Saturday November 18, 2017
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How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again


Title: Chilled – How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again; Author: Tom Jackson; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 272; Price: Rs. 499
By Vikas Dutta

Can a basic scientific invention bring down the modern civilization? It is not a military attack, or more indirect means like blocking the internet and telephone lines (though that will leave many people wondering what to hold or what to do with their thumbs) or disrupting the financial system. It can be as simple as shutting down the refrigerators.

How the fridge, many will ask. What is unique in the device standing quietly in a corner of most homes, and does not seem much before more flashier appliances, including those in the kitchen itself, like microwaves, ovens, or kettles. But there is one crucial difference. All of them heat things but it cools (and preserves) them. So to use a contemporary idiom, it succeeds by being cool.

As author Tom Jackson says, the fridge is something of a “Boo Radley” character, a significant character from the late Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as “it’s normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom though about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything all right”.

But how, you will ask again. As this book shows, this is because a fridge is only a visible embodiment of a crucial technology – which not only enables it, or freezers down at the supermarkets, or air conditioners, but makes it capable of being “a gas factory, a rocket engine, a server farm and even a fusion bomb” and be “used to dig holes, make dams, track subatomic particles, image the brain and feed half the world (without chilling food, either)”.

But this technology didn’t happen automatically or overnight – as we learn, it involves a long tale of the human endeavor to make sense of what heat and cold are, discover they are opposing phenomenon (it may now seem obvious but wasn’t far from easy) and enable techniques to employ them at will. Heat and light may have been under human control for now but the battle over cold is just a century old – which makes it “clearer why paleolithic man had little trouble torching a wooden stick, but had to wait several dozen millennia before he could put an ice-lolly on it”.

The complicated story is told here with compelling insight but simply and accessibly – and with characteristic British wit (as the above quote indicates) – by Jackson, a Bristol-based science writer who “specializes in recasting science and technology into lively historical narratives”.

This is above all not a history of the fridge – which doesn’t appear till chapter 8 of the book’s 12 chapters – and though the book begins with cooling technologies used in the ancient Middle East, Southeast and East Asia, it deals more with chemistry and thermodynamics, or understanding matter and energy, and entropy, or the constant universal struggle between order and chaos.

And Jackson ably brings out the intelligence and the perseverance that marked man’s attempts to understand his world and master its environment, despite the missteps, and involves a veritable galaxy of profound thinkers, alchemists and scientists – Plato and Aristotle, Paracelsus, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Galileo, Blaise Pascal, Issac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoiser, Gay-Lussac (of the gas laws), Michael Faraday, Fritz Haber and many others.

Even Albert Einstein makes an appearance, inventing a new (but complicated) type of refrigerator, along with Leo Szilard, otherwise known for playing a crucial role in figuring out the chain reaction of nuclear fission that made the atom bomb possible and Jackson dryly remarks that “never has a pair of novice refrigerator salesmen had such an impact”.

But the author doesn’t limit himself to famous scientists, also showcasing more obscure thinkers and inventors, businessmen like American “Ice King” Frederick Tudor, and historical characters like medieval French kings and popes that were involved with refrigeration. Even Swami Vivekananda turns out to have a connection.

Don’t get overawed by all the science promised, it is explained most lucidly, and leaves you impressed with the human intellect’s achievements. It might also make you treat fridges with more respect! (IANS)

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Book Review: Author Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” deserves Plenty of Plaudits

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception

Tim Harford
Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy cover. Facebook
  • Author Tim Harford has written a new book titled ‘Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
  • Tim Harford is also an economist and a columnist

New Delhi, August 22, 2017: The i-Phone may seem the pinnacle of human endeavour, ingenuity and technological prowess — but while Steve Jobs deserves the plaudits, the range of technologies making it possible were a collective effort, facilitated by a surprisingly unexpected benefactor. Such tales are discussed in Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy.”

When we think of the wonders of our modern world, we may cite these flashy hand-held devices that enable us to communicate, entertain ourselves and find information instantly. But they are merely one facet, for our lives now owe to a range of inventions and discoveries stretching from the humble plough to Google, and from the elevator to intellectual property, and achieved in several unusual and unexpected ways.

And while the i-Phone does make a list of 50 such inventions, so do concrete, clocks and infant formula as well as limited liability companies, public key cryptography and the welfare state — and many others, including some which may seem surprising.

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception — the iPhone especially — and how they affected us socially and economically from the beginning of civilisation to workings of the world economy now. Or rather in laying its foundations.

These 50 inventions, he says, range from those “absurdly simple” to ones which became “astonishingly sophisticated”, “stodgily solid” to “abstract inventions that you cannot touch at all”, profitable right from their launch or, while others were initially commercial disasters.

Also Read: Book Review: Hinduism in Ancient India and the Various Aspects of its Traditions by Greg Bailey

“But all of them have a story to tell that teaches us something about how our world works and that helps us notice some of the everyday miracles that surround us, often in the most ordinary-seeming objects. Some of these stories are of vast and impersonal economic forces; others are tales of human brilliance or human tragedy.”

Harford, known for his “Undercover Economist” series, does stress that he doesn’t seek to identify the 50 most economically significant inventions for some seemingly obvious entrants — printing presses, airplanes, computers — are missing. And there are good reasons why.

He also promises that while zooming in closely to examine one of these or pulling back to notice the unexpected connections, will provide answers to questions like the link between Elton John and the promise of a paperless office, how an American discovery banned in Japan for four decades affected women’s careers there, which monetary innovations destroyed Britain’s Houses of Parliament in the 1830s.

Harford also explains how all these inventions have two facets — they may not be always benign — in the longer run, or ensure a “win-win” scenario for all.

While it is easy to see inventions as solutions to problems, he warns against seeing them as only solutions, for they “shape our lives in unexpected ways — and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else”.

These attributes are best shown by the case of an ostensibly well-meaning American inventor who is responsible for poisoning our environment twice-over though his two contributions were initially helpful, and then by both the beneficial and baleful impacts of the plough — or banks for that matter.

Harford also shows that there is more to an invention than its inventing, and even for any one of them, “it’s often hard to pin down a single person who was responsible — and it’s even harder to find a ‘eureka’ moment when the idea all came together”.

Dealing with such aspects in the brief interludes between the inventions, placed in no discernible chronological or thematic order, Harford also seeks to put them together at the end to pose the vital question of how we should think about that often used and often misunderstood buzzword “innovation” today.

“What are the best ways to encourage new ideas? And how can we think clearly about what the effects of those ideas might be, and act with foresight to maximise the good effects and mitigate the bad ones?” he asks.

But as his incisive but illuminating and entertaining sojourn through centuries of human activities and endeavours show, there are no easy or definite answers. (IANS)

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Book Review: “The Exile” captures the strange History of Osama Bin Laden’s ‘Wander Years’

Al Qaeda
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has posted a tweet after the release of a 19-page Al Qaeda report in Arabic, which claimed Iran supported the extremist group before the 9/11 attacks. VOA

May 29, 2017: Title: The Exile; Author: Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy; Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; Pages: 640; Price: Rs 699

Between fleeing his Tora Bora mountain stronghold in 2001 till the US finally settled scores with him in 2011, Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts were a deep mystery. But in his — and his top aides — disappearance, there was far more going on than we know. Remember what else happened in the Indian subcontinent in December 2011 that may have facilitated his escape from Afghanistan?

And then it is not only Pakistan’s complicity or negligence that is the story, nor the US’ short-sighted approach and its egregious errors that long delayed his detection after top Al Qaeda leaders were bombed out of their Afghan safe haven by the vengeful Americans in wake of 9/11.

Look for latest news from India in NewsGram.

In their latest book, the gifted investigative journalist duo of Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy bring out much more that we know or believe about Al Qaeda — its tense relations with the Taliban, how divided it was over 9/11, and who actually called the shots in the operation which, despite its success, turned out to be massive overreach.

And there is a most complete account of how Bin Laden and his extensive family spent their dangerous “wander years”, especially the rather strange things he got up to. (According to some sources, he attended a preparatory meeting on the 26/11 Mumbai attack) and the efforts to apprehend them.

Of equal relevance is a penetrating examination of the close but strange and eventually strained links between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

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Noting that nearly two decades after “few books have told the history of Al Qaeda from the inside”, Scott-Clark and Levy hold that the difficulty of getting into “any volatile, paranoiac outfit, one that executes outsiders as spies and lures reporters to meetings that become kidnappings” is just one reason.

The other reason, say the duo, whose most recent work was on the 26/11 Mumbai attack, especially on the heritage Taj Hotel, is an “extraordinary act of control by Western governments”, particularly the Americans, who only released a “cherry-picked history” and even misleading revelations by sources.

On the other hand, while a surprising number of top Al Qaeda leaders retain their life and (some) liberty, there is a virtual gag order by various Arab, Asian and African governments that took them in.

But Scott-Clark and Levy, who got the idea for this book from a chance meeting in 2012 with a Yemeni youth who had come to Pakistan to free his sister — Bin Laden’s fourth wife, held by authorities after the Abbottabad raid along with other survivors — contend it is a story that needs to be told.

“We need more detail and not less. We require more nuance and understanding if we are to ever tamp down a bloody conflict that threatens the globe….” they say and spent years of research and meet a varied set of people to get the complete story.

And these meetings with Bin Laden’s family, friends, mentors, companions, aides, as well as security chiefs and religious and media advisers, in Pakistan, across the Middle East from the Gulf to Mauritania, the US and Britain, resulted in “a story told about Al Qaeda by Al Qaeda men and women with nothing more to lose but lots to prove” — and well corroborated.

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But apart from Bin Laden’s life as well of his family and close associates, there are also key political, security and geopolitical issues they bring out — express or implied.

And while America’s willful blundering into another war before an existing one was won or even successfully completed is known, we also learn about its tendency to let its predilections, not pragmatism, dictate its statecraft and brute force and near-torture its interrogation methods over skilled but non-violent methods of competent interlocutors.

But while a temporary gainer was then Pakistani leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who saw aid dollars in every help he rendered to the US before his own life was threatened and realization dawned there was a secret power centre accountable only to itself, the winner was another regional power that took deft strategic advantage of Al Qaeda’s dispersal to safeguard itself and to make up with other enemies. And when they were rebuffed, Iran had the tools for revenge. (IANS)

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Rediscovering Hanuman, the evergreen hero (Book Review)

Hanuman was a hero who combined strength with sweetness, humour with gravity, sharp intellect with childlike innocence, sensitivity with power, traditional wisdom with innovative spirit, and fierce determination with gentle humility.

Lord Hanuman, Pixabay

May 02, 2017:

Title: The Chronicles of Hanuman; Author: Shubha Vilas; Publisher: Om Books International; Pages: 278; Price: Rs 350

While the West keeps searching for new heroes every few years, the East is happy with the plethora of already existing ones. And this book is a story of the most dynamic among them – – “the evergreen, original superhero Hanuman”.

 Hanuman’s saga is, of course, all too well known. Hanuman tales have entertained and educated civilisations for centuries. But author Shubha Vilas, a spiritual seeker and a motivational speaker, feels there has been no attempt to present the Hanuman stories in a contemporary way, without deviating from the original traditional narrative.

“The Chronicles of Hanuman” is a sincere attempt to bring together the many tales of Hanuman that have existed in Indian mythology and folklore for thousands of years. But it also carries some stories most people would have probably never heard of.

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Starting from his divine birth to his most heroic acts, the engrossing book is packed with any number of short Hanuman stories from the Vedic times. Each story ends with what one can learn from Hanuman’s exploits in Lord Rama’s war against Ravana.

The book also has a rich section on prominent Hanuman temples spread across the country. As devotees know, Rama may be the hero of Ramayana but there probably are more Hanuman temples than Rama’s. The reason is not difficult to seek.

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Hanuman was a hero who combined strength with sweetness, humour with gravity, sharp intellect with childlike innocence, the sensitivity with power, traditional wisdom with an innovative spirit, and fierce determination with gentle humility. Indeed, as the author underlines, Hanuman is one’s original hero — and will remain so. IANS