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Russian revolution: Hell on Earth

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes.

Russia 120 years ago was, for most of its in habitants, a horrible place to live. But that’s the view from here. From inside, it was just how things were. This is the story of how that inevitability was challenged, and how it fell. The central, though hollow, figure is the Tsar. Every opportunity for compromise was rejected by a man incapable of being an autocrat. He would have made an ideal constitutional monarch, since he was an indolent vacillator, but instead he demanded absolute obedience and then failed to lead.

Great events are, I’ve often thought, like a bomb and a fuse. Even when great historical forces have created the situation where change is looming, still a fuse needs to be lit. With a firmer Tsar on the throne the revolution would still have come, but later. With a Tsar who was wise enough to compromise because he could see that the telegraph and the written word and the advances occurring elsewhere in the world meant that the old way could not survive, it may not have had to happen at all. The bomb could have been defused. Instead a decade of fighting lead to 70 years of Soviet Russia and its tens of millions of victims and eye-watering brutality. I’ve read several times, though I can’t recall where, that even Russians will admit it takes a dictator to run the country, be it the Tsar, Stalin or Putin.

The book talks about a kind of ‘darkness’ in the peasant. A will to anarchy, and an intergenerational brutality handed down by husbands to brutalised wives and children. Here’s some advice:

Hit your wife with the butt of the axe, get down and see if she’s breathing. If she is, she’s shamming and wants some more.

The more you beat the old woman, the tastier the soup will be.

Life was cheap, and the only rewards came in heaven.

This book is a remarkable achievement. Deep, wide, beginning many years before 1917 — which, though venerated, is only one part of the story — and ending with the death of Lenin, it covers society, polity, military aspects of the many struggles that went on.

The title is apt. One gets the impression the revolution was a tragedy for everybody except Stalin (who shows up quite late in proceedings). So many opportunities to relieve the suffering pass because of vested interests, pig-headedness or greed for power. That is the tragedy of all peoples throughout history; some more, some less.

The book makes a few things clear; Russia under Lenin, had he lived another 20 years, would not have been very different from Russia under Stalin. Lenin is only less reviled because he died before committing his large-scale atrocities. If Hitler had died in 1939 he’d be remembered as a flawed genius who put Germany on the road to recovery but had some pretty unfortunate policies, rather than evil personified. Lenin is the other side of the calculation. Indeed, one quote in there says something like: He did not take power to bring the revolution, he brought the revolution because it gave him a chance to take power.

At 900 pages, it’s a big book; but not a word is wasted.

Highly recommended.




The incomplete Pete: Tragically, I was an only Twin by Peter Cook

Why this is subtitled ‘The Complete Peter Cook’ I don’t know. Unless it’s like an epithet, as in ‘you’re a complete twit’; I mean, Peter Cook was clearly a complete Peter Cook, but this book is not the complete Peter Cook, not even close. It admits as much itself. Anyway. If you don’t know, Peter Cook was the funniest man alive until he died, after which he became the funniest man dead, an even greater achievement. By the age of 30 he had had successful reviews in the West End and on Broadway, had starred in movies, started a nightclub and was owner of Private Eye, the satirical newspaper. By the time he was 40 we was kind of over it, and seemed to only bother to exert his still-remarkable talents when there was a point to prove or some pompous public figure to deflate. That his powers remained undimmed until his untimely, alcohol-fuelled death in 1995 is apparent. Perhaps the flood slowed to a meander, but even a cursory look (for example here, at Alan Latchley) shows that the brilliance was still there. John Cleese has come in second on lists of (Brit) ‘comedians’ comedian’ type polls, always to Cook, and he said that whereas it took he and his contemporaries six hours to produce a three minute sketch, it took Cook precisely three minutes, or so it seemed. More than one person has said he seemed to turn on a tap, tune in to some amazing stream of logical absurdity, and just let it flow.

<i>Tragically I was an Only Twin</i> by Peter Cook.

Tragically I was an Only Twin by Peter Cook.

This book samples most of the more significant corners of Cook’s career. From before Beyond the Fringe (he was writing West End shows for Kenneth Williams while still an undergraduate, sharing the writing duties with Harold Pinter and others), through the Fringe, through Not Only…  But Also… and Private Eye, on to the depths of Derek and Clive and the last flashes of genius. The book is… amusing. Very funny in a few places. Would it have been as funny were I not familiar with his work? I don’t know. I’ve heard or seen quite a few of these pieces, especially the Pete and Dud and Beyond the Fringe stuff, so I hear the words in my mind’s version of his voice. Most of what he wrote was not written to be read. Indeed, there are often no ‘standard’ written versions at all. Some of the sketches reproduced here were taken from scripts but many were transcribed, because he would improvise and invent. He got bored with fixed material and would change it every night during a run on stage, though there were ‘bits’ that tended to stay.

The book is uneven, of course, because it is a book of bits, (though not bits of a book). Often the funniest stuff is the stuff that works least well on paper. Pete and Dud in the Art Gallery needs to be seen — or at least heard. Even though there are relatively few visual gags and the sketch is essentially a conversation, the gleam in Peter’s eye as he tries to make Dudley corpse, the little smile when he says, “you didn’t spit sandwich at him, did you?” or whatever it is; only when you can see those things does the relationship really come alive and then the lines come to life. The brilliance can be seen on the page, but not fully appreciated without the video. You tube, it’s all there these days.

The Private Eye stuff I did not much like. That and Derek and Clive are probably the low points. I know Cook and Moore busted boundaries and pushed back the borders of the possible with Derek and Clive. I know some people think it’s great. I don’t. The rudeness does not bother me, but the nastiness and the lack of actual humour does. This book does a decent job of selecting the few bits of Derek and Clive that are actually (mildly) witty. It always seems to me that if an artist is going to throw off strictures, if they are not going to be bound, then they need to be better than usual. Just busting limits is not funny of itself. Shocked people might titter nervously, but a good comic is, I think, not aiming for that laugh. Broaching topics and images that have been taboo is all well and good, but that needs to be a path to something. It needs to say something that is worth saying that could not be said otherwise, or at least make a joke that could not be made otherwise. It needs to be more than ‘aren’t we shocking! Tee hee hee!’ Derek and Clive fails as comedy for the simple reason that it is not funny; there were some jokes and as I said this does a decent job of picking them out. That work was the end of Cook’s partnership with Moore. He was relentlessly nasty to Moore during the taping of the last album, and drove him away. Moore was breaking into Hollywood at that time and was soon to star in 10 and Arthur, and he never worked with Cook again, apart from bringing out some old material for Galas and the like.

The work does noticeably thin out after 1980. Cook was only in his early 40s at that stage, but decided to slow down lest he fulfil his potential. You might know him as the ‘Impressive Clergyman’ in The Princess Bride, who talks endlessly about ‘twoo wuv’, as Nigel in Supergirl (unlikely — no one likes that movie. I’ve not seen it) or … no, he’s pretty much invisible these days if you don’t go looking for him.

This book is not the place to start. But for the Cook fan it’s a nice little compendium.


Inessential, but funny.

Richard W. Richards: An amazing forgotten story.

This scrappy webpage has been posted in various places over the years (like here, though the link will go dead soon I suspect); I like to keep it with me! Here it is dumped onto this blog. Sorry if the formatting is a bit ropey.

The Beginning

R. W. ‘Dick’ Richards was 21 years old in 1914, and had freshly completed a Physics degree at the School of Mines in Ballarat, Australia, and taken a position as Lecturer, when he answered a call for a Physicist to join the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton intended tomake the first crossing of the Antarctic continent, starting at the Weddell Sea and crossing to the Ross Sea. To do this, he divided the expedition into two parties. The main party, the Weddell Sea party, sailed in the Endurance, a ship constructed specifically for the voyage, to the Weddell Sea. From there six men, including Shackleton, were to sledge across Antractica to the Ross Sea using motorised sledges, a distance of 1700 miles.

The task of the Ross Sea Shore party was to sledge inland along the Beardmore Glacier and lay fuel and food depots for Shackleton’s sledging party. The Ross Sea party included Richards and another Australian Physicist, A. K. Jack, who were to make meterological measurements and any other observations they could. For example, a home-made cloud chamber was constructed to measure the air’s dust content. They sailed in the Aurora, a ship previously used by Mawson, and refit in Sydney for the new expedition. The ship was under the command of A. L. A. Mackintosh,while E. E. M. Joyce, a well known polar explorer in his own right, was to lead the shore party, which would set up a base from which to sledge out to the depot sites. The Aurora left Sydney on 15 December 1914. From the 21st to the 24th they stopped in Hobart, and after visiting the Australian meteorological station on Macquarie Island, they sailed for the Ross Sea on the last day of 1914. By January 16 they had anchored off Cape Evans, and later went further south,close to Hut Point. The sledging soon got underway, with Joyce and, unexpectedly, Mackintosh leading the team to place the first depot at 80 deg. south.

An example of the Richards Medal.

An example of the Richards Medal.



On May the 6th (or the 10th), disaster struck. A blizzard caught the Aurora and drove it beyond sight of land. And then the ice caught the ship, making it unable to return to the Shore Party. Worst of all, the ship had been expedition headquarters, and only minimal supplies had been landed – ten men were stranded on the ice with little food and the Antarctic winter close at hand. Fortunately, Hut Point was named for the hut erected there by Scott on an expedition in 1911, and so they at least had shelter, and they found a useful quantity of food and other goods left by Scott. These things included an acetylene stove, while they had themselves brought a gramophone and a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. With these things, they survied their first winter.

On the other side of the continent, the Endurance had been trapped in ice for ten months – and on October 27th, 1915, crushed. Shackleton had made his way to Elephant Island in the South Hebrides, and then to South Georgia – in nothing more than a modified whaleboat. He then set about relieving the remainder of the Weddell sea party; but the Ross Sea party would have to wait.

As the winter passed, the Ross Sea party began the main effort of putting out the depots, not knowing that they would never be used, and refraining from using the potentially life-saving food and fuel themselves. As their packaged food ran out, their diet more and more consisted of seal meat and penguin meat. Three men died of scurvy, including Mackintosh. Still they put out the depots. At times they sledged for 100 days without ceasing, often hauling the sledges by hand, since the dogs had been overworked early on and many had died. All the men suffered from scurvy in one way or another, and their lives came to depend on the killing of seals, as the creatures provided food and, just as importantly, blubber which could be burned for heating and melting ice for water.



Through the winter of 1916 they carried on, making expeditions to Shackleton’s old hut on Cape Royd and searching the snow around the huts for forgotten, frozen foodstuffs. All the while, they wondered about rescue. It had not come in the summer of 1915-16, and they could only assume that the Aurora had sunk or been crushed in the Antarctic ice. January 1917 came. It had been almost two years since they had departed Australian waters and heard any news of the world at large. On 10th January, Richards, who was recovering from an illness brought on by endless weeks of sledging followed by physically carrying an injured companion to safety, left the Hut Point hut after breakfast to find, to his astonishment, the Aurora holding fast off the ice-edge. The ship had made its way slowly to safety, and after a refit had come south again to find the shore party.Shackleton was on the ship, having insisted on sailing south. He described them as ‘…just about the wildest looking gang of men I had ever seen…’

And while the crew of the Aurora were overwhelmed by the appearance, manner and smell of Richards and the others, the survivors where even more dazed by news of the war in Europe. Before they left, they raised memorials to their own dead. Then they sailed away from Antarctica.

Richards and three others were awarded the Albert Medal in 1923 for their devotion to duty. He was also presented with the George Cross, the highest award a subject of the British Empire could earn without being at war. There is also now an inlet, relatively close to the Beardmore Glacier, known as Richards Inlet.

Richards returned to Ballarat, where he resumed his position as Lecturer in science at the School of Mines and Industries. From 1946-58 he was Principal of the school. He died in 1985. Before his death, he recorded an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Verbatim programme, which can be ordered by mail. In his honour, the award for the best science graduate (all disciplines) from the Ballarat School of Mines and Industries and then the University of Ballarat (now both rolled into Federation Uni) is known as the Richard W. Richards medal. It is a pewter medal about 7 cm in diameter. Accompanying it is a slim volume called The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, which is Richards’ own record of the expedition of 1914-17. It is a fascinating document.


References and Links

R. W. Richards, The Ross Sea Shore Party, 1914-17, The Scott Polar Institute, Cambridge 1962.

L. B. Quartermain, South to the Pole: The Early History of the Ross Sea Sector, Antarctica, Oxford University Press, London 1967.

R. Huntford, Shackleton, Hodder and Stoughton, London 1985.

There are also some good Antarctic websites. Here are a couple just on principle: (Especially this page.)

…and here…

Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC.

Scott Polar Research Institute.

Photos of some of the huts and things can be found here.

And the University of Ballarat (now Federation University, FU) has a page on the subject here.

Some comments that accompanied the medal, plus the front cover of his monograph are shown here:

<i>The Ross Sea Shore Party</i> by Dick Richards.

The Ross Sea Shore Party by Dick Richards.


History, eh?

Survival in the Hold: The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.

The Raider Wolf by Roy Alexander

Angus & Robertson 1968, 177 pages, plus a map.

How many stories of bravery, survival and resourcefulness will never get told? How many have already been forgotten? This is one that is recorded, but it must stand for so many more.

Cover of <i>The Raider "Wolf"</i> by Roy Alexander.

Cover of The Raider “Wolf” by Roy Alexander.


The commerce raider Wolf left Germany on 30th November 1916. She returned 24th Feb, 1918, having sailed a distance equal to three times around the world and and sunk over 100 thousand tonnes of enemy shipping. It was a remarkable feat of seamanship, endurance, cunning and improvisation. This book tells that story, but, more remarkably, it does so from the point of view of one of the sailors interned aboard the Wolf. For the Wolf relied above all things on secrecy. So — what to do about the sailors from the defeated ships? If allowed free, Wolf’s existence and identification would be revealed. Kill them? Not Captain Nerger, a man of stern but human principles. So take them prisoner, keep them in the hold once allocated to mines … and take them, after a year at sea, to prison in Germany.

And for what, in the end? Always with war stories that is the question I cannot avoid. All the great and terrible qualities shown by both sides, and all for killing and destruction. It is a pity the myth of Glory is not yet disposed of.

Scurvy, death, madness. All these befell the prisoners. Yet though they were held under discipline, they were treated as men, not animals. But there is never an infinite supply of food…

The scenes below deck made me think of a Samuel Beckett novel, How It Is, with its endless crawling across an empty space, presumably simply because the alternative is stasis. At times I imagined a Lord of the Flies situation, or a kind of dissection of human behaviour under pressure like in If This is a Man. We have prisoners, bent on doing any little thing they can for the war effort, sneaking messages in bottles overboard, we have the captured ‘neutrals’ being given the chance to work for the German captain and being reviled by the prisoners — the opportunities for incident, for personal politics, and for bravery would make this a great setting for a novel. It has the dramatic unity of a curtailed space, limited resources, hierarchy, diverse sailors from multiple backgrounds being lumped together, people under pressure who simply cannot get out of each others’ way.

The map of the <i>Wolf</i>'s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

The map of the Wolf‘s voyage. The only German ship to sail into Australian waters in World War I.

Anyone who likes war fiction or fact, or who likes the kind of stories that cut to the heart of what humans can do when pushed — both for good and ill — could get something out of this book. Great literature it is not (the prose is workmanlike and serviceable) but the story is remarkable, some of the characters are astonishing, and the setting is evoked effectively and with authority. If you see it, consider picking it up.


Under the sea.

16 inches is not enough: A review of Dreadnought by Richard Hough.

Dreadnought by Richard Hough, Michael-Joseph 1965 (268 pages).

They day of the battleship was over by 1940 at the latest, though they did valuable work right through WWII. The Dreadnought was launched in 1906. In those few years — historically, very few indeed — vast quantities of steel and oil and coal and human misery were expended on The Battleship, a symbol of sovereignty and national pride, and for some time seemingly a measure of nations and empires. They became a sort of international pissing competition. Whose gun was biggest? Who had the most, the fastest, the longest, the strongest?

The front cover of <i>Dreadnought</i> by Richard Hough.

The front cover of Dreadnought by Richard Hough.

In truth they achieved little, especially in WWI. Economically they were money-pits and helped sink the British Empire as much as save it. They strike me as a symbol of everything that is stupid about war — the wasted resources, ingenuity, and lives, the misplaced effort. How many people could be lifted out of poverty for the price of a battleship?

The back.

The back.

And yet for all that they remain magnificent creations; fast, powerful (thrusting?), impressive.

The attractions of the technology of war is an interesting topic to me. As a kid I glued together Spitfires and read about the Nazis sweeping across Europe, about the Manhattan project and the bouncing bomb. Books like The Dam Busters and Night Fighter might keep track of the men lost and comrades who suffered death and disfigurement, but despite themselves they give off a glimmer of glamour. The lone genius in his laboratory developing the weapon that will save us from Hitler, the brave pilot battling a dozen Fokkers (or a dozen Camels — stories come from all sides) over the Western Front. The fascination is undeniable. Yet all that bravery and technical brilliance is for what? So old men could refuse to apologise to each other, or take what was not theirs? (Or what their grandfathers had possessed for a few years decades earlier, and which they therefore saw as ‘theirs’?) (Yes, I am using male pronouns; that was the world of which I am speaking.)

My reading has largely moved from the machines to the history. Dreadnought covers the technology,the politics and the tactics of the 20th century battleship. It is authoritative, slightly astringent (pleasingly so), well-illustrated (though I believe there may be a paperback version, which of course would be less so) and essentially, given that apart from brief flurries (Vietnam, Lebanese Civil War, Gulf War) the battleship story was over when it came out, definitive. Hough’s writing is very easy yo read — this is the third book of his I have read after The Fleet that Had to Die and The Hunting of Force Z — and I can recommend it as a quick read for anyone who’s curious about the big boats with big guns, or who has heard of the Yamato or the Bismarck or the Missouri and would like to see them in context, rather than as modern myths.

What is it good for?

The Road to Hell, etc.: The Hohenzollerns by A.D.Innes

T.C. & E.C. Jack, London, 1915 (94 pages)

This excellent little history was written as world war I was breaking out, when the German unification under Bismarck and the Kaiser had reached its apotheosis but not yet its nadir. It begins, though written in 1914, with the assertion that Kaiser William II is unlikely to get what he wants from the current war, and that “an appreciable curtailment of the powers of the house of Hohenzollern will be the inevitable and fortunate alternative.” Much of what the author says is equally perceptive.
The book begins with an introduction, then moves on to explore the founding of Prussia, its rise to prominence, the epochal figure of Frederick the Great and then the consolidation of the fragments of the German region – bits of the Holy Roman Empire, various duchies and independent cities — into the German empire. And then we seen how the same concerns that drove Hitler — the will to power, the sense of destiny, the fear of encirclement with France and the British Empire on one side and Russia on the other, even the belief in world-wide conspiracies designed to prevent the German nation achieving its destiny — lead to military build-up and, with utter inevitability, world war.


The Hohenzollerns by A.D.Innes.

“…the Kaiser has always found it necessary — and not at all difficult — to persuade his people that he is the least aggressive of men, and that any appearance of aggression must be attributed entirely to the hypocritical craft of treacherous foes. The Kaiser’s greatest and tragical triumph lies in this, that to-day the bulk of the German nation is probably honestly convinced that William in 1914, like Frederick in 1856, drew the sword only to save the German nation from destruction at the hands unscrupulous and wanton enemies of whom the most unscrupulous and the most wanton is Great Britain.”

The same words could have been written about a different dictator in 1939 and it is nice, though perhaps taken for granted, that this is marginally less likely these days in Europe, at least in the major nations (excluding Russia) (add other caveats here). Even now, with the UK voting (misguidedly? regretfully?) to leave the EU, there is still a preference for talk and collaboration. Today one has to look elsewhere,. notably Russia and China, to see these attitudes; though sadly they are there. The sense of entitlement (like in the South China Sea right now), the us-against-them rhetoric, the “everybody else is to blame” pronouncements. Europe, it seems, has learned; but not humankind as a whole. It is sad that one part of the globe cannot learn from the tragedies of another part, that victors (for so the Russians were in WWII, and so the Chinese Communist Party was in 1948) cannot learn the lessons forced upon the vanquished.

Yet so it would seem. Reading history shows us that until nuclear weapons gave us the power to actually wipe out entire nations, and to (more importantly) be wiped out ourselves, war, all-out war between major powers, was indeed an acceptable, even popular, means of conducting foreign policy. Given the proxy wars, the civil wars, the religious wars, that go on and on and on, one is forced to conclude that even if we dislike war as individuals, we approve of it as a species, and we have learned next to nothing. Perhaps to-day we have a better sense of how we should behave.

The road to Hell, etc.

History does not tell us that we learn nothing from history; but the learning is rather incremental.


Incremental as anything.

More than a curiosity: X-rays by Worsnop and Chalklin.

Methuen, 1946. 126 pages.

Methuen’s Monographs on Physical Subjects was a long-running series of slim volumes dealing with a wide range of subjects, from AC power transmission to cosmology. This particular example is the 1946 revision of Worsnop’s 1930 volume. It covers quite fundamental topics, including the properties and generation of X-rays (pre-synchrotron, of course), scattering (Thomson and Compton), refraction, diffraction, spectroscopy (including Auger) and the importance of X-ray studies in supporting the development of quantum theory.

Cover of X-rays by Worsnop and Chalklin.

Cover of X-rays by Worsnop and Chalklin.

It may seem on the surface that a book from seventy years ago would be of nothing but historical interest. This is in fact not true. The volume gives a very clear account of how an X-ray tube works — and these are still the most common sources of X-rays — and explains how the X-ray spectrum is obtained, with its continuous background and characteristic radiation. It also traces out how X-rays were first characterised, their wavelengths determined, their properties explored in early important experiments. And these both give a sense of the history of the field, but also present some important physics in a very accessible way. Yes, it does in places use the ‘X-unit’ which was not destined to remain part of the field, and refers to ‘centrifugal force’ in a way which I think suggests that the author has not thought clearly about some fundamental aspects of mechanics (or that word usages have changed a little).


These little books show up here and there in jumble sales and book shops, and I’ve accumulated a small subset of them. They are very readable, though pitched at a fairly high level — this is not popular science! — and I continue to pick them up when I see them.

For workers in the field.

For others.

The Man Who Knew Too Much by Stephen Inwood.

Pan 2003, 497 pages.


This is a fascinating book. Sheer detail brings Hooke’s remarkable career into sharp focus.

Inwood is not a prose stylist, I would venture to say. Perhaps it is due to the nature of Hooke’s career — he pursued many themes for a long time — but the text comes to be rather repetitive. List-like. But my interest never flagged because of the subject, because of the pains taken over the research, and because of the enormous significance of Hooke’s work.

The cover of <em>The Man Who Knew Too Much</em>by Stephen Inwood.

The cover of The Man Who Knew Too Much by Stephen Inwood.


Hooke was one of the key figures of the 17th century, at least in England. He left no field of natural philosophy untouched, yes — but was also second only to Wren in shaping the rebuilt London that rose after the great fire. His contributions were perhaps rarely fundamental. He was part of the debate that laid the groundwork for Newton’s Laws, and stated some of Newton’s results before Newton, but from intuition; and without Newton’s impeccable mathematical foundations, his comments were more in the form of opinions in a debate, rather than laws carved in stone.

Why is he so often merely a footnote to the Newton story?

There are several reasons.

One is that Hooke was a professional research scientist — possibly the first in the land. Newton inherited and was gifted enough money to allow him to develop his ideas in a lofty isolation, giving his perfunctory lectures at Cambridge but essentially able to think and dig deep. Hooke was employed by The Royal Society to provide them with demonstrations every week, some titbit to fascinate the dilettantes. One week he was inflating an animal’s lungs or evacuating vessels, the next demonstrating a new pendulum or sextant. He did not have the luxury of time and resources for deep, fundamental study. But I suspect Hooke would have thrived in today’s scientific environment, where entrepreneurship is all the fashion, though would have found many of us far too narrow for his liking.

Related to that was his need to maintain reputation. Hooke was not poor — but he relied on his own efforts for his money. Forty pounds a year for this, fifty for that, a fee for designing a mansion, and so on. This meant that again the need to live got in the way of really grappling with the essence of a field. Further, it explains his irritating and ultimately counter-productive mania about priory of various discoveries. Only by ensuring that everybody knew that he was the mind behind various ideas could he be sure that the employment would continue. This lead him to claim he had achieved things he had not — or to prematurely claim achievements that never came to fruition, or to play odd games like using a code to present results he wanted to claim as his own but was not yet ready to reveal. The end result was a great deal of scepticism toward his every word from certain figures, in particular partisans of other great figures of the time like Newton and Huygens.

But I suspect it was in his nature of flit from topic to topic. His was a restless energy. He did fundamental work in chemistry — where he was Boyle’s right hand man — and made some statements that presage the ideal gas law; and in physics, where he invented early vacuum pumps, made important strides in time-keeping (work which lead to his most persistent memorial — Hooke’s Law of the force due to the extension of a spring), in astronomy and in optics. In biology he did early work on the nature of respiration and published Micrographia, one of the most important texts of its time and a key work in the history of microscopy and biology. He coined the term ‘cell’ in biology, by analogy with a monk’s cell, when he was looking at the structures of cork under one of his own microscopes. In my own field of crystallography he proposed the idea that crystals were made of stacked identical building blocks, and that this explained the regular facets. Typically, this is rarely mentioned in crystallography texts.

Another reason for Hooke’s lower fame is, I suspect, that no portraits of him remain. No little marginal bio with a photo appears in a history or text book. It adds up.

Yet he was in some ways the most modern of all the figures of his time; he was a scientist by career rather than as a gentlemanly pursuit, and a firm believer in the primacy of reason and evidence. Newton explored alchemy and magic, and has aptly been described as an early scientist and a late sorcerer. Hooke saw petrified shells high up in the mountains and, rather than convince himself they were ‘figured stones’ (what? decoys buried by God?), insisted that they had once been in the sea and the sea bed must have risen, and if that meant that the world was older than the bible indicated then… so be it. He found the conclusions difficult to stomach, but he did not bury his head in the sand, unlike so many around him. And he came to these ideas a century before Hutton came on the scene and two before Lyell. But, typically, he did not bury himself in the work, but threw off ideas, argued in their favour, and moved on.  Part of the greatness of Darwin is that he buttressed his theory and made it impossible to ignore. Similarly, Newton underpinned his ideas about gravitation — most of which had been quoted previously by someone else, Hooke included — by a unifying mathematical treatment that made them more than a matter for debate. It is remarkable how often figures we venerate for their originality in fact were not as original as we think, but more rigorous.  We should not underestimate the importance of this!  We all tend to cling onto old ideas as long as we can.  They are comfortable, familiar, accepted. To displace them takes fortitude and thoroughness. Especially in earlier times, when religion retained its grip.

He also invented the universal joint.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of science, or in Newton or the 17th century. It offers lessons on the parlousness of reputation and legacy, and is testament to Inwood’s inkling that there was a story here to be told. Even the workmanlike nature of the prose, which I began by criticising, seems like the only language suitable for the topic; forthright, truthful and putting content above form.

Highly recommended.


History of Science.

Quick and to the point: A review of Hunting the Bismarck by C.S.Forester.

Mayflower, 1974 (118 pages)

The Bismarck was one of a pair of battleships completed for the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, early in World War II, the other being the Tirpitz. Often lauded as a fearsome ship, the Bismarck in fact showed signs of being derived from a World War I design; in particular its disposition of armour was more suited to dealing with shells than ordnance delivered by aircraft, and its anti-aircraft armament, while substantial, was not as comprehensive as later experience in the war would suggest was necessary. It was one of a relative handful of capital ships operated by the Kriegsmarine, which served to focus attention on it all the more. Hence it gained almost mythological significance, which Forester buys into almost completely. In this book the ship is the largest, the most modern, the most dangerous and so on. The outcome of the war hinges on her fate. I’m not sure that’s true, but I am sure that in the grim days of 1941, when the Third Reich had been stopped at the English Channel but remained everywhere else victorious, a victory of this magnitude was no doubt a fillip for the Brits. Even after the loss of the Hood in an early engagement with the Bismarck, in the end the RN could absorb the loss of a capital ship far more easily than the Kriegsmarine. One need only look at how the Tirpitz was used to see the effect; it spent most of the war hiding in various Norwegian fjords, too psychologically valuable and too practically vulnerable to risk. It played a strategic role in tying up enemy resources, but it never fought a real battle.

Cover of <i>Hunting the Bismarck</i> by C.S.Forester.

Cover of Hunting the Bismarck by C.S.Forester.

The plan was for the Bismarck to break out into the Atlantic — the very phrase indicates one of the problems faced by German sea power, getting past the British Isles — and operate beyond land-based air power, running amok amongst allied convoys. In the end, she copped one shell in the engagement with Hood and Prince of Wales, decided to head for France for repairs to a damaged oil bunker, was crippled by Swordfish torpedo planes which enabled British battleships to catch up with her, and sunk by sheer volume of fire.

Forester brings this to life by getting close to the men involved. He presumably invents much of the dialogue — this is not solely a history but a careful re-enactment, so we get conversations between Admiral Lutjens and Captain Lindemann on the bridge of Bismarck, we get tense words in the British HQ. Presumably when he quotes a signal or similar it is correct, but it is not clear what is exactly as happened and what has been imagined for dramatic effect; which is not the say the imaginings lack authenticity or overstate things. They are there to bring us closer to the real lives. When we read that two thousand men went down with the Hood or the Bismarck, we must recall that those are lives, not numbers. Indeed, the book ends with a reference to wives and children and mothers of those who died — and on both sides.

It is a very ‘easy’ read. The prose is workmanlike, the terminology sound, the events very easy to follow. Maps illustrate every step of the action. The handling of the chase and the deductions made by the pursuing British is well drawn — we can see how they eliminate possibilities, make reasonable guesses, cover every option when resources allow, and in the end succeed, with the aid of a little luck and much determination and organisation.

The events here are seventy-five years old. They are, I am sure, receding into the past and few younger people know them in any detail. This book, brief, to the point, riveting, does a great job of illustrating an important event.

The book is as good as a similar one by another author; its view is different, less taken with the hardware of war, perhaps, and a little less purple in its prose.

A Pleasant Overview: A Review of Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire by Isaac Asimov.

Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire by Isaac Asimov, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1970. 293 pages.

This book charts the life of the Eastern Roman Empire, now known to us as the Byzantine, from the time of Diocletian and Constantine through to the final fall of Constantinople in 1453 and, in a brief epilogue, beyond.


Constantinople: The Forgotten Empire by Isaac Asimov. Dust jacket.

Each chapter begins with a line drawing, each section with a smaller drawing, about the size of a stamp, and maps of the Mediterranean and surrounds show the fluctuating fortunes of the empire, or at least of its geographical extent.

This is a most excellent introductory history. Asimov writes with sympathy and clarity, and a thoughtful awareness of how history is written by the victors and rarely without an axe to grind. Thus we get sections like:

If Iconoclasm had won out in the end, there is no question but that Leo III — saviour of Christianity, smasher of the Arabs, reorganiser of the empire, mild-hearted reformer of the law — would have gone down in history as one if its greatest and most enlightened rulers. But because Iconoclasm did not, in the end, succeed, he remained at the mercy of chroniclers who were, for the most part, monks and who considered him a devilish heretic. As a result, his great name is unfairly obscured in history.

This is why this is such a great introductory history — it would help put the reader on guard against other, less empathic writers, who are less inclined to distrust the histories of the time.

Similarly, Asimov is well known as a story-teller, and I think this helps him put himself into the position of key figures. For example, the great Heraclius, who saved the empire from the Persians, is often castigated for his lack of resolve in facing the rise of Islam; and yet Asimov points out he was 60 and had been at war all his life and he and the army were simply exhausted. Asimov is able to see these figures as humans in their time, and this brings us closer to them as people, even if they only get a few paragraphs to themselves.  We can have more sympathy for their failings, even as we shake our heads at their foolishness.

The author relates the goings on of the church, the tension with Rome and within the empire, the enduring problems of Monophysitism, the Filioque, Monothelitism, Arianism, Iconoclasm and God knows what. In the end the refrain repeated by so many of the easterners when their emperor sought help from the west against the Turks — “Better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre” (there are many similar versions), becomes one of the saner statements in the whole story. Asimov conveys it all in a straightforward way, pointing out the cost to the empire of these controversies but seeing them from both sides. The ‘odious’ (if I recall my Norwich) Michael Psellus is possibly dealt with too generously, but that is more evidence of the humanism of the author; figures are judged (when the author does judge, as in the last sentence of the quote above) on the quality of their service to the greater cause, not on their religious beliefs, which Asimov the atheist is wise enough to see were in most cases perfectly reasonable for the time, and (I suspect) as all equally (in)valid.

Through it all, the single greatest weakness of the Byzantine — and the Roman — state becomes clear; the succession. So much energy is wasted in civil war, so many apparently ruthless figures ascend to the throne only to prove inadequate to the task.

Nice work, Isaac.