Book Review: Nobel Dreams

Nobel Dreams, by Gary Taubes, is the story of CERN’s Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS) particle accelerator–the predecessor to the Large Hadron Collider, which contained the world’s first proton-anti-proton collider–as it was operated in the early 80’s. The star of this book is Carlo Rubbia, the experimentalist who headed the Underground Area 1 (UA1) collaboration, an experiment attached to the SPS.

In the first half of the book, Taubes recounts how Rubbia’s talent for electronics, his cutthroat personality, and his intense politicking saw him become the most powerful person at CERN. Rubbia used his influence to get the SPS adapted to collide protons with anti-protons–a radical idea at the time–in hopes of reaching high enough energies to discover the W and Z bosons, the mediators of the weak force. In 1983 UA1 did discover the W and Z bosons, although Rubbia claimed a discovery before this was statistically warranted–a move that ensured glory for his team over UA2, a competing experiment attached to the SPS. This work promptly and predictably resulted in Rubbia and the accelerator physicist Simon van der Meer being awarded the Nobel prize in 1984.

The second half of this book gives a detailed account of some of Rubbia’s and UA1’s subsequent work: the search for supersymmetry from September 1984 until March 1985. Following the discovery of apparent anomalies in the data in the form of monojets and dijets, Rubbia claimed prematurely that UA1 had discovered “new physics,” to be sure that another team wouldn’t beat him to a discovery. This signal was found by the data analysts and theorists to be nothing more than background, despite great resistance from Rubbia who badly wanted a second trip to Sweden.

The second part of the book is a tad boring at times since it recounts in detail events and conversations as they happened, which is not always interesting to read. It does, however, give an insight to academic politics, the daily workings of forefront researchers, and the dangers of seeing patterns where there are none.

The final paragraph is a conversation between Taubs and Alvaro de Rujula, a CERN-based theoretical physicist, which is rather telling given the unhealthy dominance that string theory research has had in theoretical physics during recent decades, so I’ll reproduce it here:

On August 4th, 1985, I sat in the cantina at CERN drinking beer with Alvaro de Rujula. We talked about whether the demise of the monojets had created a corresponding lull in the supersymmetry work. Or whether the theorists were so hot on superstrings that they would continue on supersymmetry undeterred as well. De Rujula predicted that 90 percent of the theorists would work on superstrings and the connection with supersymmetry, because it was fashionable. When he intimated that this was not a healthy state, I asked him what he would prefer to work on. rather than answer directly, he digressed.

“It must be remembered,” de Rujula told me, “that the two people most responsible for the development of superstrings, that is to say, Green and Schwarz, have spent ten to fifteen years systematically working on something that was not fashionable. In fact, they were ridiculed by people for their stubborn adherence to it. So when people come and attempt to convince you that one must work on the most fashionable subject, it is pertinent to remember that the great steps are always made by those who don’t work on the most fashionable subject.”

“The question then,” I said, “is what do you work on instead? What will your next paper be on?”

“That’s a question for each theorist to ask himself,” he replied. “And it depends on whether you want to survive as a theorist, or you have the guts to think that pride in your own work is more important than the momentary recognition of your fashionable contribution. that’s for each person to decide by himself, depending on his level of confidence in his own genius.”

“So,” I repeated, “what is your next paper going to be on?”

“I’m trying to tell you,” de Rujula said, “that I have no idea.”


Book Review: Don’t You Have Time to Think?

This book is a collection of the physicist Richard Feynman’s letters, as put together and edited by his daughter Michelle Feynman. There’s also a forward by Timothy Ferris, commentary from Michelle throughout, and six appendices of extra Feynman material.

The letters are roughly ordered temporally, which gives the reader a small amount of insight into most parts of Feynman’s post-teenage life. The first letter is from a 21-year-old Feynman to his mother, Lucille, as he is starting his graduate studies at Princeton University and the last is from an ageing Feynman writing to quell the worries of a father who is anxious about his son’s future. In between, we gain some insight into Feynman’s personal experiences working on the Manhattan project, being a Nobel laureate, and life in general, including a touching personal letter to his deceased first wife, Arline. Some of my favourite excerpts from this book are included below.

If you are a Feynman fan, then you’ll definitely find this book interesting and you’ve probably already read it. You could also gain something from this book if you need reminding that scientists aren’t autonomous beings that exist outside the realm of personal human experience. Indeed, Feynman’s letters offer a glimpse into the real human being that is responsible for the great Feynman legend.

Note: there’s a US version of this book that is published under the less-evocative title: “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track”.

From the letter written to the anxious father:

Q: What is it that would make a smart 16-year-old stop for a minute and think… A: Nothing, now, I hope. But to fall in love with a wonderful woman, and to talk to her quietly in the night will do wonders.

In response to the question about what he would do differently in physics if he had his time again:

I would try to forget how I had solved a problem. Then, each time the problem arose, I might solve it in a different way—I wouldn’t be thinking about how I had solved it before.

In the letter to Arline two years after her death:

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead–but I still want to comfort and take care of you–and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you–I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that together… P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this–but I don’t know your new address.

Book Review: Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer?

“The reason for trying to understand the universe isn’t that we thereby blunder into a new material for coating non-stick frying pans. It’s that we gain insight into our place in the scheme of things, and of just how wonderful and unexpected that scheme can be. The aim of science is not just the manufacture of new toys: it’s the enrichment of the human spirit.”

Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer? by Ian Stewart and Martin Golubitsky is a popular science book from the early 90’s on the subject of symmetry, with an emphasis on the fascinating phenomenon of symmetry breaking. The authors take the reader on an idiosyncratic tour of this subject, discussing cosmology, crystallography, and biology, including, for example, detailed discussions of the Couette-Taylor fluid system, animal gaits, and embryology.  Throughout this book is also contained a sprinkling of sage discussion on the philosophy of science, as the opening quote attests to.

There are many popular books in existence on the topic of symmetry; what makes this book stand out is that the authors have assumed a bit of intelligence on behalf of the reader and this allows Fearful Symmetry to be more sophisticated than your average pop sci book.

However, as a physics student, I was disappointed by what was omitted in the discussion of the standard model (SM) of particle physics. The authors did, to their credit, emphasis the fundamental importance of symmetries in the SM—they even explicitely named the SU(3) gauge symmetry of quantum chromodynamics—and they also mentioned that the electroweak symmetry breaks at low energies, which results in the apparently distinct electromagnetic and weak force. Unfortunately though, there was no mention of the role of symmetry breaking in giving masses to the W and Z bosons and all of the fundamental fermions—a process called the Higg’s mechanism, which is responsible for the weakness of the weak force and the mass of electrons. This, in my biased opinion, is one of the most—if not the most—important examples of symmetry breaking in nature, so it is a shame that it wasn’t included.

Another thing that annoyed me was the statement of the purported mystery that all particles of the same type are identical; this is indeed a deep empirical fact that needs explaining, but it’s not a mystery in the context of the very successful field-based theories of modern particle physics: all particles of the same type are identical (up to a minus sign) because they arise from the same underlying field. There were also some out-dated references to the promise of grand unified theories and string theory, but that’s only because the book was written two decades ago.

Admittedly, I’m being pedantic. It’s only because this book is more intellectual and goes deeper than most non-technical accounts that I hold it to high standards, so this criticism should be taken as a compliment to the rest of the book. Overall, the authors do a good job of explaining the unassuming ubiquity of symmetry and symmetry breaking in the real world, which makes for some fairly interesting reading on an important topic.

Book Review: The Naked Man

This book continues Desmond Morris’ series on Homo sapiens–which includes his well-known “The Naked Ape” and also “The Naked Woman”–with, obviously, this book paying particular attention to the male of the species.

The book is made up of 24 chapters, each devoted to a particular characteristic or body part of the human male and with self-explanatory titles such as “The Hair”, “The Chest”, and “The Penis”. The chapters have a repeating structure–which makes this feel a bit like reading an (unusually engaging) Encyclopaedia at times–in which Morris discusses, amongst other things, the evolutionary context of each body part, gives some cultural perspective, and lists examples of common gestures. Overall this structure makes sometimes for dull reading, but this is compensated for by the many neat ideas and illuminating comments.

For example, in the chapter “The Hands”, Morris states that the handshake might have originated as a way of men assessing one another’s physical strength. This is followed by the insightful remark: “Today some insecure individuals still employ this power grip, crushing the fingers of the people they meet in the forlorn hope that this will impress them.”

In the chapter “The Testicles”, Morris discusses the apparently bizarre phenomenon of external testicles. We learn that their evolutionary origin is probably not primarily as a heat-regulating mechanism, as is commonly believed, but rather that they help to prevent the unfortunate abdominal trauma that could befall any fighting male that housed his testicles internally.

The final chapter, titled “The Preferences”, discusses male sexual preferences, with a particular focus on individuals that are not heterosexual. An interesting comment that Morris makes is that non-breeders, such as monks, priests, and homosexuals, are valuable to an overpopulated humanity. He then says: “This probably explains why, in most advanced countries, where issues of human population are already widely understood, the laws against male homosexuality have recently been relaxed or abandoned…Officially, of course, other reasons are given, such as human rights, privacy laws, sexual liberation, and the rest. But the truth is that, when society makes a major shift in its attitude towards some basic pattern of human behaviour there is usually an underlying factor at work, a factor that has to do with the biological rules of life.” So, could it be that modern society’s evermore-egalitarian attitudes are more a reflection of utilitarian motives, rather than selfless humanity? It’s an interesting idea that I think is probably largely right as a first approximation.

Overall, I’d recommend this book if you’re after a light introduction to male behaviour, so that you can better understand half of those naked apes that you walk amongst; I’m intrigued enough that I now want to read “The Naked Woman”, so that maybe I can find out what’s going on with the other half.

The Unabomber

I had only a passing knowledge of the Unabomber episode when I came across this book in a Phnom Penh bookshop a few weeks ago, but the prospect of finding out more about this mathematician-turned-bomber was enough temptation for me to buy it and find out more. I was given extra impetus to write about this topic when I woke up this morning to the developing news story about the bombing of the Boston marathon, which is vaguely yet disturbingly reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski’s semi-random bombings during the last quarter of last century.

Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, was a clever mathematician on his way to earning tenure when, two years into an assistant professorship at UC Berkeley, he suddenly quit and became a recluse living in a remote Montana cabin without electricity or running water. After a few years he started mailing bombs to people and organisations. Over a twenty year period he sent a total of 16 bombs across America, killing three people and injuring 23–he seemed to target universities and airlines, hence the name “Unabomber” given to him by the media. In 1995, toward the end of his bombing campaign, his manifesto was published, at his request with the promise to stop sending bombs, by the New York Times and the Washington Post. The gist of his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, and his justification for killing people, is that he thinks that industrialisation inevitably causes individuals to lose their freedom and that a violent revolution is needed to prevent a future in which human life becomes unnatural and meaningless because of our dependence on technology.

The Unabomber’s 35,000 word manifesto is included in the book and I found it interesting enough to read it in full, if only because it gave an insight into how political ideology can motivate an intelligent person to kill people. In fact, there are parts of the manifesto in which it’s surprisingly difficult to disentangle the rational, reasonable ideas from the absurd ones. There’s a particular section titled (something like) “Motivations of Scientists”, which I found intriguing. Kaczynski argues that the common claims by scientists’ that they do science “out of curiosity”, or “to help people”, are fallacious since specialised scientific questions could not satisfy any natural kind of curiosity and that “science marches on blindly, without regard to the real welfare of the human race”. This is meant to degrade science for it is merely a “surrogate activity” that promotes the pursuit of “artificial” goals, rather “real” goals, like hunting and scavenging. My view is that Kaczynski’s argument is mostly bollocks; that curiosity is a legitimate reason to pursue science; and that, in the modern world, science is one of the most meaningful pursuits that one can undertake. Of course, my point of view is exactly what Kaczynski would expect from a budding “Leftist” (to use Kaczynski’s terminology) scientist and therefore it’s probably true that our points of view are irreconcilable.

The book itself is quite unremarkable, probably since it was hastily put together so that it could be published when the story was most topical. I would guess that someone has since written a more eloquent account of the Unabomber episode, but this one does a good enough job of conveying the essential information.

As for the relation of this to the recent bombing of the Boston marathon mentioned earlier, I think it’s plausible that this event is also the result of a rogue individual motivated by a fringe political ideology–although this is completely unfounded speculation.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

This book chronicles journalist Joshua Foer as he delves into the strange world of modern competitive memorisation. The reader follows Foer as he transitions through the roles of impressed spectator, struggling student, and finally, after a year of training, United States memory champion. The reader gets taken on Foer’s journey as he investigates the interesting history of memory, discusses how its role has changed over time in human society, and meets plenty of quaint characters, all whilst training to improving his own memorisation abilities.

I’m interested in the tricks used by modern competitive memorisers–which are actually mostly the same tricks used by the ancients–since they make for neat party tricks; also, being able to memorise hundreds of random digits or several packs of cards might even be useful for science, somehow. The main trick the professionals use is to exploit our natural aptitude for remembering and mentally exploring familiar physical environments by constructing a ‘memory palace‘. This is a mental reconstruction of a familiar environment, your childhood home or primary school for example, in which you mentally place certain memorable images at fixed positions along some pre-designed route through that environment, where each image corresponds to an item on the list you want to remember. To recall the entire ordered list, one just needs to mentally retrace the route through the memory palace and translate the images back to whatever it was you were trying to memorise. Getting good at this requires lots of practise, of course, but in principle anyone can do it.

One part of the book that caught my attention in particular was when Foer has several meetings with Daniel Tammet, the well-known high-functioning ‘prodigious’ savant (whose book Thinking in Numbers sits unread on my bookshelf at home). Foer makes several curious observations that refute Tammet’s savant status and lend credence to his hypothesis that Tammet is actually just well-trained in mnemonic techniques, and even confronts Tammet about this. Predictably, there’s no conclusive evidence either way, but it’s a new skeptical viewpoint that’s plausible and fun to consider.

Overall, this is a great story interwoven with a fascinating topic and odd characters. What more could you want?

Book Review: 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense

This book by Michael Brooks was mostly enjoyable reading. I agree wholeheartedly with the motivating Kuhnian philosophy of this book which states that anomalies are usually the gateways to significant advances in scientific understanding.

My favourite chapter was the first, on the problems of dark matter and dark energy–I think he’s right that a resolution may come when we apply general relativity without the simplifying assumption of isotropy.

As for the other chapters: discussion of the Pioneer Anomaly is now redundant and I think that homeopathy is too much pseudo-science to warrant it a chapter to itself, although that only means that Brooks failed to convince me otherwise, not that I’m right. The remaining chapters were uniformly good.