Friday, September 30, 2022

Books Read - Q3 2022

Read 7 books this quarter, including two massive tomes (TMAB and Stalin's War).

[Previously: Q2 2022, Q1 2022, our 2021 Book Review Compendium, 2020 Book Review Compendium, 2019 book compendium, 2018 book compendium, and pre-2018 book compendium.]

  • How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going (4.5/5) See full review of this latest Vaclav Smil book. His most recent two books have hammered the theme that our civilization absolutely depends on fossil fuels (coal and petroleum) and that this is not going to change, or "transition" anytime soon.  
  • Compendium Compilation (Eighth Volume) (4/5) See highlights of this collection of Murray Stahl (Horizon Kinetics) essays. He is coming to many of the same conclusions as we are: "If the central banks have to support the bond market at the current yield levels, you're going to have incredibly serious inflation, much more serious than we have right now."
  • Tomorrow's Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet by Peter Hoffmann (3/5). See full review.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb (4.5/5) A few years ago in the Links, we posted something that was said by physicist Rudolf Peierls: "Any competent nuclear physicist would have come out with very similar answers to ours if he had been asked: 'What is the likely fission cross-section of pure U235? What critical size for separated U235 follows from this? What will be the explosive power of such a mass? How much industrial effort would be needed to do the separation? And would the military value be worthwhile?' The only unusual thing that Frisch and I did at this point was ask those questions." Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for TMAB in 1988. Since it's a complete history of the making of the bomb, it is also an in-depth history of nuclear physics. Quoting Michael Polanyi: "The authority of scientific opinion remains essentially mutual; it is established between scientists, not above them. This network is the seat of scientific opinion, of an opinion which is not held by any single human brain, but which, split into thousands of different fragments, is held by a multitude of individuals, each of whom endorses the other's opinion at second hand, by relying on the consensual chains which link him to all the others through a sequence of overlapping neighborhoods." "There was no liquor in the house [of Ernest Rutherford] because Mary Rutherford did not approve of drinking. Smoking she reluctantly allowed because her husband smoked heavily, pipe and cigarettes both." "Spectroscopy was a well-developed field in 1912... Every element had its own unique line spectrum. Helium was discovered in the chromosphere of the sun in 1868 as a series of unusual spectral lines twenty-three years before it was discovered mixed into uranium ore on earth." "Atoms do not fall apart... something very powerful holds them together. That glue is now called binding energy. To acquire it, hydrogen atoms packed together in a nucleus sacrifice some of their mass. This mass defect is what Aston found when he compared the hydrogen atom to the atoms of other elements... Comparing helium to hydrogen, nearly 1 percent of the hydrogen mass was missing. 'If we were able to transmute hydrogen into helium nearly 1 percent of the mass would be annihilated. On the relativity equivalence of mass and energy now experimentally proved, the quantity of energy liberated would be prodigious.'" Aston in 1936: "the nuclear chemists, I am convinced, will be able to synthesize elements just as ordinary chemists synthesize compounds, and it may be taken as certain that in some reactions sub-atomic energy will be liberated." James Chadwick discovered the neutron in 1932: "He had discovered a new elementary particle, the third basic constituent of matter. It was this neutral mass that compounded the weight of the elements without adding electrical charge... And because the neutron was as massive as a proton but carried no electrical charge, it was hardly affected by the shell of electrons around a nucleus; nor did the electrical barrier of the nucleus itself block its way. It would therefore serve as a new nuclear probe of surpassing power of penetration." "More than any other development, Chadwick's neutron made practical the detailed examination of the nucleus. Hans Bethe once remarked that he considered everything before 1932 'the prehistory of nuclear physics, and from 1932 on the history of nuclear physics.'" Something surprising about Einstein: "What did surprise me was his physique. He had come in from sailing and was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. It was a massive body, very heavily muscled...""The possibility of a critical mass is anchored in the fact that the surface area of a sphere increases more slowly with increasing radius than does the volume (as r^2 to r^3). At some particular volume, depending on the density of the material and on its cross sections for scattering, capture, and fission, more neutrons should find nuclei to fission than find surface to escape from; that volume is then the critical mass." "Thus in the first months of 1940 it was already clear to two intelligent observers that nuclear weapons would be weapons of mass destruction against which the only apparent defense would be the deterrent effect of mutual possession." The WWII atomic bomb research is a great study in simultaneous invention, since you can compare the research efforts of the physicists in the four major powers (Britain, U.S. Germany, and Japan), which were obviously secret from each other, and find that their thought processes were essentially identical, and all realized that it would require a gargantuan industrial effort to separate the U235 isotope from U238 in order to make a bomb. The U.S. was the only country that had this industrial capacity. The Manhattan project simultaneously developed four separate methods of separating and purifying the uranium-235: gaseous diffusion, centrifuge, electromagnetic separation and liquid thermal diffusion. It also built nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington to breed plutonium, and since this was contaminated with enough Pu-240 to cause a gun-type bomb to fizzle, designed a different bomb mechanism: implosion. So, two bomb mechanisms and five methods of fissile isotope creation or separation. If you remember from The Conquering Tide, the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero plant lacked an airfield, so the planes were carted away by teams of oxen, and in late 1943, the oxen were exhausted and hungry, so they switched to using horses which could work more on less food. Someone estimated that the Manhattan Project was as big as the entire American automobile industry by the end of the war. There was no chance that WWII Germany or Japan were going to be able to make bombs. Making a U235 bomb is technically easy but separating the 1% fraction of U235 from the U238 natural ore (which differs in weight by only about 1%) is very difficult. Making plutonium from neutron bombardment of uranium in a reactor, and separating it chemically from the other elements in the spent fuel, is not so difficult, but making the implosion bomb is difficult because of the complexity of the explosive lenses. Besides the nuclear physics and the simultaneous invention example, TMAB is a great example of a massive and successful conspiracy kept totally secret through compartmentalization. Every nuclear physicist working in the U.S. knew about it, but Truman didn't until FDR died.
  • Alvarez: Adventures Of A Physicist (3/5) After reading Rhodes' atomic bomb history, we were inspired to read the autobiography of one of the physicists involved, Luis Alvarez. While he would be eligible to get affirmative action bennies today, don't let the name confuse you, his grandfather was born in Asturias, northwest Spain and came to America by way of Havana. Luis is a good example of what I call "Wikipedia page heredity": he, his grandfather, father, and son each have Wikipedia pages. (His son, a geologist, discovered the iridum-enriched clay layer at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary and developed the hypothesis that the extinction event was caused by an asteroid impact - now known to be the Chicxulub crater off the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.) (Also see Steve Hsu on Alvarez.) Regarding experiments: "It really is difficult to make precise measurements. Everyone who has examined the way the best values of fundamental physical constants have varies with time has noted that there is usually a 'fashionable' value that is often many standard deviations away from a later value more precisely known. This phenomenon, which I call intellectual phase lock, occurs partly because no one likes to stand alone. The person I know who most successfully avoided intellectual phase lock was Frank Dunnington, who worked with Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley in the 1930s. Dunnington spent several years measuring the electron's charge-to-mass ratio, e/m. [...H]e had to devise a scheme to avoid tilting the answer to an anticipated value. He did so by deliberately obscuring a crucial piece of information, the angle between the slits in his experimental arrangement through which the electrons entered and exited." "I wanted to accomplish more interesting original work. My standards were rising fast because of the reading program I was pursuing at night at home. Part of that program was a systematic review of the literature. The only way that I could really learn nuclear physics, I concluded, was to read everything that had been written on the subject. I arbitrarily decided that the beginning point of my reading should be Earnest Rutherford's 1919 disintegration of the nitrogen atom by alpha-particle bombardment, an event that changed nuclear physics from an observational science like astronomy to an interactive one." "Ernest Rutherford and his coworkers at the Cavendish discovered the famous fusion reactions - deuterium reacting with deuterium - two of the most important ever observed. They will probably provide most of the world's energy after coal, oil, and uranium have been depleted. The ocean contains virtually unlimited supplies of deuterium, which can be separated from seawater with a very small fraction of the energy that is liberated when two deuterons interact. The only thing delaying the arrival of this utopia is what physicists like to call 'a few engineering details.'" What was unfortunate about Alvarez, and this was true of all of the Manhattan project physicists, is that they were geniuses but not street-smart. Leo Szilard and Niels Bohr were furious that they and their fellow scientists had no influence over the use of atomic weapons once they finished creating them. Niels Bohr badgered Churchill to try to get him to turn over the idea of nuclear weapons to the Soviets (!) as though this would prevent an arms race after the war. He was so persistent that Churchill thought of having him arrested. Count this as a bad prediction by Alvarez: "I'm very much in favor of the eventual elimination of all weapons, both nuclear and conventional... The last few centuries have seen the world freed from several scourges - slavery, for example; death by torture for heretics; and, most recently, smallpox. I am optimistic enough to believe that the next scourge to disappear will be large-scale warfare - killed by the existence and nonuse of nuclear weapons."
  • Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (3.5/5) Another one by Richard Rhodes, this time about a year with a farmer in Missouri who grew corn and soybeans and raised pigs. The farmer (by the name of Bauer) was descended from German Catholic farmers who "brought with them German habits of husbandry that invested the rural American landscape with its most characteristic features, the single-family farmstead and the multipurpose barn. The midlands English who preceded them had come from a milder land where people lived crowded together in villages and walked out to farm and where cattle weren't stabled in barns in winter but fed in the fields from open haystacks." Rhodes has a great description of how the central planning of agriculture by the U.S. government leads to more fertilizer and agrichemical use. "Through the 1950s Congress debated whether to support farm prices with production controls and supply management or let them fall to their unsupported market levels. The debate culminated in 1965 in the Food and Agriculture Act, a compromise that made price supports and income payments contingent upon voluntary acreage controls. With that linkage the modern farm program was in place. From it followed many of the consequences that city people concerned about the quality of their food and people who find virtue in smaller-scale farming deplore. A farmer who agrees to limit the number of acres he plants in exchange for a supported price on the crops he grows has been encouraged thereby to maximize his yield per acre." "Farmers boosted yields to offset acreage restrictions by farming more intensely. They mechanized their operations, fertilized more heavily and used pesticides to control weeds and insects." "The obvious benefactors of this skewing were the agribusinesses that manufactured farm equipment and refined fuels and chemicals. A cruel saying came into vogue in the 1970s: a farmer is someone who launders government money for a chemical company." There's a conversation with one of Bauer's older farm neighbors who was in Europe during WWII, mentioning meeting better equipped Soviet soldiers in eastern Europe. (We know about this from Stalin's War.) Quality of land makes a big difference in productivity and value. "Her husband had bought the farm without even bothering to look at the house... 'Give me the land and I'll build you the house.'" Other highlights: "The Corn Belt states produced forty percent of [world] volume... Corn was a semitropical plant, but summer in the Mississippi Valley in any case was as hot as tropical summer, sometimes hotter. A grass distorted to biological monstrosity, the most prolific of all cereals in converting solar energy to food, corn was nearly three times as productive acre for acre as wheat." "Only in the twentieth century did the soybean begin to catch on among American farmers. Between the 1950s and the 1980s American markets developed for its oil and, secondarily, for its protein. From about two million acres in 1924, the area of its planting increased to sixty-one million acres in 1986." "The market for soybeans seemed to be bottomless, and it was the one crop that Tom grew that he could plant unrestricted by government controls." A nice conclusion: "At the cost of $2,850 worth of seed, human labor, fertilizer, machinery wear and tear and diesel fuel but with free water and free solar energy, the bags of seed corn would multiply to fill grain bins the size of houses. Farming created capital. It didn't just transfer it from one pocket to another. Tom worked every day with his hands plunged deep into the real world. That was probably why not much ever got him down."
  • Stalin's War: A New History of World War II (4.5/5) Bard College history professor Sean McMeekin argues that Stalin had the central role of WWII: it "was not Hitler's war; it was Stalin's war." If you look at his other books (including one on the Russian Revolution, one on "The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks"), it seems as though he is dedicating his career to an anti-communist history of the 20th century. How did someone born in 1974 with these views get tenure? "It has always been a stretch to lump together all the wars on the globe between the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931 and Japan's final capitulation in September 1945, as many historians are now conceding. [...] Still, if we do wish to find a common thread linking the on-and-off global wars lasting from 1931 to 1945, it would make far more sense to choose someone who was alive and in power during the whole thing, whose armies fought in both Asia and Europe on a regular (if not uninterrupted) basis for the entire period, whose empire spanned the Eurasian continent that furnished the theater for most of the fighting and nearly all of the casualties, whose territory was coveted by the two main Axis aggressors, and who succeeded in defeating them both and massively enlarging his empire in the process - emerging, by any objective evaluation, as the victor inheriting the spoils of war, if at a price in Soviet lives (nearly thirty million) so high as to be unfathomable today. In all these ways, it was not Hitler's but Stalin's war." "[T]he Soviet government made no public acknowledgement of the concentration camps in which it had been interning enemies of the people since 1918, much less of the burgeoning Gulag forced-labor network - which dwarfed the embryonic Nazi camps in scale and economic importance - or of the Ukrainian or Kazakh famine-genocides, or, at first, of Stalin's post-Kirov-affair purges (until the public show trials began in August 1936). While some Russians lucky enough to escape Stalin's prison state, and a few Western visitors brave enough to question the claims of their regime-provided minders, published probing critiques of the Soviet famine-genocide of the early 1930s and the Great Terror, these accounts were overshadowed by the lies of Stalin-friendly journalists like the New York Times' Walter Duranty and fellow travelers such as George Bernard Shaw. There was a double standard when it came to public exposure of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin that began in 1933 and continues on, in the historical literature, to this day." "It was not that Stalin did not want his side to win the war in Spain. Rather, in exchange for material support, Stalin demanded political control of the government fighting the war - a higher priority than military victory. [...] The cause of Republican anti-fascism in Spain, however appealing to volunteers from Europe and North America, is hard to reconcile with Stalin's use of the civil war as a killing ground for alleged enemies of the USSR. In May 1937, an NKVD team, led by the ruthless Aleksandr Orlov, arrived in Barcelona to carry out a bloody sectarian purge - a searing episode first chronicled by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia." "A cynic might conclude that Stalin's goal in the Spanish Civil War had not been so much winning it as prolonging the fighting for as long as possible." The reason for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviets and Germany: "if [Stalin] cut a deal with England and France, 'Germany will back off and seek a modus vivendi with the Western Powers.' By contrast, if Molotov 'accepted Germany's proposal and concluded a nonaggression pact with her,' Stalin predicted that Germany 'will certainly attack Poland, and then the intervention of England and France is unavoidable.' From the Communist perspective, the latter scenario - a bloody war in which the capitalist power blocs sought to destroy each other - was much better than peace." "'Everything should be done,' Stalin continued, 'so that the war drags out as long as possible with the goal of weakening both sides.' Viewing the Western capitalist powers, led by arch-imperialist Britain, as the stronger side, Stalin argued that the 'task' of Soviet foreign policy, for now, 'consists in helping Germany.'" "His peace initiative in Finland may have been the most critical decision Stalin made in his entire career. At the time, Soviet diplomatic isolation was complete. Virtually the entire civilized world had united to condemn Stalin's war of aggression , and four major powers - Britain, France, Italy, and Germany - were on the cusp of armed intervention... In view of what we now know about Stalin's superlative spy network, it is not likely a coincidence that Stalin made peace with Finland on March 12, 1940 - the very day the first echelon of British-French-Polish troops were scheduled to arrive in Finland, at least in allied planning documents." "With the world against him, Stalin swallowed his pride, signed a disappointing peace treaty, and cut the legs out from under Allied intervention plans. The prospect of a grand alliance against the totalitarian dictators was moribund. Somehow, Stalin had escaped French and British hostility once again, leaving Hitler alone to fight the world's two largest empires. Stalin knew when to fold when holding a weak hand." Here's something I never knew: "However illogical in diplomatic terms, the Allies came closest to waging war on the Soviet Union in the weeks after the Soviet-Finnish armistice of March 12, 1940. Plans for bombing Soviet oil installations in Baku, later code-named Operation Pike, were hashed out in Paris at the Supreme War Council on March 28." "In late March and early April 1940, just as Beria's NKVD thugs began rounding up Stalin's Polish Gulag prisoners for shooting, the British Air Ministry's long-planned surveillance of Soviet oil installations at Baku and Batumi was carried out by a daredevil pilot named Hugh Macphail... The photos suggested that, because the wooden oil derricks along the Caspian were placed only seventy yards apart, incendiary bombs could easily ignite a general conflagration of the entire petroleum saturated area." "Macphail's surveillance photographs can still be found in the British archives, providing a glimpse into an alternative world in which the war machines of Stalin and Hitler might have slowly ground to a halt for lack of oil in the weeks after May 15, 1940." The shipments of aid to the USSR after Barbarossa (the German invasion in 1941) were immense, and grotesque. Just as an example, Stalin refused to accept margarine and demanded real butter and so wartime Americans had to subsist on the disgusting seed oil substitute: "Stalin was given first priority on more than just warplanes. American civilians were forced to tighten their belts to provide Russians with foodstuffs at a time of strict wartime rationing back home." "It was strange enough that the Roosevelt administration - at least Harry Hopkins, who seemed to have taken over personal direction of its foreign policy - had gone all in on the Soviet side, despite the United States still being officially neutral in the European war. But what on earth was Winston Churchill, supposedly an arch imperialist devoted to shoring up the British Empire at all costs, thinking when he agreed to deprive Egypt, Singapore, and other vulnerable imperial strongholds like Malaysia and Hong Kong of desperately needed tanks and pursuit planes?" My best theory, much reinforced after reading McMeekin's book, is that Roosevelt was a true communist (his right hand man Harry Hopkins, who lived in the White House during the war was a communist, and so were other key administration figures) and that Churchill was bought by the Soviets during the decade that he was out of power, so that during WWII was being extorted and dragged along with Communism by Roosevelt. (Besides being a drunk, Churchill was a gambler, and in debt.) "[T]here was something different about the fervor with which Hopkins promoted Soviet interests. Beginning with his Kremlin summit with Stalin in July 1941, Hopkins had come genuinely to prefer the Soviet way of doing things to that of American liberals and Socialists." At the Tehran conference, Stalin proposed shooting 50,000-100,000 German officers after the war. Churchill apparently thought that this was outrageous but Roosevelt was amused. Stalin's agents also had a hand in coming up with the genocidal, anti-German Morgenthau plan. The incredible thing about WWII is that Britain ostensibly went to war against Germany because of Poland, yet acquiesced to the ruthless Soviet occupation not only of Poland but the other countries that were tragically trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Again, you are forced to conclude that Germany was fighting three Communist countries at the same time - the USSR, the U.S., and Britain - even if only one was officially Communist.


viennacapitalist said...

Always inspring, your book reviews!
Wish I had the discipline to write a review every time I finish a book!
You might want to check out "I Stalin" by Martin van Creveldt...

CP said...