Sunday, August 18, 2019

Book review: Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand

Nonfiction
When the moon hits your eye

Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand:
Fifty Wonders That Reveal an Extraordinary Universe
214 pp. Diversion Books
By Marcus Chown

Reviewed by Bob Sanchez
Originally published in the Internet Review of Books

The very fact of the universe’s existence poses a profound puzzle. Answers used to be as simple as Genesis, where God placed mankind at the center of everything, and the daily sunrises and sunsets made Earth’s centrality in the heavens self-evident.

Then telescopes opened our eyes, and now we know we are a minuscule blue dot in a Universe of endless complexity and wonder. At least two trillion galaxies originated in one unimaginably small space, and now they race away at increasing speeds. Dark matter and dark energy envelop everything we see and hold it all – us all – together. That includes atoms, the building blocks of everything. Atoms are mostly empty space, with relatively vast distances between their nuclei and the electrons whizzing around them.

Author and radio astronomer Marcus Chown brings these facts to our attention with clarity and a light touch. For example, he states that the moon “is perpetually plummeting towards the earth,” and that “pound for pound … Jupiter’s pizza-like moon, Io,” generates more heat than the sun. He also points out in his chapter Please Squeeze Me that if you could squeeze all the empty space from our atoms, the entire human race could fit in the space of one very heavy sugar cube. “We are all ghosts,” he writes, 99.9999999999999 percent empty space. (He also writes that we are one-third mushroom, so which are we, Mr. Chown, ghosts or fungi?)

When he gives public talks, he shows off his pet mosquito named Terry, which he keeps in a jam jar. He says that if he could magically remove all the bug’s electrons, leaving only the positively charged nuclei, the resulting explosion would cause a global mass extinction. (And to think we’ve all been fretting about global warming!)

As the subtitle suggests, this book describes fifty wondrous phenomena of the Universe. Topics range from the indivisibly small to the unknowably vast. No chapter exceeds a half-dozen pages, and readers will never feel bogged down in convoluted or technical language. Chapter titles alone give away the flavor of the book: Hex Appeal, Pocket Universe, Credit Card Cosmos, and Loopy Liquid are a few of them.

Make no mistake, though. No amount of clear, enjoyable writing will simplify quantum physics enough for some of us – okay, for me. The same particle can exist in two places at once? The concept makes my brain feel like empty space.

This popular-science overview of the Universe is perfect for lay readers with inquiring minds.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Book review: Bloodlands

Nonfiction 

Fourteen million times one 

BLOODLANDS: 
Europe between Hitler and Stalin 
By Timothy Snyder 
524 pp. Basic Books

Reviewed by Bob Sanchez
Originally published by the Internet Review of Books, 2011

There may have been no worse place on earth. Trapped between two hostile giants, about fourteen million innocents were murdered in the area that Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder labels the bloodlands: Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic states, and part of western Russia. To the west lay Nazi Germany, with its policy of eastward expansion and depopulation. To the east lay the Soviet Union, with its policy of starving and killing masses of people, in particular its own peasants.

The bloodlands were not a specific, defined region, Snyder writes, but simply the lands where the two regimes did “their most murderous work...where most of Europe's Jews lived and where Hitler and Stalin's imperial plans overlapped.”

In page after page of Bloodlands, Snyder documents the mind-numbing atrocities committed by both sides. Sometimes the numbers of gassed, shot, or starved are estimates, and sometimes they are precise because the killers kept records. Either way, those numbers blur together throughout this painful, important book.

As early as 1933, Stalin had begun a killing binge that reached its nadir with his Great Terror of 1937-1938. The Bolsheviks learned from their experience with the famines of the early 1920s that “food was a weapon.” Between 1933 and 1945, more than half of the civilians who died in the region had been deliberately starved to death. Yet news of Hitler's rise to power in 1933 overshadowed the famine in the Ukraine.

Stalin treated the Ukrainian famine as sabotage by lazy peasants and disloyal local officials, though the Soviets shipped massive quantities Ukrainian grain to other parts of the USSR. Peasants were allowed next to nothing. Unauthorized collection of the smallest food scraps was considered theft and was punishable by death. Snyder writes:
A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.
And he quotes a communist party official as saying during Stalin's Great Terror that people belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.”

Meanwhile, Hitler had a grand vision of using the area to his east as Germany's breadbasket, enslaving the “subhumans” he chose not to immediately exterminate. The “Final Solution” to the Jewish “problem” underwent several versions ultimately deemed impractical, such as deporting the Jews to Madagascar as slaves. Then in late 1941, Hitler settled on killing them all during the war. Hitler believed that “human beings were containers of calories that should be emptied,” Snyder writes.

Bloodlands is far from a casual read, but it will deepen one's perception of the depravity to which humans can sink. “This is a history of political mass murder,” Snyder writes. None of those deaths resulted from Soviet-Nazi combat but from their separate killing policies. In a broad sense Nazi policy was political, while Soviet policy was economic. The victims, I suspect, cared nothing about the distinction.

Were the concentration camps the worst of the Nazi atrocities? No, Snyder argues. “The image of the German concentration camps as the worst element of National Socialism is an illusion, a dark mirage over an unknown desert.” The camps seem the worst because there were survivors to tell about them, while vast numbers of victims never spent time in a camp but were simply shot or gassed in specialized death facilities. “In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps.”

Both regimes had the ability to strip their victims of their humanity, he writes, yet “Each of the living bore a name. ...Each of the dead became a number.” By adding names and quoting from victims' letters, Snyder reminds us that each number still represented one real, unique human being. Fourteen million times one.

I had offered Bloodlands to a reviewer who, as it happened, had already read the book and hated it as a one-sided apologia that presents the Holocaust as less heinous than Stalin's crimes. So rather than write a scathing review, he declined the assignment. But Bloodlands left me with an altogether different impression: both Hitler and Stalin were bloodthirsty ogres. We can total up the victims and judge one dictator to be more evil than the other, but the exercise is pointless. Each was a scourge on humanity.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

About that southern border

We lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico for nine years, not far from the Mexican border. Go into many commercial establishments and you'll find people who speak both Spanish and English, sometimes switching back and forth between the languages in the same sentence. The kid at the McDonald's counter takes one look at you and knows to greet you in English, then greets the next customer in Spanish. Signs in storefronts read "Se habla español." Hungry folks who visit Delicias around noontime will find the restaurant packed with Spanish- and English-speaking workers sitting at brightly colored tables and chairs. A few years ago, a mariachi band occasionally came in and serenaded the customers. Perhaps they still do.

Many laborers make a daily round trip from Ciudad Juárez to do much of the work Americans want done but won't do themselves. A landscaping crew might have one man who speaks sufficient English to talk to the customer. They work in the hot sun, wearing long sleeves, jeans and boots, hats with a cloth in the back to cover their necks. Offer them agua, and they gratefully respond with sí, gracias and a smile. At least in the moment that's enough Spanish for a gringo to know. Of course, many Mexicans work here for a time before recrossing the border to home and family. Some live on this side of the border.

In El Paso, a woman told me she is from Mexico and is annoyed when her compatriots come to the U.S. and do not speak English when they're here. On that side of the border, you speak Spanish. On this side, English. I told her New Mexico has two official languages, English and Spanish. She didn't like that. Me, I don't mind at all.

The border, la frontera, is artificial anyway. A huge swath of the Southwest was occupied by nomadic Indian tribes, colonized by Spain, and became Mexico. Then the United States took a lot, bought some, and drew a line.