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Book Review: Leo Beranek’s Riding the Waves, and George Cowan’s Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute October 1, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 102 (September 2011): 581-582.

© 2011 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.

Leo Beranek. Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry. x + 230 pp., figs. Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press, 2008. $24.95 (paper).  George A. Cowan. Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute: The Memoirs of George A. Cowan. 175 pp., illus., index. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010. $18.50 (cloth)

William Thomas

Leo Beranek and George Cowan are both important figures within the history of the twentieth-century physical sciences. However, neither was so important that his memoirs will be of widespread historiographical interest. Therefore, rather than gauge how the standard caveats regarding the autobiographical genre may apply to these books as works of history, it is better to consider their usefulness as resources that historians can draw on to suit their own purposes.

Beranek is an acoustician who earned a doctorate in engineering at Harvard before World War II. During the war he became the head of the electro-acoustic laboratory based at Harvard. Afterward he served as the technical director of the acoustics laboratory at MIT, before steadily diverting his efforts, in the 1950s, into his highly successful engineering consulting firm, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN). In the 1970s, as president of the investment group Boston Broadcasters, Incorporated (BBI), he helped develop an ambitious programming strategy for Boston’s WCVB Channel 5 TV station.

Historians will appreciate Beranek’s attention to detail. Writing at a level of sophistication that should satisfy all but the most specialized needs, he recounts a variety of projects in acoustics, from the elaboration of general theory to the design of sound suppression equipment. Riding the Waves should also be of use to historians interested in music and architecture, who will find helpful leads in Beranek’s discussions of the designs of various performance spaces. Regional historians could make use of his accounts of his extensive interaction with commercial, cultural, and media institutions in the Boston area.

Beranek’s history of BBN should prove especially valuable for historians of business and technology. Beranek founded BBN in 1948 with his senior colleague at MIT, Dick Bolt, when Bolt procured a contract to design the acoustics for the new United Nations complex in New York. The firm grew rapidly and went on to provide services in the design of aircraft engines and symphony halls. For historians of computation, there is a good account of BBN’s 1957 hiring of J. C. R. Licklider, who urged the firm into computers. In the late 1960s BBN provided the interface message processors for the first ARPANET connection and then managed the network as it grew.

The book also presents Beranek’s defenses against criticisms made of him in high-profile controversies. He recounts BBN’s role in the late 1950s in setting noise standards for jet airplanes against aircraft manufacturer resistance, the circumstances leading to the initially poor acoustics of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center in the early 1960s, and the protracted licensing battle in the 1960s and early 1970s that preceded BBI’s takeover of Channel 5 in Boston. I am ill-positioned to judge the details of Beranek’s histories. However, he certainly offers rich portraits of problems arising at the varied intersections of research, engineering, human perception, aesthetics, the public interest, government regulation, business, and jurisprudence.

While Beranek extends his zeal for detail to topics such as his geriatric diet and his passion for skiing, his writing style is conversational and engaging, even when the material becomes dense or peripheral. It is only the book’s lack of an index that might frustrate its potential as a resource.

George Cowan is a physical chemist who was a junior member of the American atomic bomb development project, first at Princeton and then at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. After the war he joined the Los Alamos laboratory, where he worked on the further development and testing of nuclear weapons. He then obtained a Ph.D. at the Carnegie Institute of Technology before returning to Los Alamos, where he spent the bulk of his career as a radiochemist and administrator. In the 1980s he became the first president of the Santa Fe Institute, an important center for work in chaos and complexity theory.

Manhattan Project to the Santa Fe Institute offers a fascinating and tactile look at some of the experimental practices in uranium and plutonium research in the 1940s, which will help enrich our patchy understanding of fission-related science at Princeton and the post-1942 Met Lab. Likewise, our understanding of postwar nuclear research remains inferior to our knowledge of atomic politics. Cowan offers useful glimpses of research in areas such as the synthesis of elements in hydrogen bomb explosions, which illustrates some of the unusual opportunities for scientific advance afforded by nuclear weapons testing.

Lamentably, for historians, these scenes only constitute hints of what might be achieved through more focused or synthetic historical studies. Cowan provides a staccato series of reminiscences, rather than developing a detailed account of events informed by his privileged perspective. Many chapters are only two or three pages long. The prose lurches forward awkwardly, as descriptions of research work give way far too quickly to tangential anecdotes. Historical experts will not find more than brief glints of illumination on most of the topics he addresses, such as the detection of nuclear weapons tests and the artificial synthesis of heavy elements. Nonexperts should seek better primers where available.

Cowan’s approach is especially disappointing in his short and superficial treatment of the Santa Fe Institute. Though a site of considerable interest, the institute is afforded little more space than the other eclectic topics addressed in the book. The deep epistemological problems of analyzing complex systems are glossed over in favor of a pitch vaguely suggesting the benefits to be found in studying not only these systems but also his other far-ranging late-career interests, notably psychological and neurological development in early childhood.



1. Will Thomas - October 1, 2011

Beranek’s book actually made xkcd’s “map of the internet” especially interesting for me, as it shows that all IP addresses beginning with 4, 8, and 46 belong to BBN.

Also, the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota, has several oral history interviews that deal with BBN.

Finally, the Isis version of this review mistakenly states the call letters for Channel 5 to be WCTB. The book itself does refer to it as WCTB, but only once; this seems to have been the instance I used when looking up the letters for my review.

2. Will Thomas - March 21, 2012

Quick addendum for the record. The AIP has long and detailed interviews with Beranek, both from 1989, available online here and here.

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