Tidings from the Crew – ignition! an informal history of liquid rocket propellants (John Drury Clark) – the keep or keelhaul edition!

Ahoy there me mateys!  Blustery winds and crazy seas are still severely limiting the time I have to read.  So here be a Tidings post with a twist!  The First Mate has been reading like a fiend.  I ordered asked him to write a review of something he recently read because I be going through withdraw and NEED to hear about books.  At the end of his review I will decide whether the book is kept in the hold for me future reading pleasure or be keelhauled into the watery depths.  Hope ye enjoy!

From the First Mate:

Last year the Captain and I listened to the audiobook versions of Mark Miodownik’s two great pop-science books, Stuff Matters and Liquid Rules, which are extremely fun, very understandable explanations of the advances of materials science over hundreds of years of civilization. We still make references to various things we learned (I’ll never again use a ballpoint pen without briefly marveling at the science captured therein) and remain ever excited to pick up Miodownik’s next book whenever it should appear. I picked up Ignition! hoping that it would be similarly enjoyable. I should not have been surprised when Ignition! turned out to be more Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman than Stuff Matters.

Written by one of the top liquid propellant chemists of the middle part of last century, Clark’s Ignition! is both a detailed list of chemical blind alleys, failures, and successes and a wistful memoir of what military-funded science was like when it was mostly practiced by a bunch of white dudes who all knew each other and who all liked blowing stuff up. Competition within the liquid propellant community, seemingly unreasonable military requirements, very loose oversight of where money was being spent, and an anarchic willingness to detonate equipment led to profound advances in the twenty years that Clark worked in the field. Clark gives us the history of liquid propellant propulsion and takes us through the development all the way up to when he left the field in the early 1970s.

Clark was actually a sci-fi writer before he was a chemist. He published two stories in Astounding Stories before finding work in chemistry more lucrative than being a writer. He stayed interested in sci-fi and was adjacent to the sci-fi community for the rest of his life, and it shows in the quality of his writing. Sometimes the lists of reactants and formulae get a bit tedious, but then he’ll turn around with just a lovely bit of phrasing. He tells us, “Now it is clear that anyone working with rocket fuels is outstandingly mad. I don’t mean garden-variety crazy or a merely raving lunatic. I mean a record-shattering exponent of far-out insanity.”

Or when he’s observing an experiment by a fellow scientist that’s about to explode, “I looked around and signaled to my own gang, and we started backing away gently, like so many cats with wet feet.”

On the mirage-like allure of nitric acid, “If they had known the trouble that nitric acid was to cause before it was finally domesticated, the authors would probably have stepped out of the lab and shot themselves.”

I say that this book reminded me a lot of Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman because Clark has the same type of mischievous impish nature that Feynman had. The same type of, “look, I’m smart and you’re not, so just let me do the thinking” attitude that is said with a smile and can be a lot of fun in short doses, but it all tends to grate after a while. I got the impression that he respected other scientists in his field, though his primary relationship with them was to show them up whenever he could. Sometimes it felt kind of mean.

While a book like Stuff Matters is a pop-science book that is extremely accessible to anyone even if they have no science background, I can’t say the same for Ignition!, and I don’t think Clark was necessary writing a book for the public at large. It’s a niche book for people who have some background in science and who are interested in rockets. Without some knowledge of chemical elements, common chemical reactions, and some physics, large sections of this book are probably going to be gobbledygook. For me, the book was not what I was looking for, yet I enjoyed elements of it quite a lot.

Highly recommended to fans of Feynman, rocketry, and anecdotes of mid-20th century military science. Best to avoid if overly technical descriptions bore you (there are a lot) or if this brand of snark hits you in the wrong way.

Yer Captain’s Verdict:

KEELHAUL!  Arrrr!  “Without some knowledge of chemical elements, common chemical reactions, and some physics, large sections of this book are probably going to be gobbledygook.”  Aye, gobbledygook for me indeed.  Though I did enjoy discussing the book with the First Mate.

Goodreads has this to say about the novel:

Ignition! is the story of the search for a rocket propellant which could be trusted to take man into space. This search was a hazardous enterprise carried out by rival labs who worked against the known laws of nature, with no guarantee of success or safety.

Acclaimed scientist and sci-fi author John Drury Clark writes with irreverent and eyewitness immediacy about the development of the explosive fuels strong enough to negate the relentless restraints of gravity. The resulting volume is as much a memoir as a work of history, sharing a behind-the-scenes view of an enterprise that eventually took men to the moon, missiles to the planets, and satellites to outer space. A classic work in the history of science, listeners will want to get their hands on this influential classic, available for the first time in decades.

To visit the author’s Goodreads page go to:

John Drury Clark – Author

To buy the novel visit:

ignition! – Book

To add to Goodreads go to:

Yer Ports for Plunder List

6 thoughts on “Tidings from the Crew – ignition! an informal history of liquid rocket propellants (John Drury Clark) – the keep or keelhaul edition!

  1. This sounds like a book that Mr. Wyrm might enjoy, but that I would throw against the wall. Thanks for the review!

    I think you might have reviewed Stuff Matters before I joined your crew, though, so I’mm off to check on your post for that one. That sounds a bit more up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

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