The Neutrino Hunters by Ray Jayawardhana

18684781Initial thoughts on this book – it’s much lighter than the other Physics books I have read recently (Dreams of a Final Theory by Steven Weinberg and Strange Beauty by George Johnson).  The introduction references The Big Bang Theory and sci-fi books by Greg Bear.  The tone feels a world away from the manifesto of Weinberg and the heavy weight biography of Gell-Mann.  This is probably a good thing – Jayawardhana covers physics right up to the time of writing, and many of these experiments aren’t yet at the stage of results and are light on entertaining anecdotes, so the style helps keep things pacy.

With my background in Physics, I would actually be interested in more detail on the theory behind neutrinos but Jayawardhana largely leaves this out for quick summaries of the concepts.  In truth this is probably a better option, for the flow of the book and readability for a general audience.  The personalities involved, their motivations and the surroundings of the experiments and theory developments are described more than the actual theory itself – but these are of great interest: people like Pauli and Dirac, experiments like Ice Cube in the Antarctic or SNOLab in a Canadian nickel mine.  These provide more than enough material to fill the book.

The book inevitably tails off a little towards the end when we reach unfinished experiments and possible applications (detecting neutrinos to discover illegal nuclear material, for example) and feels like a little bit of a mish mash of all the ideas and experiments that the author declined to give more prominence in the main chapters of the book.  There are some of these stories that could be covered in further detail – there is just a short paragraph, for instance, on Samuel Ting and AMS.

Neutrino Hunters stays short and sweet though – an enthusiastic introduction to some of the biggest topics in particle physics today.

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Strange Beauty by George Johnson

I’m not entirely sure how well known Murray Gell-Mann is outside the world of physics (I’m guessing ‘not very’) but for those who know of him, he ranks among the greats of twentieth century physics.  He’s best known for the Eightfold Way, a way of explaining hadronic particles using sub-particles called quarks.

41cuvv6lhil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Strange Beauty assumes some basic knowledge of physics – not necessarily in detail, but it would help to have a rough idea of the key characters and ideas of quantum physics.  It builds on this to cover the Gell-Mann’s work and methods in satisfying detail.  I would actually go as far to say that it’s some of the best representations of the subject that I have read in a popular science book.  He was slow to publish and often irritatingly cautious in the work he presented, but he wouldn’t let go of a problem once he had latched on to it and worked in very productive collaborations with colleagues (giving a counterpoint to anecdotes showing his abrasive side).  In addition to this, MGM is involved in almost every topic of importance in the field, and comes into contact with many of the other well known figures in 20th century physics.

Gell-Man’s early life is also compelling – his father was an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Jewish immigrant from Austria to New York.  Murray Gell-Mann seems to have inherited both his demanding nature and his usual hyphenated surname from him (his dad was born a Gellman).  In his later life, after the Nobel Prize, Gell-Mann starts to be involved in more varied adventures.  He has many interests outside physics (unlike his rival Feynman) – languages, archaeology, politics, psychology, conservation and, of course, his family.

As well as his work, much of the book is focused on his character – in a lesser book Gell-Mann could be a caricature of a perfectionist, difficult to work with, and sometimes unreliable (at least as far as deadlines are concerned).  This biography shows much more depth than that.    This multi-dimensional and often flawed personality together with the superb descriptions of his achievements makes this a great portrayal of a great scientist.

Holy Bones, Holy Dust by Charles Freeman

A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman.  Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.

There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages.  Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp.  He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative.  Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.

Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.

Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time.  I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.

The Golden Age: The Spanish Empire of Charles V by Hugh Thomas

This is a very authoritative and extensive book on the Spanish empire in the Americas during the reign of Charles V.  It is rich in detail and full of tales of the conquistadors.  There is a lot of material to cover, but Thomas moves quickly enough without skimping on depth and even finds occasional moments of humour.

The book starts rather abruptly in 1520; it is officially the second part of a trilogy but does work as a stand alone if one can accept a few seemingly arbitrary starting or finishing points.  This means that it begins after the rise of Hernan Cortes, instead centring itself on Pizarro’s conquest of Peru and the bloody infighting that followed.

The introduction of the book sets out a contrast between Charles’ possessions in America and in Europe; but the European side and Charles himself are covered less in this volume.  We do see the transatlantic interactions within the empire, but generally with the focus on America.  Charles is such an interesting figure that I might have liked to read more about him, but his stance on the colonies was always a somewhat standoffish one so the book doesn’t develop in that direction.  European events like the Reformation barely raise their head in Thomas’ narrative.

I may also have liked a slightly less character-led approach in places – it would have been nice to get a better picture of the Spanish and native cultures in themselves, as opposed to a picture limited to where they interacted.  The adventures, exploration and amoral scheming of Pizarro, Amalgro and others are interesting, shameful and occasionally impressive; and chapters on the church figures in the Spanish administration show the transition away from private fiefdoms.

The Golden Age is an enjoyable enough book, but at the same time it left me disappointed.  I wanted more from this, and struggled to really build up much of a sense of the empire.