Reviews and Previews: The Unstoppables

Cloudy skies, freezing rain, and mechanical trouble couldn’t keep a pair of British fliers from crossing the Atlantic in an open-cockpit biplane.

John Alcock and Arthur Brown survived a not-so-pretty landing in an Irish bog.
John Alcock and Arthur Brown survived a not-so-pretty landing in an Irish bog. NASM (SI Neg. #97-15205~pm)

Yesterday We Were in America: Alcock and Brown, First to Fly the Atlantic Non-Stop

By Brendan Lynch. Haynes, 2009. 256 pp., $39.95.

It was the spring of 1919. The airplane had proven itself as a weapon of war; now it needed to demonstrate peaceful abilities: bridging oceans and drawing the peoples of the world closer together. The Atlantic beckoned. The crewmen of the U.S. Navy’s NC-4 flying boat were the first across, flying from Newfoundland, Canada, to Plymouth, England, via the Azores and Lisbon, on May 16 to 31. But the Navy effort was quickly followed by a competition that would overshadow it: to become the first to cross the Atlantic nonstop.

As the NC-4 was winging its way toward Europe, four teams of British aviators gathered on the Canadian shore, poised to climb aboard their Sopwith, Martinsyde, Handley-Page, and Vickers aircraft and attempt to capture a £10,000 prize offered by English press baron Lord Northcliffe to the first airmen to cross the Atlantic in less than 72 hours. A pair of Royal Air Force veterans, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, captured the prize, flying their Vickers Vimy 1,880 miles in 16 hours to a rough landing in an Irish bog on June 15.

In this fresh retelling of the familiar story, Brendan Lynch punctures one of the persistent myths surrounding the epic flight. Rather than having to leave the cockpit and clamber out on an icy wing to clear the face of a critically important gauge, Brown was able to accomplish the task simply by turning and standing up on his seat. In view of the sleet and freezing slipstream, that was quite heroic enough.

Tom Crouch is a senior aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum.


The NASA Northrop T-38: Photographic Art From an Astronaut Pilot

By Story Musgrave. Lannistoria, 2009. 266 pp., $49.95.

The author, a veteran of six space shuttle flights, carried a camera on almost every flight in his NASA-issued T-38 trainer. His book features 280 color photographs selected from the more than 15,000 that Musgrave captured of and from the airplane. (For an interview with Musgrave, see p. 11.)


Soviet Strategic Aviation in the Cold War

By Yefim Gordon. Hikoki Publications through, 2009. 272 pp., $56.95.

Yefim Gordon, who was born in the Soviet Union in 1950, chronicles Soviet aircraft development for almost

50 years, up until the breakup of the Union in 1991. The book features 500 photographs (most of them previously unpublished in the West) of such aircraft as the Tupolev Tu-160, which could carry 12 cruise missiles, and the gorgeously streamlined Tu-22, the first Soviet supersonic bomber.


Instant Egghead Guide:The Universe

By J.R. Minkel and Scientific American. St Martin’s Griffin, 2009. 221 pp., $14.99.

There’s an extended “Simpsons” couch gag in which after Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie scramble to the couch, the camera rockets backward through the roof and shoots through a layer of clouds, out of the atmosphere, past the solar system, the Kuiper Belt, the Milky Way galaxy, and finally the universe, which turns out to be an atom in Homer’s eye. (It’s a sendup of the famous 1968 film Powers of Ten, directed by designers Charles and Ray Eames.) That’s one way to think of this small paperback: a literary version of the Simpsons bit. In the Instant Egghead Guide, by J.R. Minkel and Scientific American (full disclosure: I contributed to SciAm for seven years or so), each spread covers a single topic, beginning with electrons, then moving toward ever-larger objects: atoms, elements, planets, and star clusters, etc.

Instant Egghead is like snack food for the mind: perfect for the subway, a little too involved for the traffic jam. Each spread cracks the topic into three sections: “The Basics,” to describe exactly what the topic is; “On the Frontier,” explaining what it all means; and “Cocktail Party Tidbits,” a few bullet-pointed fun facts. The clever tidbits might impress someone at a party honoring the recipients of the next MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants. At a recent shindig, I said in passing, “Researchers have used big magnets to levitate live frogs, grasshoppers, hazelnuts, tulips, and other organisms,” and…silence. But it was much more of a “The most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen and helium” crowd.

Phil Scott wrote Hemingway's Hurricane (McGraw Hill, 2006).


Heavenly Ambitions: America’s Quest to Dominate Space.

By Joan Johnson-Freese. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 192 pp., $29.95.

Joan Johnson-Freese’s Heavenly Ambitions invites us into a shadowed but vitally significant corner of American technological and political life: the national security uses of space. Since the earliest years of the cold war, space and its military exploitation have been inseparable in national thinking.

This is the background for Heavenly Ambitions. Johnson-Freese lays out the history of decisions, contending factions, and ideologies that have shaped national security policy in space, particularly since the beginning of the Reagan administration.

At the center of her account is a familiar conclusion: that the rise of a conservative ideology has sharpened the divide between two visions of how space might be used to serve American interests. The conservative stance argues that space is essential terrain (think of the vital role that satellites of all kinds play in daily life) and that the nation should actively maintain control of this asset. The countervailing view is that in a global world, in which many other nations also have made space central to their ambitions, such a position is untenable and counterproductive. American interests would be better served by strategies of cooperation and collaboration. Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College, argues for the latter position. Especially for those steeped in NASA history, this short volume is worth reading, if only as a reminder of the centrality of national security in U.S. space activities and the political passions it has excited.

Martin Collins is a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.


Online Book Club

To give our readers the opportunity to dig deeper into books about aviation and space, Air & Space/Smithsonian has started an online book club. The second selection is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Davies. A physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist at Arizona State University, Davies has written a book that examines why it is taking so long to establish communications with other life forms in the universe. Those who would like to participate are encouraged to read the book in preparation for the online discussion on the Air & Space Web site in September. The book’s author will be available to answer questions from readers. For more details, visit


The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence

By Paul Davies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 288 pp., $27.

SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, began in 1960 when an astronomer by the name of Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope toward the stars and proceeded to hear…false alarms, interstellar static, and random noise. Beyond that: absolutely nothing. That has been the fate of the dozens of ever-more sophisticated sky searches in the 50 years since, a disappointing result that Paul Davies refers to as “the eerie silence.”

In this exhaustively researched, clear, and intelligently written book, Davies sets out to explain that result, and to assess the prospects for success in the future. It would be an understatement to say that Davies covers the waterfront. He canvases all the usual explanations, and then some: the ETs are not actually out there; they are, but aren't broadcasting; they are broadcasting, but not by radio; they started broadcasting but stopped; and so on, down a long list.

On the other hand, Davies also seriously considers some wilder possibilities: the ETs have already been here and left; they’re here now, but are unwilling to reveal their presence; they’ve left artifacts or sentinels around, and all we have to do is find them. More speculatively still, ETs might exist in an exotic shape or form, such as a truly jumbo, hyper-intelligent quantum computer, whose intellectual concerns and modes of thought are so incommensurate with and different from our own that it would have no reason for contacting us. “What could we possibly say to it?” he asks.

In the end, everything hinges on whether life and intelligence are rare in the universe, or abundant. Of the millions of species that have lived on Earth, technological intelligence has arisen only once, which means that it is probably a rare commodity, even if life itself is widespread. But Davies believes that life is almost certainly not common. “We are probably the only intelligent beings in the universe,” he concludes, “and I would not be very surprised if the solar system contains the only life in the universe.” An eerie silence indeed.

Ed Regis edited Extra-terrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence (Cambridge Press, 1985).

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