Thursday, October 29, 2009

A stunning achievement in 600 pages: The Storm of War

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The contemporary Second World War historian faces a monumental task. He must sort through the enormous literature on the most devastating conflict in human history, both known and recently unearthed, and then pick out the gems. He must then string these gems together into a narrative that strikes the right balance between offering all important details and yet not miring the reader in a dense thicket of minutiae. The achievement of this objective is the mark of a true historian, and in his new, stunningly succinct and yet comprehensive history of the Second World War, Andrew Roberts more than accomplishes this objective and reveals himself as a historian of the first rank, in the words of The Economist, "Britain's finest military historian".

What distinguishes Roberts's book from other World War 2 histories is that it's simply the most stunning encapsulation of every single front in the conflict in a relatively slim 600 pages. In his drive to leave no stone unturned and his capacity to compose brief portraits of key people and events, Roberts surpasses even eminent historian John Keegan. Roberts's style is distinguished by terse, tightly knit chapters that deliver the goods in brief paragraphs and analyses. While generally chronological and covering each important front, the chapters also include separate ones on the Holocaust and on strategic bombing. A single, absolutely masterful chapter summarizes the conflict at the end. Bringing new information to bear on well-known events, Roberts provides striking new insights into the war and puts some long-harbored beliefs to rest.

The most important thread running through Robert's retelling of the War constitutes the singular mistakes that Adolf Hitler made and his underlying motivations while also highlighting his strengths. Hitler had an unusually prodigious knowledge of military equipment and detail and was a shrewd controller of men; a striking example was when, in the aftermath of his victory over France, he suddenly promoted twelve generals to Field Marshals, thus generally diluting the distinguished character of the rank and emphasizing his dominion over his officers. However, whatever his strengths were were far overshadowed by the stupendous mistakes he made. Admittedly the greatest was to decide to attack the Soviet Union. Hitler completely underestimated the sheer tenacity of the ordinary Russian soldier and citizen and on the other side of the continent, also underestimated the tenacity of that tiny island named England. His second greatest mistake was to foolishly declare war on the United States. Here Hitler made an even more elementary error in underestimating the enormous resources and production capacity of the United States which soon started bolstering the great Soviet war machine as well as the British. Most importantly, Hitler committed both mistakes fueled by his essential Nazism and thirst for Lebensraum (living space) in the East. And the fundamental underlying ideology driving this thinking which finally drove a stake into his grand plans was his racial theory about inferior Slavs and Jews. It was this rabid racial ideology which prevented him from shrewdly taking advantage for instance of Eastern Russians' contempt for Stalin's regime and turning them into allies; instead Hitler assigned the feared Einsatzgruppen to essentially wipe out Russian towns from the map. These SS units participated in the wholesale personalized murder of a million Russians in 1941 alone, killing on a scale whose sheer personal nature and horrifying brutality dwarfs even the later industrialized gassings of The Holocaust. Roberts does a superb job of highlighting how it was this basic racial and xenophobic mentality that drove almost all of Hitler's mistakes including most of his military ones.

Roberts also has revealing analyses of more tactical errors by Hitler. These include not ramping up U-boat production in time to possibly starve Britain and make her sue for peace, not focusing on fighter development without which his cherished bombers would not be effective, being almost blissfully indifferent to the Japanese whose help he could have considered in invading the Soviet Union, and of course his two cardinal tactical errors; letting the British get away at Dunkirk (Roberts demolishes the belief that Hitler did this because he was interested in peace negotiations with Britain) and even more importantly, halting the advance on Moscow in the summer of 1941, sudden driving his forces to the South. This miscalculation, combined with Stalingrad and the later great tank battle of Kursk, signaled the death knell for the Nazi regime.

Roberts also pays due attention to the Pacific theater of war including the incredibly bloody fighting at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His discussion of this front includes a superb chapter on the Battle of Midway which was the turning point in the Pacific war, and most notably a detailed and riveting analysis of the more under-appreciated stage of the battle in Burma. The British response in Burma against a determined enemy in a sweltering thicket of tropical heat and rain forests was comparable to anything else in the War, and Roberts calls the defeat of the Japanese in Burma the "greatest gift that the British could have given India". He also has detailed and tactically accomplished accounts of the war in North Africa, (against Rommel's famed Afrika Corps), Normandy, Sicily and Italy and of the Ardennes offensive (The Battle of the Bulge) and the march towards Berlin. These accounts are interspersed with sharp portraits of men like FDR, Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery, Manstein, Rommel, Keitel and Goring.

Robert's chapter on the U-boat war is particularly skilled and he carefully documents the initial disasters that befell the British navy in the Atlantic. The U-boats sank millions of tons of shipping, and if Hitler had stepped up production earlier he could have starved off Britain much sooner in the war. However, in the end it was not the resilience of the Royal Navy nor Germany's increasingly dwindling war production capability that were decisive; it was a secret weapon that was developed by mathematician Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park near London. It is difficult to overemphasize the absolutely crucial role that breaking the Enigma code of the Nazis played in the war. It is a silent undercurrent running through Roberts's narrative but its overwhelming importance is clear; it was code-breaking that won the critical Battle of Midway, and it was code-breaking that proved pivotal not just in the U-boat battle but in North Africa and in Normandy. It was not the atomic bomb, not even radar, but the obscure code-breaking work of brilliant scientists toiling away in the utmost secrecy that really won the war.

Further on Roberts has separate chapters on the Holocaust and on strategic bombing. His chapter on the Holocaust is painful to read and captures the key facts, including why FDR avoided bombing the train tracks to Auschwitz; there was genuine concern about killing prisoners (concern that in hindsight seems misguided) and such bombing was seen as a diversion of bombers from German cities. Roberts's analysis of strategic bombing is highly readable. Along with the atomic bombing of Japan, it's strategic bombing that is the most controversial part of the Allied campaign in the war. The destruction of Hamburg and Dresden are well known (the latter made famous by Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"). Roberts wisely avoids passing any moral judgement and simply analyses whether the carpet bombing of German cities worked, and whether it was necessary. The answer to the first question is decidedly yes. There is a clear correlation between dwindling German war production and air power and the Allied bombing campaign; the bombing also kept German aircraft away from the Eastern front. The answer to the second question is more ambiguous, but in hindsight provided by the first answer it too appears favourable. Certainly the number of people killed in German cities by bombing, while quite high, was dwarfed by ground losses on both Western and Eastern fronts.

If I have a minor gripe with the book, it is that Roberts could have added about a hundred more pages and fleshed out the chapters on Stalingrad and the Holocaust in more detail. No matter how many books you read about the War, the Eastern Front and the Holocaust comprise a set of events which constantly beggar belief by their sheer magnitudes and leave one's mind shatteringly numbed. While 6 million Jews and others were murdered in an orgiastic frenzy of factory-like slaughter, 27 million Russians lost their lives in what can only be described as Dante's worst nightmare, a sea of blood whose volume is unmatched in human history. Just one statistic puts the staggering Russian losses in perspective; for every American soldier who died on the battlefield, 60 Russian soldiers lost their lives. About a million men died at Stalingrad alone compared to half a million or so American soldiers in the entire War. At the same time, the unimaginable ferocity on the Eastern Front was possibly matched only by Josef Stalin's own monstrous barbarity toward his own people; not even Hitler personally tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of his own officers and generals for absolutely no reason. In the annals of twentieth century brutality nobody can match the excesses of Stalin, and these excesses manifested themselves dangerously in the complete lack of preparation the Soviet Union faced during the early Nazi onslaught. It was only the gargantuan resolve of ordinary Russian citizens and soldiers combined with the certain death at the hands of of their own officers that deserters would face (thanks to Stalin) that forced every Russian to fight for his life. The Nazi-Soviet conflict can only be seen through the lens of one of those mythical conflicts signaling the end of the world. While tomes have been published both on this conflict as well as the singular horror that was the Holocaust, Roberts has relatively brief (although highly well-informed) chapters on both topics and I thought that an addition of a hundred or so pages would have been a small sacrifice for some added narrative on these earth-shattering events.

But these are minor issues. In the purview of his analyses, the crisp and riveting style of his narrative and the comprehensive detailing of every single important front, battle and fact of this great conflict, Roberts is second to none. While Roberts's basic thrust is to highlight Hitler's tactical mistakes, his overweening racial ideology and his conflict with his generals, in retrospect of course such analysis is relatively easily enunciated. Just think of how we would have written history differently had the Nazis, God forbid, won the war. We would possibly be talking about French casualties by Allied bombing instead of British casualties in the Blitz (the former actually exceeded the latter), and General Mark Clark letting the Nazi tenth army get away in Italy instead of Hitler letting the British get away at Dunkirk. Given the capacity of Hitler's armies, the experience and fighting capability of the German solider (probably the most well trained of any in the conflict), the superiority of German weaponry and the brilliance of his generals (of whom some like Manstein, Rommel and Guderin were regarded as the finest strategic minds on any side), it was by no means obvious that the Nazis would lose. But as Roberts's overall message in the book indicates, in the end Adolf Hitler lost the war because of the same reason that he almost won it; because he was a Nazi.

I cannot recommend The Storm of War enough. The Second World War was a transformative event in human history that should be remembered until the end of time. It deserves the constant and passionate attention of the finest historians of their generations, and Andrew Roberts proves himself as one of the best of this class.

Note: The Storm of War is not available in the United States until 2011. It is available in Britain and can be ordered through the British Amazon.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

A rollicking romp through quantum connections

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Very few physicists have emphasized the human side of physics as well as Jeremy Bernstein. A veteran physicist and writer who has known many famous physicists of the twentieth century, Bernstein has penned highly readable portraits of Oppenheimer, Bethe and Einstein among others and has written books about nuclear weapons, quants on Wall Street, Bell Laboratories and the German atomic bomb project. In this book he explores the several ramifications of the strange proliferation of concepts from quantum mechanics into popular culture, theater, art, philosophy and cinema. Perhaps this proliferation is not surprising considering the bizarre implications of the actual meaning of quantum theory, but as Bernstein indicates, non-physicists have extended the reach of quantum concepts far beyond what the scientific creators of the theory would have intended.

Bernstein takes us through a diverse variety of topics and characters. He describes the Dalai Lama's writings in which he draws parallels between Buddhism and quantum theory, and this gives him an opportunity to talk about two central characters in the book, physicists John Bell and David Bohm who the Dalai Lama knew and who played crucial roles in the development of the interpretative parts of the discipline. Bernstein describes the famous conflict between Einstein and Bohr about the meaning of quantum theory and explains Bell's groundbreaking contributions that argued against Einstein's belief that quantum mechanics might be governed by some kind of "hidden variables" which we have to discover; Bell showed that any such hidden variable theory would have to involve superluminal communication and would be at odds with the theory of relativity. Later many remarkably precise experiments verified Bell's ideas, and Bell would almost certainly have received a Nobel Prize had he not died untimely of a stroke.

Bernstein also discusses the extension of quantum theory into non-scientific realms and describes the plays of the playwright Tom Stoppard (writer of "Hapgood" and "Arcadia"), who seems to have incorporated some concepts into his writing. Along the way Bernstein discusses the famous double slit experiment of quantum theory (best discussed in the Feynman Lectures on Physics) which inspired Stoppard and other writers including Princeton philosopher Rebecca Goldstein (author of "Incompleteness", a fascinating book about Kurt Godel) whose work Bernstein also describes. Bernstein also uses these narrative threads to talk about his own background at Harvard and Princeton where he came in contact with many of the key figures in the development of quantum physics. He has a clear and readable discussion of Bell's theorem and its background.

The last chapters in Bernstein's book talk about New Age-type expositions of quantum theory discussed by writers like Gary Zhukov and Fritjof Capra (author of "The Tao of Physics") who seemingly find many parallels between the philosophical parts of the discipline and Eastern philosophy and mysticism. Bernstein is admittedly not very impressed with these interpretations as many of them sound rather fuzzy and devoid of concrete meaning. Perhaps Bernstein should have also taken a well-deserved jab at the New Age guru Deepak Chopra, whose use of quantum concepts seems to have been divined from thin air.

Readers might be forgiven for Bernstein's digressions which usually constitute a common part of his writings. For instance his first chapter is about his encounter with poet W H Auden and the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr which seems to have little bearing on the rest of the book. A chapter on Niels Bohr's protege, the physicist Leon Rosenfeld, suddenly digresses into how quantum mechanics came in conflict with Soviet Marxism and dialectical materialism, and how Soviet physicists struggled to reconcile physics with their political ideology. A lot of this has to do with Bernstein's own background and it usually makes for interesting reading, but as in some of his other books, one cannot help shake off the feeling that Bernstein is trying to pack too much into the book and jumping from one topic to another with alacrity. However, I personally enjoy such digressions, and while some others may not, there is still enough interesting material in this slim book to keep most readers with a variety of interests hooked.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

At the Bryn Mawr eCheminfo Conference

From Monday through Wednesday I will be at the eCheminfo "Applications of Cheminformatics & Chemical Modelling to Drug Discovery" meeting at Bryn Mawr College, PA. The speakers and topics as seen in the schedule are interesting and varied. As usual, if anyone wants to crib about the finger food I will be around. I have heard the campus is quite scenic.

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"I was warned about this"

Bill O'Reilly is a little tamer than usual but also denser than usual in his latest argument with Dawkins. The same old canard is trotted out, and at one point Dawkins dons the garb of the English headmaster and asks O'Reilly to stop shouting and adds that he was warned about O'Reilly's amazing knack for equating loudness with truth

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Coyne vs Dawkins

This year being Darwin's 200th birth anniversary, we have seen a flurry of books on evolution. Out of these two stand out for the authority of their writers and the core focus on the actual evidence for evolution that they provide; Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution is True" and Richard Dawkins's "The Greatest Show on Earth". I have read Coyne's book and it's definitely an excellent introduction to evolution. Yet I am about 300 pages into Dawkins and one cannot help but be sucked again into his trademark clarity and explanatory elegance. I will have detailed reviews of the two books later but for now here are the main differences I can think of:

1. Dawkins talks about more evidence than simply that from biology. He also has evidence from history, geology and astronomy.

2. Dawkins's clarity of exposition is of course highly commendable. You would not necessarily find the literary sophistication of the late Stephen Jay Gould here but for straight and simple clarity this is marvelous.

3. A minor but noteworthy difference is the inclusion of dozens of absorbing color plates in the Dawkins book which are missing in Coyne's.

4. Most importantly, Dawkins's examples for evolution on the whole are definitely more fascinating and diverse than Coyne's, although Coyne's are pretty good too. For instance Coyne dwells more on the remarkable evolution of the whale from land-dwelling animals (with the hippo being a close ancestral cousin). Also, Coyne's chapter on sexual selection and speciation are among the best such discussions I have come across.

Dawkins on the other hand has a fascinating account of Michigan State University bacteriologist Richard Lenski's amazing experiments with E. coli that have been running for over twenty years. They have provided a remarkable window into evolution in real time like nothing else. Also marvelously engaging are his descriptions of the immensely interesting history of the domestication of the dog. Probably the most striking example of evolution in real time from his book is his clear account of University of Exter biologist John Endler's fabulous experiments with guppies in which the fish evolved drastically before our very eyes in relatively few generations because of carefully regulated and modified selection pressure.

Overall then, Coyne's book does a great job of describing evolution but Dawkins does an even better job of explaining it. As usual Dawkins is also uniquely lyrical and poetic in parts with his sparkling command of the English language.

Thus I would think that Dawkins and Coyne (along with probably Carl Zimmer's "The Tangled Bank" due to be published on October 15) would provide the most comprehensive introduction to evolution you can get.

As Darwin said, "There is grandeur in this view of life". Both Coyne and Dawkins serve as ideal messengers to convey this grandeur to us and to illustrate the stunning diversity of life around us. Both are eminently readable.

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The official slide into absurdity

There's been so much said about Obama prematurely winning the Nobel Peace Prize that I cannot possibly add to it. This was one of the very few times when both his detractors and his supporters were united in their recognition of this absurdity. I bet the news has given a headache to Obama and undoubtedly introduced another lofty expectation and complication in his life.

Suffice it to say that it's at times like this that I feel gratified to be working in the sciences. Sure, Nobel Prizes in the sciences have also been controversial, but nowhere as controversial as the literature, peace and economics prizes. The peace prize has officially turned into a joke and the economics prize is close to being one. But the ribosome, DNA structure, symmetry breaking in weak interactions and high-temperature ceramic superconductors have a ring of certainty and permanence that no achievement in finance or peace can have, although an achievement in literature might come close to being this way. Uncle Alby's words speak again; "Politics is ephemeral but an equation is forever"...

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

More on V. Ramakrishnan and a book that started it all

You could start with the telephone interview on the Nobel website. What's interesting is that Ramakrishnan did his PhD. from a not particularly distinguished university; his rather peripatetic career really seems to have taken off only several years after graduate school. I think this is a good illustration of what you can achieve even later in life if you put your mind to it. In the interview he says that in fact he was not very interested in his PhD. research project. He used to subscribe to Scientific American at the time and it was through the magazine that he realized that the most exciting developments were happening in biology (I was about to switch my subscription from Scientific American to Discover; maybe I should stick to Scientific American now). He was also inspired by the example of famous physicists like Francis Crick and Walter Gilbert who switched to molecular biology and made pathbreaking contributions.

It is worth remembering that one of the key influences that propelled physicists into molecular biology after the War was a little book by Erwin Schrödinger named "What is Life"? which laid out the basic questions- but tantalizingly, not the answers- necessary for addressing the questions of life and heredity at a molecular level. It makes for very interesting reading even today. The book was based on lectures that Schrödinger gave in neutral Ireland in 1943, one of the very few places not torn by the conflict. Schrödinger was also woefully ignorant of chemistry and therefore did not focus on metabolism (proteins), only on heredity. Now we know that metabolism might have evolved separately from genetics and is at least as important as genetics.

More links; profile of Ramakrishnan in TOI featuring interviews with his father. It's always amusing when, the moment someone wins a Nobel Prize, the fact that he or she does not own a car and bicycles to work every day suddenly becomes the title of a news piece! In this particular case, given that Ramakrishnan works in bicycle-friendly Cambridge, it's probably not surprising that he rides to work. He would probably not have done this had he worked in San Diego or at Yale.

Ramakrishnan is astonishingly the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology's 13th Nobel Laureate. The laboratory has been to molecular and structural biology what Rutherford's Cavendish Laboratory was to physics in the first half of the twentieth century. It was set up by Nobel Laureates and has served as a magnet for biostructural research for half a century.

More: A video interview with Ramakrishnan about his ribosome work, recorded at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (another molecular biology pioneer). It's worth noting how, in addition to being extremely perseverant and creative, Ramakrishnan was definitely also in the right place at the right time. For instance after his PhD. he ended up working with Peter Moore at Yale, a scientist who was then one of the very few people working on the ribosome. In addition, most modern high resolution structure determinations need access to a synchrotron which provides a very high intensity beam of x-rays. Ramakrishnan ended up at one of the world's premier sources of synchrotrons, Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Ramakrishnan also spares few words in castigating both the press and the general public for taking cognizance of important work only after it wins prizes. He says,
I think it’s a mistake to define good work by awards. This is a typical mistake that the public or even the press make. None of you called me about my work even two days ago… right?”

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The first Indian to win a Nobel Prize for chemistry

Venki Ramakrishnan has done it. He, Ada Yonath and Tom Seitz have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for 2009 for their pioneering studies on the structure of the ribosome. The prize was predicted by many for many years and I myself have listed these names in my lists for a couple of years now; in fact I remember talking with a friend about Yonath and Ramakrishnan getting it as early as 2002. Ramakrishnan thus joins the ranks of Raman, Khorana and Chandrasekhar as the latest Indian science Nobel Laureate. Will his achievement inspire more students in India to study science? I sure hope so...

...Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics: Kao, Boyle and Smith

Seems nobody saw this coming but the importance of optical fibers and CCDs is obvious. It's also interesting that Indian physicist Narinder Kapany's name is not on the list. I am not completely familiar with the history but from what I know Kapany was one of the early pioneers in fiber optics.

It's no small irony that the CCD research was done in 1969 at Bell Labs. With this Bell Labs may well be the most productive basic industrial research organization in history, and yet today it is less than a mere shadow of itself. The CCD research was done 40 years back and the time in which it was done seems disconnected from the present not just temporally, but more fundamentally. The research lab that once housed six Nobel Prize winners on its staff can now count a total of four scientists in its basic physics division.

The 80s and indeed most of the postwar decades before then seem to be part of a different universe now. The Great American Industrial Research Laboratory seems like a relic of the past. Merck, IBM, Bell Labs...what on earth happened to all that research productivity?

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Monday, October 05, 2009

The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

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The 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn (UCSF), Carol Greider (Johns Hopkins) and Jack Szostak (Harvard) for their discovery of the enzyme telomerase and its role in human health and disease.

This prize was highly predictable because the trio’s discovery is of obvious and fundamental importance to an understanding of living systems...

...Read the rest of the post on Desipundit