Saturday, April 25, 2015

Book Review: The War That Ended Peace

The Nineteenth Century was the century of European hegemony. Europe and it's colonies dominated the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The old powers of Islam and China were diminished and crumbling. Europe itself had mostly been at peace for nearly 100 years, with only localized wars. The First World War was not only an immense catastrophe in itself, but a crucial trigger of the further cataclysms that followed: the Communist Revolution and the Second World War. At the end of the war, three empires had been swept away and all of Europe was devastated in ways from which it would never recover. Margaret Macmillan's The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 traces the origins of that war in the circumstances, power politics and human folly that led to it.

What if is the question that marks the beginning of practically every intellectual inquiry, and history is a wonderful source of such. There can hardly be any doubt that the war itself was a colossal blunder. Naturally, fixing the blame has been the passion and pastime of historians and random nutjobs. Based on the book, I would have to say that there is more than enough to go around. The Serbian provocateurs, the Austrian warmongers who sent Serbia an ultimatum carefully crafted to be unacceptable, the Russian emperor who decided Serbia had to be supported no matter what, the German emperor who wrote Austria-Hungary the so-called "blank check" of unlimited support and more.

Weak leadership was a major factor. Ultimate authority in three of the most crucial players rested in three hereditary rulers, none of whom could be considered competent. The Austro-Hungarian emperor was 83 years old and ill, and his heir had just been assassinated. The German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II was appropriately described by his grandmother (Queen Victoria) as a conceited fool. The Russian Czar was a man of simple tastes, devoted to his family and his religion, but also a simpleton. Leadership was also problematic in the democracies. Poincare, the president (a cousin of the great mathematician) was weak. The Finance Minister, and former Prime Minister, who was a strong voice for moderation, had just been forced to resign because his wife, deeply offended by some scandal mongering by the editor of Figaro, had walked into his office and gunned him down with a revolver. (Excuse me for a minute while I imagine a meeting between Hillary and Rupert Murdoch).

One of the many strengths of Macmillan's book is that she has an eye both for the broad geopolitical picture and the telling personal detail. Her cast of characters includes hundreds of the famous and obscure who played in important roles, but the main characters are the political and social changes roiling Europe and the world: industrial capitalism moving to center stage and displacing the old agrarian aristocracy, the associated labor unions and the spread of democratic ideals, the crumbling of the Ottoman empire and the scramble to scarf up the pieces, the rise of nationalism and the tensions it induced in the multi-ethnic states and empires.

The transformative role of technology was also a huge factor. Rail systems had now become a crucial factor so that Germany's high technology made it the continental superpower, but a superpower that felt encircled by potential enemies and threatened by a rapidly industrializing Russia. The German Admiral von Tirpitz persuaded the Kaiser that Germany needed a fleet to rival that of Britain, and this building program drove an ever deepening wedge between Germany and its former ally.

With 784 pages, it's not exactly light reading for an evening, but it is engrossing. I was particularly interested in the many parallels that can be constructed to our own times. I will mention a couple. It's really hazardous to put too much trust in the hands of military professionals. They train for war and are anxious to puts their theories into practice. Second, and associated, putting a fool in charge is a sure recipe for disaster. One with particular piquancy for our times is the following statement of Bismark: Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death. (George W Bush - 0 for 3 in leadership.)

Some of my other comments on the book can be found here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Book Review: What Are Gamma Ray Bursts?

Joshua S. Bloom's What Are Gamma Ray Bursts is the second book in the Princeton University Press Frontiers in Physics Series. It shares the same concise and compact format as the earlier volume on the First Stars and Galaxies in the Universe, together with the same annoyingly small type face. It's also very reasonably priced.

Gamma Ray Bursts, first discovered as a side effect of a program to monitor the nuclear test ban treaty, are extraordinarily intense and very brief, with the duration of the gamma ray pulse being anything from less than a second to several seconds. During this time they are thousands of times brighter than a quasar and millions of times brighter than a supernova or a galaxy.

Bloom traces the history of our understanding of this phenomenon, and discusses the physics believed to be involved in the phenomena. There are still many uncertainties, but it is generally believed that there at least three different types of GRBs. The so-called soft gamma ray repeaters are the most least intense and most likely to be found nearby. They are believed to be neutron stars with exceptionally intense magnetic fields - magnetars - and their gamma rays are believed to be produced mostly from their rotational kinetic energy. A second type, producers of the briefest pulses, are thought to result from the mergers of two closely orbiting neutron stars. The most potent GRBs probably result from the spectacular death of a massive star, a so-called collapsar, with most of the mass of the star collapsing into a black hole while a small portion of the mass is expelled in ultra-relativistic polar jets.

These last events seem to have happened mainly in the past. The most distant GRBs happened when the universe was relatively young, and the rate of occurrence seems to have declined rather steeply in the last seven billion years or so. It's likely that there is a metallicity effect (metals being what astronomers call all the elements produced only in stars - everything except hydrogen and helium.)

The book has significant technical content, but much of the discussion is at a level readily appreciated by astronomy fans with only a bit of physics training. Overall, a very good book, suitable for many readers, from amateur fan to physicists and astronomers specializing in other areas.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bee Hits the NYT

Well, it's official. Bee is now a celebrity physicist.

George Johnson in the NYT:

Earlier this year, Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist in Stockholm, made the jarring suggestion that dark matter might cause cancer. She was not talking about the “dark matter” of the genome (another term for junk DNA) but about the hypothetical, lightless particles that cosmologists believe pervade the universe and hold the galaxies together.

Though it has yet to be directly detected, dark matter is presumed to exist because we can see the effects of its gravity. As its invisible particles pass through our bodies, they could be mutating DNA, the theory goes, adding at an extremely low level to the overall rate of cancer.

We know her better as proprietor of the blog BackReAction.

I Have An Idea For A Video Game

...said the kid to the video game developer.

So does everybody else, said the developer.

The problem is that there is a lot of hard grunt work between idea and accomplishment.

That's true in spades for ideas in theoretical physics. Ideas are cheap but testable quantitative predictions are expensive. If you can't do the arithmetic, nobody will, or should, take you seriously.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Your density is very close to 1 gm/cm^3, which in mass is equivalent to Avogadro's number of hydrogen atoms or 6.022 x 10^23/cm^3. For comparison, the average density of Universe today is only equivalent to 5 atoms/m^3, but only one part in 25 or so is expected to be baryonic matter, so about 2 x 10^-7 atoms/cm^3. In a galaxy, matter is about a million times as dense, and averaged over the local solar system, another factor of a million more dense, and a neutron star is about 10^14 (one hundred trillion) times as dense as you are, while you are roughly 10^32 times as dense as the average of the universe.

The point is that density varies a whole lot in the present day universe, but this was not always the case. The oldest light in the universe comes from 13.7 billion years ago, a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the Universe had cooled enough ( to 3000 K, or so) for hydrogen atoms to form from the previous soup of protons and electrons - the so-called age of recombination. That light, redshifted by a factor of 1100, is now received as the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation or CMB.

The Universe was denser then by a factor of a bit more than 1 billion (200 atoms/cm^3), but more importantly, local variations in density were incredibly small - a few parts per 100,000 in enormous contrast to the present where the density variations span 46 orders of magnitude.

The growth of those tiny variations in density of early universe into the contrasts of today is the story of the origin of galaxies, stars and structure in the universe, and is a key subject of cosmology.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Depths of Folly

After the assassination of the heir to the throne in Sarajevo by Serbian extremists, the Austrian hawks had the excuse for war that they had been clamoring for. As in the case of the 9/11 attack almost a century later, the Austrians had abetted the attackers by their reckless disregard of clear warnings. The depth of the Austrian folly can be grasped in the reaction of the chief of the general staff and principal Austrian warmonger.

Conrad, who as chief of the general staff had been clamoring for war ever since the Bosnian crisis in 1908, heard the news as he changed trains in Zagreb. He wrote immediately to his beloved Gina. Serbia was clearly behind the assassinations and Austria-Hungary should have dealt with it long since. The future of the Dual Monarchy now looked grim, he went on: Russia would probably support Serbia and Rumania would have to be counted as an enemy as well. Nevertheless, he told Gina, war there must be: “It will be a hopeless struggle, but it must be pursued, because so old a Monarchy and so glorious an army cannot go down ingloriously.”

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 10389-10395). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

These words would suggest that he had some appreciation of the folly he was bent on committing his nation, and, as it happened, the world to.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

War and Terror: 1914

MacMillan on the Serbian terrorists who lit the fuse:

The act which was going to send Europe on the final leg of its journey towards the Great War was the work of fanatical Slav nationalists, the Young Bosnians, and their shadowy backers in Serbia. The assassins themselves and their immediate circle were mostly young Serb and Croat peasant boys who had left the countryside to study and work in the towns and cities of the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. While they had put on suits in place of their traditional dress and condemned the conservatism of their elders, they nevertheless found much in the modern world bewildering and disturbing. It is hard not to compare them to the extreme groups among Islamic fundamentalists such as Al Qaeda a century later. Like those later fanatics, the Young Bosnians were usually fiercely puritanical, despising such things as alcohol and sexual intercourse...


The leader of the assassination plot was a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, the slight, introverted and sensitive son of a hardworking farmer. Princip, who had longings to be a poet, had gone from one school to another without conspicuous success. “Wherever I went, people took me for a weakling,” he told the police after he was arrested on June 28, “and I pretended that I was a weak person, even though I was not.” 7 In 1911 he was drawn into the subterranean world of revolutionary politics. He and several of his friends who were to become his co-conspirators dedicated themselves to acts of terror against important targets, whether the old Emperor himself, or someone close to him. In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the victories of Serbia and the great increase in its territories inspired them afresh to think that the final triumph of the South Slavs was not far off. 8 Within Serbia itself there was considerable support for the Young Bosnians and their activities. For a decade or more, parts of the Serbian government had encouraged the activities of quasi-military and conspiratorial organizations on the soil of Serbia’s enemies, whether the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary. The army provided money and weapons for armed Serbian bands in Macedonia and smuggled weapons into Bosnia much as Iran does today with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Macmillan, Margaret (2013-10-29). The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (Kindle Locations 10271-10283). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Some Books

...Are magical attractants for a kind of ignorant hysteria. You can usually identify them on Amazon by a couple of traits: they have large proportions of the highest and lowest ratings, with little in between, and the negative ratings come overwhelmingly from those who are not Amazon verified purchasers. The latter circumstance is hardly proof that they haven't read the book, but it is a clue.

Of course any book advocating a polarizing position is likely to attract both hostility and support, but the distinguishing characteristic is whether any cogent arguments are brought to the case. The distinguishing characteristic of what I tend to think of as the ignorant non-reader review is the one sentence slam with no particulars, like this canonical example:

Lousy book - very biased and without much research. tendency to twist facts and research to push own conclusions.

Said of a book with several thousand specific citations of original documents.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Gathering of Jackals

The death spasms of the ancient Ottoman Empire were a major factor in precipitating World War One. That empire was dying, and much of Europe wanted a piece. Britain had grabbed Egypt, France had gobbled up several North African territories, and Russia and Austria Hungary had major ambitions in Europe. Germany wanted a piece of the African action, and so did Italy, but the most fraught struggle was in the Balkans.

The major powers were not the only ones engaged in trying to gnaw off pieces of the not yet dead Ottoman corpse. Various Balkan provinces had briefly united to throw off Ottoman rule, but promptly turned on each other afterwards, each trying to grab more of the common pie. Hundreds of years of imperial rule had shaken, stirred, and mixed the various ethnicities, but rising nationalist sentiment everywhere was undoing the mix. Then, as now, every tinpot imperialist could claim to be intervening to protect their fellow Christians, Catholics, Orthodox, fellow Slavs, Serbs or whatever.

The most powerful and aggressive Balkan country was Serbia, and Serbia's Russian ambassador was inciting its extremists even while his bosses, the Foreign Minister and the Tsar were urging them to dial it back. Russia's big stake was preservation of its access through the straights connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and the world. Austria Hungary feared Serbia, which was already agitating among the Slavs of its Empire, and desperately did not want it to get territory and a seaport on the Adriatic.

Again and again these conflicts brought Europe to the brink, until the Serbian murder of the Archduke and heir to the Austro Hungarian monarchy pushed it over.