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.

Strong of Heart – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Strong of Heart, Life and Death in the Fire Department of New York” by Thomas Von Essen, published in 2002.

The bulk of the book recounted 9/11 through the author’s eyes. At the time, he was the Fire Commissioner of New York City, overseeing about sixteen thousand firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and civilians at the then-240 fire stations across the city. The deaths of firefighters on 9/11 numbered 343.

Additional workers passed away due to illness in the months and years following that disastrous day. The author admitted that the men who aided in the recovery effort refused to wear equipment that would have prevented their exposure to toxins at Ground Zero– the location of the tragedy. Goggles, masks, hard hats and respirators were uncomfortable and hindered communication.

The fire department consists of two divisions:  the ladder company, which searches for and rescues victims, and the engine company that operates the hose that puts out the fire.

In 1970, at Ladder Company 42 in the South Bronx, the author began firefighting at 24 years old, but still wasn’t sure he wanted to make that his career. The alarms were nonstop every shift in those days; many fires were made worse by fire-code violations of slumlords, and the proliferation of poorly constructed wooden buildings.

The author soon realized he enjoyed the unpredictable nature of the job, and the ego satisfaction he got from saving lives. He got elected president of his union in 1993. This allowed him to get to know every borough’s firehouse and politician in the city and state.

Read the book to learn of the author’s trials and tribulations in his chosen profession; what he was able to accomplish as an officeholder in the fire department with the help of his ultimate boss and friend, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani; and why firefighters were less than thrilled with the late former mayor Ed Koch in the late 1980’s.

The Shadow President

The Book of the Week is “The Shadow President, The Truth about Mike Pence” by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, published in 2018.

Born in 1959 in Columbus, Indiana (yes), Pence was the third oldest of six children. He was a champion debater in high school. He lost two Congressional races starting in 1990. After his second loss, he wrote a public statement admitting to his negative campaigning but neither repented nor apologized. He hosted a radio show, then a TV show.

Pence served twelve years in Congress beginning in 2001 and four years as Indiana’s governor before getting elected vice president of the United States in 2016.

The first thing Pence did as governor was pass a tax cut for “Hoosiers” (as he calls people from his state), but he exaggerated its benefits. He had epic fails in connection with forming public/private partnerships and refusing to: fund healthcare initiatives in Indiana and to pardon a man who was wrongly imprisoned for ten years. “At worst, he [Pence] was a powerful official willing to inflict pain on an innocent man in order to show he was tough on crime.”

People who worked with Pence said he wasn’t intellectual and didn’t take the work seriously. He did travel abroad extensively, however, suggesting he was hankering for higher office.

He is a radical conservative Christian right-winger; others of his ilk include President Donald Trump’s appointees– the heads of various federal agencies. They attend Bible study sessions.

Pence believes in predestination, and his hero is the late convicted Watergate criminal Charles Colson. His views are as follows: virulently anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-big government, anti-national healthcare, pro-charter schools, pro-privatization of government entitlements, pro-tax cuts, pro-reducing the deficit, pro-financial aid for Israel, pro-NRA, and pro-trade agreements like NAFTA.

According to the book, Pence is involved with a secretive Christian Right group called the Family (aka the Fellowship), which is anti-union, anti-Communist, and pals around with anti-gay business leaders and even dictatorial world leaders in order to grow its social network of wealth and power.

It might be recalled that President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and and Control Act of 1986. It was for an economic (not a humanitarian) reason: the workforces of various industries (agriculture, construction, etc.) depended on and consisted of, a significant number of immigrants.

At that time, Pence favored that legislation (which conditionally gave citizenship to: specific illegal immigrants who did seasonal farmwork, and illegal immigrants who were in America before the start of 1982). Not anymore.

Incidentally, when politicians and employers tacitly turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants in the workforce, they are not only favoring money over people, but also money (and political expedience) over American citizens. There is real conflict among greed, xenophobia and helping their constituents.

In January 2017, Pence was present at a Trump Tower meeting at which the directors of the top four U.S. intelligence agencies “… presented classified and categorical evidence that Russia had hacked into the U.S. election and that Vladimir Putin was personally responsible for authorizing this activity.”

At that time, the director of national intelligence told Trump that he and his colleagues lacked the authority and capability to determine whether Russia’s intrusion significantly affected the outcome of the election. But then he wrote that such activity did in his 2018 memoir. Nonetheless, Pence declared it didn’t.

Lastly, Pence fell under the spell of the Koch brothers, and is Trump’s sycophant. He therefore will argue against all things environmentally friendly, and will always waffle at press conferences and in interviews. Read the book to learn of additional details.

Lazy B – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Lazy B, Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest” by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day, published in 2002.

The author’s family owned a beef cattle ranch. Her grandfather laid claim to the property in 1880, prior to statehood of Arizona in 1912, and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The federal government allowed anyone who dug a water-well to graze their animals on the land. The cattle were branded with the family’s ranch logo, a capital B. The Mexican cattle that lay down helped name the ranch– “Lazy B.”

Lazy B consisted of 160,000 acres (about 250 square miles) mostly in Greene County, Arizona; 8,650 of ranch corporation, 30,000 leased from New Mexico, and all else federal land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Income-producing animals included cows, calves, bulls, horses and egg-laying chickens. Hindrances to their operations included antelopes and prairie dogs. Vehicles included a Chevy pickup truck and jeep. When the author was old enough to see over the dashboard, she learned to drive.

The author’s father practiced extreme frugality– helpful in 1933, when he began his career. He was a do-it-yourselfer. The family led a simple life, having no electricity (just kerosene lanterns) and no running water (but outhouses). There was always plenty of work to do– feeding, shoeing, and breaking in the horses; oiling saddles; observing births of animals; branding, vaccinating and castrating or milking the cattle; and maintaining the property’s wells, windmills and troughs, etc.

Born in March 1930, the oldest of three children, the author attended school in El Paso, Texas, during which time she lived with her grandmother.

Read the book to learn a wealth of details on the difficulties of the running of a cattle ranch well into the twentieth century, and Lazy B’s hard-working people and their adventures.

How We Do Harm

The Book of the Week is “How We Do Harm” by Otis Webb Brawley, M.D. with Paul Goldberg, published in 2011. This is yet another lamentation on the sorry state of affairs of the oncology industry in the United States. As is well known, the fear-mongering, lying and profit-seeking never stop in many parts of “the system.”

Brawley prudently wrote, “It’s always about the balance of what I know, what I don’t know, and what I believe.” However, so many medical professionals ignore the second, and offer up as facts, the third. This is where guidelines go awry. Hundreds of organizations globally distribute thousands of guidelines every year; many of them from profit-seekers.

American medical culture changed for the worse in the 1990’s. For, “…commercial interests usurped the language of clinical epidemiology, making it impossible even for an educated person to distinguish a real recommendation based on science from a thinly disguised advertisement for medical services.”

The author served as a medical oncologist, professor, and officer of the American Cancer Society, among other roles in his career. He provided a series of anecdotes on the system’s victims and critical analyses of the fear-mongerers and liars.

One major irony is that people whose top-dollar medical care is supposedly dispensed by “experts” become victims of fear-mongering and lying and get overtreated and die unnecessarily. Whereas, poor people who forgo medical care except to save their lives and end up receiving publicly-funded care– because they can’t afford better– are more likely to survive because the caregivers have their patients’ best interests in mind rather than a desire to make more money.

The American mentality is that more is better– more early detection and treatment must be better than less. Not necessarily true. Often, the screening tests and the treatment are themselves carcinogenic, so more of each actually increases the likelihood of more medical problems.

The author described an FDA-approved (but insufficiently tested) drug launched in the single-digit 2000’s whose makers claimed it strengthened patients and reduced fatigue; it actually caused strokes and heart attacks and even tumors. But it was lucrative! That became apparent at an FDA advisory committee session, where “Billions of dollars in [stock] trades hinge[d] on the words of the [medical] doctors and the scientists…”

American oncology is reminiscent of the Jack Benny joke: A robber approaches a man on the street, points a gun at him and menacingly says, “Your money or your life.” The man becomes pensive for a few seconds. The robber says, “Well??” The man replies, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” The joke is that the man can’t spend his money after he’s dead, but he values both money and life equally.

But thinking is the right answer– instead of succumbing to panic instilled by the oncology industry that leads to the loss of both money and life. All of the victims in the author’s anecdotes had panic in common.

Read the book to learn the answer to the question “Does treatment of localized prostate cancer save lives?” (hint– statistically, tens of men might become incontinent and impotent unnecessarily for one life to be “saved”) plus other thought-provoking, awareness-raising issues in American medicine, and how not to get fooled by liars and fear-mongerers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Jane Sherron de Hart, published in 2018.

Born in Brooklyn in March 1933, Bader grew up in a cultured household. She took piano lessons, played the cello, and summered annually at her relatives’ Adirondacks camp. A voracious reader, she was sent to Hebrew school, and skipped an academic grade. However, her mother, with whom she was very close, passed away of cancer when she was seventeen.

The culture and politics of Bader’s generation “… limited aspirations and choices for young women.” The GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration and Social Security– just to name a few sources of privilege, provided the men with resources denied the women. The far-reaching institutional discrimination they engendered was accepted as a given in American culture.

Bader received a scholarship from Harvard Law School. But, since she married before attending the school, it was naturally assumed that she no longer needed the scholarship because her-father-law would pay the tuition. Obviously, the school would have honored the scholarship if the married Bader had been male.

Unusually, though, Bader’s parents-in-law encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney, even though she was female. She was one of nine women in her class of 552 students. She made Law Review, and before graduating, had a daughter. Bader’s husband served as a true equal partner while the two alternated attending law school, and fulfilling childcare and domestic responsibilities. Before he graduated, he had a serious bout of testicular cancer.

In 1959, even though Bader graduated co-valedictorian, she couldn’t find a job due to her gender. Such prejudice was equivalent to the denial of graduate-school acceptance of Jews in the Soviet Union that lasted into the 1980’s.

With the help of a law-school professor’s aggressive recommendations, Bader ended up clerking for a judge, teaching law at Rutgers, then teaching law at Columbia University (benefiting from “Affirmative Action”), and directing legal projects on gender discrimination for the ACLU. She was super-dedicated, and worked around the clock.

Unfortunately, Bader was unable to be a major legal mover and shaker in the Women’s Movement because it was fragmented and complex with infighting. Various organizations were trying to further gender equality through litigation and lobbying, whereas, with the Civil Rights Movement, only the NAACP was trying to change laws.

Read the book to learn of how Bader became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a few major cases she argued during her career, the difference between “benign discrimination” and “paternalistic discrimination” and much more about her professional and personal life.

Von Braun

The Book of the Week is “Von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld, published in 2007.

Born in Prussia in March 1912, Wernher von Braun grew up in a wealthy, cultured, intellectual family who encouraged his interest in science. He played the cello and piano. At thirteen years old, he was sent to boarding school. Although he failed math and physics, he learned these subjects to the extent he needed to in pursuing his passion for rocketry and astronomy.

In 1932, von Braun’s father snagged a plum civil service position. As a result, the German army funded von Braun’s research into rocket-based weaponry. In summer 1933, he took flying lessons. He later completed his PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in Germany.

After Hitler’s purge of political dissidents in spring 1934, the German army and air force had a duopoly on top-secret ballistic missile research directed and supervised by von Braun.

In November 1937, von Braun was compelled to join the Nazi party, or be fired. Although ample evidence has emerged that he was aware of the evil purposes to which his projects were applied, he appeared to suppress his moral revulsion in connection therewith. His first love and loyalty was working toward his goal of creating vehicles that could explore outer space. But he was ordered to make weaponry first.

“After 1938, corporate and university researchers were also integrated in increasing numbers, further propelling funding in breakthroughs in liquid fuel propulsion, supersonic aerodynamics, and guidance control.” In spring 1940, von Braun was compelled to join the SS or be fired. He reluctantly did so.

Von Braun’s was a serious moral dilemma. It is unclear what the consequences would have been had he refused to willingly participate in operations involving slave labor (Resistance fighters, Communists, criminals, concentration camp internees) subjected to inhumane conditions (disease, torture, starvation) in making the instruments of war, and to willingly participate in the making itself.

The first successful ballistic missile (launched via a rocket), occurred in October 1942, after various trial-and-error failures (balls-of-fire explosions). This kind of experimentation at that time was, and still is, agonizingly slow and astronomically expensive. At the start of WWII, the weapons program had about twelve hundred employees. Wartime meant von Braun’s experimental resources of nitric acid, diesel oil and aluminum alloys were diverted to Hitler’s actual military usage, causing serious production problems.

In spring 1945, von Braun and his immediate boss were able to carry out their plan at war’s end of turning themselves over to the Americans, with whom they would share their rocketry expertise.

According to the author, in June 1945, the Americans liberating Germany persuaded about 350 skilled rocket-workers, and their relatives, numbering a few thousand, to emigrate to Alabama and New Mexico in the United States. The Soviets grabbed a few “brains” who traveled to East Germany, and then the Soviet Union. The author didn’t explicitly state which superpower acquired more talent.

In the 1950’s in the United States, von Braun published his writings, lectured, and literally broadcasted his opinion that the United States should engage in space exploration for the purpose of launching a satellite that would indicate weapons installations of surveilled regions on earth, among other purposes.

Read the book to learn of the political power struggles and trials and tribulations that von Braun and the German and U.S. governments underwent in aerospace research as matters of national pride and security; of why some historians might describe von Braun as an overrated attention whore; and how times have changed (hint– in the 1960’s, “…only nation-states had the resources to finance and direct huge guided-missile and space programs.”).