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A Dreadful Deceit

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment

dreadfuldeceit

In early December, I learned about Jacqueline Jones’ new book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America from Robert Paul Wolff, who made brief but excited mention of it in a blog post.

I have this moment finished reading the Introduction. It is stunningly brilliant, managing to say with power and precision in nine pages what I tried in my feeble way to suggest in my one book-length effort to address the subject. I look forward with great excitement to reading the book, and I strongly recommend it to all of you.

On finishing two days ago, Wolff added that it’s “a brilliant book that anyone interested in questions of race and class in capitalist America should read.”

Jones is a professor at UT Austin and former recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bancroft Prize for American History. The publisher’s webpage for the book has this description.

From a preeminent social historian, the stories of six African-Americans whose struggles reveal the strange evolution of the concept of race in America from the seventeenth century to the twentieth.

In 1656, a Maryland planter tortured and killed an enslaved man named Antonio, an Angolan who refused to work in the fields. Three hundred years later, Simon P. Owens battled soul-deadening technologies as well as the fiction of “race” that divided him from his co-workers in a Detroit auto-assembly plant. Separated by time and space, Antonio and Owens nevertheless shared a distinct kind of political vulnerability; they lacked rights and opportunities in societies that accorded marked privileges to people labeled “white.”

An American creation myth posits that these two black men were the victims of “racial” discrimination, a primal prejudice that the United States has haltingly but gradually repudiated over the course of many generations. In A Dreadful Deceit, award-winning historian Jacqueline Jones traces the lives of Antonio, Owens, and four other African Americans to illustrate the strange history of “race” in America. In truth, Jones shows, race does not exist, and the very factors that we think of as determining it— a person’s heritage or skin color—are mere pretexts for the brutalization of powerless people by the powerful. Jones shows that for decades, southern planters did not even bother to justify slavery by invoking the concept of race; only in the late eighteenth century did whites begin to rationalize the exploitation and marginalization of blacks through notions of “racial” difference. Indeed, race amounted to a political strategy calculated to defend overt forms of discrimination, as revealed in the stories of Boston King, a fugitive in Revolutionary South Carolina; Elleanor Eldridge, a savvy but ill-starred businesswoman in antebellum Providence, Rhode Island; Richard W. White, a Union veteran and Republican politician in post-Civil War Savannah; and William Holtzclaw, founder of an industrial school for blacks in Mississippi, where many whites opposed black schooling of any kind. These stories expose the fluid, contingent, and contradictory idea of race, and the disastrous effects it has had, both in the past and in our own supposedly post-racial society.

Expansive, visionary, and provocative, A Dreadful Deceit explodes the pernicious fiction that has shaped four centuries of American history.

Just a week ago, the WSJ made A Dreadful Deceit the subject of its daily book review. Thomas Chatterton Williams called the book

a moving and painstakingly researched, at times almost novelistic, group portrait of five black men and one woman from different eras that, taken together, lays bare the ideology buttressing the notion of race and the “peculiar institution” it justified.

I’m adding it to my list.

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Categories: Books, History

Wild and Crazy WSJ

January 26, 2014 Leave a comment
A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

A Jewish shop, the morning after Kristallnacht

[From Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority]

When I first saw Tom Perkins’ letter to the WSJ yesterday, I was sufficiently stunned that I intended to write a post about it immediately. But I didn’t get to it, and now, 36 hours later, Perkins’ letter is an internet sensation. If you haven’t read it yet, follow the link above and do so. In it, famed Silicon Valley investor Perkins calls

attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its “one percent,” namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the “rich.”

I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent. There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel*, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.

This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking. Kristallnacht** was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendent “progressive” radicalism unthinkable now?

Wow! Absolute madness. The wonder isn’t that he wrote it, but that the WSJ published it. Perhaps his connection with Rupert Murdoch is relevant, as a long-time News Corp board member (until 2011). Perkins has had a storied career, going back to his role in the early days of Hewlett-Packard half a century ago. But he would seem to be losing it.

Along these lines, Atrios captured the essence of Perkins’ argument in the following tweet:

Those Google buses? It might be worth re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s piece in the London Review of Books a year ago. Her ending:

Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.

See also the discussion of the buses in a New Yorker blog post a few days ago by Lauren Smiley, recounting a possible resolution of the buses’ illegal use of public bus stops.

After years of complaints of the lumbering shuttles hogging San Francisco’s cramped streets—occasionally blocking public buses from making stops, double parking, or encroaching on bike lanes—the board of directors of the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency voted unanimously on Tuesday to begin regulating them. The eighteen-month-long pilot program, slated to begin in July, will require that the shuttle buses be registered and that they make stops only at two hundred designated public bus stops. Companies will pay a dollar each time one of their buses uses a stop, which would add up to a hundred thousand dollars a year for each of the big companies, the agency estimates.

City leaders say that state law requires them to charge only enough to recover the fees required to administer the program. Yet the amount wasn’t enough for the dozens of detractors who lined up to speak at the agency’s meeting on Tuesday, at City Hall. Speakers called the buses “conquistador transportation,” and derided the transit agency for allowing “tech barons” to get away with paying such a low fee to use the city infrastructure—a dollar less than the current commuter fare on public buses—when their shuttles had been idling at the bus stops illegally for years.

[snip]

Then, there’s the issue of fairness. “If you and I park in front of a bus stop, and you’re there long enough, you’re going to get a ticket that’s more than a dollar,” David Campos, a city supervisor, told a group of merchants in his district last week.

Having tech companies pay a modest fee for the use of public bus stops to which they have no right is not the second coming of Kristallnacht.

*Perkins’ ex-wife.

**The 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht was this past November. On November 9, 1938, dozens of Jews were killed, thousands arrested, synagogues and businesses were destroyed. It was a major shift in the Holocaust gears.

Categories: History, Journalism, Politics

My Promised Land

December 8, 2013 1 comment

mypromisedland

When I finished John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid on Thursday morning two and a half weeks ago, I thought the timing perfect because Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, was due to arrive in the post later that day from the UK. (I had pre-ordered it from the UK Amazon, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January.) But when I got home that evening, it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel had appeared in the NYT the day before, reawakening the interest I had in it after reading Oren Kessler’s WSJ review two weeks before.

Kessler:

In the spring of 1897 a steamer carrying a delegation of 21 British Jews left Port Said, Egypt, for Jaffa—the last leg of its journey to the Holy Land. Leading the pack was Herbert Bentwich, an affluent London lawyer and Zionist leader and the great-grandfather of Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators.

In “My Promised Land,” his first book in English, Mr. Shavit charts Israel’s history partly through the lives of his pioneering forebears: His grandfather, Herbert’s son, was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system, while his father was a chemist at the eye of Israel’s nuclear program. The result is roughly equal parts personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and prophecies for the land’s future. It is one of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.

And Garner:

“My Promised Land” shifts into higher gear in its middle sections, with the claiming of the Masada fortress in the 1940s as a symbol for Zionism, and with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This book’s middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.

It’s not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel’s founding with clarity and precision. This is a story we’ve read before, in a stack of books that, laid end to end, would wrap 88 times around the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It’s that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.

This book’s central chapter is probably the one about how the Palestinian citizenry was driven from the Arab city of Lydda in 1948. Many were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. There was looting. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, long columns, were driven from their homes into the desert. In expulsions like this one lie his country’s original sin, the author argues, beyond the settlements of its later expansion.

“Lydda is our black box,” he declares. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.” Mr. Shavit is a powerful writer about denial. The miracle that is Israel, he says, is “based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”

It’s among Mr. Shavit’s gifts as a writer and thinker that he can see this fact plainly yet condemn “the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what” was done in Lydda “but enjoy the fruits of their deed.”

Garner’s claim that the “book’s middle 200 pages” are “the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year” sure got my attention. I downloaded the free portion that Thursday evening and began reading. Rankin’s book arrived the next day, but it was too late. I was hooked. (I also saw that next day, with the NYT Sunday book review posted online, that it would featured as the subject of the lead review, by Leon Wieseltier.

Until we get to the tedious later pages, each chapter of My Promised Land focuses on a particular time, place, and set of people, with some superb story telling based on historical research and interviews. The first chapter revolves around Shavit’s great-grandfather’s 1897 visit. The second drew me in through its treatment of Jewish settlement in the Harod Valley in the 1920s, with a focus on Kibbutz Ein Harod.

The further I read into this chapter, the more I had a sense of déja vu. Not that I had been there, but my cousin Batia had settled a kibbutz in the 1920s, and I began to suspect that it was in the same valley. Sure enough, later in the chapter, Shavit wrote about a day in April 1926 when the members of Ein Harod and some neighboring kibbutzim, including Beit Alpha, stopped work early to wash up and prepare to attend a concert held in a valley amphitheater. Shavit takes a moment here to explain that none other than Jascha Heifetz had performed in this quarry a few months earlier. As for Beit Alpha, that’s the kibbutz my cousin founded.

Batia was my mother’s (much older) first cousin. Her mother and grandmother—my grandfather’s sister and mother—were active Zionists in Poland. Batia moved to Beit Alpha in the 1920s. Her sister and mother stayed behind to continue their efforts, ultimately perishing in the Holocaust. When I met Batia over forty years later, in the summer of 1970, she was a kind older woman (not so much older perhaps than I am now) living in Tel Aviv with her husband, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who commuted to Rehovot daily to work on a chemistry curriculum for the nation’s high schools. One son was an engineer with two young children, living in a suburb south of Tel Aviv. The other was an advanced student at the Technion, still serving in the Army. It was a professional urban family, living in a modest apartment where I spent a lot of time.

A year later, on a return trip to Israel, I came to Tel Aviv one weekend to visit Batia and Fritz, as was the norm, and off we went on a Saturday morning on a long drive to a kibbutz where they had friends. It was Beit Alpha. To my surprise, when we arrived Batia and Fritz were treated like honored guests, as pioneer members decades before. This was counter to everything I knew about them. We had the most delightful afternoon. I remember the kibbutz as sitting on the lower slopes of a hill or mountain, with the West Bank border just beyond. On reading Shavit’s account, I realized this was Mount Gilboa.

Anyway, as Garner mentions in his review, the book hits full stride in chapter 4 with Shavit’s treatment of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda in the 1948 war. From there, for 200 pages or more, the reader is in for a powerful experience. An essential theme for Shavit is that the Jewish settlers lost their way, or their innocence, not with the West Bank settlements in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars but with the expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war. This was, as it were, the original sin.

The book lost its way, at least for me, in the closing chapters, which become more a monologue in which Shavit expresses his concerns about Israel’s direction, less a historically focused treatment of key moments in Israel’s history in which a series of fascinating characters is introduced. The penultimate chapter goes on and on about the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon development, something that evidently was a Shavit cause in his newspaper writing for years. The final chapter, one of the two longest, is an extended essay on the challenges the country faces. I would have been happy if the book ended before them.

Categories: Books, History

Old Man River

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

oldmanriver

In my first post last Sunday, after my extended absence, I listed eight items to write about. The first was Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished a week ago. Here’s the description from the book’s website:

In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.

In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.

Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder.

I first learned about the book in a Wall Street Journal review by Fergus Bordewich a few weeks ago. An excerpt:

In “Old Man River,” Paul Schneider takes us on an epic journey of his own that encompasses the furthest reaches of the Mississippi watershed, from remote geological prehistory down to the re-engineering of the river by modern planners and politicians. Along the way, we encounter Stone Age mammoth hunters, mound-building Indians, explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Robert de LaSalle and Zebulon Pike, and a collection of riverine bandits, hustlers, loggers, antebellum slaves, bone hunters and archaeologists.

Always a lively and companionable guide, Mr. Schneider punctuates his excursions into the past with accounts of his own efforts to canoe the river’s reaches. “As soon as you are in the coffee-colored water, you know immediately that you belong to the Mississippi River,” he writes. “It commands every sense. There’s the sound a truly big river makes—not loud but nonetheless vast and soothing, more like wind over grasses than a waterfall. There is an odor to the river as well, vaguely sweet and earthy, though oddly more like the sea than like a mountain stream or a lake.”

Mr. Schneider is equally observant of the workaday river—the giant barges loaded with grain and gravel, the dams and other man-made obstructions that have altered its character, and the heavy industry that in places crowds its banks.

[snip]

Mr. Schneider eventually delivers us to a river that—while still majestic—has been vastly altered by more than a century of human interference (most of which he detests) intended to make it more easily navigable and safer. A system of damming and hardening of the shoreline throughout the watershed has eliminated natural outlets to wetlands and deepened channels in ways that have led to catastrophic flooding and to the hemorrhaging of soil that was once distributed more or less evenly along the course of the river. “Every forty-five minutes an area of Louisiana marsh roughly the size of a football field disappears under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes. This works out, he says, to the disappearance of 2,000 square miles of Louisiana over the past 70 years. “Think one Manhattan a year, one Delaware a century.”

Given that the book is short and the scope vast, the journey is a whirlwind, akin to a visit to eight major European cities in fifteen days. But Schneider chooses his stops well. I wasn’t eager to cover ground water I’d already been over with Mark Twain, or get a recap of the Civil War. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Instead, I learned a lot about Native American civilization (the coverage of the Indian mounds is superb), the French explorers, and the siege of Vicksburg. Nor did I want to re-read the story John McPhee already told so well in his classic The Control of Nature. Schneider knows there’s no point trying to outdo McPhee, so he moves on quickly.

Regarding Indian mounds, Schneider’s recounting of his stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa is superb. He becomes entranced as he walks amid the giant bears.

When I moved on to the second beast in the row, though, I unconsciously slowed down and became, as a result, more conscious. The path turned sharply left, then right, then right again, then left as I walked around first one bear leg, then another. Then along the long belly of the beast. When I completed my circuit of the third mound, for some reason I didn’t move on but began again down the same great neck to the grass-furry paw. I walked myself into a trance.

Whether walking the outline of an effigy mound was part of the original rituals practiced by the builders I couldn’t say, but it felt reflexively correct. … Tracing the outline of a knee-high bear in the dimming light above the Mississippi River felt less a pilgrimage than some kind of devotional act. I was going around in circles, after all, not to some holy place. …

I don’t currently practice any circumambulation regularly, other than taking two trips around every new rental car to make sure there are no dings or dents before leaving the parking lot. Truth is I don’t take part in much organized ceremonialism of any sort, thank God. Whether this makes a person more or less vulnerable to surprise attacks from global bear spirits, I have no way of knowing, but I do know that on my fifth trip around the third bear, what hair there is on the back of my neck stood up and would not stand back down.

Effigy Mounds National Monument is now on my list of places to visit. As are so many of Schneider’s stops.

Categories: Books, History

The Victorian Internet

November 1, 2013 Leave a comment

victorianinternet

Almost three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a post mentioning three books:

As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.

That spring I read Cronon’s book, and it was extraordinary. (See post here.) I got to The Box a couple of months later. But I never did move on to the third book, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.

Earlier this week, Krugman recommended Standage’s newest book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years.

I just want to give a shoutout to a book I’m reading, and really enjoying: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again.

Standage’s argument is that the essential aspects of social media — exchange of information that runs horizontally, among people who are affiliated in some way, rather than top-down from centralized sources — have been pervasive through history, with the industrial age’s news media only a temporary episode of disruption. As he shows, Cicero didn’t get his news from Rome Today or Rupertus Murdochus — he got it through constant exchanges of letters with people he knew, letters that were often both passed on to multiple readers and copied, much like tweets being retweeted.

My response? I went straight to Amazon and downloaded The Victorian Internet. I’m halfway through and it is indeed great fun.

I’ve just started a chapter discussing the use of telegraphy to cheat to obtain insider information on stocks and horse races, and the parallel use of encryption methods. We’re more or less in the 1870s at this point. But already earlier in the century, when techniques were developed in France, and then Britain, to send visual signals from tower to tower, one telegraph hill to the next (discussed in the early part of the book; a system in Britain used six on or off signals at each tower, essentially converting data to binary form as modern computers do), people were cheating to gain financial advantage on the stock exchange.

I haven’t yet reached the part where the precursor to the NSA was vacuuming up all messages and listening in on Chancellor Bismarck. Maybe next chapter.

Categories: Books, History, Technology

A Short Bright Flash, 2

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.

Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

Sankaty Head, Nantucket

[Photo by me, September 2011]

A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”

In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.

The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.

Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which

stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:

The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …

Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.

Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”

I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.

Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.

With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology

A Short Bright Flash

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

shortbrightflash

I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*

*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.

Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:

How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.

Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.

Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.

Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she

recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”

Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.

Fresnel lens

Fresnel lens

[From wikipedia]

In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace

sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.

It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.

Categories: Books, History, Science, Technology