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Bookshelf

18 July 2012

Summer Bookshelf: • Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow • The History of Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction • How the hippies saved physics: science, counterculture, and the quantum revival • Niels Bohr and the Quantum Atom: The Bohr Model of Atomic Structure 1913–1925 • Higgs Force. The Symmetry-Breaking Force that Makes the World an Interesting Place • Catalysed Fusion

Summer Bookshelf

Summer is the season of conferences for physicists, with holidays squeezed in where possible. This year many particle physicists have been working hard on preparing the latest results from the LHC, in particular searches for the Higgs boson, based on the bumper crop of data already achieved.

For those with time for reading something other than drafts of their latest papers and preprints with new results, this Bookshelf features a few books for more some different reading – or for recommending to family and friends, while the hard work continues.

Powering the Future: How We Will (Eventually) Solve the Energy Crisis and Fuel the Civilization of Tomorrow
By Robert Laughlin
Basic Books
Hardback: £17.99 $24.99

Nearly 90% of the world’s economy is driven by the massive use of fossil fuels. The US spends one-sixth of its gross domestic product on oil alone, without counting the important costs of coal and natural gas, even though its use of oil and the other fossil fuels has progressively decreased since the mid-1970s. While the debate on fossil fuels continues to rage on both sides of the Atlantic, Robert Laughlin, professor of physics at Stanford University and Nobel Laureate for the fractional Hall effect, has written Powering the Future – a hypothetical voyage through the future, where the human race will have demands and expectations similar to those of today but where technologies will probably be quite different.

The book is essentially one of two halves. The first half contains the main chapters, where all of the essential statements and the logical lines of the various arguments are developed with an informal style. These are then complemented by the second half, which consists of a delightful set of notes. The notes encourage readers to form their own opinions on specific subjects using a number of tools, which range from assorted references to simplified quantitative estimates.

Treatises on energy problems that are written by political scientists are often scientifically inaccurate; specialized monographs are sometimes excessively technical. This book uses an intermediate register where the quantitative aspects of a problem are discussed but the overall presentation is not pedantic. Of the numerous examples, here are two short ones. What is the total precipitation that falls in one year on the world? The answer is “one metre of rain, the height of a golden retriever” (page 7 and note on page 127). What is the power-carrying capacity for the highest voltage currently used in North America? The answer is “2 billion watts” (page 46 and note on page 156) and is derived with simple mathematical tools.

Laughlin’s chain of arguments forms a composite approach to the energy challenge, where fossil fuels will still be needed 200 years from now to fly aeroplanes. Nuclear power plants will inevitably (but cautiously) be exploited and solar energy will offer decisive solutions in limited environments (see chapter nine, “Viva Las Vegas!”). While the author acknowledges that market forces (and not green technology) will be the future driver of energy innovation, the book does not explicitly support any partisan cause but tries to inspect thoroughly the issues at stake.

A few tweets may not suffice to develop informed views on the energy future of the human race. On the other hand, Powering the Future will certainly stimulate many readers (including, I hope, physicists) to form their own judgements and to challenge some of the canned statements that proliferate on the internet these days.

Massimo Giovannini, CERN and INFN Milan-Bicocca.

The History of Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction
By Jacqueline Stedall
Oxford University Press
Paperback: £7.99 $11.95

What a wonderful surprise. I was going to review another book before this one but it wasn’t to my liking (actually it was pretty bad) and I gave up after the first few chapters. So I settled instead on this book, mainly because it is short, or “very short” as the subtitle suggests.

Seeing that it was part of a series, I was expecting a typical history starting with Pythagoras and Euclid, then Newton and possibly Leibniz, Euler, Gauss and Riemann, followed by a collection of moderns, depending on how much space was left. I looked in the (excellent) index at the back (opening Q–Z) and was surprised to find no entry for Riemann. Was this British bias? No, Hardy was missing as well – but instead there were other people who I’d never heard of: William Oughtred, for example, (author of the first maths book published in Oxford) and Etienne d’Espagnet (who supplied Fermat with essential earlier works). Samuel Pepys also makes an appearance but more as an example of how little maths educated people knew in the 17th century.

I learnt in this charming book that what I had been expecting is called the “stepping stone” approach to the history of mathematics, focusing on elite mathematicians. This book is refreshingly different. It is actually more about the subject “history of mathematics”, i.e. about how we compile and recount a history of mathematics rather than about a sequence of events. However, it does this by focusing on intriguing stories that show the various features that must be considered. In doing so, it fills in the water between the stepping stones, for example, in the story of Fermat’s last theorem. It also tells the story of the majority of people who actually do maths – schoolchildren – by discussing the class work in a Babylonian classroom (around 1850 BC), as well as in a Cumbrian classroom around 1800.

After reading this “preview version”, I am now going to get the “director’s cut” – The Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics, which is co-authored by the same author with Eleanor Robson.

Happy reading and exploring!

Herbert Dreiner, University of Bonn.

How the hippies saved physics: science, counterculture, and the quantum revival
By David Kaiser
W W Norton & Company
Hardback: £17.99 $26.95
Paperback: $17.95

In this curious book, David Kaiser presents a detailed “biography” of a group of young physicists, the “Fundamental Fysics Group”, based in Berkeley, California, and their unconventional impact on the development of “the new quantum age”. Most of the action takes place in the 1970s and includes a surprising mixture of characters and plots, as suitably summarized in these illuminating words: “Many of the ideas that now occupy the core of quantum information science once found their home amid an anything-goes counterculture frenzy, a mishmash of spoon-bending psychics, Eastern mysticism, LSD trips, CIA spooks chasing mind-reading dreams and comparable ‘Age of Aquarius’ enthusiasms.” These people regularly gathered to discuss all sorts of exotic topics, including telepathy and “remote viewing”, as well as faster-than-light communication and the fundamental concepts of quantum theory.

Among many other things, I liked learning about early discussions regarding Bell’s theorem, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox and the nature of reality, sometimes taking place in workshops with sessions in hot baths, interspersed by drum playing and yoga exercises. I also enjoyed reading about the first experimental tests of Bell’s work by John Clauser and about the genesis of the bestseller The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra. It was particularly interesting to learn about a paper on superluminal communication (published despite negative reports from referees), which triggered the development of rebuttal arguments that ended up being quite revolutionary and leading to quantum encryption etc. It was thinking outside the “establishment” way that led to a wrong but fruitful idea about implications of Bell’s theorem, which forced others to improve the understanding of quantum entanglement and gave rise to a new and highly successful branch of physics: quantum information. Kaiser’s basic message is that, sometimes, crazy ideas push the understanding of science beyond the frontiers set by people working in conventional environments, within universities, and by government grants.

I know that we should not judge a book by its cover but with such a title I expected this book to be an interesting summertime read and was surprised to find that it is written in a rather heavy style that is more suitable for historians of science than for physicists relaxing on the beach. The topic of the book is actually quite curious, the language is fluid and the narrative is well presented but the level of detail is such that many readers will often feel like jumping ahead. It is elucidating to note that almost 25% of the book’s 400 pages are devoted to listings of notes and of bibliography. Essentially every sentence, every paragraph, is justified by an “end note”, which is an overkill for a book targeting a general audience. Writing this dense book must have been a long-term job for Kaiser, who is both a physicist and a historian. The result does not really qualify as an easy read. I enjoy reading biographies if they have a nice rhythm, some suspense and a few anecdotes here and there – which is not exactly the case for this book. I wonder how many readers end up moving it aside after realizing that they have been misled by the spirited title?

Carlos Lourenço, CERN.

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