This book was interesting, but disappointing. It focuses entirely on the training of the First Special Services Force, aka The Devil's Brigade. That moniker comes from the movie starring a too-old-for-the-job William Holden as Fredrickson, the Force commander. The Germans actually referred them as the Black Devils, a name they acquired for missions after the famous taking of M. Le Difensa.
The movie got a few things right and a lot wrong. Actually, the Americans and the Canadians did not fight each other, but they did fight a lot… ditto drinking and whoring. They did not take an Italian village to prove their worth. And they did not climb a huge vertical face with ropes.
The FSSF was a combined American/Canadian unit. Part of the reason for the Canadians being there was their familiarity with cold conditions and winter sports. They trained a lot. Imagine walking 25 miles in a day. Now imagine doing it with 60-80 lbs of gear. They were undoubtedly the most fit unit in WWII. They were held back waiting for an opportunity to use their had-acquired winter skills, and their specially designed snow-cats. But that never happened.
The famous assault on M. La Difensa did not require any scaling of sheer walls with rope, although they were prepared to exactly that.
I was disappointed with the book because it did not discuss their other missions at all. Rather, the focus was on the human side of creating the FSSF and its first action. Technically, its first action was to take an island in the Aleutian Islands. But, as it turned out, the Japanese had abandoned the island a few days before.
I learned less than I would have liked.
Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology; Michael J. Benton; 2019; Thames and Hudson; 289 pgs; Illustrations, index, further reading
I liked this book. At times, I felt adrift in a sea of Latin names. Here is just one tiny example. The full classification of Deinonychus (the actual star dinosaur of Jurassic Park) is Sauraschia: Therpoda: Maniraptora: Dromaeosauridae. It takes a bit of getting used to.
The book opens with a brief discussion of what science actually is (i.e. scientific philosophy). This is important these days in that relatively few people understand what "science" actually is. It is not certainty. Certainty can only be found in mathematics and (falsely) religion. It troubles me when people say "science doesn't know everything" and then leap frog from that obviously true and trivial statement, to assert something stupid, like the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
Here is the shortest definition of the noun "science": It is what we know to be probably true. Some science is cast in stone (i.e.: the probability of it being true is near unity); and most science is in some degree of debate. No science can be said to be proven, but all science can be disproven. The verb "science" is harder to describe, and I will not even try here.
The book was written in 2019 and therefore is a very up-to-date picture of dinosaur paleontology. Our understanding of dinosaurs (now called "birds") has advanced by leaps and bounds during my life time. For example, we now know that most theropods (like Deinonychus and T-Rex) had feathers, and we even know what color those feathers were. That is remarkable.
During the Triassic, there were four groups struggling for dominance: Synapsids, Rhynchosaurs, Archosaurs, and Dinosaurs. The oldest dinosaurs date from 245 mya. Most dinosaurs disappeared about 65 mya.
Dating techniques have improved dramatically from the 1970s, going from +/- 5% to +/- .05%. Computer power is being used to classify dinosaurs and separate them from other animals and from themselves. Gobs of computer power, in fact. This has created the "cladistic revolution" which has produced a much more accurate family tree for the dinosaurs (and other creatures). Computing has also advanced our understanding of how dinosaurs moved and ate. Gate and stride analysis (for movement) and stress analysis (for bite strength). The latter uses something borrowed from engineering: Finite Element Analysis (FEA) which is used to model stresses in structures like buildings and bridges. CT scans have allowed researchers to look inside fossilized eggs and to peel apart the internal structure of dinosaur bones.
Aside: Bones are made from collagen. Collagen alone makes cartilage. Add needles of apatite (calcium phosphate) to the collagen, and you get bone.
I mentioned that recent research has been able to tell us what color dinosaurs were by looking at melanosomes: sacs which contain melanin, the protein in skin that gives it color. Different color melanosomes have different shapes. So we can say they such and such dinosaur had a two long tail feathers and they were orange.
Chapters are devoted to topics like: what they ate; how they moved or ran; can we recreate them a la Jurassic Park (no, we can't); sexing dinosaurs, how they died off, and so on.
Bite strength determines a lot about how dinosaur fed. The Great White Shark has the highest bite force in the world today: about 18,000 newtons (about 2 tonnes). T-Rex' s bite was between 37,000 and 57,000 newtons (3.6 to 5.8 tonnes) .
Around the turn of the century (i.e. 1850 to 1910), dinosaurs were badly misunderstood. Iguanodon, one of the first full skeletons ever found, was portrayed as a 61 meter (200 feet!) long lizard that flopped about on its belly. If you went to the Crystal Cathedral at the time, you could have dinner inside a model of Iguanodon (in the belly of the beast). Later versions of dinosaurs had them dragging their tales behind them on the ground, or walking about largely submerged. The modern vision is quite different.
One of the most remarkable of science crossovers was the solution to the question of the fate of the dinosaurs. A physicist named Luis Alvarez, and his son Walter, proposed and ultimately proved the asteroid impact theory at Chicxulub (pronounced Chick-zu-loob) in the Yucatan peninsula. This impact tossed millions of tons of dust into the air, creating a kind of nuclear winter around the world. Almost all life on Earth was impacted (no pun intended).
This theory was not well received. Charles Lyell's "gradualism" was in, and catastrophism (which had Biblical overtones) was out. Bob Bakker is a well known, brilliant paleontologist. I have seen him defend his many ideas with great energy several times over the years. I was always a bit turned off by him, in that he lacked humility. On the impact theory, he said:
"The arrogance of those people is simply unbelievable. They know next to nothing about how real animals evolve, live, and become extinct. But despite their ignorance, these geochemists feel that all you have to do is crank up some fancy machine and you have revolutionized science."
The arrogance of Bob Bakker is practically oozing out of this statement, which was, of course, spectacularly wrong. The asteroid impact idea did change things. It raised abandoned theories about Nemesis (a postulated nearby star) and a Planet X (X for ten). But today, we are actively looking for, and deciding what to do about it, objects that might impact Earth and wipe us all out.
Feathers are now an accepted part of many dinosaur's make up. The evolution of flight is discussed in the book. A most interesting topic. And as I suggested, if you want to see a real live dinosaur, you need look no further than out your window. Birds are the living descendants of the dinosaur era.
If you are really interested in the biological history of the planet, then I recommend this book. It is very up-to-date on current thinking, which is rare in the genre. It has a lengthy "Further Reading" section.
Twilight of the Gods, War in the Western Pacific 1944-45; Ian W. Toll; 2020; W. W. Norton and Company; 792 pgs, notes, index, bibliography
Admiral Kimmel and General Short, to whom this book is dedicated, were dealt a lousy hand. They were the top brass when Pearl Harbor was hit, and they paid the price. Kimmel ultimately committed suicide. MacArthur, on the other hand, had a nine hour heads up on the de facto state of war between the US and Japan, and he did nothing. Zip. Nada. Rather, he cloistered himself and read the bible. MacArthur, was a "pompous and ignorant ass", the Montgomery of the Pacific, and went on to become king of Japan. As a direct result of his sloth, half of the US air force in the Philippines was wiped out on the ground. He should have been court martialed and jailed, or even shot. But such is life and politics.
This is a long and detailed book. It begins, more or less, with the invasion of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. The first really big action was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history. I will not discuss this battle in any detail as I have already done so with another book. MacArthur spent most of his time trying to take supreme control of all forces in the Pacific. Halsey, known as "Bull" Halsey was about as smart as his name sake. Dogged and pig-headed. Other commanders such as Spruence were more cautious. After Leyte, the Japanese navy was no longer a threat. But there was still plenty of tough fights ahead.
The Marshalls, the Solomons, Tulagi, Guadalcanal, Wake, Ulithi, Peleliu, Kwajalien, Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, Okinawa… these are some of the better known islands that were taken during the island hopping part of the war. These island fights were bloody to say the least. Japanese suicide charges were fairly common near the start of this campaign, but too costly in terms of man power. Later, Japanese held islands were dug out labyrinths of caves and tunnels that had to be taken at a horrible cost. On Iwo Jima, for example, only a dozen or two Japanese soldiers were captured. Thousands died for their emperor. Japanese hawks basically lied their asses off to the emperor and the Japanese people. For example, they kept the loss of the four aircraft carriers at Midway a secret for many months after the fact, and even then downplayed the outcome.
Meanwhile, US subs were choking the life out of Japan. The fleet had a huge appetite for oil, and the silent service made sure very little reached Japanese shores. On the other side of the coin, Japanese kamikazes appeared for the first time in the struggle for the Philippines. They were basically unstoppable and a precursor of today's smart weapons. They were responsible for an extraordinary amount of damage. Young pilots were taught just enough to take off and that was it. And they begged for the opportunity to live forever by sacrificing themselves for the emperor.
The Japanese built the two largest battle ships in history: the Yamato (sunk off Okinawa) and the Musashi (sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf). They were huge (879 feet long; 72,000, tonnes battle loaded), and an anachronism. By now, battle ships were out and carriers were in.
Many missions by US subs were memorable, but one stood out for me. A sub skipper named Enright had captained the Dace (all US subs were named after fish, the most famous being the Tang) and returned to Pearl with zero tonnage sunk. He felt perhaps he was not cut out for skippering a boat. But 8 months later, he decided to try again as captain of the Archerfish. On 27 August, he found a target that looked to be a large carrier. It was the Shinano, built on the third, now repurposed, Yamato-class battleship hull. After a long chase, the Archerfish fired a spread of 6 torpedoes. Four hit, and the Shinano went down. Normally, four hits would not have sunk her, but she was running on a reduced crew and had yet to be fitted out for war. Enright's story was not believed until after the war when the existence of the Shinano was revealed . A sub patrol's success is based on tonnage sunk. A good patrol might sink eight ships with combined tonnage of 40-50 thousand tonnes. Enright sunk one ship, and at 65,000 tonnes , had scored the highest tonnage sunk on one patrol.
From the Philippines on, the main weapon of the Japanese was the kamikaze. The Japanese were happy to throw away their young men, and as mentioned, they really wanted to go. The Japanese had a number of kamikaze weapons (planes, subs, missiles and more), but the usual one was a young man in a crappy plane. As the war progressed, the Japanese had fewer and fewer planes, and more Kamikazes. This was due to the lack of oil, needed to smelt the steel, needed to make planes. On the American side, they had so many new planes coming in that the would simply retire, or bulldoze older or slightly damaged planes into the sand and replace them with newer, better planes. Such was their economic might.
The worst battle, IMHO, was Iwo Jima… almost literally hell on Earth. Sulfur fumes and hot gases came out of the ground. If you were climb into a fox hole, you would be forced out just to cool down. The deeper you dug, the hotter the dirt got. It is difficult to describe how awful the conditions were on both sides.
Iwo Jima gave damaged bombers, flying from Tinian to Japan and back, a place to land. This was a very big deal.
At this time, the Japanese air force was all but non-existent, with the noted exception of suicide pilots. The Battle of Okinawa was waged in the air primarily by these planes. Okinawa was only 300 miles from the Japanese mainland.
We all know how it ends. Due to politics, MacArthur, the general who should have been shot, became the new ruler of Japan, which quickly joined the ranks of civilized nations.
A word or two about religion is appropriate. Both sides demonized the other. But any measure of civilized behavior, animated by religious fervor, the Japanese were far more fanatical. In addition to kamikazes, there were instances of ritual cannibalism. And the entire Japanese population, deluded by years of propaganda, and driven by the belief that they were the chosen people, and that the emperor was their actual and true god, were prepared to die. This belief held sway until August 14, 1945, when their god told them to lay down their arms to surrender. Which they did! One speech from one guy ended the war. One wonders how many lives could have been saved if he had done so earlier (in fact, due to politics, it was never really an option).
Uncounted numbers of people died during the war to appease the gods. Christopher Hitchens said "Religion ruins everything", even war.
The Japanese were told that the Americans were a mongrel and bloodthirsty race. Most were shocked by the humanity the Americans displayed towards them after their surrender… no doubt in part because they knew they would not have been so kind. MacArthur may have been a douche bag, but he did understand the psyche of the Japanese and used it to good effect.
There are many arguments on both sides regarding the use of the A-Bomb. I will not go into them here, other than to say that using them probably saved many lives. One motivating fear was that Russia was rushing its forces to the East and they might try to take Japan's northern island, in which case Japan would have joined Germany as a divided country, one half behind the iron curtain. That would have been bad.
This is a long read, but very well researched and written.
The Making of Donald Trump; David Cay Johnston; 2016; Melville House Publishing; 217 pgs; notes, index
David Johnston is a regular on the news shows as an expert on Trump and how he got to where he is today. The book is four years old now. There is very little that is new, and much that is familiar.
If you have followed the coverage, you are probably aware of grandpa Trump, who fled Germany to avoid the draft, and built and ran brothels. Daddy Trump was ruthless and corrupt. The Trump family has been in close contact with the mob. And so on…
The only thing that stood out for me is how many times Trump et al have been sued, lost, and then settled, only to have the settlement sealed. I do not think Trump would be where he is today without that. By sealing his court losses, he gets to pretend he won.
I learned little from this book. It is for Trumpaholics only now. But if you are not aware of the sordid details of Trump's life, this is the best book documenting the family up until 2016.
Red Sun Setting, The Battle of the Philippine Sea; William Y'Blood; 1981; Bluejacket Books; 213 pgs, glossary, appendices, notes, index
in thThe Battle of Leyte Gulf (BLG, October, 1944), which took place several months after the Battle of the Philippine Sea (BPS, June, 1944), essentially ended the mighty Japanese Navy as a threat in the Pacific. Ray Spruence, who acquitted himself quite well at Midway some two years before, was overly cautious. He headed the American side of the BPS and had a good shot at the taking out the Japanese Navy. But that would have to wait.
Regardless, the BPS, AKA "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" was a great success. The Marianas were the target of the invasion that was designed to bring the Japanese out to face the Americans. The Marianas include Guam, Saipan (a sad story, where many Japanese, fearing the Americans, committed suicide), Tinian (the Enola Gay took off from there), and Iwo Jima (the bloodiest of the island hopping amphibious assaults).
The Japanese were desperate at this point. They were up against it, primarily in terms of fuel. American submarines had dramatically curtailed their oil supply. This shaped the battle in many ways. At one point, Japanese destroyers were getting fueled from battle ships, rather than oil tankers! Much of the oil burned by the Japanese in the BPS was pumped directly from the ground in Tarakan, Indonesia and into the tanks of combat ships. This oil was high in paraffin and could be burned without refining. Thus, the fleet went to the oil, rather than the other way around!
Spruence decided he would wait for the Japanese to come to him. This made sense because the Japanese Navy planes had longer range than the Americans, and the Americans wanted to draw the Japanese in close. This worked to a point. The Japanese found the Americans first and launched all they had. But the defeat at Midway had decimated their Naval fliers and crews. The battle hardened Americans fliers met a bunch of rookies and tore them apart. Like the Battle of the Coral Sea (BCS) and Midway, no ship ever sighted an enemy ship. American submarines played a large part in the BPS, sinking at least one carrier. No so, for the Japanese.
The Thatch Weave, introduced at Midway by flier Jimmy Thatch, was used to good effect. The Japanese Zero (AKA Zeke) was faster and more agile than the Hellcat. But it could not take a punch. The Hellcat could. The Weave worked like this. Two planes fly together… a lead plane and a bait plane to one side and behind. A Japanese flier will naturally want to attack the rear plane first. The moment that happens, the two American planes veer violently towards each other, crossing each others paths and moving apart; and then they quickly swing back towards each other. This brings the Japanese plane chasing the bait plane under the guns of the lead plane, and down it goes.
One or three stories stood out for me.
A flier named Henderson flamed 4 "Zekes" (Mitsubishi Zeros) on his first pass, and then was lost from sight by his mates. His last message was "I knocked down four, and I have thirty more of them cornered!"
Another flier named Vracia landed his plane on the Lexington after the first major air engagement. As he was climbing out of the cockpit, he saw Admiral Mitscher looking down at him from the ship's island. He flashed a huge grin and held up 6 fingers, one for each kill.
A third story starred a Japanese flier. Because the Japanese fliers were so green, they had to be individually instructed by their flight leaders, in the air, minutes before they were to go into battle, regarding what each should do, and when, when they attacked. The Americans had a fluent Japanese speaker on board who listened in, providing essential intelligence for the Americans fliers about to enter the battle. At the end of the fight, the Americans let him go (i.e.: did not give chase) because, as an admiral quipped, he had done so much for them during the battle.
Although there was much more to the battle, it ended with the Americans launching everything they had at the Japanese at extreme range. This meant many fliers were forced to ditch as they ran out of gas on the return leg. In the end , the Americans sank three carriers and did damage to a few other ships.
On the Japanese side were the two biggest battle ships in world history: the Yamato (sunk at Okinowa) and Musashi (sunk in the BLG).They had a dozen or so carriers and many support and screening vessels. The Americans had a similar complement, including the carriers Yorktown and Lexington. Savvy readers will note that the Yorktown went down at Midway and the "Lex" was sunk in the BCS. The mighty US industrial base had replaced them. At the end of the war, the Americans had more than 100 carriers of various sizes. I believe that the Enterprise and the Hornet (the Dolittle Raid carrier) survived the war. If you recall the movie Magnum Force, there was a motorcycle "duel" on the decks of the Hornet at anchor in San Francisco Bay.
The BPS finished the Japanese Navy's command of the air. Indeed, the now nearly useless aircraft carriers (due to lack of planes, pilots and crews) were used/sacrificed as a lure/feint during the BLG.
The book has many fine photos and anecdotes. I enjoyed it a lot. The writing was compelling and It really aided my thinking about the Pacific War.
It is frustrating to look at the shared sense of duty that the Americans had in 1944. Today, they can't agree on which way is "up".
his book is in fine company. It is a book primarily about skepticism. The author and I have a little in common, in that we were or are members of a Skeptics Group. Prothero, a PhD geologist, is with the Pasadena Skeptics. I note that he is a PhD because he warns of books written by people who flaunt their PhDs.
The book covers geology related subjects that are a decent sub-set of all the crazy ideas that are out there. Young Earthers are trashed, as are flat Earthers, hawkers of crystals, Atlantis, dowsers, and moon-landing deniers.
Aside: Andy Kaufman died because he rejected modern medicine and relied instead on crystal healing.
It was a quick read and a good addition to my library on subjects (like Ley lines) that I would otherwise have to research.
One thing that comes across very clearly is that scientific illiteracy in the US is driven largely by the cesspool of the internet. In fact, by my count, he called the internet a "cesspool" four times. Ironically, the internet was created to serve scientists and promote data exchange. He speaks highly of, and quotes often, Carl Sagan. As a long time skeptic myself, I am familiar with the arguments about wrt scientific literacy, basic logical arguments, human biases, and such.
I only know one person personally that is foolish enough to posit a 10,000 year old (or less) Earth. I have had several exchanges with him over the years. One argument that gets repeated a lot is that his belief in god is no different than my belief in Newton's gravity and other scientific ideas like evolution. I often reply to this attack by explaining that I use the word "believe" in a different way (based on probability) than he does. The book suggests a different language, the gist of which is below:
Science has only one "belief"… namely, that the world is understandable. I do not "believe" in Newton's law, but rather I accept it, based on, in this particular case, an overwhelming preponderance of the evidence (Newton's laws got us to the moon and back). I like this language better, as it is easier to justify.
I also enjoyed the obvious fact that the author likes movies. He mentions several, including the worst SF film ever made (as voted by geoscientists), The Core.
The Abruzzo, Italy earthquake resulted in many deaths, and six seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for not predicting the quake! After 5,000 seismologists wrote letters, the conviction was overturned. Its hard to be a scientist sometimes.
The book has a well researched chapter on The Flood. The details of how Gilgamesh and the various versions of the old testament are weaved together into a mish-mash of "god's word" is very interesting. No one who understands how the Bible came to be can believe that it is the actual word of god, because it comes from several different sources, and it contradicts itself and reality… a lot. The absolute most charitable one can be is to say that the bible might reflect god's wishes, as filtered and understood by man. But that is thin gruel at best.
This book has a lot of fine photos and illustrations. It discusses basic skeptical issues like reserving judgment and human bias. And many of its topics are historical in nature, so there is lot here for a newcomer to the skeptical world to absorb.
If you have any interest in geology and the basics of skepticism, this is a good book for you.
Herbert Werner may be the luckiest man in the world. He joined the German Navy submarine force when the war started. He believed in Hitler and the German Reich. He found freedom October 30, 1945.
Werner started his submarine career as an ensign. He went on to captain his own boats. He planted mines in Chesapeake Bay. He successfully attacked convoys in the Atlantic, sinking dozens of ships. He wound up in prison camps after the war, but finally made his way back to Germany after more than 6 years of fighting. His family was killed while he was at sea. And he was depth charged in almost uncountable numbers by ships and planes.
The average U-Boat had about a 20% chance of returning to port on any given patrol. The Germans had three major U-Boat ports: Lorient, New Rochelle, and Breast. They fed out onto the bay of Biscay. Nearer the end of the war, the average U-Boat had a one in five chance of just getting out of the Bay alive. This was thanks to the Allies substantial lead in radar technology. A flying boat could see a U-Boat on the surface with radar long before the plane could be spotted visually. No branch of the German military had a worse chance for survival.
Life on board a U-Boat was awful. Lousy (literally) food, extremely crowded conditions; the smell of chlorine, diesel, oil and sweat everywhere. By comparison, life on an American submarine was like a stay at the Ritz. When the sub went deep, the latrine could not be pumped out, so you can add human waste to the equation.
When the war finally ended, Werner spent 8 months in prison camps until he escaped them, and made it back to Germany proper.
I found the internal workings and tactics of the German U-Boat very interesting.
What was also interesting is what the book lacks. The author never questions the German goal and their ultimate victory until the very end. He believed in Hitler. Doenitz kept sending his U-Boats out until the very end, asking his submariners to commit suicide and ram shipping to buy time for the "secret weapons" to be developed and deployed. The book contained no mention of Nazi policies at all. Not even Hitler's orders to shoot survivors of a sinking ship in the water. No mention of the Jews and other persecuted groups and nations. The book was written in 1969, so the author had plenty of time to think of such things.
The best thing about this book is that its contents and conclusions are basically in the table of contents. This makes it easy for me to summarize. Harriet Hall (Skeptic, and MD) wrote a short positive piece in the Skeptical Inquirer about the book which prompted me to buy it.
NB: Listen to your doctor. Do not take medical advice from me. Do your research.
Chapter 1: Don't take fever reducing meds during a cold. No ASA, no Tylenol, and no Advil. These drugs reduce fever, hobble your immune system (the immune system likes it hot), and lengthen your illness.
Chapter 2: Antibiotics are over prescribed and finishing your course of treatment is not always a good idea.
Chapter 4: Vitamin D is over-hyped. I stopped taking it when I read it was associated with kidney stones.
In general, stick to the FDA recommended amounts. Huge doses of vitamins can create poor outcomes.
Chapter 5: Antioxidants are a waste of money.
Chapter 6: Testosterone treatments are bad for you.
Chapter 7: Aspirin doesn't prevent heat attack or stroke.
Chapter 8: Expose your kids to peanuts and other allergens early.
Chapter 9: Sun block doesn't really work. Stay out of the sun.
Chapter 11: Prostrate cancer screening is not good for you.
Chapter 12: Ditto Thyroid screening.
Chapter 13: Ditto breast cancer screening.
Chapter 14: Heart stents do not work.
Chapter 15: Knee arthritis surgery is unnecessary.
Chapter 16: Mercury fillings are safe and effective.
Chapter 17: Vitamin C doesn't help colds.
How do you treat colds? It turns out that the old method of breathing steam works, because the virus does not reproduce well in warmer environments. Otherwise, treat your colds with contempt.
Chapter 18: Do NOT ice a sprained joint. Rather, do the opposite and apply heat.
For decades, the usual treatment for sprains was RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) and it was pretty much exactly the opposite of what should be done.
Some of these are surprising results. Most I had heard of before.
The book is not as dry as one might imagine. It is fast read and backed by copious notes. It keeps the jargon to a minimum and the logic is easy to follow.
For example, your immune system is designed to work best at higher temperatures. Ergo, you get a fever when you get sick. It makes no sense to reduce your temperature, as doing so will impede your recovery.
One broad issue the book does discuss is malpractice law suits. These suits distort the system. The author recommends getting rid of jury trials and replacing the jury with a panel of experts.
This example amused the skeptic in me:
In 1986, "psychic" Judith Haimes had a CT scan of her head due to headaches. As a result, she claimed, she lost her power to talk to the dead. She sued and won $986,000!!... which was later overturned as excessive.
ofThis book and The Splendid and the Vile cover much of the same ground, but from different perspectives. The latter looks at the politics and infighting in Fighter Command and other agencies from the top… Churchill, Beaverbrook et al and their upper-class struggle to win the war. This book views the struggle from the bottom. Regular men and women thrust into the war and getting life lessons in fighting and dying.
The first familiar person mentioned, who appears again and again, was Douglas Bader. The double amputee was inspirational for millions of Brits. Another name that popped up a few times was Watson-Watt, the genius behind England's secret weapon: radar.
Air Marshall Hugh Dowding and his junior Keith Park were the top people running Fighter Command. Leigh-Mallory was also there. His brother George Mallory was notable as one of the first to climb Mt Everest. He did not climb down and his mummified body stood guard over the route up for decades. Leigh-Mallory was re-assigned after the Battle of Britain to Burma. Ironically, he never made it: his plane ran into a mountain.
I would write more about these folks, but the book lacks an index, so finding items in it is hard. I will only mention a few highlights.
The very first Battle of Britain sortie was so badly botched that two friendly squadrons went at each other! The first fatality in the Battle of Britain was a British pilot, shot down by another British pilot.
One theme came up regularly: the death of the British class system. War boils people down to their lowest common denominators, and class disappears. This was eye-opening for many people, especially young upper-class women who were suddenly removed from their posh surroundings and injected into the thick of it.
Bader was always pushing for more aggressive tactics during the battle. He was an advocate, along with Leigh-Mallory, of the "big wing" concept, which never really got off the ground. He fought the Battle of Britain like a champion; got shot down; and closed out the war in Colditz.
Polish pilots were terrific (in its original and modern sense). At the end of the war, they were told to go home. Home was now behind the Iron Curtain. Ultimately, the government relented and any Polish pilots who wished to stay, could.
At the end, the V1s and V2s started falling. Brave ammo-less pilots would catch up to the V1 and tip it with their wing tips. This was called "nudging". This action threw off the V2s gyros causing it to crash.
When the battle was won, both Park and Dowding were tossed aside. As the book notes, people are remarkably dismissive of their saviors after the are saved.
This book was written just a few years ago. As a movie fan, I was pleased to see a lot of references to the movies that have been made about this period, most notably Reach for the Sky and The Battle of Britain.
I can think of a couple of propaganda films that featured killed British flyers going to heaven where they met their slain mates. I thought this was just story telling, but it actually reflected a prevalent strong belief in spiritualism at the time. This is not "spiritualism" as we use the word today. Then, it meant belief in ghosts. People like Dowding write books on the subject.
I liked this book better than The Splendid and the Vile in that it spoke more about day-to-day life of all the service people during the war. The Observer Corp, Home Guard, and especially WAAFs and various other female groups that worked at Blechly Park (code breaking), and a Bently Priory (tracking incoming bombers and scrambling fighters to intercept), and operated the radar units.
A Crack in Creation; Jennifer A. Doudna, Samuel H. Sternberg; 2018; Mariner Books;246 pgs; Notes, index
If you examine the book cover, you will notice that some of the letters are in yellow, the others in white. The letters in yellow are A, C, T, and G… the first letters of the four amino acids that make up DNA. The author's last name is "Dou DNA", but that is just a coincidence. So this is a book about biology. I know a lot more about physics and computing than I do about biology, but oddly, that knowledge was quite helpful. My thanks to Blythe Nilson who corrected some ugly errors in my first draft of this piece.
CRISPR, the underlying technology here, is as important to our future as nuclear power. So you should know something about it. You don't need to know how it works, just what it might be able to do.
Physics and chemistry are closely related. Biology is chemical. And DNA biology is also very computational. DNA's ACGT structure is binary (i.e. base 2) code. You might say "Then why are there four letters, rather than two?" Because nature needed an easy way to copy DNA. The DNA chain is made up of paired letters: A always pairs with T, and G with C (each pairing is a bit). This allows the DNA to be cut in two long pieces, and then each piece is reassembled into a complete DNA chain by re-pairing (or repairing) the chain by adding the appropriate matching letter. One copy of DNA becomes two. This is the chemical basis for reproduction.
Each triplet of these letters code for a particular amino acid, and the sequence of DNA dictates how these amino acids will be built into proteins. Proteins are the true stuff of life.
As I read this book, I was struck by the number of times I could see software analogies in the chemistry. In computing, data and code are two sides of the same coin. The same is true for the molecules of life. They are hardware (a fixed bunch of atoms arranged just so) and software (do this, then do that) all packaged up into a single object.
Enter CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeats), a new technology that is both enormously promising and bloody scary at the same time. CRISPR is not a great name. Even knowing what the letters stand for tells you nothing about what is actually is. The one chapter in the book that describes the CRISPR details is challenging. It is full of acronyms and strange words, making it hard to follow. The rest of the book is much less challenging.
CRISPR was initially just an observation that part of the DNA of the bacteria consists of Repeating Clusters of DNA. The repeated bits read the same forward as backward (Palindromic), were quite Short, and were always the same distance apart (Regularly Interspaced). It soon became apparent that these genes were associated with the bacteria's immune system. What a bacteria fears is a phage (short for bacteriophage), a virus that attacks bacteria. The CRISPR genes contain a length of genetic material in the Regularly Interspaced part. These bits of RNA are actually viral RNA that was taken from a phage in the past, and is now used as a pattern matching template to recognize viral DNA. Associated with CRISPR is an enzyme that, once activated, destroys its DNA/RNA target… in this case, the phage.
Aside: RNA and DNA are chemically very similar and sometimes serve similar purposes. RNA is a single stranded molecule, and DNA is double stranded. RNA uses uracil (U) instead of thymine (T) in its code.
Once the enzyme is released, it zooms down the DNA chain at a rate of 300,000 nucleotides per second, carving it up into amino acid junk! That is fast!
Scientists realized that this mechanism could be used to find, change, and/or disable genes with amazing accuracy. For a software guy like me, I see many analogies to computer code. Each segment of phage DNA/RNA in CRISPR is used as template to find an invading phage and kill it. This is like a parameter to a subroutine or, if you prefer, a kind of microscopic Google search using the DNA segment as the search target. This is hardly surprising since, at its core, genes are a series of zeros and ones that are used to make you and me. In other words, it is all software and software is easy to change (hence the "soft" part).
CRISPR technology has enormous potential for both good and evil. It might be used to cure horrible genetic diseases such Huntingtons, or it could be used to create supermen. It can be used to hunt down one gene with one wrong letter, tag that gene for repair, and then get the mechanisms of body to repair it. Sickle Cell Anemia is one such disease.
When writing software, one generally designs top-down and builds bottom-up. In the software of real life, there is no design, only what works. Software starts with building tools; and then uses those tools to build larger software structures which, in turn are used as tools to build even more complex structures and procedures. And with all these tools lying around, there often comes a realization that the existing tools could be easily repurposed to do something that previously seemed out of reach. I have experienced this many times in my software career. Bio-researchers are discovering all these tools lying around in the cell and are closing in on learning how to use them.
CRISPR opens many doors, some of which we should probably keep locked. Curing an awful disease is obviously a good thing. Changing human germ cells is much scarier. Changes to human germ cells means that the change is passed on to offspring. And that smacks of eugenics, NAZI supermen, designer babies etc., and it raises many ethical questions.
The closing chapters of the book focus on the future and the inherent advantages and dangers that CRISPR embodies.
Biotech like CRISPR gives us god-like powers to manipulate life. Advances in biotech and computing make it possible for us to wield those powers. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that CRISPR is the biotech equivalent of the Manhattan Project. I hope mankind learns to use it wisely, because use it we will.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.