‘What Price Glory?’

NASA/JPL/Kinetikon Pictures
Jupiter’s atmosphere in the area of the Great Red Spot, shown in a mosaic of images taken in 1979 by the unmanned space probe Voyager 1. This image comes from Michael Benson’s 2003 book Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, which is now the basis of the Smithsonian’s exhibition ‘Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System,’ at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., May 26, 2010 –May 2, 2011. Benson’s new collection of astronomical images, Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, has just been published by Abrams.

Steven Weinberg is famous as a scientist, but he thinks deeply and writes elegantly about many other things besides science. This collection of his writings is concerned with history, politics, and science in roughly equal measure. The picture on the jacket shows dark waves on deep water with a distant suburban shoreline. The water is Lake Austin in Texas, and the picture is a view taken from the window of the study where Weinberg thinks and writes. He is a native of New York who has taken root and flourished in Texas. His chief contribution to our civilization is his leadership in the understanding of nature. After twenty years of experiments in particle physics had displayed a tangled landscape of particles interacting with one another in incomprehensible ways, Weinberg’s mathematical wizardry dispelled the confusion and revealed an underlying unity.

But he is not only preeminent as a mathematical physicist. He has also made important contributions to the discussion of history and politics. He is one of the founders of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of citizens who have worked steadily for forty years to bring scientific wisdom into public debates about political and military problems. He has been called to Washington to testify at congressional committee hearings on strategic questions. He has become almost as expert in military history as he is in mathematical physics.

A reader who has time for only one piece should read Chapter 12, “What Price Glory?” It goes deeply into the history of military technology, from the twenty-first century all the way back to the eleventh. Weinberg finds in many diverse times and places a common theme. Military leaders and military institutions have a constant tendency to glorify technology that is colorful and spectacular, even when it leads them repeatedly to defeat and disaster.

The most durable of the glorified technologies was the medieval horse carrying a knight in armor. The knight was armed with a heavy lance pointing forward. The tactic by which the knight was supposed to win battles was a cavalry charge, the horses and lances overwhelming foot soldiers with irresistible force. Weinberg examines the evidence and finds that successful cavalry charges were rare. More often, foot soldiers defeated the charge by moving out of the way of the horses or by occupying strong defensive positions. After the charge was…

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