Skip to main content

The Cryotron Files - Iain Dey and Douglas Buck ****

This is a rip-roaring tale of remarkable technological achievements, cold war spying and a suspicious death at a very early age that has inevitably fostered conspiracy theories. Dudley Buck, the subject of the biography, made three hugely important contributions to computer science - yet he's still not widely known. I've read many books on the history of computer science, and this is the first time I've ever heard of him.

We start off with fairly familiar territory with Buck's background - it might feel a little dull - but once he's involved in computing, things get a whole lot more interesting. About the only aspect of the early biography that stands out is that Buck had an extremely unpleasant idea of what constitutes a prank, including electrocuting people and trying to build a bomb on campus. However, though he apparently continued as a practical joker when older, it seems his attempts, while still malicious, became less life-threatening.

In terms of computing technology, Buck was a key figure in the development of the magnetic core memory that was the mainstay of computing in the 60s, was producing lithographic integrated circuits well before the famous names of the microchip world, and devised a ferroelectric memory that was impractical at the time, but has since become a real thing. And all this before dying at the tragically young age of 32. In fact, the ferroelectric memory was in masters dissertation, and he didn't get a doctorate until shockingly late, having already made huge contributions.

Of itself, his computer engineering is impressive, but what makes the story far more intriguing is Buck's involvement in the shady world of 1960s espionage. He did a considerable amount of work for the NSA and was regularly sent off on missions, at least one to the Soviet Union, the details of which are sometimes still fuzzy, but making him a far more interesting character for a biography. And then there's his death. Buck died of a pulmonary condition. It was immediately after opening a package containing a wide range of chemical substances for use in his experimental work - and not long after the visit of a number of soviet scientists. At the time of writing this review, relatively soon after the Skripal affair, it's hard not to give at least some weight to the speculation that his death - working as he was on technology that could be used in guided missiles - was not accidental.

There is, sadly, one real disappointment with this book. Authors Iain Dey (a business journalist) and Douglas Buck (Buck's son) used a researcher to dig up historical material. It's a shame they didn't also have a science consultant, because the science and technology part of the book is dire. Luckily, it's almost incidental to the way the story is presented - it's far more about people and history, but it's a real shame that it couldn't have been better.

To give an example, the 'cryotron' in the title of the book (of which more in a moment) was a superconducting device. Early on we are told superconductors are 'chemical elements that only conduct electricity at ultralow temperatures.' Leaving aside that most modern superconductors aren't chemical elements, the specific elements mentioned through the book, and which later we are told 'naturally blocked an electric current at room temperature' are lead, tantalum and niobium - all reasonably good conductors at room temperature. If the authors think lead blocks an electric current, I hope they don't have cars that use lead-acid batteries.

That's weak basic science, but even the computer science has problems. We're told that 'The acronym RAM soon stuck and is still used today as an indication of a computer's processing speed.' Really? But the biggest issue is the way the cryotron is handled. This was a potential replacement for valves and transistors (which at the time were typically as much as a centimetre across). The cryotron was a tiny device that could fulfil a similar role. Unfortunately it was a dead end. It was slower than transistors and crucially could only work if supercooled with liquid helium. It might have had niche applications, but the need to keep it at a couple of degrees above absolute zero would always prevent it from being mainstream. As it happens, within a few years transistors on microchips had left it way behind.

Dey and Buck spoil the genuinely huge significance of Buck senior's work on magnetic cores, lithography and ferroelectric memory by overplaying the importance of the cryotron. At one point they say Dudley Buck 'had invented a whole new field of physics and electrical engineering.' There was no new physics here. Elsewhere they claim that the cryotron 'evolved into a device called a Josephson junction.' This is ludicrous. It's like saying a 13 amp plug 'evolved into a microchip' as they both carry electricity, involve metal junctions and work at room temperature. A Josephson junction was a totally new concept, derived from basic physics and to suggest that it had any relation to a cryotron is an insult to Brian Josephson. The authors even go so far as to suggest that a quantum computer 'runs on modified cryotrons.' No, it really doesn't. This is an attempt to over-inflate the importance of one of Buck's ideas that was a failure. It was good idea, but it happened not to work out. Technology development is like that.

There is no doubt, then, that there are issues with this book, but I come back to the to key aspects that make it a great read. Buck was a genius - what he achieved in computer engineering in a short timescale (especially given the amount of time he spent on other things) was truly remarkable. And his life story, intwined as it was with Cold War politics and espionage, equally makes for a fascinating insight into unsettling times.



Review by Brian Clegg


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…