As WW2 wound to a close and the Allies moved into Germany, the Allies discovered that the Nazis were years ahead of them in many key technology areas. The Nazis were experimenting with supersonic aircraft, had made new discoveries in industrial chemistry (including the production of nerve gasses), and had developed high-precision machining techniques better than anything the West could claim. Of course, the Germans were also working on advanced rocketry/misssle technologies and had developed a huge resevoir of knowledge regarding human performance under adverse flight conditions.

Japan had not yet fallen and the Cold War was beginning to take shape so there was some urgency to the matter. The Allies and the West wanted these technologies; first, to beat Japen, and next, to keep the information out of the hands of the Soviet Union.

This is the story of Operation Paperclip; the program to bring Nazi scientists to the West to integrate them and their technologies.

Obviously, there are HUGE moral questions here; which the government tended to ignore as time went on and as the Soviets became more of a threat. Do you want to the enemy to get scientists who know how to make industrial quantities of nerve gas? The human performance data was gathered by essentially torturing prisoners to death. Do you use the data? Do you allow the data to fall into the hands of your enemies, who will probably use it against you? What about the scientists themselves? What did they know ahout the Holocaust and their part in it?

The book does make some judgements (and is especially harsh of Werner Von Braun) but, for the most part, the author tries to paint an accurate picture of the situation and the thinking of the players.

Like Longitude, this is another book on historical science. This time, we're measuring the size of the solar system.

It turns out that a lot of calculations involving the size of the solar system produce ratios (e.g. the orbit of Venus is x times smaller than the orbit of the Earth, etc.) but that it's difficult to get an absolute distance for the radius of the orbit of any planet.

Every 100 years or so, Venus wanders across the Sun twice; at eight year intervals. Mind-numbing geometric analysis reveals that if you can time the Venus transition from various points on the Earth, you can figure out the radius of Earth's orbit and hence, the size of the Solar System. It's nice that transitions occur twice every 100 years because that lets you try the measurement during the first transition and examine what went wrong. You have 8 years until the second transition to try it again with the lessons learned.

This is a history of the financial quant world. The time line extends from financial trading as it existed in the 1980s (i.e. human traders shouting at one another in the pit, writing down orders, getting buyers and sellers together through verbal means, etc) to the pervasive high-speed trading that occurs today.

The old guard was out maneuvered as new technology came into the frame; being mostly in denial about the new comers while claiming that stock trading was a game that required mono-a-mano interaction. Eventually, of course, the old guard had to change or be shown to the door.

As an engineer, I enjoyed reading how the first pre-networking programmers crudely automated the trading system via personal computers linked by connections. 

I never really understood how you could make money at high-speed trading. The whole concept seems to take advantage of idiosyncrasies of the particular plumbing that makes up the market. For example, one exchange is connected to another via a pipe that isn't quite as fast as another so, if you see movement on a stock on one exchange, you can buy a stock on one exchange then sell it quickly on the other exchange for a different price, pocketing the difference. There are other techniques which involve more adversarial actions.

Orders are supposed to be executed in a first-in, first-serviced queue. However, traders uncovered bugs in the system that allowed them to jump to the beginning of the queue and get their orders placed first.

So, Hedy Lamarr was a glamour girl of the 1940's who fled Europe as Antisemitism there grew into Nazi-ism. MGM head Louie B. Mayer met her in Paris, declared her "the most beautiful girl in the world," and offered her a film career in the United States. Then, as a Hollywood star and classic "it girl," she developed the first frequency-hopping, spread spectrum communications system with pianist friend George Antheil. Wait ... what??!!

Ms. Lamarr was doubly-blessed as being a very attractive woman in a world that valued such things, and she was unusually intelligent. While she didn't have any formal technical training, she preferred tinkering over attending Hollywood parties. Conversations with war-time associates revealed that the Navy's radio-controlled torpedoes could be easily jammed by the enemy and she began working on the problem. Her pianist friend had developed techniques to synchronize multiple pianos for various musicals and she realized the techniques were applicable to the torpedo jamming problem. They could change the frequency of the torpedo's communications system according to a fixed schedule, unknown to the enemy. The enemy could jam one channel, but not them all. My technical friends will realize that this frequency-hopping technique is the precursor to WiFi, BlueTooth and GPS systems, among other systems.  The pair got a patent on the technique. 

One of the things I liked about this book is how innovations and new ideas can come from the most unexpected places and people. Also, people tend to dismiss ideas if they don't come from the usual places. A novel technical idea from a woman? And an attractive woman; a Hollywood starlet, as well! One who's appeared nude on film? Balderdash, I say!


I continue the expression of my science wonkiness with Longitude. This is a historical account of solving the “Longitude Problem” of the 18th century. When sailing, it’s easy to tell your latitude (i.e. your North/South position) if you know the date and can measure the height of the sun above the horizon at local noon. It was far difficult to figure out your longitude. It was so difficult that the English government established a Board of Longitude and offered significant money for a good solution to the problem.

This book describes the problem clearly, and describes both the scientific and political problems associated with finding the solution. As usual, when money, opinions and politics meet, the people who perform the real work often get screwed by the system.

A good read.