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Neutrino – Frank Close *****

At first sight you could easily overlook this book. It’s small and succumbs to that easiest mistakes when dealing with something with a passing involvement with space of having a black cover, which almost inevitably makes a book look dull. It doesn’t cover one of the big topics of the day. Why bother? Because it’s a little cracker.
An awful lot of popular science passes across my desk, and it’s very rare that the vast majority of the content is new and fresh, but that’s the case here. Neutrinos are quantum particles that exist in vast quantities – many billions pass through your body from the Sun every second – yet they are so unlikely to interact with matter that the vast majority pass through the Earth as if it isn’t there. Once it became apparent that neutrinos ought to exist, the challenge was there to find some way of detecting them. But what a challenge.
Frank Close presents the tale of the hunt for the neutrino, and it’s a fascinating story. Apart from anything else, it’s a great example of what real science is like, with researchers in one country not aware of developments elsewhere, and huge pieces of equipment built on the erroneous assumption that protons decayed often enough to be detected then being redeployed as neutrino detectors. I particularly loved the way a scientist got an experiment past a laboratory director by playing on the director’s dislike of astrophysicists, telling him this was a chance to prove them wrong.
This really is physics in the raw – with the added benefit that we are dealing here with the weirdest detectors ever imagined. What would Galileo or Newton have made of telescopes consisting of tonnes of cleaning fluid in a cavern a mile underground? Or detectors that depend on spotting the afterglow of faster-than-light particles, again buried far beneath the Earth?
This is by no means a complete story. There is still plenty to learn about neutrinos, because even with the latest detectors, scientists are only spotting a handful a day. Yet an immense amount has been learned, both about neutrinos themselves and what they tell us about the mechanisms of stars. There is something very satisfying about someone apparently getting a theory wrong by a factor of two, only to be proved correct after 30 years study showed that neutrinos behave in a stranger fashion than anyone ever imagined.
If I’m going to be picky, there’s a ‘reprise’ section at the end that was too long to be a recap and seemed more a filler than anything – but I loved this little book and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in physics or astronomy.

Review by Brian Clegg


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