The Fastest Manmade Object Ever

From Business Insider (from 2016; hat tip to Tom MacMaster):

The fastest object ever launched was a manhole cover — here’s the story from the guy who shot it into space

The very first underground test was nicknamed “Uncle.” It exploded beneath the Nevada Test Site on November 29, 1951. But the tests we’re interested in were nicknamed “Pascal,” during Operation Plumbbob.

[Astrophysicist Robert] Brownlee designed the Pascal-A test — the first designed to contain nuclear fallout. The bomb was placed at the bottom of a hollow column — three feet wide and 485 feet deep — with a four-inch-thick iron cap on top.

The test was conducted on the night of July 26, 1957, so the explosion coming out of the column looked like a Roman candle. Brownlee said the iron cap in Pascal-A exploded off the top of the tube “like a bat.”

Brownlee wanted to measure how fast the iron cap flew off the column, so he designed a second experiment: Pascal-B.

Brownlee replicated the first experiment, but the column in Pascal-B was deeper at 500 feet deep. They also recorded the experiment with a camera that shot 1 frame per millisecond. On August 27, 1957, the “manhole cover” cap flew off the column with the force of the nuclear explosion. The iron cover was only partially visible in one frame, Brownlee said.

When he used this information to find out how fast the cap was going, Brownlee calculated it was traveling at five times the escape velocity of the Earth — or about 125,000 miles per hour.

This dwarfs the 36,373 mph speed that the New Horizons spacecraft — which people say is the fastest object launched by humankind — eventually reached while traveling toward Pluto.

At the time, Brownlee said, he expected the manhole cover to fall back to Earth, but they never found it.

Since then, Brownlee’s concluded it was going too fast to burn up before reaching outer space. “After I was in the business and did my own missile launches,” he said. “I realized that that piece of iron didn’t have time to burn all the way up [in the atmosphere].”

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite.While the USSR was the first to launch a satellite, Brownlee was probably the first to launch an object into space. Since it was going so fast, Brownlee said he thinks the cap likely didn’t get caught in the Earth’s orbit as a satellite like Sputnik and instead shot off into outer space. 

“The pressure at the top of that pipe was enormous,” he said. “The first thing that you get is a flash of light coming from the device at the bottom of the empty pipe, and that flash is tremendously hot. That flash that comes is more than 1 million times brighter than the sun. So for [the cap] to blow off was, if I may say so, inevitable.” 

Interesting! Although note there have been doubters

Narva, Estonia

Disquieting news in The Atlantic:

NATO Fears That This Town Will Be the Epicenter of Conflict With Russia

Red and Blue

It’s a few years old, but I discovered an interesting article on just now:

When Republicans Were Blue and Democrats Were Red

The era of color-coded political parties is more recent than you might think

By Jodi Enda

Television’s first dynamic, color-coded presidential map, standing two stories high in the studio best known as the home to “Saturday Night Live,” was melting.

It was early October, 1976, the month before the map was to debut—live—on election night. At the urging of anchor John Chancellor, NBC had constructed the behemoth map to illustrate, in vivid blue and red, which states supported Republican incumbent Gerald Ford and which backed Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter.

The test run didn’t go well. Although the map was buttressed by a sturdy wood frame, the front of each state was plastic.

“There were thousands of bulbs,” recalled Roy Wetzel, then the newly minted general manager of NBC’s election unit. “The thing started to melt when we turned all the lights on. We then had to bring in gigantic interior air conditioning and fans to put behind the thing to cool it.”

That solved the problem. And when election results flowed in Tuesday night, Nov. 2, Studio 8-H at 30 Rockefeller Center lit up. Light bulbs on each state changed from undecided white to Republican blue and Democratic red. NBC declared Carter the winner at 3:30 a.m. EST, when Mississippi turned red.

That’s right: In the beginning, blue was red and red was blue and they changed back and forth from election to election and network to network in what appears, in hindsight, to be a flight of whimsy. The notion that there were “red states” and “blue states”—and that the former were Republican and the latter Democratic—wasn’t cemented on the national psyche until the year 2000.

Chalk up another one to Bush v. Gore. Not only did it give us “hanging chads” and a crash course in the Electoral College, not only did it lead to a controversial Supreme Court ruling and a heightened level of polarization that has intensified ever since, the Election That Wouldn’t End gave us a new political shorthand.

More at the link. Quite right: in Britain the colors are reversed – a true-blue is “a staunch royalist or Conservative,” while Labour is always represented by red, since they’re Commies. I guess now that the USSR is no more American conservatives can embrace the color red, which they used to be better dead than.

Another irony occurred to me not long ago – Wal-Mart, the reddest of red state institutions, identifies itself with the color blue, while Target, the Minneapolis-based chain with the cool advertisements, the affordable design, and the social conscience, decks itself in red.

Abstraction and Representation

One of the reasons that many artists turned away from representation over the course of the late nineteenth century, such that you have Wassily Kandinsky painting in a purely abstract fashion (“on or about December, 1910”) was the advent of the camera – all the skills needed to represent things accurately (perspective, foreshortening, shading, anatomy, etc.) were suddenly redundant. But another was that artists were reacting to the bourgeoisification of Europe. The soulless bourgeoisie were held to need things spelled out for them – they needed “reality”, and an uplifting reality at that – so artists started breaking rules and constructing elaborate new theories about what art could be and do, to stick it to the bourgeoisie. It only makes sense that the great anti-bourgeois revolution in Russia in 1917 should employ an abstract style, constructivism, as its quasi-official one.


El Lissitzky, Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge (1920). Wikipedia.

One problem with this sort of modern art, however, is its elitism. As much as artists wanted to stick it to the bourgeoisie, they stuck it to everyone else at the same time; it’s not likely that peasants and proles should naturally be attracted to constructivist (or cubist, or expressionist, or synchronist, or futurist) art. Even less than the bourgeois did they have the time, education, or inclination to get into it. Stalin therefore decreed, some time in the late 1920s, that there should be no more abstract art, that the official style of the Soviet Union should be “Socialist Realism.” Thus the commie art with which we are familiar.


From an article at the American Thinker.

As much as I hate to agree with the mass-murdering tyrant, I think he was right. This sort of thing really is more accessible to the masses, although I wager it got rather boring after a while.

The funny thing is that socialist realism may have been one of the reasons why the New York school of abstract expressionism ended up receiving so much attention. If the commies were going to be literal, well then we were going to be abstract! We inherited all the moral superiority of the pre-WWI anti-bourgeois critique. Jackson Pollack, as an American, is free to decide where the paint goes. The CIA certainly agreed!


Jackson Pollock, No. 5, 1948 (1948). Wikipedia.

So the bourgeois Americans ended up with abstraction, and the anti-bourgeois Soviets with representation.

Tom Wolfe talks about a similar phenomenon in From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). The stripped-down workers’-housing aesthetic of modern architecture (which is another example of modernist elitism: no one ever asked the workers who had to live in them whether they liked it or not) ended up the style of choice for the headquarters of capitalist enterprises across the world.


Mies van der Rohe, Seagram Building, New York (1958). Wikipedia.

The Atom Bomb

“Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives” claims an article in the Diplomat. “By showing the world the horrors of nuclear warfare, the atomic bombings made future ones much less likely.” I suppose this is true; at least the author did not claim that the bombs themselves ended the war and thus obviated the need for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan scheduled for November, 1945, and which would have cost hundreds of thousands of Allied lives and millions of Japanese ones. That the bombs didn’t actually end the war has been understood for some time; indeed, Keck quotes another article which states that “the bomb didn’t beat Japan… Stalin did.” The bombs were a convenient excuse for Japan to use in surrendering to the United States, and the Emperor famously noted in his surrender speech that “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.” But do you think that a “new and most cruel bomb” was going to extinguish Japan’s will to fight? More people died in the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo, which was one of many Japanese cities to suffer such a fate. Or, as the authors put it, “If they surrendered because a city was destroyed, why didn’t they surrender when those other 66 cities were destroyed?”

People tend to forget that Stalin had an agreement with the other allies to declare war on Japan within three months of the end of the war in Europe. True to his word, he declared war exactly three months after VE Day – that is, August 8, 1945, two days after Hiroshima, and one day before Nagasaki – at which point Soviet troops invaded Manchuria and Korea. This removed the Japanese hope that the Soviets could serve as a broker between the US and Japan, and impelled the Japanese to surrender to the United States. Moreover, what the article does not mention is that the Soviet invasion scared the US as much as it scared the Japanese. We were pushing for an unconditional surrender in Japan, as we pushed for (and achieved) one in Germany (which itself was an attempt to avoid the problems of the Armistice of 1918, whereby the Germans could convince themselves that they hadn’t actually lost). The Japanese interpreted our demand for an unconditional surrender to mean that the Americans might force them to relinquish their Emperor, something ideologically unthinkable. But by August of 1945 it was apparent that we were not going to be friends with Stalin after the war, and we did not want to have happen to Japan was was currently happening in Germany, and what would soon happen to Korea. So we indicated that we were willing to accept a surrender with the caveat that the Emperor would remain on the throne and not be subject to war-crimes trials – which indeed came to pass. In other words, we accepted a conditional surrender – the same one the Japanese themselves hinted they would offer in early May, 1945.

So yes, it looks like Stalin impelled Japan to formally surrender, and us to accept that surrender. In retrospect, it also calls into serious question the atomic bombings – and all the other damage – that we did to Japan from May until August of 1945.

Robert Conquest, 1917-2015

Another great historian has passed. The Telegraph:

Robert Conquest, the writer on Soviet Russia who has died aged 98, was a polemicist and a serious, published poet; but above all he was an historian, one of the outstanding scholars of his time, whose books did as much as any other man’s to alter our view of the communist experience.

Conquest personified the truth that there was no anti-communist so dedicated as an ex-communist. His career illustrated also what the Italian writer Ignazio Silone, another former communist, meant when he said to the communist leader Palmiro Togliatti that “the final battle” of the 20th century would have to be fought between the two sides they represented.

An ardent Bolshevik as a young man, Conquest became a bitter foe of Soviet “Socialism”. He had first visited Russia in 1937 as a youthful devotee of the great experiment. It was a half century before he returned in 1989, having spent his life between chronicling the horrors the country had endured, and emerging, in the view of the Oxford historian Mark Almond, as “one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism”. “He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,” said Timothy Garton Ash.

Of his many works on the subject, perhaps the most important was The Great Terror, published in 1968 and detailing the full enormity of what Stalin had done to the Russian people in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz paid the most succinct tribute to this book when he said in 1972 that The Great Terror had “closed the debate” about Stalinism.

Thought After Teaching Today

We’re used to thinking of the Peloponnesian War as somehow parallel to the Cold War, with the Delian League in the role of NATO, and the Peloponnesian League as the Warsaw Pact. This comes naturally because Athens was the democracy, while Sparta was this grim, militaristic place where everyone was equal in deprivation. I suppose the fact that Athens was far more commercial than Sparta is also a factor. But what if the opposite is true? Consider the respective powers’ treatment of their alliances: Athens treated the Delian League far more like the USSR treated the member states of the Warsaw Pact than the US ever treated NATO (Mytilene and Melos as Budapest and Prague). And keep in mind that America is not a democracy in the Athenian sense. In Athens, every citizen got a vote, not for a representative, but in the assembly itself, on any question put before it. This would be as if every American had a vote in the House of Representatives, with no Senate, Presidential veto, or Supreme Court to deny their resolutions. This was really quite radical, and Athens had a great deal of the natural sympathy of the landless throughout the Greek world (there were always democratic factions in every polis) – much as Communism had an inherent appeal to the downtrodden of the Third World during the Cold War.

I don’t think that historical comparisons are never appropriate but I do think that we need to use them with care.

Die Mauer

November 9 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wrote this back on the twentieth anniversary; my opinion hasn’t changed much.

Let us give credit where it is due: to the Soviet and East German leadership, who could have responded to the Winds of Change by pulling a full-scale Tiananmen Square massacre (another event in that fateful year of 1989), but who chose not to. And let us give credit to the man who prompted the election of Mikhail Gorbachev in the first place: that amiable dunce Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 after Jimmy Carter wore out his welcome. Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher, ratcheted up the pressure on the Soviets on any number of fronts, and since the Soviets found they could not compete with this pressure, appointed Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985 in the hopes of reforming Communism so that they could compete. “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” became household words, and Reagan became much more willing to play ball with the Soviets in his second term. Even when the whole thing got ahead of Gorby (in Eastern Europe at any rate) he didn’t order a repeat of Prague in 1968 or Budapest in 1956, although he could very well have.

The fall of the Wall was significant on at least two levels – it represented the reunification of Germany, and was therefore deeply emotional to the Germans; for the rest of us it also represented the fall of the Iron Curtain (“from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”), the opening up of the east, and the beginning of the end of Communism as we knew it. As it turns out the Soviets’ Eastern European empire was its Achilles’ heel – for the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, et al. to throw off Communism was as much about rejecting Soviet influence as it was about ridding themselves of a corrupt and decayed system that wasn’t working anymore. The revolutions then spread to the SSRs, and finally to Moscow itself. There went Communism, and with it the Cold War, and with that the threat of nuclear war. Remember nuclear war? As portrayed in such classic movies as War Games or The Day After? We have forgotten the constant background worry about the possibility of this event, but I assure you it was always there.

I grew up in Canada, where it went absolutely without saying that Americans were stupid, that Reagan was stupid, that he saw the world in simplistic good-and-evil terms, and that he was needlessly provoking the Soviets and thus toying with the annihilation of the world. And indeed, let us not write history with the end in mind: the world could very well have ended up this way. But Reagan was vindicated, even if there was a great deal of contingency in the actual events, and probably deserves at least partial credit for the defeat of Communism, whatever the other flaws his administration may have been. Mainstream liberal opinion in the 1980s, if not indulgent of Communism, at least averred that we should seek to “live with” the Soviets and achieve a “balanced” political situation. After all, said Sting, don’t the Russians love their children too? But Reagan dared to state the obvious fact that the Soviet system was evil, and to imagine a world without it. And his vision came to pass! Incredible! (Of course we were far from absolutely good ourselves, but still, you must confess that Reagan was right on a certain level…)

With all due respect to one of my colleagues, the Berlin Wall was not a symbol of the Cold War as much as it was a symbol of Communism. (As George Jonas pointed out: no one sees the gate at Auschwitz as a symbol of the Second World War, but of Nazism.) This leads me to examine an invitation from another colleague to consider other walls and how we might take them down. Some walls serve a legitimate purpose. Consider the photos that our Belfast exchange student took of the Peace Wall separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods – Catholics and Protestants in Belfast do not get along, and do not want to get along, so what else can you do but separate them with a wall, on the principle that good fences make good neighbors? Similarly, the wall that the Israelis are building around the West Bank, or the wall that some people would like to build along the border with Mexico, or the walls that have surrounded important cities throughout most of human history – these are defensive walls, built to protect inhabitants from the predations of outsiders. Die Mauer was neither of these. It did not go up by mutual agreement, but was put up unilaterally by the East Germans – and although they called it an “anti-fascist rampart,” it was in fact a way of keeping their own people on the farm. It was parallel to a prison wall, a very Bad Thing indeed, and an obvious demonstration of the real nature of Communism. The world is a better place without it.

Atom Bomb Baby

I see that Richard Rhodes’s Making of the Atom Bomb is now a quarter century old. James Davis Nicoll pens a good review of the anniversary edition. I second his memories of The Bomb in the 1980s.


Rhodes makes the sensible decision not to begin his story with Einstein’s letter, say, or Lise Meitner’s discovery of fission, which might support the model of nuclear weapons as this extraordinary thing that appeared due to a very specific and unlikely set of circumstances. Instead, he devotes almost three hundred pages of the book to the history of the intertwined fields of chemistry and physics in the early 20th century.

Nuclear weapons are not an anomaly that we could have avoided if only one or two people kept their mouth shut. They fall naturally out of modern physics. The moment it became obvious Newtonian physics was incomplete, the first step towards the destruction of Hiroshima had been taken.

The section takes its title from a Robert Oppenheimer quotation:

“It is a profound and necessary truth that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because they are possible to find.”

Although the author does touch on the Japanese and German nuclear weapons program, the primary focus here is on the Allied nuclear weapons program and its growth and transformation from the cause of a few highly motivated physicists to a Brobdingnagian military research program.

The Allied nuclear weapons program became dominated by the US for a number of reasons. Although in no way a happy clappy utopia of racial tolerance, the US did not self-sabotage its intellectual efforts the way the Fascists did. As well, the US dominated the global economy in a way that makes its current impressive position look like a decline. With half or more (depending on how much of Europe had been bombed flat at the time in question) of global production, the US could bring resources to bear on the difficult question of how to make a nuclear weapons no other power could match. As it was, even the impressive array of brilliant people and the massive quantities of resources the US and lesser allies threw at the problem only barely managed to produce a handful of functioning nuclear weapons by the end of the Second World War.

Duplicating the efforts of the Manhattan District was a lesser problem, of course, not least because despite the fact the people running it went to absurd lengths to compartmentalize the project to maintain control of its secrets, other powers soon got their hands on the Manhattan District’s information. The fact that atomic weapons were possible at all was itself an important revelation.

In retrospect, the German program, which the Allies sensibly made a point of handicapping when ever they could, was very unlikely to produce working atomic bombs and the Japanese were even less likely but there’s no way the allies could have known that in 1939.

Unfortunately for Japan, by the time the Manhattan District produced working nuclear weapons, the Germans who provoked their creation had collapsed, leaving only Japan as a possible target. Even worse for Japan, it seemed entirely reasonable in light of what was known in 1945 that getting them to surrender unconditionally through conventional means would be very expensive for both sides. Even worse for the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the people behind the Bomb had very particular requirements for the targets that only a short list of Japanese cities had. In particular a full understanding of the effects of atomic weapons demanded that the cities be as pristine, as undamaged as possible, and by late 1945, very few Japanese cities had not been bombed and burned. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were among the few cities suitable to needs.

On August 6th, 1945, the Americans dropped a nuclear device on Hiroshima. Since Japan did not then surrender, the Americans then atom bombed Nagasaki on August 9th. Even though the atomic bombs used were laughably puny by modern standards, many tens of thousands died immediately; more tens of thousands died after protracted suffering. Rhodes does his best to convey the reality to his readers.

There were some odd moments in this – Rhodes gives a number for the Japanese population that I am told means he counted the whole of their empire, which I guess is fair enough, and I believe the explanation for the Reichstag Fire he prefers is a minority view – but on the whole this seems solid enough.

Originally published in 1986, the copy I have is the 25th edition from 2012. Context matters: when Rhodes began work on this in the 1970s, the US under Carter and the Soviet Union under whichever doddering old fool it was that week had cast aside the illusion of detente for franker rivalry. Rhodes was baffled why the two great powers had armed themselves with so many nuclear weapons, far more than seemed necessary to reduce the other to a memory. This turned into an examination of the creation of nuclear weapons in the first place.

This was not published until the 1980s, when… life involved waking up each morning knowing that the difference between living or being burned to a cinder in a nuclear holocaust was dependent on the good judgment of a senile actor and his coterie of End of Days-obsessed religious fanatics on one hand and a paranoid gerontocracy with a history of genocidal violence on the other. A certain amount of tension seemed justified to some, although a more reasonable approach was to cheerfully embrace the realities of the Cold War.

A quarter century later, Rhodes still sees nuclear weapons, even comparatively small arsenals, as a potential existential threat to humanity but universal disarmament may not seem impossible to a happy few despite the fact that the number of nuclear armed nations grew from eight in 1986 to nine in the 21st century. With the great rivalry between Russia and the US forever a thing of the past, surely nuclear fears could also some day be consigned to history? Obviously not but optimists can dream.

It may be that the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition will be somewhat less optimistic than the introduction to the 25th. Although there being a 50th anniversary edition at all would itself be an indication we’re still keeping all the plates in the air. There’s no reason to think we won’t, despite the slow, inexorable spread of nuclear weapons: in theory you can roll dice an indefinite number of times without ever getting snake eyes.

Just two more nuclear-armed non-signatories of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the majority of nuclear-armed powers will be non-signatories. Won’t that be a special day?