Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Fixing history

Someone once wrote, "History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." All of us, amateur and professional, who call ourselves historians work hard to make sure this anonymous person was wrong. We can't do anything about not being there, but we can ensure we write about what happened. (I reject the "post-modernist" school of thought which says we should give up on acquiring objective knowledge of the past. The Japanese either attacked Pear Harbor on 7 December 1941 or they didn't.  If you want to know what Admiral Yamamoto had for breakfast that morning and find no sources, you just say that detail is lost to history: it doesn't affect the truth or objectivity of the details you CAN document.)

Sometimes writing history means fixing our own mistakes.

Where do mistakes in history come from?  I can think of four examples.

In The First Space Race: Launching the World's First Satellites, 499 endnotes and six years of work didn't prevent us from being wrong about a test launch of the Viking sounding rocket. I had used a single source, an interview, and I'd written a comment down wrong and never went back to check. So this is a case where the historian (me) wasn't careful.

Other times, we just miss something. I'd written that the model of the US Explorer 1 satellite displayed at a post-flight press conference was black and white, based on a photograph. It wasn't: in all that research, co-author Erika Vadnais (nee Lishock) and I never learned that there was a color version of the photo which showed the model was colored copper and blue.  Another way to miss something is not to talk to the original sources if available: all museum models of Explorer 1 are black and white, but the payload engineer, then (1999) still alive, told us the flight article was bare stainless steel with white striping, and historian John Bluth at NASA JPL dug out a previously unpublished photograph that demonstrated that recollection was right. (The museum models, all of them, are still wrong, and we've made no headway in getting that fixed.)

Explorer 1 (shown here with Sputnik 1) as it did NOT appear. 

Third, a historian can publish the best available material only to have future material declassified or discovered after publication. This isn't the historian's fault, but it needs to be fixed whenever possible. (alas, First Space Race didn't sell well enough to get a second edition. I have covered all the mistakes and new information in this blog and elsewhere: you may think that's not really adequate, but I've done the best I can.)

Fourth, historians can repeat something without checking. The memoir of Wernher von Braun's US Army boss, General Bruce Medaris, said that the first orbit of Explorer 1 was verified by the announcement "Goldstone has the bird." This seemingly authoritative quote went into every subsequent book that touched on Explorer 1, including William Burroughs' 1986 Pulitzer Prize winner ...the Heavens and the Earth.  But no one had ever checked the quote, and we found that Medaris, despite being a principal actor in the Explorer 1 drama, was wrong: the tracking station at Goldstone in California did not yet exist.  So we discussed this in The First Space Race, theorizing that Medaris accidentally ascribed an announcement from a later mission to Explorer 1.

Richard Easton points out in this column in The Space Review that two authors, both of whom could have accessed the right information easily (as in Wikipedia-easily) misstated the origin of the GPS satellites, including conflating them with the earlier Transit program. Transit was the first satellite navigation system, developed by the Navy for use in ship and sub navigation, but it wasn't technically related to the Air Force's later GPS. Easton notes that Stephen Johnson's book, Where Good Ideas Come From, gets this wrong. It's ok to make a mistake if you correct it, but Johnson blew him off when he pointed out the error, and that's inexcusable.  Likewise, Annie Jacobson's The Pentagon's Brain, about DARPA, makes a hash out of the origins of GPS, including giving DARPA a role it never had.  I already distrusted Jacobson for some ridiculous pseudoscience crap in her book about Area 51 and many errors in her Operation Paperclip. The trouble is that her books sell very well and the errors will likely carry into the future.

These seem to be cases where the writers didn't do enough research and self-checking: they may have seen something incorrect in a source, or read but misremembered something, and just went with it.  I get it: I've done all that: but you have to be willing to fix it.  I don't have a solution, except to remind all writers of history that they have a responsibility to get it right.  We can't draw the right lessons from history of we don't get history right.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Aviation History: My Dad and the Piper Enforcer

I like aviation history and, like many others, enjoy the tales of oddities, one-offs, and planes that never quite made it..

My dad had a hand in one such bit of history.  The P-51 (later F-51) was the dominant U.S. land-based fighter of World War II: indeed,  it stayed in service into the 1980s, and the Dominican Republic have retired the last operational Mustangs in 1984.  Not bad for a plane built in a tremendous hurry and rushed into production: the most famous model, the P-51D, could escort bombers to Berlin and was vital to the US air offensive. (It also starred in the well-meaning but historically and technically screwed-up movie Red Tails).

Anyway, when my father was working for Piper Aircraft in the early 70s, Piper developed a ground support plane for a USAF competition (PAVE COIN) for a cheap export aircraft (the USAF was doing a separate program for its own needs, which led to the superb A-10 "Warthog").  Dad worked on it at Piper in Vero Beach, FL, where we lived, and I remember him going to the "fly-off" at Eglin AFB to support it in competition.  The PA-48 Piper Enforcers were heavily modified P-51 airframes, armored and fitted with Lycoming turboprop engines.  Alas, they never caught on with the USAF or anyone else, and one was destroyed in a crash into the sea off Vero Beach.  Dad had a lot of fun on that project (and worked a ton of overtime).

Dad told me that, even with the addition of more weight including wingtip tanks and underwing stores pylons, the Lycoming gave it so much power the Enforcer consistently outran the P-51 being used as chase plane, and Piper had to rent a T-33 jet to do the task instead. One pilot told him the tests were being monitored by, of all people, British intelligence, one member of which said they found it odd Piper didn't scramble its radio messages. This program was a departure for Piper anyway, since the company had never built an armed aircraft and hasn't since.  Florida's representatives continued to push for it, even claiming it was better than the A-10.  (I have a memory for these things, and I read a mid-70s headline in the paper that said, "Air Force Overlooks Enforcer; Better, Cheaper Plane.")  The program did have a sort of coda, with two new planes built by Congressional direction in the early 1980s, though Dad had left Piper at that point and was not involved.

According to the Aviastar website, the surviving plane Dad worked on (known as PE-1) is in storage somewhere.  He hopes it joins the 1980s airframe that's currently on display in the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH. If the plane is ever properly displayed, Dad hopes someone opens it up and looks at the job he did wiring it. Not only is the wiring precise, it's completely clean, not a drop of solder out of place.  He hopes someone says, "The SOB who wired this thing knew what he was doing."

Aces, Dad.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Great Planes: the B-36 and the Albatross

On FaceBook, we have one of the most fun groups I've ever run across: The Greatest Planes That Never Were.  There's all kinds of information on airplanes that were never built, never passed the prototype stage, etc.  
There's a wealth of expertise among the group members, too, so I tapped that to examine the feasibility of a plane I designed in my head for a novel.  

"I was playing with a fictional adventure set in 1959 that uses the next development of the nuclear NB-36H: the NB-61X Albatross, a larger twin-fuselage aircraft, the reactor set in its own streamlined pod around the CG, with an endurance of weeks without ground support and months with occasional touchdowns for food, engine oil, etc. the intent was to build a superbomber with a large suite of defensive and offensive weapons that could maintain constant air alert, but the Albatross was too slow and too costly, and only one was built. (For the story we get into circumstances where a patriotic crew has to steal it to stop a traitorous politician' plot, and all sides want to destroy it....) I know the climb rate would be terrible (thinking of emergency boost rockets to escape from attack), but what else would be a consideration? Could you build a wing that would handle the mass? Enlarge the wings? Enlarge the tailplanes? All thoughts welcome. (This is a Young Adult adventure, with a bit of the old Mike Mars vibe, so not everything has to be as accurate and detailed as it is in, say, Flight of the Old Dog, , but I'd like to make it ring true.)"

Surprisingly, the real experts thought it was pretty good. They suggested different engine configurations (the original B-36 was underpowered with its six piston engines, though it improved when jet pods were added.)  So I plan to revisit the Albatross!  

The B-36 was pretty amazing, still, with its  230-foot wingspan and 10,000-mile range.  I've seen a couple at museums: the size exceeds that of its its replacement, the B-52.  It was used for a variety of tests that provided curious-looking one-off versions. Herewith some views of a great plane. 

From top: B-36D with "six turning and four burning:" test aircraft with attachments to tow two F-84 fighters on the wing tips: and NB-36H, testbed for a nuclear-powered bomber (the reactor was not tested in flight).  Then we have the YB-60, an atempt by Convair to build a swept-wing version to compete with the B-52. Only one was built.  Below all these: the fictitious  NB-61H. Photos USAF.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Great Sperm Whale - in the sea and in the media

The sperm whales are, and were, a fearsome bunch.  The modern species  (Physeter macrocephalus), is the largest predator on Earth, now or ever.  It reached at least 68 feet (this exceptional individual was corralled by Russian whalers in 1950), while some scientists have backed up whalers who claim it reaches, or used to reach, 80+ feet.  It sunk two whaling ships, most notably the famous Essex now depicted in the movei In the Heart of the Sea, and probably sank more which had no survivors.  The ancestral Livyatan melvillei, whose fossils were found in Peru in 2008,  ruled the seas 12-13 million years ago. It was almost as large as its descendant had a full set of teeth, as opposed to the current whale's lower-jaw-only set (which it doesn't even seem to need to slurp down squid.  An ever earlier sperm whale, perhaps the first of the line, was announced in 2015 as belonging to a new genus, Albicetus ("white whale," although we have no idea what color it was in life).  It was announced after fossils found in California in 1925 and originally assigned to a prehistoric walrus  were re-examined. 
Everything about this whale is bizarre. Seen from the front, the animal looks like one of those over/under rifle/shotguns, with the smaller rifle barrel underneath. It has the most powerful and unique weapon ever discovered in nature, a sonic cannon that can stun prey like the giant squid. It can weigh 57 metric tons, maybe more.  It has the largest nose that has ever existed, but can't smell.  A big bull's skull may be over 5.4m long, the same size as the Ford Freestyle SUV in my garage. They are, surprisingly, preyed upon by the smaller pack-hunting killer whale. Rather than bite, the sperm whales go into defensive rosettes where they wave their massive tails or try to push the orcas away with their giant bodies, neither of which seems to work very well. 

The Essex whale was claimed by sailors to be 85 feet long, although exaggeration is to be expected when the whale is sinking your ship. One paper (McClain 2015) accepts 84 feet, and the Nantucket Whaling Museum has a 5.5-m lower jaw ascribed to  an 80-foot specimen: both figures are disputed. Cameron McCormack has a good dissection here.   Richard Ellis suggests they don't get much over 62 feet (19m). The claim of Amos Smalley, who said he killed a solid white whale 90 feet (27.4m) long is universally rejected as an attempt to get (or give) publicity related to the 1956 film version of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. However, white whales have been killed on one occasion and photographed on another. 
The novel has been made into umpteen movies and television specials, including some really weird ones where Moby Dick is a giant prehistoric whale or a white dragon.  Here's a great list.  (The most interesting of the post-Peck efforts was the 1998 two-part TV film starring Patrick Stewart, who was mesmerizing as Ahab but undone by cheap, silly-looking whale effects. An interesting 2011 two-parter had good sea action, but the superb actor William Hurt misfired as Ahab - while I praised his performance in an earlier post, thinking back on it he seemed more cranky than unhinged, and adding his wife (Gillian Anderson, always good) served only to distance him a little more from Melville's iconic Captain.
So that in a nutshell is one of the world's greatest predator, and some of the attempts to capture it.  The animal is so exceptional that it doesn't seem blasphemous to cite Simon the Zealot's line about Jesus in Ezra Pound's poem The Goodly Fere, "They'll no get him all in a book I think  / though they write it cunningly." Melville wrote it cunningly, spectacularly so, and several authors, most recently Richard Ellis, have attempted to write its real life (Ellis, I think, gives us the best nonfiction portrait), but the great whale is still out there, a mystery in many ways despite modern satellite tracking, mass slaughter, and the fascination of scientists, laypeople, and whalers. 

I'll be back after I see the new movie!

(All images from US government sites)

The definitive modern reference is:  Ellis, Richard (2011). The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature. Zoology University Press of Kansas. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Stomping on Newsweek's Bigfoot special

I knew I was in trouble then the first photos showed a trail of yeti tracks we KNOW are goat tracks - indeed, this trail was never claimed by cryptozoologists to be the yeti's.  I knew we where in more trouble when the next photo showed a "yeti scalp" we KNOW from direct testing is from an animal called a serow.  Despite some good quotes and short interviews  (the bits with Les Stroud and Drs. Bindernagel and Meldrum are interesting) and great photography, this issue overall is not worth your money.  UFOs? "Savant abilities?" "Permission" from a scientific meeting to describe a new species? There's no such thing.  You submit your description to a peer-reviewed journal, and it's accepted or it isn't.
Seriously, who wrote this mishmash? Surely not scientists or qualified science writers.
Sasquatch is a large upright primate, no more and no less.  It either exists or it doesn't, and silly mentions of "a new (read: unscientific) way to do science" or mystical contact or whatever are laced all through this publication.  If Bigfoot uses toilet paper, he can have my copy of this.