23 February 2012

Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science • Physics: A Student Companion • Books received

Radioactivity: A History of a Mysterious Science
By Marjorie C Malley
Oxford University Press
Hardback: £14.99 $21.95

Between 1899 and 1902, Polish physicist Marie Curie processed 100 kg of radioactive pitchblende ore – in 20 kg batches – by hand, in the courtyard of a leaky shed in Paris. The feat provided her with the atomic weight of radium and earned her a Nobel prize. But the research also left her with lifelong medical complications from exposure to radioactivity.

Marjorie C Malley’s comprehensive history of radioactivity captures the excitement, promise and tragedy of the “mysterious” field from its inception in the late 19th century to the present day. The narrative spans two continents and two world wars, taking in decorative uranium glassware, radium spas and atom bombs along the way. Avoiding technical detail, Malley explores the cultural, technological and scientific forces that shaped research in radioactivity, and relates the important personalities and discoveries that drove the field forward.

Malley’s cast spreads across France, Germany, the UK and Canada. We are introduced to Wilhelm Röntgen, discoverer of X-rays; Henri Becquerel, who noticed that invisible rays from uranium registered on photographic plates, even in the dark; and Marie Curie, who first applied electrical techniques to understanding radioactive substances and who discovered the elements radium and polonium in the process.

In Canada, Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy investigated further the radioactivity of both uranium and thorium and found that in the course of emitting radiation they change into different elements. The shock of atomic transmutation – with its undertones of alchemy – was almost heresy to chemists at the time. When they returned to the UK, Rutherford went on to discover the atomic nucleus, while Soddy was the first to form the concept of isotopes.

Two aspects of Malley’s narrative stand out for me: the “reasonable” hypotheses that scientists put forward for the origins of radioactivity, which seem so outlandish now; and the shocking ignorance of the true medical dangers of radiation that prevailed until relatively late in the 20th century.

In fluorescent paint factories of the 1920s, workers wetted the tips of their brushes with their lips, swallowing radioactive radium in the process. Alpha radiation from the paint often led to the death of jaw tissue and mysterious cancers. Researchers regularly mixed radioactive solutions with their fingers: physicist Stefan Meyer had to give up playing the bass viol because of radiation damage to his fingers.

Malley’s clearly written text captures the intellectual excitement of early research into radioactivity, though I found her section on the cultural forces shaping radioactivity rather weak. Although she notes that individuals, scientific ideals, culture and nationalism (among others) triggered the spurt of research interest in radioactivity, I was unconvinced that research into radioactivity deserves a special place among the countless other scientific advances of the 20th century. Was its development really that unique? I also felt that in a history of radioactivity, the implications of using nuclear power – for good or evil – were rather glossed over in deference to scientific papers and super scientists.

In Radioactivity, Malley weaves disparate historical threads into an accessible and engaging narrative for the nonexpert. I would recommend this book, describing it as a well written and useful overview of the topic for students and teachers. Those seeking in-depth analysis of the implications of the technology – or biographies of the scientists involved – should look elsewhere.

Cian O’Luanaigh, CERN.

Physics: A Student Companion
By Lowry Kirkby
Scion Publishing Ltd
Paperback: £27.99 $50

Lowry Kirkby once turned down an offer to study physics at Manchester University and instead went to Oxford. This was Manchester’s loss; she was clearly a model student, assiduous in producing, collating and annotating her lecture notes and using them to help her graduate with a top first-class degree in 2007. She has now turned these notes into a “student companion”.

As companions go, this is an excellent one and it should become a best friend to all physics undergraduates, particularly in those important, lonely weeks of study in the run-up to examinations. I encourage all lecturers to recommend this book to their students.

Lowry covers the bulk of the core physics required in degree programmes accredited by the Institute of Physics in the UK and most of the syllabus for the Graduate Record Examination in the US. This includes Newtonian mechanics and special relativity; electromagnetism; waves and optics; quantum physics; and thermal physics. These are taken to about the end of the second year of university study for a student majoring in physics. So, for example, the material goes as far as Fraunhofer diffraction in wave-optics, time-independent perturbation theory in quantum mechanics and the grand canonical partition function in statistical mechanics.

Clearly a single, relatively slim volume such as this (400 pages) cannot serve as a textbook for all these topics. But that is not its intention; it is meant as a supplement to the textbooks, a digest for students who have already studied and understood the details.

There are five aspects to the presentation of the material, which can be described as: commentary, summaries, boxed equations, derivations and worked examples. It all sits together very well indeed as a single-volume study aid. In a book with so much detail and so many equations, I found remarkably few errors or misprints. The author, proofreaders and editor are to be commended on the high standards of the production.

Do physics students still have bookshelves? If they do, then this book should have a place on all of them. But smart phones, tablets and e-readers now seem to be the preferred media. While the book is reasonably portable, an e-version would be just the sort of thing that today’s physics students would always want to have to hand.

George Lafferty, Manchester University.

Books received

Advanced Statistical Mechanics
By Barry M McCoy
Oxford University Press
Hardback: £57.70 $99

Statistical mechanics is the study of systems where the number of interacting particles becomes infinite. Tremendous advances have been made over the past 50 years that have required the invention of entirely new fields of mathematics, such as quantum groups and affine Lie algebras. These have provided profound insights into both condensed matter physics and quantum field theory, but none of these advances are taught in graduate courses in statistical mechanics. This book is an attempt to correct this, beginning with theorems on the existence (and lack) of order for crystals and magnets and with the theory of critical phenomena, it continues by presenting the methods and results of 50 years of analytic and computer computations of phase transitions.

Strong Coupling Gauge Theories in LHC Era: Proceedings of the Workshop in Honor of Toshihide Maskawa’s 70th Birthday and 35th Anniversary of Dynamical Symmetry Breaking in SCGT
By H Fukaya et al. (ed.)
World Scientific
Hardback: £93 $150
E-book: $195

This workshop was the sixth Nagoya strong-coupling gauge theory (SCGT) workshop and the first after Yoichiro Nambu, Makato Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in dynamical symmetry breaking. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss both theoretical and phenomenological aspects of SCGTs, with emphasis on the models to be tested in the LHC experiments.

Exclusive Reactions at High Momentum Transfer IV: Proceedings of the 4th Workshop
By Anatoly Radyushkin
World Scientific
Hardback: £109 $175
E-book: $223

These proceedings include talks given at the 4th Workshop on Exclusive Reactions at High Momentum Transfer at Jefferson Lab. The workshop focused on the application of a variety of exclusive reactions at high momentum-transfer, utilizing unpolarized and polarized beams and targets, to obtain information about nucleon ground-state and excited-state structure at short distances. This subject is central to the programmes of current accelerators and especially for planned future facilities.

Physics Beyond the Standard Models of Particles, Cosmology and Astrophysics
By H V Klapdor-Kleingrothaus, I V Krivosheina and R Viollier
World Scientific
Hardback: £136 $220

This book contains the proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Physics Beyond the Standard Models of Particle Physics, Cosmology and Astrophysics. It reviews the status and future potential and trends in experimental and theoretical particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics, in the complementary sectors of accelerator, nonaccelerator and space physics.

Theory of High-Temperature Superconductivity: A Conventional Approach
By Todor M Mishonov and Evgeni S Penev
World Scientific
Hardback: £57 $88
E-book: $114

Drawing from the broad spectrum of phenomena, described in more than 100,000 articles on high-Tc superconductivity, the authors analyse the basic properties that can be understood within the framework of traditional methods of theoretical physics, e.g. for the overdoped cuprates. The book gives a pedagogical derivation of formulae describing the electron band-structure, penetration depth, specific heat, fluctuation conductivity, etc. Prediction of plasmons and their application for a new type of terahertz generators is also considered.

The World According to Quantum Mechanics: Why the Laws of Physics Make Perfect Sense After All
By Ulrich Mohrhoff
World Scientific
Hardback: £56 $81
E-book: $105

As a supplement to standard textbooks on quantum mechanics, this introduction to the general theoretical framework of contemporary physics focuses on conceptual, epistemological and ontological issues. The theory is developed by pursuing the question: what does it take to have material objects that neither collapse nor explode as soon as they are formed? The stability of matter thus emerges as the chief reason the laws of physics have the particular form that they do. The first of three parts familiarizes the reader with the basics; the second looks closer; and the final part aims to make epistemological and ontological sense of the theory.

Gribov-80 Memorial Volume: Quantum Chromodynamics and Beyond: Proceedings of the Memorial Workshop Devoted to the 80th Birthday of V N Gribov
By Yu L Dokshitzer, P Lévai and J Nyíri
World Scientific
Hardback: £117 $180

Theoretical physicist Vladimir Gribov was a key figure in the development of modern elementary particle physics. His insights into the physics of quantum anomalies and the origin of classical solutions (instantons), the notion of parton systems and their evolution in soft and hard hadron interactions, the first theory of neutrino oscillations and conceptual problems of quantization of non-Abelian fields have left a lasting impact on modern theoretical physics. Gribov-80 brought colleagues, younger researchers and leading experts together to discuss the new angles of the Gribov heritage in the LHC era.

Quips, Quotes and Quanta: An Anecdotal History of Physics, 2nd Edition
By Anton Z Capri
World Scientific
Paperback: £25 $38

When a ship’s surgeon noticed during a routine episode of bloodletting that the sailors’ blood was brighter in the tropics than in the north, he hypothesized that heat was a form of energy. This is just one of the stories covered in this entertaining book that deals with the history of physics from the end of the 19th century to about 1930. This second edition has been revised to include a prologue, epilogue, glossary, chronology and photographs, as well as additional quotes and anecdotes.

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