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Scientists Under Surveillance - JPat Brown et al (Eds) ***

This is a weird one, in some ways reminiscent of one of those 'fun' books that tries to put a story across by mocking up fake documents - except the documents here are real - specifically, extracts from the FBI's files on leading scientists.

Sometimes these are fairly mundane - security checks, for example, when a scientist has been put forward for some senior government post, such as the astronomer Vera Rubin, about which nothing whatsoever of interest is found. At other times, something unexpected turns up. In the case, for example, of Neil Armstrong, the background check pulled up a reference to a bizarre incident when two tourists arrived near Armstrong's home, asking questions that were considered too personal. In other cases, such as the flamboyant Richard Feynman, there were suspicions of communist or other disruptive tendencies, though Feynman comes out triumphant. Feynman is also an interesting example of something those who report scientists as suspicious ought to bear in mind - the people making the accusations are routinely investigated themselves. For Feynman, there are page after page of supportive comments before he was given a government post, but one multi-page rant accusing him of being 'a master of deception'. The identity of the accuser is redacted, though the notes give a strong suspicion of who it was (something anyone who knows Feynman's biography can probably guess.)

Although one or two snippets stand out, a lot of it can be quite samey, or involves people of interest only to the most dedicated history of science fans, such as John P. Craven. Given both the pedestrian nature of much of the FBI reporting and the dull bureaucracy of it all, it's hard not to flip through the pages, picking out bits that jump out at you. (I think this even happened to the editors, as pages 2 and 3 on Neil Armstrong are actually the same document.) To make matters worse, more could have been done to enhance the contrast of some of the copies - several pages were totally impossible to read.

Despite all this, there's a certain frisson of seeing what amounts to spy work on big names, plus the fun of trying to guess what's behind the redacted bits (mostly done by cutting and pasting bits of paper over them documents, rather than black marker). If you happen to be someone writing about one of the subjects, there would be great material in here to add in an anecdote or two. And it can demonstrate well some of the worrying paranoia of government agencies. But overall it's more a 'Hmm, that's interesting,' than a 'Wow! Must tell everyone!'

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Review by Brian Clegg


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