Thursday, June 22, 2017

Dark Sun: Book Review

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb Aug 6, 1996 by Richard Rhodes, is a great book, but probably not for the faint hearted. If you have labored under the delusion that humans are rational animals, forget about it. We are sometimes an intellectual species, but a very irrational one, driven by vanity, paranoia and other prehistoric emotions, quite unsuited to life in a world with thermonuclear weapons.

The penultimate chapter tells the story of the Cuban missile crisis, and it's pretty terrifying how close some pretty smart people came to utterly destroying the world. This was at a point when both sides had enough nuclear weapons to destroy civilization many times over.

We had gotten to that point thanks to the paranoia and other frailties of some of the smartest guys around, including Curtis LeMay, Edward Teller, John Wheeler, and John von Neumann. Only the cool heads of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy narrowly saved the day more than once.

It's terrifying to think what might have happened if an idiot like Trump, or even a dimwit like W, had been in charge.

I recommend the book highly. There are no equations, but if you are a physicist with a few tens of billions of dollars and access to certain critical materials and technologies, there is enough detail to build your own bomb.

I've written a lot more about it here.

I know that WB has read it and would be particularly interested in his comments.

Local Warming

107 F here today (about 42 C), and it's predicted to get a bit hotter. I'm glad I don't still live in Phoenix - 118 yesterday.

Meanwhile, the high Arctic has been just a shade cool for the past 3 months. I wonder if that will impact this year's melt season.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Entropic Principle

That book you spent some time searching for in the dusty boxes in the garage (on the hottest day of the year) isn't there either.

Corollary 1: That book you were thinking of buying - don't - you already own it.

Corollary 2: See above.

Upside: You know all those ridiculous Greiner-Mueller books you bought but never read? The one on thermo actually has a good explanation of the very point you were mystified about. My apologies Prof's G and M.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Trump still firmly in control in the South.

Democrats are getting demoralized.

Dance, Dance, Dance

Well I've done it again - inhaled a 400 page Murakami novel in less that 24 hours. Why can't I read physics books like that?

Dance, Dance, Dance concerns the further adventures of the narrator of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase.

Here he sets off to find the long vanished girlfriend from Sheep Chase and curious characters enter the picture, including an old acquaintance who has become a famous actor, a thirteen year-old clairvoyant with famous and wealthy but incompetent parents, The Sheepman from Chase, a host of call girls and others who disappear or turn up dead. Because this is Murakami, paranormal stuff happens.

Murakami is a terrific writer, and I loved this book despite the fact that I normally have no patience for paranormal goings on. Murakami's formidable erudition on music, culture, and much else combined with his eagle eye for character and setting make this joy, as do his vivid and witty descriptions.

Incidentally, his characters, aside from setting and minor differences in diet, are almost entirely indistinguishable from Americans.

Monday, June 19, 2017


During the 1950s, SAC commander Curtis LeMay and the US Air Force became absorbed in the idea of a preventive war against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower had specifically rejected the idea, but LeMay engaged in tactics that some considered designed to provoke such a war, in particular, repeated overflights of Russia with various US spy planes. Such flights apparently cost at least 20 planes and the lives of about 100 aviators - some of whom went to the Gulag.

One of LeMay’s US reconnaissance crews remembered flying a B-47 deep into the USSR on May 8, 1954, and taking damage from a MiG-17. The mission made it back to England leaking fuel. LeMay ordered the crew to the US, the pilot, Hal Austin, recalled many years later:

[LeMay] said, “I tried to get you guys a Silver Star,” but he said “you gotta explain that to Congress and everybody else in Washington . . . so here’s a couple of [Distinguished Flying Crosses] we’ll give you for that mission.” There wasn’t anybody in the room except the wing commander and us three guys, General LeMay and his intelligence officer. . . . Then General LeMay said, “Well, maybe if we do this overflight right, we can get World War III started.”

I think that was just a loose comment for his staff guys, because General Tommy Power, his hatchet man in those days, chuckled and he never laughed very much. So I always figured that was a joke between them. But we thought maybe that was serious.2549

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (pp. 565-566). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Plasma Physics

Since I've been studying astrophysics, I've noticed that I don't know anything about plasma physics. This prompted me to buy a book on plasma physics, namely: Introduction to Plasma Physics: With Space, Laboratory and Astrophysical Applications by Donald A. Gurnett (Author), Amitava Bhattacharjee (Author).

While trying to decide where to shelve it, I noticed that I already had a couple of books mainly about plasma physics, if by "a couple" you mean 6 or 7.

This suggests a disturbing possibility to me: It may be that owning a book does not mean you know anything about the contents. Who could have imagined?

More Oppenheimer

The downfall of Oppenheimer has the flavor of a Greek tragedy, but his persecutors were Americans, some naturalized and some born here. From The New York Review of Books:

The man who provided the argument and the occasion was William Liscum Borden, a single-minded young zealot who thought he knew why Oppenheimer resisted Air Force demands for hydrogen bombs—“more probably than not,” Borden wrote the head of the FBI in November 1953, “J. Robert Oppenheimer is an agent of the Soviet Union.”

But neither could have managed Oppenheimer’s destruction without the help of the obsessed H-bomb promoter Edward Teller, who had never forgiven Oppenheimer for choosing another man to run the theoretical division at Los Alamos, who dreamed of replacing Oppenheimer as the protean man of the hour, and who nursed matters forward as he methodically planted seeds of suspicion in the minds of Borden, Strauss, and Air Force generals that Oppenheimer’s “faulty judgment” could be traced to hidden loyalties from his Red period.

Borden wrote a letter which repeated many well-known and thoroughly investigated facts about Oppenheimer's links to some Communists, except that he included in each paragraph the claim that the probable explanation for those facts was that Oppenheimer was a Communist agent. Eisenhower was shown the letter, and he immediately recognized the total absence of any new or persuasive evidence, but he was also feeling the heat from Joseph McCarthy, so didn't dare object.

Interestingly, Borden had played a key role in the loss of a document containing the only real secret of the US H-bomb at that point, the radiation implosion mechanism. He had mailed a copy to John Archibald Wheeler (another H-bomb hysteric), who promptly lost it. Wheeler thought that he had left it on a train, but even partial disassembly of the Pullman car involved failed to reveal it.

The review of several Oppenheimer related books linked here and above, btw, is a great short read on the whole business.

Nuclear Hysteria

The nuclear hysteria of the fifties was pumped up by some of the smartest US physicists, especially Edward Teller, John von Neumann, and John Wheeler. Of course lots of others, even smarter, saw through it, including Oppenheimer, Fermi, and Rabi. So did Eisenhower, at least to a degree. Unfortunately, logic and reason have a hard time competing with hysteria, especially when politicians on the make, like Symington and McCarthy join the chorus.


This would be a deterrent—but if the contest to maintain this relative position should have to continue indefinitely, the cost would either drive us to war—or into some form of dictatorial government.

Such intense anxiety demanded alleviation. Conveniently, there was a scapegoat at hand to slaughter.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb (p. 529). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

That scapegoat was Oppenheimer. Teller's hysteria with regard to Oppenheimer was due in part to humiliation. Oppenheimer had mocked him when some of his calculations had left off some huge factors, and Oppenheimer, an arrogant and sarcastic fellow who was also quicker than anyone, was well positioned to puncture Teller's own arrogant but fragile ego.

Oppenheimer's most dangerous enemy, though, was Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower's new head of the AEC. Strauss was a brilliant business man, but also stubborn and arrogant, and had likely also suffered at the hands of Opie's condescension. One of his colleagues described as a man who would consider you a fool if you disagreed with him once, and a traitor if you persisted. Strauss was also a prude: he was scandalized by the fact that Oppenheimer had begun sleeping with his wife Kitty while she was still married to another man. Moreover, he was a conservative and very religious Jew, while Oppenheimer was a liberal and totally irreligious Jew.

Of course his suspicions of Oppenheimer were not totally without foundation. Oppenheimer had described himself as not a Communist but said that he had probably been a member of many of the Communist front organizations on the West Coast. Ultimately though, the evidence adduced against Oppenheimer had far more to do with hysteria than logic.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pitch Perfect

This week's Nature:

Only 1 in 10,000 neurotypical people in the West have AP — the ability to effortlessly, without context, name the note sounded by a violin or a vacuum cleaner (“That's an F-sharp!”). Among those on the autism spectrum, the number rises to 8%, roughly 1 in 13. For people born blind or who lost their sight early in infancy, it is 45%. AP, Ockelford argues, enables children to sound out and tinker with familiar tunes; that experimentation leads to a deep grasp of musical structure.

Those are quite extraordinary differences.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, children whose first language is tonal (Vietnamese or Mandarin) in this study, and who start studying music at an early age, are much more likely to develop perfect pitch. So absolute pitch is an acquired skill, but one which requires training at a very early age. Four is problematic and eight seems to be definitely too old.

Pit Bull

A friend of mine had a pet pit bull who stepped on an ants' nest and got stung. He then proceeded to bite and claw at the nest until the stings either killed or incapacitated him. Donald Trump seems a lot like that. It's no surprise that he's now being investigated for obstruction of justice. Whatever real or imaginary crimes prompted the deceptions of Flynn et. al., Trump's ham-handed attempts to quash the investigations have now put him squarely in the prosecutorial sights. Many have suggested that he wouldn't have taken such a chance unless he had something big to hide. I'm not so sure. It's possible that his aggressive instincts just lead him from one dumb choice to another.

Personally, I hope that's not true. I'd like to think that he had a good reason, however evil, for putting the country through all this.

Second Amendment

Some idiot decided to take Republican talk of second amendment solutions seriously. It apparently turned out to be a Bernie Sanders fan. Naturally and fortunately, he doesn't seem to have been a very good shot.

What a moron. Hasn't he read Julius Caesar?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How Low Can He Go?

Gallup has Trump approval at 36% today, tying his low so far. His weekly average is 37%, a new low. Disapproval, at 60%, is also a record. I figure that if disapproval/approval reaches 2 to 1, Republican politicians are going to start heading for the hills, or at least hiding in the bushes. Actual impeachment might require 3 to 1

Trump's Farce of a Cabinet Meeting

Clearly, Donald Trump has been sent to humiliate this nation in every way possible. From the NYT:

Usually presidents mark their first cabinet meetings with a couple of words and a group grin for the cameras. But President Trump turned the first meeting of his full cabinet, on Monday, into a tribute to himself.

Mr. Trump called himself history’s most successful president “with few exceptions,” saying, “We’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace,” though he has yet to move any major legislation through Congress. On Monday morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the latest court to block his travel ban.

“In just a very short time we are seeing amazing results,” he said. “People are surprised. It’s kicking in very fast.”

After 12 minutes of tooting his own horn, Mr. Trump invited his team to jump in. Maybe he’d call on one or two of them before getting down to work? No — everyone on the team was invited to praise the president in a public display of affection more Pyongyang than Washington, while the dear leader soaked up the love.

Some embraced this task more enthusiastically than others.

Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, has reportedly been given an ultimatum by Mr. Trump: Shake up the beleagured White House staff by July 4, or hit the road. His gratitude to the president was almost prayerful: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people, and we’re continuing to work very hard every day to accomplish those goals.”

Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, spent last week worrying about his job and being maligned on Twitter by Mr. Trump, who ranted about his Justice Department’s handling of the travel ban, and Mr. Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Mr. Sessions gushed about Mr. Trump’s popularity among law enforcement officers. “It’s an honor to be able to serve you,” he said, and “to set the exact right message, and the response is fabulous around the country.”

Vice President Mike Pence said, “It is the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people...”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Top 20%

Richard V. Reeves, who apparently graduated from Oxford, has an idiotic op-ed in the NYT on class in America, entitled "Stop Pretending You're Not Rich". In it he argues that the top 20% of Americans, with an average family income of $200,000/yr, are a sort of permanent American upper class.

Rather than lying with statistics, he is probably just being stupid, but it's a familiar trick. The top 20% includes all the billionaires, centi-millionaires in the top 1% and top 0.01% and they make that äverage statistic pretty meaningless. In fact, only 7% of American individuals, and 17% 0f households, make more than $100,000 per year. The entry level to that top 20% is a lot less than $200K. The roughly 5.6% of households actually making more than $200K/yr are certainly fairly well off, but it's the top 0.1%, with a minimum net worth of around $20 million, and who own more wealth than the bottom 90% combined, who really count as rich, and even they are pikers compared to the guys who can write $20 million dollar plus checks to finance a favored political candidate or cause.

Wealth is more important than income for deciding who is actually rich, and the top 1%, with a minimum net worth of about $8 million, count as rich to me. The minimum net worth to make it into the top 20% is around $400K.