July 21, 2013

1. Schopenhauer’s Porcupines

Socrates said, “If you get married, you’ll regret it, and if you don’t get married, you’ll regret that, too.” The same is true of travelling: if you travel with somebody, you’ll regret it, and if you travel alone, you’ll regret that, too. In this respect, travelling is a metaphor for life. If you share an apartment with others, you’ll wish you had your own apartment, but if you live alone, you’ll feel lonely, and envy the person who lives with others. Human nature is constructed in such a way that it’s hard for us to be completely happy with another person, and equally hard for us to be completely happy alone. Perhaps Schopenhauer’s porcupine metaphor is the best expression of this:

Some porcupines come together on a cold winter day, in order to share each other’s warmth. But when they’re pricked by each other’s quills, they move apart. And so they move back and forth, satisfied neither with the cold of solitude, nor with society’s quills.

When David Donald was discussing Lincoln’s marital problems, he said that Lincoln and his wife were both difficult to live with. Then he added, “everyone is difficult to live with.”

2. I Love You

The late Irving Kristol poked fun at the contemporary custom of constantly saying “I love you” to your children. Indeed, “I love you” is in a fair way to replace “Bye” as a conclusion to phone conversations.

If a parent can be judged by how often he says “I love you” to his child, then I’m not a good parent. But perhaps I’m good at “identification love” — that is, identifying yourself with the beloved, erasing the boundary between you and the beloved. “I love you” implies two separate people, I and you. But identification merges two into one.

Identification comes naturally to me when I’m dealing with a child or pet. But what about the love between two adults, romantic love? Is romantic love based on identification or opposition (as in the saying “opposites attract”)? Does romantic love require some distance? Does it require two separate people? If so, then perhaps “I love you” belongs here.

3. E=mc2

I read a book called E=mc2, by David Bodanis. I recommend it; it’s fun to read, it’s short, and it gives you a better understanding of an abstruse subject. Bodanis is a well-regarded science writer, and this is his most well-regarded book. Another of his books, Electric Universe, won the Royal Society Prize for science writing. My only complaint about E=mc2 is that the author’s fondness for anecdotes sometimes distracts him from his theme.

Einstein’s ideas aren’t easy to grasp, even for those who spent much time talking with Einstein himself. Chaim Weizmann, a chemist and the first President of Israel, crossed the Atlantic with Einstein in 1921. “Einstein explained his theory to me every day,” Weizmann said, “and soon I was fully convinced that he understood it.” Bodanis doesn’t try to explain all of Einstein; he wisely focuses on one of the less abstruse aspects of Einstein’s work.

Einstein’s equation, E=mc2, says that mass and energy are equivalent — are different forms of each other. “Mass is simply the ultimate type of condensed or concentrated energy.” One might say E=m, energy equals mass. When we multiply m by c2, we’re saying how much energy lies within a given amount of mass. Since c2 is a very large number, the equation says that a very large amount of energy lies within a given amount of mass — lies within even a rather small amount of mass.

Bodanis says that the first atom bomb didn’t need much uranium: “The bomb over Japan had destroyed an entire city, simply from sucking several ounces of uranium out of existence, and transforming it into glowing energy.” This bomb generated so much energy that “the glare would have been viewable from Jupiter.”

Bodanis points out that E=mc2 explains why the sun can emit so much energy for so many years — why it takes so many years for the sun’s mass to be consumed. The equation also explains why a chunk of radioactive matter can glow, and emit energy, for thousands of years, while its mass remains almost intact. And the equation explains why so much energy is required to enlarge mass; for example, if scientists want to make particles more massive, using a particle accelerator, they must expend vast amounts of electricity.

One might compare a uranium atom to a person who enters a supermarket planning to buy only milk and eggs. He doesn’t take a cart or basket; “I’m only getting two things, I can just carry them.” But then he sees an item on sale, and grabs it. Then he sees something he forgot he needed, and grabs it, too. Finally he’s carrying six items in his arms, and the more he carries, the more likely he’ll drop something. So too, a uranium atom contains lots of particles, and can barely keep from dropping something; if you can fire a neutron into its nucleus, the uranium atom will split, will start to come apart, like a shopper who’s carrying six items in his arms, but can’t resist grabbing a seventh. And once the atom splits and emits particles, those particles may enter another atom’s nucleus, causing it to split, and so a chain reaction begins, like a shopper who drops a carton of milk into the arms of another shopper, causing that shopper to begin dropping things.

The speed of light is 670,000,000 mph. At this speed,

you could get from London to Los Angeles in under 1/20th of a second.... There’s another comparison: Mach 1 is the speed of sound, about 700 mph. A 747 jet travels at a little under Mach 1. The space shuttle, after full thrust, can surpass Mach 20. The asteroid or comet that splashed a hole in the ocean floor and destroyed the dinosaurs impacted at about Mach 70. The number for “c” is Mach 900,000.

Galileo tried to measure the speed of light by testing how long it took light to cross a valley. At that distance, light appears to travel instantaneously. But the Danish astronomer Roemer was able to measure the speed of light by studying Jupiter’s moons, and the amount of time it took for their image to reach Earth; their image reaches Earth more quickly when Earth’s orbit brings it near Jupiter. Roemer was born in 1644, 80 years after Galileo. Like many revolutionary discoveries, Roemer’s discovery wasn’t accepted by the establishment; “Europe’s astronomers still did not accept that light traveled at a finite speed.” Roemer made his discovery when he was just 21.

Bodanis says that big discoveries are generally made by young people. Late in his life, Einstein said, “Discovery in the grand manner is for young people... and hence for me a thing of the past.” The Indian scientist Chandrasekhar had what was probably his biggest idea (that black holes must exist) when he was just 19, and travelling across the Arabian Sea. (Travel seems to foster new ideas, since it takes one away from one’s daily tasks, and seems to give one free time.)

These creative young people don’t always follow the rules, don’t always listen to their teachers. Bodanis discusses the astronomer Fred Hoyle who, at the age of 6, skipped school, spent his days at the movie theater, and learned to read by watching the subtitles. When Hoyle was about 9, he was still skipping school:

Each morning, I ate breakfast and started off from home, just as if I were going to school. But it was to the factories and workshops of Bingley that I went. There were mills with clacking and thundering looms. There were blacksmiths and carpenters. Everybody seemed amused to answer my questions.

Hoyle wrote several works of popular science. He also wrote numerous works of science fiction, some with his son; one of these works, The Black Cloud, seems to be especially well-regarded. According to Bodanis, “Fred Hoyle is the best writer of any high-level scientist I’m aware of: his autobiography, Home Is Where the Wind Blows, is a pleasure to read.”

One of Bodanis’ specialties is odd facts from everyday life. He discusses practical applications of radioactivity:

E=mc2 continues at work in ordinary houses. In the smoke detectors screwed tight to the kitchen ceiling, there’s usually a sample of radioactive americium inside. The detector gets enough power by sucking mass out of that americium and using it as energy — in exact accord with the equation — that it can generate a smoke-sensitive charged beam, and keep on doing so for months or years on end.

I had assumed that Einstein’s famous equation was unique and had no ancestors. Bodanis points out that Einstein’s equation is similar to Leibniz’s equation; Leibniz had said that energy is equivalent to mv2, that is, mass times velocity squared. Leibniz took issue with Newton, who had said that energy is equivalent to mass times velocity (not velocity squared). It turned out that Leibniz, not Newton, was correct. I’m continually impressed with Leibniz, who had deep ideas in many different fields.

Bodanis discusses a French scientist, Emilie du Châtelet, and her lover, Voltaire. (Later Bodanis wrote a book about this couple, Passionate Minds; Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love also deals with this couple.) Bodanis says that Du Châtelet shrewdly sided with Leibniz, and helped his theory gain acceptance. In general, though, Du Châtelet was a champion of Newton, and she made a translation-with-commentary of Newton’s Principia Mathematica. Voltaire was also a champion of Newton, and spread his ideas in France. Like Pascal, Du Châtelet used her mathematical skills to turn a profit in casinos.

Leibniz’s equation (E=mv2) implies that mass gets its energy from motion, from velocity, and has no energy if it’s at rest. Einstein’s equation, on the other hand, says that mass has enormous energy even when it’s at rest. Leibniz’s equation implies that velocity can be large or small, hence energy can be large or small. On the other hand, Einstein’s equation uses the ultimate velocity, the speed of light (“c”). For Einstein, the speed of light is a special number: it’s the highest possible speed, and it also reveals how much energy is in mass.

Bodanis says that, when Einstein’s equation was published in 1905, it made no impression on the scientific community, just as Mendel’s theory initially made no impression. Einstein didn’t become a celebrity until 1919, when experiments showed that light from distant stars was bent when it passed the sun, just as Einstein had predicted.

At the back of the book, there are useful suggestions for further reading. Bodanis is a big fan of Timothy Ferris’ book, Coming of Age in the Milky Way: “His book is the ideal introduction to the history of astronomy.... Excellent explanations are mixed with pleasing anecdotes.” Bodanis recommends serious, scholarly works like Fritz Stern’s Einstein’s German World; Bodanis calls Stern “one of America’s great historians” (I mentioned Stern in an earlier issue). Bodanis also recommends light, playful books such as The Strange Case of Mrs. Hudson’s Cat: Or Sherlock Holmes Solves the Einstein Mysteries. As for Einstein biographies, Bodanis recommends two early biographies: Einstein: His Life and Times, by Philipp Frank, and Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography, by Carl Seelig.1A

4. Chinua Achebe

The local GreatBooks group recently read an essay by Chinua Achebe, “Impediments to Dialogue Between North and South” (1980). The essay can be found in Hopes and Impediments, a collection of Achebe’s essays. I take a dim view of the essay, but I like Achebe’s prose, and I’d probably like his famous novel, Things Fall Apart (1958). Wikipedia says that this novel is “the most widely read book in modern African literature.” Achebe was from Nigeria, and he died recently at the age of 82.

In his essay, Achebe says, “Europe engaged Africa in the tragic misalliance of the slave trade and colonialism to lay the foundations of modern European and American industrialism and wealth.” But there are many causes of “European and American industrialism and wealth.” The slave trade and African colonialism was only one piece of the puzzle, it didn’t “lay the foundations.” The Southern U.S. had numerous slaves, but wasn’t wealthier than the North. Likewise, Germany became wealthy despite minimal involvement in the slave trade and colonialism. Around 1850, Arab nations had African slaves, but were far less wealthy than Germany. So slavery and colonialism doesn’t “lay the foundations” of wealth and industry, it’s only one factor among many, and not the most important factor.

Achebe complains that Europeans don’t listen to African intellectuals like himself. But doesn’t every writer feel that the world doesn’t listen to him as much as it should?

Achebe mocks the “bush African” who “tells fairy stories about the crocodile and the elephant.” He says that Europeans like the bush African because of his “wholesome and unquestioning admiration for white people.” But thinkers like Jung and Joseph Campbell have considerable respect for Africans, just as they have considerable respect for American Indians; they believe there’s deep wisdom in the native’s stories of crocodiles and elephants. Their respect has nothing to do with the native’s attitude toward white people.

Achebe ends his essay with a threat of violence, a threat that Africans may “set the world ablaze.” He says that Europeans view Africans as “rubbish,” and there can be dialogue between Europe and Africa only when this attitude changes, “if the heap of rubbish doesn’t catch fire meanwhile and set the world ablaze.”1B

5. Harry Jaffa

In my salad days, when I was a Harvard freshman, I took a seminar taught by Ed Banfield. One day, he invited Harry Jaffa to address the group. Jaffa came with his son. I don’t remember the topic of his talk. I wasn’t much impressed with his talk, and Banfield later said that it wasn’t one of Jaffa’s best performances.

That was 33 years ago. Now Jaffa is 94. He’s a leading Straussian; he’s sometimes called the leader of the West Coast Straussians, who are based at the Claremont Institute.1 Jaffa was a pioneer in the effort to integrate Strauss with the American political tradition — more specifically, to integrate Strauss with the Declaration, the Constitution, and Lincoln’s ideas.

Jaffa’s best-known book is Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Jaffa argued that Lincoln, like Strauss, believed in eternal truths, moral absolutes, in contrast to the historicism of the Confederates. As Socrates argued for timeless moral truths, while the Sophists said that every epoch and every society has its own morality, so Lincoln championed timeless moral truths in his debates with Stephen Douglas. Douglas said that Western territories should vote on whether to be free states or slave states; Lincoln, on the other hand, argued that slavery is eternally wrong, wrong everywhere, wrong always.

Lincoln supported his argument with the Declaration’s famous phrase, “all men are created equal.” Jaffa regards the Declaration as a kind of foundation for the Constitution, and he regards Lincoln’s speeches as an expression of the Founding Principles. Some legal scholars, like Robert Bork, object to Jaffa’s view, and argue that the Constitution stands alone, it isn’t an adjunct to the Declaration. Jaffa has often clashed, not only with liberals, but also with conservatives like Bork.

Jaffa became interested in Lincoln when he chanced into a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in a New York bookstore, and began glancing at it. “I was astonished,” he said. “It didn’t take long before I could see what was going on. The issue between Lincoln and Douglas was precisely identical to the one between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. I was floored — delighted — thrilled.”

6. Miscellaneous

A. One of the most popular and prolific American writers of the mid-1900s was F. Van Wyck Mason. Born into the Boston aristocracy, Mason fought in World War I as a young man. Before he turned 17, he had already become a decorated officer in the French army, and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He graduated from Harvard in 1924. Mason wrote some historical fiction, including a series of four books about the American Revolution (Three Harbours, Stars on the Sea, Rivers of Glory, and Eagle in the Sky). As these titles suggest, Mason had a special interest in naval matters. He also wrote crime novels, which apparently influenced Ian Fleming.

B. Kenneth Roberts also wrote popular historical fiction. A native of Maine, Roberts often wrote about Maine-related events; for example, his novel Arundel deals with Benedict Arnold’s journey through Maine en route to attacking Quebec. Oliver Wiswell deals with the whole American Revolution from a Tory perspective. Roberts received valuable editorial assistance from Booth Tarkington, a prominent writer of the time.

C. The grandfather of American historical fiction is James Fenimore Cooper, who became internationally famous in the early 1800’s. Perhaps Cooper’s best-known work is The Last of the Mohicans, which deals with the French capture of Fort William Henry during the French and Indian War.

In his early years, Cooper served on a merchant ship and then a Navy ship. Shortly before the War of 1812, he was stationed on Lake Ontario, which he described in his novel The Pathfinder, Or the Inland Sea. Many of Cooper’s novels deal with the sea, such as The Red Rover and The Pilot. Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed Cooper’s novels, and called him “Cooper of the wood and wave.”

D. As for English historical fiction, C. S. Forester wrote numerous historical novels, many dealing with naval history. Forester wrote a series of 12 novels about an English naval officer, Horatio Hornblower, who fought during the Napoleonic era. In 1938, two of the Hornblower novels were jointly awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Several of Forester’s novels were made into movies, including The African Queen and Hunting the Bismarck.

One of Forester’s fans, Bernard Cornwell, wrote a series of novels about Wellington’s land campaigns. Cornwell has also written historical novels about the American Revolution, medieval history, etc. His books have sold more than 30 million copies.

E. Like animals? Click here or here for charming animal videos.

7. One Canticle and Two Crichtons

I discovered a science-fiction classic called A Canticle for Leibowitz, by an American writer, Walter Miller. Like many early sci-fi writers, Miller started out writing short stories for magazines. He combined three of these stories to create Canticle, which he published in 1959, at the age of 36. During the rest of his life (he lived to be 72), Miller didn’t complete any new works.

According to Wikipedia, Canticle is

Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war.... The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz take up the mission of preserving the surviving remnants of man’s scientific knowledge. [Canticle was] inspired by the author’s participation in the Allied bombing of the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II.

In 1961, Canticle won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Since then, it has been reprinted more than 25 times.

A popular sci-fi writer from more recent times is Michael Crichton. Crichton graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, and he used his knowledge of biology and medicine in his writing. Among his best-known works are The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton should not be confused with Robert Crichton, author of The Great Impostor, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, etc.

© L. James Hammond 2013
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1A. Bodanis tells the story of the destruction of the Nazi’s heavy-water factory in Norway. This incident is the subject of a book by Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress: The Epic Mission to Sabotage Hitler’s Atomic Bomb. Bascomb has written other books of popular history, such as Hunting Eichmann. back
1B. Among the recent writers who come from Africa is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who writes in English and has won various awards. She wrote an interesting essay about Cameroon in the New York Times. back
1. Jaffa was a student of Strauss at The New School, before Strauss went to the University of Chicago. back