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The Pope of Physics – Enrico Fermi

The Pope of PhysicsIn “The Pope of Physics” Gino Segre and Bettina Hoerlin have created an imminently readable biography of one of the true greats of 20th Century physics. Segre and Hoerlin do an excellent job of weaving just enough of the physics science for an appreciation of this age of discovery in the quantum realm. For the details of the science, there are many previous texts that detail Enrico Fermi’s accomplishments in the golden age of quantum physics between WWI and WWII.
The Pope of Physics” takes the perspective of Fermi, the man. With unique access to the Fermi family and personal insight into Italy, Gino Segre and his wife Bettina have developed a revealing narrative for the private Fermi. This approach to Enrico Fermi’s life only strengthens his already great legacy as teacher and an exponent of the complex world of quantum physics. An illustration of Fermi’s contribution is that no less than 6 of his former students became Noble laureates. A record that has no equal.
But we also learn that Fermi, even at the pinnacle of preeminence, had no interest in wielding the political influence available to him. At every turn, he avoided exercising these opportunities always wishing to return to scientific inquires. And despite his reluctance to address moral and political consequences, such was his persona that no one ever held this against him.
Though Enrico Fermi is the focus of the book, we also get glimpses of the other greats of the period through the his decades of collaboration. These insights into the collaborations clearly show the power the combined intellect with Fermi in the lead.
I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn more about the man behind this truly great of quantum physics.

Jefferson’s America

jeffereson_americaJulie Fenster’s new book Jefferson’s America fills very interesting niche in early American history. Everyone with even a smattering of American history education knows of the Louisiana Purchase and the exploits of Lewis & Clark.

What Fenster does in her book, is to fill in this era with details largely lost in a typical American history survey course. For example, with the first mention of the Louisiana Purchase there is usually a map shown of the geography of the Purchase. However, when Jefferson paid $15M he and no one else knew the extent of the purchase. There simply was no knowledge or established boundaries. The establishment of the boundary between America and Spanish claims is the result of diplomatic maneuvers and gifted foresight of Jefferson to avoid a shooting war with Spain. The foresight that Jefferson had was to see a path for establishing American claims not by occupation with armed troops but rather through exploration. Fenster does an excellent job of illuminating this vision.
It would have been easy to go over the well traveled ground of the Lewis & Clark expedition to excess. But, in Jefferson’s America the Lewis & Clark expedition is described in just enough detail to illustrate its position in the context of Jefferson’s vision and diplomatic efforts.
In addition, however, we also learn about several other expeditions equally as important but much lesser known. For example there is the expedition of William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter up the Ouachita River. This less expansive and lesser known, never the less, provided Americans with their first scientific data and interaction with Native Americans in the territory.
Jefferson also commissioned Lt. Zebulon Pike to explore the head waters of the Mississippi River (remember Lewis & Clark explored the Missouri River). During the same 3 year period, he also commissioned Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis to navigate the Red River with the expected direct confrontation with armed Spanish troops. The result of Freeman’s trip was the establishment of the Red River as the boundary with Spanish territory.
Swirling in the background of these expeditions of Jefferson is the intrigues of another character lesser known to most, General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson becomes a player because of his intrigues as a paid confident of the Spanish government at the same time as an American government official. ‘Jefferson’s America’ doesn’t do just to the complex Gen. Wilkinson. The reader is directed to the biography, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater.

Overall Jefferson’s America is an excellent book to fill in a short but important period in our history.

The Great Influenza

great_influenzaThe Great Influenza is definitely a book that has some surprises for the reader. Certainly the book provides a detailed history of the world’s worst pandemic. It clearly describes the spread of the disease worldwide including its multiple waves. There is a concise clinical description of the virus and an excellent discussion of its unique characteristics that make it so lethal. The surprise is the contextual information that explains why the virus spread so rapidly. The misnomer Spanish influenza occurred at nearly the “perfect storm” of several factors.

First factor (described in great detail) was the sorry state of American medicine and practitioners at the beginning of the 20th century. In itself, this section of the book is worth the read as a history of the development of American medical practice.

The second factor was the draconian information practices put in place by the Wilson administration for WWI. The news media was prohibited from printing any negative information (even though truthful) under severe penalties. Thus, any reporting of a pandemic was reported as “ordinary flu” or not reported at all.

Finally, the rapid mobilization and movement of troops provided a near perfect environment for the virus to spread. Over crowded barracks of soldiers from across the country with poor sanitation promoted the spread of the flu. Despite dire warnings from the Army Surgeon General, Army leadership prioritized military needs over the disease risks.

Overall, The Great Influenza is an excellent reference for an important time in our history.