Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler….Brad Matsen

Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler

I remember all too well the night I pulled an all-nighter reading Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, a chilling, moment-by-moment description of the doomed voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. This was way before Leonardo was ‘king of the world’, and was actually before Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985 (I’m dating myself here). I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter; I just could not stop reading. I was horrified and yet fascinated by the story, my heart pounding as the inevitable tragedy unfolded and so many lost their lives in the freezing waters, and angered by the stupidity and greed of the designers who did not put enough lifeboats on board for everyone to escape, feeling there was no need for safety measures on an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Ask anyone nine years old or older why the Titanic sank, and most everyone’s quickie answer would be “an iceberg”. Thanks to research, deep sea submersibles, and good old science, we’re finding out now that the iceberg was only part of the reason Titanic met its demise. In 1991, research divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton made history when they discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. After a friend reported some interesting and unfamiliar debris surrounding the wreck of Titanic on the ocean floor, Kohler and Chatterton teamed up again to visit the site of the sinking in the famed Russian Mir submersibles. What they found there during three dives in the Mir crafts wasn’t the “Heart of the Ocean”, but pieces of the hull and keel of the ship, never before seen or photographed. Warping and damage visualized along these keel and hull pieces were the first crucial pieces of evidence for a new (and even more horrifying) hypothesis for the ship’s sinking. Further research on land with Harland and Wolff’s (the shipyards that built Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic) archives, as well as a visit to the wreck of Britannic, supported even more strongly the idea that not only was Titanic not “unsinkable” after all, but may in fact have been doomed from the start, with her construction flaws well-known to H&W’s builders and executives before she sailed.

Underwater picture of damage to Titanic's hull. The Chatterton/Richie expedition discovered two very large pieces of the doomed ship's hull.

Like anyone, I love a good conspiracy theory. I began this book with a pretty closed mind, thinking there was nothing new that could be gleaned from the wreck, since so many people (including even director James Cameron) have been down there in the deep sea subs taking a look at things. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new findings, and it really turned what I thought I knew about the Titanic on end. Along with Chatterton and Richie, many engineers, scientists, and historians were involved in the data analysis, and the scenario that best fit their findings were in good agreement with many of the eyewitness accounts given by survivors and crew at the Senate hearings following the disaster. Although slightly skeptical that a cover-up of that magnitude could ever have been successful, I’m not surprised by much anymore in the internet age. The book provides great photos of the people involved and of both wrecks.

We’ll never know what really took place on that awful April night, but this book gave me hope that scientists are inching ever closer to finding the real truth about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. This book just goes to show that you can never close the book on a case like this, because as science and technology advance, more and more of the secrets of Titanic’s fatal night will be revealed. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover in the next few years.

Grade: A-

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Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space….Chris Jones

Expedition Six's astronauts aboard the International Space Station: Nikolai Budarin, Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox.

As a child, I was fascinated by astronaut Sally Ride’s book To Space and Back, a book she wrote for kids about what it was like to be an astronaut and live in space. Her accounts of the day-to-day challenges of making something as simple as a sandwich in zero gravity and the amazing pictures that showed astronaut toilets and spheres of floating orange juice captivated me. It is this book I thought of when I began to read Chris Jones’ interesting (and at times, nerve-wracking!) book Too Far From Home, which details what life was like for three astronauts during a nearly five-month stretch aboard the International Space Station.

Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin’s stint on the ISS was to be just a routine few weeks living in space and monitoring the ongoing scientific experiments on the ISS. That all changed on January 16, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during landing, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Left with their grief and horror in the insulation of space, the astronauts would quickly come to realize that the Columbia disaster also affected them in a more practical way. The  Space Shuttle was responsible for bringing up the replacement crew to the ISS team after the current team’s stay was complete, and also provided the current crew’s way home. NASA’s grounding of the shuttle fleet following the tragedy put the ISS astronauts’ return to Earth on permanent hold while their cohorts on the ground tried to figure out how best to get them back safely. They would later hitch a heart-stopping ride back to Earth aboard a small, Russian capsule called Soyuz, surviving 8g’s during a steep ballistic reentry (later found to be due to faulty software) and landing miles from their target destination. The Russians lost track of them during reentry and for several hours had no idea if the astronauts were alive or dead.

The International Space Station

Amazingly, the three astronauts were in no hurry to get back to Earth. Jones’ story details the minutia of orbital life, and his descriptions of the isolation and leisurely pace of life in space, compared to our hectic lives on Earth, were really eye-opening. I could definitely understand the attraction of the ISS for these men and why they were reluctant to leave. Jones’ descriptions of how the astronauts strapped themselves down to a dinner table in order to eat in a quasi-traditional way, and how tasteless food can become for astronauts due to stuffed nasal passages were hilarious. I loved how astronauts would use packets of taco sauce as collateral on board, sprinkling it even onto Rice Krispies just so they could taste something. His detailing of the Columbia disaster and its aftermath, as well as the dangers inherent in space travel and space walking were very vivid. I appreciated how brave astronauts have to be to help us learn more about how we can live and travel in space.

I really enjoyed this book overall. It wasn’t too technical and gave a great overview of what it would be like to be an astronaut and live in space. Even after their traumatic trip home, Don Pettit has returned to space twice more and is currently residing again on the ISS.

Grade: A

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer….Siddhartha Mukherjee

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee, oncologist and researcher

Every once in a while, I get lucky (no, not THAT kind of lucky….well, okay, that kind of lucky too :). I pick up a book that I’ve been putting off reading for ages, and become so completely captivated by it that by the end of it I am mentally beating myself for waiting so long to read it, and am also left wondering how anything I read after it will even stand a chance at being interesting. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, a wonderful book about the history of cancer throughout the ages, is that book. 

Dr Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, takes us on a whirlwind journey through the history of cancer, beginning with its first known description in the literature in ancient Egypt, all the way to the most cutting edge therapies currently being developed to fight cancer. It was amazing to see how far we have come in our knowledge about cancer cells and how to best combat them. Decades of research on cancer found that the cells that can cause cancer are in each and every one of us, located on genes in our DNA, which is one reason cancers can be seen in families, needing only a random mutation in a chromosome or an external agent like tobacco smoke, radiation or asbestos, to activate those dormant genes and begin the uncontrolled cell division that is cancer. It was amazing to see how even small discoveries that researchers spent their entire careers on helped to generate bigger and more important discoveries later on. It was like seeing pieces of a puzzle fall into place.

I was also fascinated by the newest drugs used to fight cancer, known as targeted therapies. In the olden days, cytotoxic (cell killing) chemotherapies were used to fight off cancer. The problem was that these drugs not only killed the cancer cells, but sometimes killed other cells too, and had yucky side effects. Some of these cytotoxic chemotherapies could also cause different kinds of cancers later on. Many of these older chemotherapies could not get into specific parts of the body where cancer cells would hide, so relapses would inevitably occur, and the cancer would come back worse than ever, AND resistant to the previous chemotherapy. Once researchers determined the shapes and chemical compositions of specific cancer cells, they could develop new drugs specifically made to bond with and kill the cancer cells only, leaving other healthy cells alone and with fewer side effects.

Scanning electron photograph of a cancer cell. Cancer cells build their own blood supply network and are sometimes able to move to different locations of the body, both properties of which make them difficult to treat.

We are in a race against the clock with cancer research. Many of us know friends and loved ones affected by or taken by cancer. Every day brings new discoveries and new hope that a cure can be found in the future. I honestly had no idea how much progress we’ve made in fighting cancer before I read Dr Mukherjee’s book, and once I finished it, I was humbled and grateful to those who have spent their lives working so hard to find treatments. I was amazed and astonished at how hard some of these drug developers had to fight to get their products approved, and how lucky we are that they were approved, since they have saved so many lives. It gave me new understanding and empathy for those who are survivors and victims to cancer. This book is so important on so many levels, but most of all, to show that progress is being made and there is hope for the future.

You don’t have to be a doctor or a science major to read and enjoy this book. Mukherjee does a great job of explaining the research in a way that anyone can understand, and it is more compelling and fascinating than the most suspenseful mystery novel. Read this book. Don’t wait like I did.

Grade: A+

Thunderstruck….Erik Larson

Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless

Listening to the radio is something we all take for granted these days. It is hard to believe there was ever a time where the only way you could hear music was live. In 1896, a young Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi changed our world forever when he first demonstrated the ability to send communication over the airwaves, rather than using cable, increasing our ability to connect more rapidly with people who were far away and more quickly distribute information.

The story of Marconi’s visionary and obsessive quest to transmit messages through the air across oceans and continents is coupled with a sensational Edwardian murder mystery in Erik Larson’s phenomenal book, Thunderstruck. Along with Marconi, we are introducted to the soft-spoken, gently mannered Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen of Michigan, a physician who created and sold patent medicines in London (those ‘cure-all’ products from the 1900’s that didn’t cure anything). Crippen’s life was unremarkable until the sudden disappearance of his obnoxious wanna-be showgirl wife Cora Crippen, who went by the stage name of Belle Elmore. Crippen was not suspected in her disappearance at first, thanks to his public devotion to his wife and quiet, mannerly ways, until he suddenly and inexplicably fled town permanently with his girlfriend, Ethel le Neve. Suspicions now raised, Scotland Yard detectives did some more investigating at the Crippen home and made a gruesome discovery when they unearthed a pile of human skin and organs buried under the cellar floor, with no identifying features such as hands, feet, teeth, head or even sex organs. Meanwhile, Crippen disguised le Neve as a boy and the two of them left London and traveled throughout Europe for some time as “father and son” until boarding a ship, the Montrose, that was headed for America.

Had it not been for Marconi’s Nobel Prize winning discovery of radio transmissions and how to harness them, the couple might have gotten away scot-free. Without television, telephones and fax machines, manhunts back in the early 20th century were pretty low-tech. However, astute identification of the couple was made by the Montrose’s captain, Henry George Kendall, who then used the Marconi wireless station aboard his ship to relay his suspicions to the police back on land. By the time Dr Crippen and le Neve were arrested aboard ship, the entire world, thanks to wireless, knew about the chase and where the fugitives were. Crippen would be convicted of the murder and hanged.

Hawley Harvey Crippen and his lover, Ethel le Neve, on trial for the murder of Cora Crippen.

Ironically, Dr Crippen’s downfall cemented the usefulness of wireless technology to society, as its public acceptance had been slow and rather bumpy. Although Marconi applied for his first patent in 1896, it would be years before he was able to discover the correct wavelengths to broadcast on, and how to build antennas to catch them, spending millions of today’s dollars of his own money building stations on both coasts. Although amazed by the ability to communicate without wires, people did not begin to see the practical usage of his technology until it became possible to communicate with ships at sea using the wireless, which resulted in Crippen’s capture. Before then, ships setting out on transocean voyages were in a communications blackout, and could not receive any news or even information about other ships in the area. It is believed that without the Marconi set on the HMS Titanic  there would have been far fewer survivors, as the wireless men were able to call other ships to the area for help before it sank. The pre-WWI era also began to see the usefulness of wireless from a military and strategic standpoint, as ships would be better able to communicate with each other about their positions and that of the enemy.

I really enjoyed this book. The pacing was perfect, and the suspence was trip-wire tight. Would Crippen be caught in time? Did he really do it? Would Marconi be beaten in the race to get wireless technology distributed? Would he ever be able to successfully get a message across the Atlantic? I could not put this book down. Larson seamlessly switched back and forth between the two stories, interweaving them masterfully at the end. The book also touched on some other history that I’ve read about in previous books for this blog…Oliver Lodge was a member of and did research for the Society of Psychical Research, touched on so hilariously by Mary Roach in Spook. It was because of his fascination with mediums and the afterlife that he was distracted away from his earlier research on Hertz’ wavelengths, which might have led to Lodge as the father of radio. The use of forensic medicine in determining Belle’s cause of death (poisoning by a powerful drug that had been purchased before Belle’s death by Crippen) was reminiscent of the Hooblers’ The Crimes of Paris.

What was most interesting was how Larson painted both of the main characters. He treats Dr Crippen almost sympathetically, and takes a very harsh line with Marconi. Although I appreciate Marconi’s brilliance, personally he sounded like a real jerk. I felt more sorry for Dr Crippen, who systematically cut up his wife and buried her so that he could take off with his lover, than I did the guy who gave us sports radio and JACK FM. Now that’s masterful writing!

I would totally recommend this book to anyone, and thanks to all of you readers out there who told me to pick up a Larson book. I was not disappointed.

Grade: A+ 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe….Simon Singh

The Hubble Space Telescope

About a month ago, my daughter and I went to see “Hubble”, a movie at the IMAX theater at the Minnesota Science Museum. The movie chronicled the building and launching of the Hubble Space Telescope, and showed amazing images that the telescope has taken of the universe and sent back to us on Earth. As we were shown pictures of galaxies millions of light years away from us, I was astounded and at the same time, interested to learn more about our place in the universe. How did scientists figure out so much about stuff so far away, and from so long ago, back before the Hubble?

 I got all the answers I ever wanted and more from Simon Singh’s wonderful book, Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe.  The ‘Big Bang’ is the ironically sarcastic name given to the theory, first offered by Father Georges Lemaitre in 1927, stating that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago from a small, highly condensed point called a singularity and rapidly expanded outward, creating all of the material in the universe through chemical reactions as it expanded. Time and space were begun at the moment the singularity first expanded. The universe is still expanding to this day, thanks to this initial jump-start billions of years ago.

Edwin Hubble, one of the fathers of the Big Bang Theory

So how did they figure all of this out, you might ask? Singh takes us back to the humble beginnings of astronomy around 200 BC, when Eratosthenes used a stick, the angle of the sun, and mathematics to prove that the Earth was round. We journey next through the struggles of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler and Galileo to prove that we live in a Sun-centered solar system (no easy feat when the Bible, the Church and most of the population believed it was earth-centered).  A brief review of Einstein’s physics is next, proving gravity and the existence of spacetime, to the first women astronomers who proved that there were galaxies outside of the Milky Way, to Hubble’s redshifts and Penzias and Wilson’s cosmic background radiation discoveries, both proving that the universe was literally begun with a bang.

The picture on the header was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, and is called an Ultra Deep Field. This picture involved pointing the Hubble telescope into a portion of space and leaving the aperture open for one million seconds, allowing even the faintest light from extremely distant galaxies to be collected and photographed. When we see the light from these galaxies, we are seeing light that left the galaxies about 300 million years ago, so they are seen as they were just after the initial expansion and cooling of the Big Bang. Talk about time travel!

The journey is exciting, at times hilarious, and definitely thought-provoking. Singh provides interesting background stories about the lives and discoveries of the different scientists, as well as lots of pictures. He takes several difficult concepts like Einstein’s theory of general relativity and uses easy to understand examples, which I appreciated since I am the least mathematical person I know. The most amazing part of the book for me was the perseverance of the different scientists to keep pushing forward with their work, even in the face of ridicule from their colleagues and/or religious/political persecution. Many astronomers went to their graves still believing in their theories even after they had been proven wrong. What was most ironic is that sometimes even the wrong theories ended up contributing something to the correct theories.

Father Georges Lemaitre, originator of the Big Bang Theory, with Albert Einstein

Singh’s book describes the triumph of the scientific method. Many astronomers started with an idea, or looked at previous ideas and were inspired to think of something else or build upon that idea, and then went through all the necessary steps to prove or disprove it. It is astounding to me that Father Lemaitre could have conceptualized the idea of an expanding universe decades before it was actually proven, with very limited technology at his disposal. The power of the human mind to dream and achieve is the most powerful thing about this book. I hope you’ll pick it up for yourself….if you love science books, this is a must-read.

Grade: A+

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook…Ben Mezrich

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook

It’s not personal, it’s business.

That for me was the take-home message of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires, which chronicles the conception and founding of Facebook, one of the century’s most life-changing technological breakthroughs. Mezrich introduces us to Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, two Harvard students low on social skills and women, and high on computer savvy and ambition. When Saverin gets his ticket punched to join one of Harvard’s premier Final Clubs, Zuckerberg wants to get noticed too, and he makes a big splash by launching a website called Facemash. Zuckerberg hacks into the Harvard computer system to obtain pictures of upperclasswomen, which are then put on his site two at a time, allowing classmates to vote on who’s ‘hot or not’. When Facemash takes off beyond Zuckerberg’s dreams, he shuts it down fast, but not fast enough to miss getting the attention of everyone at Harvard.

Not all of the attention from Facemash is negative. Three wealthy entrepreneurial Harvard students, twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, have been looking for a programmer for their Harvard dating site, called HarvardConnection, and the publicity from Facemash leads them to Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg agrees to help them write the programming, but either right before he starts the HarvardConnection work, or right after he begins, he comes up with the concept of what he called ‘thefacebook’, a site where people could not only meet and mingle online, but could create their own exclusive circle of friends and invite and disinvite as they chose. With Saverin’s financing, Zuckerberg puts together thefacebook and launches it at Harvard to huge success, neglecting his work for the HarvardConnection. It does not go over well with the Winklevosses and Narendra, who realize Zuckerberg has been neglecting the programming for their site to start up his new one, and who feel that Zuckerberg’s site is eerily similar to their own concept.

Screen shot of the original 'thefacebook'

As the popularity of thefacebook grows, and the program is opened to more colleges across the country, Zuckerberg and a few programmers leave Harvard for California. Saverin stays behind in New York trying to round up more money for the site and at Harvard trying to finish his degree. Sean Parker, founder of Napster, is brought into thefacebook for his Silicon Valley connections and his ability to bring venture capitalist interest and money to the table. Back in New York, Saverin discovers he is being left out some major financial decisions, even though he is CFO, and freezes his account to fund thefacebook, which drives Zuckerberg and Parker to reach out for venture capitalist money to stay afloat.  According to Mezrich, Saverin is then slowly written out of the company by Zuckerberg, Parker and a fleet of attorneys once their financing is more secure. As the big money begins to roll in, and thefacebook becomes Facebook, lawsuits would ensue in the years following from both the Winklevosses and Narendra and also from Saverin, and would be settled out of court for millions of dollars. Following Saverin’s lawsuit, he was reinstated on Facebook as co-founder with Zuckerberg.

There is some debate out there as to the format of this book, and whether it can really be considered non-fiction. Mezrich’s introduction addresses this right away, admitting that he re-created many scenes in the book based on information from documents and interviews and what he felt might have happened after researching this information. This sounded a lot to me like the genre of historical fiction. If you’ve ever read The Killer Angels, for example, you know that the basic historical facts are there about the different battles at Gettysburg and the grim statistics, but Shaara takes a little creative license by using that information and creating fictional dialogue between the characters. Do we know that’s what they really said? No, but it flows well with the historical turn of events and is probably based on or backed up by diary entries and personal letters from the characters themselves.  If that’s the case, is this information really ‘fictional’, then? I’d like to know what you think.

Mezrich  portrays Zuckerberg as a socially awkward, unemotional, friend-screwer who only cares about and does what’s right for the business. Since Mezrich admits Zuckerberg wouldn’t talk to him while he was writing the book, do we really get a chance to know Zuckerberg and his thoughts/motivations? Who knows if this is what really happened, or if Mezrich’s sources were a little more than biased about the goings-on, especially when Zuckerberg has become so unbelievably successful. Every story has two sides, right?  Throughout the story, Zuckerberg is focused and determined to see his company succeed, no matter what the cost, whether it be losing sleep, dropping out of Harvard, going into debt or (I guess) taking advantage of people. This probably happens in business every day. But what Mezrich shows us is that despite Zuckerberg’s drive, Facebook would probably never have gotten off the ground had Saverin and the others not been there to give pivotal advice, money or ideas at just the right time.

It was very interesting to read about the financial dealings associated with getting a company off its feet, and also to get some insider knowledge about the prestigious and mysterious Final Clubs at Harvard. I didn’t really like any of the characters at the end of the book. The part where the Harvard president blew off the Winklevoss twins was probably my favorite part.

Definitely more entertaining than purely informative, and nothing I would ever take as gospel on the founding of Facebook, Mezrich’s book was a quick, light read. I’ll probably never view Facebook quite the same way again. I’m looking forward to watching The Social Network this weekend, for which this book was the basis.

Grade: B

Postscript 1/15: Just finished watching The Social Network. The movie was wonderful and while it took some liberties with the book, remained true to the story and main characters.