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The Joy of High Tech


Rodford Edmiston

     Being the occasionally interesting ramblings of a major-league technophile.

Please note that while I am an engineer (BSCE) and do my research, I am not a professional in this field. Do not take anything here as gospel; check the facts I give. And if you find a mistake, please let me know about it.

This installment consists of 4 short book reviews, with an observation said books brought to me placed first.

     I've noticed an interesting phenomenon. I have been reading a great deal, lately, about the history of technological development, and noticed that intelligent and educated but non-technical authors tended to explain certain types of tech or science correctly, but go off at a weird angle for other stuff. The division appears to be between those things which are intuitively obvious on examination - generally mechanical things, such as siege engines and water mills - and those which aren't, such as chemistry and physics. One historian did fine with ancient, mechanical devices, but stated as unquestioned fact that the purpose for putting the spin on a gun or cannon projectile was to reduce air resistance.

     It's not just that these writers are getting stuff wrong. Often they will state things (as above) which are obvious nonsense to anyone with even a basic understanding of the subject, and repeat as gospel "facts" which have long been disproven. Many of the latter aren't even technical in nature, and require no technical expertise to uncover, only a bit of research, which historians are supposed to be good at. It's as if something in their brain is making them skim past the stuff they don't have an intuitive understanding of. (A psychologist friend tells me that most people develop an "intuitive physics" which they have to be untaught before they can learn real physics.)

     My hypothesis is that most people simply don't want to deal with things which are non-intuitive. Even if their own work involves much non-intuitive analysis of information, for things outside their field which are non-intuitive they just sort of skip through, expending as little effort as they can get by with... and often less.

     I wonder if there's a particular faculty some people have which makes them more open to non-intuitive thought. Most - maybe all - of the people who would want to read this sort of article seem to have it, to at least a minor degree. If such a distinction exists, is this a matter of training, or is a person born with it?

     This isn't about being a nerd. Most nerds - especially those working in programming - revel in intuitive thought (such as logic paths) and have problems with the non-intuitive. The difference I'm talking about seems to be a techie faculty. A willingness, and even enthusiasm, to learn and understand how things really work.

     Of course, there are people who seem to have an intuitive grasp of subtle matters, such as Einstein and Tesla. Is this yet a separate faculty, or simply an extreme version of the "techie knack?" (Einstein was himself a bit of an inventor; he worked for a while in a patent office and was co-holder of at least one patent, for a special type of refrigerator.)

     Well, enough of this. Let's get to the books.

Book Reviews

Science Goes To War by Ernest Volkman

     This is the worst of the lot. It purports to demonstrate how technological and scientific developments throughout history have affected the ways wars are fought, lost and won. He does pretty well with early technology, but once he starts covering the chemical and physical developments of the Twentieth Century becomes lost. (One of his mistakes does go back much further, when he gives a ship's speed in "knots per hour.") At two points in the book the author claims that the British coastal long-wave radar in WWII was the first use of microwave radar! He compounds this by getting the importance of shorter-wavelength radar over long-wavelength exactly backwards, claiming the Germans were working on longer-wavelength units when they (and everyone else) were actually going the other way!

     He's no better at chemistry, claiming that self-sealing tanks worked by having an external rubber layer catch and absorb the bullet! (In reality, the bullet passed through the rubber, which was a compound designed to foam and expand when exposed to gasoline. If something punched a hole in the tank, the gasoline started to leak, touched the rubber, and that expanded and sealed the hole. A similar development, used in many race cars, is to fill the tank with a porous foam inert to the fuel. This does not seal the tank but reduces the rate to a drip, and prevents the formation of explosive vapor in the tank as it empties.) He further states that transistors were developed to replace tubes aboard B-29 bombers! (Transistors were developed by Bell Labs in 1947. The B-29 was still in service then, but transistors didn't appear in military equipment for several more years, and no account I have read about the development of transistors says they were developed for military use. Rather, people at the lab were experimenting with solid state physics.) And that ball-point pens were developed to replace fountain pens for bomber navigators! (Ball-point pens were first developed in the mid-Thirties for civilian use, though I admit one of their touted advantages was that unlike fountain pens - which could leak or even explode in the reduced pressure at high altitude - they wouldn't soil expensive suits worn by airline passengers.)

     Volkman goes on to commit the classic blunder of saying gunpowder rockets won't burn in space because there's no oxygen. (Then how does gunpowder burn in the enclosed chamber of the gun?!) He makes further outrageous mistakes in regard to rocketry most of which I won't go into here. One thing I will point out is that the V-2 had a warhead considerably larger than the 400 pounds stated in this book! He also claims that the Germans invented the bazooka! And he makes the bizarre claim that Cordite was used for the compressive explosive in early atomic bombs. Cordite was primarily a British-only propellant not much good as a high explosive, and not used much at all by the time of WWII. The early atomic bombs used a form of plastic explosive, shaped into lenses.

     Later in the book, he repeats the myth that the Soviet space program lost several cosmonauts in spectacularly messy orbital or reentry accidents, and that these deaths were concealed for propaganda reasons. While there were many deaths from accidents during the Soviet space program - one of which could have been a warning which saved the Apollo 1 crew if NASA had known about it - there are no dehydrated bodies floating in lost capsules. One Cosmonaut died during landing (Vladimir Komarov, on April 24, 1967, as his Soyuz 1 capsule crashed on the central-Asian plain, because a parachute needed to slow the capsule opened, but lines became snarled at 23,000 feet altitude. The parachute twisted and deflated. Soyuz 1 hit the ground at 200 miles per hour and burst into flames). Three more died during re-entry (Georgi T. Dobrovolsky, Vladislav N. Volkov and Viktor I. Patsayev died June 30, 1971, when air escaped the Soyuz 11 capsule during re-entry. They were found dead when the capsule was opened on the ground after an automatic landing).

     My general recommendation is to avoid this book. Being warned, you can trust most of what's in the first half, but unless you are willing to check against other sources (or are knowledgeable enough not to need to) don't even read the second half.

Terrors and Marvels by Tom Shachtman

     This book covers a similar topic, but focuses on the Twentieth Century, primarily the first half. The cover blurb states the author also wrote a book on cryogenics. After reading Terrors and Marvels I have no desire to read the other one, thank you very much. The purpose of the book is to illustrate how both warfare and science have changed in the last century. The author's point is that science lost its virginity with WWI, and became a professional whore in WWII. Which ignores the fact that scientists have been helping make war for millennia, one of the few things Science Goes To War gets right. (Has Shachtman never heard of Archimedes? Of DaVinci?) For the most part, Shachtman does a good job of covering the historical and social aspects, but he repeatedly commits drastic fubars in technical matters. Even the image captions aren't immune. A photo of a winged rocket is labeled "A V-2 on its launching pad at Peenemunde." Now, there was a winged variant of the V-2/A-4, but it had a different designation, A-4b, and only two were built, neither being used operationally. Another photo has the caption "A V-1 robot romb [sic] courses above London." Didn't anyone spell check the captions?!

     Such errors are typical of the inattention to detail in this book, as are more subtle ones which could lead someone only casually familiar with the material far astray. I cannot recommend this book. The information it does get right can easily be found in other sources, and what it gets wrong is not always obvious.

     In both these books, many of the mistakes are matters of not doing basic research. Simple facts, not requiring detailed technical knowledge, are omitted or distorted, sometimes by 180 degrees, in circumstances where a bit of study could have prevented this.

Tuxedo Park by Jennet Conant

     This is a far better work than the two above. It focuses on Alfred Lee Loomis, a Wall Street tycoon and socialite who could have literally had almost any job he wanted. He multiplied his family fortune, and the fortunes of the customers at the investment agency he co-owned. He advised presidents on economic policies. He married a beautiful woman of his station. He was one of the few who came out ahead during the Stock Market crash, because he saw what was coming and pulled out early. But all of that left him strangely unsatisfied. Because what he really wanted was to be a scientist. He became one, and a very good one. Moreover, thanks to his money and connections he was able to support other scientists and their projects. Among the benefits which resulted from this, he funded one of the first large cyclotrons in the world, which proved a major asset to the US early in the development of the fission bomb.

     Loomis was involved with so many things which were important to both the US war effort and modern science and technology that I'm only going to list a few: Ultrasonics. Radar. Nuclear energy and weapons. The modern approach to organizing and funding scientific research projects, large and small. The book also gives interesting insight into the world of the extremely wealthy. Loomis was actually semi-ostracized by his neighbors for bringing all those scruffy scientists to his home. Why, some of them were Jews! The author repeatedly points out her relative's social open-mindedness and generosity (while not ignoring his flaws) stating that most of his guests wouldn't even have been allowed through the gates of the community where Loomis lived if he hadn't been one of the founding members and personally invited them.

     I found only one technical error in this book, where the author confused area with volume. This was such a trivial and obvious - and singular - matter I'm willing view it as a mental typo. Overall, she does a good job of describing her famous and brilliant relative's work, both scientific and organizational. Some of her descriptions of highly technical matters are a bit stilted, but essentially correct. A insightful look at an interesting man during interesting times.

The Perfect Machine by Ronald Florence

     This is a wonderful book, detailing the history of the creation of the 200 inch Hale telescope at Mount Palomar. The author not only has a good understanding of the technologies and sciences involved, but also a talent for explaining them to those who don't. He explores - and shares with us - a time when computers were people good at math, Einstein was a celebrity and most scientifically savvy people assumed that just a little better look would answer all questions. Anyone with an interest in history should treasure this book, for the glimpses it gives into the two bygone eras which the construction of the Hale telescope bridged.

     The telescope project was started at a time when knowledge of the universe was expanding in all directions. While bigger instruments were partly a matter of pride, they were also needed to answer the questions posed by observations made on earlier devices. George Hale was one of the foremost figures in this pursuit. Hale was severely neurotic, but fought courageously against his illness to create something wonderful. A pale, glasses-wearing, cherubic man, most people underestimated him. He almost always got what he wanted. And in the early Twenties what he wanted was a bigger telescope. Actually, that statement, while true, is incomplete. He'd been wanting - and creating - bigger telescopes for decades. Most had been wildly successful, but in their success they showed, each time, there was more to learn. Hale figured he had one more project in him, and wanted it to be the crowning glory of his career as an astronomer.

     The previous record holder - another Hale project, the 100 inch Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson, completed in 1917 - had been a bit of a disappointment. Partly because it had stretched the state of the art too far. Partly because there was too much light from Los Angeles. Partly because several compromises had been accepted in constructing it, such as the use of plate glass for the mirror. But mostly because it just wasn't big enough. Astronomers wanted more aperture. Needed more. And Hale was determined to give it to them.

     Astronomers had already learned the hard way that building a bigger telescope always cost more and took longer than the experts predicted. Hale and his advisors calculated how much of both they would need and multiplied by a safety factor. Even then they had to ask for more funds during the project, and it took far longer to complete than planned. Longer, unfortunately, than Hale lived. That extra time, however, was in large part due to the interruptions caused by WWII. In the heady days of the Twenties, with The War to End All Wars just behind them, they can hardly be blamed for not taking that into account.

     The resulting instrument is still a valuable research tool, well over half a century later. The painstaking diligence of its builders is evident in the fact that, while the recording medium has changed from film to CCDs to even more exotic devices, the structure, optics and general procedures haven't been significantly modified. Indeed, there have been several cases where some well-meaning new caretaker - ignorant of the history of some feature - has altered or removed it, only to have the next astronomer who used the scope yell at them to put things back like they were.

     The Hale telescope is not a perfect machine, as Florence himself admits. But it comes very, very close.

     I strongly recommend this book. The main topic is interesting, the history and science are both accurate and well described, and Florence's writing style is quite comfortable.

     This work is 2003 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to repost or reprint it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net