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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …