“In old days books were written by men [sic] of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” – Oscar Wilde
“That is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed with profit.” – Amos Bronson Alcott
We all struggle to find time to read – and especially to find the generous amounts of time required to read a book. Today’s culture and technology take us in the opposite direction. We swim around in a thick soup of information, fed to us in the form of small, bite-size quanta. A fact or figure here. A disconnected thought or idea there. The most important life-skill for the knowledge worker is to learn how to digest information and understanding in this form all the while stitching the bits and bytes into a coherent picture over the course of a day or year or lifetime. (All at accelerating speed, year-by-year.) Meantime, we’re coming to appreciate our desperate need in this process is to distinguish fact from fake, opinion from reality, life-giving opportunity from life-sucking distraction.
So Oscar Wilde’s observation looks spot-on today. So too the ruminations of Charles Darwin captured on the LOTRW masthead. Interestingly, their reflections were contemporaneous, made about 150 years ago, long before the arrival of today’s IT. Perhaps their thoughts are ageless; perhaps they were prompted simultaneously by the emergence of the Victorian internet – the telegraph – about that time.
Most of my reading is remedial. Perhaps this experience is universal. Seven billion people can write a lot of books when our backs are turned. It’s easy to fall behind, and then to belatedly discover books we wish we’d read earlier, sometimes years ago. For many, the chance to catch up on reading is an ancillary benefit of the Christmas season, alongside two larger opportunities – to reflect at year’s turn on our lives to date and any new directions we might like to take, and the annual spiritual renewal at the core of the event we celebrate.
In that spirit, here are three books that all pass the Amos Bronson Alcott test. All three bear a 2015 copyright; I had made a start into each earlier on, but then put them down and failed to get back to them until now (shame on me!). Reading them and finishing them up together, rather than separately, turned out to be felicitous. The whole proved greater than the sum of the parts.
Each book is a remarkable blend of extensive scholarship and marvelous story-telling (in non-fiction, the latter hinges necessarily on the former). Each was the spinoff from a Ph.D. thesis, suggesting that we can look forward to even richer works from the three authors going forward as their thinking matures and deepens.
Let’s start with
A Scientific Peak: how Boulder became a world center for space and atmospheric science, by Joseph P. Bassi (American Meteorological Society; 264 pp). Established in the 1850’s, Boulder, Colorado became the site for the University of Colorado a year after statehood, in 1877. But it was by no means foreordained that Boulder would become a world center for atmospheric research. Joe Bassi masterfully tells this story. He delves into the personalities, politics, pivotal moments and fateful decisions and weaves these into a larger national context – the influence of two World Wars, McCarthyism, and the corresponding changes in science policy (including, but not limited to, a shift from private funding for science to government support) – that led to today’s result. A real page-turner! Especially poignant for anyone like me, who arrived in Boulder in the 1960’s shortly after the events of the book but at a time when Walter Orr Roberts, Janet Roberts, Alan Shapley, and other principals were still active and on the scene. But you don’t have to have Boulder roots to profit from the book.
Next up is
Rational Action: The sciences of policy in Britain and America, 1940-1960, by William Thomas (MIT Press; 399 pp). For much of the period recounted in Mr. Bassi’s book, the relationship between scientists and the world were being reshaped by the exigencies of World War II. Mr. Thomas fills in some of that larger wartime- and postwar context. His subject is the blend of scientific disciplines that has come to be known as operations research (OR). OR got its start bringing to bear logic, observation, experiment, modeling and various branches of science and engineering on thorny and urgent questions of warfare, such as: what kind of firepower is most useful on military aircraft? Where should guns be placed, and how should they be used? How might the logistics supporting warfare be optimized? Etc. Mr. Thomas tells the story of the people drawn into this arena, their successes and failures, the rise of RAND and other think tanks after the War, and the extension of operations research into the Cold War. He chronicles the reach of OR into the civilian sector as well as the development of a theoretical basis for OR, and how that theory morphed into a subject for study in its own right.
Full disclosure? The book held a special magic for me. My father was a Princeton-educated Ph.D. algebraist. After the war he retrained himself in statistics and entered the field of OR, first working at the Pentagon, in the Navy’s Operational Evaluations Group, then back at Princeton, working with John Tukey and others, and eventually at Westinghouse. The stories Mr. Thomas tells spoke of people and events that had been part and parcel of dad’s dinner conversations, and eventually inspired my brother to get a Ph.D. in OR and build a distinguished career at Bell Labs. Brought back a lot of memories from those dinners and helped me connect with my memories of him, as well as the career my brother had.
Perhaps the most interesting thread throughout the book is the story of how OR went from humble, service-oriented origins (scientists doing their small bit to help a military in clear charge win the War) to a community investigating more abstract issues that could no longer be so directly tied to societal benefit, and a growing awareness that this last step required decisions and rationale outside the realm of science.
Which brings us to the third and final work
Masters of Uncertainty: Weather forecasters and the search for ground truth, by Phaedra Daipha (University of Chicago Press, 271 pp). Margaret Mead based her highly acclaimed work on years of field study in Samoa. For years, Jane Goodall observed the Kasakela chimpanzee community in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, beginning in 1960. Perhaps Ms. Daipha didn’t foray so far from home as these exemplars. But by embedding herself in a New England NWS Forecast office for over thirty months off and on over a few years, she made a significant investment in time and attention that has paid off in a similar way, gaining a unique set of insights into the sociology of government weather forecasting, ranging from the engagement between forecaster and various publics, including but not limited to risk communication; the sociology of the forecast office, and the interaction between that office and the NWS hierarchy; and even the development of the weather forecast itself as a social construct. I’ve been in the field for years and yet each page of her wonderful book brought new insights and revelations. Much is being made these days of the importance of bringing the social science to bear on weather forecast development and use. This book closer to penetrating to the heart of the matter than anything I’ve read so far. And that’s before you get to the bits of the book that draw analogies to other professional fields such as medicine and finance.
A call to action.
“No two persons ever read the same book.” – Edmund Wilson
“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it or offer your own version in return.” – Salman Rushdie
All good stuff! But it is the eve of 2017, and perhaps therefore a time for resolution-making. In light of Mr. Wilson’s observation, we might resolve to read a bit more – more broadly, and more extensively. And Mr. Rushdie encourages us read not just to understand the thinking of others, but to formulate thoughts of our own and share those with each other.
My prayer and expectation is that 2017 will bless you and me – each and every one of us.
 Here’s a link to a more thorough, better-written review. Incidentally, Professor Bassi makes no mention of his career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force; we owe him thanks for his years of service to the country.
 Couldn’t find a link to an independent review. Perhaps interested reader can supply one?