Reviews and Previews: Prodigal Son

A troubled man, Gregory Boyington found redemption commanding a U.S. Marine fighter squadron in the South Pacific

At the Black Sheep Squadron's base on the South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo, Boyington (holding paper) briefs his pilots on an upcoming mission. (National Archives and Records Administration)
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There are stories of creatures that live in conditions hostile to most other kinds of life, such as miles into the atmosphere or buried in Antarctic ice. Kaufman accompanies one Belgian scientist traveling more than two miles into a South African platinum mine to discover nematode worms living in the rock.

In Australia, astronomers search for exoplanets, hoping to find one similar enough to Earth that it might support life. On the northern tip of Norway, scientists test equipment for future missions to Mars. And in New Mexico, a microbiologist tries to figure out if a mysterious substance called desert varnish is the product of chemistry or biology.

The question of what exactly life is turns out to be so complex that scientists haven’t yet agreed upon an answer. And they still debate the meaning of decades-old studies, including the 1952 Miller-Urey experiment that sought to re-create the origins of life with a mixture of water, gases, and an electric current.

Kaufman notes that the eventual discovery of alien life is unlikely to be a “Eureka!” moment; any such find will require years of research to confirm. But those curious about how that hunt is taking place will find a good overview here.

Sarah Zielinski is an associate editor at Smithsonian magazine.


Mission to Berlin: The American Airmen Who Struck the Heart of Hitler’s Reich
by Robert F. Dorr. Zenith Press, 2011.328 pp., $28.

After interviewing dozens of pilots and bomber crewmen, Air & Space contributor Robert F. Dorr has crafted a book that brings to life the daylight bombing raids the U.S. Eighth Air Force mounted against Germany’s capital. The following excerpt is from a chapter entitled “Squabbling.”

A typical Me 262 was powered by two 1,984-pound-thrust Junkers Jumo-004B axial-flow turbojet engines, was armed with four 30-mm nose cannons, and reached a speed of 540 miles per hour. “By the time the German jets went into production, it was too late and nothing was going to change the outcome of the war,” said British aviation writer Jon Lake. Me 262s shot down about one hundred Allied aircraft by war’s end, but the Allies also shot down dozens of them. Bomber crewmembers thought about the Me 262 on every mission, heard about it in many briefings, and probably credited it with more than the German jet was really capable of.

“We heard about them around January 1945,” said [B-17] copilot First Lieutenant Robert Des Lauriers. “We saw them. Man, would they go by fast! On a mission in January, I witnessed an Me 262 flying straight up with a Mustang on his tail, also flying straight up. In briefings, we were told to be alert for them and especially to make note of where they were. We were very much aware that the German jets were very vulnerable when they were taking off and landing. Our intelligence guys wanted to put Mustangs into a position to pick them off in the airfield pattern.” By this time, Mustangs and even portly P-47 Thunderbolts were regularly blasting the German jets out of the sky.

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