Monday Memories: The Pentagon's Brain


This is the thirteenth (lucky 13) of my Monday Memories series of posts. In these posts, I pull a book off my shelf, somewhat randomly, and tell you a bit about it. It's not a review of the book so much as a memory of the book, a bit about what might have been going on in my life when I read it, and my thoughts on who might like this book. 

The Book

The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of  DARPA, America's Top Secret Military Research Agency. Written and Read by Anne Jacobsen. A presentation of Hachette Audio. Audiobook by Blackstone Audio, Inc. Released September 22, 2015. Text Copyright 2015 by Ann M. Jacobsen. Audio Production Copyright 2015 by Hachette Audio.

Why This Book?

Having the ability to check out audiobooks and ebooks from the library using the Libby app on my phone or tablet during the pandemic - from the initial lockdown right through to today - has been a real godsend. With Libby I've been able to set aside the past year's worries for a while by digging into some really good books. It's also exposed me to many books I mightn't have otherwise known about while sequestered at home. Libby provides access not only to titles in my local library, but in my local library's "network", and their "partner networks" as well. It quite literally gives me access to all the books in almost all the public libraries of the state of Michigan where I live. All of that is available to me for free - all I had to do was sign up for a library card at my local public library.

I've been a user of the Libby app since I first heard about it in 2018 - well before COVID. And this week's book was the very first book I checked out of the library on the Libby app. 

If you've never used Libby and are interested in learning more about it, I did a blog post on it back in October that can help you get started.

What's This Book About?

From memory:
This is a history of DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA is perhaps best known as the originator of the internet. It was originally just ARPA, without the "Defense" part, and is a product of the Cold War

From perusing the book after I re-checked it out of the library:
At 18 hours long in audiobook format, this is an extremely thorough and well researched book. Annie Jacobsen is an investigative journalist who also writes for television. So, she has a flair for the dramatic that helps to carry the book through a lot of projects, acronyms and people's names. It can be a bit hard to see the overall picture at times, but by the end you are awestruck that this single group is responsible for the internet, GPS, drones, Agent Orange, the M16 rifle, early warning systems for ballistic missiles, image enhancement and noise reduction technologies, and on and on and on. If you are like me you are also a bit paranoid about the advances DARPA is making in robotic and systems warfare technology.

Some on Goodreads have complained that the book is too antagonistic to DARPA and perhaps too sensational. It's clear that Jacobsen didn't set out to write a "rah rah" book about the agency. I found some of the book to be a bit scaremonger-ish, but I personally didn't think she went too far. After all, there are serious moral and ethical implications to some of the technologies DARPA has pioneered, and thus worthy of a critical eye.

What Was Going On In My Life When I Read This?

I found out about the Libby app in 2018, and I checked this book out in January of that year. At the time I was working at a local state university and commuting about a half hour each way to work. So listening to audiobooks on Libby and podcasts on PodcastAddict (a great 3rd party podcast app for Android phones) were things I was using to make my commutes more "productive".

Both of those apps - Libby and PodcastAddict - have improved quite a bit since 2018, and I still use both of them. 

Since I retired last year my podcast listening has dropped off dramatically. There is only really one podcast I listen to with regularity now (Planet Money from NPR). But my use of Libby has gone way up, and I check out just as many ebooks as audiobooks these days. Ebooks through Libby are nice because many of them can be sent to and read on your Kindle.

Why Would Someone Like This Book?

I suspect anyone with a science or engineering bent would be interested in the topics covered in this book. Any American who wants a better understanding of our defense research abilities and advanced capabilities would be interested also. Just keep in mind that, as I said above, this book is extremely thorough. It's not a "popular science" type of book, so if you do pick it up be prepared for the deep dive the author will take you on.

Oh, and this book was a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2016, so if that kind of thing sparks your interest, well then, there you go.

So that's my "Monday Memories" book post for this week. Are you a fan of Libby? Have you read Jacobsen's book? Do you have a favorite science / history book of your own? Leave a comment below.