Archive for the ‘memory’ category

For All Those I Wish Could See This Day

November 5, 2008

Readers of this blog know that my uncle Daniel Levenson died early this year, in September.  He was a good man, and I miss him, especially today.  Throughout his professional life he put in the time, the energy, and whatever else it took on the right side of critical struggles, from the anti-war movement to the fight against hunger.  He was a passionate Democrat and deeply hoped to see Barack Obama elected President.  He didn’t.

My mother died more than ten years ago.  She too was a happily partisan Democrat, having adopted US citizenship a few years after she emigrated from England so that she would never again feel the frustration of not being able to vote that she endured after desperately wanting to cast her ballot for Adlai Stephenson in 1956.  She too would have loved to have had a chance to vote for Barack Obama, and I would have pitied the poor undecided wretch who came up against her posh accent and absolute conviction in any canvassing call.

My father, Joseph Levenson, died when I was ten.  He was a World War II veteran — he floated all the way from the west coast to Tokyo Bay between 1942-1946.  He became a historian of China after the war, and one of the members of the academy who early recognized the folly of the Vietnam War.  He too would have loved this day — and in particular he would have loved the grace of language, the tragically rare political gift Obama has displayed consistently throughout this campaign, of being able to articulate both thoughtfully and beautifully, poetically, complex and important ideas.

They should all have seen this day, they and I’m sure many others.  For them, let Martin speak:

Travel Notes: Religious Stereotypes edition.

August 22, 2008

(Warning:  almost but not quite no science below).

There are certain requirements for being a tourist in the new South Africa. You have got to check out the history of Apartheid. Nothing you see makes sense without that knowledge, and some of the venues tied to that history are the places tourists more or less have to go.

So yesterday it was off to Jo’burg’s Old Fort for coffee in one of the most oddly peaceful cafe’s in this expectation-confounding city, and then a tour of the Number Four complex, South Africa’s contribution to the world’s miserable catalogue of iconic symbols of human cruelty.

The museum inside Number Four is extremely impressive. Number Four housed at one time or another pretty much every major figure in the Struggle, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. Mandela is understandably everywhere in South Africa these days, especially in the context of his recent ninetieth birthday (e.g.: Hertz is running a promotion right now bragging that it and Mandela are ninety years old (or something…the poster wasn’t quite clear) and that rental car goodies will flow from this coincidence). And certainly, the Robben Island museum centers on that hell-hole’s most famous inmate.

But what was striking about the Number Four exhibition is that it celebrated perhaps the only prisoner it held who could be said to rank Mandela as a veteran of South Africa’s gulag: Mohatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s experience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, leading his first major civil rights campaign there, was a foundational period, establishing the basic outline of the ideas that he would later develop so powerfully in India. The exhibition in Number Four gives a great rapid gloss on this period, and it reveals (a) Gandhi’s enormous strength of mind and character, and among much else, (b) that living the life of a saint is hard, but perhaps more so for the sainted one’s family than for the man (in this instance) himself.

But while the whole display was effective — down to the pair of sandals Gandhi made for his antagonist in this conflict, General Jan Smuts, sitting in a box on the floor of prison — there was one photograph whose caption caught my eye. It showed Gandhi with a group of fellow non-violent activists and it noted that most of those who helped form the Satyagraha movement in South Africa were Indian Muslims.

Now this, I’m sure, is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious to anyone who has actually paid attention to the histories of either Apartheid or the Indian independence movement.

But I didn’t happen to know that fact and as a more or less well informed tourist and survivor of too much wingnut rhetoric over the last few years, it strikes me as notable that I did not.

That is, while the plural of anecdote is not data, the top line meaning I took out of yesterday’s rapid tour of Number Four is that for all the talk that has spewed for some time now about Islam being at its core a religion of violence, there is at least one major modern-historical confounding example. Such stubborn facts, in the context of science are, of course supposed to confound the most seemingly comfortable of theories.

(Pre-flame self defense: this is not to say that Islam is inherently non-violent either. Just that members of a tradition that, among much else was able both to provide a quasi-religious gloss on Apartheid and, for many in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, consolation and strength for that effort, might want to be wary about broad stroke statements about other religious cultures. Just a thought.)

Program Notes: Who Patented the Bomb? Ask NPR.

March 30, 2008

Check this story out.

Here’s the backstory: Otto Hahn, (without mentioning mentor/partner Lise Meitner) published the news that he and co-workers had identified the element Barium in a sample of Uranium that had been bombarded by neutrons in December, 1938. Meitner, of Jewish background, had of necessity, abandoned her collaboration with Hahn and escaped for Stockholm earlier that year.

Still, she and her nephew, understood what had just happened. Hahn had achieved nuclear fission, the spectacularly unexpected splitting of uranium atoms.

By the happenstance of timing, this news came at almost the final moment for the next seven years that scientific communication would pass freely through the physics community. It was certainly almost the last time that a crucial result about the behavior of the atom would be so blithely broadcast to any and all…

…Or not quite, as the NPR broadcast linked above reveals. I’ve done a bit of reporting on atomic physics and the history of the bomb — not much, but not zero, either — and I never caught a whiff of the fact that the Manhattan Project filed something like 2,000 — two thousand!— patents on every angle they could find of design and engineering of the atomic bomb.

Patents are public documents, as the hero of the NPR story, Harvard graduate student Alex Wellerstein noted. National security can intervene — but even when it does, a secret patent leaves traces behind, decay products as it were. As the story explains, should someone else — a German agent — want to know if America were working on a bomb, all he would have to do is file a patent application of his own on some aspect of nuclear weaponry, and a letter would come back saying, in essence, the proposed invention had collided with a secret patent. Aha!

That never happened.

Do give the story a listen. It’s well done, and can be heard as a sidelight on the strangeness and the paranoia that accompanies every descent into a national security state.

But what gave me the most pleasure was hearing Philip Morrison remembered. Morrison had told Wallerstein that he had in fact filed a patent on the bomb (one that is still secret), and had signed his rights over to the US government for the princely sum of a buck year — which was never paid.

I’m pretty sure that Morrison never tried to collect. I knew him a bit — never that well, but for a few years, his role as advisor to NOVA meant that I would see him and his wife Phyllis on regular occasions. He was a genuinely great man, and the one time, the Morrisons came to my house for supper, I finally got my courage up to ask him what it was like to carry the plutonium core from Los Alamos to Almogodoro for the Trinity test.

He started speaking with a kind of a creak, as if he was resetting his mind to re-enter, and not just recall the event. And then the story took over, and my wife and I just listened as the drive unfolded, and Morrison started bringing to life the feeling, the combination of youth (Morrison was all of twenty nine years old), mastery, urgency — get the damn war done — and concern to make sure the damn thing worked.

Morrison is one of the unequivocally great figures I’ve had the good fortune to meet, smart, committed to right action, a small d democrat in all his doings — he’d talk with pleasure to anyone who was willing to exercise their brains. He became a major figure in the physicists’ movement working to defang the nuclear threat.

But he never hid the fascination and the sheer intensity of emotion and experience that came with working on the Manhattan Project. Sitting there around a dinner table, just the four of us, listening to the journey re-imagined — the guts of the bomb in his hands. Amazing. It was a moment when being a historian seem like the most fun it is possible to have, as so many lives and instants of place and time can, at lucky intervals, suddenly become imaginatively one’s own.

I’m still grateful to Phil (and Phyllis, who should never be left out of any memory of the Morrisons). He was kind to me and very helpful more than once. He deeper relations with and made a much greater impact on lots of other folks, and I don’t want to claim more of an acquaintance nor more influence from than was really there. But hearing a very nice bit of radio reminded me that I’d never acknowledged the real debt I owe him, and the great pleasure I took in the times I did get to hear what he had to say.

(Some other time, I’ll talk about an after dinner talk I heard him give to a very small and bumptious group of TV people who thought they knew about what mattered in 20th century science until they heard Phil’s defense of 1900.)

One last thing – a minor quibble with the NPR story. The story of the American patents on the bomb is, I think, genuinely new. But the broadcast did not mention something known for a while, and discussed in Richard Rhodes’ great book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Leo Szilard had been thinking about the possibility of nuclear chain reactions well before Hahn et al. achieved uranium fission. In 1936, living in Britain, he patented the idea — and assigned it to the Admirality to make sure that the weapon implied (obviously, it seemed to him) by the phenomenon would remain secret.

Image: Albin Schmalfuss, Boletus luridus, 1897. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A Day That Lives in Infamy: Remember January 30.

January 30, 2008

(This post winds up on a science-ish blog because of my long history with Albert Einstein, in the course of which I did the work that enables me to write what follows.)

As this New York Times piece reminded me, seventy five years ago, this was a truly bad day. Just past noon (about six hours ago, Berlin time) on January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler took an oath administered by President Paul von Hindenburg, and assumed the office of Chancellor of Germany.

That this would be a disaster was obvious to some. General Erich Ludendorff knew both the players in that disastrous moment. He had been, with Hindenburg, the leader of the de facto military junta that ran Germany in the last years of the so-call “Great” War, and he had conspired with Hitler in the Beer Hall putsch of 1923. After Hitler became chancellor, Ludendorff wrote to the President in despair: “I solemny predict that this accursed man will cast our Reich in the abyss…Future generations will damn you in your grave for what you have done.”

Albert Einstein also undertood what Hitler’s rise meant, much earlier than most. He and Winston Churchill, then in the political wilderness, commiserated in the summer of 1933, and that September, Einstein’s frustration with the world’s myopia burst out in a newspaper interview: “I cannot understand the passive response of the whole civilized world to this modern barbarism,” he said. “Does not the world see that Hitler is aiming at war?” (From Abraham Pais, Einstein Lived Here.)

Einstein, of course, was right, which doesn’t surprise me — I hear he was a pretty smart guy.

But what I want to emphasize here is one lesson I learned in the writing of that tome that seems to me to have resonance in other circumstances, even ours now, perhaps.

That is: Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship was a disaster—but not an inevitable one.

He certainly did his part to reach that pinnacle, but there were literally dozens of points at which he could have been stopped – even up to the last months and weeks. The outcome turned on many factors of course, but certainly among them were the inaction of those who might have defended the German republic throughout its troubled birth and early years; and then, at the end, the disastrous folly of those who were trying to destroy it for their own ends – and hoped to turn Hitler to their purposes.

From which I conclude:

It doesn’t only require active, purposeful malice to incinerate a civil society (h/t Balloon Juice). Aloof disdain and especially pure self-interested stupidity act as accelerants to the bonfire. (I had a couple of links there – but I don’t want to Godwinize this post, so fill in the blanks as you will).

Remember January 30.

(If you want a little more on the background to the tragedy or errors that propelled Hitler to power, go to the jump for an excerpt from my bookthat talks a little bit about the disastrous choices made by a range of German political actors in the early thirties that created the opening Hitler took. There is a lot more to the story, in versions written by many others, of course – but this gives a bitter taste of the events in question.)

Image: Brandenburg Gate Quadriga at night. Photo by Johann Gottfried Schadow, used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license.

Update: tweaked a little for readability (horrible word).


The Ones We’ll Miss, (the way the war comes home): Andrew Olmsted/Thomas Casey chapter.

January 8, 2008

(Wisconsin Heights Battlefield on a better day.)

A brief essay of loss, followed by an address to which readers can send help below. Look down this post even if you don’t care to read what comes in between.

The blogosphere, left, right and apolitical, has been in general mourning over the death of Major Andrew Olmsted, who blogged under various names — his own, until the army censored him; G’kar and Sheridan. He was, I think, best known for his writing at Obsidian Wings, and also blogged at All Alone in the Night. He also wrote for the Rocky Mountain News — and along the way, served with distinction as an officer in the US Army in time of war. You can read Major Omsted’s last blog post here. As for who Thomas Casey was — read on.

I’m a latecomer to the blogosphere, and I never had any interaction with G’kar — which is the name I knew as the blogger posting really good stuff over at Obsidian Wings. Military bloggers are one of the best things to come out of this miserable war; they help close a gap that cannot be allowed to widen between the uniformed services and the American people and polity. For that work, I admired Major Olmsted without ever knowing who he was.

Now, of course, I will not have even the blogospheric connection to Major Olmsted that others more precocious than I are mourning now — read this for an example of such memorials and go here for links to an enormously impressive list of those who wanted to remember a friend, whether known through real or virtual contact. As usual, you only find out that you miss someone you never knew when others who had the luck and wit to make the connection in life tell you so.

In the latest impressive display of grace from the Olmsted family, the response to a broad based desire to do something to remember Maj. Olmsted — G’kar — came out today. In it, the family asked the blogosphere so moved to do something not for them, but for the four children left by Captain Thomas Casey, Andrew Olson’s subordinate, who was killed trying to help him.

I’m writing a check. The address follows — and it contains the reason that I was moved to write a piece about two men I never really knew existed until a few days ago.

Capt. Thomas Casey Children’s fund
P.O. Box 1306
Chester, CA 96020

Nobody knows about the town of Chester, California, and those of us who do (ignore the logic) like it that way. When I first came to Chester I was almost six; more than four decades later, it is still as much the place I think I’m from as the town I grew up in and the one I live in now.

Back in 1966, it was a small logging town — Collins Lumber, a model of how to run a timber business, still has its mill going there. A few ranches raised cattle around the area, and the nearby national park brought in a few visitors, but Lassen Volcanic is still the least visited of California’s major protected wild places. Chester has grown now, and has become something of a vacation and retirement destination, but it’s still a little place, a beautiful place, a surprisingly secret one in what was once called the uninhabited quarter of California.

And the town cares about its own. My mother was a summer person there, but she’d worked her way into its fabric over forty years. On the night she died, she got the last phone call she ever took from the woman who runs the fountain counter at Lassen Gifts, who’d know mom since the beginning. Joan had heard Mum was seriously ill down in the big city, and she had to check in. They chatted briefly, Mum told a joke, and said good bye.

I never knew Captain Casey. I don’t know a thing about him. I’m sure I’ll hear more — probably a lot more, when I go up to Chester this June, for my annual trip. But this time, for the first time in the four years of war, I know I lost a kind of neighbor.

It should not take this kind of connection to feel loss. It doesn’t always. One of the reasons I have hated this war from the beginning has nothing of reason in it. I lost my father to an accident when I was ten. Ever since, when I hear of a father or mother leaving their kids behind, or a son or daughter lost to parents, I wince with remembered, reflected pain.

And so, for the last four years, I’ve felt that twinge every time the newspaper prints a picture or two and adds a paragraph or so. Andrew Olmsted, with grace, asked that no one politicize his death, and I won’t. I don’t claim that that part of my reaction to the war is anything like enough to form a reasoned argument for or against. It’s just there.

But it is true that when there is any line of connection, that wince becomes something deeper, something internal to the way the world seems that day.

Andrew Olmsted has those who knew him to mourn him with all the honor his life and work have earned him. Of Captain Casey all I can say is that I know that he left a truly special place to do his duty far from his family and the beauty of his home. I’ll remember that about a person I never met for that.

Update: For details on Thomas Casey’s connection to Chester, see this article from the home-town newspaper, the Plumas County News. (Not quite the true local paper: that honor goes to my favorite weekly, the Chester Progressive.) Turns out that the Casey family tie goes through his wife, Leslie Ann Casey, born and raised there. The end result is the same: war comes home not in the big headlines, but in the subtle, sideways facts that create a bond of feeling that goes deeper than any abstract understanding of loss.

Update 2: typos corrected to replace the fictional Andrew Olson with the actual Andrew Olsted, also to replace a few missing verbs. (Verbs? We don’t need no stinking verbs!). The moral of this correction: don’t blog while virally enhanced.

Image: Samuel Marsden Brooks, “Wisconsin Heights Battlefield.” Source: Wikipedia Commons. The battle of Wisconsin Heights in 1832 was the second to last engagement in the Black Hawk War. It is mostly forgotten now, as most engagements become after the children or the grandchildren of those who fought them are no longer there to remember. But still: people fought and died there.