Thursday, January 14, 2016

Description of the World - Part 43

Mario Rabinowitz, “Beamed Black Hole Radiation: Cosmology and Ball Lightening Connected” an offprint from Infinite Energy, Issue 25, 1999 (Mario used to give me offprints from time to time. Like many other physicists, he has a taste for speculation, in this instance, a proposal that little black holes (LBHs) may actually be quite common in the universe and that radiation from them may occur by other, less violent means than Hawking radiation (the process described in the movie Theory of Everything). He proposed that LBHs may explain mysterious but apparently quite real terrestrial phenomena like ball lightening, account for much of the missing mass in the Universe, and even cause the acceleration of cosmic expansion. They might also serve as an energy source, a veritable Mr. Fusion. Is any of this likely? Probably not. On the day after the big drawing, however, it occurs to me that the chances that Rabinowitz guessed correctly, though very small, are nevertheless considerably greater than the odds were of winning the Powerball apocalypse and three people did that.)

J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (Hannah Arendt wrote an introduction to this edition of Gray’s meditation on his four-year long experience of war. Arendt noted that the book made no stir at its first appearance and only gradually developed a following “of readers in very different walks of life who cherished it as a triumph of personal discovery and, perhaps for this very personal reason, began to think of its author in terms of affinity, closeness and affection, which are very rarely felt even in the presence of masterpieces.”  She wrote that back in the earliest 70s. Since then the book seems to have gradually disappeared from awareness. I know I haven’t thought about it for years. It wasn’t that I ever made quite the emotional connection with it that Arendt mentions; but looking through it now, I recall the strong impression it made on me then and something of the way the impression diminished very slowly afterwards like the sound of a bell fading away when you listen to it in a quiet place. It may be a good time to strike that bell again since America is now living in a time when the vast majority never experience war directly and yet glorify its practitioners while a large few experience the effects captured by some of Gray’s chapter headings, especially the “Enduring Appeals of Battle” and “the Ache of Guilt.” We should be very careful. It is simply not the case that the experience of war always turns thoughtless adolescents into life-long pacifists. The reality is vastly more complex. Historically, some of the most politically dangerous people have been veterans, even authentic war heroes. To think that no one could want renewed war if they knew what it was really like is not true at all; it’s the All-Quiet-On-the-Western-Front fallacy. Gray writes about men who found the experience of peace profoundly empty, so empty that it could produce a nostalgia for times when things happened and one’s relationships with others was not perpetually optional. That doesn’t mean that the returning soldiers don’t remember how awful it all had been, but that the boredom of a life without events can sometimes seem even worse. Succumbing to that can be and is resisted, of course, but that it is one of the lingering wounds of war is a fact.) 

Richard White, Railroaded: the Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (There aren’t any quantum leaps in history. If the great transitions in society seem mysterious, it’s simply because we mostly don’t bother to figure out how they took place or, as is certainly the case with many of the most momentous passages of American history, the processes are too embarrassing to recall. Several years ago it occurred to me that countless books, many of them admirable, have been published about the Founders and Abraham Lincoln but that works that covered the period between the end of the Civil War and the Progressive era have been far fewer or at least far more obscure. Even the dead zone between Jackson and Lincoln, the administrations of the Presidents that Jeopardy contestants get wrong, attracted more attention (Schlesinger, Sellers, Howe, Sean Wilentz). I scanned the shelves at Borders—it was towards the end of their run—but found an obvious gap, and it didn’t much help to ask the professional historians I know for some recommendations. What makes this lacuna surprising is that the Gilded Age was the inflation phase of the American Big Bang. It was in those years that the U.S. caught up with and then passed the other industrial powers and it became clear that our political power would also be decisive in the future. If you squint at the 19th Century to see the big shapes, the looming fact is that of the two monster powers, Russia was kept in check by the others while we were not. Of course there are some explanations for the lack of interest in the period. One of them is how badly we behaved as a people in the aftermath of the Civil War. That makes us reluctant to linger over our failures. One of the few really impressive historical works about the era is Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, a history as painful to read as Thucydides. It’s also true that the age was marked by a struggle between labor and capital that any serious historian would have to address. Not much commercial potential in writing labor history or retroactive muckraking. Or maybe it’s just that the period bores people. Evidently it bores me, I left the bookmark at page 88 of this well-written book even though I’m supposed to be interested in the topic.

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