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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Terrible Hours: The Greatest Submarine Rescue in History - Peter Maas, Peter Mass The hero of this book, Charles "Swede" Momsen, is one of the most inspiring figures I have read about in ages. Momsen's distinguished career started in the late 20s. He was a US Navy submariner and diver; unlike nearly all his colleagues, he felt that, when accidents occurred on submarines, there should be some way to rescue the trapped sailors. The prevailing wisdom was that there was nothing to be done in these cases, and one just had to accept it as an inevitable risk. Momsen had been present at two disasters where submarines had sunk in relatively shallow water, and everyone had drowned. He was distressed by what he had seen, and became increasingly sure that there must be a solution.

Operating mostly on his own, Momsen first pioneered a novel breathing device, the "Momsen lung", which allowed a crew member to leave a downed submarine and make his way to the surface. There were many technical problems; you could run out of air, be attacked by "the bends" if you came up too quickly, or be killed by the internal pressure if you held your breath and ended up with a chestful of expanding gas. Momsen tested many different designs, all of them on himself, and risked his life dozens of times as he worked out the kinks in the idea. He finally produced a version which allowed a safe ascent from a depth of 200 feet, and gave a public demonstration in the Potomac river. When it was reported in the papers, some senior Naval officials had not previously heard about his work. Far from being pleased, they were outraged by what they saw as his insubordination in not going through appropriate channels.

The "Momsen lung" was just the first of Momsen's many brilliant ideas. He was doubtful that it would be sufficient when the water was too deep, or too cold, and in parallel developed a diving bell, which could be lowered down to a stranded submarine and pick up crew members though an escape hatch. Momsen's superiors grudgingly admitted that it was a breakthrough, but thought they had a score to settle after the supposed insubordination in the earlier project; they spitefully insisted on naming the rescue bell after another member of the project, and giving him the greater part of the credit. It says a lot about Momsen's dedication that he only admitted many years later how hurt he was by this petty piece of interdepartmental politics.

Although several examples of Momsen's rescue bells were built, they had never been tested in a real situation. Then, in May 1939, a new sub, the Squalus, suddenly sank during initial testing. 33 men were trapped on board, at a depth of over 240 feet. Momsen immediately flew to the scene, mobilizing a bell and some of his best divers. He coordinated every aspect of the rescue mission, which was extremely difficult and hazardous, and got everyone up without loss of a single life; it was rather like an underwater version of Apollo 13. The Navy was not content, and wanted to know why the Squalus had sunk. Momsen then also led the salvage operation, where his men had to make over 600 dives. He successfully brought the boat up to the surface, and got it towed to a dry dock. Once again, there were innumerable problems, but not one of Momsen's divers even suffered serious injury.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on the Squalus rescue, but some of Momsen's later exploits are if anything even more impressive. During World War II, a new type of torpedo had been issued to Pacific Fleet submarines, and it rapidly became clear to everyone who used them that there was a serious design flaw. When the torpedo was fired at a target broadside-on, it would often not explode; the submariners were forced to unlearn their training and attack at an angle, where the target presented a smaller cross-section and was correspondingly harder to hit. Senior Naval officers refused to admit that the issue existed, but Momsen acquired a batch of torpedoes, and carried out tests where he fired them directly at a cliff face. Sure enough, a torpedo refused to explode, just as the submariners had said. Momsen salvaged the unexploded torpedo, which contained 600 pounds of TNT, and personally cut it open to see what had gone wrong. He was able to pinpoint the mechanical problem, and localize it to a firing pin which was a millimeter or so too long. Within a few weeks, all the remaining torpedoes had been modified by having their firing pins trimmed, and they functioned perfectly for the rest of the war.

Well. And I sometimes get annoyed because third-party software doesn't work as advertised, or my superiors are insufficiently appreciative of my efforts. Puts things in perspective, doesn't it? As I said, a truly inspiring story.