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Guerrilla Science - Ernesto Altshuler ***

I think it's fair to say that there has never been a science book quite like this slim hardback. Ernesto Altshuler sets out to describe his experience over a career of doing physics under the Castro regime in Cuba, in a kind of make do and mend environment that seems more appropriate to the physics laboratories of the nineteenth century than the twentieth or twenty-first. Indeed, some of Altshuler's photographs of his cobbled-together technology is distinctly reminiscent, say, of the look of the equipment Faraday was producing in the early years of the Royal Institution in London. 

In itself, this seems a wonderful opportunity for storytelling, but unfortunately this is where the book doesn't make it as popular science. Altshuler opens with a dramatic (if not obviously relevant) story of trying to save his car as floods struck his building. But once we get into the main thread of the book, what we get is a lot of detail (admittedly largely kept at a semi-technical level) of the work Altshuler did, primarily on the way collections of small solids (from sand to stacks of ball bearings and beans) moved in semi-fluid fashion, which apparently provides useful analogies for the behaviour of superconductors. I struggled to have much interest in these experiments and results, I'm afraid. (It's notable that the most interesting chapter for the non-specialist may well be when Altshuler expands into the foraging behaviour of leaf-cutter ants.)

There is no doubt that this could have been a really striking popular science book. If we had more along the lines of that introduction about the human experience of living and working in Castro's Cuba, it could have worked in that way - but the final book typically just comments on the difficulties of getting various bits of kit or brings in passing references to local culture without sustaining a coherent narrative.

I'd say the ideal audience here is physics undergraduates. In part this is to show them the reality of being an ordinary working scientist - the frustrations and the joys - and, frankly, the need to be happy focusing in on something that many might consider dull repetitive tasks to get to your end point. And also I'd suggest this audience, probably working in far better equipped labs even at the undergraduate level, could learn a lot from Ernesto Altshuler's ability to make use of what he could lay his hands on - dirty physics, as he describes it - to achieve good, scientific results.

Review by Brian Clegg


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