Category Archives: Science
One thing you can always say about David McCullough’s books; you are always going to find the story interesting no matter what the topic. Though his works rarely break new interpretive ground, no one working in the field of History today tells a story better. As I’ve said before he could make refrigerator repair read like the most monumental event in American History. And, in addition to an excellent narrative style McCullough’s sourcing is impeccable. Through his extensive use of primary sources, letters and diaries primarily, he gives his works a very “in the now” feeling, and his newest work, The Wright Brothers, provides no exception to this rule.
While it would be fair to characterize this book as a biography, the bulk of the text is devoted to the years when Wilbur and Orville Wright worked on developing the first machine capable of powered flight. Relatively little attention is paid to their childhoods or to the time after they became the preeminent builders of flying machines. This latter period actually featured some very trying times for Orville Wright that also had profound consequences for the advancement of aircraft technology in the United States.
Wilbur and Orville Wright are usually characterized as two humble, small town bicycle sellers who took up aeronautics as a hobby and by sheer luck stumbled on the formula for powered flight. In fact the story is much different. While neither had much formal education both were serious about academic pursuits, becoming very talented, self taught engineers. Both were well read with extremely curious minds that led them to become conversant on a wide range of subjects. They were also exceptional businessmen. In the late 1800s when the craze for bicycles was at its peak they opened their own shop, at first selling and repairing models sold by other companies, and later producing a line of their own design. In this they were very successful, using part of their profits to subsidize their growing interest in flight.
That interest was apparently piqued in the 1890s probably by the accounts in the newspapers of glider flights by among others Otto Lilienthal who was killed during one of his flights. After much study and through the encouragement of Octave Chanute, a Chicago engineer with an interest in flight, the Wright’s began working seriously on the problem of control. That a glider could be propelled forward was well known, and several had taken “flight” on gliders over the years. Controlling the flight path of these gliders however, particularly the ability to turn, bank, and control the landing, were problems that had yet to be solved.
Birds of course have solved that problem, wheeling and turning in the sky at will. Men for generations have dreamed about flying like the birds do. How birds fly, and in particular how they controlled their direction is what ultimately gave the Wright’s the idea for “wing warping” to control their flying machines. They noted that birds tended to turn up or down their wing tips which allowed them to turn in a controlled manner. They decided to incorporate a version of this into their glider and later airplane designs. Through a series of guide wires and pulleys, controlled by body movement (like turning on a bicycle), they were eventually able to design gliders in which it was possible for a practiced pilot to achieve controlled turns, to bank in the wind, and to come to a controlled landing. This set them on a path to finally achieve what men have dreamed about for millennia…controlled human flight.
The rest of the story is fairly well known. After a series of test glider flights conducted in Kitty Hawk, NC the Wrights designed and built a powered aircraft. Utilizing an 11 horse power engine powering two rear facing propellers they were able to finally achieve sustained powered flight on December 17, 1903. Unlike modern planes these early models were unable to gain enough ground speed to get themselves in the air. They were propelled along a single rail initially by two men running alongside, and later by a dropped weight system that foreshadowed the catapults used on modern aircraft carriers. Over the next 10 years they continued to refine their designs, building planes that could travel faster, farther and higher. They eventually signed contracts with the United States government and a company in France to sell their planes. They applied for and received a patent on their wing warping technology. ANd they became wealthy.
There were bumps along the way of course. There was the continuous stream of claims by others to have actually achieved the first flight. None of these have come close to being proven. They were subject to the doubts and skepticism of rivals who refused to believe two upstart Americans could have solved such a complex problem. On September 17, 1908 during one of several demonstration flights Orville Wright made for the United States Army, and with a passenger aboard, his Flyer crashed, nose diving into the ground from about 100 feet. The crash killed the passenger, Captain Thomas Seflridge, who became the first fatality in world history from an airplane crash, and Orville was severely wounded with a broken pelvis, broken leg and rib fractures. It took several months before he was able to resume his work. During all of this the Wrights never wavered from their conviction to advance the quality of their flyers, and to protect the proprietary claim of their wing warping system against those that tried to incorporate it into their designs without permission. It was this latter effort that caused enormous problems for Orville Wright in later years, and actually retarded the advancement of flight technology in the United States for several years, allowing the French to overtake it as the leading manufacturer of flying machines.
Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of Typhoid fever at the age of 45. Orville continued on with the business, assuming the Presidency of the Wright Company. For the next several years Wright was in court, accusing several airplane makers of using the patented wing warping technology without permission or license. Many of these lawsuits were eventually settled in the Wright Company’s favor, but it took so long that advances in the technology were put on hold until they were resolved. Other countries began to overtake the United States in the manufacture and design of aircraft.
Orville eventually merged the company with Martin Aircraft company, which subsequently became the Wright Aeronautical Company, which in turn merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane Company to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation which is still in business today. Ironically, Glenn Curtiss, a noted aviation pioneer and founder of the Curtiss Company was one of those sued by the Wrights.
Orville Wright finally died in 1948, having lived into the era of supersonic flight. All in all a very remarkable story that is not wholly appreciated today.
I have few criticisms of this book. McCullough is a master manipulator. He is expert at using selected incidents to build tension before a dramatic and uplifting conclusion. As with some of his other works on American history he is out to tell an uplifting American story, so he spends very little time on things that might detract from that, such as the patent battles and Orville’s later shameful shunning of his sister. These are mentioned of course, but very little detail is provided.
If you are familiar with McCullough you know what you are in for. And what you are in for is a master story teller at his peak!
A really pleasant account of Charles Darwin’s academic life and the process by which he eventually published one of the most impactful books in human history – The Origin of Species, in which he postulated the theory of natural selection, or as it is known today, evolution. He later expanded his theories to include homo sapiens in The Descent of Man. What is really terrific about this book is that it presents a Charles Darwin completely devoid of the stereotypes of him we are familiar with today. Among those who continue to adhere to a biblical version of creation Darwin is a villainous anti-Christ, sent here to destroy people’s faith in God. Among those who revere his work he has become an untouchably great man, devoid of flaws, and who epitomizes the triumph of reason over superstition. Though I have always leaned towards the latter view of him, and believe it to be closer to the truth, neither stereotype really fully captures the man. In this book however, the author has done exactly that.
The basics of how Darwin arrived at the theory of evolution are fairly well known. Shortly after graduating from Oxford in 1831 Darwin signed on as an informal member of the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle, about to depart on an extended voyage of discovery. As a naturalist in training Darwin did not hold an official position other than as observer and collector. The voyage took over five years, visiting places as varied as Chile, Patagonia, the Galapagos and Falkland Islands, South Africa, and Singapore. Observing the variation and geographic distribution of species during this voyage eventually led Darwin to postulate natural selection (known as transmutation of species then, evolution now). In particular, fossils of birds collected primarily in the Galapagos and Chile showed not just variation in a particular species, but the development of new species adapted to the environment they inhabited. Finding one species abundant on one island, and completely absent on another nearby led him to consider how species developed over vast periods of time. After returning to England Darwin formulated his theory which he published in his two earth shattering volumes, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life later shortened to Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex shortened to The Descent of Man. This “theory” which has been reconfirmed over the ensuing years has become one of the most controversial scientific conclusions in world history. Hardly the result one would have expected from this unprepossessing man who generally shunned controversy, and for whom any kind of stress or conflict would induce bouts of debilitating illness.
What most don’t realize about the well accepted version of Darwin’s evolution on evolution, was how long it took between the time he initially began formulating his theory until it was actually published – thirty-one years. He spent much of that time publishing on other topics including a well received account of his time aboard the H.M.S. Beagle and a ten year study he conducted on barnacles…yes…barnacles. During that time he kept refining his thoughts on transmutation that he recorded in a series of journals. He felt no rush to publish. While others had postulated variants on transmutation, most famously Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who proposed a kind of directed evolution in which organisms could pass on acquired or learned traits to their offspring, no one had proposed anything as radical as what Darwin was contemplating…until June of 1858 that is.
On June 18, 1858 Darwin received from Alfred Russel Wallace, an amateur naturalist and collector, a manuscript he had written based on his observations during several overseas trips. Disturbingly close to the theories Darwin had been refining for nearly 30 years he realized he was about to be overtaken. Unwilling to discard honor in order to usurp Wallace, Darwin turned to friends who arranged to have both papers read jointly at a session of the Linnean society. Honor satisfied Darwin turned to writing a longer abstract of his theories. Abandoning the multi-volume, minutely cited work he had intended Darwin produce a 500 page book that he referred to as an abstract of his theory. This of course was Origin of Species. He had intended a more sedate release of his work, allowing his theories to percolate out rather than exploding all at once. Wallace’s challenge sped up that timetable. Darwin seemed to realize once the implications of what he proposed sunk in, that he would be the focus of unwanted attention, both good and bad. This was something his delicate constitution had trouble adjusting too.
For most of his adult life Darwin was subject to periods of debility that manifested as headaches, heart palpitations, foggy headedness, nausea and most annoyingly, excessive vomiting. It got so bad he had a special alcove constructed in his office to allow him a place to get sick while working. He saw a number of doctors who failed to arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis. He tried a number of quack cures that seemed to offer relief at various times. That he lived so long with this condition indicates it was very likely a psychosomatic illness brought on by stress and conflict. Luckily he had the support of a devoted wife, his first cousin Emma Wedgewood, who helped support his work, cared for him during illness, bore him nine children, and who made sure his legacy was preserved. Ironically, for Darwin was a confirmed agnostic, his wife was a devout Christian who feared for the immortality of her husbands soul.
So, far from being the single minded zealot who set out to destroy faith, or the mythical demi-god who brought the light of truth to the masses, conventional views of Darwin today, he was rather a shy, introverted family man, married to a devout Christian, who shunned controversy and conflict. The irony of his life then was that his work was not only controversial but that to this day it induces the most heated conflict, and, that he was devoted to a woman who espoused a view of life his theory directly contradicted! The author illuminates this side of Darwin brilliantly. Most historical biographies attempt to bring life to their subjects. This is an example of a success. I think it was a great choice not including extensive detail on his voyage aboard the Beagle, concentrating instead on the intellectual and emotional journey Darwin made to the eventual publication of his theories.
Even more impressive than the theory itself, is the fact that he came up with the idea for natural selection without the benefit of the kind of biological proof that would confirm them over the next century. The science of genetics had not yet been born when Darwin published Origin of Species, yet all genetic work since then has confirmed the accuracy of his conclusions, to the point where it is no longer considered a theory in the common sense of the word, but as it is used in science, to indicate to a near certitude its veracity – as in the theory of gravity. Yet many, not wishing to abandon the faith they were raised with continue to deny its truth. I can only hope more books like this will be included in school curricula so we can get to a point where knowledge is no longer a slave to faith.
Don’t let the title fool you, while the focus of the book is the great 1927 flood (an event overlooked today), this is a book about the Mississippi River and man’s attempt to live with and in some cases tame it. Full of rich descriptions of men and women whose lives were shaped by the river and the 1927 flood, and of powerful men who tried to control and profit from it, including one who became President, this book really grabs you from the outset.
Starting with early attempts to erect bridges over it, to map its courses and devise ways to keep it from hampering economic growth in the Mississippi Delta, through its role during the Civil War, and how it affected economics, culture and race relations in the south, the Mississippi River itself is a character in this story, with a personality all its own. This is expertly brought to life by Barry.
Most fascinating for me was the many ways in which the 1927 flood so profoundly changed the character of the deep south, and how in many ways it set back nascent progress on race relations. In order to combat the flood blacks were forced to work, shoring up levees, hauling supplies and digging trenches, all at gunpoint and without adequate food and shelter to sustain themselves. In many places (particularly Greenville, MS which in many ways was the epicenter of the flood), white leaders, aided and abetted by the Red Cross virtually re-instituted slavery. Prior to the flood, through the cooperation of local blacks and the relatively enlightened views of its leaders, particularly LeRoy Percy (a central figure in the latter half of the book), race relations had seen improvement. The flood, and the reaction of the white leadership to it nearly destroyed all that.
It also profoundly reshaped the labor system in the South. One reason why white leaders were so eager to keep blacks under foot during the crisis was to prevent them from leaving the Delta where they were the primary source of labor. However, once the waters had receded and it became apparent promises of restitution from local leaders and from the federal government were not going to be forthcoming, many blacks began migrating to the north. This caused a huge problem for large landowners who relied on the labor blacks provided, and from their percentage of income from sharecropper activities. It certainly helped hasten the transition to a de facto free labor system which had only existed in name only up until that time; a transition that continues to be a very painful one for the region.
Also interesting is the affect the flood had on presidential politics, and on the eventual shift in the relation between the federal government and her citizens that we saw under President Franklin Roosevelt. Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge’s Commerce Secretary of Commerce was tasked to coordinate the government response to the flood. It was his work, and the positive press he received from it that propelled him to the White House.
Hoover was tasked by Coolidge to coordinate the efforts of mostly private organizations as they attempted to deal with the enormous human suffering that was the result of the flood. Coolidge himself refused to set what he considered a dangerous precedent by providing the type of government disaster relief we take for granted today. As a result he was the focus of extensive media and public criticism for what was viewed as a heartless reaction to the crisis. All the while Hoover was being lionized in the press as the only member of the administration willing to do something about the crisis. Coolidge’s opposition to government relief, however, was a policy with which Hoover totally agreed. However, it also foreshadowed the disastrous way he reacted to the Great Depression.
In hindsight the resources brought to bear by Hoover were wholly inadequate, and in many case failed to provide even minimally adequate relief. It was this same strategy that he used as President, to try and relieve the suffering experienced by so many during the Great Depression; a strategy that failed miserably and gave rise to FDR and the more active governmental role he implemented. It was also the beginning of the end of the alliance between African-Americans and the Republican Party.
I found very little to criticize in this book. Occasionally Barry provided a bit more detail, particularly about financial matters, than was probably necessary to make his point, but that is a minor quibble. Overall highly valuable book, about a significant even in American history that is often overlooked. Highly recommended!!
Bucket Source (Francis Parkman Prize for American History and Biography)
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My review of this book won’t be long, not only because it took me a full two months to finish it, which would have required me to go back to review what I read waaay back then, but also because my mind is not well adapted to the minutiae of scientific discourse. I would have a very difficult time recounting what I read in any coherent way.
Having said that however, I really did enjoy this book. I love science in the only way a historian can, by exploring its effects on people, society and culture. It was with that mindset that I began reading Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
This work is essentially a geological travelogue, an amalgam of five books that describes the history of the formation of the earth. But rather than trying to present it in a dry, linear way that most assuredly would have induced me to put it down within the first dozen pages or so, McPhee chose to structure the book in a unique and effective way; using trips he took across America along Interstate 80 – the only highway that traverses the entire country – as the anchor point to which the narrative always returns. Accompanied by noted geologists along the way, he uses their observations to illuminate how the earth was initially formed and how it evolved.
Much of the book is steeped in geological jargon – rock types, formations, faults, tectonics etc. I learned very quickly that I was not going to be able to stop and look up every one of these terms if I ever wanted to finish the book. So, rather than attempt that, I simply let them flow by me as I tried to grasp the overall story that was being told. And you know what? It kind of worked. Occasionally I found myself getting lost, but McPhee is such an excellent writer that he always pulled me back just in time. So while I could not begin to explain to you much of what I read, in my minds eye I understand what he was trying to get across.
My favorite parts of the book however, were those sections that deviated from the science of geology and moved into how the geology he was describing affected people,society and culture. In academic terms geology is as much a humanity as it is a science. It is so complex, and has so many interlocking parts that interpretation of data is often as much intuition as it is analysis. Geology is also more than just the science of rocks; it also has very important implications for how life formed and evolved on Earth, and how societies rose, fell, and rose again. Particularly effective are his narratives describing some of this. His recounting of the gold rush in the mid 19th century, and how the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California made its effects felt, stand out here. Lastly he includes some old fashioned biography, including sketches of some of the early pioneers in the field of geology including a very moving one of one of his travel partners – Dr. David Love of Wyoming.
I cannot say this book was easy to read; long stretches were almost incomprehensible to me. It required me to internalize and come to grips with descriptions of vast periods of time. But McPhee is such an outstanding writer that he always brought me back into the narrative in such a way that by the end of every set piece I had a grasp of what he was trying to convey. And at the end I felt I had acquired a real appreciation for the stunning complexity of the history of earth’s formation and evolution; and more importantly how that history is intimately entwined, with the creation and evolution of the life forms living on it. It really is two parts of the same story.
If you have the time and have any interest in science, or feel like getting out of your comfort zone for a while, I highly recommend this book!
Bucket Source (Pulitzer Prize Winner for General Non-Fiction)
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Really enjoyed this as I did Timothy Ferris’s other book “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.” Part science, part history, part philosophy this book explores the connection between advances in scientific discovery and democratic liberalism. His thesis is that one cannot exist without the other, each feeding off the other as they progress. He believes society can only prosper in such an environment.
Most of the book cites examples that illustrate this, from Newton to the present day. He explores the relative freedom of liberal democratic societies comparing them with those that have tried to suppress it. He cites fascism, communism, religious fanaticism and postmodernism as culprits that inhibit this progress. Each he says, substitutes scientific objectivity with a relativism that encourages abuses of power and causes backwardness.
He levels some of his most pointed criticisms at the wave of postmodern deconstruction that has become fashionable at academic institutions in the 20th century. He views this trend with alarm as scholars make claims about the relativism of scientific discovery; asserting there is no objective scientific truth, and that any discovery that makes that claim is inherently tainted by the bias of the discoverer. A notion he views as beyond ridiculous – and dangerous. By assuming all scientific discovery is thus subject to disproof, students aren’t encouraged to actually learn the science they have been trained to criticize.
Ferris even takes on one of the most influential works describing the history of science – Thomas Kuhn’s landmark work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Kuhn’s assertion in that work is that scientific truth is not based on objective criteria, but is defined by the consensus of the scientific community. As such it consists not only of objective observation, but of the subjective perceptions of those forming that consensus. Discovery that comes into conflict with this consensus and breaks through it to form a new consensus are said to have initiated “paradigm shifts” – a term Kuhn coined to describe this sudden and successful change in that consensus. Since scientific truth cannot be ascertained objectively, there can be no such thing as an assertion of scientific truth.
Ferris views this as nonsense and simply another way to inject relativism and subjectivity into perceptions of scientific discovery. In this way those who have agendas other than the search for truth can assert that flaws in the scientific method are no different than flaws in any other system. They can thus conform their view of scientific discovery with whatever ideology they have constructed (e.g. “Socialist Science”).
He also describes the ideological spectrum as a triangle. Instead of progressive and conservative at two ends of a line, they populate two vertices of a triangle, with liberalism at the other. As societies implement policies they move along these vertices toward more or less liberalism…and that these shifts can validly come from either the progressive or conservative side. Liberal democratic societies thus oscillate between them constantly trying to find the right balance of freedom and regulation to maximize progress. (this is a very quick and crude explanation of what Ferris describes in the book).
All of this is very well written in a smooth and non technical way. While reading it I found I suddenly understood concepts I had only a dim comprehension of before. It’s only weakness in my opinion is the scrupulous effort made to balance any criticism of conservative ideology with one of progressivism…even if that attempt was strained. I also think he is too dismissive of criticisms of globalization, income inequality, and corporate power.
Just read this again after having read it the first time about 20 years ago. It really is a beautiful book that hasn’t lost any of its relevance even with 20 years of additional discovery (which it deals with in an afterwards).
It tells the story of the Universe while also telling the story of telling the story of the Universe, from the first decipherable cave paintings to up to date discoveries in the field of particle physics – all in a way that can be understood by folks like me that have an interest in science and discovery but have no aptitude for it!
Richard Dawkins pulls no punches. This book advocates strongly, and persuasively, for an atheistic world view. Some may think this type of in your face atheism is unseemly, but as Dawkins points out, he is no more strident than religious groups are at advocating for their point of view.
His arguments take two basic tracks:
1. Evidence is overwhelming that God does not exist, and that the work many ascribe to God is more simply explained by natural processes (Darwinism etc). He looks at many of the ways people try to reconcile religion and science and comes away arguing they are not reconcilable. Religion is simply not a reliable source for evidence of the creation or of evolution. If God created the universe, he argues, then who created God? A question there is no answer to.
2. He argues religion, rather than being a benign institution is actually dangerous, is responsible for holding back progress and as a whole, has caused far more harm than good.
Both are very persuasive. His arguments against the existence of God are sometimes hard to understand as it gets into a fairly technical (at least for me) discussion of biology.
The section of the book in which he argues religion is a harmful institution are very compelling. Not that I agree with every one of them. In my personal life I know many religious people who do not fit into the parameters of that argument. However, taken at a macro level his argument is hard to refute.
He ends the book with a very beautiful, affirmative argument for the transformational power of science. He agrees with Carl Sagan that religion actually limits the wonder one can experience when contemplating the natural world.
I personally enjoyed this book very much.
If you are an atheist it will give you more than enough ammo to engage in discussions of atheism vs. theism you may have with others.
If you are wavering this may give you the information you have been looking for to help you decide.
If you are secure in your faith this book is nothing to be afraid of.