Book Review: The Voice of the Dolphins, and Other Stories

The Voice of the Dolphins, and Other Stories
By Leo Szilard
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.

While working on the Manhattan Project, Leo Szilard claimed that he and his fellow Hungarian scientists were really extraterrestrials. Hungary, after all, was a small country in eastern Europe with a population of less than 10 million. How else to explain the great concentration of brilliant Hungarians in the field of physics? They are clearly extraterrestrials with an advanced knowledge of physics, far beyond that of earthlings. Without their help, we would not have been able to unlock the primal energies of the nucleus.

After reading this book, I’m convinced that he was telling the truth. And furthermore, that his species has not just great wisdom, but also the power to see into the future. In the anchor story of this collection, “The Voice of the Dolphins,” Dr. Szilard outlines in great detail the future history of the world from his vantage point in 1960. In doing so, he demonstrates astonishing prescience with the accuracy of his predictions. He does not fear to give dates to specific events, often nailing them down to within a year or two of when they actually happened. The discrepancy can be explained by the fact that the Martians’ abilities wane as they stay on our planet over a long period of time.

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What stands out about Szilard’s stories is his thoroughness in thinking through his topic, as well as their personal impact and prescience. Szilard was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb, only to see his dreams of a better world turn into an armaments standoff. He was so disgusted by the effects of his work in physics that he moved into biology after the War. Knowing these facts, we can appreciate how his conscience must have driven him to try and set us on a better course. We can also appreciate his frustration at seeing the dysfunctional politics of the world’s most powerful country (the Senate filibuster gets a mention). How is it that people could fiercely resist moves that will produce logical and obvious advancements for humanity?

Perhaps we need dolphins — or Martians — or at least Hungarians, to show us the way.

Book review: The Perilous Fight

The Perilous Fight
America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815
By Stephen Budiansky
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Stephen Budiansky likes to deeply explore a topic that is of interest to him, using an outsider's perspective to expose deeply cherished myths. In The Perilous Fight, he seeks to refocus the discussion of American naval successes in the War of 1812, from the traditional celebration of the frigate victories against the world's premier naval power, to a broader appreciation of the asymmetrical anti-commerce strategy pursued by the U.S. Navy Department. The book does not quite deliver on this promise, easily showing the plausibility of his thesis but not conclusively demonstrating that it had any effect in bringing the war to a close. At the same time, it is also a fresh and vivid account of the naval events of the War of 1812.

Intriguingly, Budiansky emphasizes the tenuous nature of American independence at the beginning of the 19th century. Very little progress had been made since the Revolution, cities had barely grown or even shrunk in size, and Southern planters lived in an environment of amidst "genteel poverty." This was before the Industrial Revolution, before the cotton gin. Yet America remained a large market for manufactured goods, and the merchant marine enjoyed the success that eluded the rest of the American economy. Indeed, British shillings remained more common than American coinage.

Since tariffs formed the basis of taxation, the Napoleonic Wars had severe effects on the U.S. Treasury, causing disruptions to the American merchant marine. Budiansky covers familiar ground from the history books: the debate over neutral rights, the British blockade of French-dominated Europe, Thomas Jefferson's pet project of Republican gunboats to replace Federalist frigates, etc. But he fleshes it out with details that rarely make it into the history books, describing the high interest rates that the Treasury was having to pay for debt, as well as appreciating the logistics behind navy operations. For example, Jeffersonian cutbacks had left the Constitution as the only American ship cruising on station in the Mediterranean. Thus, the Chesapeake affair was not only a national humiliation, to have a warship boarded by another power in sight of one's own shores. It also delayed the relief of the Constitution, whose crew grew near-mutinous as their original two-year enlistments were forcibly extended to four.

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Book Review: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb
by Richard Rhodes
Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Five years in the writing, Richard Rhodes' history of the atomic bomb has become a landmark in the field of science popularization. At over 900 pages long, the book is very comprehensive in its recounting of the events that led to the most terrible weapon ever devised by man. It is really several different books in one, shifting in tone and emphasis as it follows the concept from start to finish: from scientific discovery to military-industrial project to the study of political decision-making in war.

Scientific discovery

The first third of the book is largely an account of scientific discovery, as experimenters worked to uncover the structure of the atom at the turn of the 20th century. Even in this foundational period, it was easy to see that nuclear bombardment involved energies that were orders of magnitude greater than the chemical reactions already familiar to science. It was natural to speculate about how to unlock those energies someday, and thus the dream of nuclear energy developed right alongside the earliest experiments. Frederick Soddy described the possibility of nuclear energy in his book The Interpretation of Radium (1909), based on his work alongside Ernst Rutherford. H. G. Wells then picked up on the idea in his famous novel The World Set Free (1914).

But the early nuclear bombardments could only play with atomic forces at a small scale. With the discovery of nuclear fission, it became obvious that a chain reaction was possible and could be used to multiply the energies released. But it would not be worked out in a time of peace on earth and brotherhood among men. With the expulsion of Jewish academics from German universities and the looming onset of World War II, the leading lights of atomic science left Europe for America. In just a few years, the center of gravity in the physics world had shifted across the Atlantic.

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Book Review: Red Plenty

Red Plenty
By Francis Spufford
Faber and Faber, 2010.

Who would've thought that one could write a novel about Soviet central planning? A journal paper or a scholarly monograph, certainly. But a novel? Yet that is the format that Francis Spufford has selected for his book Red Plenty. The book begins with Khrushchev's promise that communism would outproduce capitalism, then moves on to the mathematicians and economists who tried to make central planning work scientifically. Tragic consequences sometimes ensued, as consumers rioted over the (higher) prices and (lower) salaries demanded by the linear programming equations.

Meanwhile, Gosplan employees had to react to unanticipated problems, and factory managers had to figure out how to make plan and earn their expected production bonus. Sometimes , they could only do it through unofficial channels like the tolkash, a "pusher" or reverse-salesman. Instead of trying to convince consumers to buy his products on behalf of his employer, he tries to convince factories to sell him what his clients need in order to make Plan.

Vivid depiction of Soviet life

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Book Review: The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, 2010.

In The Emperor of All Maladies, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee has written what surely will be the definitive popular history of cancer medicine. The author credits Richard Rhodes’ monumental account of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb [read my review], for inspiring the writing of this book. In subject matter, though, this book is more along the lines of Horace Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation. Indeed, the history of cancer is also the history of medicine. As other human diseases were conquered by vaccination (18th century), antisepsis (19th century), and modern pharmaceuticals (20th century), cancer remained resistant to the primitive onslaughts of early medicine. The ancients knew just enough about cancer to pronounce it incurable, and only recently have we discovered enough about cancer biology to mount a direct attack against it.

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Dr. Mukherjee has written a remarkable book about a remarkable disease. One may quibble with the philosophical direction that the book takes, but the magnitude of his narrative achievement is undeniable. He has managed to capture the excitement of scientific discovery alongside the clash of medical egos, tracking the progress of human understanding of this most difficult of diseases. At times, the chronological narrative bogs down a bit in the mass of details and clash of competing models. But for the most part, the author produces some of the clearest and most vivid popular scientific writing that I’ve read.

The story of cancer is the story of a disease that has altered our expectations of medicine, frustrated our technological skills, and challenged our brightest minds. Our successes have been hard-won, and our failures have turned out to be paradigm-changing. That is why cancer is, truly, the emperor of all maladies.

Book Review: The Pentium Chronicles

The Pentium Chronicles
The People, Passion, and Politics behind Intel's Landmark Chips
by Robert P. Colwell
John Wiley & Sons, 2006.

Bob Colwell was the lead architect of the Intel P6 project, which was eventually released as the Pentium Pro processor. The marketing name suggests only a small evolutionary improvement over the original Pentium, but the engineering reality is far different. The original Pentium (P5) was designed at Intel’s original facilities in California, by many of the same engineers that had worked on the 80486 and 80386. The P6, by contrast, was designed by a brand new team in Oregon, charged with the weighty task of securing Intel’s dominance of the microprocessor world by bringing the full range of RISC techniques to the x86 platform. The first engineer to join that project was Bob Colwell.

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He also relishes several “I told you so” moments over Intel’s recent stumbles. For example, he was called a “Chicken Little” for pointing out that Intel owed a great deal of its success to missteps by competitors. They shouldn’t pat themselves on the back too much, for at some point, continued speed would no longer be enough to keep Intel on top. He saw the end of the megahertz race in 1998, about five years before Intel slammed into the thermal wall. He also saw Itanium as a hopelessly complicated combination of unprecedented architectural changes, and thought that it should instead have been a proof-of-concept research project.

Book Review: Deke!

Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle
by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassut
New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1994.

“America’s Chief Astronaut Speaks Out at Last!” The publisher isn’t exaggerating with that tagline. This autobiography reads like it came straight from Deke Slayton’s mouth, complete with copious usage of his favorite expletive “goddamned.” I’m sure some of it has been smoothed over by the cowriter, but it still reads like practically a transcript of the taped conversations. The language is short and punchy, just like the way Deke spoke.

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Michael Cassut made a risky decision to leave Deke’s words largely unpolished and intact. It works. Deke’s voice really comes through in the book, and we appreciate his accomplishments all the more for it.

Book Review: The Gatekeepers

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The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
by Jacques Steinberg
Paperback: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0142003085

The Gatekeepers goes a long way towards demystifying the college admissions process in the United States. Steinberg adapted the book from a series of articles that he’d written in the New York Times. Unlike most article adaptations, he actually has enough material collected to justify a full-length book. Apart from the somewhat overlong mini-biography of admissions officer Ralph Figueroa that opens the book, it's captivating reading.

I knew a fair amount about college admissions to start with. I went to a very competitive suburban high school. I applied during the 1999-2000 admissions season – the same season chronicled in this book. One of my apartment-mates in grad school went to Wesleyan, the college whose admissions office threw open its doors to Steinberg. I do admissions interviews for applicants to my alma mater, almost all of them students at a super-competitive suburban high school. So I have a better idea than most people of how the admissions game is played.

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Book Review: The Hollywood Economist

The Hollywood Economist:
The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies
by Edward Jay Epstein
Melville House, 2010.

 

Edward Jay Epstein once wrote the Hollywood Economist column for Slate. But these are hard times in the media industry. So clearly, it’s time to compile those columns into a book – a sequel of sorts to his earlier elucidation of Hollywood economics, The Big Picture [read my review]. As with any compilation of this type, there will be some repetition. But the column format forces him to get right to the point, and it is eminently skimmable for the most salient points.

Informed by his knowledge of industry financials, Epstein presents some truly fascinating nuggets of information. Who knew, for instance, that Tom Cruise was such a clever financier? He had enough star power that he insisted on 100% accounting, in which every penny of revenue gets counted when calculating his percentage, instead of Hollywood accounting. As a producer, he sometimes took more out of the movie than the studio – which made the powers-that-be at Paramount so mad at him that they dumped the War of the Worlds project.

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Book Review: The Big Picture

The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood
by Edward Jay Epstein
Random House, 2005

Edward Jay Epstein occupies the strange position of being a Hollywood columnist – but one who focuses on the business side of Hollywood rather than the razzle-dazzle. That is a unique niche to be in, but it's also a very small one. When times got tough in the magazine business, Slate dropped his Hollywood Economist column, and Epstein now gets his film-business commentary out through his blog.

Hollywood Economist

But he's absolutely right to point out that the news media rarely covers the substantial parts of the film business. All the focus on box-office receipts obscures the fact that the box office is no longer so important to profitability.  A film need only do well enough to guarantee an afterlife, in which the real money gets made. On the other hand, the shallow focus on box office grosses is not unique to Hollywood. Most business coverage in newspapers is awful, whatever the industry. They focus on big day-to-day events, and rarely do the simple arithmetic to explain the economic fundamentals that drive whole industries.

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