Category Archives: The Book I Read

The Wizard and the Prophet: ¿Por Qué No Los Dos?

Charles Mann’s book, The Wizard and the Prophet, is a remarkable biography of two men who each believed he had the best way for the world to avoid a “wrenching global catastrophe” in the next century:

  • Agronomist Norman Borlaug, The Wizard, believed that science and technology, properly applied, can help humankind produce enough of what the world’s population needs to survive.
  • Ornithologist William Vogt, The Prophet, believed that humankind must drastically reduce consumption to avoid overwhelming the planet’s ecosystems and becoming extinct.

Cataloguing in excruciating detail the pioneering work and influential writing of Borlaug and Vogt, Mann mostly paints their efforts with great contrast, pitting the scientists and their followers against one another: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment,” Mann says. “Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet.”

But he also admits, “Wizards and Prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaug-style.” When Mann offhandedly allowed, “Some people believe in doing just that,” I thought, Wait, what? Umm…yeah! ¿Por qué no los dos? Why not both? How does maximizing access to food, water, energy and air conflict with being responsible about using them?

In his quest, perhaps, to sharpen the debate by focusing on the priorities of each man’s efforts and the needlessly partisan passion of their followers, Mann colors their work as mutually exclusive and impulsively casts aside the suggestion that they could complement and enhance one another. He says, “People who back Borlaug and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won’t follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.” Huh?

Biologist Lynn Margulis, to whom Mann refers at numerous points in the book, insisted that it is the fate of every successful species—including humans—to wipe itself out. And so she believed, according to Mann, that both Borlaug and Vogt were wrong to think they could stop us from destroying ourselves.

But Mann ultimately clings to the hope that, whatever approach or combination of approaches wins out, the human species will be able to maintain its success indefinitely. He insists that “Wizards and Prophets…both assume…that human beings are special creatures who can escape the fate of other successful species.”

Mann hopefully cites recent progress in freeing slaves, empowering women and reducing violence and asks, “Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use [our] talents and…resources to draw back before the abyss?”

Having insisted that The Wizard and the Prophet is “a book about the future that makes no predictions,” he ends with a vague fear. “It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right,” he says, “and get this one wrong.”


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Work for Truth

Galileo's 'somewhat shriveled, spindly finger' preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence

Alice Dreger, a medical social advocate and bioethicist, titled her book Galileo’s Middle Finger for the actual digit preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. She considers it a symbol of “Galileo’s contentious nature, his belief in the righteousness of science, his ego, his burning knowledge that he and Copernicus were right.”

In GMF, Dreger describes the necessity of insisting on empirical truth for the establishment of justice:

The activists who founded the United States—the Founding Fathers—understood the critical connection between freedom of thought and freedom of person. They understood that justice (freedom of person) depends upon truth (freedom of thought), and that the quest for truth cannot occur in an unjust system. It’s no coincidence that so many of the Founding Fathers were science geeks. These guys were rightly stoked about the idea that humans working together had it in their power to know and to improve the world—scientifically, technologically, economically, politically. These were men of the Enlightenment who had broken through dogma into a fantastic new vision for humankind: crowdsourcing. No longer would knowledge and power flow from top down, following archaic rules of authority and blood inheritance. In science as in political life, the light of many minds would be brought to bear to decide together what is right and is just. In such a system, a man arguing for a new vision of the universe could never be arrested merely for the argument, no matter how much it threatened those in power….

If we have any hope of maintaining freedom of thought and freedom of person in the near and distant future, we have to remember what the Founding Fathers knew: That freedom of thought and freedom of person must be erected together. That truth and justice cannot exist one without the other. That when one is threatened, the other is harmed. That justice and thus morality require the empirical pursuit….

As Dreger insists, “If you want justice, you must work for truth.”

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Mystery & Crime Novels for $800, Alex

Snow and ice are a perfect setting for a noir story

I was prompted to read Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, when Jeopardy! featured a question about it (“When a boy falls to his death, ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’ in this Scandinavian country helps prove it was murder”). I had no idea that the book has been the subject of one of the show’s clues—as Ed Rooney saidnine times, each in a different category:

  • 1990s FICTION

The book is considered part of the “noir” crime genre and, since it’s set in Denmark and Greenland, one of the best examples of a subgenre known as Nordic noir (or Scandinavian noir).

Noir literature is typically characterized by:

  • Simple language, i.e., without metaphor
  • Bleak settings
  • Tension between a calm social surface and the violence beneath
  • Dark and morally complex moods
  • Social criticism

The plot of these stories often contrasts with the classic British “whodunit” where the reader and the detective try to identify the criminal as the plot progresses (à la Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes). Instead, they tend to follow an inverted detective story form—sometimes called a “howcatchem”—where the reader knows the villain’s identity in advance (à la Columbo) and watches the detective bring him to justice.

More fundamentally, “noir”—Nordic or not—conveys a different worldview and features a different type of protagonist:

“The classic crime story…takes place in an essentially orderly universe, with a common understanding of good and evil. Crime here is a dangerous anomaly, but order can be restored by a hero-detective who investigates and, eventually, unmasks the criminal.”

The world of noir, on the other hand, is “chaotic, baroque and hypocritical. Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories give the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good. A detective may pursue such a criminal, but noir reveals the line between them to be a product of chance and circumstance—if, indeed, such a line exists at all.”

“In noir, the problem is not an individual: the problem is the world. Institutions are corrupt, public moralities hypocritical, the watchmen un-watched. One person may pull a trigger, but that act is part of a sprawling web of mendacity and exploitation. No one gets away clean.”

Noir depicts “a universe more like the one we live in than the one we imagine for ourselves…[It is] powerful because it [is] a tiny bit true.”

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Profile in Courage

During the first two and a half years of President John F. Kennedy’s administration, he struggled to develop a bond with Martin Luther King Jr. and to come to grips with the civil rights movement. In his book, Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights, Steven Levingston described the “often clashing but always respectful” relationship between the Irish Catholic politician and the Southern Baptist preacher.

As a candidate for President in 1960, Kennedy had coveted King’s support, knowing the favor it would bring him among black voters. But after meeting with Kennedy in June 1960, King still believed that the candidate had only an intellectual commitment [to civil rights], not an emotional one. King diplomatically insisted that he declined to offer a political endorsement because it would be inappropriate for him to do so.

Shortly before the election, however, Kennedy made a private phone call expressing his concern to King’s pregnant wife Coretta while King was incarcerated. When word of the call got out, it “reverberated within the black community” and helped him narrowly defeat the Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

But as President, Kennedy disappointed King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement by failing to prioritize their struggle as a national issue. The president was pressed relentlessly to “confront racist Southern politicians and end the indignity of segregation” in American society, but his attention was repeatedly drawn to other issues.

King believed that, like some other politicians, Kennedy saw the Cold War expediency of removing segregation and discrimination as stains on the nation. But he accused the president of not insisting on their removal simply because they were “morally wrong.”

By the time some of the most brutal confrontations of the civil rights campaign occurred in Birmingham, Alabama in late 1962, however, the movement’s leaders had come to believe that Kennedy was different from previous presidents. They believed that a “tacit alliance” had developed between the Kennedy administration and their cause, and that if they could arouse public support, “this administration would hear it and respond.”

On June 11, 1963, after watching Governor George Wallace refuse admission to black students at the University of Alabama, Kennedy determined to deliver a nationally televised speech that night. “As Wallace left the doorway,” remembered Kennedy advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen, “the president turned around and said to me, ‘I think we’d better give that speech tonight.'” Kennedy’s political advisors opposed a public speech calling for civil rights legislation, but his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy argued for it and won.

Acting with “unusual impulsiveness,” Kennedy told his Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges, “I may lose the legislation, or I may even lose the election in 1964, but there comes a time when a man has to take a stand and history will record that he has to meet these tough situations and ultimately make a decision.”

In what The New York Times called “Kennedy’s Finest Moment,” the president empathized with the suffering of black citizens as never before, committing his support to them, and calling on all Americans to do the same. For the first time, he called civil rights a moral issue (“as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution”) in sharp contrast to the refusal of his predecessor to do so.

Following the speech, which laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King exclaimed, “That white man not only stepped up to the plate, he hit it over the fence!” US Congressman John Lewis gave King much of the credit for persuading Kennedy to take a stand, saying, “The very being, the very presence, of Martin Luther King Jr. pricked the conscience of John F. Kennedy.”

King said Kennedy in 1963 became a leader who was “willing to stand up in a courageous manner” to address moral issues. And Kennedy ultimately recognized the role King had played in his decision to embrace the struggle of blacks for civil rights when he said to King, “It often helps me to be pushed.”

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Sisters of the Sun

Henry Draper was a physician, but his passion was astronomy. At age 36, he left his positions as professor and dean of medicine at New York University to spend more time working in his observatory in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

On Henry Draper’s death in 1882, Harvard Observatory director Edward Pickering informed Anna Palmer Draper that he intended to carry out her husband’s desire to photograph and classify the stars, and she agreed to support and fund the work. As a result, the observatory’s largely-female staff became pioneers of astrophotography, spectral analysis, and astrophysics.

Dava Sobel’s book, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, describes how night after night and decade after decade, the women exposed glass plate negatives, capturing a spectrum for each star in the telescope’s field of vision by placing a prism in their telescopes. Annie Jump Cannon grouped the stars in their hundreds of thousands of photographs according to the character of each one’s spectrum and classified them into seven types designated by the letters O, B, A, F, G, K and M.

The 2014 television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey told of the Harvard women, as well, focusing on Cannon and Cecilia Payne in part of its eighth episode, Sisters of the Sun. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson emphasized not only Cannon’s classification system, but also—more than Sobol—the opposition initially provided for Payne’s important addition to it.

When Payne—an expert in theoretical and atomic physics—migrated from England to the United States in search of academic opportunity as a woman, she joined the Harvard team of researchers—now under director Harlow Shapley—and provided insight into the meaning of Cannon’s categories. Payne determined that, without knowing it, Cannon’s system had classified the stars from the hottest to the coldest.

By analyzing the chemical composition and physical state of the stars, Payne discovered that the stars are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium; unlike on earth, all the other elements were present only in trace amounts. This contention was so stunning that it was initially disparaged by Princeton University professor Henry Norris Russell, the dean of American astronomers at the time, and Payne backed off the central claim of her thesis. But four years later, Russell affirmed that Payne was right.

Cosmos used this delayed acceptance to make a strong point about the uniqueness of the process of scientific discovery: “The words of the powerful may prevail in other spheres of human experience,” Tyson said. “But in science, the only thing that counts is the evidence and the logic of the argument itself.” Payne was quoted as saying, “I was to blame for not having pressed my point. I had given in to authority when I believed I was right. If you are sure of your facts, you should defend your position.”

The overriding impression of Sobol’s account of the work at Harvard Observatory is of passionate curiosity in the face of staggeringly tedious work which achieved a number of significant scientific discoveries:

  • By Henrietta Leavitt:
    • The brighter the magnitude of a star, the longer the period of its variation. Known as the period-luminosity relation, this became the fundamental method for determining the distance to a star.
  • By Harlow Shapley:
    • The universe is not centered on the sun, is magnitudes bigger than previously thought, and contains many other galaxies besides the Milky Way.
  • By Cecilia Payne:
    • The ratios of hydrogen and helium in the stars is a million times higher than on earth.
    • The stars are similar to one another in chemical composition, but vary in temperature.

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Knowledge Against Ignorance

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, man’s understanding of his position in the universe was changing. But neither the mathematical calculations of Copernicus nor the observations of Galileo had provided proof that the Earth moved. Empiricism demanded a demonstration.

In his book, Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science, Amir D. Aczel describes how the French physicist’s simple experiment exasperated the scientific elite and earned him a place among them by solving “the most persistent scientific problem of all time.”

After working for months in his Paris cellar, Foucault succeeded in 1851 in suspending a five-kilogram brass bob from a two-meter steel wire so that it was free to move in any direction around the vertical. As the pendulum swung in a fixed plane, Foucault was able to view how the rotation of the earth caused its orientation to shift.

Galileo had insisted in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, that “all experiments practicable upon the earth are insufficient measures for proving its mobility, since they are indifferently adaptable to an earth in motion or at rest,” but the untrained Foucault had shown otherwise.

After viewing a demonstration of Foucault’s pendulum at the Paris Observatory on February 3, 1851, the mathematicians and physicists of the French Academy of Sciences could not deny that they did “see the world turn.” But they quickly became incensed that their lifetimes studying rotations, gravity and astronomy had not led them to imagine and perform what many of them called Foucault’s “beautiful experiment.” Refusing to give Foucault his due because he was not one of them, they scrambled to justify their own shortcoming and minimize Foucault’s achievement, barely mentioning his work in technical reports of the year’s scientific activity.

It is likely that Foucault would never have received the recognition he deserved, including nomination to the Academy of Sciences and the Legion of Honour, without the support of President/Emperor Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who had a deep personal interest in science and was devoted to progressing the nation by promoting scientific ideas.

But ultimately, according to Aczel, “Foucault’s great triumph is a triumph of the human mind. It is a double victory of knowledge against ignorance. First, Foucault’s great achievement showed how physical intuition, engineering skills, and perseverance can win against the hubris of mathematics detached from the real world. More important, Foucault’s landmark experiment spelled the end of speculations and persistent false beliefs. As such, Foucault’s definitive proof of the rotation of the earth helped vindicate Galileo, Copernicus, and Giordano Bruno.”

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Learning to Fly

History is almost always more nuanced than we would prefer, and many “historic” figures became such more by chance or bluster than genuine merit. But David McCullough makes clear in his book, The Wright Brothers, that the well-known aviation pioneers deserve every bit of their success and fame.

We knew about the Wrights’ initial powered flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, but I did not appreciate how the brothers at the time prudently chose not to tout their success before they were confident that their invention had become truly useful. McCullough describes how the brothers continued for the next several years learning to fly back in Ohio, largely out of view. Only a few witnessed the flights at Huffman Prairie outside Dayton where they mastered control of their flying machine and improved its engine, performing in varying winds and learning to maintain complete control throughout their flights.

Unhurried by others’ attempts to fly in the United States and Europe, they ignored the skeptical voices of many who had heard reports of their first brief flight but little since. The Paris Herald said provokingly in 1906, “They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars.”

In addition, as their still largely unseen proficiency grew, the Wrights began to seek an outlet for their machine. The United States War Department declined their request for funding, saying the machine had not yet been brought to the stage of “practical operation.” So, despite Wilbur’s insistence that he was not a businessman, he travelled to Europe in 1908 to meet with representatives of the government in France, where the pursuit of flight was a national obsession. “He found himself in the thick of extremely complex commercial dealings,” according to McCullough, “playing for extremely high stakes with highly experienced entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats, and in a language he neither spoke nor understood.” Moreover, “at the war ministry it was being said the Wrights were ‘bluffers like all Americans,’ ‘worthless people’ trying to sell to France ‘an object of no value’ that even the Americans did not believe in.”

But in that fraught environment, out of his element, Wilbur demonstrated a strength of character beyond his scientific genius. “Alert, patient, closely attentive, Wilbur ‘never rattled,’ as his father would say, never lost his confidence. He could be firm without being dictatorial, disagree without causing offense. Nor was there ever a doubt that when he spoke he knew what he was talking about….Most importantly, he remained entirely himself, never straying from his direct, unpretentious way, and with good effect.”

In order to strike a deal with the French, there had to be a demonstration of the worthiness of their flyer. It was in 1908 in Le Mans, France that Wilbur Wright finally demonstrated in public the mastery of flight they had acquired mostly unnoticed.

Working without his brother or his primary mechanic, Charlie Taylor, Wilbur Wright prepared himself and his plane for the moment that would launch or ground their dream. In front of a crowd of spectators who waited for hours in hot sun, his thoroughness was almost unfathomable. “Neither the impatience of waiting crowds, nor the sneers of rivals, nor the pressure of financial conditions not always easy, could induce him to hurry over any difficulty before he had done everything in his power to understand and overcome it,” described his associate Hart O. Berg.

Wilbur personified the advice he later wrote to his brother when Orville was preparing for a demonstration of his own in Virginia: “Don’t go out even for all the officers of the government unless you would go equally if they were absent,” he insisted. “Do not let yourself be forced into doing anything before you are ready.”

Wilbur was finally confident of his preparations in Le Mans on August 8, 1908, at six-thirty in the evening with dusk approaching, he turned his cap backward, and to those accompanying him said quietly, “Gentlemen, I’m going to fly.”

He sailed away toward a row of tall poplars, where, at what seemed the last minute, the left wing dropped sharply, he banked off to the left, turned in a graceful curve, and came flying back toward the grandstand….Very near the point where he had started, he made another perfect turn to fly full circle once again, all at about 30 to 35 feet, before coming down to a gentle landing within 50 feet from where he had taken off. In all he was in the air not quite 2 minutes and covered a distance of 2 miles.

“The length of the flight was not what mattered,” said McCullough, “but that he had complete control and, by all signs, could have stayed in the air almost indefinitely.”

Mechanical and aeronautical genuises? Yes. But the Wrights’ success was due as well to their meticulous preparation, their confident refusal to make premature haste, their excruciating perseverance, and their integrity in seeking first to satisfy their own curiosity—to understand.

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