Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Half-Life by Frank Close ****

Bruno Pontecorvo was an important twentieth-century physicist, a student of Enrico Fermi, a member of the Manhattan Project, and central to neutrino research and the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. You might have two responses to this information. First, you might ask, “Standard Model? What is that?” In that case, this biography written by a physicist is not for you. The author assumes at least a passing familiarity with for quantum mechanics and particle physics. Second, you might ask, “Why I haven’t I heard of him?” or even, “Why didn’t he receive a Nobel Prize.” In this latter case, Half-Life by Frank Close is the book you’ve been looking for.

Bruno Pontecorvo escaped the Fascists in Italy by going to France. He escaped the German invasion of France, by going to the United States. He avoided the xenophobic Americans by moving to Canada. After World War II, he took British Citizenship and moved to England to avoid McCarthyism. Then, in 1950 while on vacation with his family in Italy, he defected to the U.S.S.R. with his Swedish wife Marianne, and three sons, Gil, Tito, and Antonio.

The first job he had in the United States was prospecting for oil in Oklahoma during the war.
“One-day Bruno was driving a truck full of geophysical instruments… the police became suspicious when they noticed the array of unusual instruments… they realized he wasn’t American and exclaimed, “Enemy alien!” … the police, who thought he was reaching for a gun, immediately immobilized him… the police explained that he had risked being killed.”
Soon afterward he moved to Canada.

Following Pontecorvo’s defection, the British and American security services examined their files in detail uncovering many humorous-in-retrospect incidents. In one case, a British file warned of the dearth of British citizens on the Canadian part of the Manhattan Project. However, history showed that the only British citizen was a Russian spy. In another case, they questioned a British intelligence officer for not consulting the Italians about Pontocorvo’s history as a member of the Communist Party.
[he sighed that] in 1943 Britain had been at war with Italy, so “consultation would have been rather difficult.”
On the science side of the story, there was a mystery for 40 years about the detection of neutrinos from the Sun. I remember reading periodic science stories about, first the building of bigger detectors, and then discovering a shortage of observed neutrinos. Pontecorvo ultimately helped to solve this mystery by explaining how some solar neutrinos changed on their way to the detectors. This was the first I’ve read about the solution to this problem.

This book was more of a history than a biography as there were few personal stories. One anecdote demonstrated how scientists view the world. Pontecorvo hypothesized that there were more beautiful women in Paris that Marseilles. He immediately suggested an experiment. “Just count the number of plain women that pass before an attractive one appears.” He was eighty at the time.

If you have an interest in the high-energy physics in the latter part of the twentieth century, and the cold war, this is the book for you.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

What do you care... by Richard Feynman ****

What do you care about what other people think? by Richard Feynman is billed as a sequel to Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman. Unfortunately, like many sequels, it is a disappointment. Surely you're joking is a classic and anyone interested in science should read this. It is undoubtedly one of the best books about the ethics and ethos of science.

If you are not familiar with Feynman, briefly he was a brilliant physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and received a Nobel Prize.

This book divides into three parts. The first is the sequel the Surely you're joking with vignettes from Feynman's life, notably about his courtship and marriage to his first wife, who died very young. If you enjoyed, the first book, you enjoy this also.

The second section is a small collection of letters to and from Feynman.

 The third section chronicles his participation on the Presidential Commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. This is a combination of Faynmen stories like Surely you're joking and a report on the disaster. I personally consider it to be the definitive report. It is what I recall.

The Challenger section is also a nostalgic piece of a time when people trusted scientists and news reporters were interested in the truth.

If you've already read Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman, this is an enjoyable addendum. The other reason to read this book is for the excellent discussion of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster with some advice for technical managers.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore *****

NIGHTMARES. True-story horror. More nightmares. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the story of poor, young women hired to paint radium (glow-in-the-dark) dials. They received radiation poisoning with no relief or protection from the government or their employers. Radiation poisoning is horrific - pain, disintegrating bones, cancer, and disfigurement.

The company commissioned an early investigation that identified radium poisoning as the problem. The company suppressed the report and instructed the managers to deny any risk and maintain an atmosphere of confidence.
"An atmosphere of confidence is just as contagious as one of alarm and doubt."
Arrayed against the women were more than just the companies making glow-in-the-dark alarm clocks (I had one when I was young.) There was a big pre-FDA medical treatment industry dosing people with radium in many forms. In addition, the military used these dials in many applications from watches for infantry to controls for avionics.

The case dragged on until the women were elated just to have the moral victory that declared the company was at fault. Most received no compensation and no one was punished.

More? The laws didn't really change until Eben Byers, "a world-renowned industrialist and playboy," died of radium poisoning. The Chicago Times wrote:
"The shoot to kill when it comes to cattle thieves in Illinois, and fish and fowl are safeguarded by stringent game laws, but womenfolk come cheap."
Imagine the tobacco cover-up: deceit, disinformation, and delay. The radium industry killed fewer people, but the arrogance and behavior were similar. Well researched and thorough. The author tries to end on a positive note, but the facts prevent this. Read it if you dare.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury ****

Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is more a short story collection than a novel. Bradbury's low opinion of the human race (Americans) is demonstrated as different stories replay historical injustices such as the genocide associated with colonization, book burning (which he visits at length a few years later in Fahrenheit 451), Jim Crow era injustices, and ultimately the end of life on earth.
"What about the rocket? What about Minnesota?"
"That's right. Nothing. Nothing at all anymore. No more Minneapolis, no more rockets, no more Earth."
As was common for many early Science Fiction writers, Bradbury tends to get on a soapbox.

In "And the moon be still as bright" published by Standard Magazine, 1948, the target is religion.
"[Martians] knew how to blend art into their living. It's always been a thing apart for Americans... Art was something you took in Sunday doses, mixed with religion, perhaps."
"Yes. [Martians] knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other."

In another piece, Bradbury satirizes Jim Crow laws with blacks all leaving for Mars.
"I can't figure why they left now. With things lookin' up. I mean, every day they got more rights. What they want, anyway? ... more and more states passin' anti-lynching bills ... They make almost as good money as a white man."
For all Bradbury's enlighten views, he suffered from one blind spot, along with many of the early SF writers. Women. In considering the heroic male colonists, he dismisses the women with a single line.
Everyone knew who the first women would be.
I'm pretty sure he did not mean scientists.

This is a classic from the 50s, but I wouldn't move it to the top of my list.