directors decided to pull the plug on GE and fused quartz. Turning to the alternative of Pyrex, Corning glassworks bid between US$ 150,000 and 300,000 for the main disc and five smaller auxiliary discs. Pyrex was already in production at industrial scale and used to make household goods and laboratory glassware in the millions, so Corning foresaw few problems casting the telescope discs. Scaling things up is never a simple process, however, and Corning encountered problems with failures in the moulds, glass contamination, and even a flood during the annealing process before the big disc was ready for delivery.

Getting it from the factory in New York to the optical shop in California was an epic event and media circus. Schools let out so students could go down to the railroad tracks and watch the “giant eye” on its special train make its way across the country. On April 10, 1936, the disc arrived at the optical shop and work began to turn it into a mirror.

With the disc in hand, work on the telescope structure and observatory could begin in earnest. After an extended period of investigation, Palomar Mountain had been selected as the site for the great telescope. A rustic construction camp was built to begin preliminary work. Meanwhile, Westinghouse began to fabricate components of the telescope mounting, which would include the largest bearing ever manufactured.

But everything depended on the mirror. Without it, there would be no telescope, and things were not going well in the optical shop. As the disc was ground flat preliminary to being shaped into the mirror profile, flaws continued to appear on its surface. None of the earlier smaller discs had contained such defects. Could it be possible that, eight years into the project, the disc would be found defective and everything would have to start over? The analysis concluded that the glass had become contaminated as it was poured, and that the deeper the mirror was ground down the fewer flaws would be discovered. There was nothing to do but hope for the best and begin.

Few jobs demand the patience of the optical craftsman. The great disc was not ready for its first optical test until September 1938. Then began a process of polishing and figuring, with weekly tests of the mirror. In August 1941, the mirror was judged to have the proper focal length and spherical profile. But the mirror needed to be a parabola, not a sphere, so this was just the start of an even more exacting process of deepening the curve. In January 1942, the mirror reached the desired parabola to within one wavelength of light. But it needed to be much better than that. The U.S. was now at war. The uncompleted mirror was packed away “for the duration”. The optical shop turned to war work.

In December 1945, work resumed on the mirror. In October 1947, it was pronounced finished and ready to install in the telescope. Eleven and a half years had elapsed since the grinding machine started to work on the disc. Shipping the mirror from Pasadena to the mountain was another epic journey, this time by highway. Finally, all the pieces were in place. Now the hard part began.

The glass disc was the correct shape, but it wouldn't be a mirror until coated with a thin layer of aluminium. This was a process which had been done many times before with smaller mirrors, but as always size matters, and a host of problems had to be solved before a suitable coating was obtained. Now the mirror could be installed in the telescope and tested further. Problem after problem with the mounting system, suspension, and telescope drive had to be found and fixed. Testing a mirror in its telescope against a star is much more demanding than any optical shop test, and from the start of 1949, an iterative process of testing, tweaking, and re-testing began. A problem with astigmatism in the mirror was fixed by attaching four fisherman's scales from a hardware store to its back (they are still there). In October 1949, the telescope was declared finished and ready for use by astronomers. Twenty-one years had elapsed since the project began. George Ellery Hale died in 1938, less than ten years into the great work. But it was recognised as his monument, and at its dedication was named the “Hale Telescope.”

The inauguration of the Hale Telescope marked the end of the rapid increase in the aperture of observatory telescopes which had characterised the first half of the twentieth century, largely through the efforts of Hale. It would remain the largest telescope in operation until 1975, when the Soviet six metre BTA-6 went into operation. That instrument, however, was essentially an exercise in Cold War one-upmanship, and never achieved its scientific objectives. The Hale would not truly be surpassed before the ten metre Keck I telescope began observations in 1993, 44 years after the Hale. The Hale Telescope remains in active use today, performing observations impossible when it was inaugurated thanks to electronics undreamt of in 1949.

This is an epic recounting of a grand project, the dawn of “big science”, and the construction of instruments which revolutionised how we see our place in the cosmos. There is far more detail than I have recounted even in this long essay, and much insight into how a large, complicated project, undertaken with little grasp of the technical challenges to be overcome, can be achieved through patient toil sustained by belief in the objective.

A PBS documentary, The Journey to Palomar, is based upon this book. It is available on DVD or a variety of streaming services.

In the Kindle edition, footnotes which appear in the text are just asterisks, which are almost impossible to select on touch screen devices without missing and accidentally turning the page. In addition, the index is just a useless list of terms and page numbers which have nothing to do with the Kindle document, which lacks real page numbers. Disastrously, the illustrations which appear in the print edition are omitted: for a project which was extensively documented in photographs, drawings, and motion pictures, this is inexcusable.

Posted at 00:30 Permalink

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Reading List: Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy

Penrose, Roger. Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-691-11979-3.
Sir Roger Penrose is one of the most distinguished theoretical physicists and mathematicians working today. He is known for his work on general relativity, including the Penrose-Hawking Singularity Theorems, which were a central part of the renaissance of general relativity and the acceptance of the physical reality of black holes in the 1960s and 1970s. Penrose has contributed to cosmology, argued that consciousness is not a computational process, speculated that quantum mechanical processes are involved in consciousness, proposed experimental tests to determine whether gravitation is involved in the apparent mysteries of quantum mechanics, explored the extraordinarily special conditions which appear to have obtained at the time of the Big Bang and suggested a model which might explain them, and, in mathematics, discovered Penrose tiling, a non-periodic tessellation of the plane which exhibits five-fold symmetry, which was used (without his permission) in the design of toilet paper.

“Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy” seems an odd title for a book about the fundamental physics of the universe by one of the most eminent researchers in the field. But, as the author describes in mathematical detail (which some readers may find forbidding), these all-too-human characteristics play a part in what researchers may present to the public as a dispassionate, entirely rational, search for truth, unsullied by such enthusiasms. While researchers in fundamental physics are rarely blinded to experimental evidence by fashion, faith, and fantasy, their choice of areas to explore, willingness to pursue intellectual topics far from any mooring in experiment, tendency to indulge in flights of theoretical fancy (for which there is no direct evidence whatsoever and which may not be possible to test, even in principle) do, the author contends, affect the direction of research, to its detriment.

To illustrate the power of fashion, Penrose discusses string theory, which has occupied the attentions of theorists for four decades and been described by some of its practitioners as “the only game in town”. (This is a piñata which has been whacked by others, including Peter Woit in Not Even Wrong [June 2006] and Lee Smolin in The Trouble with Physics [September 2006].) Unlike other critiques, which concentrate mostly on the failure of string theory to produce a single testable prediction, and the failure of experimentalists to find any evidence supporting its claims (for example, the existence of supersymmetric particles), Penrose concentrates on what he argues is a mathematical flaw in the foundations of string theory, which those pursuing it sweep under the rug, assuming that when a final theory is formulated (when?), its solution will be evident. Central to Penrose's argument is that string theories are formulated in a space with more dimensions than the three we perceive ourselves to inhabit. Depending upon the version of string theory, it may invoke 10, 11, or 26 dimensions. Why don't we observe these extra dimensions? Well, the string theorists argue that they're all rolled up into a size so tiny that none of our experiments can detect any of their effects. To which Penrose responds, “not so fast”: these extra dimensions, however many, will vastly increase the functional freedom of the theory and lead to a mathematical instability which will cause the theory to blow up much like the ultraviolet catastrophe which was a key motivation for the creation of the original version of quantum theory. String theorists put forward arguments why quantum effects may similarly avoid the catastrophe Penrose describes, but he dismisses them as no more than arm waving. If you want to understand the functional freedom argument in detail, you're just going to have to read the book. Explaining it here would require a ten kiloword review, so I shall not attempt it.

As an example of faith, Penrose cites quantum mechanics (and its extension, compatible with special relativity, quantum field theory), and in particular the notion that the theory applies to all interactions in the universe (excepting gravitation), regardless of scale. Quantum mechanics is a towering achievement of twentieth century physics, and no theory has been tested in so many ways over so many years, without the discovery of the slightest discrepancy between its predictions and experimental results. But all of these tests have been in the world of the very small: from subatomic particles to molecules of modest size. Quantum theory, however, prescribes no limit on the scale of systems to which it is applicable. Taking it to its logical limit, we arrive at apparent absurdities such as Schrödinger's cat, which is both alive and dead until somebody opens the box and looks inside. This then leads to further speculations such as the many-worlds interpretation, where the universe splits every time a quantum event happens, with every possible outcome occurring in a multitude of parallel universes.

Penrose suggests we take a deep breath, step back, and look at what's going on in quantum mechanics at the mathematical level. We have two very different processes: one, which he calls U, is the linear evolution of the wave function “when nobody's looking”. The other is R, the reduction of the wave function into one of a number of discrete states when a measurement is made. What's a measurement? Well, there's another ten thousand papers to read. The author suggests that extrapolating a theory of the very small (only tested on tiny objects under very special conditions) to cats, human observers, planets, and the universe, is an unwarranted leap of faith. Sure, quantum mechanics makes exquisitely precise predictions confirmed by experiment, but why should we assume it is correct when applied to domains which are dozens of orders of magnitude larger and more complicated? It's not physics, but faith.

Finally we come to cosmology: the origin of the universe we inhabit, and in particular the theory of the big bang and cosmic inflation, which Penrose considers an example of fantasy. Again, he turns to the mathematical underpinnings of the theory. Why is there an arrow of time? Why, if all of the laws of microscopic physics are reversible in time, can we so easily detect when a film of some real-world process (for example, scrambling an egg) is run backward? He argues (with mathematical rigour I shall gloss over here) that this is due to the extraordinarily improbable state in which our universe began at the time of the big bang. While the cosmic background radiation appears to be thermalised and thus in a state of very high entropy, the smoothness of the radiation (uniformity of temperature, which corresponds to a uniform distribution of mass-energy) is, when gravity is taken into account, a state of very low entropy which is the starting point that explains the arrow of time we observe.

When the first precision measurements of the background radiation were made, several deep mysteries became immediately apparent. How could regions which, given their observed separation on the sky and the finite speed of light, have arrived at such a uniform temperature? Why was the global curvature of the universe so close to flat? (If you run time backward, this appeared to require a fine-tuning of mind-boggling precision in the early universe.) And finally, why weren't there primordial magnetic monopoles everywhere? The most commonly accepted view is that these problems are resolved by cosmic inflation: a process which occurred just after the moment of creation and before what we usually call the big bang, which expanded the universe by a breathtaking factor and, by that expansion, smoothed out any irregularities in the initial state of the universe and yielded the uniformity we observe wherever we look. Again: “not so fast.”

As Penrose describes, inflation (which he finds dubious due to the lack of a plausible theory of what caused it and resulted in the state we observe today) explains what we observe in the cosmic background radiation, but it does nothing to solve the mystery of why the distribution of mass-energy in the universe was so uniform or, in other words, why the gravitational degrees of freedom in the universe were not excited. He then goes on to examine what he argues are even more fantastic theories including an infinite number of parallel universes, forever beyond our ability to observe.

In a final chapter, Penrose presents his own speculations on how fashion, faith, and fantasy might be replaced by physics: theories which, although they may be completely wrong, can at least be tested in the foreseeable future and discarded if they disagree with experiment or investigated further if not excluded by the results. He suggests that a small effort investigating twistor theory might be a prudent hedge against the fashionable pursuit of string theory, that experimental tests of objective reduction of the wave function due to gravitational effects be investigated as an alternative to the faith that quantum mechanics applies at all scales, and that his conformal cyclic cosmology might provide clues to the special conditions at the big bang which the fantasy of inflation theory cannot. (Penrose's cosmological theory is discussed in detail in Cycles of Time [October 2011]). Eleven mathematical appendices provide an introduction to concepts used in the main text which may be unfamiliar to some readers.

A special treat is the author's hand-drawn illustrations. In addition to being a mathematician, physicist, and master of scientific explanation and the English language, he is an inspired artist.

The Kindle edition is excellent, with the table of contents, notes, cross-references, and index linked just as they should be.

Posted at 23:15 Permalink