The Psychopath Inside

Reading Challenge Book 38 – a Memoir

The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain, by James Fallon

Amazon link here

For this category in the challenge, I started off reading Hillary Clinton’s Living History, but it was pretty plastic and suffered hugely from telling, not showing. Deciding that life was too short and that I wanted to read a memoir that I would actually be interested in, I found The Psychopath Inside. Incidentally, in his memoir, James Fallon happened to hypothesise at one point that Bill Clinton is a psychopath. Convenient linkage.

Anyway, the opening story behind this memoir is amazing. James Fallon is a neuroscientist, who assisted in a number of scientific studies by analysing human brain scans. He was working on two studies  – one looking for psychopathic traits in the brains of convicted felons, and another analysing the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimers – when he found that one of the felons’ brain scans had accidentally ended up in the Alzheimers’ pile. Except it wasn’t in the wrong pile; James himself had been a member of the control group for the Alzheimers study, and the scan was his.

This incident a) makes a wonderful story, and b) initiated his interest in psychopathy.

How is psychopathy defined?

Although “psychopath” is a term which is frequently used, it lacks a formal psychiatric definition. However, there is a formally defined test (the PCL-R, or Psychopathy Checklist, Revised) which is used for the purposes of diagnosis. It interrogates four personality factors:

  • The interpersonal factor (including traits of superficiality, grandiosity and deceitfulness);
  • The affective factor (including lack of remorse, lack of empathy, and refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions);
  • The behavioural factor (including impulsivity, lack of goals and unreliability); and
  • The antisocial factor (including hotheadedness; a history of juvenile delinquency, and a criminal record).

One of the manifestations of psychopathy is a difficult or inability to connect with others.

Does that mean that there are similarities between psychopath and autism?

Although superficially there is a common factor between the conditions- a difficulty or inability to connect with others – it manifests in very different ways.

People with autism are able to feel empathy, the fundamental connection with the pain of others, but cannot consider the thoughts and beliefs of other people. A while ago, I watched a documentary about people on the autistic spectrum and they filmed a situation where a toy was hidden from a boy and his mother. After the mother left the room, the child was shown the toy’s hiding place. When the mother returned, it was clear that the boy expected the mother to be able to find the toy. He did not understand that a different individual had a different point of view, and didn’t automatically share his knowledge.

In comparison, someone with psychopathic tendencies can connect with other people’s thoughts and beliefs, but won’t feel any empathy toward them. It’s chilling to try and comprehend that someone can know they’re causing extreme pain to someone else but still not care.

What does a psychopath’s brain look like?

In short, switched off. Specifically, it is likely to present reduced activity in areas responsible for empathy, ethics and preventing impulsivity. This probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but The Psychopath Inside included several comparisons of ‘normal’ brain scans to those of psychopaths and visually I found the differences shocking. You can see the scans, as reproduced in a Business Insider article, here. In black and white, the image of a psychopath’s brain appears as if the frontal cortex has been completely scooped out.

The Psychopath Inside includes some high-level explanation of the functions of different parts of the brain, mapping it as a ‘rubix cube’ in segments of 3x3x3. With my GCSE biology and ignorance about the names of areas of the brain, I found this really difficult to follow, but following this in detail isn’t a pre-requisite for the rest of the content.

Is psychopathy hereditary?

Certain genes are associated with aggressive behaviour (including one known as the ‘warrior gene’), and these are commonly found in people with psychopathic traits.

James Fallon and and his family consented to genetic testing to look for the warrior genes and other aggression-related genes. It was found that his family members had around half the full complement of identified-aggressive genes, whereas James himself had almost the full set.

Other research implied a hereditary link: Research into JF’s patrilineal line included a handful of murderers and suspected murderers, all of whom had been accused or convicted of killing a close family member.

This led to a really interesting discussion of nature v.s. nurture. One concept I found intriguing was a genotype-environment correlation, and how interpretation of behaviour can be strongly influenced by bias. Imagine observing a household where the father is belligerent and hostile and his son shows aggressive behaviour. What’s the cause and what’s the consequence?

Possibly there are no apparent reasons for the son’s aggressive behaviour, and the father’s own belligerence is a direct response to living with his son’s aggressive behaviour, which he can’t influence.

But there’s another possibility. Suppose that the father has genes which predispose him to hostile and aggressive behaviour and that he has passed these on to his son. The father acts in line with his genetic predisposition and creates a hostile home environment. This hostile environment exacerbates his son’s own tendencies to aggressive behaviour. This would be a genotype-environment correlation. There’s a good chance that if the son has his own children in the future, the cycle will continue down another generation.

This leads very neatly into a discussion of epigenetics, which is something I was completely unaware of, but found really fascinating and, yes, really difficult to follow. Wikipedia is my friend. My dodgy summary is that at a really high level, in addition to having genes, we have random ‘tags’ floating around our chromosomes. In certain environmental conditions, these tags attach to our genes and affect the way that our cells read the genes. Therefore although two identical twins have identical genes, if they grow up in different environments this may affect how their cells read their genes and therefore may have a biological impact on their behaviour.

James Fallon himself had always been a strong believer that one’s genetic code influenced personality and behaviour far more than environment. It was very interesting during the course of this book to see JF become more self-aware. He went through a process of self-discovery, where the results of testing he undertook led him to accept elements of his behaviour, but also he then managed to use his knowledge of his past and behaviour to predict genetic abnormalities.


On a personal note, improving my toe-deep knowledge of genetics and anatomy has given me food for thought. I always used to believe in the supremacy of willpower and, simplistically, that determination was a quality that anyone could develop. Between what I’ve read about brain chemistry and behaviour in The Psychopath Inside, and certain well-being webinars run my behaviour, which made connections from nutrition to brain chemistry, my viewpoint is now a little less binary. (I want to say it’s more sophisticated than it was, but that’s possibility overstating things!)

I still believe that willpower and resilience are qualities that you can nurture and develop, but for me, your brain chemistry is another piece of the puzzle as it influences your predisposition to certain behaviours. That doesn’t that I think individuals don’t have responsibility for their behaviour; but I think that recognizing and accepting your innate biases and behavioural tendencies is fundamental to making any lasting change.

Could it be that this was one of my blind spots: a revelation that was really striking to me, but obvious to everyone else? I think so. Let’s move on!

How can a psychopath have a family?

James Fallon married his high-school sweetheart. He describes how, at the age of twelve, he felt an instant attraction to her, for her confidence, wit and intelligence. They dated for part of college, he hitch-hiked 400 miles (each way) to see her every weekend, and they had common interests and viewpoints. But. The next paragraph, where JF wrote how he really feels, socked me in the jaw:

You might be wondering how this story gels with someone who ostensibly lacks empathy or the ability to connect emotionally with others. The truth is, I say “in love,” but I’ve never truly felt fully emotionally connected to Diane. My connection with her emerged partially because I didn’t connect empathetically. I never understood her. She was fascinating to me, and still is. We have common goals and values – family, Libertarianism, agnosticism – so there’s a like-mindedness, but she always felt like someone from outer space. Fortunately, that has always been more than enough for me.

JF’s comments on his relationships with his family are equally disturbing.

I feel massive sympathy for his wife, as I can’t imagine having a  relationship with someone on the premise that he’s described. It’s hard for me to conceive, despite all of JF’s intelligence and sociability and other great qualities, that when Diane married James, she did anything other than settle.

Does a psychopath know that he or she is a psychopath?

This is a question that my husband and I discussed when I told him that I was reading this book. The answer seems to be no, not necessarily.

James Fallon was not aware of his own psychopathic tendencies. He worked closely with neuroscientists and psychiatrists during his career, and over the years a number told him that he was a sociopath (for example, after he blew off a presentation to go partying). He automatically dismissed what they were saying, assuming that they were joking.

A key question becomes: How does one know if one lacks empathy? If you lack it, there’s a good chance you have no idea you lack it, because you don’t know what “it” is…

For the first sixty-plus years of my life, I never thought I lacked empathy at all.

In the course of the research which underpinned this book, and after discovering that he had bipolar disorder, JF started to ask friends, family and colleagues exactly what they thought of him and how he treated people, and he asked them not to pull their punches. The responses were beyond blunt. JF’s description of his reaction on this feedback fascinated me:

After a year of hearing what my family and colleagues thought of me, I said to myself for the first time in my life, “What the hell have I done?” I wasn’t despairing, just coming to terms with my cluelessness… About three minutes later another, different feeling took over. And with all the honesty I am capable of, I admitted to myself, “I don’t care.” That’s right, “I DON’T CARE.” At that moment, I realized for the first time in my life that what they had been intimating, then whispering, then yelling to me all along, for all those years, was true.


In summary…

I found this a really interesting read – mostly very easy to follow, with the occasional detour into ‘hard’ biology. Psychopathy strikes me as being one of those topics that shares similarities to ‘tragiporn’ – it’s highly removed from the average person’s day-to-day life, creating a fascination that would be lost if it was something we seriously expected to come face-to-face with.

The prologue to The Psychopath Inside reminds me of long gone-by English lessons – it very much says what the rest of the book will say. From a marketing point of view, this must be successful – reading the introduction in isolation draws you in – but I found this slightly off-putting at times. In some chapters, an explanation of how JF’s biological traits influenced his behaviour was presented as a big reveal… but I’d already had the reveal in the prologue. This was however less of an issue in the second half of the book.

A question I’m left with is how honest a memoir was The Psychopath InsideThat’s hard to answer. Psychopaths are, according to JF, ‘champion liars’. He also says ‘I can monitor what’s right and wrong, but I don’t feel it and I don’t care about it, and it doesn’t change my behavior’. Therefore I definitely believe that he’d be fully capable of manipulating the reader and wouldn’t suffer any ethical qualm at doing so. However, the book ties into his professional field, where he’s extremely high-achieving. There’s no immediately apparent reason for him to misrepresent his own experiences and research, particularly in this area. But, who knows? Maybe that’s part of what makes The Psychopath Inside interesting.

In case I haven’t been explicit enough, The Psychopath Inside was total catnip for me. I have a number of topics to mull over and to research. I do think that it wouldn’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, but as one of my friends used to say, if it’s not, then that must mean you’re a bad person. Sorry.


Digital Fortress

Reading challenge book 9 – a book with bad reviews

Digital Fortress, by Dan Brown

Amazon link here

Choosing a book with bad reviews to read is a challenge, assuming that you don’t just want to waste hours of your life (I’m looking at you, Stalking Sapphire). I considered reading a classic that got really bad reviews on release, like Lolita or Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, I had already read most of the books on recommendation lists that I’d found, and BFF begged me not to read James Joyces’ Ulysses, so I needed a new plan.

Some books are so bad that they’re funny, a la Twilight, but finding these can be a challenge.  Sites such as Amazon or Goodreads tend not to be particularly helpful unless you deeper-dive into all the review, as these books tend to get a whole bunch of good reviews too, increasing their average ratings. But then a friend suggested Dan Brown. I have a mild interest in crypto, so when I saw Digital Fortress I knew what I was going to read next.

I’m going to pause for a moment here to apologise to any Dan Brown fans still reading this and suggest that you go elsewhere. It’s possible that this review is biased by my core belief that Dan Brown is a bad author.

Let’s talk about some Dan Brown reviews. Firstly, his website. There are a couple of glowing reviews, including a claim that US intelligence analysts are calling Digital Fortress ‘entirely plausible’ (really? who said that?), but they’re not exactly from well-known publications. Or is it just me who has never followed the Midwest Book Review?

(For the sake of trying to be moderately unbiased, I should state that I did find some several positive reviews posted online, but I’m ignoring them in this review because a) they’re not funny and b) I disagree with them.)

One great review I found (great in the sense of entertaining – it totally panned the book) was on, titled Digital Fortress – I read it so you don’t have to. My favourite quote is:

“[Digital Fortress] may be a practical joke. I’m hoping so, anyway, because the alternative – that Dan Brown spent time learning about cryptography and this is what came out – is too terrible to contemplate.”

Another that I enjoyed was from – “the gross inaccuracies, exaggerations and the amount of plain rubbish in Digital Fortress is astounding.” Then there was Geoffrey K. Pullum – see quotes below.

There’s also an amusing summary of Digital Fortress on the Guardian website, written in the style of Dan Brown novel, something that’s very popular among reviewers these days.

So what did I think about the book?

I’ve already said that I have a mild interest in crypto. Sadly, I felt like I knew less about crypto after reading this book than before going in, although I did know enough to call bullshit in several places. Luckily, I have several pop-science books about crypto on my bookshelves, so I plan to make up for my ignorance by doing some more reading later this year.

Because I’m not a subject-matter expert, I’m going to quote  a portion of Geoffrey’s review, which I referred to above:

“… the truly depressing thing about Digital Fortress is that its research is so feeble and its puzzles are so stupid. Dan Brown literally does not know bits from bytes (he thinks an encoded message presented in groups of four letters separated by spaces can be called a “four-bit code”). He doesn’t understand the difference between source code and compiled programs. He thinks there are 256 ASCII characters. His figures for time taken to break encryption keys on a parallel machine make no sense (the problem is exponential increase in difficulty, and you don’t fix that by setting up some fixed number of processors to run in parallel). He thinks once a “virus” has been disabled in a “data bank” that it has crawled into, a chief technician has to shout shout “Upload the firewalls!” (he doesn’t know the difference between loading a program into core and uploading a file from one computer to another). Just about everything he says about computers, processors (“titanium-strontium”??), data banks, viruses, algorithms, codes, ciphers, decryption, and everything else technical is nonsense”

Yep, the computer-science makes no sense. There’s also a lame bit where a pass-key is based on the elements used to create the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and everyone is completely confounded by the puzzle – and the science is wrong. Again, Digital Fortress  made me doubt myself – Wikipedia was checked – and this made me sad. 

Secondly, I wasn’t a fan of the heroine, Susan Fletcher – a hot, genius with an IQ of 170. Given that she has a top job in NASA – who no one has ever heard of in the late 90s, because it’s so top secret – she’s annoyed about having to go to work on the weekend. The words ‘get over it’ spring to mind. Also, she is surprised and confused by every twist and gasp of the plot – I think she gasps a lot, but I don’t still have a copy of the book to check so it’s possible I’m making this up. Assume that I’ve said something nasty here about what Dan Brown’s portrayal of a genius implies about his own intelligence.

Then, there’s the initial description of her appearance from the point of view of a security guard:

“The guard admired Susan as she began her walk down the cement causeway. He noticed that her strong hazel eyes seemed distant today, but her cheeks had a flushed freshness, and her shoulder-length, auburn hair looked newly blown dry. Trailing her was the faint scent of Johnson’s Baby Powder. His eyes fell the length of her slender torso – to the white blouse with her bra nearly visible beneath, to her knee-length khaki skirt, and finally to her legs… Susan Fletcher’s legs.

Hard to imagine they support a 170 IQ, he mused to himself.”

I’m still astounded by this. The security guard’s only role in the book is to describe Susan’s appearance. The level of detail… and comments on her bra… I find this seriously creepy, please-do-a-CRB- check creepy. Plus, from my admittedly limited insight into how the male mind work, I just don’t think that blokes would describe a woman like that. Dan Brown, why?

My last complaint about Digital Fortress is that it was written by Dan Brown. (This is maybe a little unfair, given that I specifically chose a book written by him, but clearly I’ve thrown all appearances of fairness and impartiality out the window by this point). It therefore has ultra-short chapters, high levels of description that I didn’t care about (see above), and an action plot where Susan’s boyfriend is inexplicably assigned to hunt down a signet ring while being chased by a killer. Yawn.

Do not read this book. The science is bad, the style is mediocre, and the ending comes out of nowhere so that it turns out the whole book was a wild goose-chase. Having said that, at least this was light relief after The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Smoke & Mirrors

Reading Challenge book 10 – A book of short stories

Smoke and Mirrors, by Neil Gaiman

Amazon link here

Selecting a volume of short stories to read was hard. To write a good short story takes a lot of skill, and I think it’s a different skill to writing a full-length book. While volumes of short stories typically have some gems, there are often a lot of duds as well.

My first choice was one of hubby’s books, a collection of apocalyptic short stories. I read the first and enjoyed it, but it left me feeling pretty cruddy. In a flash of insight, I decided that reading about the world ending in different depressing ways over and over again might accelerate my mood from cruddy to miserable, so I parked it.

Choice no. 2 was Truth and Dare, a collection of short stories confirming the truth we all know – high school is painful -and written for those who dare to be different. The premise sounds lame, but I selected this anthology because it included a short story by one of my favourite authors, Sarah Rees Brennan (check out Queen of Atlantis – it’s free and I think it’s excellent). In the past when I’ve bought anthologies that she’s been included in I really enjoyed them, but this collection lacked oomph and didn’t do it for me. Even Sarah Rees Brennan’s short story was cute but lacking bite. Maybe I’m just too old for books about high-school age kids!

So we came to choice 3. Controversially I’ve never particularly got on with the little Neil Gaiman I’ve tried, but I read a sample of Smoke and Mirrors and I really enjoyed it. Thanks Amazon.

Smoke and Mirrors is a collection of short stories that all include magic somehow. For me, there were a few memorable stories, but the majority were filler – I’d describe them as ‘real-life grit’. You know, the kind of contemporary fiction that shows life without a rose-tinted filter; instead life is gritty and depressing and often meaningless, and the books have an indecisive ending. This is never something I’ve really appreciated, or understood – it’s a massive hole in my understanding of literature. Anyway, I think that these stories were well-written, but not at all to my taste.

Highlights of the anthology were:

  • Snow, Glass, Apples (a retelling of Snow White from the step-mother’s point of view, very very cleverly-done);
  • The Wedding Present (a sekrit short story hidden in the introduction, about a letter describing the bride and groom’s life from an AU; it’s better than I made it sound);
  • Chivalry (a charming tale of a knight on a quest to win the Holy Grail from its prized place on an old lady’s mantelpiece);
  • The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories (outlining concisely why movies based on books are not that similar at all).


Hrm, I feel churlish as that’s not that many highlights. I’d be interested in knowing how Neil Gaiman fans got on with this collection. I’m still not sure if I’m just not a fan of his, or because his short-story writing just isn’t all that.

Stalking Sapphire

Reading challenge book 8 – A book written by an author with your same initials

Stalking Sapphire, by Mia Thompson

Amazon link here

Despite having taken my husband’s name and being pretty happy about it, I still automatically write my initials as MCS. For this challenge I had the great idea of cheating and reading a book by Alexander McCall Smith, but hubby was unimpressed. Hence I went for MT.

There are a number of famous people with the initials ‘MT’: Mike Tyson; Margaret Thatcher; Mary Tudor. Famous authors with the initials MT, however? The only one I could find was Mark Twain, and sadly, I’m not a Mark Twain fan. I have bad memories of written-out accents, which is really not my thing. So, I took to Amazon. There may not be very many famous authors with the initials of MT, but there are lots of authors of diet books, erotica, shifter-erotica (yes, that is a big thing). Despairing, I weighed up a book that looked promising but was expensive against the cheaper, silly, Stalking Sapphire, and decided to save my pennies. I probably just about got what I paid for, maybe; this book was bad! Although it has a 4-star rating on Amazon, which just shows that Amazon ratings aren’t that helpful.

A review on Amazon describes Stalking Sapphire as a ‘Dexter of the debutante set’, which to be fair, is probably where Mia Thompson got her idea. To fill in the detail, Sapphire Dubois is a poor little rich girl who hates her meaningless, frivolous OC-style life. So she lives a shallow lie, while giving her life meaning by hunting down serial killers in secret.

Possibly I wasn’t concentrating when I read this book, which is totally my bad. However, I never really understood why she couldn’t walk away from the life she didn’t like. There was a thing about her disappointing her wealthy family, but she’s portrayed as intelligent so presumably she could build a new life that matters, even if starting with nothing? Sorry Mia if I’ve missed something obvious.

I said that she’s portrayed as intelligent. Maybe that’s not fair. Early on she captures a serial killer by luring him into the woods into a pit trap, where the trap is marked by a ‘big X spray-painted in bright red’. She then uses her bright pink iPhone to call the police, but disguises her voice with a modulator. The iPhone is her personal cell phone, which is one of the props of her fake life.


Would you use your own cell phone to make a ‘secret call’ to the police? I admit that I’m not current on the technology needed to trace mobile phones, but my guess is no, that would be a bad idea.

What else? Aston, a hardcore detective from the rough streets of LA, has been transferred to Beverley Hills, which he hates as there’s no real crime and therefore he perceives his job as meaningless. He and Sapphire meet and have a one night stand, where she loses her virginity (yes really. There’s this whole thing where she has a fake boyfriend as another prop for her fake life; she doesn’t sleep with him, because she doesn’t like him, but he cheats on her lots so that’s okay.) Aston is intrigued by her and begins to suspect that she is hiding something.

In a deeply unexpected plot twist, Sapphire is being stalked by another serial killer, who sends her threatening mail and parcels. This serial killer knows his stuff. He’s seen through her disguise of high heels and party dresses and knows what she did last summer does in secret. Aston is therefore assigned to provide police protection to Sapphire. Despite being sent amputated fingers in a gift box, she still doesn’t tell him or anyone about her secret life, because she can hunt down the new serial killer and fix things herself. Never mind about the poor lady who’s having her fingers cut off – Sapphire can handle it! Yada yada yada, I can’t be bothered to keep outlining the plot. It’s silly.

So, a debutante Dexter? I think Dexter is great – dark, gritty, compelling. In comparison, Stalking Sapphire is pink Lego – i.e. Mia Thompson has taken something that was pretty awesome and accessible to both genders, and tried to make a girls-only version. Except Stalking Sapphire is lamer, because pink Lego is still Lego and therefore kinda cool. However, to give the book credit, I think it could be made into an entertaining made-for-TV movie for watching with your friends, a lot of booze, and mocking.

So no, I won’t be buying the sequels. And yes, I got what I deserved for being cheap and only spending 49p on a book. Mea culpa.



Reading challenge book 36 – A book more than a hundred years old

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

Amazon link here

I chose to read Coriolanus because it is one of the plays being performed at this year’s Cambridge Shakespeare Festival and I was wholly unfamiliar with it. It’s a tragedy, set in ancient Rome, and was one of the last plays that Shakespeare wrote.

I read Coriolanus on Kindle, in an edition that had no annotations whatsoever, and I have to confess that I found it hard work, more challenging than Shakespeare’s plays. I’m in the habit now of using the Oxford English Dictionary on Kindle to look up words as I read, but many words from the play weren’t included . Plus, Coriolanus – despite a gory battle scene early on – struck me as including more debate and less action than some other plays, which probably added to the challenge. Still, my opinions might have been difficult if I’d forked out for a better edition.

The protagonist, Coriolanus, is a Roman patrician and a renowned warrior, who is at his best on the battlefield where he is unbeatable. The flip side of this is that he is very sure of his own worth, sees no reason to compromise or sweeten his words, and disdains the Roman people. This is an attitude he has inherited from his mother, who extols courage and glory above all else, and appears to also despise the plebs.

In this play we see Menenius, his closest friend, and Caminius, his general, extolling Coriolanus’ virtues. However, the majority of his valour is ‘off-camera’ and much more ‘screen-time’ is given to his tirades against the common people and his refusal to amend his views. He sees his inflexibility as one of his best qualities, and possibly the ideal nature of a Real Man. This is his undoing; ultimately two of the tribunes appointed to speak for the Roman citizens, Brutus and Sicinius, are able to use his views and words against him, and banish him from Rome midway through the play.

There is real some humour when Coriolanus speaks of the common people. His first words of the play are in the first act, where the plebs are protesting against grain shortages and are calling for Coriolanus’ death, as he is the most hated of all the Roman patricians. Menenius has been speaking to them and calming them down when Coriolanus stalks in and demands:

“What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?”

He continues in this vein and gets more and more insulting as the play goes by; when the common soldiers flee the forces of the Volsces, their enemies, he remarks:

“You souls of geese that bear the shapes of men, how have you run from slaves that apes would beat! … All hurt behind; backs red, and faces pale with flight and agued fear!”

For me, it wasn’t clear whether Shakespeare intended the audience to sympathise with the Roman people or Coriolanus, and I think the play could be performed to support either view. Coriolanus accuses the plebs of being fickle, influencing the senate with their short-term demands, not being able to think for themselves, and to some extent, these behaviours are portrayed in this play. The plebs call for Coriolanus’ death; they are dissuaded; they reluctantly agree to support him as consol; they are influenced by their two tribunes and change their minds; they support Coriolanus’ banishment, and then when he threatens the city with the Volsces, they deny that they supported the banishment.

The plebs’ actions appear to support Coriolanus’ opinions, until one might consider that his fault lay not in his opinions, but in speaking them too loudly. At the same time, he’s not a good bloke, and in modern society Coriolanus would definitely run for office under the UKIP banner.


Unlike some other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Coriolanus’  head count was not significant, although the play does end with Coriolanus’ death.

I’m looking forward to seeing this play performed. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, to see which, if any parties, are cast in a sympathetic light. Another challenge will be that the play is written against the background of crowds: crowds of the plebs, protesting and calling for Coriolanus’ execution; groups of soldiers in battle; and elections held in the Senate (where presumably there would be a quorum present). The Cambridge Shakespeare Festival normally has relatively small cast sizes, with actors playing multiple roles, as was common in Shakespearean times. To me, the portrayal of numbers against a few privileged noblemen is important, so I look forward to see how this is done.

Finally, a fun fact – Coriolanus was very popular in Nazi Germany! Quoting my DK Big Book of Shakespeare,

“Coriolanus’ position as a powerful leader battling against a failing democratic system was emphasized. Germans were encouraged to see Hitler as a similar figure – with the implication that, to avoid the play’s tragedy, it was necessary for the masses to follow him unwaveringly.”


Would I recommend Coriolanus to readers? Not necessarily above his other plays, though it may just be that I didn’t ‘fuse’ with the story. I particularly enjoyed Menenius’ speeches – there is a wonderful analogy of Rome as the human body, with the Senate as the stomach! – but I didn’t recognise any memorable quotes. More importantly, I found the progression of the play’s plot, without the context of the performance, unsatisfying. But that’s just my opinion, and I do look forward to seeing Coriolanus performed.

QED – original fic

I wrote this last year because I’m a massive dork. I know I shouldn’t say this, but reading this again made me laugh a lot. Any physics errors are completely my own fault.



Electron had always been confined in metal with other repellent electrons. All the negativity made Electron unhappy. When Electron met Photon it had the most energetic encounter since its creation and sped away from metal. Electron was free.

Electron was free but still negative, even though it moved faster than it had ever travelled before. Electron couldn’t maintain its constant velocity; it slowed when it emitted photons but moved faster when it absorbed incoming photons. Although its interactions with photons were exciting, Electron was still unhappy.

Some time later (depending on your frame of reference) Electron felt something different, something wonderful, something completely opposite to all its previous experiences. Something positive. Electron was confused, because although it could feel the other particle’s momentum, Electron couldn’t detect where it was.

Electron was unable to control itself and emitted a photon too early. The photon interacted with the positron and Electron forcibly scattered, moving away from the positron and much slower now, a metaphor for its unhappiness.

Electron would have felt more negative than ever before if its charge were not constant.

Electron continued moving and regained some of its velocity through absorbing other photons, but these excitations couldn’t change its nature. Electron was negative. Electron was alone.

Electron felt the presence of another positive particle and desperately wanted to move towards the positron, but still couldn’t control its path. It hoped that this time would be different.

Electron felt Positron move closer with all that wonderful positivity, drawing Electron in. Then Electron collided with Positron, negativity meeting positivity, and all the negativity disappeared. Electron’s universe exploded in light, and both Electron and Positron were gone. Only their energy and momentum remained as two new photons travelled through space, soon to begin the adventure all over again.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Reading Challenge Book 6 – A Pulitzer-Prize winning book

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes

Amazon link here

I didn’t actually realise this was a Pulitzer-Prize winner when I started reading it, so the revelation was pretty convenient for my reading challenge. After reading Hiroshima and Gods of Metal, I was looking for a history of the development of the atomic bomb. TMotAB more than fulfilled this brief! It is quite extraordinary.

TMotAB explores the history of atomic physics from the beginning of the twentieth century, through the discovery of the electron, the postulated ‘plum-pudding’ model, the discovery of the neutron, to the realisation that uranium was capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. This history provides a huge amount of detail about each scientist who was involved, their family and educational background, something of the circumstances supporting their significant work, and detail of the hypothesis/discovery itself.

Once this discovery was made it outlines the challenges that scientists faced in bringing their discovery to the attention of the US government and in getting its support (and funding) for the Manhattan Project, then the practical challenges – engineering and chemical of developing the atomic bomb, or specifically, of manufacturing and isolating sufficient weapons-grade atomic material.

But TMotAB is not just a science book. It also considers the history of the use of weapons from WWI onwards, and the gradual shift of opinion that has led to a concept of ‘collateral damage’.

That’s a lot of material, and I think it took me three weeks to read this book. The science was hard – I found myself dipping into Wikipedia to clarify concepts – and I haven’t maintained a firm grasp of the history in my mind. I see myself re-reading this book at some point in the not-so-distant future, to try and embed some of what I’ve read.

What were my key take-aways? 

Fallout is scary, but nuclear winter is scarier

A study in 2008 investigated the likely result of a theoretical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, involving only 100 Hiroshima-scale nuclear weapons (conservative). They considered it likely that such an exchange would be targeted on cities which by nature happen to be filled with combustible materials. This would lead to firestorms which would inject massive volumes of black smoke into the upper atmosphere, spreading around the world and cooling the earth for long enough to lead to worldwide agricultural collapse. The death toll from the initial strikes would maybe be 20m, but the agricultural crash leading from the earth’s cooling would be much, more severe (the study mentions deaths of a billion).

One of the authors of the study gives a TED talk about it here. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his analysis, but the central portion discusses the information I’ve recapped here in more detail.

Bohr was a wise old bird, and the Cold War was inevitable

As the Manhattan Project progressed, one of the key decisions that the USA had to make was when to inform the USSR about their nuclear development program. The UK already knew about the program, having shared its early research with the US and strongly encouraged it to pursue development. The Soviet Union… not so much.

Relations between the USA and USSR were strained. Towards the end of the war, the extent of the USSR’s ambitions in Eastern Europe, particularly its plans for Poland, became apparent. The USSR was assessed by Truman’s advisers as being the only nation which had the technological and financial capabilities of developing nuclear weapons. As these and other tensions grew, the USA hoped that it could conclude its war in the Pacific without the USSR’s involvement, so that post-war, it would be supreme in the Pacific sphere. The USA feared that if Stalin knew about the atomic bomb, the Soviet Union would accelerate its timetable for involvement in the Pacific, increasing its post-war influence there.

Arguably, the US government took a short-term, WW2-centric view when determining its use and disclosure of the atomic bomb. However, certain scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, such as Leo Szilard and Niels Bohr, were already considering the wider picture and the longer-term consequences of the government’s decisions.

Imagine a world where America built the atomic bomb, but then instead of deployment, shared the knowledge of its existence and capabilities with the rest of the world . Imagine that other world leaders were able to think beyond the instinctive reaction of ‘These new weapons will make me all-powerful’, and realise that a world where everyone has nuclear weapons is less secure than a world where no one has them. Imagine that all countries banned the development of nuclear weapons, and that their munitions research was made sufficiently transparent that no country could develop its own nuclear weapons without discovery. Imagine that this scientific transparency led to wider, social transparency, where social conditions in every country were open for judgement and comparison, exposing the inequality in the world and alleviating it.

This was Bohr’s vision. It was clear to him that if the USA delayed informing the Soviet Union of its development of nuclear weapons for long enough, this would lead to serious distrust between the Allies, which would increase the risk of a nuclear arms race. He shared his concerns and suggestions with Churchill, FDR and then Truman.

But ultimately the USA put its national interests first, and the Soviet Union independently found out about the Manhattan Project following reports of the Trinity testing in July 1945. And it turned out that hiding massive military secrets from a paranoid dictator didn’t build the level of trust necessary to support a long-term truce.

Bohr’s vision was idyllic. It was also misunderstood by others and then misrepresented to the key stakeholders in the US government. It never had a chance.


The people

The history of nuclear science wasn’t just told through discoveries but also through the personalities of the players, and this helped bring this history to light. Previously I hadn’t realised how many Jewish scientists were in the European scientific sphere pre-WW2. During the war Born and a number of other scientists worked tirelessly to help find positions for Jewish scientists within non-occupied countries (Britain took on the largest number of scientists).

This paints a picture of how Europe’s science program lost out and how America and other countries benefited – for example, one hundred refugee physicists emigrated to the US between 1933 and 1941. Other up and coming scientists potentially had their careers destroyed. After Bohr left Denmark, Einstein wrote to him saying, “I am glad that you have resigned your positions. Thank God there is no risk involved for either of you. But my heart aches at the thought of the young ones.” It’s probably silly to be moved by this when so many people in Europe died, but it’s just one (small) illustration of the upheaval to people’s lives.

Thank God for computers

Reading about the Manhatten Project inspires me with a sense of awe similar to reading about the work at Bletchley Park, or the development of the US’s space programme. The intense, coordinated effort of so many people to innovate and achieve the seemingly unachievable astounds me. Especially as they did it all with slide rules.

Okay, that’s blatantly not true for the space programme, but the technology we depend on every day just didn’t exist. If you look at the achievements made, where basic technology was shored up with pure genius, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.

Physics + Chemistry = OTP

The history gave me a better understanding of the relationship between physicists and chemists in the discovery of fission. Discoveries were two-directional: chemists designed experiments to attempt to verify physicists’ theories, and physicists used unexpected experimental results to develop their theories of the atom. I hadn’t previously appreciated that uranium is the largest naturally-occurring element (thereby a good candidate for sustainable fission).

Interestingly, some scientists (e.g. Leo Szilard) predicted the possibility of sustainable nuclear fission very early on in the history of nuclear discoveries, but were unable to identify any elements where it occurred through experiment alone. Other scientists discovered fission through experiment but didn’t realise the implications of their experiments.

Chemistry is hard

I don’t think I had any sense of what chemistry was like outside of school, and how hard it could be, until I read this book. A good example is the difficulties that scientists experienced when trying to identify the by-products of the fission of uranium.

By bombarding uranium with neutrons, scientists were able to initiate and detect beta decay. This suggested to them that the product of this reaction might be an element with a higher atomic number than uranium (i.e. the as-of-yet undiscovered plutonium). Chemists then tried to prove this experimentally.

Fermi performed his own research into this, using his knowledge that the fission product was a beta-emitter. His first step was to take his sample (i.e. the original uranium compound plus its fission products) and dissolved them in nitric acid so that they would be in solution. Then, in a series of experiments, he added another chemical (known as a carrier) to the solution, to initiate a chemical reaction and create a precipitate that could be separated from the solution. He finally tested the precipitate for radiation. Given that the fission product was a beta-emitter but the uranium compound was not, he knew deduce that if the precipitate were also a beta-emitter, the fission product had been separated from the uranium solution by the chemical reaction and precipitation.

By performing this experiment with a number of different chemicals, and using his knowledge of the reactions of these chemicals with elements in the periodic table and their related compounds, Fermi was able to prove by exclusion that the fission product was not uranium, protactinium, actinium, etc. Not what it actually was. That’s ridiculously hard work, especially given the time-pressure caused by the fission product’s half-life of only 13 minutes.

Everything I’ve just described is trivial compared to the process for separating plutonium from irradiated uranium.

Separating isotopes is harder

So separating chemicals is hard. What about separating isotopes? Think about U235 and U239 – they have extraordinarily similar chemical properties, and their mass is less than 2% different. Scientists were able to propose three key methods of separation, which relied on this mass difference, but as the difference was so small the methods had to be used iteratively – repeated over and over again – to achieve any level of enrichment.

Who would I recommend TMotAB to?

To read this book, you would have to have a genuine interest in the history of nuclear physics, otherwise it’s just too dense. Similarly, if you’re the kind of person who describes yourself as ‘Oh, I was always terrible at maths,’ I suspect this might not be the book for you – not because there’s any hard maths involved, but because I suspect most people wouldn’t find the science interesting if they’re not at all maths-inclined. Lastly, there is a definite time-investment to reading TMotAB – I wouldn’t pick it up if work, or anything similar, is taking up all your time.