PBS Nova – Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold – Preview

A preview of the video of the documentaries, ABSOLUTE ZERO and THE CONQUEST OF COLD. Together, these are the most-requested and most-shown of the many Nova science programs.

Watch Absolute Zero: The Conquest of Cold Preview on PBS. See more from NOVA.

Interview on NPR about Rumspringa

Rumspringa by Tom ShachtmanA penetrating interview that I did about RUMSPRINGA, on NPR. Be sure to enjoy some of the questions from the listening audience that I had to answer.

NPR Interview abaut Rumspringa

The Gilded Leaf Prologue

THE GILDED LEAF is a book about a compelling journey into the past of a family, taken by Patrick Reynolds, one of R. J. Reynolds’ six grandsons. This prologue, which takes place at an extraordinary auction of his dead father’s belongings, sets the scene.

The Gilded Leaf by Tom Shachtman & Patrick ReynoldsAT MUSGROVE PLANTATION on the resort island of St. Simons, off the coast of Georgia, dinner on August 6, 1975, was a strained affair. Sixty-seven-year-old Nancy Susan Reynolds, last surviving child of tobacco magnate R. J. Reynolds and one of the richest women in the world, was entertaining relatives of her late brother R. J. (Dick) Reynolds, Jr. Dick had died nearly eleven years earlier; even so, he was the focal point of the evening. The guests at the buffet included some of Dick’s sons, who were Nancy’s nephews, as well as Dick’s fourth wife and widow, Annemarie, and Annemarie’s daughter, Irene, born just thirty-six hours after Dick’s death. Some of the sons had brought wives or girlfriends. One was also accompanied by his lawyer.
The dozen visitors were almost lost in the enormous living room. At 483 acres, Musgrove was the largest private plantation on St. Simons, with ten principal buildings. The drive from the front gate to the main residence, the “Boat House,” was more than a mile.

During his lifetime, the late Dick Reynolds had been married four times, and the first two marriages had produced six sons, four from the first and two from the second. All six of these sons had been disinherited by Dick’s last will, a consequence that had shocked them and whose effects had not disappeared more than ten years after Dick’s death. Nancy had invited all of the sons to St. Simons; three of the older sons had declined to come. There that evening, having flown in from North Carolina, Florida, and California, respectively, were the youngest “first-marriage” son – Will, thirty-five, an investor and businessman – and the two “second-marriage” sons – Michael, twenty-eight, a Vietnam veteran and owner of a dinner theater, and Patrick, twenty-six, a fledgling actor. They were curious to meet their half sister, Irene, whom they had never before seen.

Patrick was unsure what to think or feel about Irene. Her chin was dimpled, as were all of the Reynolds brothers’, but otherwise she didn’t resemble their dead father. She spoke mostly German, principally to her governess. She looked more like her mother, Annemarie, a plain, no-nonsense woman in her forties who had inherited Dick’s estate – a fortune in the tens of millions, possibly in the hundreds of millions – after Patrick and his five brothers had been entirely cut out of their father’s will.
Tomorrow they were all going to Sapelo, an island a few miles north of St. Simons. Sapelo had been his father’s private kingdom. Patrick had had mixed emotions about coming here. He was furious at being asked to pay for the chance to own a few pieces from what he felt should have been his rightful inheritance, but he tried to conceal his emotions as he made conversation with Nancy and Annemarie. Patrick felt coming from the women a sense that the third-generation Reynolds “boys” were not conducting their lives to the satisfaction of the wealthy aunt and widow.

* * *

The last time Patrick had been on Sapelo was sixteen years earlier, when Patrick was eleven and Dick was a dying man of fifty-three. Dick was already racked with emphysema, confined to an air-conditioned section of the mansion. Old and withered beyond his years, Dick had been an emotional weather vane, professing at one moment to love his sons, at the next sighing gratefully as he waved them away. Yes, Patrick had to go to Sapelo because he wanted to have in his home – in his life – something of his father’s, but he dreaded going there because of his conflicting emotions about that same father. After all, Dick Reynolds had disinherited his sons: it was a central fact in all of their lives, one that was very hard to bear and even harder to understand.

A few months before he died, Dick had written out by hand a short will revoking all others and leaving everything to Annemarie. It wasn’t as if any of the six brothers were in danger of starving. Each had $2.5 million from their grandmother, Katharine Reynolds, wife and widow of R.J. This bequest Dick had been unable to take from them.

In the morning several planes took the group of a dozen the few miles north to Sapelo. Approached from the air, Dick’s private fiefdom made Musgrove seem small. St. Simons had been commercialized, but Sapelo was pristine and magnificent. From above, the island was spectacular, a rectangle about twelve miles by four. Patrick could see the eight miles of untouched beach where, when he and Michael were young, they’d spent a whole fruitless day digging for Blackbeard’s treasure.

The very sight of South End House, with its elegant white-columned front, hit Patrick like a slap in the face: here was the home of his infancy, where once his father and mother had lived like king and queen. Even though he’d thought about seeing it again the previous night, he wasn’t prepared for the rush of feelings that engulfed him now.

As Patrick wandered through the halls it struck him that he knew very little personally of his father. Only in the late 1950s, when he was a preadolescent, had he been allowed five visits to a remote, beleaguered, off-putting father who seemed more like a dying god than a living man.

Patrick began to feel his anger rising. Had his father really wanted to abandon and disinherit his boys? Had Dick believed that the money was not good for them – or that they could escape the fate of being Reynoldses if they had less of it? Was Dick’s attitude a consequence of his own childhood experience, when his own father, R.J. Reynolds, had passed on, leaving Dick and three other children – the youngest just six – fatherless, but with an inheritance that eventually totaled $100 million and controlled all of their lives? As it was, Patrick’s only real legacy from his father consisted of the Reynolds name. At auditions for acting roles being a grandson of R.J. Reynolds was a clear hindrance: jobs didn’t go to people who “didn’t need to work.” Often he wished to change his name, forget about his patrimony.

One part of Patrick wanted to chuck everything, withdraw his bids for the Sapelo furniture, go away from here, and never think about R. J. Reynolds junior – or senior – again. But he couldn’t run away any longer. He entered bids on the few pieces of his heritage he was being allowed to purchase. Then he inquired about the portrait of “the founder,” his grandfather R. J. Reynolds. That was not for sale. What a joke: from this morass of memories he couldn’t buy a hint of a starting point, he couldn’t even take home this portrait to brood upon. He’d wanted to do so because he’d realized that, despite the emotional pitfalls, he must now spend serious time and energy trying to come to terms with the conundrum of accumulation, dissipation, and fatherlessness that seemed to be the real heritage of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco family.

Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers

Meuser Rutledge is the premier sub-surface engineering firm in the world. I was privileged to work with the senior partners on their 100th anniversary history volume, which has now been posted on-line. The opening chapter tells the story of the ‘bathtub’ under the World Trade Center, compromised by the 9/11 attacks, and how MR helped rescue it and prevent a good chunk of Manhattan from drowning.

Read Online

100 Years of Foundation Engineering
100 Years of Foundation Engineering

1910 – 2010

By Tom Shachtman, In Collaboration with the Partners of the Firm

Building Tall

Building Tall My Life and the Invention of Construction Management A Memoir By John L. Tishman and Tom ShachtmanIn this memoir, University of Michigan graduate John L. Tishman recounts the experiences and rationale that led him to create the entirely new profession now recognized and practiced as Construction Management. It evolved from his work as the construction leader of the “owner/builder” firm Tishman Realty & Construction, and his personal role as hands-on Construction Manager in the building of an astonishing array of some of the world’s tallest and most complex projects. These include:

  • The world’s first three 100-story towers—the original “twin towers” of the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Hancock Tower in Chicago.
  • The EPCOT Center at Disney World.
  • The Renaissance Center in Detroit.
  • New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Tishman interweaves the stories behind the construction of these and many other important buildings and projects with personal reminiscences of his dealings with Henry Ford, Jr., Disney’s Michael Eisner, casino magnate Steve Wynn, and many others into a practical history of the field of Construction Management, which he pioneered.

This book will be of interest not only to a general public intrigued by the stories and personalities behind many of the most iconic construction projects of the post–World War II period in the United States but to students of engineering and architecture and members of the new field of Construction Management.

“John Tishman is a true pioneer in the Construction Management industry. Through his CM leadership, some of America’s most well-known buildings have been brought to successful completion.”-—Bruce D’Agostino, president and chief executive, Construction Management Association of America

“Building Tall will provide readers with insights into John Tishman’s career as a visionary engineer, landmark builder, and great businessman. Responsible for some of the construction world’s most magnificent projects, John is one of the preeminent alumni in the history of Michigan Engineering. His perspectives have helped me throughout my time as dean, and his impact will influence generations of Construction Management professionals and students.”-—David C. Munson, Jr., Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, University of Michigan

John L. Tishman serves as Chairman Emeritus of Tishman Realty & Construction, now a division of Aecom. Mr. Tishman was personally in charge of such landmark projects as the World Trade Center in New York, the renovation of Carnegie Hall, the John Hancock Center in Chicago, the Century Club Theme Center in Los Angeles, and the Walt Disney Company’s EPCOT in Orlando. On the board of trustees for The New School University since 1981, he served two terms as the board’s chairman. He has also served on the boards of New York University Medical School, Carnegie Hall, and the Central Park Conservancy. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

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October 25, 2012: Illustrated lecture on my forthcoming book, The Science of the Founding Fathers, at the New York Public Library

Shachtman The Science Of The Founding  Fathers

Thursday, October 25, 2012, 1:15 – 3 p.m; Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium (Map and directions) Fully accessible to wheelchairs; First come, first served.

Illustrated lecture on my forthcoming book, THE SCIENCE OF THE FOUNDING FATHERS, October 25, Main Building of the New York Public Library, 42nd Street. More information here

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the “Chinese Spring” of 1911

The op-ed page of The Lakeville Journal has won the top prize for op-ed pages of 2011 at the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA); I am pleased that one of my columns was at the top of the award-winning page. That one was about the Arab Spring of 2011, and a cautionary antecedent, the Chinese democracy uprising of 1911.


“Well Doctor, what have we got — a monarchy or a republic?” Ben Franklin was asked by a female onlooker on the last day of the American constitutional convention in 1787. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin responded.

Maintaining a republic, of course, is the true problem; and it was on display, recently, as in Warsaw, President Obama pledged, along with some European nations, a substantial sum of money to support the emergence of democratic institutions in the countries that have awakened in the Arab Spring. While in Poland the president also commemorated the “Polish Spring” uprisings of the late 1980s that led to the downfall of Communism in Soviet Union and its satellite states – as though that is the model for what should happen in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps even in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, should they throw off authoritarianism.

But Poland’s emergence as a democratic republic in the wake of a popular uprising is the exception, not the rule.
Much more relevant and common are historical uprisings that presented a moment of happiness – and of opportunity – for democracy and capitalism, but that soon disappeared. One that has been all but forgotten in the modern world, but whose failure is instructive, is the attempt at instituting democracy in mainland China, begun in 1911.

It would be nice to be able to call it the “Chinese Spring,” but it actually began in the fall, and lasted about eighteen months. In a half-dozen provinces in southern China, revolutionaries led by the American-trained medical doctor, Sun Yat-Sen, and the charismatic newspaper editor, Song Jiaoren, succeeded in a rebellion. It had two bases: one, a pledge to unite China’s five ethnic groups (the majority Hans, and the minority Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims) under one banner, and to let all have a share in ruling. The second base was Sun’s principles, modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This promise enthralled a Chinese populace that had been under the dominion of the Qing Empire for nearly three centuries, and under other emperors for 4,000 years prior to that.

In a moment when the Qing were torn between the conservatives loyal to the dowager queen, and the more liberal elements of the regent, there was some space for a genuine revolution. It was led more by Song than by Sun. Song Jiaoren, pledged to representative democracy, set about convincing Beijing to institute it. His main enemy, the Qing’s man Yüan Shi-kai, was a good general and a fierce administrator, but when he realized that the government’s scattered forces could not immediately defeat the rebels, he offered Song a deal: Yüan would become the president of a republic, in exchange for overthrowing the monarchy and for instituting democratic elections for a legislature that would share power with the executive. Song agreed. Sun Yat-Sen was off in America, raising campaign funds.

On February 12, 1912, the last Qing emperor, an under-aged boy, abdicated, the regent went into internal exile, and the Republic of China was declared. Elections were scheduled for the end of the year. Still, Yüan grumbled, “I am a president who presides over nothing and commands nothing,” and chafed under a constitution he found too restrictive. Nonetheless, for the rest of the year, the country was caught up in election fever, with public debates, editorials, and the like. The results astounded everyone when they were announced in February 1913. The Nationalists won 269 out of 596 seats in the lower house, and 123 out of 274 in the upper, and would be in power. It was clear that the 32-year-old Song would become the country’s premier. But on March 20, 1914, Yüan had Song Jiaoren assassinated.

After that, without effective top leadership, the Nationals were quickly run off. Authority was stripped from the legislature. Yüan used money from a five-power foreign consortium to pay warlord armies to best the Nationalists’ forces in battle. By October of 1913, Sun Yat-Sen had retreated to Japan, to begin once more his revolutionary quest. Within another year, Yüan Shi-kai tried to become emperor himself. When he died in 1916, without having accomplished that last goal, warlord control of China returned with a vengeance, and held sway through the 1920s, the 1930s, and until 1949 and the Communists’ victory in the long Chinese civil war.

— Tom Shachtman

A Dozen Ways To Eliminate The Middle Class

Here’s an article that was first in The Huffington Post and then reposted on many other sites.

Cleaning out my files at year end of 2010, I came across notes that I wrote in early 2002 on a dozen ways to eliminate America’s middle class through the actions of government and private industry. I must have put the notes away because it did not seem possible that all these things could come to pass. How silly of me! In the past decade more than 90 percent of American families experienced severe economic shocks, and that the damage was particularly bad in households earning between $60,000 and $100,000 per year.

Here’s my list of killer actions:

  • Suppress unions. From the 1930s on, unions have been the principal route out of poverty for tens of millions of Americans. Since 1983, membership has been declining, and is now around 12-13 percent of the workforce. Fewer union members equals fewer people in the middle class.
  • Substantially reduce dividends paid by public companies. Stockholders used to rely on dividends to build a nest egg for a downpayment on a home or a fund to send the kids to college. When the average dividend dropped below the rate of inflation, accumulation by dividends became impossible.
  • Lower interest rates on bonds, deposits, and CDs to laughable levels.
  • Fire middle managers and at the same time raise compensation for upper-level managers. Decades ago, the top manager made 40 times the salary of the factory floor worker; now the multiple is 500, and the growth has been provided mostly by firing the managers in between the top and bottom levels.
  • Shift the burden of health care costs from businesses to employees. Medical costs alone don’t cause people to fall out of the middle class; it is the burden of carrying overpriced health care.
  • Underfund pension plans, and don’t punish companies that fail to make their contributions. When an employer inadequately funds its employees’ pension plan, retirees fall out of the middle-class because the money they had counted on receiving has vanished.
  • Raise college tuition to the stratosphere. Even public college costs today are so high that almost no middle class families can pay for college out of current income, and are forced to take out second mortgages so that their children can obtain a sheepskin.
  • Make greed more attractive. When the upper ranks of earners are not taught to be satisfied with a million dollars a year but insist on making ten, rather than being content to share the extra nine with fellow employees, everyone else loses.
  • Make debt attractive. Ease the way for the middle class to spend money through credit and debit cards, and extend credit to people who are less than credit-worthy, thus driving up credit-card rates and greasing the skids toward impoverishment. Then tout second mortgages as a way to consolidate credit-card debts; and then decrease the value of the homes on which the second mortgages have been based.
  • Allow the economy to become over-dependent on consumer spending, and encourage citizens to buy disposable consumer items. The middle class used to be known for its affinity for real property and big-ticket items. But when you don’t buy the refrigerator and instead buy suits, pairs of shoes, and electronic toys (all made in China), not only don’t you have the refrigerator, but the U.S.-based refrigerator-manufacturing plant shuts down for lack of customers, throwing a couple of more thousand people in Michigan out of the middle class, too.
  • Embrace a tax policy inconsistent with the growth of the middle class, for instance, not permitting tax deductions for such middle-class-boosting expenses as life insurance premiums, college tuition payments, and commuting expenses.
  • Facilitate and protect a bought-and-paid-for Congress beholden to the wealthy for their campaign expenses.

— Tom Shachtman

Whoever Fights Monsters

“Whoever Fights Monsters is now more than 20 years old … but it’s not dated …. A strong, fast-moving read, detailed but not pedantic, and the voice is knowledgeable without bragginess or condescension. An A-plus plane read.” Sarah D. Bunting, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Blotter, a crime books blog, March 2013.

Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert K. Ressler, Tom ShachtmanWhoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI

Face-to-face with some of America’s most terrifying killers, FBI veteran and ex-Army CID colonel Robert Ressler learned from them how to identify the unknown monsters who walk among us—and to put them behind bars. Now the man who coined the phrase “serial killer” and advised Thomas Harris on The Silence of the Lambs shows how he was able to track down some of today’s most brutal murderers. Just as it happens in The Silence of the Lambs, Ressler uses the evidence at a crime scene to put together a psychological profile of the killers. From the victims they choose, to the way they kill, to the often grotesque souvenirs they take with them—Ressler unlocks the identities of these vicious killers of the police, so they can be captured. And with his discovery that serial killers share certain violent behaviors, Ressler’s gone behind prison walls to hear the bizarre first-hand stories countless convicted murderers. Getting inside the mind of a killer to understand how and why he kills is one of the FBI’s most effective ways of helping police bring in killers who are still at large. Join Ressler as he takes you on the hunt for toady’s most dangerous psychopaths. It is a terrifying journey you will not forget.

The late Robert K. Ressler coined the term “serial killer” in the 1970s when he was part of the FBI’s famed Behavioral Sciences Unit.

In his autobiography, written with Tom Shachtman, Ressler recounts in straightforward, fact-filled style his interviews with such infamous murderers as Edmund Kemper, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, William Heirens and Ted Bundy. Onetime head of the FBI’s Criminal Personality Research Project, Ressler corrects the misleading, romanticized criminal profiles found in the novels of Thomas Harris and Mary Higgins Clark; recalls how he compiled his ground-breaking, close-to-the-mark profiles of actual criminals who were later apprehended; and tells how he worked with mental-health professionals to explore killers’ personality traits. Before Ressler, the FBI knew surprisingly little about dangerous criminals. His quest–catching and understanding criminals–absorbs and unsettles the reader, placing true crime in the real world. Adapted from Reed Business Information, Inc.

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May 26, 2012: Readings and Lectures about American Iconoclast

Scoville Library in Salisbury, CT, May 26