“While England Slept”: Winston Churchill and Serendipity at the Book Fair

Last weekend, Linda and I went to a book fair in South San Francisco: I had a very interesting experience as a result. We had a choice between attending this smaller, “book and paper” fair or the annual International Antiquarian Bookfair across the bay in Oakland, one of the largest of its kind in the world. We have been to many of those over the years, and they provide a dazzling experience for any bibliophile. But we opted for the simpler afternoon excursion closer to home where book prices are not so astronomical. Linda bought a few inexpensive items, but I came home with an empty shopping bag. There was one book which did capture my attention – a very nice but pricey copy of the 1940 publication by a recent Harvard graduate, one John F. Kennedy. Its title: Why England Slept. That title rang a bell in my mind: I believed it to be an important book explaining how England was so unprepared to deal with Adolph Hitler’s subjugation of Europe in the late nineteen-thirties. Because I have a very strong interest in the subject matter, the book was tempting but for the price and a considerable degree of uncertainty on my part. I decided to pass and do some research on both the subject and the book.

Caution can be a very rewarding virtue, and so it was in this case. Back home, I quickly discovered that young Kennedy’s book sprung from his senior year college thesis and was ostensibly a coat-tail project which followed Winston Churchill’s 1938 publication titled, While England Slept. This latter book contains a collection of Churchill’s opinions and speeches in the period from 1932 to 1938 whose intent was to warn a “sleeping” England and Europe of the dangers posed by Hitler’s rapidly spreading dark shadow. Young Kennedy’s book focuses on the reasons why England was so unprepared prior to Dunkirk and the ensuing Battle of Britain. At least one reviewer panned the book as the relatively immature effort which might be expected of a recent college graduate, no matter how bright! Whatever merits Kennedy’s effort might possess, it also seems clear that old Joe Kennedy had a hand in his son’s publication and its success in the marketplace by calling-in a few personal favors within the publishing world.

It was immediately clear to me that Churchill’s book was THE book to have and read, and it was this title of which I was vaguely aware. Of course, only Winston Churchill could be the author of such an important book, a book that gives throat to a lone voice warning of impending disaster for Britain, indeed for all of western civilization. I am relatively new to the detailed panorama that was the thirties, with its dark Nazi storm clouds forming, and the forties when lightning struck the world at large. But I do know this much: Winston Churchill was likely the greatest figure of the twentieth century. This uniquely colorful character of a man seemed, by some pre-ordained, divine destiny, to be uniquely qualified to do what he did – which was no less than saving the world from Nazi tyranny. Indeed, Churchill himself deeply believed that such a destiny was his protection from risk and harm when he often emerged from underground air-raid shelters to quickly survey the damage from Hitler’s latest blitz attack on London. These images of him amid the smoking rubble and his desire to be among his people were not lost on Londoners.

England survived two major crises subsequent to the infamous appeasements of an invading Hitler by then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the vain hope that an independent England and a Nazi dominated Europe could peacefully coexist – never a possibility in Churchill’s mind. The first crisis was the potential immediate loss of most of Britain’s 250,000-plus army at Dunkirk after Nazi tank divisions and the Luftwaffe had forced the weary remnant of British troops to the sea near that small French village. Only a miraculous small-boat “armada of the people” saved the army by ferrying it across the English Channel to Dover, literally overnight, while the Nazi’s bided their time, assured of victory, so they thought.

                                                                                  Aviation artwork by Robert Taylor

The second historic event that saved the nation, known as the Battle of Britain, was fought in the skies above the English countryside. From July to October of 1940, a planned German invasion across the English Channel from occupied France was stymied by the intrepid young fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force. These youngsters, most barely 20 years of age, were badly outmanned in number and equipment, yet they answered the call to scramble their Hurricanes and Spitfires three, four, and sometimes five times a day, intercepting German bombers and fighter escorts of the Luftwaffe whose directive was to destroy RAF airfields and aircraft in preparation for Hitler’s imminent invasion of the island nation. The invasion never happened. The Luftwaffe’s losses signaled the beginning of its end.

After three months of deadly combat in the skies and destruction rained down on British soil, Hermann Goering’s superbly equipped Luftwaffe was beaten back by the courage and skill of the young pilots of the Royal Air Force. Today, there are barely any of them left, those young Brits who flew Hurricanes and Spitfires against the Luftwaffe. Thankfully, there exist a number of excellent interviews and film documentaries which feature the dozen or so survivors still alive several years ago. Go find them and watch them and find out for yourself why Churchill eulogized them forever with his famous words, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“Alone.” That word for many months symbolized the state of both Winston Churchill and the British island nation after Hitler crashed his way across Europe, finally occupying neighboring France on June 17, 1940. Weeks earlier, on May 10, Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlin as Prime Minister. England finally had heeded Churchill’s urgent warnings about Hitler and the need to rearm, but almost too late. Churchill had thought it might be too late, once France had fallen.

So, it is this 1938 book of Churchill’s, While England Slept, which I purchased from a bookseller last week, that embodies those urgent warnings of Churchill to pay heed to the Nazi threat while putting aside the memory of Britain’s revulsion to the all too recent World War I experience. Late last year, the fine movie, Darkest Hour, had implanted in my head the full measure of Churchill’s greatness. His written and spoken eloquence remind me of another great leader/statesman with similar attributes, Abraham Lincoln. It is said of Lincoln, that he saved the union. It can truly be said of Churchill that he saved Europe and western civilization. Lincoln also found himself very “alone” during his first months in the White House as the Civil War raged around him. Although from opposite ends of the personality spectrum, similarities between the two men and their history abound – including well-honed personal senses of irony and humor.

I had already been into Churchill and World War II history for some years before serendipity brought me to this latest book acquisition last week. I now have all the material resources required to truly learn the subjects in greater depth. Along with the problem of available bookshelf space, only available time can slow me down!

 

World War II Aviation at the Lyon Air Museum

While visiting our daughter and two granddaughters at Christmas, I received a very nice Christmas present from them: an afternoon at the Lyon Air Museum, in Southern California! The Lyon Air Museum is located at Irvine’s John Wayne Airport and contains many vintage World War II airplanes, all beautifully restored, most in flying condition. In addition to the airplanes, many other vintage conveyances from the era are displayed, including one of Adolph Hitler’s personal staff cars, presumably used by him to ride into Paris after conquering the French in 1939.

One of the museum’s prized flying airplanes is the B-17 heavy bomber, Fuddy Duddy. The tradition of painted “nose art” on World War II aircraft was prevalent particularly on heavy bombers such as the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the B-24 “Liberator.” These four-engine, long-range bombers were as instrumental to the defeat of Germany as any weapons in the U.S. arsenal. The B-17 earned its renown by destroying much of Germany’s military and civilian infrastructure, flying out of large air fields located in the English countryside.

I relished the afternoon we spent in the museum with our girls, not only because I have long appreciated the history of World War II aviation, but also because I had a rare chance to give my grand-daughters an up-close-and-personal awareness of another time, the “greatest generation,” and aviation’s important role in defining the path of world history. There is no substitute for experiencing, up-close, the mystique of these great airplanes in order to appreciate their role in that history.

Peering up into the underbelly of Fuddy Duddy through the crew entry hatch is bound to stimulate any teen-ager’s appreciation of the courage it took for crew-members to clamber up inside such a large, complex airplane for dangerous mission after mission over enemy territory. So many crews and men never made it to the magic mark of twenty-five completed missions which would give them a one-way ticket back home, perhaps to become a flying instructor training pilot-recruits. Many thousands of B-17 and B-24 crew members went down in the gunsights of swift and deadly German fighter planes whose mission was to intercept and destroy the “heavies.” And there were the thousands of huge, long barreled German flak guns on the ground, poised and ready to fill the high skies with exploding shell fragments, any one of which could rip apart men and machines alike.

It was gratifying to observe the curiosity and interest which quickly developed as we began our tour of the museum! Soon after we started at the B-17, we spent a half-hour in the museum’s mini-movie theatre to watch a film documentary on the air war over Europe which included much aerial footage and commentary from Andy Rooney. Rooney was the long-time, now deceased, CBS commentator on 60 Minutes. During the war, he served as a war correspondent experiencing, first hand, the B-17 during actual missions. I was pleased to note that the film was one included in my personal DVD collection of worthy war documentaries; one cannot help but be impressed by the viewing experience!

A museum docent approached us as we examined the B-17 and produced two dummy bullets to illustrate the fire-power of the thirteen .50 caliber machine guns positioned at six locations around the airplane. Alongside the .50 caliber sample, the .22 bullet looks downright puny, and, yet, these airplanes were still very vulnerable to German fighter interceptors until late 1943 when the fabled P-51 Mustang fighter was introduced which could escort the bombers deep into German territory and back. The .50 caliber machine guns on the B-17 fired thirteen rounds per second, all fed from long cartridge belts. After a protracted aerial battle with German interceptors, the waist gunners stationed inside the fuselage at both sides of the airplane were typically ankle-deep in empty brass shells ejected from hot, rapidly firing guns!

One of Hitler’s several Mercedes Benz personal staff cars –likely the one in which he entered Paris after the Nazi victory in France.

A sign on the wall provided a summary of the debt owed to the men of the Mighty Eighth Air Force which operated B-17’s out of England. Among its stats:

“Hitler started boasting that he converted Europe into an impregnable fortress. But he neglected to provide that fortress with a roof.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, message to Congress, September 17, 1943.

-2,300,000 sorties flown
-24,228 enemy aircraft downed
-350,000 served in the Eighth Air Force.
-47,742 killed in action.
-696,351 tons of bombs dropped.

Of course, these numbers pertain only to the Eighth Air Force, not including the other arms of the Army Air Force and their theatres of operation.

Douglas A-26 Attack Bomber


North American Aviation AT-6 Trainer

Douglas DC-3: The backbone of the airline industry

 

All in all, we had a very fine afternoon at Irvine’s Lyon Air Museum. I heartily recommend it for adults and youngsters, alike! Our thanks to the spirit and generosity of Gen. William Lyon for preserving this important collection and for making it available to the general public.

Time to say goodbye: our Southwest Airlines 737 pulls into the gate at John Wayne Airport for the trip home.

Greenfield Village, Michigan: Henry Ford’s Historic Legacy

Last month, Linda and I spent eight days vacationing in Michigan. We went there with two goals in mind: first, to see October’s fall colors minus busloads of New England tourists; second, to visit Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Greenfield Village can best be described as the personal passion and indulgence of one man, and that would be Henry Ford, one of history’s greatest industrialists and one of its richest men.

We stayed at Ford’s Dearborn Inn, a short walk from Greenfield Village and “The Henry Ford,” a vast and incredible museum – the indoor manifestation of Henry Ford’s personal desire to preserve the past and a reflection of his young world and the ideals he held dear. Henry Ford and his favorite motorcar, the ubiquitous Model T Ford, were driving forces behind the great mobilization of America at the turn of the twentieth century. Ford quickly became one of the country’s richest and most famous men. With both the means and a personal vision, Ford spent millions to create a living legacy to both the technology of his day and the way of life which invention and industrialization were busily changing… forever.

Greenfield Village is a concentrated restoration/recreation of many of America’s finest times and places. Thomas Edison’s famous research laboratory from Menlo Park, New Jersey, is faithfully recreated and, indeed, literally reassembled in the Village. The first viable electric light bulb was perfected in 1879…in this building!

Also present is the original bicycle shop brought from Dayton, Ohio, in which Orville and Wilbur Wright conceived and developed the first powered airplane. Their first successful heavier-than-air flight in 1903 ushered in the era of aviation.

A significant part of the Wright Brothers’ research into the controllability and sustainability of flight took place behind the storefront of the Wright Cycle Shop. Much of the activity and the equipment is beautifully displayed, here.

I was long skeptical, early-on, about the concept of Greenfield Village, visualizing it perhaps as a sort of historical Disneyland creation. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Henry Ford was maniacally dedicated to authenticity and to preserving as much of the original buildings and artifacts as humanly possible. The original buildings restored/recreated here were literally disassembled by teams of Ford workers on their original, distant sites, packed and crated, and shipped at great expense to Dearborn on the way to their final resting places at Greenfield Village. Greenfield represents Henry Ford’s fervent devotion to authentically preserving a way of life which, perhaps sorrowfully, he realized would be unalterably changed by the industrialization and modernization for which he, as much as anyone, was responsible.

Mr. Ford, it seems, realized early the undeniable fact that tangible property and historical sites, no matter how important, were doomed to succumb to “progress” unless privately owned, funded, and maintained. As Linda and I strolled from attraction to attraction and learned from the docents inside, I came to realize the wisdom in Ford’s contention. Yes, it would be wonderful if Edison’s famous research laboratory still sat beautifully preserved on its original site in Menlo Park, New Jersey; the same can be said of the Wright Cycle Shop in Dayton, Ohio. The odds against that being the case were always practically zero in a society which is ruled by money and which too often looks forward and, almost never, backward to absorb the lessons and wisdom inherent in historical perspective. To his great credit and our good fortune, Henry Ford understood and acted by leaving us the next best thing.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford: Kindred Spirits

The influence of Thomas Edison is seen throughout Greenfield Village. Like Edison, Henry Ford had little formal education. Ford also realized two facts at an
early age: one, that he could never be happy following his parents as farmers; two,
that he had both an interest in and an aptitude for things mechanical. In fact, as a young man, he went to work in Thomas Edison’s light bulb factory, becoming foreman in less than a year. Soon, Ford’s growing ambition to work on things strictly mechanical led him to begin pondering the possibility of building an automobile. Others had similar ideas, but no one else envisioned the automobile as anything other than a toy for the wealthy, let alone as a necessity for the average man. It was Ford’s vision and ingenuity which led him, quite literally, to “invent” both the notion and the process of mass production. His embodiment of that vision came with the Model T which was introduced in 1908. In a market where others sold their fancy automobiles for close to $2000, Ford was selling his down-to-earth, practical and reliable Model T for $650 – and you could get it in any color as long as it was black! Of course, the economics of the production line dictated a single color only at such a price, but Ford carried his analysis of production line realities far beyond the obvious. As one of the early practitioners of production line time-and-motion studies, Henry Ford had determined that black paint dried much more quickly than did other colors – a fact supported by scientific knowledge that explains the fact that black absorbs heat much more readily than lighter colors. One might counter that the difference would prove minimal, but one would be wrong given that multiple paint coats were applied. In fact, a light color such yellow or white would consume twelve times the total drying time in the Ford process than would black! I found that fact to be extremely interesting.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford both placed a premium on ingenuity, common sense, empirical testing, and hard work as the primary ingredients of success. They also displayed an inherent distrust of venturing too far into scientific research and theoretical speculation. This alienation from advanced learning and engineering was to cause them both problems along the way, especially Edison who utterly failed in his massive bid to supply direct current electricity to the many minions who had bought his light bulbs before the turn of the nineteenth century. My next blog post will deal with that dramatic and extremely important story.

The marker adds: “Henry Ford greatly admired Thomas Edison.” It goes on to say that Edison sat for the sculpture during the last months of his life.

Another Edison site in Greenfield Village that re-kindled my interest as a retired electrical engineer was the reconstructed Edison “electric power station” which contains one of the original six DC (direct current) dynamos (electrical generators) used by Edison to power and illuminate several square blocks around Pearl Street in downtown New York in 1882. This Edison enterprise was the first “electric power station” in America. Despite its potential importance and the great hoopla surrounding its success in lighting a small section of downtown New York for several years, the enterprise along with Edison’s plans to corner the imminent American electrical market was doomed to spectacular failure.

As already mentioned, my next blog post will explore Thomas Edison’s losing battle in the electrical current wars waged between direct and alternating current to supply the nation’s immense power grid-to-be.

And I promise that no technical expertise will be necessary for you, the reader!

A Memorable Vignette from Our Local Farmer’s Market

Yesterday morning, Linda and I left early for a quick drive to our local farmer’s market. The day dawned beautifully, bright and crisp – the kind of fall day that brightens the spirit and the vivid colors to be seen at the produce displays.

Sunnyvale’s farmer’s market is a weekly occurrence on downtown Murphy Street, the heart of the town’s historic district. After a stop at the Bean Scene for coffee, pastries, and a chat with our friends, Pete and Diane, we parked ourselves on a sidewalk bench to watch the shoppers pass while we savored our coffee. Once finished with our goodies, we typically join the throng as Linda shops and I trail along to supply moral support, occasional funding, and an extra hand for carrying produce.

After 9:30 am, the shoppers are numerous and so are the opportunities for people-watching. Yesterday, as Linda was picking and purchasing produce from one of the vendors, I happened to notice an elderly woman standing nearby. In profile, she had what I would term a noble, Eastern European appearance.
Her grayed, blond hair was neatly braided and coiled upward in a manner indeed most European, and her intent look caused me to look forward to the object of her attention. I immediately discerned that she was watching an elderly man in a blue shirt and baseball cap who was standing next to my wife at a nearby produce stand. The man had set down his little bag of produce and was going through the bills in his wallet to pay for his purchase. When he received his change, he tucked his wallet away, slowly turned, and headed for where we were standing. After three steps, he hesitated, stopped, wheeled about, and returned to retrieve his purchase which still lay on the produce bin where he had set it while occupied with his wallet.

At that moment, I turned to the woman standing nearby in time to see her intent gaze melt into a knowing smile as her mate hastily retrieved his purchase and then headed back toward her. From there they went on to the next vendor where I was able to discretely take a photograph.

The entire scene unfolded in a matter of moments, yet it stayed with me throughout the day. Like his mate, the man also had a distinctly Eastern European look about him. How would I know? With a Polish heritage like mine (born in Chicago), I know Eastern Europeans when I see them.

That brief vignette revealed a couple dedicated to one another, likely for many, many years, who continue to watch out for each other late in life. What better story and message can there be for those of us with a long history together who find ourselves on the cusp of old-age.

I was likely the only one of dozens of shoppers yesterday who were fortunate enough to witness this fleeting interaction amid the hub-bub of the marketplace. There is much to be found in the marketplace if only one is receptive and alert to the possibilities.

Hermann Minkowski, Albert Einstein and Four-dimensional Space-time

Is the concept of free-will valid as it relates to humans? A mathematics lecture presented in September of 1908 in Cologne, Germany by Hermann Minkowski not only paved the way for the successful formulation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity in 1916, it also forced us to completely revamp our intuitions regarding the notion of time and space while calling into question the concept of human free-will! Some brief and simplified background is in order.

Prior to Minkowski’s famous lecture concerning Raum Und Zeit (Space and Time), the fabric of our universe was characterized by three-dimensional space accompanied by the inexorable forward flow of time. The concept of time has long been a stubbornly elusive notion, both in philosophy and in physics. From the mid-nineteenth century onward, there had increasingly been problems with our conception of “time.” The difficulties surfaced with the work of James Clerk Maxwell and his mathematical characterization of electromagnetic waves (which include radio waves and even light) and their propagation through space. Maxwell revealed his milestone “Maxwell’s equations” to the world in 1865. His equations have stood the test of time and remain the technical basis for today’s vast communication networks. But there was a significant problem stemming from Maxwell’s work, and that was his prediction that the speed of light propagation (and that of all electromagnetic waves) is constant for all observers in the universe. Logically, that prediction appeared to be implausible when carefully examined. In fact, notice of that implausibility stirred a major crisis in physics during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Einstein, Poincare, Lorentz and many other eminent physicists and mathematicians devoted much of their time and attention to the seeming impasse during those years.

Enter Einstein’s special theory of relativity in 1906

In order to resolve the dilemma posed by Maxwell’s assertion of a constant propagation speed for light and all related electromagnetic phenomena, Albert Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity which he published in 1906. Special relativity resolved the impasse created by Maxwell by introducing one of the great upheavals in the history of science. Einstein posited three key stipulations for the new physics:

A new law of physics: The speed of light is constant as determined by all “observers” in the universe, no matter what their relative motion may be with respect to a light source. This, in concert with the theoretically-based dictate from Maxwell that the speed of light is constant for all observers. Einstein decreed this as a new fundamental law of physics. In order for this new law to reign supreme in physics, two radical concessions regarding space and time proved necessary.
Concession #1: There exists no absolute measure of position and distance in the universe. Stated another way, there exists no reference point in space and no absolute framework for determining distance coordinates. One result of this: consider two observers, each with his own yardstick, whose platforms (habitats, or “frames of reference,” as it were) are moving relatively to one another. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s yardstick as identical in length to their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), the other observer’s “yardstick” will increasingly appear shorter to each observer, even though, when at relative rest, the two yardsticks appear identical in length.
Concession #2: There is no absolute time-keeper in the universe. The passage of time depends on one observer’s velocity with respect to another observer. One result of this: consider our same two observers, each with their own identical clocks. At rest with respect to one another, each observer sees the other’s clock as keeping perfect time with their own. As the relative velocity (speed) between the two observers and their platforms increases and approaches the constant speed of light, the other observer’s clock appears increasingly to slow down relative to their own clock which ticks merrily along at its constant rate.

Needless to say, the appearance in 1906 of Einstein’s paper on special relativity overturned many long-held assumptions regarding time and space. Einstein dissolved Isaac Newton’s assumptions of absolute space and absolute time.The new relativity physics of Einstein introduced a universe of shrinking yardsticks and slowing clocks. It took several years for Einstein’s new theory to gain acceptance. Even with all these upheavals, the resulting relativistic physics maintained the notion of (newly-relative) spatial frames defined by traditional coordinates in three mutually perpendicular directions: forward/backward, left/right, and up/down.

Also still remaining was the notion of time as a (newly-relative) measure which still flows inexorably forward in a continuous manner. As a result of the special theory, relativistic “correction factors” were required for space and time for observers and their frames of reference experiencing significant relative, velocities.

This framework of mathematical physics worked splendidly for platforms or “frames of reference” (and their resident observers) experiencing uniform relative motion (constant velocity) with respect to each other.

The added complications to the picture which result from including accelerated relative motions (the effect of gravity included) complicated Einstein’s task enormously and set the great man on the quest for a general theory of relativity which could also accommodate accelerated motion and gravity.

Einstein labored mightily on this new quest for almost ten years. By 1913, he had approached the central ideas necessary for general relativity, but the difficulties inherent in elegantly completing the task were seriously beginning to affect his health. In fact, the exertion nearly killed Einstein. The mathematics necessary for success was staggering, involving a complex “tensor calculus” which Einstein was insufficiently prepared to deal with. In desperation, he called his old friend from university days, Marcel Grossman, for help. Grossman was a mathematics major at the Zurich Polytechnic, and it was his set of class notes that saved the day for young Einstein on the frequent occasions when Einstein forsook mathematics lectures in favor of physics discussions at the local coffee houses. Grossman’s later assistance with the requisite mathematics provided a key turning point for Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Enter Hermann Minkowski with Raum Und Zeit

The initial 1909 publication of Raum Und Zeit

On September 8, 1908 in Cologne, Germany, the rising mathematics star, Hermann Minkowski, gave a symposium lecture which provided the elusive concepts and mathematics needed by Einstein to elegantly complete his general theory of relativity. Similar to Einstein’s 1906 special theory of relativity, the essence of Minkowski’s contribution involved yet another radical proposal regarding space and time. Minkowski took the notion of continuously flowing time and melded it together with the three-dimensional coordinates defining space to create a new continuum: four-dimensional space-time which relegated the time parameter to a fourth coordinate point in his newly proposed four-dimensional space-time.

Now, just as three coordinate points in space specify precisely one’s physical location, the four-dimensional space-time continuum is an infinite collection of all combinations of place and time expressed in four coordinates. Every personal memory we have of a specific place and time – each event-instant in our lives – is defined by a “point” in four-dimensional space-time. We can say we were present, in times past, at a particular event-instant because we “traversed-through” or “experienced” a specific four-dimensional coordinate point in space-time which characterizes that particular event-instant. That is very different from saying we were positioned in a specific three-dimensional location at a specific instant of time which flows irresistibly only forward.

What do Minkowski’s mathematics imply about human free-will?

By implication, the continuum of four-dimensional space-time includes not only sets of four coordinate points representing specific events in our past (place and “time”), the continuum must include points specifying the place and “time” for all future events. This subtly suggests a pre-determined universe, where places and “times” are already on record for each of us, and this implies the absence of free-will, the ability to make conscious decisions such as where we will be and when in the future. This is a very controversial aspect of Minkowki’s four-dimensional space-time with distinctly philosophical arguments.

For certain, however, is the great success Minkowski’s mathematics of space-time has enjoyed as a basis for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Most, if not all, aspects of Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity have been subjected to extensive experimental verification over many decades. There is no instance of any validly conducted experiment ever registering disagreement with Einstein’s special or general theories. That is good news for Hermann Minkowski, as well.

Minkowski’s new reality takes us beyond the two-dimensional world of a flat piece of paper, through the recent universe of three-dimensional space plus time, and into the brave new world of not only four-dimensional space-time, but curved four-dimensional space-time. The nature of curved space-time serves to replace the Newtonian notion of a gravitational force of attraction which enables the celestial ballet of the heavens. For instance, the orbit of earth around the sun is now regarded as the “natural path” of the earth through the curvature of four-dimensional space-time and not due to any force of attraction the sun exerts on the earth. According to the general theory of relativity, the mass of the sun imposes a curvature on the four-dimensional space-time around it, and it is that curvature which determines the natural path of the earth around the sun. Minkowski and his mathematics provided the final, crucial insight Einstein needed to not only radically redefine the nature of gravity, but to also successfully complete his general theory of relativity in 1916. Einstein’s theory and its revelations are generally regarded as the most significant and sublime product ever to emanate from the human intellect. Take a bow, Albert and Hermann.

My eulogy to Hermann Minkowski

Albert Einstein is assuredly the most recognized individual in human history – both the name and the image, and that is very understandable and appropriate. Very few in the public realm not involved with mathematics and physics have ever even heard the name, “Hermann Minkowski,” and that is a shame, for he was a full participant in Einstein’s milestone achievement, general relativity. Minkowski’s initial 1907 work on Raum Und Zeit came to Einstein’s attention early-on, but its mathematics were well beyond Einstein’s comprehension in that earlier time frame. It was not until several years later, that Einstein and Marcel Grossman began to recognize Minkowski’s gift to general relativity in the form of his mathematics of four-dimensional curved space-time.

Hermann Minkowski delivered his by-then polished lecture on space-time at Cologne, Germany, in September, 1908. Tragically, he died suddenly in January, 1909, at the young age of forty-four – from a ruptured appendix. His latest findings as presented in the Cologne lecture were published in January, 1909, days after his death, sadly.

The “lazy dog” has the last bark

Albert Einstein and Hermann Minkowski first crossed paths during Einstein’s student days at the Zurich Polytechnic, where Minkowski was teaching mathematics to young Einstein. Noting Einstein’s afore-mentioned irregular attendance at lectures in mathematics, the professor reportedly labeled the student Einstein as, “a lazy dog.” Rarely in the annals of human history has such an unpromising prospect turned out so well! I noted with great interest while researching this post that Einstein long regarded mathematics as merely a necessary tool for the advancement of physics, whereas Minkowski and other fine mathematicians of the past tended to consider mathematics as a prime mover in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge, both theoretical and practical; they viewed physics as the fortunate beneficiary of insights that mathematics revealed.

In the late years, Einstein came to appreciate the supremely important role that mathematics plays in the general advancement of science. As proof, I will only add that the great physicist realized his dependence on the mathematicians Grossman and Minkowski in the nick of time to prevent his theory of general relativity from going off the rails, ending on the scrap heap, and leaving Albert Einstein a completely spent physicist.

Note: For a detailed tour and layperson’s explanation of Einstein’s relativity theories, click on the image of my book: The Elusive Notion of Motion – The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein – available on Amazon

THINK. Thinking is Hard Work

The history of IBM, the International Business Machine Corporation is as storied as any the world has seen. In recent times, Apple Computer had its iconic guru, Steve Jobs, to pave its pathway to fame and fortune. In earlier times, IBM’s Thomas J. Watson served much the same role in building his company into the tech giant it was to become. Watson coined the famous admonition, THINK – his way of spurring on the company’s workforce to bigger and brighter contributions. I recall as a youngster seeing his famous single-word motto displayed in such diverse places as banks, schools, and other institutions.

Photo: IBM Archives

IBM headquarters at Endicott, New York, 1935. Note the “THINK” motto emblazoned on the building. Pictured are 25 female college graduates, newly trained for three months as IBM system service women. Their role: after assignment to IBM branch offices, they assisted salesmen in assessing customer requirements and training customers on the use of IBM equipment. Their three male instructors are also pictured.

I find Watson’s admonition at once simple, yet profound. What does constitute the notion of “thinking,” and why is that a very non-trivial exercise? Critical thinking is important across all life-disciplines. I would venture, however, that science and engineering are more viable as gateways to understanding the process of critical thinking than most activities in which we humans are involved. Recall the oft-used phrase: “Its not exactly rocket science!”

My acquaintance with the subject derives from my educational and career background as an electrical engineer, here, in Silicon Valley, California. Anyone who has studied chemistry, physics, and mathematics at the college level can truly appreciate the notion of critical thinking. During my undergrad and graduate level years, I can recall, more than I care to admit, the long hours (even nights) spent on a concept or a homework problem that just would not submit to standard perusal.

Such incidents would call for sweeping aside the current method of attack in favor of a fresh new visualization of the problem. Often, this nasty situation occurred late at night while working under pressure to complete a homework assignment due the next day. The scenario just described demands what Thomas Watson so unabashedly promoted as his corporate motto: THINK. When persistence coupled with a fresh approach saved the day for me as a student, and later as working engineer, the joy of sudden insight and mastery of the issue at hand was sweet, indeed. That very joy and satisfaction serve to fuel the desire of science and engineering students to keep on studying and learning, despite the prospect of new and greater challenges ahead. One soon realizes that learning is primarily about harnessing the ability to think!

Thinking is hard, and most of us do not spend enough time doing it. At my advanced age and despite an active curiosity in earlier years, I still find myself formulating questions about all matter of things which I had never questioned before. Often my questions have to do with things financial. For instance: “Why is a rising stock price beneficial to the corporation involved since the corporation generally does not sell its stock directly to traders and investors? Ordinary folks outside the corporation who own shares as investors would seem to be the primary beneficiaries of such gains, and, yet, the mechanisms of corporate finance somehow bestow significant rewards to the corporation as well. How, exactly, does that work?” For a business major, that probably seems a naïve question, but, then again, how many business professionals have thought deeply about Einstein’s theory of special relativity? For us non-business types, it is quite easy to participate successfully as an investor in the complex equities market without really understanding what goes on “behind the curtain.” Ease of use leads to complacency, and complacency is ever the enemy of informative curiosity, it seems.

I worry about the younger generation, so many of whom seem to be satisfied with accumulating “factoids,” little isolated bits of information from the internet and social media. Thomas Watson understood that “to think” meant forming often non-obvious connections between seemingly isolated concepts and bits of information…and that is the hard part of thinking. The resulting “whole” of the picture which emerges by connecting the dots often proves the key to great scientific progress or profitable business opportunities.

Thinking was hard work even for history’s greatest minds. Isaac Newton stated the belief that his greatest personal asset was the ability to hold a particularly intractable problem clearly in his mind’s eye for days and weeks on-end while his conscious and sub-conscious mind churned toward a solution. Newton was clearly aware that such discipline and capability was not an attribute possessed by the rest of us. While attempting to apply his newly created laws of celestial mechanics to the complex motions of our own moon, Newton confessed to experiencing excruciating “headaches” over his difficulties with the moon’s motion. Thinking was hard, even for the greatest mind in recorded history! Certainly, the problems tackled by Newton were of a complexity far beyond our own everyday challenges. Albert Einstein attributed the essence of his genius to “merely” a combination of raging curiosity and the mule-like persistence which he brought to bear when uncovering nature’s most guarded secrets. Thinking and discovery were hard work for Einstein, as well.

The self-stated attributes of these two towering intellects have, as their common foundation, the willingness and the ability to THINK – to think long and hard about difficult problems and critical relationships in the physical world. I concur with Thomas J. Watson: although operating on a much lower plane than Newton and Einstein, we all need to THINK more deeply than ever about the world around us and about who we are. Consider the legacies left to us by Newton and Einstein – all the result of unbridled curiosity and the willingness to think deeply in search of answers to their own questions.

“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!