The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

The Book of the Week is “The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, Maverick Genius” by Phillip F. Schewe, published in 2013. This is a biography of the multi-disciplinary mathematician / scientist, theorist, professor, author and lecturer.

The author named nearly all of the most famous twentieth-century nuclear physicists (and provided historical backdrop that led to scientific advances in physics, war and astronomy), and briefly described their contributions– even a few of whom Dyson hardly knew; that is, except for two scientists, who happened to be female:  Marie Cure and Lise Meitner. This oversight might be due to the fact that the author encountered little or no literature on them (due to their gender) when researching this book. Ironically, the author did admit, however, that Dyson’s marital troubles were due to his sexist hypocrisy.

Anyway, born in Great Britain in 1923, Dyson grew up in a wealthy family in the London suburb of Winchester. His mother was already 43 at his birth. Pursuant to family tradition, he was sent to boarding school at eight years old. Due to WWII, in two years rather than four, he earned a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.

Dyson was then tapped to use his newly acquired knowledge as a tactical aviation consultant of sorts for the war effort, staying stateside. Postwar, as a graduate, he resumed his education, studying physics at Cambridge and Cornell universities. He never did finish his PhD.

Nevertheless, of all his lifetime’s workplaces, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was where he spent the longest total time. In the late 1940’s, he was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer. He explained the missing link between Richard Feynman’s, Julian Schwinger’s and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s ideas about field theory in nuclear physics; more specifically, quantum electrodynamics.

Yes, Dyson did rocket science, too, at the dawn of the 1960’s. However, it was all theoretical. He actually wanted to go on a mission to Mars or Saturn or Jupiter. Dyson’s fluency in Russian allowed him to understand the Soviet mentality on the space and arms races.

Paradoxically, during the Cold War, an adverse consequence of the testing of nuclear weapons included cancer deaths due to radiation exposure; about a thousand of them annually. This was an acceptable sacrifice (in the name of saving the world)– as highway deaths numbered about fifty thousand annually. That changed of course, with nuclear accidents and seat belts in later decades.

In 1976, Dyson supervised a graduate student who wrote a term paper that generated much controversy.  “From non-classified government documents, freely available to anyone, Phillips [the student] proceeded to gather a primer of frightening specificity showing step by step how to build a nuclear bomb.” The student got an “A.”

Read the book to learn of Dyson’s views on extraterrestrials and extrasensory perception, on how religion and science can coexist; his fantasies about what humans could do in outer space in the future; his participation in a think tank named Jason, his take on global warming, the reversal of his beliefs on nuclear matters, and much more.

Unlimited Partners – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Unlimited Partners, Our American Story” by Bob and Elizabeth Dole, published in 1996.

Born in 1923 in Russell, Kansas, Bob Dole was the second oldest of four children. His small agricultural hometown was plagued by the usual disasters:  prairie fires, droughts, tornadoes, grasshoppers, blizzards and dust storms, in addition to politics. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, in November 1923, oil was discovered there. Bob’s father ran a creamery. The family went fishing and hunting.

Bob started attending the University of Kansas thinking he wanted to become a doctor. “By mixing me with all sorts of people, living in a frat house was good preparation for what lay ahead.” Fate threw him for a loop, as he suffered a severe spinal cord injury while serving in WWII. His strong psychological constitution saw him recover sufficient physical ability to earn a law degree, and become a Republican.

In 1960, while running for Congress, Bob distributed free pineapple juice to get name recognition, even though his family had nothing to do with the produce company.

Elizabeth became Bob’s second wife. They had no children together. She was born in 1937 in Salisbury, North Carolina. There were only 24 women out of 550 students in her Harvard Law School class of 1965. One of her classmates criticized her for displacing a white male.

Bob and Elizabeth both served in various leadership positions in the American government through the years. In 1981, Bob helped pass the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, which gave Americans a 25% personal income tax cut over the course of three years. The following year however, to mitigate the financial hangover of that, Congress passed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Its accounting tricks allegedly reduced the national debt by almost $100 billion through closing the loopholes of the previous bill, plus raising taxes a bit and cutting spending.

Read the book to learn of: Elizabeth’s post-government career; Bob’s high praise for President Ronald Reagan, and harsh criticisms of President Bill Clinton; his proposals for tax reform, and vast generalizations of his views on a host of other political issues. After all, Bob was running for president when the book was published.

Genius in Disguise

The Book of the Week is “Genius in Disguise” by Thomas Kunkel, published in 1995. This book describes the life of Harold Ross, who came up with the concept of, and co-founded, The New Yorker magazine.

Born in 1892 in Aspen, Colorado, Ross was bitten by the journalism bug as a teenager. He quit high school to start his career as a news gatherer. He was restless, however, and traveled to various states to ply his trade. Regarding the media, there is nothing new under the sun:  While in New Orleans in 1912, “… he demonstrated the agile reporters’ trick for manufacturing news where none exists.”

Ross worked for the army publication Stars and Stripes during WWI. After the war, he moved to New York City, where his social group consisted of the Algonquin Round Table members and other literati such as his fiancee Jane Grant. She worked for the New York Times, and he served as publisher for a weekly magazine for veterans.

In February 1925, Ross decided to break out on his own by starting The New Yorker. He wanted to sell a weekly magazine that resonated with New Yorkers of his generation. The recent introduction of technological advancements in publishing, the early days of radio, and special postal rates made the time ripe for Ross’ brainchild. Besides, at that time, magazine advertising was the way to gain national reach for products and services.

The New Yorker‘s goal was to entertain wealthy readers. So it avoided reporting on politics and economics. Ross was a difficult managing editor because he was a panicky perfectionist.  In fact, a “… New Yorker piece might be scoured fifteen or twenty times by six or eight different people, all in the name of perfection” for editing, fact-checking and proofreading. Ross became an indispensable, fearless leader. The other party crucial to the publication was its major initial investor, an heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune.

Read the book to learn how, ironically, the animosity between Ross and Fleischmann maximized The New Yorker‘s profitability; about the one-article issue of August 1946; the difference between Wolcott Gibbs and Aleck Woollcott; and how the publication changed through the decades. A bygone era in magazine publishing.

My Life in Politics – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “My Life in Politics” by Jacques Chirac With Jean-Luc Barre, translated by Catherine Spencer, originally published in 2009.

Born in 1932 in France, Chirac learned Russian from a private tutor. Defying his father, who was a corporate banker and wounded WWI soldier, he did a short stint in the merchant marine and then attended a school of government. In 1953, he got the chance to visit the United States, where the American dream was alive and well. He was thrilled to experience Sidney Bechet, Hemingway and Brando.

Chirac passed the oral and written exams for the civil service in France. Even so, he thought he could have a great military career, having done two tours of Algeria in the 1950’s. His wife and the French government thought otherwise. In 1967, Chirac was pushed to run for Republican town councilor in the French countryside, constituency of Ussel, in Correze. Thus, elective politics became his career.

In May 1974, French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing appointed Chirac prime minister. As such, he handled foreign policy, meeting with world leaders like Saddam Hussein and Deng Xiaoping. In August 1976, he co-founded a new political party, the Rassemblement pour la Republique (RPR) to run against the Union for French Democracy (UDF). Then he was elected mayor of Paris.

In March 1986, Chirac again became prime minister, under president Francois Mitterrand, of the National Front party. The RPR had sufficient seats in Parliament to require power-sharing between the parties. However, the president’s ultimate authority meant that Chirac’s economic and national-security proposals were rejected. Chirac was able to push through tax cuts and a youth employment program, though.

Chirac felt that unemployment was the primary cause of financial struggles. He advocated for job programs; plus social and educational opportunities for people living in poor neighborhoods.

In late 1993, mayor Chirac– a socialist at heart– agreed to start a (no-charge) ambulance service for the homeless in Paris. By 1995, via the city council, against the wishes of the socialist (federal) government, he provided free medical care to 150,000 homeless people.

In May 1995, Chirac was elected president of France. He complained that he inherited a government in financial ruin, about which the previous administration had lied (!) The national deficit and the debt of the national healthcare system were both sky-high. Unsurprisingly.

Even so, Chirac felt he was forced to impose austerity measures, like lengthening the working life of French citizens from 37 and a 1/2 to 40 years, before they could collect a pension. But, due to violent, widespread strikes, that action had to be postponed until 2003 (for civil servants) and 2008 (private sector). Politicians. In the future, anything could happen. And, in 1998, all of France’s homeless– about five million people– got free access to medical care.

Chirac also increased minimum wage, and launched programs in connection with “… requisitioning of empty buildings and properties belonging to banks or insurance companies, public housing was on the agenda… The zero-interest loans introduced to help with homeownership (sic) very quickly achieved the lasting success that I hoped for…” Chirac did admit that political surveys showed that the French people didn’t like what he was doing. He also wrote on more than one occasion in the book that French youths were rebelling against the establishment.

Read the book to learn what Chirac did in response to criticism; of his reaction to the violence in Kosovo; his views and actions with regard to Bush’s Iraq war; of three issues on which he focused during reelection time; of France’s foreign policy in the next few years; of what his love of art history prompted him to do; and more.

My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin

The Book of the Week is “My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin” published in 1964.

Born in 1889 in London, Chaplin had a traumatic childhood. Both his parents were vaudevillians, but his father had trouble with alcohol; and his mother, with her voice. Thus, they found themselves unemployed. Their relationship suffered, and they separated. Chaplin and his older brother lived with their mother in a hovel. Unsurprisingly, his father failed to pay alimony and child support. Chaplin was pushed by his mother onstage beginning when he was five years old.

A commune known as a “workhouse” took in the family. The mother crocheted lace cuffs and the kids attended school. After two weeks, they were transferred to a suburban workhouse. Boys at age eleven were conscripted. So Chaplin’s brother entered the Navy. His mother, however, suffered from mental illness, and was institutionalized. Chaplin went to live with his father in a London slum.

At nine years old, Chaplin showed a true talent and passion for performing. His father got him into a clog-dancing troupe. Later, he lied about his age to get hired by an acting troupe. He had natural ability to play comic characters.

In autumn 1911, Chaplin by chance got into the then-silent motion picture business (only musical sound tracks– no talking), replacing another actor in Hollywood. It was then he created his Tramp character. He was allowed to try his hand at directing and writing, although the bosses of that period were still clinging to their tired “Keystone Kops” scenarios of slapstick chases. His fresh approach that evoked an emotional response became wildly popular among American audiences. He immediately became a legend. Once he came into his own, his brother became his business manager.

“Fulfilling the Mutual [film company] contract I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, 27 years old, with fabulous prospects, and a friendly, glamorous world before me.” Chaplin and his friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford found out that the movie production companies were going to merge, lower the outrageous pay of actors, and take control away from them. So Chaplin et al formed their own production company, United Artists.

During a trip on W.R. Hearst’s yacht, the Hollywood director who had taken over Hearst’s film production company, had a heart attack. Chaplin wrote, “I was not present on that trip but Elinor Glyn, who was aboard…” told Chaplin about the episode. The ridiculous rumors regarding the director’s murder were false. “Hearst, Marion [Davies] and I went to see Ince [the director] at his home two weeks before he died.”

Read the book to learn a wealth of other details of Chaplin’s life, and why he moved to Switzerland with his family; get the explanation– straight from “the horse’s mouth.”

Prime Time

The Book of the Week is “Prime Time, The Life of Edward R. Murrow” by Alexander Kendrick, published in 1969. This is a biography of the famous radio and TV journalist whose career started in the 1920’s.

Born in 1908 in North Carolina, Murrow was the youngest of three sons. He was raised as a Quaker. His family moved to Washington state when he was five years old. Murrow’s graduating high school class numbered eleven. Their motto was “Impossible is un-American.” He then attended Washington State College, majoring in “speech” (public speaking). Participating in student government, he got the chance to travel to Europe.

In the 1930’s, news that was reported via radio in the United States consisted of concerts, sporting events, presidential speeches and sensational courtroom trials– simply conveying facts with no analysis; nothing too depressing. Murrow first went on the air in 1937, covering the coronation of King George VI in England. He did “man on the street” interviews.

Then for nine years, Murrow  was a producer for CBS radio news in London. His boss, Bill Paley introduced the first radio simulcast from London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna, via shortwave transmitters accompanied by at least one landline, whose signals were sufficiently strong to reach New York City. Such an innovation obsolesced newspapers because it was live. On the eve of WWII, the new political regime in Berlin practiced censoring of broadcasts from Vienna and Prague. But they were live.

Murrow avoided gathering news stories for CBS from certain kinds of people who would profit from peace at any price, and so they favored appeasement of the Germans. Those greedy individuals included war profiteers. He did, however, put himself in harm’s way because he felt obligated to report directly from the “belly of the beast.” One would think he had a death wish and/or an enormous ego. His employer’s office building was bombed in London while he was on a rooftop across the street. He cheated death many times.

After Germany’s surrender, Murrow reported from Buchenwald and Leipzig. After the war, all radio shows went commercial. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating it by subpoenaing scripts of the shows. Murrow became a highly paid radio executive for a year and a half. In the fall of 1947 he made even more money when Campbell’s soup sponsored the interview show he hosted. He took his TV show “See It Now” on location to the Korean war front.

HUAC pressured Murrow to preach hatred for the Soviet Union, or else he would be blacklisted from the broadcasting industry, or worse. Fortunately, he was a sufficiently powerful figure to broadcast what he wanted without getting censored. He was still smeared by the Hearst papers and right-wing leaflet printers.

Murrow had this to say about the interrogations over which freshman Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy presided: “… many of those named by witnesses on camera were never given a chance to reply… the newspapers and magazines… also tended to regard McCarthy’s unsupported charges as proven facts, or at least gave that impression.” He also contended that the senator “… had used sweeping, unsupported statements, hypotheses presented as facts, accusations of lying by witnesses, conversion of a congressional hearing into a trial…” etc., etc., etc. Once again, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Nevertheless, Murrow showed himself to be a hypocrite on more than one occasion in his career. He was a contributor to a sobering Collier’s magazine story published in October 1951, about a hypothetical nuclear war that happened in the summer of 1953. His fictional account covered the part where an atom bomb leveled Moscow. In Paris, he complained via radio about those “…irresponsible magazines in the United States which aid Russian propaganda about American intentions.”

Interesting factoid: At the 1952 presidential conventions, there were twelve hundred each of: casts and crews of news shows and reporters, and political delegates.

Murrow put forth three reasons why the government or journalists lie: “when lying is deemed vital to the national security, or prestige, or face-saving.” As is well known, the use of all three excuses has been abused in meta-lies in past decades; especially those following this book’s writing.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information on the power struggles between sponsors and TV-show creators in monitoring show-content due to the tug of war between the profit motive and the role of broadcasting in society as perceived by the creators and regulators; on Murrow’s troubles with the State Department and the FBI; his radio and TV shows; and on how American propaganda is targeted internationally toward specific peoples in specific ways.

Golda – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Golda, the Uncrowned Queen of Israel” by Robert Slater, published in 1981. This pictorial biography described the life of a revered politician and passionate Zionist.

Born in May 1898 in Kiev in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, Golda Meir was one of only two children in her Yiddish-speaking family to survive infancy. In 1906, the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. However, as a teenager, Meir absconded to her twenty-something sister’s home in Denver, Colorado. Her parents convinced her to come back, where she was permitted to finish her schooling instead of looking for a husband. Like her parents, she believed in the Zionist cause.

After working for a Zionist nonprofit organization in Chicago for a short stint, in December, 1917, Meir eventually found a husband anyway. In May 1921, they moved to Palestine along with her sister’s family and her parents. She started a teaching job. Eventually, they jumped through all the hoops required to get accepted to the kibbutz of Merhavia.

Meir was assigned to do poultry farming. Her husband didn’t like the fact that parents and children had separate living quarters in the kibbutzim. So three years later, when she was ready to bear children, they moved to Tel Aviv, then Jerusalem. She went to work for another Zionist organization, Histradut, traveling and making speeches. As she was a workaholic, she hardly ever saw her family. It was rumored that she had affairs to advance her career.

For a few years after WWII, Meir became an executive member of the Yishuv– trying to save refugees’ lives through smuggling of people and arms via the Jewish intelligence services, and negotiating with the British. In November 1947, the newly formed United Nations voted in favor of a partition consisting of a Jewish state, and an Arab state, in the territory of Palestine.

Meir became a sufficiently prominent figure in the founding of Israel to sign its Declaration of Independence. Ben-Gurion was its first leader; he appointed her minister to Russia. The Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin ignored foreign diplomats. Israel and the USRR weren’t enemies but they weren’t friends, except for when it came to proposing toasts at social gatherings. Then they were friends.

In spring 1949, Meir became labor minister in Ben-Gurion’s cabinet. She argued for open immigration and housing and jobs. She almost bankrupted the government with her social programs. But living standards of Israelis rose dramatically.

Read the book to learn about the rest of Meir’s political career, health, family and her other crosses to bear.

Janet & Jackie

The Book of the Week is “Janet & Jackie” by Jan Pottker, published in 2001. This is a double biography– of Janet Lee Auchincloss and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Born in 1908, Janet Lee grew up in a rich family. Her obsession with equestrianism in her youth and young adulthood saw her through the stressful times of her life. She won many ribbons.

“For an Irish American woman in the late 1920’s, marriage was the only way to move out of an unhappy household.” She wed for the first time when she was twenty. The groom, Jack Bouvier, a drinker and womanizer, was 36. Her daughter, Jacqueline (Jackie) was born the following summer. The pattern of an unhappy household was repeated until the divorce between Janet and Jack was finalized when Jackie was eleven years old. Jackie, too, took up equestrianism. Jack indulged Jackie’s every whim.

Marriage number two was consummated in 1942. There were only about ten years’ difference in age between Janet and Hugh Auchincloss. Janet kept in touch with her former in-laws and stepchildren, and parented them, even though the Bouviers’ social status was a notch below that of the next man she married. For a while, they were snowbirds between their mansions in Washington, D.C. and Newport, RI.

Janet led Jackie to believe that her highest desire should be to have a man love her. Jackie got the message and wed John F. Kennedy. However, although Jackie’s first husband was a womanizer– his family’s politics, newness of riches and internal loyalty were opposite to her family’s.

Joe Kennedy, the patriarch, treated the wedding as just another political campaign– a well-publicized extravaganza to showcase his son. But he shelled out the money for it. They compromised on the religious issues (as Jackie was Episcopalian, sort of):  the ceremony was officiated by an archbishop in the presence of a monsignor and four priests.

As is well known, in 1963, Jackie’s Jack was shot in Dallas, where he died. Fast forward to 1968. Jackie was ready to wed again, to the 62-year old Aristotle Onassis. Her psychological need for a man was evident; for, she sacrificed a sizeable widow’s pension and Secret Service protection in the process.

Read the book to learn a wealth of information, and the information of wealth as the behavior patterns of the daughter’s life, intertwined with her mother’s, became, well, repetitive.

Memoirs

The Book of the Week is “Memoirs” by Mikhail Gorbachev, published in 1995. This tome described the Soviet leader’s push for political and economic change for the benefit of the millions and millions of people governed by him.

Born in March 1931 in Stavropol, Gorbachev grew up to become a bureaucrat, following the mentality of his agricultural community.  The (federal) Central Committee of the Soviet Union (the Union) had a command economy– the government dictated all aspects of labor, capital and goods. It also assigned housing to all people living in the Union, including officials, pursuant to the political hierarchy. Additionally, vacation houses (dachas) were bestowed upon higher-level officials. Incidentally, according to the author, Politburo members socialized among themselves at work-related functions only, nowhere else– because they were afraid others would gossip about them.

The bureaucracy by the State Planning Committee (“Gosplan”) generated endless memoranda and plenums, not to mention meetings– on harvests, irrigation, infrastructure and what to do about natural disasters such as drought. A dozen different departments and ministries involved themselves in the approval process. “At the beginning of each year the oblast [Communist] Party committees would make unrealistic commitments, which were promptly forgotten. Manipulators were the heroes of the day. Those who worked diligently were looked upon with pity.”

The local government felt a desperate need to keep a stranglehold on their power. They were content with their culture of bribes, graft and mutual favors. So the bureaucrats scotched an early 1960’s capitalistic experiment of paying piece-rate wages to farmers in the infant territory of Kazakhstan when productivity caused payroll expenses to soar. Yet, the bosses wanted to see high returns on a stingy budget.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, farms disappeared when the Union underwent a period of industrialization with extraction of fossil fuels, the introduction of electricity, and construction of army bases. The Baltic Republics counteracted increased soil salinity with lime, but Latvia didn’t. The use of weed killer worsened the already unchecked spread of pollution.

Gorbachev wrote of 1985, “No one even imagined the extent of our ecological disaster, how far we were behind the developed nations as a result of our barbaric attitude toward nature… A wave of bitterness and anger rolled through the country when it came out that the genetic pool of our peoples had been threatened.” Curiously, starting in mid-November 1982, the Union had a series of three leaders who died of ill health within a three-year period: Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko.

Besides, the Politburo consisted of “dead wood” who preferred to maintain the status quo because their own living standards were the highest in the nation in terms of housing, health care, education and necessaries (food, clothing). Each bureaucrat was like the Wizard of Oz–  a phony behind a curtain– except that Gorbachev couldn’t even offer accurate data to the people who needed his help.

Members of government agencies– for the purpose of public and foreign consumption– generated fanciful statistics on the Union’s products: weapons, grain, oil, gas and metals. The real numbers were abysmal. The KGB’s numerical data were also kept secret. That was just the tip of the iceberg on censorship. No negative news coverage of anyone was allowed (except of dissidents). In the spring of 1987, Gorbachev was distressed to learn that true military expenses accounted for 40% of the Union’s budget, and 20% of GNP. Four-fifths of “scientific research” was military-related.

Gorbachev opposed sovereignty for territories ruled by the Union’s central government due to his paternalistic arrogance. He claimed he wasn’t informed that Soviet tanks rolled in to Georgia to quell unrest in the spring of 1989.

Back in March 1987, Margaret Thatcher criticized Gorbachev for making arms shipments to war-prone nations worldwide. He said she made the (hypocritical, untruthful) claim that the West and the United States sent financial aid and food instead, to needy nations. He tried to correct her. No word on whether he succeeded.

On their first visit to the United States in the mid-1980’s, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were defamed by American propaganda. The media contended that Raisa wouldn’t deign to visit specific places. In reality– those places were on her schedule but she couldn’t control her vehicle’s driver in her motorcade who bypassed those places without consulting her. Also, the tabloids made up the story that she was having a cat fight with Nancy Reagan.

Gorbachev knew and took the risks involved in “rocking the boat” to move the nation forward after so many decades of deleterious political and economic self-delusion, with his concepts of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

Read the book to learn the details, and how he was punished for doing so, why Soviet tanks rolled into Moscow (!) in October 1993, and how the Union broke up.

Endnote:  This book’s translation was awkward in a few spots, such as: “After our forces were sent to Afghanistan, the USA and other nations took a number of measures against us.” [were sent?]