The Last Man Who Knew Everything

The Book of the Week is “The Last Man Who Knew Everything, The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Atomic Age” by David N. Schwartz, published in 2017.

Born to a wealthy family in September 1901 in Italy, Fermi was mentored in science by a colleague of his father, who worked for the railroad. This, after suffering the trauma of having his older brother die unexpectedly having throat surgery in 1914.

Fermi had a photographic memory, which helped to make him a brilliant student in mathematics and physics from studying textbooks. He was required to learn German too, to keep abreast of developments in the scholarly journals.

Fermi eventually became a physics professor at the University of Rome. His teaching gig, which he was also really good at, lasted from 1926 to 1938. He married in July 1927 and several years later, he wrote, and his wife edited and translated, a high school physics textbook that became part of the standard high school curriculum in Italy.

Quantum statistical mechanics was his specialty. Athleticism was another. Fiercely competitive, he always outdid his colleagues in hiking and climbing the hills around Rome. He became well traveled, thanks to attendance at international physics conferences. Some were hosted in the United States, which had better research funding than his native country.

By the late 1920’s, Fermi had cofounded a world-class nuclear physics research institute in Rome. The first entering class consisted of three graduate students. The younger generation was reflecting on new quantum theories to which the old-school Italian physicists were resistant. Fermi was in the former group.

In spring 1929, Mussolini selected members, of which Fermi was one, for an elite scientific society. He offered them big money so that they would do Italy proud (like academic and athletic scholarships bestowed upon fiercely competitive students, dispensed by elitist schools in the United States nowadays).

In the early 1930’s, Fermi supervised scientists who traveled internationally to different labs to learn from their fellow Europeans; yet they also competed with physicists at prestigious institutions in Berlin, Paris, Berkeley in California, and Cambridge in England.

In October 1934, Fermi’s team discovered that “…slowing down neutrons enhanced the radioactivity induced by neutron bombardment.” In connection therewith, he applied for a patent in Italy and the United States. He got a new lab.

By 1936, Mussolini was finding that invading Ethiopia was an expensive proposition. He began to depend on financial aid from Nazi Germany. By summer 1938, Hitler had control over ruining careers of Jews in licensed professions, civil servants, and white collar jobs in Italy.

In late 1938, after much red tape and worrisome scheming, Fermi and his wife (who had been deemed Jewish) escaped Italy first for the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, at which he took his trophy and money, and then for the United States. He ended up working at Columbia University.

At a Washington, D.C. conference in January 1939, physicists announced they had figured out how to produce fission, the process required to detonate an atomic bomb. Some were concerned that if Hitler’s scientists got hold of such knowledge, he would order mass destruction of his enemies before they could stop him. Fermi felt there was a low probability that Germany could build such a device. But Fermi was persuaded to share the thereafter-secret formula with the United States Navy. This would show his loyalty to America at a time when Italy was not exactly America’s ally.

Read the book to learn the parties involved with, locations of, trials and tribulations regarding, and Fermi’s role in the Manhattan Project; what Fermi did thereafter; and the Edward Teller/J. Robert Oppenheimer dispute, plus other physics-related occurrences up until Fermi’s death.

The Defense Never Rests – BONUS POST

The  Bonus Book of the Week is “The Defense Never Rests” by F. Lee Bailey with Harvey Aronson, published in 1971. This is the career memoir of a criminal defense attorney best known for the Sam Sheppard and Boston Strangler cases.

Born in 1933, Bailey served in the Marines, and later started practicing law at a firm in Boston. He became a polygraph-test expert, and later argued that test results should have been admissible in all courts. When he started his career in 1961, Massachusetts law still required that in court, a murder suspect be confined to a wire cage.

Read the book to learn of various cases litigated by the author, including those of Sam Sheppard and the Boston Strangler and his own, when he found himself in trouble (not for murder, though). Perhaps that is why he provided no: Notes, Bibliography, Sources, References or Index in this book, although he did provide verbatim excerpts of court transcripts.

Into the Raging Sea

The Book of the Week is “Into the Raging Sea, Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm, and the Sinking of El Faro” by Rachel Slade, published in 2018. This sloppily proofread volume recounts a suspenseful, emotionally charged story about a rare but preventable epic fail. It is a cautionary tale of how TOO MUCH DEREGULATION in the shipping industry turned out to be penny-wise and pound foolish.

Just as a little bit of socialism is good (in the form of public libraries and the like), too much socialism is bad. So too– some deregulation might be good, but too much deregulation leads to conflicts, corruption, monopolies and crashes (financial and physical). With the ship El Faro, one thing led to another: Getting rid of pesky laws that hindered commerce ultimately increased the risk of deaths, as will be explained.

All the money the government and El Faro‘s owner thought they were “saving” with the help of deregulation, was wasted in the accident in various, extremely high costs– rescue-resources, the emotional toll taken on all of the parties involved, litigation, etc. What happened to the ship showcased the extremes of human nature– greed and hubris of shipping-company executives and their accomplices (politicians) versus the braving of life-threatening conditions, by rescuers trying to prevent deaths in the disaster.

At the beginning of October 2015, El Faro was hauling commercial cargo heading for San Juan in Puerto Rico, but ended up in the path of hurricane Joaquin. The whole voyage was one long cluster screw-up.

For starters, the shipping industry had an abusive, hierarchical culture. There had been a long period of deregulation starting in the 1970’s in the interest of political expedience and profit-seeking; safety be damned. But by the 2010’s in the shipping industry, the gravy train was over.

Due to the safety crackdown, El Faro‘s corporate owner had been doing some lean and mean cost-cutting in connection with all of its holdings, at the expense of vessels and their personnel. El Faro had been grandfathered in under older regulations that made its long-term seaworthiness doubtful. But it was lucrative enough not to be scrapped.

Architecturally, the ship had been designed for speed rather than safety, and the physical arrangement of the cargo caused the ship to ride low in the water, and list in rough seas. Rushed workers sloppily loaded the cargo– consisting of cars and other heavy, unwieldy items, and they weren’t entirely secure (both the workers and cargo). The ship’s anemometer was broken. But for deregulation, the government would have taken the ship’s owners to task on these and various other accident-prevention issues.

During this, El Faro‘s last voyage, in which it encountered a horrific storm, the captain could pick and choose from a few different sources of weather forecasts. He happened to choose the most outdated one, unbeknownst to him. Nevertheless, he stubbornly refused to consider any others, or significantly change the ship’s route, even when his subordinates tried to tell him about storm data from other sources. He needed to please his bosses, whom he knew preferred that he get the ship to its destination ASAP, to minimize costs. In transportation, time is money.

Also, the captain lacked social graces. Not only that, he was a survivalist, one of those nutjobs who was prepared for the end of the world, with weaponry and provisions and planned to defend himself if necessary, against other survivalists. Thanks to deregulation, he was still employed.

The sleep-deprived chief mate of the ship was a new employee, just getting to know the captain, so he was eager to impress him and reluctant to question his authority. The second mate was psychologically weary of her job.

Other ship workers were less than loyal, as they had no job security. To add insult to injury, racial tension pervaded the ranks. To boot, the ship was understaffed.

To be fair, the storm formed faster than anyone had anticipated. But obviously, TOO MUCH DEREGULATION played a major role in the incident.

As an aside, “It’s an open secret in the meteorological community that the ECMWF [the European weather service and hurricane software modeler] is consistently better than the NWS [American National Weather Service and hurricane software modeler].” The former collects more data worldwide and gets more funding than the latter. (Apparently, whenever a storm is brewing near the United States, the American weather media still show the projected route of the American model, as a point of pride).

Read the book to learn: other disturbing lessons; the fate of the ship; and fascinating details of the investigation.