The Atlantic Monthly, May 2009

atlantic-may-2009Recently attempts have been made to launch spacecraft that would sail on the force of photons emanating from the sun.  “Solar sailing” may be a technology that will make it possible to achieve very high speeds, perhaps more than half the speed of light.   An article describes these efforts and the history behind them.  The first place I heard of solar sailing was in a story by Arthur C. Clarke, who according to the article was a major figure in the drive to build them.  Clarke suggested that solar sails might power the first probes intentionally sent to the stars.  The article also mentions the late astrophysicist Thomas Gold, who argued that solar sailing was impossible for the same reasons that perpetual motion machines are impossible.  Once advocates manage to get a sail out of the atmosphere, we should find out whether Gold was right and solar sailing is a physical absurdity, or Clarke was right and it is the royal road to deep space.     

In a review of recent books on the Holocaust, Benjamin Schwarz points out that ordinary Germans knew a great deal about the slaughter of European Jewry as it was going on.  Not only was the genocide too vast to be truly secret, but the leaders of the Nazi regime may actually have wanted a certain degree of knowledge of their worst crimes to leak out:

By establishing the murder of the Jews as an open secret—open enough that awareness of it pervaded society but secret enough that it couldn’t be protested or even openly discussed—the Nazis devilishly nudged the nation into complicity, and further bound the population to its leaders.

Did the German population perceive the killing of the Jews as a crime, or were they so far gone in their anti-semitism that it seemed like a reasonable thing to do?  Apparently a psychologist named Michael Müller-Claudius conducted interviewed senior Nazi party members in 1938 about their attitudes towards Jews.  He found that 5% of these “fully rejected antisemitism,” while another 69% would not admit to being hostile towards Jews.  If even senior Nazis hesitated to embrace their party’s official antisemitism, one would expect the population at large to have very queasy consciences about the Holocaust.  Schwarz closes his piece with discussion of a line by Goebbels, “As for us, we’ve burned our bridges behind us … We will either go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or the greatest criminals.”  I have no idea whether the Nazi regime really did play this coy game with the German public, but the thought that they might have is the sort of idea I tend to find irresistible.   

Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother writes a piece about Edward Upward, who for a little while in the 1930s was perhaps England’s most influential man of letters.  By the time Upward died this February at the age of 105, he had outlived all the authors on whom he was an influence; certainly his name was not familiar as theirs still are (Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNiece, Cecil Day-Lewis, among others.)  I note the piece here because of its reference to “Upward’s novel Journey to the Border, which was thought of by many as the only English effort at Marxist fiction that was likely to outlast the era in which it was written.”  I might want to read that some day.

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  1. cymast

     /  April 23, 2009

    So A, did I ever tell you I drew a diagram of a Perpetual Motional Machine? I might still have it around here somewhere . . it’s really quite simple, actually- gravity and magnetism is all it is . .


    When I think of the Holocaust I sometimes wonder if a full-scale Holocaust could happen today in the USA. But it seems way too far-fetched. I know that around the time of the Holocaust, the conditions in Germany were very different from the conditions in the USA today. But still, the Holocaust wasn’t THAT long ago, really . . and I know there’s a Holocaust being waged against women and homosexuals in many areas across the globe.

  2. acilius

     /  April 23, 2009

    You told me about the diagram, but you still haven’t shown it to me.

    If we think that the Holocaust can’t happen again, then maybe it’s more likely that it will- maybe we’ll be less vigilant about policing the little Hitlers among us and inside of us if we think that the Holocaust is some distant, alien thing. On the other hand, maybe it’s the other way around- maybe thinking that it can happen again will make us quicker to see an Auschwitz at the end of every road we would rather not take, and so will incline us to destroy our opponents rather than make any compromise with them.

  3. cymast

     /  April 23, 2009

    “You told me about the diagram, but you still haven’t shown it to me.”

    oh…….I see

    I personally view the Holocaust as “some distant, alien thing.” But in my defense, the Holocaust is just too bizarre, really. But then a lot of reality is just too bizarre- the state of humanity, for example. It’s like a paradox to me.

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