Book Review: Ignition!

Subtitled “An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants”, Ignition! is John D. Clark’s personal account of working with rocket fuels from 1949 until his retirement in 1970.

Dr. Clark is introduced to us by Isaac Asimov. Clark was roommates with L. Sprague de Camp during his undergrad years at Caltech, and wrote a pair of science fiction stories before deciding the market wasn’t for him, though he remained active in the community. Dr. Asimov met him during the war, when he came to work with de Camp and Heinlein at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

John Clark, like Asimov, was a chemist, working on the problem of chemical rockets for the majority of his career. He writes this book, he tells us, both “for the interested layman” and for:

[T]he professional engineer in the rocket business. For I have discovered that he is frequently abysmally ignorant of the history of his own profession, and, unless forcibly restrained, is almost certain to do something which, as we learned fifteen years ago, is not only stupid but is likely to result in catastrophe.

For the layman, he attempts (and, I think, succeeds) at writing in a manner which is nevertheless very accessible. The sections with heavy technical content can be skimmed over without losing too much of the overall picture, though a little background knowledge certainly helps. I’m not sure you could use this book as a reference without a basic understanding of engineering thermodynamics, but if you haven’t studied that what business do you have designing rocket engines?

Unfortunately, Dr. Clark gives relatively little in the way of citations or suggestions for further reading. This is both an artifact of the era—when technical reports and journal articles were essentially inaccessible to the general public if your local library didn’t have a copy—and a consequence of the fact that much of the source material was at the time still officially classified. At several points the discussion is cut short because he’s not at liberty to discuss the matter. He acknowledges these difficulties and makes not pretense of this being an authoritative textbook.

On a related note, the content is heavily focused on the research done in America and the United Kingdom, with a chapter devoted to what information came out of the Soviet Union in later years. Due to the date of publication, this book does not cover modern developments (though the final chapter makes a series of predictions I might come back and grade).

Nor does Clark address solid propellants or hybrid combinations in any significant detail, which is slightly disappointing given my current studies, but would have made for a much longer and more complicated read. Not that I would have particularly minded; Dr. Clark is an engaging storyteller, frequently giving us various background information on the scientists and organizations trying to develop early rockets, first for abstract research, later for the military, and finally for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

These anecdotes keep the reading fun even through the most tedious of minutiae on monoprops and halogen fuels. Clark frequently (if unpredictably) goes into detail on the chemistry of a particular propellant and how the molecules interact with one another. Such interludes eventually rekindled my interest in chemistry as a subject, which is fortunate since I need another credit hour of it to graduate. Hopefully some of the material I learn this summer will be relevant to aerospace propulsion work.

Overall, I found this to be a good introduction to rocket fuels and the history of that field. While useful for beginners such as myself and as a refresher, it probably shouldn’t be treated as any sort of reference guide or definitive citation.

ignition back cover

An engraving by Dr. Clark’s wife, Inga Pratt, presented to NARTS in 1959.

Hopefully one day Ignition! will be in print again, but for now most of us are stuck reading it from PDFs found online. Hard copies went for hundreds of dollars before the likes of Elon Musk and Scott Manley began publicly praising the book.

Bike-Shedding and Bottomless Pits

I see a pair of failure modes in social activism. One is bike-shedding. The other is trying to empty bottomless pits.

Bike-shedding refers to the tendency to focus on insignificant but comprehensible tasks, the nominal example being materials selection for the bike shed at a nuclear power plant. Everyone can understand bike sheds, only nuclear engineers are qualified to comment on the minutiae of reactor design. The latter is clearly more important than the former, but the former will likely get more discussion time in a layperson’s committee.

The same goes for social activism, where thousands of wannabe intellectuals fixate on relatively trivial issues because that’s what everyone can wrap their heads around.

If the true intellectuals spent their time on tractable problems, then this wouldn’t be a particularly troubling failure mode, because at least the wannabes aren’t getting in the way of serious work. Unfortunately, the leaders of any particular movement tend to be pursuing status within their community rather than the movement’s supposed goals.

The usual way the status competitions play out is through purity signalling. In this context, purity refers to loyalty towards the movement’s beliefs.  Whoever believes in the cause the most will garner more respect and acclamation. Intentionally or not, they begin to argue less and less actionable questions and make increasingly impractical demands upon the movement as a whole.

I’ve experienced this first-hand during my time in the libertarian movement. Many libertarians have such an affective death spiral around the non-aggression principle that they argue voting for third-party candidates is an act of violence. NAP uber alles was my reason for ultimately leaving the movement.

This phenomena is almost synonymous with the far-left. Constant in-fighting and purity debates hamstring many socialist, communist, and left-anarchist organizations, which I can’t say is necessarily a bad thing. But conservatives experience it, too; neoreaction was essentially the invention of right-wing impossibilism.

My speculation is that so many people tolerate impossibilism because it accelerates the transition from movement to community. As ideological questions detach from any sort of actionable agenda, there’s less urgency and more time for friendship and non-central discussion. Preference for a better world is a largely philosophical question (though social status makes it easier to accept an objectively unpleasant situation), while even self-described individualists recognize the joy from finding like minds. Even when the movement fails as such, it provided a significant benefit to its adherents.

The pattern repeats itself time and time again. I’ve seen it with the libertarian movement, with the rationalists, and with all sorts of less pleasant groups. I see no clear solution, beyond trying to decouple community from activism. Whether this will work remains to be seen.