Skip to main content

Frank Close - Four Way Interview

Frank Close is Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford. He was formerly vice president of the British Association for Advancement of 
Science, Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Head of Communications and Public Education at CERN. He is the winner of the Kelvin Medal of the Institute of Physics for his "outstanding contributions to the public 
understanding of physics." . His latest book is Half Life, a scientific biography of nuclear scientist (and possible spy) Bruno Pontecorvo.

Why Science?

I always wanted to know: why? Decades later I discovered that science deals with 'how?', but by then I was hooked. Chemistry at school consisted of lots of facts, too many to remember, but it was the chemistry teacher who told me that everything is made of atoms, which in turn are all made of electrons encircling a nucleus, and the only difference between one atomic element and the next is the number of protons. That such simplicity could lead to such richness astonished me then, and still does. It also gave me the hope that I could derive all of chemistry from this basic fact (a hope unfulfilled) and pointed me towards physics, eventually particle physics. I always loved numbers, and algebra, and was useless with experiments. That’s how I became a theoretical physicist. I still find it remarkable that by scribbling equations on pieces of paper, it is possible to deduce profound consequences about the nature of the universe, which experiments subsequently confirm. How can mathematics 'know' reality before we ourselves?

Why this book?

I wrote a book called Neutrino, the story of Ray Davis’ heroic forty year quest to detect these ghostly particles, which theory implied must be pouring from the sun in vast quantities. He survived long enough to collect a Nobel Prize, in 2002, at age 87. In the course of researching that book, I discovered that behind the scenes another physicist, Bruno Pontecorvo, had played a central role. However, halfway through his life he had defected to the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and missed out on one Nobel Prize as a result (he was unable to share in Davis’ Nobel, later, as Pontecorvo died in 1993). I began to research Pontecorvo’s life, and the question of why he had made the fateful flight to the USSR began to take centre stage. In addition to being a great physicist, had he also been a spy, as some conjectured? I discovered that he had lived in my home-town, and I found people who had known him, sixty-five years ago. I traced school-friends of his son, who had been twelve years old at the time, and they told me their memories of the disappearance. Then we discovered that one of the teachers at their school had worked for MI5, and suddenly I realised that I had an inside track to a spy mystery as well as a scientific biography. I met family members of two certain atomic spies, as well as several of Bruno Pontecorvo’s own relatives, along with others from the world of smoke and mirrors. My breakthrough was in unearthing an MI5 document that had been lost – or maybe 'lost' – which revealed that the infamous Kim Philby had played a central role in Pontecorvo’s disappearance. From which point, Half Life wrote itself. I am flattered that, having spent forty years as a physicist, reviewers are now describing me as an “historian”.

What next?

I am writing a short book about my fascination with solar eclipses, which began as an eight years old schoolboy and, since I was present at a total solar eclipse in 1999, have become an obsession. In my new guise as 'historian' of scientific affairs, I am researching another atomic physics espionage mystery from the Second World War. This has grown out of my research into Half Life, which revealed some previously unknown facts about Klaus Fuchs, his mentor Rudolf Peierls – the British father of the atomic bomb - and the role of MI5 and the FBI. But as there may be literary spies out there, I shall say no more for now!

What’s exciting you right now?

In my own field of particle physics, I am eagerly awaiting the re-start of the Large Hadron Collider at higher energies. Having discovered the Higgs boson, will the LHC find evidence for supersymmetry, or reveal the dark matter particles, which, according to cosmologists, are more copious than the stuff that we presently know? Only Nature knows the answers so far, but the weird property of mathematics, which I mentioned at the start, suggests that discoveries are waiting to be made. Outside particle physics, I am intrigued about consciousness: how many atoms are needed to gather together before they are self-aware? Unfortunately I have no idea how to answer this question. Other than that, I hope that answers will come to some of these questions while I am still capable of sharing my excitement about them, and their significance, in print sometime in the future.

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…