History

Book Review: Iron Kingdom

Iron Kingdom
The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947
by Christopher Clark
Belknap Press, 2009

If countries were traded on the stock exchange, then Prussia would be a very volatile stock. From its modest beginnings as the Electorate of Brandenburg, it grew into a European Great Power. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, it was almost extinguished during the Seven Years’ War. But it survived that threat, and then it also survived Napoleon, until it finally managed to unify non-Habsburg Germany into a single nation.

Prussia’s fall would be much swifter than its rise. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, the Allies redrew the map. Blaming Prussian militarism for the apocalyptic war in Europe, they eliminated Prussia as a political entity. After German reunification, the territory that used to be Brandenburg-Prussia is now back to just Brandenburg.

Christopher Clark has set out to chronicle Prussia’s centuries-long rise, from a sleepy electorate on the edges of German civilization, to the dominant power on the European continent. In the introduction, he acknowledges the fierce debate that has raged in Germany on the Prussian legacy. Did Prussia stand for toleration and progress, or did it hold Germany back from the liberalization that swept over the rest of the continent? Was Prussia to blame for putting Germany on the special path (Sonderweg) that would end in disaster during World War II? “As an Australian historian writing in twenty-first-century Cambridge,” Clark presents both the liberal and the authoritarian streak in Prussian history.

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 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: Why England Slept

Why England Slept
by John F. Kennedy
New York: Funk, July 1940

It is difficult to read Why England Slept without seeing the shadow of the future president hanging over every word. Most prophetic indeed is Henry Luce's foreword, which notes on p. xiv:

In recent months there has been a certain amount of alarm concerning the “attitude” of the younger generation. If John Kennedy is characteristic of the younger generation—and I believe he is—many of us would be happy to have the destinies of this Republic handed over to his generation at once.

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Film Review: Becket (1964)

Becket (1964)
directed by Peter Glenville
Frames in this review are taken from the MPI DVD.

Some Kings and Queens of England just make for better subjects of drama than others.  George IV isn't nearly as interesting a character as George III, and Anne can't hold a candle to the various Henries.  Such audacious and colorful characters they were, those Henries!  There was Henry VIII, who converted England to Protestantism for purely selfish reasons, and ended up changing the course of history.  There was Henry V, as forever immortalized by Shakespeare [link to film review], who established the English claim on the French throne and brought back a French bride from his continental wars.

But it is an even earlier Henry who features in Becket, only the second King of England to carry the name.  Although the credits award first billing to Richard Burton in the title role of Becket, the film is as much about Henry as it is about Thomas à Becket.  Becket is straightforward and uncomplicated — at first a worldly and scheming advisor to the King, he later becomes resolute in his godliness after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.

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Book review: 1421

1421: The Year China Discovered America
by Gavin Menzies
Hardcover, US edition: New York: Morrow, 2003. ISBN 0-06-053763-9
Trade paperback, US edition, revised: New York: Perennial, 2004. ISBN 0-06-054094-X

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Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine captain, claims that four separate Chinese fleets under the overall aegis of the great eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed on great voyages of discovery about the year 1421.  During these voyages, they discovered the Americas, Antarctica, Oceania, various Pacific islands, and longitude — basically, every continent except Europe.  The Zhu Di emperor's death, however, put an end to the great voyages of discovery.  China turned her energies inwards, and records of the Zheng He voyages were destroyed.  Within a century, though, Europeans picked up the mantle of discovery. These great explorers thus bravely set forth into the (not-quite) unknown, ultimately handing Europe the mantle of world dominance on the back of Chinese maps.

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