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Book Review: Monsters

By (September 7, 2015) 2 Comments

Monsters:monsters

The Hindenburg Disaster and

the Birth of Pathological Technology

by Ed Regis

Basic Books, 2015

According to Ed Regis in his new book Monsters, there are four defining characteristics of what he calls “pathological technology.” The first is that the technology involved will have oversized, grandiose objectives. The second is that the technological process in question will be born of “emotional fever” rather than practical aims. The third is that the process will come accompanied by systematic minimization of the risks involved. And the fourth is that there’ll be an “extreme mismatch” between the costs and the benefits involved. As Regis writes, these characteristics are too important to dismiss:

The four criteria of a pathological technology are more like diagnostic indicators than absolutely definitive guarantees. They are like signs and symptoms, such as the warning signs of a heart attack: you may experience them for accidental reasons while remaining relatively healthy. Still, you should not ignore them.

The spotlight case of pathological technology in the book is the infamous German zeppelin Hindenburg, which erupted into flames on May 6, 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The bulk of Monsters is a thorough and extremely entertaining account of the history of the Hindenburg – its construction, the colorful characters associated with its making and marketing, and its maddening, blundering shortcomings:

Zeppelins were big, but they were also deeply schizophrenic flying machines. They were unbelievably, stupendously gigantic, but they carried at most 72 passengers, and in many cases half that, whereas the Titanic carried more than 2,200. On some flights, there were twice as many crew members aboard as there were passengers. Airships bombed cities during World War I, but their navigation was generally so poor that they frequently hit the wrong target – and in one case even the wrong country. Zeppelins were marvels of construction and state-of-the-art technology, but the inner gas cells that held the ship’s lifting substance, hydrogen, were made out of an archaic animal membrane known as goldbeater’s skin – cattle intestines, lots of them.

But once Monsters moves on from the Hindenburg, it becomes an increasingly odd, Chicken-Little book. Zeppelins are fairly easy targets for cutting lampoons about doltish technology; although they could make trans-Atlantic crossings with near-miraculous speed and stunning views, they were extremely vulnerable to wind and weather, and of course they were entirely filled with highly flammable gas, a self-evidently dangerous arrangement. Regis is as dismissive as most historians have been of the improvability of zeppelin technology, and his 150 pages on the Hindenburg are merciless good fun.

But he moves on from there to other examples of what he considers “pathological technology,” his agenda starts to seem oddly alarmist, even a trifle naive. When he writes about the Superconducting Supercollider, for instance, he quotes one of the physicists involved as saying “Our work here is primarily spiritual. We are concerned with the ultimate nature of matter.” It was surprising, Regis writes, “to hear a physicist, of all people, equate the spiritual and the material,” but surely physicists are as entitled to use poetic, figurative language as anybody else? It doesn’t necessarily shove the whole thing into the category of “emotional fever.”

And what about the author’s account of the Large Hadron Collider antimatter experiments conducted by CERN? They’re fairly abstruse for laymen, but even so, Regis’s account will strike even his most science-phobic readers as blithely shortsighted:

“We’re ecstatic,” said Jeffrey Hangst, one of the researchers after [a] success. “This is five years of hard work.” Even so, the CERN experimenters had managed to confine those precious 38 anti-atoms inside a magnetic trap for all of one-tenth of a second. (Later, [the Large Hadron Collider at] CERN researchers trapped 309 atoms of antimatter for 1,000 seconds, i.e. 17 minutes, an accomplishment that was considered a very big deal.)

A cautious attitude about gigantic scientific boondoggles is all well and good, an attitude that’s warranted by the very real dangers advanced technology poses for the 21st century. But the practical ends of technological advancements can’t always be known from their beginnings (zeppelins being as much the exception as the rule), and an author who can be flippant about humans bottling antimatter under controlled circumstances – whether for a tenth of a second or 17 minutes – is an author who shouldn’t be writing about science. Monsters would have been a better book if it had stayed in Lakehurst.