To the Editor
While authors might not like to see their creations panned, reviewers have every right to find fault with them —and our book, Nuclear Shadowboxing, is no exception. But reviewers do have obligations. While entitled to point out perceived logical and substantive flaws, and also our (readily admitted) failures to communicate effectively, the Physics & Society reviewer should have made his objections clear. He didn’t. He failed to appraise coherently the content and significance of both Volumes 1 and 2, especially the latter.
Our response here is not so much to defend the book as to fill a void by clarifying why it contributes to “the interface of physics and society,” in the spirit of Physics & Society’s charter.
We are now-retired nuclear physicists and engineers from both sides of the former Iron Curtain, with a unique combination of hands-on knowledge and skills in just about every aspect of nuclear weapons and arms control. We collaborated to provide, for the benefit of future evaluators of policy, a 1000-page (900,000- word) history and analysis of Cold War weaponry and lessons to be learned—topics often viewed as complex, obtuse, controversial, and easily misunderstood.
The reviewer is perceptive in calling the two volumes “a labor of love.” We could not find a publisher for this comprehensive and specialized tome, so we had to self-publish at our own expense; we have barely recouped our printing costs. Without remuneration, the four of us devoted more than twelve intense, parttime years to putting on paper the essentials of our unparalleled collective professional and personal experience during the Cold War.
Moreover, we do not “reiterate the existing consensus of academic physical scientists.” Our experience goes well beyond the classroom. Between us we have first-hand knowledge of much of our subject matter, often acquired in the field — sometimes under dicey situations. While many historians and academics do a great job of canvassing, distilling, and interpreting historical events, we submit that Nuclear Shadowboxing adds a unique perspective.
Ironically, the reviewer disapproves of our efforts to divide complex content into readily accessible subtopics. Why would a detailed table of contents be a topic for derision? We thought that making the book more searchable and readable was worth considerable effort because of the complex and interconnected subject matter. It’s hard to see why “accurate tables of contents make unclear substance dimmer still.” Some of the reviewer’s criticisms are out of context. Statements he interprets as “prescriptions” are usually not ours; instead they are distillations from cited sources, included for historical context. Obviously we have our opinions—which we see as driven by the facts—and we hope it does not take much reading between the lines to tell when an opinion is ours and when it is someone else’s.
While we deserve criticism for some organizational deficiencies, the reviewer does not bring up any specific factual errors. Meanwhile, he himself has made errors of fact, scholarship, and interpretation. For example, in the review of Volume 1 he misspells the lead author’s name as “Alex L. Volpi”; in this world of metasearches, the result is added confusion. He alleges, incorrectly, that at one point in Volume 2 we inconsistently list weapons-grade plutonium “as 20% fissile”; that is not done, on the pages cited or anywhere else, and it runs counter to an overbearing sub-theme throughout the book. And he frequently misattributes to us material quoted from others.
The reviewer thinks that “Some of the book’s [Volume 1] statements are plainly stupid (or racist?)”—but the example cited is from a thoughtful assessment of Russian culture by a native Russian (Minkov) whose analysis, we insist, is incisive, not stupid.
The review inconsistently oscillates objections about too-much/too-little supporting substance, too-much/toolittle thematic structuring, and too-much/too-little “involved” [complex?] subject matter. And then it implies that we should add more details, such as the name of the German youth (Mattias Rust) who landed a small plane in Red Square in 1987. Moreover, does the passing reference to Quemoy and Matsu needs explanation? We could, indeed, have put in a footnote; however, nowadays one can easily do a Google search to brush up on that sort of historical detail.
We are particularly concerned that a potential reader might be misdirected by excerpts in the critique that are seriously out of context, such as the reviewer’s remarks about de-MIRVing and countermeasures.
Nevertheless, we have reason to be thankful to the editors of Physics & Society and to the reviewer. We are pleased that he “would recommend [Volume 1] to history teachers in order to present a more balanced picture of the Cold War . . . ” Also, he encourages us to draw from Nuclear Shadowboxing a “new [more personal] book” (which, in fact, is nearly ready, titled Nuclear Insights, Now, if somebody could find us a publisher . . .). Meanwhile, we are preparing a revised edition of both Nuclear Shadowboxing volumes with changes, updates and, indeed, corrections.
Both the reviewer and the Forum on Physics and Society are making a responsible contribution by affording space to a topic that has a very limited commercial market, yet is fundamental to understanding the consequences and implications of the interplay between nuclear technology and the nearly catastrophic Cold War.
As a final note, we quote with appreciation the reviewer’s closing comment about Volume 1: Even in its current, imperfect and awkward form — and what else would one expect from a first undertaking of this magnitude completed without public financing — Nuclear Shadowboxing deserves to be on the shelves of every public and school library in the United States.
–Alexander DeVolpi, Vladimir E. Minkov, and George S. Stanford
. Alexander DeVolpi, Vladimir E. Minkov, Vadim E. Simonenko and George S. Stanford, Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry (Volume 1: Cold War Redux, 2004; Volume 2: Legacies and Challenges, 2005) (www.NuclearShadowboxing.INFO).
. Peter B. Lerner, Physics & Society, Reviews (Volume 1 reviewed July 2006 and Volume 2 reviewed July 2007).