Thursday, December 15, 2011

Area 51 (Book Review)

As a child I was always entranced by secrets about advanced research and unknown realities about the world around us. My imagination swam deep into the galaxies of science fiction shows (Star Trek), movies (Star Wars), and games (Master of Orion).

It may not have been my first exposure to Area 51, but Independence Day was surely the most definitive. My childhood imagination was captured by this real physical location steeped in fantastical secrets - the stuff that dreams are made of (especially for an 8 year old boy). If only I could see with my own eyes what went on in the day to day lives of the lucky few who worked within its confines.

Naturally, when I was browsing the new release shelf at the library my eyes latched on to the bold title "Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base".

Once I picked it up and saw it had pictures I knew I had to take it home; at the very least to stimulate some of that nostalgic childhood curiosity. By the time I finished the introduction, I knew I had to read it from cover to cover.

Annie Jacobsen's approach in writing the book was to step back and ask what can we know, without a doubt, are the verifiable truths about Area 51. She does so by methodically sifting through recently declassified documents, news leaks, and firsthand accounts. But most importantly, she stays an arms length from the event horizon of the metaphorical black hole that is the infinite unknowable conspiracy theories.

Instead, she traces a timeline that is both historically, biographically, and scientifically enlightening.

Topically the book could be divided into two main sections. The first section traces the roots of the modern clandestine government projects, beginning with the Manhattan Project, taking you from Los Alamos, the Nevada Test Site, and the Marshall Islands. The second section, is truly the birth of Area 51 with the CIA's aerial reconnaissance spy efforts under the cover of the Nevada Test Site, beginning with the U2 spy plane. Both of these intertwined narratives are anchored in geopolitical world events between WWII and the modern day.

I kept telling myself I read the book simply to stoke my imagination, but in the weeks that have followed I learned how much substance was in the book.

As I watched the Iran drone situation unfold, it was as if I was merely seeing the next point on the timeline spelled out by Jacobsen in her book. It begins with the CIA's original development of the the U2, followed by the A12 (gorgeous plane, pictured here undergoing radar testing at Area 51), and finally spy drones. Drones which, interestingly enough, trace their roots to aerial reconnaissance through the mushroom clouds of early nuclear tests.

Just yesterday I came across a BBC special on the life of Richard Feynman (a must watch for any science geek), one of the many influential characters from the scientific community whose biography overlaps the web of Area 51.  There is a segment beginning at 9:56 that speaks directly to his involvement with the Manhattan Project. His references to the party scene at Los Alamos is a page right out of Annie Jacobsen's portrayal of Area 51.

And an extra bonus for anyone who has played Portal; learning the history of Skunk Works and EG&G is like reading the real life history of Aperture Science.

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