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Thursday 1st January 2008
As well as choosing books to satisfy my curiosity about one thing or another, I'm trying to work through some of the books I inherited from father.
I found this in the local Library, and have have found it very helpful in sorting out several matters I'd found puzzling when reading the popular articles which were previously my only source of indormation on the subject.
Remarks about fractional dimensions used to strike me as particularly odd.
I've now realised that those numbers are specially defined fractal dimensions, quite
distinct from the ordinary cartesian dimension, which still applies. Knowing how to
calculate them in some simple cases is a great help in getting a grip on them.
The book describes the activities of representatives of the Confederate States and their sympathisers in London during the American Civil War. I'm reading it the first chapter quite slowly because I was intrigued by the descriptions of London life in the 1860's and I kept pausing to refer to the map of London as it was in 1860. Much of the Lodon familiar to us today was there at that time, but much was not. St. Pancras and Vicoria railway Stations had not been built; neither had the Victoria Embankment.
Rucker wanted to establish that no formal system or machine can fully capture the potential of human thought, citing in his support Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and also various of the semantic paradoxes.
Vidal imagins that, when the Smithsonian closes to visitors, the human dummies used in the historical exhibits come to life. Set in the Spring of 1939, the story concentrates on the the dummies representing ex-presidents and their wives, and their interactions with each other and with a precocious young lad who somehow takes up residence in the Smithsonian. To say more might spoil the story for those who haven't read the book.
The thesis is that Nazi Germany had two largely independent nuclear reasearch programmes, one of which, run by the Post Office, has been largely dismissed by historians because it was kept secret even from Speer, the minister in charge of munitions. The other programme, which most commentators have assumed to be the only one, was the programme that Heisenberg sabotaged by sowing doubts about the possibility of moderating the chain reaction in a reactor.
Both programmes seem to have been directed at using a nuclear reactor to produce radioactive materials with the intention that they be dropped over cities to kill their populations and thus intimidate Germany's opponents into ending the war. American cities might have been the chosen targets, because America was far enough from Germany for there to be little danger of radiation spreading from there to Germany, as might have been the case had English cities been the target.
Brooks holds that the Post Office project actually had a working reactor, and that some material it produced was on the way to Japan by submarine U234 when Germany surrended. The submarine surrendered to the Americans a fortnight later. Brooks thought that the discovery of that radioactive material on board may have helped to persuade the Americans to use atomic bombs against Japan hoping to end the war quickly before the Japanese had a chance to use any nuclear weapon themselves.
However the argument is highly speculative, with too much use of the 'there can be no other explanation' gambit so much favoured by the conspiracy theorist and the millennarian theologian.
I formed the impression that Brooks' scientific background was weak. While the presentation of the scientific background looked broadly correct as far as it went, it read as if Brooks was paraphrasing material he'd read in popular science books, so that there were errors that someone familiar with the material would have spotted at once, like 'proton' instead of 'photon', the claim that Uranium is the densest of the naturally occurring elements(p200), giving the critical mass of a sphere is U235 as 14 kg instead of about 50 kg (p201), (more than 200kg for the mixture of U235 and U238 used in the first atom bombs) and miscalculating (p170) the mass of a specified volume of uranium (12 kg instead of about 5.5 kg for a cube of side 2.6 inches. That he confused himself by converting what must originally have been a metric measurement into imperial measure is another sign of scientific weakness)
What appears to be an important step in his argument reads like gibberish. Referring to the storage of lead boxes supposedly cotaining 'irradiated uranium' in steel tubes that had been specially installed on board the submarine U234 he wrote (p183):
"One of these six steel tubes received the uranium. If the ultimate intention had been to extract plutonium from the irradiated uranium, the tube would have been flooded so as to permit the radiocavity level to decrease and to reduce the heat emissions. That would have reduced the danger to the crew of the submarine"
There is some interesting information about science under the Nazis. They rejected both relativity and quantum theory as 'Jewish science' and held that 'Aryan Science' should be formulated within the Classical Physics of the nineteenth century, thus giving credence to the third line of Hilaire Belloc's verses about the Nazi ideal of the Superman:
Behold, my child, the Nordic Man,
And be as like him as you can.
His legs are long, his mind is slow,
His hair is lank and made of tow.
Having read this last year, I re-read the sections on relativity and, finding I had forgotten some of the details, I wrote notes summarising the main steps in the argument.
Hare concentrated on two problems central to ethics: how to apply rational argument to questions of morality even though there are no moral truths, and the apparent conflict between wanting to subject our moral principles to rational scrutiny, and yet at the same time wanting to hold fast to apparently fundamental principles even when that appears inexpedient.
Hare approached those problems by insisting on a distinction between two levels of moral discourse. What he calls the intuitive level in which we assess particular problems in the light of accepted principles, and the critical level at which we review the principles themselves.
He argues that that distinction also makes it possible to avoid the two strongest objections to Utilitarianism, that it makes moral decisions impractically complicated, and that it might sometimes sanction injustice by sacrificing a few in the interest of many. Hare advocated using utilitarian criteria to assess general moral rules, but not to making decisions in individual cases.