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

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Future of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball ***

There is no doubt that fusion, the power source of the Sun, has the potential to be a significant contributor to our future energy needs. It's clean, green and continuous, able to fill in the gaps where wind and solar simply can't deliver. It uses cheap fuel and doesn't produce much in the way of nasty waste. And it can't undergo any sort of runaway reaction. So it's certainly a worthy topic for a popular science title. This book covers one aspect of fusion power - tokamak reactors - in great depth for a relatively non-technical book. But as we will see, it will only really work for a limited audience.

You won't necessarily realise it from the cover, which I interpreted as emphasising that Homer Simpson will still have a job when Springfield Energy converts to fusion power, but Jason Parisi and Justin Ball have packed The Future of Fusion Energy with information on the detail of how fusion reactors work, and all the difficulties that are faced in getting a stabl…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…