Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Nine by Gwen Strauss

The Nine by Gwen Strauss is a compelling and important book subtitled The True Story of a Band of Women Who Survived the Worst of Nazi Germany. The women were all in their twenties and resistance fighters arrested in France, many of them just prior to the liberation of Paris in 1944, tortured and sent to Germany. 

The book preserves the history of atrocities committed in the concentration camps, something that feels vital especially as few of the people who were there are still alive. Along with the stories of horrific treatment of the Jews and other prisoners, Strauss as the niece of one of the nine heroines also writes how they escaped from an end-of-war death march and tells the story of each woman: Hélène Podliasky, Suzanne Maudet (Zaza), Nicole Claraence, Madelon Verstijnen (Lon), Guillemette Daendels (Guigui), Renée Lebon Châtenay (Zinka), Joséphine Bordanava (Josée), Jacqueline Aubéry Du Boulley (Jacky), and Yvonne Le Guillou (Mena).

The majority of the nine women were arrested by French police and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany (with estimates of the death toll there ranging from 30,000 to 90,000 between 1939-1945), and then a labor camp in Leipzig. Between January and May 1945, Germany started to empty camps ahead of oncoming armies as saw they were going to lose the war and were trying to cover up evidence of their crimes against humanity. They increased executions and sent prisoners on death marches, sometimes towards other camps, sometimes just walking to their deaths. An estimated 250,000 of the 714,000 survivors in camps at the beginning on 1945 would die during forced evacuations between January and May.

The nine women were marched out of the labor camp on April 14, 1945, part of 5,000 women that were in the camp sent on the road. Several days later the nine slipped out of a column and hid in a ditch. They then started their journey trying to get back to France. As they worked their way through war-torn German villages, they at times said they were guest workers, refugees, or simply kept their story vague. They were helped by people along the way, some enthusiastically, some begrudgingly, and had multiple close calls, each of which they carried on through, never giving up. They had a map drawn for them that was on police letterhead and used that multiple times to pretend that they had approval to travel. They made it to the front line, April 21, forged the Mulde River going from stone to stone, and met American troops near Colditz. The women were given food and shelter and then went to a Red Cross refugee camp in Grimma in anticipation of going back to Paris. Hitler killed himself on April 30, Germany surrendered May 7, and seven of the women took a transport train to Paris May 16, with Hélène staying behind to work with the US Army and Jacky to help run a home for refugees.

It's amazing that the women survived as there were so many points, especially before their escape, they could have died. Strauss details the atrocities from the concentration camps, how the Germans created sports out of depravity and noted that when the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, they found 800,000 women’s outfits and 14,000 pounds of human hair. Then after the women returned home, many people didn’t want to focus on the horrors of what the Germans did, rather on the brave male soldiers who won the war. Also, people didn’t understand what the prisoners in concentration camps went through, and many of the former prisoners dealt with health problems as a result of the camps, not to mention the psychological pain. As Strauss tells the life story of each of the women, she notes the intra-generational trauma suffered by many over the decades. It’s a powerful book, telling the stories of who the women were and what they did, and also the atrocities committed by the Germans, with the remembering of these stories bringing to mind for me the famous phrase “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Monday, May 17, 2021

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell is a solid and short read first made as an audiobook and then turned into a hardcover. It expands on stories from his Revisionist History podcast and is described as a tale of persistence (with Gladwell noting his appreciation of obsessives), innovation, and the wages of war. 

Three primary characters detailed are U.S. Generals Curtis LeMay and Haywood Hansell as well as Carl Norden, inventor of the Norden bombsight. Hansell was the architect of precision bombing, using the Norden bombsight to surgically strike enemy choke points in an attempt to win wars with less loss of life. The story is told of WWII efforts to bomb German factories in the town of Schweinfurt that produced ball bearings, and the enormous casualties suffered by U.S. air forces, with Curtis LeMay commanding planes directed by Hansell.

LeMay took over for Hansell when he was relieved of command in the Pacific theater and took the opposite approach, employing morale bombing, with the intent of shortening the war by demoralizing the enemy. Bombing of Japan was only possible after U.S. forces took the Mariana Islands, some 1,500 miles from Tokyo, and developed the B-29 bomber, with a range of a bit over 3,000 miles.

In the first bombing runs with B-29s over Tokyo, they discovered the jet stream, with the winds making it impossible to accurately drop bombs from altitude. LeMay switched from the daylight raids favored by Hansell to low-altitude night bombing raids. LeMay also employed area bombing with napalm, and on March 9, 1945 Operation Meetinghouse had more than 300 B-29s drop napalm bombs that killed roughly 100,000 people, with everything burning for 16 square miles. This was followed by napalm bombing of many other Japanese cities and it was interesting reading of how this firebombing campaign, along of course with the dropping of the atomic bombs, played a huge role in Japan surrendering in August 1945.

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria

Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria is a short book by the CNN host that contains some interesting sections and points, with those that stood out noted below:

Lesson four: Listen to the experts-and the people - The point is made that expert opinions matter, and also that people can take hard news if you give it to them directly.

Lesson seven: Inequality will get worse - The federal government should step in to help the people who need it most. People's lives can be stabilized with direct aid and massive infrastructure spending that both helps them and builds for the country.

Lesson nine: The world is becoming bipolar - It's crucially important to have at least a semblance of a relationship with China, as conflict between the U.S. and China would be disastrous. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson is a great book that’s subtitled Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Isaacson writes about CRISPR, genetic engineering, and the fight against COVID-19, which the book was conceived of prior to, but features prominently in the introduction and the final section. All of this is covered well by Isaacson through the lens of the main character, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Jennifer Doudna. Early in the book there’s a story of her in the sixth grade reading The Double Helix by James Watson about his co-discovery of DNA. Doudna was fascinated by how science could be exciting and full of mystery and it led her to want to work in the field. She had to overcome skeptics who didn’t believe girls should aspire to a career in science and as a graduate student in chemistry, she focused on RNA, the molecule in a cell that copies instructions coded by DNA and uses them to build proteins. Her mapping out the structure of RNA was very akin to what Watson and Francis Crick did in discovering the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953. 

DNA is what contains genetic information in cells and Doudna and her collaborators in 2012 found that some bacteria developed clustered repeated sequences, or CRISPR, in their DNA. It was found that these sequences were an immune system that bacteria adapted when attacked by a new type of virus. Doudna and her team discovered that along with RNA, these sequences could be engineered to edit DNA. The way it works is: 1. A Cas9 protein joins with RNA and guides it to a DNA sequence, 2. The Cas9 cuts into the DNA, likely chopping out a gene, 3. A newly programmed piece of DNA with a preferred gene gets inserted where the cut was made. Watson found that the DNA holds genetic information, Doudna how to edit that by using RNA. 

Isaacson notes that figuring out when to edit our genes will be one of the most consequential questions of the twenty-first century. The first half of the twentieth century was based on the atom and creating a nuclear age, the second half on the bit and creating the information technology era, and now we’ve entered the life-science revolution centered around the gene. There's a difference between non-inheritable, or somatic, gene editing and gene editing that crosses the germline. In the non-inheritable version, you're changing a genome in someone, and in germline editing you're engineering a change that will be inherited by all future descendants.

CRISPR gene editing is now being used to treat sickle-cell anemia, cancers, and blindness, and last year Doudna and her team explored how CRISPR technology could detect the coronavirus, and hopefully in the future play a role in fending off future pandemic-causing viruses. The book starts by noting it as a way to potentially engineer inheritable edits in humans that would make our children, and all of our descendants, less vulnerable to virus infections like we’ve had with COVID-19. This sounds like a good thing, but there are very legitimate concerns about genetic engineering, or germline editing. There’s the treatment vs. enhancement question, or continuum conundrum. Fending off a pandemic is a worthwhile endeavor, as is perhaps eliminating maladies like Huntington’s disease, but what about other things ranging from HIV-susceptibility, to deafness, IQ, and height? Additionally, should you cross the germline to accomplish something that could be done another way? In 2018, a young Chinese scientist used CRISPR to edit embryos and remove a gene that produces a receptor for HIV, which led to the birth of twin girls and the world’s first designer babies. It was crossing a threshold; one the scientific community had held back from to that point, and in this case of trying to get children less likely to contract HIV later in life, there’s less drastic steps that could have been taken. Also, making this type of genetic engineering a choice that parents can readily make would have the impact of increasing inequities in society as well as likely limiting diversity and understanding of differences in people. 

There’s also interesting content in the book about competition in the field, both friendly and not so friendly, and about biological hackers, people doing for life sciences the same type of tinkering that was done with personal computing, putting power in the hands of the people. The last portion of the book is about the reaction to COVID-19 and Isaacson covers the collaboration when scientists responding to the pandemic. The genetic sequence of the virus was posted online by Chinese researchers on January 9, 2020. On Mar 13, Doudna convened a meeting of top doctors to figure out what they would work on, with many of the efforts around developing tests for the virus given the limited Federal response. Doudna’s lab did its first COVID tests, of Berkeley firefighters, on April 6. Also covered is how the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines injects a snippet of RNA rather than a weakened version of the virus; it’s a genetic vaccine that guides cells to produce components of the virus. This knowledge of RNA and what it could do helped the vaccines get produced in record time, and will also be helpful in responding to future viruses.