Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…