Mark Twain

Book reviews

This issue's reviews include the long-awaited autobiography from Mark Twain – a must-read for anyone who shares the writer’s fascination with technology.

Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1

Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al; Univeristy of California Press; out now; £24.95; ISBN 9780520267190

“The report of my death is an exaggeration,” is one of the most frequently quoted yarns of all time. Coined in 1897 by Mark Twain, aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens, it was the writer’s response to a hapless journalist’s tactless query about his health. Twain’s actual death had been kept in check for another 13 years until it finally and inevitably caught up with the USA’s greatest bon vivant, satirist and wit, on 21 April 1910. One of Twain’s final wishes was that no part of his autobiography, his ‘Final (and Right) Plan’, which he had been dictating on and off for a number years, should be published earlier than 100 years after his demise, when the great author himself would be “dead, and unaware, and indifferent.”

Now, exactly 100 years later, Twain’s ‘Final Plan’ has been released in a truly spectacular first volume of his posthumous ‘Autobiography’, lovingly edited and put together by a devoted UC Press team – a monumental effort which has brought back from the grave the writer’s inimitable voice:

“In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave. I
am literally speaking from the grave, because I shall be dead when the book issues from the press… I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for good reason: I can speak thence freely.”

I am a huge fan of Mark Twain’s writing, in particular his travelogues (‘Innocents Abroad’, ‘Tramps Abroad’, ‘Following the Equator’ etc), of which I proudly own first UK editions. Twain did travel a lot and was not good at budgeting his journeys (or his life in general, for that matter). One of the best-read writers of his time, Twain – due to his unbridled adventurous spirit and unending curiosity with the world, I presume - had never been particularly well-off. Had he not been an author, he would have made a great engineer, I am sure.

And here lies the volume’s main attraction for E&T readers. A true Renaissance man, Twain took keen interest in technology and was always happy to test new inventions. He was the first writer in America (or in the world, as he himself assures in ‘Autobiography’) to type a whole novel (‘Tom Sawyer’) on a Remington 2 typewriter in 1874.

The Clemens family was also one of the first in Hartford, Connecticut, to install Bell’s telephone in its home. Yet it is not common knowledge that Twain was also the principal investor in James Paige’s automatic typesetting machine. The writer spent $50,000 on the typesetter, which was soon supplanted by Linotype – the development that bankrupted him. The typesetter story is described in detail in the ‘Machine Episode’ chapter of the ‘Autobiography’, in the end of which Twain accuses Paige of “business thrift and commercial insanity”.

More often than not, however, he was much more prescient in his technological affiliations. In 1888, for example, he made the following remark on Nikola Tesla’s alternating-current motor, which had just been patented:

“I have just seen the drawings and description of an electrical machine … which will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world. It is the most valuable patent since the telephone.”

… “And now, Vitali, meet Sam!” a helpful lady from Hartford’s Conventions Bureau who was taking me around Twain’s House Museum in 2000 finished her tour. And there he was – standing at the bottom of the stairs in a rumpled Victorian frock-coat and smoking a pipe. I nearly had a heart attack then – at the sight of my long-deceased literary idol (he was impersonated by an actor, of course). I had a similar sensation of seeing Twain and even hearing his voice, while leafing through the first volume of this ground-breaking ‘Autobiography’. And although the feeling was not half as shocking (I had been better prepared for it than then in Hartford), it made me wonder, momentarily, if the reports on Twain’s death in 1910 had not been a bit of “an exaggeration” indeed! VV

 

Michael Faraday: A very short introduction

by Frank AJL James; Oxford University Press; paperback; out now; £7.99; ISBN 978-0199574315

Specific scientific findings are rarely celebrated – and yet in 1931, the centenary of Michael Faraday's discovery of electro-magnetic induction was marked in grand style with an exhibition at the Albert Hall, funded by the IET's predecessor the Institution of Electrical Engineers to the tune of £10,000.

Faraday has been associated with the electrical industry since the late 19th century when his picture was used on the IEE's seal. As Frank James explains in 'Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction', here was an emerging industry that needed to attach a scientific pedigree to its newfangled form of engineering, and adopting Faraday's image fitted nicely with a range of aims and political agendas.

This latest addition to Oxford University Press's excellent 'A Very Short Introduction' series is a distillation of 25 years research by the author while he has been editing the mammoth 'Complete Faraday Correspondence' in his role as Royal Institution's Professor of the History of Science. Its timing coincides with the recent completion of the penultimate of the six volumes of the 'Correspondence', with the final one on Faraday's last years, due out next year.

Michael Faraday's scientific legacy is his theoretical work ' Albert Einstein said that Faraday's and Maxwell's work on electromagnetic field phenomena had the greatest change in our conception of the structure of reality since Newton laid the foundation of theoretical physics. But the book also shows how this obsessive, religious man achieved what he did and how his influence continues into the present day ' all in 130 pages.

For me, the book was worth reading just for the accounts of how the chemist Humphrey Davy (a health and safety nightmare) tied up Faraday's time with mad projects like founding the Athenaeum, protecting the copper bottoms naval vessels and trying to improve optical glass.

Recommended to all readers of E&T. CEP

 

TheLab: Creativity and Culture

By David Edwards; Harvard University Press; out now; £16.95; ISBN 9780674057197

Inhale. Slight cough. Sherbety taste. About the size of a lip salve, I am sampling Le Whif Antioxidant Green Tea. Le Whif also comes in Chocolate and now breathable 'Vitamins' have just been released. But what's the advantage over swallowing? You bypass the stomach, absorbing Le Whif straight into the blood stream. It is also calorie-free.

Now imagine a workshop where bankers make roller coasters with yoghurt pots a la Playschool. Or Seed Dating, where scientists, artists and entrepreneurs brainstorm creative ideas by playing musical chairs. These are just some of the crazy ideas to have emerged from David Edwards' ever-increasing chain of artscience labs.

In the beginning, Edwards, Harvard Professor of Bio- Engineering and Applied Sciences, got his students to brainstorm ideas for lighting the 2012 Olympics. They ended up thinking of bright ideas to light Africa.

The flagship Paris artscience lab (Le Laboratoire) has showcased many collaborations between artists and scientists, to name but two: a famous French chef and a colloid physicist produced 'beads of flavour' from calcium alginate, and an artist interested in fear teamed up with a scientist who studies the brain.

In 'The Lab', Edwards outlines the advantage of merging art and science, two traditionally separate disciplines: aesthetic (intuition and inspiration) and analytical (logic and problem-solving). It is the marriage of these, he argues, which best brings innovation, what Edwards describes as 'that wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-fervor'.

This is not a pacy read. However, Edwards is an inspirational man, bringing solutions to things like global health through a more creative approach. 'The promise of commercial success tends to curtail creation', people 'tend to dream less' he says. I tend to agree. AS

 

Lenin's Laureate: Zhores Alferov's life in Communist science

By Paul R Josephson; The MIT Press; out now; £22.95 ISBN 978-0-262-01458-8

I recently came across a true (if little known) story of 12 Soviet biologists and geneticists at the Pavlovsk Research Station (near Leningrad), who chose to starve themselves during the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad rather than endanger the priceless collection of plants and seeds they were in charge of, capable (as they thought) of protecting the world from famine and malnutrition.

Where did such idealistic scientific devotion, bordering on obsession, originate from?

I see 'Lenin's Laureate' as an attempt at an answer. It is a 'science biography' of Zhores Ivanovich Alferov, a Nobel Prize-winning Soviet (Russian-Jewish) scientist and social figure whose career has spanned decades of Soviet and Russian history. Still a member of the Duma (Russia's parliament), Alferov shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000 for his discovery of heterojunction – a semiconductor for light-emitting diodes, transistors and the microchip.

Paul R Josephson, professor of history at Colby College, follows Alferov's career from the post-war studies at the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute. These were difficult years for Soviet science dominated by the Stalin-inspired anti-Semitic 'Doctors' Plot', whereby a group of Jewish physicians were accused of murdering Soviet leaders, and by the 'people's academician' Trofim Lysenko, Stalin's favourite, a charlatan who had branded genetics, cybernetics and new physics 'pseudo-sciences'.

These left a long-lasting impression on young Alferov, who was trying to stay away from politics to concentrate on his studies. In 1953, he got his first job at the Leningrad Physical Technical Institute (LFTI), where he discovered quantum electronics. But it was only after Stalin's death that the young scientist was able to show his full potential and was magnanimously 'allowed' by the officialdom to travel abroad.

After the short-lasting 'Khrushchev Thaw' of the 1960s, when Alferov was active in the physicists-lyricists movement uniting scientists and humanitarians in the society's democratisation, Brezhnev's stagnation set in. By then, Alferov was friendly with many Soviet human-rights activists and dissidents, including academician Andrei Sakharov, and often openly came out in their defence – a dangerous stance even for a scientist of his statute.

With time, Alferov was finding it harder and harder to stay away from politics and even resigned from his position as director of LFTI in 2003 in protest against the cuts in the Institute's budget.

As one of the very few Russian Nobel Prize winners who had not emigrated to the West, Alferov remains a prominent statesman protecting the interests of Russian science and scientists from the ever-growing governmental pressure. Significantly, the authorities of St Petersburg have recently tried to close down the Pavlovsk Research Station – the venue of the 12 Soviet scientists' unprecedented heroism during the Blockade – to build luxury villas for the city elite on its spot. As always, academician Alferov has his hands full.

For him – like for the heroic and idealistic staffers of the Pavlovsk Station – people deprived by the system of spiritual outlets (like religion) and simple joys of materialistic existence that their Western counterparts take for granted; science had always been their lives' only worthwhile cause. This is one of the conclusions a perceptive reader may arrive at, having read this revealing, thoroughly researched and engagingly written scientific biography. VV

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