The Swerve : How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
The dark ages took a pretty brutal toll on Europe and it is no surprise that scholars of that era looked back to the writings of the Roman Empire with a reverence that they probably didn’t deserve. But the rediscovery of one particular document, On The Nature of Things by the free thinking Lucretuis, inspired several generations of scholars and kickstarted the scientific revolution.
Or so Greenblatt’s impressively researched book argues. Actually, most of the page count is concerned with a monk named Poggio Bracciolini who led a fascinating life against a backdrop of distant monasteries and vicious vatican politics, before becoming something of a professional manuscript hunter with On The Nature of Things his greatest find.
On The Nature of Things certainly sounds like a wonderful piece of work. It asserts that the Gods (if they exist) take no interest in humanity and that natural laws (not to mention random chance) hold complete sway over events. It even claims that all matter is made of tiny particles, which is a remarkable guess. I imagine it was pretty heady stuff for stuffy 15th century society.
The Swerve is at its best when it is describing Bracciolini’s life and the state of 15th century Italy. But it makes an unconvincing argument that On The Nature of Things‘ rediscovery deflected caused the course of human thinking to swerve (to use the book’s tortured analogy) away from dogma towards science. There were lots of things going on, and the new found popularity of an ancient poem was only part of the story.
Despite that quibble, The Swerve is well written and informative if perhaps a little dense for summertime reading.
I recently saw an article about researchers looking for proof of time travel using the Internet to search out references to events that hadn’t happened yet. Apparently they drew a blank but they obviously weren’t looking very hard.
History records that this is Grand Cortège de Bacchus from the ballet Syliva by Léo Delibes, written in 1876. But it is quite clearly the theme to Knight Rider, circa 1981. I think it is clear that someone, possibly genius composer Stu Phillips himself, traveled back to 19th centry Paris to influence the past.
How much more proof do you need?
Project Orion : The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship by George Dyson
The year was 1957, the cold war was cold, the space race was hot, and atmospheric nuclear testing was just dandy. It was a time ripe for all sorts of crazy ideas and the perfect environment for Project Orion, a serious proposal to send an ocean liner sized space craft touring around the solar system propelled by nuclear bombs.
The idea is simple. The rear of the ship consists of a huge plate connected to the rest via a system of shock-absorbers. Every second or so you chuck a nuclear bomb surrounded by some mass out the back. It explodes on the other side of the plate (about 100 feet behind the back of the craft), the blast is carefully shaped to aim the resulting plasma back towards the ship. Large amounts of force are transferred to the plate this way, which pushes against the shock-absorbers and accelerates the craft at a huge but manageable rate. Monstrous craft could be conceivably lifted from the ground into orbit on a column of radioactive explosions.
What could possibly go wrong?
Project Orion is a distillation of what must have been an exhausting period of research. Dyson (son of Freeman Dyson) has talked to most of the original scientists and engineers who worked on the project, and organised so much declassified information that NASA eventually paid for him to ship a copies back to them. The book goes into fascinating detail on the (considerable) engineering problems the Orion idea, which lots of interesting diagrams with the word “Classified” crossed out. Much of the engineering is still classified since things like the size and make-up of the propellent bombs are still military secrets.
But what really killed the project was the political will that eventually put a man on the moon was never behind Orion. The (brand-new) NASA didn’t want nuclear bombs, and the Air Force didn’t really need a manned craft. There was never a real test of the basic concept (although small model flights with chemical explosives were tried) and everybody went on to other things. Probably for the best really, although the surviving staff members interviewed for this book seem divided as to whether it was feasible and worth doing, feasible but morally wrong, or just an unworkable idea.
As a book Project Orion is well written and certainly well researched, if a little dry for easy reading. I found the engineering aspects a lot more interesting than the political side, some of the ideas were sheer lunacy but I guess that when you accept the plan of exploding nuclear bombs just behind you further madness begins to sound plausible.
Recommended, but only if you like this sort of thing.
The Scale of the Universe 2
This is very cool – an interactive demonstration of the scale of the universe, from the smallest unit of quantum length to the total estimated size of the whole shebang.
I’ve just about got my head around how big the universe is, but at the other end I had no idea that the Planck Length was so small. Now my brain hurts.
The Wizard of Lies By Diana B. Henriques
A relatively recent book on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, including information straight from the man himself. I got this hoping for an exciting and twisty crime story about a master criminal, but it turns out the Madoff’s scheme was stupidly simple – he lied about some stuff and keep lying. He wasn’t even very clever about it, but somehow managed to keep the house of cards upright for decades.
Henriques’ book covers a huge amount of ground – going back to Madoff’s childhood upbringing to his peak as a pillar of the New York community. A huge amount of research has been distilled into a very readable story – just about everyone who ever met Madoff seems to have been interviewed, and enough time has passed that the full effects of the scam have been revealed. I just wish that the crime was more ingenious.
Recommended if you like this sort of thing
Death From the Skies! By Philip Plait
Plait runs the popular Bad Astronomy blog which is far more interesting than it has any right to be, this book is even better. There are many books that seek to explain the wonders of the universe in an entertaining way, but Death From the Skies! is the only one that takes the “How could this kill us all” approach. From supernovas to comets, Plait runs down the numbers and details exactly what would happen to the Earth should such misfortune strike (spoiler: it doesn’t look good).
Plait clearly explains the concepts behind familiar astronomical terms and breaks down the magnitude (usually way to large large) and probability (usually not small enough) of each occurrence. It’s all very entertaining, but not something you want to read straight before going to sleep.