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Chasing the Ghost - Leonard Cole ***

The ghost in question is that fascinating particle, the neutrino - almost undetectable particles that were predicted to exist in the 1930s but not discovered for over 20 years. And Leonard Cole is well placed to document the neutrino's discovery as he is the younger cousin of Fred Reines, one of the pair who delivered clear evidence of the neutrino's existence in 1956.

The particle itself has been well-documented in Frank Close's excellent book Neutrino, however Cole is able to give us far more detail on one of the lesser known of the twentieth century's great physicists. I hadn't realised the quite shocking reality that Reines was only awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 (long after his coworker, Clyde Cowan had died). It's not just the near-40 year wait, but the real surprise is that other physicists were awarded a Nobel earlier for discovering a second type of neutrino. I don't therefore begrudge Cole's labelling Reines a Nobel Prize winner in his subtitle, though I wish he hadn't used the term Nobelist - if it is a word, it ought not to be.

There's always a danger that a biography by a relative will not stand up well to a critical read. To be honest, I expected getting through this book would be rewarding, but a slog. And on occasion Cole doesn't explain enough of the science or why something that's stated is true. So, for example, we are told that Reines' description of the neutrino was 'the most tiny quantity of reality ever imagined by a human being'. My immediate response to this was to wonder it what sense a neutrino is tinier than a photon - we need a bit more explanatory detail (or even an argument against). Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the opening 'Beginnings' section, where Cole proved able to tell a good story and keep the reader engaged. For me, though, the best part of the book was the Discovery section. In the end, this is what it's all about. This is where it's important to go beyond an account that presents the scientist as hero, and Cole does well in providing us with a three part story.

Firstly there is now bizarre suggestion of using a nuclear bomb as a source of neutrinos. Cole puts this into the context of the time when bomb enthusiasts were proposing all sorts of applications for nuclear weapons, from propelling spacecraft to civil engineering. Thankfully, this idea was put to one side in place of siting detectors alongside nuclear reactors (or, later, down mines to capture natural neutrinos). These detectors do not pick up the neutrinos themselves, but rather the outcome of their (very infrequent) interaction with other particles. Perhaps most interesting was the second part of the story, when Reines and Cowan produced a 1953 result which they themselves were not really convinced by, yet which was talked up (partly by them) to the extent that it was largely reported in the media as an actual discovery. Finally, with detectors modified to cope with the potential false causes of the 1953 outcome, they would achieve convincing results in 1956.

We then hit the near-inevitable problem of structuring a scientific biography. Reines lived more than 40 years after the discovery and did interesting work, but nothing as significant as that 1956 detection - which in the end is the point of the book. The result can be something of an anticlimactic read, and the experienced scientific biographer will use various tricks to get over this problem. Unfortunately, that doesn't really happen here - so much of what comes in pages 115 to 253 feels a bit of a let down. It's not helped by a structure where Cole devotes whole sections to Cole's artistic interests and views on religion, and to giving detail to his later academic career, which was no doubt inspiring to those who attended his lectures, but not so interesting to the reader following the neutrino story.

One other issue here, which I often seen in books published by academic presses, is the tendency to treat each chapter as a separate document. As a result of this (or just poor editing), there is a lot of repetition. By page 20, for example, I’d already been told several times that the experiment in 1956 confirmed the neutrinos existence and that neutrinos were referred to as being ghostly. It's a bit like watching one of those cheap documentaries on a TV channel with adverts, where they insist on giving you a recap every few minutes. And although I generally enjoyed the opening section, it did try too hard to justify the importance of neutrino research. For example, there's a lot on why we wouldn't exist without neutrinos - but you could say the same thing about practically any common particle or other basic aspect of physics.

Overall, then, interesting insights into Reines' life and work, and particularly good on the discovery itself, but not at the top level of scientific biography writing.



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Review by Brian Clegg


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