Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward Weiler. Published in Collaboration with NASA.

On the 20th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) launch, NASA personnel wrote Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time. This oversized, Coffee Table Book contains over 150 color photos taken by the orbiting observatory, along with commentary and articles. The work begins with a brief introduction celebrating the telescope’s 20th Anniversary and presenting a retrospective of the project’s journey from inception to present. After a lesson on how HST works, comes the main event: chapters on different space phenomena encountered by the telescope, with photos and descriptions. Hubble ends with a unique section on the launch and maintenance of HST.

While Edward J. Weiler, former Chief Scientist of the HST project, gets the byline, the publisher makes it clear that this offering was a team effort of NASA employees. Some worked on the editing. Others contributed based on their specialty. This collaboration sets Hubble above similar photo logs of the observatory’s discoveries. Any publisher can present the photos. This folio gives the reader information from people who actually worked on project elements being described. The final chapter, on deploying and servicing the instrument, was predominantly written by astronauts who performed these functions. Also, because this publication’s discussions of the cosmos were written by NASA astronomers, it avoided inaccuracies that have plagued other volumes on HST.

There are some understandable blind spots in a book covering a venture, written by the very staff responsible for that venture, on its 20th Anniversary. Hubble is an advertisement for NASA. You will not find a perspective that is critical of the expense or decision-making of NASA. Neither will you find a reflection on whether space exploration has been worth the lives lost in the Challenger and Columbia missions. There is an assumption, shared by most of us, that the untapped information contained in the greatest unexplored frontier is too important. Despite the risks, mistakes and costs, we must explore space for the expansion of our understanding.

While Hubble’s scientific information is accurate and informative, let’s face it, you pick-up a compendium in this format to be awed by the photos. In this regard, the book does not disappoint. The multitude of high resolution color photos, most of them taking-up an entire page, some covering two pages, will leave you gaping in wonder over the beauty that is beyond our planet’s atmosphere. HST photos have become ubiquitous among our international communications. Anyone with an internet connection can call-up a multitude of images. But there is great personal joy and value in taking time away from the blinking, marketing screen, to sit in solitude with this meditation on the beauty and amazing nature that literally surrounds us.

Weiler, Edward J. Hubble. A Journey Through Space and Time. New York: Abrams Books, 2010.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Commentary: Marxist History vs Marxist Politics.

While reading Gordon Wright’s France in Modern Times, I found his views largely balanced and rational. Wright, not a Marxist himself, recognized that some of his Marxist colleagues had valid points to make. In his chapter entitled “The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852,” the author acknowledged that “some of Karl Marx’s original analysis” of class conflict, and the later analysis of “the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135). It was an important, open-minded assertion from a temperamentally conservative historian who viewed revolution with suspicion.

The flaw with Marxism is not in its interpretation of class strata, but in its application in the realm of power politics. A Marxist view on history has an ability to accurately portray the rise of a working class and a bourgeoisie, along with the relationship of these newer classes to ones ranked above them in society and politics.

The mistake that some Marxist historians make is to see in this version a logical progression towards a Marxist Communist State that would liberate workers. Marx fundamentally misunderstood human nature, and the nature of governments, which caused Europeans to arrive at the systems of inequality he saw in his lifetime.

Marx argued that the workers should revolt, forcefully take power, then establish a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The Proletarian Dictatorship would then, over time, give away decision-making power and economic power to soviets and collectives. This would gradually disintegrate the central authority and result in equality among all the people within the system. It is a grand idea, both optimistic and fair, but it cannot work.

Human nature is the obstacle. People become political leaders because they want power and influence. This is particularly true in a dictatorship, but I don’t see any current working system where this principle does not apply. For whatever good or ill motives, politicians wish to shape the direction of their nations. Politicians recognize that they can more easily attain their goals atop a central system that does not disintegrate. Naturally, individuals who seek power would rise to the top of a dictatorship. Likewise the bureaucrats, who are necessary to keep a system maintained, would be unlikely to undermine it through tactics that would result in decay. Thence, there has never been a Communist dictatorship which determined that the time was ripe to give away power and disappear.

On the contrary, governments, over a period of time, tend to become more organized and controlling around resources and people within their realms of influence. Unchecked governments get larger, not smaller. They develop more laws and protocols as it becomes apparent to the individuals managing such governments, that these measures are necessary to make a nation function according to their plans. Instead of providing increased freedom and flexibility to their citizens, state systems usually ask more of their populations in terms of forbearance: Higher taxes are levied to pay for centralized programs (i.e. education, infrastructure, military defense). Additional laws are created to control restive populations yearning to “lose their chains.” Various agencies are created to manage crises and fill needs. This results in complex systems of greater centralized control.

So a Marxist historian may have a reasonable interpretation of power relationships. But it’s an irrational leap from that understanding to the idea that a Marxist political leader has an effective model for a future society. Additionally, the mechanism for attaining this future society is a violent revolution which would cause immense suffering and death among the workers. To propose that workers violently smash an existing system, and replace it with one whose most recent experiments have shown anything but successful decentralization, is neither responsible nor humane.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1981.

For a book review of France in Modern Times, see:

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Great Sea by David Abulafia

David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is an ambitious undertaking.  There is so much information to marshal: So many cultures, so many years, and so many perspectives from which to witness the unfolding of the history. But Abulafia does a masterful job of telling a coherent story, while packing his book with an immense volume of information. Each time I sat down with this book, I had the enjoyable experience of absorbing new knowledge. Since most histories are from a period, event or national perspective, and since this region transcends those categories, the view of history from the Mediterranean is from an angle rarely encountered.

Undeniably, there will be flaws when attempting such a far-reaching project. There are early times within the Mediterranean which we know little about. The author makes the mistake of filling the information gap with myth and legend. We know little about the origin or character of the Etruscan Civilization, so Albulafia falls back on tall tales recorded by Herodotus to explain their origins, and a myth of Dionysos to exemplify their reputation as pirates (Abulafia, pp. 101-104). It would be easier if the author stated outright that there was no evidentiary foundation to these stories. Instead, he weaves together legend and fact. While discussing Hannibal’s father, Abulafia writes:  “That Hamilcar was determined to emancipate Carthage from Roman shackles is made plain in a famous but possibly legendary tale (Abulafia, p. 184).” If a tale is “possibly legendary,” it makes nothing “plain”. In places where historical fact is lacking, “I don’t know” is a fine statement. Fortunately, this confusion of myth and legend with reality is confined to the first couple of sections in the book where information is misty.

The inclusion of maps at the beginning of each chapter, to illustrate periods and peoples discussed, was an excellent idea. Unfortunately, the maps are little more than a repeated outline of the Mediterranean with a small number of dots representing cities. When the Greek, Roman or Ottoman empires are discussed, there is never an outline of their territory. Individual nations also lack depiction. The representation of cities on these maps is so scant that many of those covered in the associated chapter are not on the map. Abulafia talks about how Durazzo was “strategically valuable” to the Venetians (Abulafia, p. 448), but he doesn’t show it on a map so that the reader can see why. He discusses the importance to trade of “the great road that ran from Dyrrhachion through Thessalonika to Constantinople” (Abulafia, p. 269), but leaves it to the reader to connect the dots and imagine the borders between the different nations which employed the route. For those wishing to compensate for the poverty of these maps, I recommend the Oxford Atlas of World History reviewed on this blog.

Much of the sea’s history is a discourse on trade.  This is a peaceful refuge from the usual catalog of “great men” massacring populations. Trade provides evidence of cross-cultural communication and the author shows this through the variety of populations co-existing in trade towns. Readers with an economist’s view will enjoy the evolution of commercial ventures. Those interested in the chess game of competing trade empires will also find the work captivating. This is the area where Abulafia focuses most of his attention. The book occasionally gets bogged down here. The chronicler can become a bit obsessive while lengthily depicting who traded with whom and what goods they traded. At these times, The Great Sea contains all the charm and excitement of a ship’s manifest. But trade is the story of the Mediterranean, so occasionally the reader’s fascination may be a casualty. I only wish there were more information on the exchange of ideas, and less about figs and iron. It’s not that discussion of technology, science and shared learning are absent from the book, it’s just that they are more episodic than thematic.

Throughout The Great Sea, Abulafia does an excellent job of staying on point. Given the immense swath of history covered, it would be easy to have the conversation diverted onto large historical events unconnected to the Mediterranean. But the author remains focused. World War One was a huge international event. But discussion of this war is limited to how it impacted the region around the sea. Also, it would have been tempting for the author, a Jew who has an extensive knowledge of his people’s history, to spend a great deal of time on the Holocaust. But as a faithful chronicler, Abulafia covered this tragedy only to the extent that it affected his subject area. This ability to remain focused keeps the book from meandering and maintains the unifying purpose.

Though the story of this region is unavoidably fraught with conflict and greed, there is a great deal of positive exploration exhibited through the relationship between humans and their unique nautical environment. Cultures sprouted and grew like sea-dependent plants around the Mediterranean, growing and evolving with organic regularity, cross-pollinating with different peoples. The Great Sea is a well-researched record of human history around the Mediterranean, providing an exceptional knowledge base for those wishing to expand their understanding of our place on its shores.

Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Atlas of World History. Patrick O'Brien, editor.

An atlas of world history is an unnecessary expense. You can find just about any kind of map you want on the internet. That said, the Oxford University Press Atlas of World History is a lot of fun for those interested in history or geography. If you are a visual learner, and that encompasses most of us, this offering contains “450 full color maps” according to the back of the atlas. (I swear the Oxford University Press is not paying me for this article.) Since my monkey brain likes shiny things, I enjoy pouring over the maps as an accompaniment to whatever history text I happen to be reading.

While the main attraction is the maps themselves, the articles which accompany each map are instructive encapsulations of the historical periods or issues being illustrated. This is useful both to supplement what you are studying, and to provide a sometimes contrasting view with your reading. The perspectives presented in the articles and associated maps show some uncommon erudition. There are articles and maps pertaining to South America’s Moche Culture in 375 BC, Ancient Greece’s Level of Vegetation, 9th Century Frankish Economy and Transport Routes in Tokugawa Era Japan. Such topics are a bit obscure and a little more difficult to find on the internet.

The arrangement of the atlas is about as user-friendly as you can get. It’s entirely chronological and divided into easily recognizable sections (Ancient World, Medieval World, Early Modern World, etc.) If these categories are not helpful enough to search out a subject, the atlas is finely indexed with over 8000 entries. There is a slight bias towards European and North American topics. The editor did make an effort to represent the histories of Asia, Africa and North America, so this atlas does a better job than most Western publications. But if you were expecting a politically progressive history of the world, this is not the press to explore.

While the Atlas of World History is a luxury, it is not a very expensive one. Don’t go to the Oxford University Press site on the internet, they charge $49.95 for this book. Several other sites can get you new copies of the atlas for between $24.00 and $32.00. Obviously, used copies and previous editions are less money, and it is unlikely that the historical information on say Medieval Europe has changed in the last few years.

The Atlas of World History is an instructive resource for the Geography or History buff. I acquired mine by suggesting it to my wife on a birthday wish list. (Aren’t I a wild man?) It is enjoyable to have it by my side as a visual adjunct to my latest history book, but I also peruse it independent of other texts as a good read on its own.

O’Brien, Patrick, ed. Atlas of World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.