When the Tenecatita ladies swimming and domino club found out that I was from Los Alamos, they became quite insistant that I should read Stallion Gate, by Martin Cruz Smith. Since the author had written one of my favorite books, the creative masterpiece NightWing, I stuffed Stallion Gate into my Kindle and got started.
My first impression was that Stallion Gate was lazy, a standard “thriller” (I call them airplane books, because that’s the market) set in WWII Los Alamos. One of the main characters is a cardboard cutout of a “racist Texan Colonel.” At least there weren’t any rogue Navy Seals. However, he did a good job working in the historical characters and character of early Los Alamos, and the human beings that developed the bomb. I told the ladies as much, and added that the real story was much better and I wished I could read that book.
Soon after, I had that chance. I don’t know why (Mom?), but we had a copy of Genius, by James Gleick on board. It turns out Genius is a review of WWII physics, using Richard Feynman as the setting. The book does a great job telling the story of Los Alamos, and the birth of the physics industry, and the death-by-viscosity of the physics industry. It’s a piece of work. The book bumps against many of my favorite themes, like the right way to solve a problem (1) and the utter helplessness of the public school system regarding math (2). It showed that the Manhattan Project was more of an engineering program than anything else, and that the people involved were not only culturally aware, but were also responsible in their thinking and their morality. It does a great job of describing the major characters in the reality play, why they mattered, and the belief system that guided them. It also does a great job describing the very human process that is science.
So, after I read Genius, I felt better about Stallion Gate. MCS wrote a good book, and he used that book to present the humanity of science, which is what we, as scientists, want. It’s also what we, as a society, need.
(1) The right way to solve a problem: Learn about the problem, think about the problem, test your answers. Rinse, repeat. Don’t spend a lot of time wondering what other people are doing except as part of learning about the problem or testing your answers. In the language of this blog, sail your own ship.
(2) In the language of Feynman (about “new math”): “nobody that actually uses math thinks this way.” The author didn’t make the point, but it’s incredibly clear, that Feynman would have failed modern math and would have been branded an idiot and a trouble-maker by the modern school system. He would have been pumped with drugs and been tossed from the system soon after.