Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America

How do we know that the oxygen exists, and that oxygen is different from carbon dioxide? Well, we know it because we've been taught those facts. But how did that knowledge enter the scientific record? Air is invisible to our eyes. How did humans first understand that invisible gases exist, and have predictable properties?

Answering that question, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by science historian Steven Johnson, is at its most interesting. The body of experiments that led to the "discovery" of oxygen, carbon dioxide, the properties of gases, and other foundational principles of chemistry were completely unknown to me. (Indeed, I doubt I had ever considered the question.)

This book introduced me to one Joseph Priestley, considered the father of modern chemistry, and a towering thinker of his era, yet largely unknown to the public today.

As Priestley was a contemporary of several of the American "founding fathers", the author illustrates Priestley's importance with these statistics.
In their legendary thirteen-year final correspondence, reflecting back on their collaborations and their feuds, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In that corpus, Benjamin Franklin is mentioned by name five times, while George Washington is mentioned three times. Their mutual nemesis Alexander Hamilton warrants only two references. By contrast, Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times.
One reason (of many) that Johnson greatly admires Priestley was that he valued open inquiry and the sharing of knowledge more than personal credit or financial gain. Priestley was a dedicated open-source man. He would share his ideas, writing, and data with anyone who was interested. This probably resulted in less fame, and definitely resulted in less income, but those were not Priestley's goals.

The Invention of Air is much more than a biography of Priestley or an account of his experiments. Priestley's work helped define and solidify scientific method, and his political and religious ideas influenced the birth of the American republic. I found these areas more challenging and less interesting. Johnson assumes a degree of knowledge of the history of science that I lack. And the book gets bogged down in biographical detail that seems trivial or irrelevant.

I loved Johnson's The Ghost Map - I'm at least partly responsible for it being promoted widely in our library system - and I've enjoyed (on Netflix) several episodes of Johnson's PBS series, "How We Got to Now". So it was a little disappointing not to love this book, too. But The Invention of Air is often fascinating, and it's well worth the read.

As I did when I reviewed Soul Made Flesh, I caution readers about grisly details of experiments on animals. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality and the Financial Crisis

I didn’t really know much about Ayn Rand. I definitely didn’t know the causes of the economic downturn of 2008. I thought I had a good understanding of American politics. If you read Darryl Cunningham’s graphic nonfiction book The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis, you will learn how much more you didn’t know.

It is said that the proof of your intelligence is in your ability to communicate effectively the big ideas that you have.  Using this sentence as a metre stick, I’d have to say (a) my intelligence appears to need work and (b) Darryl Cunningham is an awfully smart man. Using a graphic format to discuss these intricate and multi-layered themes is pure genius. The book is divided into 3 major sections: the first is on the life of Ayn Rand and the people that she influenced, the second is on the how and why of the economic crash of 2008 and the third is on American politics as viewed through the alternating filters of altruism and selfishness.

A way to sum up much of the book is in this graphic format:

Ayn Rand + rabid followers (including Alan Greenspan) = “collective”

Randian philosophy = objectivism [(selfishness = virtue) + (altruism = moral failure)]

Alan Greenspan (@ Ronald Reagan) = Chairman of Federal Reserve for 4 Presidents (spanning 3 decades)

U.S. Government adoption of Randian philosophy (“taxation = theft”) = U.S. Government reduces regulation of banking

Banks go power-crazy = messy recession; felt worldwide.

Cunningham does have a solution. He thinks that conservativism has won the day but that liberals need to reassert themselves in American politics (despite the current liberals in power) to bring back true altruism. Cunningham doesn't like conservatives. They "prize hard work, orderliness, and structure...are goal oriented." Liberals, however, "are risk takers...are experimental in their lifestyle choices and self-expression. They are tolerant of different perspectives and values." Cunningham is very sorry but you fit into only one political affiliation or the other. There are no other options. He actually goes so far as to insinuate that these are psychologically defined distinctions that divide all of us into two camps.

Too bad the rest of the world doesn't work out of a two-party system. Canadians don't get mentioned at all. The British don't get much press either, perhaps because they have a four-party system, with voices from seven other parties mixed in. 

Here's another take on this dilemma:

Author Hypothesis:
Selfishness + American political system (Tea Partyists) = need more liberals to fix it.

Reader Doubt:
Psychological profiling of liberals and conservatives = reduction of all people into 2-party system thinking

Reductive thinking = all theses in the book may be skewed

The bottom line is that this book has excellent polemics, but the proposed ideas are still open for debate.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Freezing People is (not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics

Freezing People is (not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics was a rapid-read history of cryonics, the dubious science of freezing the dead under the hope of reviving the corpses later, written by the former president of the Cryonics Society of California (CSC), Bob Nelson, with Kenneth Bly and Sally Magaña. Nelson became enrapt, or more like obsessed, with cryonics after reading the pioneering book on the topic, The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger in 1965, for in it he learned:

"My mind was inexorably bent toward cryonics and this new way of looking at death. For if a person can be revived, then he had never actually died. This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of cryonics suspension. Once a person is dead, he is dead. Nothing can bring a dead body back to life. But death does not happen in an instant; we travel a long journey to the land beyond the veil. Along that path, we pass through a complicated biological sequence as blood stops flowing, chemical reactions halt, electrical impulses stop, and there is no life force to prevent the decay. By lowering the body temperature at an early stage of the dying process (that is, clinical death), we slow down the journey and stop the dying progression, thereby keeping the patient from ever reaching the stage of complete irretrievable death. Freeze the person and stop the dying."

Nelson devoted all his time (and eventually, all his money) to the science of preserving bodies. Fifty years ago, at the beginning of the cryonics movement, there was a lot of interest in theory but few takers in practice. Sadly, when people died, Nelson and his fellow cryonics supporters found that their dearly departed late friends left them no money, or not enough, to preserve them for possible future revival. 

Possessed by the knowledge of a revolutionary new science affecting the future of humanity, Nelson could not deny these people the chance to be "suspended", as cryonicists describe the term of being frozen immediately after death. Nor could he ignore them afterwards, as all corpses required the constant maintenance of dry ice and liquid nitrogen replacement. Nelson was the sole person who kept the initial cryonics "heroes", as he referred to them, under ice. This took years of his time and cost him his marriage.

I liked this story because it was told by Nelson in the first person. It flowed smoothly and did not seem repetitive, which is a fault of monologue books that are unedited before being transcribed. He was smart enough to anticipate questions the readers might have, and addressed them within the first-person narrative in each chapter. One such question concerned the whereabouts of Walt Disney's remains. An urban myth is that Walt Disney himself had been cryopreserved in suspended animation. Nelson shed light on this story: it was he himself who took the call from Disney studios in 1966. However, he never spoke to Disney and neither he nor the CSC ever heard from the Disney studios again. 

Cryonics was and still is an experimental science and of the nine people who were the first to submit themselves to cryopreservation, seven were lost. Their capsules leaked or their dry ice and liquid nitrogen ran out. Thus all the work Nelson did for years--single-handedly and with no funding whatsoever--to maintain them in frozen suspended animation was in vain. A chapter was devoted to a lawsuit filed by relatives who alleged Nelson killed their parents (in their eyes, they died a second time) when their cryonic preservation failed. The trial story could have been lifted right out of a comedy movie as Nelson's own attorney, a manic-depressive on lithium, Robert Winterbotham, could barely stay awake in court. The antics during the trial did however seem too exaggerated to be real. Nelson feared the worst from the jury and needless to say, his lawyer was of no help. The trauma of the verdict made him walk away from cryonics for the next twenty-five years.   

I had first learned about cryonics while watching a TV mysteries show about 35 years ago. While I was curious about the whole idea of bringing the dead back to life, I remain a nonbeliever after reading this book. In spite of the faith Nelson and his followers have in future medical breakthroughs being able to "cure" the dead, I do not believe that anyone declared dead can be revived. Cryonics is a quack science and belongs in the science fiction collection. Nonetheless, Freezing People is (not) Easy was a history, as well as a personal memoir that I could not put down. It was a tragic man-with-a-mission story.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

This is how I understood the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe. Adolf Hitler was a megalomaniac who blamed Jewish people for the failures in his life. Through sheer force of will and charisma and no small measure of brutality he managed to convince enough Germans to make him their Führer and to follow him to a glorious future for the German Volk (people). Part of his cracked plan was the occupation of lands east of Germany. He plunged Germany and the world into the hell that was WWII and was principally culpable for the Holocaust. This in outline is how I understood the Nazis, WWII (in Europe) and the Holocaust.

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder did a lot to educate me on just how the mass murder of thousands upon thousands of innocent people was made possible.

The insights in Black Earth are truly thought provoking. Mass murder (that is the murder of entire populations) is only possible where there is no state, no law, no rights and no citizenship. When countries die a space is opened for atrocities of the most heinous kind. Take the following quote as illustrative of this irrational thinking:
German international lawyers contended that Poland was not a state, but merely a place without a legitimate sovereign over which the Germans found themselves masters. Polish law was declared null and void—indeed, never to have existed (105).
The Nazis and the "legal" apparatus that supported their twisted views became experts at destabilizing and then eliminating country after country. Here is another example, part of the numerous bits of evidence that Snyder offers the reader for consideration. Examine the numbers of Danish Jews killed verses the numbers of Jews holding, say, Estonian passports. Estonia was first destabilized and ruined by the Soviets before being overrun and crushed by the German Wehrmacht. For a brief few years there was no Estonia, meaning no governmental institutions to underpin anything remotely like the exercise of legitimate power. Denmark, which was weakly occupied by German forces in April 1940, saw many more Jews in their population survive the war than in places like Estonia, Latvia and Poland. Why? Because when the call came from the Nazis to exterminate the Jews Danish authorities resisted. The Danes understood that yielding citizens who followed the tenets of Judaism to Germany would compromise Danish sovereignty (216). The Danish-Jews survived not because the Danish government felt huge love for the Jewish religion or kosher cuisine. The mystery as to how Jews living so close to the heart of darkness survived is solved when you realize that for all of the Nazis’ hold on Denmark, Denmark remained a country with a functioning legal system, a bureaucracy and internationally recognized rights for its citizens. Estonia: no citizenship, peoples subject to untold atrocities. Denmark: functioning legal system, peoples left alone.

This observation, namely that you need to get rid of the legal apparatus that protects people’s rights if you are going to murder them “with a clear conscience,” may seem obvious but what makes the arguments so compelling is the clear and erudite presentation of these facts and the ways the author ties them, in his concluding comments, to what is happening in our world today. Where nations are destabilized you have chaos and death. At the time of my writing this review I can think of at least four countries that are so destabilized that to call them countries is to be generous with the description: Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Syria. The parallels between those events that destabilised Eastern Europe (and so brought about the conditions for large scale crime) during WWII and what we are witnessing in the Middle East today is startling. Black Earth reads like a warning for our times. When we see destabilizing forces like the depletion of natural resources, climate change, and civil war tearing apart state identities, we witness the end of legal rights because it is the end of meaningful citizenship. The loss of rights and freedoms is the breeding ground for the sorts of human crimes of which the holocaust is a most conspicuous example. Deranged, Islamic-totalitarian forces like IS (with its current stronghold in Syria) can only operate where nation state’s institutions and the rule of law no longer function.

If you would like to read an intelligent book on the underlying causes of the Holocaust, read this one. If you have read many books on the Holocaust and think nothing new can be said, read this one.