Skip to main content

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.

Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lost in Math - Sabine Hossenfelder *****

One of my favourite illustrations from a science title was in Fred Hoyle's book on his quasi-steady state theory. It shows a large flock of geese all following each other, which he likened to the state of theoretical physics. In the very readable Lost in Math, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder exposes the way that in certain areas of physics, this is all too realistic a picture. (Hossenfelder gives Hoyle's cosmological theory short shrift, incidentally, though, to be fair, it wasn't given anywhere near as many opportunities to be patched up to match observations as the current version of big bang with inflation.)

Lost in Math is a very powerful analysis of what has gone wrong in the way that some aspects of physics are undertaken. Until the twentieth century, scientists made observations and experiments and theoreticians looked for theories which explained them, which could then be tested against further experiments and observations. Now, particularly in particle physics, it…

Gravity! - Pierre Binétruy ****

I had to really restrain myself from adopting the approach taken by The Register in referring to Yahoo! by putting an exclamation mark after every word in the text when faced with reviewing Gravity! One thing to be said about the punctuation, though, is it makes it easier to search for amongst a whole lot of books on gravity and gravitational waves (the subtitle is 'the quest for gravitational waves') since their discovery in 2015.

Despite the subtitle, Pierre Binétruy gives us far more - in fact, gravitational waves don't come into it until page 160, which makes it really more of a book about gravity with a bit on gravitational waves tacked on than a true exploration of the quest. 

However, those early pages aren't wasted - Binétruy gives us plenty of detail on all kinds of background, for example plunging in to tell us about element synthesis, something you wouldn't expect in a book on gravitational waves. I also really liked a little section on experiments you can…

Brain Based Enterprises - Peter Cook ****

A quick flag on this one: it's a management/business book, and the four star rating is with that in mind. Brain Based Enterprises does contain a surprising amount of science, considering this, which is why it's here, but don't expect it to be like a four star pure science book.

This is an eclectic attack on the status quo of our ideas about business. Peter Cook suggest that much of current business simply isn't oriented to the realities of a modern, technological world, and that we need to handle things very differently in a knowledge-based economy.

The book is divided into three sections. For me, the most interesting was the first 'brainy people' part, as my own business doesn't have teams and such - but for those who do there are also 'brainy teams' and 'brainy enterprises' sections. Cook stirs together a heady mix of science - from psychology to economics - music (a passion of his and a significant part of the way he works) and business the…