Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"A Brief History of TIme" by Stephen Hawking (1988)

This is one of those books that you've always wanted to read. It is the book that started the modern tradition of explaining higher caliber, incredibly complex theoretical physics concepts to the layperson (like Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" or Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything"). It is a book designed specifically to educate the every day person. Hawking even promises to keep everything simple by using only one actual mathematical equation throughout the book, Einstein's famous E=mc2. "A Brief History of Time" is probably what made Stephen Hawking a household name. The fact that it has an introduction written by Carl Sagan likely didn't hurt its popularity because everybody loves Carl Sagan.

Hawking's book is an attempt to succinctly tell the history of the universe and the story of how humans figured that history out. He starts with Aristotle. It is hard to imagine the modern world of science without Aristotle's questioning mind guiding the way. He is the archetypal scientist and he provided the Western World with the first opportunity to examine reality without being forced to view it through a lens of divine motivations. The Earth was a sphere, whether or not the gods wanted it that way. Aristotle could prove it by observing how the North Star seemed to stay in an almost fixed point, and by reminding everyone that lunar eclipses always cast the Earth's circular shadow on the surface of the moon and only spheres always cast circular shadows. And that's about the last time Aristotle was right about anything! Still, he unquestionably deserves a mention in any history of modern science.

After mentioning Aristotle, Hawking fast forwards a couple thousand years to 1676. Eleven years before Newton's "Principia Mathematica" was published, a Danish astronomer named Ole Chistensen noticed that there was something wrong with the orbit of Jupiter's moons. Viewing them through telescopes, he noted that their eclipses behind the newly discovered planet did not happen with perfect regularity as they should. The rates of their orbits fluctuated by a few hours over the years. Instead of fabricating some elaborate hypothesis explaining how the speed of different moons' orbits could slow down and then sped up again over time, Christensen correctly postulated that this only seemed to be happening because the light from Jupiter takes much longer to reach the Earth when the two planets are on opposite sides of the solar system. The orbits were as regular as clockwork, but it takes a couple extra hours for light to travel that extra distance to reach the Earth. This is mind-blowing logic. This is something that would have never occurred to you and had never occurred to anyone else who had observed it. It takes these extraordinary leaps of counter-intuitive logic to move human knowledge into the modern era. Christensen was even able to closely guess the speed if light at 140,000 miles per second (it is actually a bit faster, 186,000 mps).

Just a decade later, Isaac Newton published his master work and changed everything about how humans think about the world around us. His laws of motion and force allowed humans to begin thinking about reality in new ways. His calculations weren't complete because he had no conception of general relativity, but even today Newton's Laws are accurate enough to successfully get spacecraft to other planets. His revelations were incomplete, but they were ground breaking and they paved the way for a whole new field of study. Soon afterwards, and for the first time, science was no longer the domain of philosophers, it was the realm of dedicated scientists, people who were solely interested in studying the creation rather than the creator.

A few hundred later, another genius with the gift of logical insight brought human understanding even farther than Christensen or Newton. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity states, not that everything is relative, but that all the laws of physics should be the same for all observers regardless of how they are moving. What is relative, is not any law of the universe, but the perspective of the observer. What made general relativity so revolutionary is not that it declared space or speed to be less than absolute, these were obvious truths. What made it so revolutionary is that it declared an end to the concept of absolute time! Time is a feature of the universe and is subject to the same relativity as matter or speed. How any person or object perceives the passage of time is unique to them.

Einstein also changed the way humans think about gravity. Gravity is not a force like any of the others traditional forces like magnetism or the weak and strong nuclear forces. Rather it is a consequence of the warping of space-time by mass and energy. When astronomers say that light can be bent around massive objects like galaxies or stars, what they really mean is that those massive bodies bend the very space the light is moving through. Light always moves in straight lines, but Einstein taught us that the space through which light moves can be curved by mass. He opened our eyes to the reality that everything in the universe interacts with everything else in far more intimate ways than we had ever imagined before. We are not simply attracted to other objects, our very mass warps space like children warp a trampoline so that we cannot help but fall towards one another.

You were shocked to read that the argument over the existence of atoms has raged for thousands of years (since Aristotle argued that they couldn't exist). It wasn't setttled once and for all until Einstein proved the existence of atoms in the early 20th century. That's how big of a deal World War II was in the course of human history. We went through 3,000 years of mystery and debate, but it only took us 30 years after the confirmation of atoms to use that knowledge to build a nuclear reactor and, soon after, a nuclear weapon.

Albert Einstein was the living embodiment of his most famous quote, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." But his imagination advanced the field of human knowledge like no other human in Earth's history.

Part of the problem with modern physics and cosmology is that the laws that appear to govern our universe at the largest of scales do not appear to govern that same universe at the smallest of scales. There is not yet any theory to merge Newton's Laws with what we know of quantum mechanics. But people like Stephen Hawking and others have been working for decades to link these two realities. On page 41, Hawking mentions the accidental discovery in 1965 that the universal background radiation is remarkably constant no matter where we look in the sky. This is not something anyone predicted. Just last month, however, we discovered that the minute variations in this radiation confirms quantum gravity and provides the first link between special relativity and quantum mechanics. This was something Hawking predicted in "A Brief History of Time." Henry from the YouTube channel "Minute Physics" explains better than you can about the new discovery of quantum gravity's effect on the fabric of the universe when it was very very new:

In fact, several of the things Hawking discusses in "A Brief History of Time" have since been confirmed. He argues that Einstein's theory predicted a singularity at the beginning of the universe and makes the case for the Big Bang. He describes the universe in the way we think of it today; not as an infinite expanse, but instead as a finite creation simply without any edge. He predicted that black holes, contrary to accepted beliefs about them, could actually emit heat and will eventually dissapear. He describes quantum and string theories and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. But instead of detaiing all of the things he talks about here in this review, you decided you would rather keep this book on the shelf to reread it again.

"A Brief History of Time" conveys a charm that you did not expect. Stephen Hawking is not only famous for being one of the most brilliant minds alive today, but also for being almost completely paralyzed by Lou Gehrig's disease. His voice comes not from his larynx, but from a computer controlled by his eye movements. Nevertheless, his book sparkles with an excited tone no computer could ever convey. He becomes almost giddy when describing the details he recently discovered about black holes. His enthusiasm is infectious, and his sense of wonder is not dampened by his intellect or his disability.

Hawking describes his motivation at the end of the first chapter.

"But ever since the dawn of civilization, people have not been content to see events as unconnected and inexplicable. They have craved an understanding of the underlying order in the world. Today we still yearn to know why we are here and where we came from. Humanity's deepest desire for knowledge is justification enough for our continuing quest. And our goal is nothing less than a complete understanding of the universe we live in."
"A Brief History of Time" reminded you that we all have this yearning. Ignorance is not bliss. The more we follow this instinct as a species the more we are able to grow beyond our limitations, the more we are able to understand the very fabric of the reality that knits us all together. If astrophysicists are correct, every atom in the universe that is more complex than hydrogen and helium was cooked together in the heart of a star that eventually exploded in a supernova. We are created from the stuff that was flung into space during those explosions. We are more than stardust. We are a way for the universe to know itself. As far as we know, humanity is the only manner in which all Creation is able to wonder at itself.  "A Brief History of Time" reminded you again how wonderful that Creation is.

On to the next book!

P.S. This GIF is taken from the movie "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Look again at what the wizard is reading while magically stirring his cup of tea in the Leaky Cauldron. "A Brief History of Time" is more than a 30 year old physics history book. It is a part of the cultural zeitgeist. And it deserves to be.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Tried By War" by James M. McPherson (2008)

Abraham Lincoln is the only American president who presided over a war for his entire time in office. When he took the oath of office in 1861, however, he had almost no formal military training. His counterpart, Jefferson Davis, President of the new Confederate States of America, had not only graduated from West Point, but had actually led men in combat during the Mexican-American War and had more recently served as the Secretary of War for the United States. Lincoln had nothing to guide him in his role as Commander in Chief except every book in the Library of Congress and his own perspicacity. His greatest teacher in the ways of war would have to be war itself.

James McPherson is considered to be one of the preeminent authors on the American Civil War. You were assigned some of his books in that Civil War class you took in college a few years ago. Most of his books provide a wonderful overview of the war. They are filled with detailed maps and charts that compellingly illuminate some of the subtle truths of the conflict. This book is not like that at all. "Tried By War" does not have one map in it even though the war's progress is the framework on which the narrative is constructed. This book is not about the ebb and flow of the war's front lines, it is a story of Abraham Lincoln's personal inner development, his transformation into one of the most hands-on wartime presidents the United States has ever seen. It was a joy to read.

Lincoln was a voracious reader his entire life. Once his mind was turned on to a subject he could not rest until he had mastered that subject to his satisfaction. He showed signs of obsessive compulsive behavior (and depression... the two often go hand-in-hand). Throughout the course of the war he read up on every book on the concept of armed conflict he could find. He soon made himself an expert.

At the outset of the war, secession was the overwhelming principle in Lincoln's mind, not slavery. The South was fighting to preserve slavery, but the North began the war fighting to preserve the union of all the United States of America. Some of the states remaining in the Union (Maryland, Kentucky, etc) still maintained slavery. Only later did the barbaric practice become a more obvious strategic and political issue, one that could be used against the rebel states.

President Lincoln took great liberties with the war powers he exercised to maintain that union. Article 1 of the US Constitution allows for the suspension of habeus corpus in times of rebellion or invasion and Lincoln availed himself of this power from the outset of the war. Virginia had already left the Union and Maryland looked as if it might as well, but if both states seceded, Washington DC would be completely surrounded by rebel territories. Lincoln declared marshal law in Maryland and arrested state legislators with no evidence or explanation in order to ensure the territorial security of the capital. The problem was that Article 1 of the Constitution deals with the Legislative, not the Executive branch. Lincoln's critics claimed that he was seizing unconstitutional powers. The new president, however, believed he had been tasked with preserving the Constitution and it made no sense to allow the nation to be dissolved simply because Congress wasn't currently in session to officially grant him the power to save it. He reasoned that it would be like a surgeon allowing a patient to die so that he didn't have to loose his leg. This set the precedent that Lincoln would follow for the next four years; he would do whatever it took to win the war, and all the pearl-clutching on behalf of a besmirched Constitution could be damned.

President Lincoln took to his new military role like a duck to water, and the fractured nation reaped the benefits of his obsessive reading. He attacked the literature at his disposal and soon became as superb a strategist as any of his highest ranking officers. In fact, he proved better than most. In briefings he asked insightful questions that would have made Von Clauswitz or Sun Tsu proud. Lincoln guided his commanders' decision making process and nudged them in the direction he knew the war needed to go. He realized his only option was to take the war to the enemy and defeat their armies. The rebels only had to prevent their armies from being destroyed; they could trade cities and territory for time. The British had faced much the same situation four score and seven years before Lincoln did. But even if the president had wanted to give his generals more freedom of action, his first five or six proved to be such a rotating cast of disappointments he was forced to become his own General in Chief.

He understood the terrible truth of the matter before most of his generals did. This was not to be a war of maneuver, one where cities and forts could be besieged until they submitted. The greatest danger to the cause of the Union was the rebel armies themselves. They had to be defeated and destroyed on the fields of battle. The truth was that men were going to have to die. Lots of men. Most of Lincoln's generals at the war's outset were reluctant to embrace this truth. In stark contrast to leaders of the First World War just 50 years later, in this case the president was insisting on hard fighting while his commanders in the field preferred nuance and maneuver. After the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, General Meade had a perfect opportunity to prevent Lee's army from returning to Virginia so that it could be destroyed, and Lincoln urged Meade to do just that. Meade, however, issued an order to drive the enemy "from our soil." Lincoln's enraged response perfectly sums up his conception of the entire war. "Great God! Is that all? Will our generals never get that idea out of their heads? The whole country is our soil."

As the war progressed, the president proved to be an excellent military manager. In the Western theater, he promoted good officers to greater positions of authority and let successful generals run their war plans uncontested. But he could be firm when he saw one of his generals make a mistake and was mostly called on to do this in the theater of war closest to his home at the White House. Lincoln intervened to directly countermand General McClellan's orders during the peninsula campaign. The man with no military training withheld an entire 30,000 man Corps from his star general when McClellan stupidly ignored the president's order to leave enough men behind to defend Washington DC. McClellan was sailing his Army of the Potomac to try and outflank the Confederate forces just south of the capital. In his zeal to capture his enemies capital, he had forgotten to protect his own. When Lincoln dismissed McClellan from command a year later, it's important to remember that he did so because he could tell that McClellan was terrible at his job and the stakes were too high for incompetence to be tolerated. He only let the man remain in his position for so long because the troops and the press adored him.

You were surprised to learn how intimately Lincoln could become involved in the smallest of details of the war. The president himself personally performed a mounted reconnaissance to suggest a suitable landing site for an amphibious operation designed to capture the vital base of Norfolk, Virginia. The operation was a success which means that the president was partly responsible for the subsequent destruction of the legendary iron-side ship, the USS Merrimack (renamed the CSA Monitor.) He was instrumental as well in choosing the actual weapons that some of his men carried into battle. He overrode his Chief of Ordinance and insisted that the Union order thousands of the new seven-shot repeater carbine rifle he had personally tested out on the grounds of the White House. The Kentucky born Lincoln recognized the repeater rifle's advantage over the conventional rifle of the day, especially for mounted cavalry. Soon, Union cavalry armed with these formidable weapons became feared by the Confederate soldiers fighting them in the West.

In 1864, Lincoln was reelected to the Presidency over the former general McClellan. The president who insisted that the war had to involve dirty fighting and more decisive action had won 74% of the soldiers' vote against a candidate who had pledged to end the bloodiest war the US has ever fought. McPherson puts it succinctly on page 250, "The men who would have to do the fighting and dying had voted overwhelmingly for their Commander in Chief to help them finish the job."

But beyond tactical concerns, or even logistical management, the president saw the larger picture and realized that the war was an inherently political endeavor. Every calculation and every strategy had to reflect that idea of serving the greater political conflict between two ideologies. The Emancipation Proclamation was not just the morally right thing to do, but it was also militarily and politically brilliant. After such a decree, the Union Army had become one of righteous liberation. Wherever they went, freedom blossomed in their wake. Slaves from miles around threw down their plows and hoes to flock towards even a rumor of a nearby invading Union army. Hundreds of thousands of black men soon swelled the ranks of the Union regiments. And overseas, all of the nations mulling over whether or not to officially recognize the Confederate State of America heard of the Emancipation Proclamation and immediately abandoned any such notions.

Early in 1865, General Grant's Army of the Potomac took Richmond and the president happened to be with them when they did. Moved by his experience of the last four years of bloody war he decided to visit the city himself. Escorted and protected by only ten sailors, Abraham Lincoln walked the streets of the capital of the Confederacy. Thousands of newly freed slaves thronged the streets to see him with their own eyes. Some even knelt down as if to worship him. Ever humble, the president born in a log cabin reminded the people he had freed that they should only ever kneel before God. Not since Moses led his people out of Egypt had such a moment occurred in human history. But Moses had had on his side a vengeful God who worked miracles and called down plagues. Lincoln had only boys with guns and every book in the Library of Congress on his. This is why you love him. You don't love the warrior, nor the president. You named your son after this man because he was the humble savior of millions.

But before he could be that, he had to learn how to fight. He had to be "Tried by War."

On to the next book!

P.S. Honest Abe's understanding of military strategy and tactics did not exclty always translate to the real world of the battlefield. When he visited Fort Stevens in July 1864 to witness a skirmish with Jubal Early's cavalry troops who were threatening DC from the north, Lincoln seemed oblivious to how nice of a target his top-hat-wearing 6 ft. 4 in. frame made for Confederate snipers. He strolled along the ramparts, heedless of the danger. Catastrophe was avoided when none other than captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. barked at the president to, "Get down, you fool!" It is moments like this, moments where the most famous Supreme Court Justice in American history saved the most famous President in American history 40 years before being nominated to the court, it's those moments that often make reading history seem more like reading fiction. But it's also what helps you realize how interconnected everything is. It's what makes you hungry not only to learn more, but to hear more stories, and to keep reading.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Over Here" by David M. Kennedy (1980)

You remember talking to people who remembered The Great War when you were a kid. The war wasn't so long ago that it has faded into the mythology of the Revolutionary War or the Crusades yet, but it was shocking to you when you read that some of the anti war movement in the 1910's actually consisted of veterans from the Civil War! Over and over again, you are reminded that history didn't happen all that long ago. Events your great grandparents experienced still shape the world you live in today and they affect how you or anyone will be able to shape the future.

The one hundred year anniversary of the start of the First World War is almost here. As that melancholy date approaches, you've been trying to educate yourself more about this war that they called the Great War. It changed the world in ways that are still clearly influencing humanity today and even though the United States was only involved in the closing months of the conflict, WW I has left a lasting effect on this country as well.

In 1980 "Over Here" allowed David M. Kennedy to be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is an excellent look at every aspect of American culture and how it has been shaped by the war which Americans tried so hard to avoid. The title of the book is a play on the 1917 song "Over There" about the Great War. The song was so popular that the phrase has been reused every time American servicemen have been deployed overseas in any of the countless conflicts that have erupted over the last century. "Over There." As in, "We will pray and hope and wait for our boys to come back from whatever it is they have to do over there where the fighting is being done." The first 40 pages of the book constitute one of the best synopses of The Great War that you have ever read, but Kennedy's scholarly focus is not on the military conflict itself, the European theater of war. Instead he turns his focus on how the war changed all of us over here.

Kennedy begins his exploration of American culture as it was changed by the war by reminding us of the truth that Wilson (who had only won election by Teddy Roosevelt's splitting of the Republican party's vote by running against President Taft, his chosen successor) had recently been reelected with a campaign slogan bragging that "He kept us out of the war!" In the fall of 1915, President Wilson did an about face and began to push for intervention into the European conflict. His liberal political supporters felt as if their champion had just yanked the rug out from under them.

Despite the years of debating over whether the nation should prepare for it or not, it suddenly became clear that war was coming. Wilson's liberal base had spent years preaching for America to focus on her domestic needs rather than preparing for war, but now their government began cracking down on any voice of dissension. The ominous Espionage Act of 1917 (which is still in effect) made pacifism akin to treason. As the nation built up a massive army and trained millions of men to ship overseas to the infamous meat grinder of the Western Front, she also cracked down hard on anyone who question the headlong charge towards the bloodiest conflict to that point in human history. Kennedy puts it this way on page 41, "Americans went to war in 1917 not only against Germans in the fields of France but against each other at home. They entered on a deadly serious contest to determine the consequences of the crisis for the character of American economic, social, and political life."

On page 35, Kennedy speaks to the predicament many have found themselves in when faced with participation in the American experiment.  "Here was the classic liberal dilemma: whether to oppose a distasteful policy and work against it whatver the pain, or to swallow the bitter pill, seek somehow to make it palatable, retain one's "effectiveness," and push for good policies to temper or counter-balance the bad." Most chose the later option. The few who did not find themselves either in jail or otherwise ostracized from society, suddenly found their businesses closed, their mail censored or destroyed, their printing presses shut down. Wilson was the first Democrat to show that his party too could become reactionary and militant, both at home and abroad.

The Great War also changed the way America perceived the waves of immigrants that had always sustained and formed her population. Before the war, the Americanization of immigrants was a way to help the immigrants themselves, to help them integrate by giving them the tools they would need to do well in their new country. The war changed that altruistic motivation. Now the Americanization of immigrants was seen as a way to homogenize all Americans and protect the government from any foreign dissidents or spies. The xenophobia spread like wildfire. When the beloved former president Teddy Roosevelt was calling for the execution of a sitting US Senator for his anti-militarization actions, when clergymen were calling for all German people to be shot or hanged before they could receive forgiveness from God, when President Wilson claimed that anyone who hyphenated their nationality (Italian-American, Polish-American, etc) was "ready to plunge a dagger into the vitals of the Republic," it is not surprising that gangs of vigilantes soon roamed the streets of America. Lynchings of labor leaders, of pacifists, and of ethnic Germans were not exactly common, but they did happen with shocking regularity during the war. And when they did, Americans were in such a nationalist fervor, the perpetrators were most often summarily acquitted.

Ironically, the clampdown on liberal pacifists, activists, and labor leaders had a huge political impact on the legacy of the Wilson administration. It left the president all alone when he needed allies after the Armistice and he aimed to reshape the world to secure peace in our time. Many of his natural allies were either in jail or had been effectively intimidated into silence by his very administration. The United States, with a newly conservative Congress voted to not join the very League of Nations its president had invented.

The War brought about a financial revolution in the US as well. The very instruments of financial recovery FDR would use to rescue the US from the Great Depression twenty years later were built on the framework of governmental organizations built to handle America's response to WWI. The federal income tax and the Federal Reserve Bank were established. Bureaucracies were created to regulate and manage the nation's industries and resources. Just as the Civil War had permanently raised the minimum tax base the nation would henceforth collect, so too did WW I, and so too would WWII only thirty years later. For the first time though, America drew its revenue not from customs or excise taxes (which hurt the poorest citizens disproportionately) but from graduated taxes that shifted the burden onto the wealthiest classes. After a generation of politicians bragging about busting trusts and breaking up monopolies, Big Business had a rebirth during the Great War. The war was incredibly profitable for them. Gone were the days of Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Movement.

The United States was the only major power left mostly untouched by the war. There had been no, "invasion, no destruction of farms and factories, no heavy loss of life, no malnutrition nor educational deficits, no heavy taxation." In fact, the United States positioned itself to usurp England's place as the banking and shipping hub of the world economy. After the Great War America, for the first time in its history, found itself in an undeniable position of global authority. A mere fifty years after the Civil War, the United States had come a long way from fighting to maintain it very union. Great Britain had not quite been dethroned, the Second World War would see to that, but the balance of power and influence had begun an inexorable and unstoppable shift towards American shores.

America began to assert herself on the national stage during the war. Like a young adult taking her first steps into adulthood by insisting on her independence from her parents, America refused to send her soldiers into European armies to be used as replacements for badly depleted units. It was during WWI that America first began to relax those old Revolutionary mistrusts of European entanglements. But even so, the President and Secretary of War insisted that American soldiers would fight side by side and under American command, or they would not fight at all. The US eventually trained a 4 million man army and 2 million of those men were already in Europe serving exclusively under the American flag by the abrupt ending of the conflict.

The Great War was so stupendous in its scope, so destructive of the whole global political framework, that it provided the United States with a unique opportunity to advance its place in the international framework at whirlwind pace, a pace that no other nation in history has been allowed to evolve.

The greatest impact the war had on American society was cultural, it was in the lives of everyday citizens. After a century of struggle to achieve suffrage, women finally laid claim to their right to vote in 1920. Wilson's rhetoric that the war was being fought for democracy made denying suffrage for half his population blatantly hypocritical. The First World War gave the American suffrage movement (and others around the globe) the push it need to finally achieve victory.

For decades (arguably for generations) African Americans had hoped to break into the labor markets of the factories of the American North and Midwest. With the European immigrant stream dried up by the European war and the draft in the US drawing away able-bodied white laborers, black Americans finally had their chance. They seized their opportunity, not just to get good paying manufacturing jobs, but to escape the world of Jim Crow and segregation. An exodus of almost biblical scale soon brought tens of thousands of black families out of the Deep South and into industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

America suffered no great political or military rebellion as a result of its part in the war. It was all over too soon after we joined. But we did see a revolution in the way Americans thought. This revolution is reflected in the words of the authors who fought in the Great War. "Disillusionment" is the word commonly associated with this generation, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton. Yes, there was disillusionment, but it was more than just disillusionment with romantic ideals or the inherent nobility of warfare. They rebelled, not necessarily against war in general, but against the Old Guard American ruling class that sent them to fight in this particular war. For the first time, young American men and women were actively and fearlessly questioning the established wisdom of the men who lead their country. Those authors and artist used the horror of their experience and their moral high ground of having been a part of something so awful, something that they were asked to do, to allow themselves to give voice to a generation that would question authority and shape the very iconoclasm that would come to characterize the American identity thereafter.

Today, Americans have become used to the idea that we will refuse to allow ourselves to be changed by terrorist attacks, we feel a need to maintain a sense of resilience that keeps our core values intact. But it's important to recall that there was a time when we did allow great events to change us. Whoever we were before the Great War, we are not that country anymore. For better or worse, we have not been that country for one hundred years now. It's good to stop occasionally and remember where you came from.

On to the next book!

P.S. The Allied Expeditionary Force was not entirely ready for the realm of modern warfare when it headed "over there." The AEF was shipped to Europe in British ships, and it advanced on the battlefield under the cover of French artillery. In fact, you were surprised to learn in this book that the widespread use of European arms in the First World War is why the American military operates using the metric system to this very day. Fascinating.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"The Big Burn" by Timothy Egan (2009)

When you were in the Boy Scout in the early 1990's, you visited Yellowstone National Park. It was only a few years after the 1988 fire there, the largest wildfire in Yellowstone's history. The sight of entire forests reduced to charred and limbless poles stretching to the horizon was something that you will likely never forget. Blackened and toppled trunks scattered like children's toys left you wondering what it must have been like to have been there while the fires had been raging. Almost 40% of the park was destroyed that summer. It must have been a nightmare to witness. But it was nothing compared to the inferno that raged on the slopes of the Bitterroot Mountains one August weekend in 1910. That fire is still talked about to this day. It's called the Big Burn.

Timothy Egan takes the story of this massive wildfire as an opportunity to reveal a side to President Teddy Roosevelt that goes beyond his "walk softly, big stick" stuff. He dives into Teddy's close relationship to Gifford Pinchot and their combined efforts to combat corporations and to preserve pristine parts of the American wilderness for posterity. Egan paints a fairly rose colored biography of America's 26th president. He glosses over TR's deep insecurities, his overwhelming urge to overcompensate for his privileged upbringing, his life-long compulsion to prove to the world that he was not the dandy delicate young man he was labeled when he first sought public office. None of this is mentioned in "The Big Burn." Egan is more than happy to place Teddy in the exact lighting the president always craved. Nevertheless, the book has an easy narrative to it and Egan uses this lighting to illuminate parts of American history that you knew little about.

In February of 1897, Democratic President Cleveland, at the end of his final administration (the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office) used a little known executive power to set aside 21 million acres of forest reserves scattered over three different states. Most of the open land in the US at the turn of the 20th Century was owned by corporations. Railroad magnates, logging conglomerates, and mining trusts wrote all the laws in the wild places of North America and President Cleveland wanted to push back against that status quo. His replacement in the executive office, Republican President McKinley suspended Cleveland's orders and allowed logging and mining to continue in those forests unabated.

McKinley asked the only forestry expert in the country to scout the area for him. Gifford Pinchot, the millionaire aristocrat, was given a title but no authority to be the president's forester. He was close friends with Mckinley's pugnacious young Vice President, and fellow Yale graduate, Teddy Roosevelt. In September of 1901, an assassin shot President Mckinley. Eight days later the president died and TR was sworn in at the age of forty two, making him the youngest president in American history. Roosevelt was determined to move the Republican party away from their embrace of big business and toward becoming "a fairly radical progressive party." He made the thirty six year old Pinchot a special adviser to the president. The two of them shared a love of the outdoors and they were determined to protect the wild places of the nation, to keep them out of the hands of industry and firmly in the possession of The People.

Both Roosevelt and Pinchot were rare men for the times they lived in. When they viewed the natural wonders of the country around them,  they didn't see mere material wealth waiting to be transformed into financial profit, simple resources to plunder. They saw beauty and wonder and they were motivated to preserve that for future generations. Whatever their faults, this was their greatest strength, that they thought of Americans as fellow citizens, even Americans who were not yet born.

On page 42, Egan notes that "In an era of free-for-all capitalism, it was revolutionary to insist, as he (Roosevelt) did that the "rights of the public to the national resources outweigh private rights.'" So was the new president's idea that, "We should not turn into shingles a tree which was old when the first Egyptian conquerors penetrated to the valley of the Euphrates." Your first impression in your journey to understanding Teddy Roosevelt was not overwhelmingly positive ("The Imperial Cruise"). Quotes like those above assure you that there is more to this man than a few unconstitutional disastrous foreign policy debacles.

Those in the West did not share this view of the nation's resources. They saw it all as a philosophical, ridiculous ideal being forced on them by East Coast Ivy League elitists. Ironically, Teddy Roosevelt's desperation to appear more manly drove him to explore the wild places of the world and his love for those places inspired him to preserve them, an act which was not seen as particularly "manly" by the men who worked in the wilderness at the time. It is entirely possible that fate conspired to use Roosevelt's weaknesses for a greater purpose. His insecure need to overcompensate, his bombast, his stubbornness were all put to use protecting some of the most unique and extraordinary places in America.

In 1905, newly elected Roosevelt (who won with largest margin of victory in American history to that point) created the US Forestry Service and made Gifford Pinchot the chief. President Roosevelt's own party, which was in control of Congress, worked against him and fought his every effort at conservation, at declaring millions of acres of forests off-limits for corporate exploitation. But together, TR and Pinchot were almost unstoppable, each spurring the other to more audacious goals, to more sweeping efforts. After Congress passed a law giving the president one week before rescinding his power to unilaterally set aside lands for federal protection, the two men lead a team of foresters who scrambled and snatched up in those seven days over 16 million acres for the national forest system. (The fact that Congress attached this recension of Executive Power to a bill funding the federal government, forcing the president to decide between his political priorities and keeping the government operational, just proves that the more things change the more they stay the same.) Teddy and Pinchot set aside lands they both had personally visited and enjoyed. Pinchot reminded you of a nuclear accelerant when he was around TR. Yes, Roosevelt was always a firecracker, but Pinchot's presence, like tritium in a hydrogen bomb, always ramped up the president's explosive power to levels he could never have reached alone.

As heady as these adventures in conservation were for the president and his lifelong friend, and as frustrating as it was for the corporations which had those lands in their sights, everyone had forgotten one thing, the forests were ripe for fire. The fledgling Forestry Service believed they could control fires in nature. They had grown arrogant by repeatedly wet seasons and centuries without any fires. What they didn't realize was that for millenia, Native Americans had regularly burned the forests and grasslands of North America. The Indians knew that regular, controlled burns kept the lands healthy and prevented the buildup of dead dry plant life that could fuel a catastrophic burn. But the natives were mostly eradicated by the dawn of the 20th Century and the white men who had taken their place knew nothing of this burning practice, or if they did know they discounted it as a savage and ignorant practice. In 1910, a year after Roosevelt left office, the woods he set aside for preservation and almost 100 men paid the price for that arrogance.

The summer of 1910 proved to be dry and hot in the mountian ranges of northern Idaho and western Montana. Summer storms brought the danger of lightning without providing the much needed rain. Several smaller fires had broken out in the area, and the forest rangers had culled together every able bodied man they could to fight them. The night before the Big Burn, there were 10,000 people in 3 different states on duty to combat fires in almost 2 dozen forests. Early on Saturday, August 20th a freak wind storm, called a Palauser, rolled into the mountains from the west. This fresh injection of air raced to give the 3,000 small fires burning thoughout the northern Rockies exactly what they needed to merge into one massive firestorm. The inferno quickly became so powerful that it created its own weather system. Hurricane force winds up to 80 miles per hour soon pushed the fire line faster than anyone or anything could move out of its path. Trees one hundred feet tall were turned in an instant into torches, spouting flames thousands of feet into the Rocky Mountain sky. A conflagration like this skipped not only over rivers, it leaped across massive lakes, sending flaming embers ten miles ahead of its advance. The trees in the storm's path that weren't uprooted by the unprecedented winds, simply exploded in the unprecedented heat. It must have been like looking into the gates of Hades. Fighting this beast was hopeless. The forest had lain untouched by fire for too long. It was determined to burn.

"The Big Burn" tells the story of the dozens of people who tried to survive the firestorm, some of them even fighting to save a few of the small towns dotting the flaming mountainsides. Everyone sought shelter wherever they could. Some were roasted alive running in a desperate attempt to outpace the flames. Trees that had stood for hundreds of years collapsed under the assault, crushing the unfortunate firefighters underneath them. Some people found refuge in miners' caves or on top of stony, un-burnable slag heaps. In a story set in an era where only white masculine men exemplified the ultimate "manly" goal for Americans, it is notable that two of the towns in the firestorm's path were saved from destruction by black men from the US Army's 25th Division (the storied Buffalo Soldiers). Not only that, but it was a group of concerned women who proved to be the only people who had the courage to search for lost firemen by climbing into the smoldering ash heap that was all that was left of the mountains around Avery, Idaho after the fires had moved on.

Almost 100 people were killed in the firestorm that day, most of them immigrants who had been hired to fight the flames. Many more were wounded and disfigured for life. It was the greatest loss of firefighters in one event in American history, until September 11th of 2001. These were men who had been lured by the promise of riches in America. Immigrants who had been exploited and discriminated against by the very Americans who had posted a Statue of Liberty at the mouth of their greatest port. Egan notes that the Italian immigrants of the era had a saying. "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren't paved with gold. Second, they weren't paved at all. Third, I was expected to pave them."

The Big Burn may not have lived up to the hyperbole of the book's subtitle. It may not have been "The Fire That Saved America," but it was certainly an important event in the process of shaping the nation. It's story may have been upstaged by two world wars or overshadowed by terrorist attacks,  but it is an important story for what it reveals about the soul of the nation. We are a nation comprised of people who rose above the expectations of bigots, who dreamed of better days, who fought to save the beauty found in the wild places of this land, who sacrificed themselves in the hopes that future generations would live better and more fulfilled lives.

The sacrifice of those dead firemen made the forest service almost holy in the eyes of the American people. The outrage over their deaths ripped the Republican party apart. TR ran for another term against President Taft, the very man Teddy had chosen as his successor. Roosevelt pulled most Republicans into his new Bull Moose party in the election. President Taft carried only two states (the fewest of any incumbent in American history) allowing Woodrow Wilson to run away with the election.

The destruction you saw in Yellowstone when you were a kid was nothing compared to the fire of 1910. The Big Burn torched 3 million acres of forests. But that fire taught us how to allow some fires to burn themselves out so that the current 35 million acres of American wilderness land will never get to the point where they could be destroyed like they were in the Big Burn. They will be allowed to stay untouched and they will be allowed to stay healthy. They will stay wild, a testament to the vision of a young president and a monument to the sacrifice of 78 young firefighters.

On to the next book!