Applying the Exact Amount of Power

A strange early piece of science fiction from Czechoslovakia about atomic power, and a fascinating non-fiction book which looks at the development of precision engineering.

Issue #59, Friday 2 February 2024


On My “Reading Table”

Something different this time around…

My ‘Reading Table’, showing the covers of four books. ‘A History of the Bible’ in hardcover, ‘There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness’ in a hardcover from the library, ‘The Half Life of Valery K’ on an ereader and ‘Exactly’ as an audiobook on a phone

This is the top of the small wooden table which sits next to my favourite chair, with my reading material on the day I took the photo126 January 2024. laid out for your interest.

Laid out like this, of an evening I can pick up one of these and read a chapter, or an article, from one book and then put it down and pick up another. Not quite so easy with the audiobook, of course, but I do occasionally plug in my headphones and listen to twenty minutes or so. Normally I only listen when I’m out walking.

I’m not usually reading four books at once, but it’s not all that uncommon, either. And because three of these are non-fiction works, it’s pretty easy to keep them all straight in my head. I don’t think I could keep four works of fiction so easily separate.

For the record, we have:

Also on the table is the essential polishing cloth to keep my glasses clean enough to read with!

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

An Atomic Phantasy by Karel Čapek

Cover of An Atomic Phantasy by Karel Čapek

(Translated by Lawrence Hyde)

Another read prompted by my New Year’s Resolution to work through books I have owned for some years but never read. I qualify that with the paper books I haven’t read. My backlog of digital books that I own is now vast and unlikely ever to be conquered unless immortality is discovered soon.

Anyway, An Atomic Phantasy, published in 1925 under the title of Krakatit in the original Czech, has been sitting unread on my bookshelf since I bought it in 1991, so 33 years ago! So I picked it up and read it.

Was it worth waiting so long to read it? I’m not sure. It’s certainly an interesting book, and quite strange, a mixture of the real and the surreal. I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, and it took a bit of a push for me to finish it.

It’s interesting to me that as I read it, the term “Kafkaesque” kept coming to mind. Yet now that I look it up, Krakatit was published in the same year as Kafka’s The Trial, and a year before his The Castle. Though Kafka was writing in German and Čapek in Czech, Kafka was born in Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic, and to me there are certainly similarities between their works, though Čapek has a more optimistic outlook.

So, what is An Atomic Phantasy about? Well,the protagonist is an engineer or inventor named Prokop; I’m not sure that we ever learn his first name. He’s in his late 30s. As the novel opens he’s wandering the streets of Prague in a daze, with a badly injured hand. He encounters someone who claims to know him. In the original, this man’s name is Jiří Tomeš but in this translation it has been changed to the very English-sounding George Thomas. Thomas helps the injured Prokop and takes him to his own flat, where Prokop becomes increasingly feverish and starts having bizarre dreams. Prokop tells Thomas that he was injured after an explosion in his laboratory, an explosion of a white substance he has invented and called “Krakatit”. A bare trace of it, a mere scattering of powder, had been left on his workbench while the bulk of what Prokop had made had been in a closed porcelain box. It was this trace which unexpectedly exploded and blew Prokop out of the window, badly injured, after which he went wandering, afraid to return to his laboratory.

Prokop, it seems, has discovered that all matter is potentially an explosive.2Today we recognise this is true. It’s a consequence of the famous equation E=mc2 derived from Einstein’s work in 1905, but even by 1925 I don’t think it was a well-known fact among the public. Furthermore, Prokop claims to have discovered a way to turn any substance into an explosive, and in Krakatit to have developed an explosive so powerful that a small box-full would blow up a substantial part of a city.

While Prokop lies in a delirium, Thomas tries to get him to tell him the chemical formula for Krakatit and how to make it. In his innocence, Prokop tells Thomas part of the story, but then holds back on the details of the process. When he finally wakes from his fever, Thomas has disappeared. Prokop remains in the flat as he slowly attempts to recover.

Later, on a mission for a mysterious veiled woman who turned up at Thomas’ door, Prokop travels to the country to where he believes Thomas’ family lives. There, he discovers that the family has no idea where Thomas is, and Prokop relapses into delirium for a long time.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the rest of the book. Suffice it to say that Prokop’s invention and technique is eagerly sought after by powerful forces in several countries. In his desperate pursuit of Thomas, Prokop is eventually captured by one of these national forces and essentially imprisoned in the grounds of a castle, but given his own laboratory and pressured to reveal his secret. Several surreal things happen to him there, possibly just in his own mind.

While a prisoner, he manages to fall desperately in love with the Princess whose family own the castle. Their fraught and, on both sides, slightly hysterical relationship occupies a long and for me a very tedious segment of the book which really doesn’t drive the plot forward.3In fact, Prokop is continually falling in love with various young women throughout the book: the mysterious veiled woman; a teenage girl in the country; the Princess; a lascivious red-head who he encounters late in the story. Yet he’s completely hopeless at relationships, and you rather feel like kicking him.

Knowing that it could be used in war and result in millions of deaths, Prokop stubbornly refuses to give up the secret of Krakatit and eventually manages to escape the castle without doing so. But then he falls into the hands of a group of Communist agitators who want to use Krakatit to trigger a socialist revolution. Getting out of their hands, in the end Prokop discovers God (quite literally) and achieves a measure of peace. Krakatit is not unloosed on the world.

So, as I say, definitely interesting, particularly as a prediction of eventual atomic warfare, but I can hardly say that I recommend the book (even if you could find a copy).

Exactly by Simon Winchester

Cover of Exactly by Simon Winchester

The subtitle, “How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World”, is an almost perfect summary of this non-fiction book. Winchester is a highly prolific author of well-researched books covering a wide range of topics, but usually with a focus on geography or the history of technology. Like David Grann, he started as a journalist, initially covering Northern Ireland during “The Troubles”, certainly not an easy beat, followed by various assignements in other parts of the world. Since then he has published over 30 books, all but one, a novel, being non-fiction.

This one is packed full of fascinating facts, as Winchester delves into the history of how engineers and inventors developed their understanding of how important precision in measurement and manufacture is, and how it could be achieved and increasingly bettered.

An example given by Winchester in his first chapter perfectly illustrates this: the first full-scale steam engines developed by James Watt in the late 1700s were very inefficient. When in operation they were hard to see because they would inevitably be surrounded by clouds of condensing steam leaking from their parts. The problem was the cylinder surrounding the moving piston. Made of iron sheets hammered and forged into a circle, they were far from perfect in shape, the consequence being that steam escaped readily from any point where the shapes of the piston and the cylinder didn’t closely match. It was this problem solved by the eccentric John Wilkinson, who had developed a technique for making superior cannons for the Navy by inventing a machine to bore out their interiors from solid metal, rather than the hollow cylinders being cast whole, as had previously been the method. It was this machine and technique that Wilkinson now brought to James Watt’s steam engine, producing a cylinder whose interior matched the shape of the piston to within a tenth of an inch (“the width of an English shilling” was how it was expressed) in a fifty-inch diameter cylinder. The efficiency of Watt’s engine was vastly improved. And so the Industrial Revolution began.

Each chapter of the book starts with a number representing the amount of “tolerance” achieved by the developments in that chapter. The lower the tolerance the better. So we start in Chapter One with a tolerance of 0.1. Each subsequent chapter drives down that tolerance as new techniques and materials are developed, until in the final chapter we reach an astonishing tolerance of 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01, an almost incredible 10-35 yet required in systems like LIGO used to detect gravitational waves. This is equivalent to measuring the distance to Alpha Centauri A to within the width of a human hair.

On the way, Winchester covers a wide range of really interesting stories to do with the development and applications of precision: from the mechanisation of shaping pulley blocks for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars; through the idea of perfectly interchangeable parts for rifles (and the fraud carried out by Eli Whitney); the parallel but very different stories of Rolls-Royce and Ford Motors; the development of jet engines for aircraft; and much, much more.

A highly entertaining read (or in my case, an entertaining listen, as I experienced it as an audiobook). Recommended.

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli

Cover of There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli

Rovelli is a wonderful science communicator (see my thoughts about his recent book White Holes), but writes about many other things than science, as this collection of short articles from various newspapers illustrates. The long title of the book comes from an observation he makes on entering a mosque in Mbour, a city in Sengal in Western Africa.

These pieces cover a very wide range: from thoughts about major scientific figures such as Isaac Newton, Copernicus, Einstein and Darwin, to why he is an atheist, to the fascination of the minds of octopuses4The plural of octopus is not octopi no matter what you think. The word is not Latin but Greek, which would make the plural octopodes. If we spoke Greek. But since we speak English, and not Greek, it’s octopuses. Fight me! and whether flying donkeys exist.

All of these are quite short pieces, so very easy to pick up and read just one or two at a time. And every one is thought-provoking and extremely readable, and some are very moving.

Definitely recommended.

Currently Reading

Covers of A History of the Bible by John Barton and The Half-Life of Valery K by Natasha Pulley

Want to Read

Covers of Devil’s Kitchen by Candice Fox, Land of Milk and Honey by C. Pam Zhang, Sanctuary by Garry Disher, and The Hunter by Tana French

Some new or recent books by favourite authors which are all “must-reads” for me:


And that’s your lot for this issue. See you in a couple of weeks.


Footnotes
  1. 26 January 2024.

  2. Today we recognise this is true. It’s a consequence of the famous equation E=mc2 derived from Einstein’s work in 1905, but even by 1925 I don’t think it was a well-known fact among the public.

  3. In fact, Prokop is continually falling in love with various young women throughout the book: the mysterious veiled woman; a teenage girl in the country; the Princess; a lascivious red-head who he encounters late in the story. Yet he’s completely hopeless at relationships, and you rather feel like kicking him.

  4. The plural of octopus is not octopi no matter what you think. The word is not Latin but Greek, which would make the plural octopodes. If we spoke Greek. But since we speak English, and not Greek, it’s octopuses. Fight me!


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