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.

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…