Oct 172019

Today is the birthday (1760) of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, often referred to as Henri de Saint-Simon, a French political and economic theorist whose writing played a substantial role in the development of political theory, economics, sociology, and the philosophy of science. He created a political and economic ideology known as Saint-Simonianism that argued that the needs of an “industrial class,” which he also referred to as the working class, needed to be recognized and fulfilled to have an effective society and an efficient economy. Unlike  other theorists analyzing industrializing societies who conceived of the working class as manual laborers alone, Saint-Simon included all people in the class who were engaged in productive work that contributed to society, so that he included businesspeople, managers, scientists, bankers, etc. along with manual laborers and others. Saint-Simon argued that the primary threat to the needs of the industrial class was another class he referred to as the idling class, which included able people who preferred to be parasitic and benefit from the work of others while seeking to avoid doing work themselves. Saint-Simon stressed the need for recognition of the merit of the individual and the need for a hierarchy of merit in society and in the economy, such that society had hierarchical merit-based organizations of managers and scientists who were the decision-makers in government. He strongly criticized any expansion of government intervention into the economy beyond ensuring that there were no hindrances to productive work nor to reducing idleness in society, regarding intervention beyond these as too intrusive.

Saint-Simon is sometimes classed as a utopian socialist, which is unjust, but he did influence many who became such.  He also inspired the likes of John Stuart Mill, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Karl Marx.  It may be legitimately claimed that Saint-Simon founded a science of society (i.e. sociology) by being the first philosopher to recognize society as an entity in its own right, separate and separable from the individuals that make it up, and subject to its own laws and principles.

Saint-Simon’s personal life was strange and convoluted.  He was born in Paris as a French aristocrat. His grandfather’s cousin had been the Duke de Saint-Simon. From his youth he was highly ambitious. He ordered his valet to wake him every morning with, “Remember, monsieur le comte, that you have great things to do.” Among his early schemes was one to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans by a canal, and another to construct a canal from Madrid to the sea. During the American Revolution, Saint-Simon fought for a period for the revolutionaries believing that their revolution signaled the beginning of a new era. At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, he quickly endorsed the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In the early years of the revolution, he devoted himself to organizing a large industrial structure in order to found a scientific school of improvement. He needed to raise some funds to achieve his objectives, which he did by land speculation. This was only possible in the first few years of the revolution because of the growing instability of the political situation in France, which prevented him from continuing his financial activities and indeed put his life at risk.

Saint-Simon and Talleyrand planned to profiteer during The Terror by buying the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, stripping its roof of metal, and selling the metal for scrap. He was imprisoned on suspicion of engaging in counter-revolution activities. He was released in 1794 at the end of the Reign of Terror. After he recovered his freedom, he discovered he was immensely rich due to currency depreciation, but his fortune was subsequently stolen by his business partner, and he spent most of the rest of his life in dire poverty, being supported sporadically by friends and relatives, and spending some time institutionalized.

In 1823, disappointed by the lack of results of his writing (he had hoped they would guide society towards social improvement), he attempted suicide in despair. Remarkably, he shot himself in the head six times without succeeding in killing himself – only in losing his sight in one eye. Very late in his career, he did link up with a few ardent disciples, but died in 1825. He was buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Marie Antoine (Antonin) Carême was a younger contemporary of Saint-Simon’s and can be claimed to be as much of an innovator in French cuisine as Saint-Simon was in social science. Carême was abandoned by his parents in Paris in 1794 (aged 10) at the height of the French Revolution, and so worked as a kitchen boy at a cheap Parisian chophouse in exchange for room and board. In 1798, he was formally apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous pâtissier with a shop near the Palais-Royal. From there he went from height to height, being celebrated throughout Paris as the greatest pâtissier of all time.  Engravings of his confections are legendary.  Later in life he established culinary rules that eventually became entrenched in French haute cuisine.  Here’s a gallery for you:

Sep 292018

Enrico Fermi, the nuclear physicist was born in Rome on this date in 1901. The scientific school where I taught for 2 years in Mantua was named Enrico Fermi technical school and liceo (in Italian), so I feel the need to give him an extra nod even though I covered his supervision of the first sustained nuclear chain reaction here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/cp-1/  Now I can be a tad more general.

Fermi was the third child of Alberto Fermi, a division head (Capo Divisione) in the Ministry of Railways, and Ida de Gattis, a primary school teacher. One of Fermi’s first sources for his study of physics was a book he found at the local market at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, the 900-page Elementorum physicae mathematicae(1840), which was written in Latin by Jesuit Father Andrea Caraffa, a professor at the Collegio Romano. It covered mathematics, classical mechanics, astronomy, optics, and acoustics, insofar as these disciplines were understood when the book was written. Fermi befriended another scientifically inclined student, Enrico Persico, and together the two worked on scientific projects such as building gyroscopes and trying to measure the acceleration of Earth’s gravity accurately (a young Galileo). Fermi’s interest in physics was further encouraged by his father’s colleague Adolfo Amidei, who gave him several books on physics and mathematics, which he read and assimilated quickly.

Fermi finished secondary school in July 1918 and, at Amidei’s urging, applied to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. The school provided free lodging for students, but candidates had to take a difficult entrance exam that included an essay. The given theme was “Specific characteristics of Sounds”. The 17-year-old Fermi chose to derive and solve the partial differential equation for a vibrating rod, applying Fourier analysis in the solution. The examiner, Professor Giulio Pittarelli from the Sapienza University of Rome, interviewed Fermi and praised him, saying that he would become an outstanding physicist in the future.

During his years at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Fermi teamed up with a fellow student, Franco Rasetti, with whom he would indulge in light-hearted pranks and who would later become Fermi’s close friend and collaborator. In Pisa, Fermi was supervised by the director of the physics laboratory, Luigi Puccianti, who acknowledged that there was little that he could teach Fermi, and frequently asked Fermi to teach him something instead. Fermi’s knowledge of quantum physics reached such a high level that Puccianti asked him to organize seminars on the topic. During this time Fermi learned tensor calculus, a mathematical technique invented by Gregorio Ricci and Tullio Levi-Civita that was needed to demonstrate the principles of general relativity. Fermi initially chose mathematics as his major field, but soon switched to physics. He remained largely self-taught, studying general relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics.

In September 1920, Fermi was admitted formally as a teacher in the physics department even though he was still an undergraduate. Since there were only three students in the department—Fermi, Rasetti, and Nello Carrara—Puccianti let them freely use the laboratory for whatever purposes they chose. Fermi decided that they should research X-ray crystallography, and the three worked to produce a Laue photograph—an X-ray photograph of a crystal. During 1921, his third year at the university, Fermi published his first scientific works in the Italian journal Nuovo Cimento, “On the dynamics of a rigid system of electrical charges in translational motion” (Sulla dinamica di un sistema rigido di cariche elettriche in moto traslatorio). A sign of things to come was that the mass was expressed as a tensor—a mathematical construct commonly used to describe something moving and changing in three-dimensional space. In classical mechanics, mass is a scalar quantity, but within relativity mass changes with velocity. The second paper was “On the electrostatics of a uniform gravitational field of electromagnetic charges and on the weight of electromagnetic charges” (Sull’elettrostatica di un campo gravitazionale uniforme e sul peso delle masse elettromagnetiche). Using general relativity, Fermi showed that a charge has a weight equal to U/c2, where U was the electrostatic energy of the system, and c is the speed of light.

A Fermiac

The first paper seemed to point out a contradiction between the electrodynamic theory and the relativistic one concerning the calculation of the electromagnetic masses, as the former predicted a value of 4/3 U/c2. Fermi addressed this the next year in a paper “Concerning a contradiction between electrodynamic and the relativistic theory of electromagnetic mass” in which he showed that the apparent contradiction was a consequence of relativity. This paper was sufficiently well-regarded that it was translated into German and published in the German scientific journal Physikalische Zeitschrift in 1922. That year, Fermi submitted his article “On the phenomena occurring near a world line” (Sopra i fenomeni che avvengono in vicinanza di una linea oraria) to the Italian journal I Rendiconti dell’Accademia dei Lincei. In this article he examined the Principle of Equivalence, and introduced the so-called “Fermi coordinates”. He proved that on a world line close to the time line, space behaves as if it were a Euclidean space.

Fermi submitted his thesis, “A theorem on probability and some of its applications” (Un teorema di calcolo delle probabilità ed alcune sue applicazioni), to the Scuola Normale Superiore in July 1922, and received his laurea at the unusually young age of 20. The thesis was on X-ray diffraction images. Theoretical physics was not yet considered a discipline in Italy, and the only thesis that would have been accepted was one on experimental physics. For this reason, Italian physicists were slow in embracing the new ideas like relativity coming from Germany. Since Fermi was quite at home in the lab doing experimental work, this did not pose insurmountable problems for him, and ended up making him something of a rara avis, a nuclear physicist equally at home with both theoretical and experimental physics.

While writing the appendix for the Italian edition of the book Fundamentals of Einstein Relativity by August Kopff in 1923, Fermi was the first to point out that hidden inside the famous Einstein equation (E = mc2) was an enormous amount of nuclear potential energy to be exploited. “It does not seem possible, at least in the near future”, he wrote, “to find a way to release these dreadful amounts of energy—which is all to the good because the first effect of an explosion of such a dreadful amount of energy would be to smash into smithereens the physicist who had the misfortune to find a way to do it.” Well, he did go on to find a way to do it, and was not smashed to smithereens. Unfortunately, many people were in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Fermi, after helping a team in Los Alamos develop the first atomic bombs in the US, became a staunch advocate for the limitation of nuclear weapons, especially after Russians invented a fusion bomb.

I could go on, but, combined with my post on Fermi’s CP-1 pile, you have a very good outline of his life’s work. I do wonder, more often than I would like, what goes into the making of geniuses such as Fermi. How can a teenager, barely starting as an undergraduate be more capable in his field than the head of the department?  A friend of mine who is a noted mathematician pointed out that mathematics and theoretical physics are often revolutionized by very young scholars, partly because their minds are agile and flexible, and partly because their lives are not cluttered with distractions. When they marry and have children their creativity begins to fade, although their work may still be very good.

One of the measures of Fermi’s greatness is the number of diverse things that are named after him: schools, roads, concepts in physics, devices, buildings, departments, and a trans-uranic element – fermium. This gives me an idea for creating a dessert in his honor: the Fermi Pile Tiramisu. Look at this photo for the general idea:

You need a package of ladyfinger biscuits, tiramisu custard, and high quality cocoa. Here is my recipe for the custard again:

Put 4 egg yolks and half a cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler. Bring the water in the bottom to a steady simmer, and make sure that the water does not touch the top part of the boiler. Whisk the sugar and egg yolk mixture vigorously for around 8 minutes. It will expand to a froth and cook. (Hint: you are not making scrambled eggs). Remove from the heat and fold in 1 pound (½ kg) of mascarpone. In a separate bowl whisk 1 cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the mascarpone-egg mix into the cream. Chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, make a base of custard and embed a layer of ladyfingers in it. Sprinkle some cocoa over the ladyfingers and then start layering custard and biscuits, finishing with custard and a generous shower of cocoa. Play with this concept to suit yourself.

May 202017

Today is the birthday (1799) of legendary French author Honoré de Balzac.  His father, born Bernard-François Balssa, was one of eleven children from an artisan family in Tarn, a region in the south of France. In 1760 he set off for Paris with only a Louis coin in his pocket, intent on improving his social standing; by 1776 he had become Secretary to the King’s Council and a Freemason (he had also changed his name to the more noble sounding “Balzac,” his son later adding—without official recognition—the nobiliary particle: “de”). After the Reign of Terror (1793–94), François Balzac was sent to Tours to coordinate supplies for the Army. Balzac’s mother, born Anne-Charlotte-Laure Sallambier, came from a family of haberdashers in Paris. Her family’s wealth was a considerable factor in the match: she was 18 at the time of the wedding, and François Balzac, 50

Honoré (named after Saint-Honoré of Amiens http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-honore-of-amiens/ ) was the second child born to the Balzacs. Exactly one year before, Louis-Daniel had been born, but he lived for only a month. As an infant Balzac was sent to a wet-nurse; the following year he was joined by his sister Laure and they spent four years away from home. When the Balzac children returned home, they were kept at a distance from their parents. At age 10 Balzac was sent to the Oratorian grammar school in Vendôme, where he studied for 7 years. His father intentionally gave him little spending money to try to instill in him a sense of a hardscrabble upbringing but it primarily served to make him the object of ridicule among his much wealthier schoolmates.

Balzac had difficulty adapting to the rote style of learning at the school. As a result, he was frequently sent to the “alcove”, a punishment cell reserved for disobedient students. (The janitor at the school, when asked later if he remembered Honoré, replied: “Remember M. Balzac? I should think I do! I had the honour of escorting him to the dungeon more than a hundred times!”) His time alone, however, gave Balzac the opportunity to read voraciously.

Like Dickens (sometimes called the “English Balzac”), Balzac used scenes of his boyhood in his writing, especially La Comédie Humaine. His time at Vendôme is reflected in Louis Lambert, his 1832 novel about a young boy studying at an Oratorian grammar school at Vendôme. The narrator says : “He devoured books of every kind, feeding indiscriminately on religious works, history and literature, philosophy and physics. He had told me that he found indescribable delight in reading dictionaries for lack of other books.”

Balzac often fell ill, finally causing the headmaster to contact his family with news of a “sort of a coma.” In 1814 the Balzac family moved to Paris, and Honoré was sent to private tutors and schools for the next two and a half years. This was an unhappy time in his life, during which he attempted suicide on a bridge over the Loire River. In 1816 Balzac entered the Sorbonne, where he studied under three famous teachers: François Guizot, who later became Prime Minister, Abel-François Villemain, a recent arrival from the Collège Charlemagne who lectured on French and classical literature, and, his favorite, Victor Cousin, who strongly encouraged independent thinking.

After the Sorbonne Balzac was persuaded by his father to follow him into the Law. For three years he trained and worked at the office of Victor Passez, a family friend. During this time Balzac began to delve the vagaries of human behavior. In Le Notaire (1840), he wrote that a young person in the legal profession sees “the oily wheels of every fortune, the hideous wrangling of heirs over corpses not yet cold, the human heart grappling with the Penal Code.”

In 1819 Passez offered to make Balzac his successor, but he had had enough of the Law. He despaired of being “a clerk, a machine, a riding-school hack, eating and drinking and sleeping at fixed hours. I should be like everyone else. And that’s what they call living, that life at the grindstone, doing the same thing over and over again…. I am hungry and nothing is offered to appease my appetite.” In consequence he determined to become a writer.

Balzac’s work habits are legendary, he wrote from 1 am to 8 am every night and sometimes even longer. Balzac could write very rapidly; some of his novels, written with a quill, were composed at about thirty words per minute. His preferred method was to eat a light meal at 5 or 6 in the afternoon, then sleep until midnight. He then rose and wrote for many hours, drinking innumerable cups of strong black coffee. He would often work for 15 hours or more at a stretch, and claimed to have once worked for 48 hours with only 3 hours of rest in the middle.

Balzac revised obsessively, covering printer’s proofs with changes and additions to be reset. He sometimes repeated this process during the publication of a book, causing significant expense both for himself and the publisher. As a result, the finished product quite often was different from the original text.

Balzac died in Paris in 1850, 5 months after marrying Ewelina Hańska, widow of count Hańska, in Russia.  He had never enjoyed good health, but the journey to Russia to finalize his courtship with Ewelina (who was also being courted by Franz Lizst), and his persistent overeating, along with his generally poor personal habits, weakened his system fatally. He showed all the symptoms of heart failure in his final year.

The day he died he had been visited by Victor Hugo, who later served as a pallbearer and eulogist. Balzac is buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. At his memorial service, Victor Hugo said, “Today we have people in black because of the death of the man of talent; a nation in mourning for a man of genius.” The funeral was attended by the literary elite of Paris”, including Frédérick Lemaître, Gustave Courbet, Dumas père and Dumas fils,[84] as well as representatives of the Légion d’honneur and other dignitaries. Later, Auguste Rodin created the Monument à Balzac in his honor, and featured him in several smaller busts.

Here’s a few of my favorite quotes:

Our worst misfortunes never happen, and most miseries lie in anticipation.

First love is a kind of vaccination which saves a man from catching the complaint a second time.

Life is simply what our feelings do to us.

If you mean to cook your dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is in getting them clean again.

Great love affairs start with Champagne and end with tisane.

The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.

And he, like many jaded people, had few pleasures left in life save good food and drink.

Cruelty and fear shake hands together. An unfulfilled vocation drains the color from a man’s entire existence.

Hatred is the vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their littleness, and make it the pretext of base tyrannies.

After Balzac had closeted himself away for lengthy creative bursts, drinking coffee and eating only fruit and eggs, he would take a break and wolf down vast quantities of food. Once he asked his publisher, Monsieur Werdet, to lunch between writing bouts. According to the food historian Giles MacDonagh, he ate “a hundred Ostend oysters, 12 Pre-Sale mutton cutlets, a duckling with turnips, a brace of roast partridges, a sole Normand, without counting hors d’oeuvres, entremets, fruits etc.”

Balzac sometimes gave dinner parties with a theme. Once he served a meal of nothing but onions: onion soup, his favorite onion puree, onion juice, onion fritters and onions with truffles. His idea, apparently, was to showcase the purgative properties of the vegetable. It worked. All his guests got sick. Maybe if you just make French onion soup you can avoid this fate. I’ve been making classic French onion soup since I was a novice cook, which, if made well, is superb. But you must get  it right. It takes time and patience. This is my recipe from memory which I have played with over the years. It makes about 8 servings, so I don’t make it very often these days. You really shouldn’t make small quantities.

French Onion Soup

Peel 10 sweet white onions, halve them, and finely slice them. Heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy Dutch oven, over low heat and layer in the onion slices sprinkling salt between each layer. Let the onions sweat down, undisturbed for 15 to 20 minutes.  After that, stir the onions occasionally until they take on a dark, even, mahogany color. This is the absolutely critical step, and requires patience and attentiveness. You don’t want any of the onions to burn but they must be dark brown. Eventually the onions will reduce to about 2 cups. Ignore cookbooks that say you can brown the onions in 10 minutes or so. This is complete nonsense. Slowly cooked onions take an hour (sometimes longer) to reach this stage.

Add a cup (or more) of dry white wine to cover the onions and turn the heat to high. Reduce the wine to a syrup, then add 5 cups of beef consommé. See the HINTS tab for my recipes. You want this consommé to be of the highest quality. Also add a cup of good quality farm apple cider, and a bouquet garni (your choice of herbs; I use thyme, parsley, marjoram, and bay leaf). Simmer gently for about 20 minutes. Cool and refrigerate overnight.

Reheat the soup next day when ready to serve.

Heat the broiler. Cut day old baguette slices into rounds to fit the  mouths of oven-safe soup crocks. Very lightly toast the bread under the broiler on one side only.

Add a little cognac to the soup, and ladle it into the crocks, leaving space for the bread. Place the bread, toasted side down, on top of the soup and spread it with grated Gruyère. Place the crocks under the broiler and broil until the cheese is bubbly and toasted.