“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”

Reading Across the Airless Wilds by Earl Swift for the Times, 7 August 2021

There’s something about the moon that encourages, not just romance, not just fancy, but also a certain silliness. It was there in spades at the conference organised by the American Rocket Society in Manhattan in 1961. Time Magazine delighted in this “astonishing exhibition of the phony and the competent, the trivial and the magnificent.” (“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”, one visiting engineer remarked.)

But the designs on show thefre were hardly any more bizarre than those put forward by the great minds of the era. The German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth wrote an entire book advocating a moon car that could, if necessary, pogo-stick about the satellite. When Howard Seifert, the American Rocket Society’s president, advocated abandoning the car and preserving the pogo stick — well, Siefert’s “platform” might not have made it to the top of NASA’s favoured designs for a moon vehicle, but it was taken seriously.

Earl Swift is not above a bit of fun and wonder, but the main job of Across the Airless Wilds (a forbiddingly po-faced title for such an enjoyable book) is to explain how the oddness of the place — barren, airless, and boasting just one-sixth Earth’s gravity — tended to favour some very odd design solutions. True, NASA’s lunar rover, which actually flew on the last three Apollo missions, looks relatively normal, like a car (or at any rate, a go-kart). But this was really to do with weight constraints, budgets and historical accidents; a future in which the moon is explored by pogo-stick is still not quite out of the running.

For all its many rabbit-holes, this is a clear and compelling story about three men: Sam Romano, boss of General Motors’s lunar program, his visionary off-road specialist Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker (Greg to his American friends) and Greg’s invaluable engineer Ferenc (Frank) Pavlics. These three were toying with the possibility of moon vehicles a full two years before the US boasted any astronauts, and the problems they confronted were not trivial. Until Bekker came along, tyres, wheels and tracks for different surfaces were developed more or less through informed trial and error. It was Bekker who treated off-roading as an intellectual puzzle as rigorous as the effort to establish the relationship between a ship’s hull and water, or a plane’s wing and the air it rides.

Not that rigour could gain much toe-hold in the early days of lunar design, since no-one could be sure what the consistency of the moon’s surface actually was. It was probably no dustier than an Earthbound desert, but there was always the nagging possibility that a spacecraft and its crew, landing on a convenient lunar plain, might vanish into some ghastly talcum quicksand.

On 3 February 1966 the Soviet probe Luna 9 put paid to that idea, settling, firmly and without incident, onto the Ocean of Storms. Though their plans for a manned mission had been abandoned, the Soviets were no bit player. Four years later it was an eight-wheel Soviet robot, Lunokhod-17, that first drove across the moon’s surface. Seven feet long and four feet tall, it upstaged NASA’s rovers nicely, with its months and miles of journey time, 25 soil samples and literally thousands of photographs.

Meanwhile NASA was having to re-imagine its Lunar Roving Vehicle any number of times, as it sought to wring every possible ounce of value from a programme that was being slashed by Congress a good year before Neil Armstrong even set foot on the Moon.

Conceived when it was assumed Apollo would be the first chapter in a long campaign of exploration and settlement, the LRV was being shrunk and squeezed and simplified to fit through an ever-tightening window of opportunity. This is the historical meat of Swift’s book, and he handles the technical, institutional and commercial complexities of the effort with a dramatist’s eye.

Apollo was supposed to pave the way for two-rocket missions. When they vanished from the schedule, the rover’s future hung in doubt. Without a second Saturn to carry cargo, any rover bound for the moon would have to be carried on the same lunar module that carried the crew. No-one knew if this was even possible.

There was, however, one wedge-shaped cavity still free between the descent stage’s legs: an awkward triangle “about the size and shape of a pup tent standing on its end.” So it was that the LRV, tht once boasted six wheels and a pressurised cabin, ended up the machine a Brompton folding bike wants to be when it grows up.

Ironically, it was NASA’s dwindling prospects post-Apollo that convinced its managers to origami something into that tiny space, just a shade over seventeen months prior to launch. Why not wring as much value out of Apollo’s last missions as possible?

The result was a triumph, though it maybe didn’t look like one. Its seats were basically deckchairs. It had neither roof, nor body. There was no steering wheel, just a T-bar the astronaut lent on. It weighed no more than one fully kitted-out astronaut, and its electric motors ground out just one horsepower. On the flat, it reached barely ten miles an hour.

But it was superbly designed for the moon, where a turn at 6MPH had it fishtailing like a speedboat, even as it bore more than twice its weight around an area the size of Manhattan.

In a market already oversaturated with books celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo in 2019 (many of them very good indeed) Swift finds his niche. He’s not narrow: there’s plenty of familiar context here, including a powerful sketch of the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He’s not especially folksy, or willfully eccentric: the lunar rover was a key element in the Apollo program, and he wants it taken seriously. Swift finds his place by much more ingenious means — by up-ending the Apollo narrative entirely (he would say he was turning it right-side up) so that every earlier American venture into space was preparation for the last three trips to the moon.

He sets out his stall early, drawing a striking contrast between the travails of Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Edgar Mitchell — slugging half a mile up the the wall of the wrong crater, dragging a cart — with the vehicular hijinks of Apollo 15’s Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, crossing a mile of hummocky, cratered terrain rimmed on two sides by mountains the size of Everest, to a spectacular gorge, then following its edge to the foot of a huge mountain, then driving up its side.

Detailed, thrilling accounts of the two subsequent Rover-equipped Apollo missions, Apollo 16 in the Descartes highlands and Apollo 17 in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, carry the pointed message that the viewing public began to tune out of Apollo just as the science, the tech, and the adventure had gotten started.

Swift conveys the baffling, unreadable lunar landscape very well, but Across the Airless Wilds is above all a human story, and a triumphant one at that, about NASA’s most-loved machine. “Everybody you meet will tell you he worked on the rover,” remarks Eugene Cowart, Boeing’s chief engineer on the project. “You can’t find anybody who didn’t work on this thing.”

Nothing but the truth

Reading The Believer by Ralph Blumenthal for the Times, 24 July 2021

In September 1965 John Fuller, a columnist for the Saturday Review in New York, was criss-crossing Rockingham County in New Hampshire in pursuit of a rash of UFO sightings, when he stumbled upon a darker story — one so unlikely, he didn’t follow it up straight away.

Not far from the local Pease Air Force base, a New Hampshire couple had been abducted and experimented upon by aliens.

Every few years, ever since the end of the Second World War, others had claimed similar experiences. But they were few and scattered, their accounts were incredible and florid, and there was never any corroborating physical evidence for their allegations. It took decades before anyone in academia took an interest in their plight.

In January 1990 the artist Budd Hopkins, whose Intruders Foundation provided support for “experiencers” — alleged victims of alien abduction — was visited by John Edward Mack, head of psychiatry at Harvard’s medical school. Mack’s interest had been piqued by his friend the psychoanalyst Robert Lifton. An old hand at treating severe trauma, particularly among Hiroshima survivors and Vietnam veterans, Lifton found himself stumped when dealing with experiencers: “It wasn’t clear to me or to anybody else exactly what the trauma was.”

Mack was immediately intrigued. Highly strung, narcissistic, psychologically damaged by his mother’s early death, Mack needed a deep intellectual project to hold himself together. He was interested in how perceptions and beliefs about reality shape society. A Prince of Our Disorder, his Pulitzer Prize-winning psychological biography of T E Lawrence, was his most intimate statement on the subject. Work on the psychology of the Cold War had drawn him into anti-nuclear activism, and close association with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won a Nobel peace prize in 1985. The institutions he created to explore the frontiers of human experience survive today in the form of the John E. Mack Institute, dedicated “to further[ing] the evolution of the paradigms by which we understand human identity”.

Just as important, though, Mack enjoyed helping people, and he was good at it. In 1964 he had established mental health services in Cambridge, Mass., where hundreds of thousands were without any mental health provision at all. As a practitioner, he had worked particularly with children and adolescents, had treated suicidal patients, and published research on heroin addiction.

Whitley Streiber (whose book Communion, about his own alien abduction, is one of the single most disturbing books ever to reach the bestseller lists) observed how Mack approached experiencers: “He very intentionally did not want to look too deeply into the anomalous aspects of the reports,” Streiber writes. “He felt his approach as a physician should be to not look beyond the narrative but to approach it as a source of information about the individual’s state.”

But what was Mack opening himself up to? What to make of all that abuse, pain, paralysis, loss of volition and forced ejaculation? In 1992, at a forum for work-in-progress, Mack explained, “There’s a great deal of curiosity they [the alien abductors] seem to have in staring at us, particularly in sexual situations. Often there are hybrid infants that seem to be the result of alien-human sexual cohabitation.”

Experiencers were traumatised, but not just traumatised. “When I got home,” said one South African experiencer, “it was like the world, all the trees would just go down, and there’d be no air and people would be dying.”

Experiencers reported a pressing, painful awareness of impending environmental catastrophe; also a tremendous sense of empathy, extending across the whole living world. Some felt optimistic, even euphoric: for these were now recruited in a project to save life on Earth. as part, they explained, of the aliens’ breeding programme.

John Mack championed hypnotic regression, as a means of helping his clients discover buried memories. Ralph Blumenthal, a reporter for the New York Times, is careful not to use hindsight to condemn this approach, but as he explains, the satanic abuse scandals that erupted in the 1990s were to reveal just how easily false memories can be implanted, even inadvertently, in people made suggestible by hypnosis.

In May 1994 the Dean of Harvard Medical School appointed a committee of peers to confidentially review Mack’s interactions with experiencers. Mack was exonerated. Still, it was a serious and reputationally damaging shot across the bows, in a field coming to grips with the reality of implanted and false memories.

Passionate, unfaithful, a man for whom life was often “just a series of obligations”, Mack did not so much “go off the deep end” after that as wade, steadily and with determination, into ever deeper water. The saddest passage in Blumenthal’s book describes Mack’s trip in 2004 to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. Surrounded by farm equipment that could easily have been used to create them, Mack absorbs the cosmic energy of crop circles and declares, “There isn’t anybody in the world who’s going to convince me this is manmade.”

Blumenthal steers his narrative deftly between the crashing rocks of breathless credulity on the one hand, and psychoanalytic second-guessing on the other. Drop all mention of the extraterrestrials, and The Believer remains a riveting human document. Mack’s abilities, his brilliance, flaws, hubris, and mania, are anatomised with a painful sensitivity. Readers will close the book wiser than when they opened it, and painfully aware of what they do not and perhaps can never know about Mack, about extraterrestrials, and about the nature of truth.

Mack became a man easy to dismiss. His “experiencers” remain, however, “blurring ontological categories in defiance of all our understandings of how things operate in the world”. Time and again, Blumenthal comes back to this: there’s no pathology to explain them. Not alcoholism. Not mental illness. Not sexual abuse. Not even a desire for attention. Aliens are engaged in a breakneck planet-saving obstetric intervention, involving probes. You may not like it. You may point to the lack of any physical evidence for it. But — and here Blumenthal holds the reader quite firmly and thrillingly to the ontological razor’s edge — you cannot say it’s all in people’s heads. You have no solid reason at all, beyond incredulity, to suppose that abductees are telling you anything other than the truth.

An engine for understanding

Reading Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek for the Times, 2 January 2021

It’s not given to many of us to work at the bleeding edge of theoretical physics, discovering for ourselves the way the world really works.

The nearest most of us will ever get is the pop-science shelf, and this has been dominated for quite a while now by the lyrical outpourings of Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. Rovelli’s upcoming one, Helgoland, promises to have his reader tearing across a universe made, not of particles, but of the relations between them.

It’s all too late, however: Frank Wilczek’s Fundamentals has gazzumped Rovelli handsomely, with a vision that replaces our classical idea of physical creation — “atoms and the void” — with one consisting entirely of spacetime, self-propagating fields and properties.

Born in 1951 and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004 for figuring out why atoms don’t just fly apart, Wilczek is out to explain why “the history of Sweden is more complicated than the history of the universe”. The ingredients of the universe are surprisingly simple, but their fates, playing out through time in accordance with just a handful of rules, generate a world of unimaginable complexity, contingency and abundance. Measures of spin, charge and mass allow us to describe the whole of physical reality, but they won’t help us at all in depicting, say, the history of the royal house of Bernadotte.

Wilczek’s “ten keys to reality”, mentioned in his subtitle, aren’t to do with the 19 or so physical constants that exercised Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, in his 1990s pop-science heyday. The focus these days has shifted more to the spirit of things. When Wilczek describes the behaviour of electrons around an atom, for example, gone are the usual Böhr-ish mechanics, in which electrons leap from one nuclear orbit to another. Instead we get a vibrating cymbal, the music of the spheres, a poetic understanding of fields, and not a fragment of matter in sight.

So will you plump for the Wilzcek, or will you wait for the Rovelli? A false choice, of course; this is not a race. Popular cosmology is more like the jazz scene: the facts (figures, constants, models) are the standards everyone riffs off. After one or two exposures you find yourself returning for the individual performances: their poetry, their unique expression.

Wilczek’s ten keys are more like ten book ideas, exploring the spatial and temporal abundance of the universe; how it all began; the stubborn linearity of time; how it all will end. What should we make of his decision to have us swallow the whole of creation in one go?

In one respect this book was inevitable. It’s what people of Wilczek’s peculiar genius and standing do. There’s even a sly name for the effort: the philosopause. The implication here being that Wilczek has outlived his most productive years and is now pursuing philosophical speculations.

Wilzcek is not short of insights. His idea of what the scientific method consists of is refreshingly robust: a style of thinking that “combines the humble discipline of respecting the facts and learning from Nature with the systematic chutzpah of using what you think you’ve learned aggressively”. If you apply what you think you’ve discovered everywhere you can, even in situations that have nothing to do with your starting point, then, if it works, “you’ve discovered something useful; it it doesn’t, then you’ve learned something important.”

However, works of the philosopause are best judged on character. Richard Dawkins seems to have discovered, along with Johnny Rotten, that anger is an energy. Martin Rees has been possessed by the shade of that dutiful bureaucrat C P Snow. And in this case? Wilczek, so modest, so straight-dealing, so earnest in his desire to conciliate between science and the rest of culture, turns out to be a true visionary, writing — as his book gathers pace — a human testament to the moment when the discipline of physics, as we used to understand it, came to a stop.

Wilczek’s is the first generation whose intelligence — even at the far end of the bell-curve inhabited by genius — is insufficient to conceptualise its own scientific findings. Machines are even now taking over the work of hypothesis-making and interpretation. “The abilities of our machines to carry lengthy yet accurate calculations, to store massive amounts of information, and to learn by doing at an extremely fast pace,” Wilczek explains, “are already opening up qualitatively new paths toward understanding. They will move the frontier of knowledge in directions, and arrive at places, that unaided human brains can’t go.”

Or put it this way: physicists can pursue a Theory of Everything all they like. They’ll never find it, because if they did find it, they wouldn’t understand it.

Where does that leave physics? Where does that leave Wilczek? His response is gloriously matter-of-fact:

“… really, this should not come as fresh news. Humans themselves know many things that are not available to human consciousness, such as how to process visual information at incredible speeds, or how to make their bodies stay upright, walk and run.”

Right now physicists have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of mass in the universe reacts so weakly to the bits of creation we can see, we may never know its nature. Though Wilczek makes a brave stab at the problem of so-called “dark matter”, he is equally prepared to accept that a true explanation may prove incomprehensible.

Human intelligence turns out to be just one kind of engine for understanding. Wilzcek would have us nurture it and savour it, and not just for what it can do, but because it is uniquely ours.

“I heard the rustling of the dress for two whole hours”

By the end of the book I had come to understand why kindness and cruelty cannot vanquish each other, and why, irrespective of our various ideas about social progress, our sexual and gender politics will always teeter, endlessly and without remedy, between “Orwellian oppression and the Hobbesian jungle”…

Reading Strange Antics: A history of seduction by Clement Knox, 1 February 2020

“If we’re going to die, at least give us some tits”

The Swedes are besieging the city of Brno. A bit of Googling reveals the year to be 1645. Armed with pick and shovel, the travelling entertainer Tyll Ulenspiegel is trying to undermine the Swedish redoubts when the shaft collapses, plunging him and his fellow miners into utter darkness. It’s difficult to establish even who is still alive and who is dead. “Say something about arses,” someone begs the darkness. “Say something about tits. If we’re going to die, at least give us some tits…”

Reading Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll for the Times, 25 January 2020