Odessa by Charles King and The Philosophy Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder: Review
Two great journeys this weekend: first to the haunted city of Odessa filled with scoundrels and adventurers; then a trip back to Victorian England where four scientists changed the modern world—over breakfast.
A Town Crowded With Ghosts
It is said that the best way to approach Odessa for the first time is from the sea. But I took the overnight train from Kiev and stumbled down Pushkin Street toward the city center. Coming in by land, not long after dawn, you catch her by surprise, groggy, a late sleeper not yet made up for the day. She is without doubt a she: Named for the Greek explorer but feminized from Odessos on the orders of her patroness, Catherine the Great.
In the early 1990s, Odessa was a sensory opener. I lived in Kiev, in those days short on soft toilet paper, colors other than drab, or good cheer (the plentitude of liquid spirits helped). Arriving in Odessa, the light and smell immediately struck you. An early autumn sun lit up cobblestone streets, tall acacia trees, and handsome and nearly all decayed 19th-century buildings. There was a bright casino named Richelieu. My supposedly fancy hotel, the Londonskaya, sat down the street from the Potemkin stairs in Sergei Eisenstein's film masterpiece and strived for a kind of old world charm with Soviet clumsiness. A brackish breeze blew off the Black Sea, mixing with rotting garbage, human sweat, cheap cleaning products, and undefined fumes.
The city had a rough grace and a mischievous streak. The men walked with a confident swagger when so few Ukrainians or Russians did; the women, to my 22-year-old eyes, looked stunning. The mayor was (and remains) a native Jewish Odessan, a gruff but clever operator. It was like no other city in the collapsed Soviet imperium, and rather brought to mind Marseilles, New Orleans, or Thessaloniki, port towns with storied pasts.
Yet spend time with her and the myth of Odessa's past comes to overshadow the present. This is a town crowded with ghosts. Like its founder the Spanish-Irish José De Ribas, who modeled her in the image of his birthplace, Naples, and after whom the city's most fetching street, Deribasovskaya, is named; or the innovative French governor, the Duc de Richelieu, who oversaw her formative years in the early 19th century. Long gone seamen and traders made Italian its lingua franca. And, of course, the Jewish community chronicled by Isaac Babel. You end up alternatively nostalgic and elegiac over the lost world of one of Europe's youngest cities, barely 200 years old.
Charles King caught the Odessa bug, too, and his engaging and highly enjoyable Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams does this special place justice. A professor at Georgetown, King brings a travel writer's gift for clear prose and keen observation to history. I found his telling of Odessa's unlikely birth and early years, which takes up the first half of the book, hard to put down.
When Mark Twain visited in the summer of 1867, he wrote, "We saw only America!" As always, Twain was on to something. Though of the old continent, Odessa was then a young frontier town in wild lands conquered by Russia only 80 years before. North of the city the plains were once dominated by the nomadic Scythians, Tatars, and Cossacks. After the Russians captured the Turkish citadel at Khadjibey in 1792, de Ribas, who served among other foreigners as a senior officer in the czarina's military, proposed to Catherine the Great to build a new city on this site to anchor her "New Russia," a southern answer to St. Petersburg. She loved the idea.
The timing and location were propitious. Long overlooked by global trade routes, the Black Sea soon opened up and became "the common domain of the Nations of Europe," wrote Robert Stevens in 1819, and Odessa the center of "vast speculations." The city and its libertine ways attracted all kinds. In internal exile, Pushkin came through for a while, carried on a scandalous affair with the wife of the governor and wrote Eugene Onegin. Music, nightlife, humor, and criminality thrived. In the waning days of the Russian empire, Odessa became "a breeding ground for agitators, saboteurs and terrorists," writes King, who were drawn to the city's radical politics and cosmopolitanism.
Jews lived here as nowhere else in Europe. Though Jews made up a quarter of its population, Odessa never had a Jewish quarter, except when Romanian fascist occupiers created a ghetto during World War II. "Class and wealth, rather than religion or ethnicity, were the determinants of neighborliness," King writes. Jews found a profitable niche as middlemen between farmers in the hinterlands and large export firms in the port. Odessa was never renowned, like a Cracow or Vilnius, as a center of Jewish scholarship or culture. This was, King says, a "special community of progressive, optimistic and economically successful Jews."
Yet Odessa's "cosmopolitan idyll" (to use King's phrase) was not what it seemed. The second half of Odessa tells a monstrous, important yet familiar story. Odessa was the site of the first large anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian empire in the late 19th century. Tensions rose with the dislocations brought by the industrial age, astronomical population growth in the city, and economic troubles. The Jews were, as in so many other places, easy and proximate targets. The Russian state was happy to exploit and steer the anger of the Slavic underclass. The May Laws of 1882 put restrictions on Jewish property ownership and political life. The rising repression was a spur to Zionism and waves of Jewish emigration from Odessa.
King dwells on "the darker city that lurked behind the enlightened one" a bit much for my taste. Odessa's helter-skelter nature revealed itself in positive and awful ways, but it was not so much better or worse than many places at that time, in that region of the world. The sad outcome was not unique to Odessa, either. The Bolshevik Revolution stamped out the city's vibrant and multilingual character. The Romanians wiped out a chunk of the Jewish population and the migrations of the Brezhnev and Glasnost eras took away all but 36,000 or so Jews who are left behind in Odessa, now in an independent Ukraine.
The Second World War created many such Atlantises in Europe: Vilnius and Lvov without its Jews and Poles, Breslau (now Wroclaw) and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) without its Germans, and so on. Yet the old Odessa isn't submerged as deeply as some of those cities. King ends on a realistic and apt note. "Visiting Odessa today, you can feel and smell a place that, in the middle of the twentieth century, became practiced in the art of devouring itself," he writes. "Yet an identity that embraces people who speak with an accent, talk too loudly, and are somehow your neighbors is still there in Odessa's streets, even amid post-Soviet kitsch." There's plenty of life left in her yet.
— Matthew Kaminski
Eggs and Metaphysics
Sunday Brunch is an institution. In New York, the eggs are plentiful, the mimosas and Bloody Marys free-flowing, and the gossip essential. But Laura Snyder's The Philosophical Breakfast Club might make you question your brunch priorities: she recounts how, over booze-soaked Sunday breakfasts, four of the most brilliant scientific figures of the Victorian age plotted a second scientific revolution and became fast friends.
The central quartet of Snyder's tale were each distinguished thinkers: the mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed the first programmable computer, the astronomer John Herschel, the polymath William Whewell (pronounced Who-ell), who became master of Cambridge's Trinity College, and the corpulent and hedonistic Richard Jones, whose achievements pale in comparison to his fellow brunchers, despite important contributions to political economy. The four first met during their halcyon undergraduate days at Cambridge University. By 1812 they were regularly meeting for decadent breakfasts—every Sunday morning in Herschel's luxurious rooms in St. John's College. Only after they had polished off vast quantities of food, coffee, and (most importantly) ale did the serious business of the Philosophical Breakfast Club begin: debates over the very underpinnings of science.
Inspired by their shared hero Francis Bacon (the great English scientist, essayist, and philosopher who played a pivotal role in the scientific revolution 200 years before) the Philosophical Breakfast Club debated the empirical method, the role of the state in scientific progress, the status of natural philosophers, and ways in which science ultimately benefits society. None of these questions had obvious answers, and providing solutions would ultimately guide the life's work of the club's members.
Snyder weaves a compelling, if occasionally meandering, tale of the transformation of science in the Victorian era. However, her book is more narrative than analytical, and she doesn't truly engage with the extensive body of literature on the history of Victorian science. But she leaves the reader with an inspiring sense of just how influential these men were in shaping our world and laying the foundation for major science and technological changes, especially in three different areas.
Capitol Ideas: Obama's recent 2012 budget has been relatively kind to science funding, but with a Republican house looking to cut $60 billion in discretionary spending, chances are that the biggest funders of science research—the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health—could face significant cuts. How should big government relate to big science?
In the days of the Philosophical Breakfast Club, scientific research was generally privately funded by wealthy individuals who could afford to devote their leisure time and their fortunes to building expensive instruments and conducting experiments. Herschel, Babbage, Whewell, and Jones thought that the government should take a much more active role in supporting science—not only would this build a more egalitarian scientific community, but it would mean that the benefits of research would be used to help society.
In 1821, Babbage had the idea for his first Difference Engine, the predecessor of the modern computer. Accurate calculations were essential for almost every field of industry, from navigation to engineering to banking, and they relied on published (and often inaccurate) numerical tables of the values of logarithmic and trigonometric functions. Human "computers" used these reference tables for their 10-hour days of meticulous calculation.
Inspired in part by the power of industrial machinery, Babbage set about designing a steam-powered calculating machine. He won a substantial grant from the government, and began to build the mechanical columns, interlocking gears, and weighted levers that formed the components of his computer. Eventually, as Babbage's vision grew ever more expansive, the government invested over £17,000 ($28,000). Almost two decades later, when he was on the verge of completing his grand Analytical Engine (which would have been the world's first programmable computer), the unsympathetic and impatient state cut him off.
Babbage never had the chance to complete his groundbreaking calculating machine. But the central government, rather than nobility's patronage for pet projects, had become the primary avenue for scientific funding.
Data Overload: If it feels today that we are drowning in a sea of information, with data mounting faster than we can track it, we can actually thank (or curse), in part, our quartet. Babbage, Herschel, Whewell, and Jones set out on massive projects to collect and make sense of vast data sets. Herschel completed staggering surveys of the stars and nebulae and spearheaded a vast "Magnetic Crusade" to understand the world's geomagnetic field. Whewell mapped worldwide tides using data gathered from a network of dozens of far-flung colonial observers. Jones led one of the most detailed surveys of England. And Babbage dreamed up a machine that could churn through and make sense of this information. Each of these projects, too, depended on the British government for financing.
When they started their philosophical conversations, however, these sorts of data sets were rare. The members of the Breakfast Club had a data underload, and they were frustrated by the lack of truly empirical and inductive thinking. With the global reach of imperial bureaucracy and the production power of a new industrial society, it suddenly became possible to collect and process information from around the world. The Breakfast Club members released an avalanche of numbers—a flood of information that swept through and transformed science and society, building their vision of true Baconian empiricism. The Victorian obsession for quantification was born.
Faculties of Arts and Sciences: How should science relate to the arts? One of the most remarkable things about the Philosophical Breakfast Club is how universally and apparently limitlessly knowledgeable and talented were its members. Whewell was an historian, theologian, scientist, and philosopher, and also just so happened to publish an important book on Gothic architecture. Herschel was an astronomer, botanist, and chemist (he made important contributions to photography), and also completed and published a translation of The Iliad into English hexameter verse.
These philosophical brunchers represented one of the last generations wherein such expansive intellectual fertility was possible: later in life, all would complain about the narrowing of scientific disciplines and the fragmentation of knowledge. Ironically, they might only have themselves to blame—both for the professionalization and specialization of science and for the gradual schism between science and the arts. Institutional funding of science, combined with educational reforms which Whewell championed at Cambridge, helped turn science into a true profession instead of a dilettantish past-time, and the more rigorously applied empirical methods combined with vast new quantities of data required these professional scientists to narrow their studies in order to learn established results and contribute new discoveries.
In 1833 at Cambridge, Whewell hosted a meeting of the newly founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. After the applause had died following his powerful introductory remarks, the famous and aging Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (less than a year away from his death) criticized Whewell for calling his scientific work "natural philosophy"—digging in mine shafts or toying with electrical apparatus was not true metaphysics, he said. Coleridge demanded that they no longer call themselves "philosophers."
In a famous coinage, Whewell rose and responded that perhaps "by analogy with artist, we may form scientist"—the first known usage of the term. For such polymaths, the connection between art, science, and philosophy was natural. With Snyder's book the call to action is clear: bring the arts and the sciences back to the breakfast table and raise a mug of ale in memory of the four Victorian scientists who changed the world.
— Alexander Fabry