19 August 2013

• Feynman’s Tips on Physics: Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics • A Journey with Fred Hoyle • Networks Geeks: How They Built the Internet • Handbook of Radioactivity Analysis

Feynman’s Tips on Physics: Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics
By Richard P Feynman, Michael A Gottlieb and Ralph Leighton
Basic Books
Paperback: £11.99 $16.99

Originally published in hardback not long ago (Addison Wesley 2006), Feynman’s Tips on Physics is now available as a slim paperback, complete with some additional material. It is essentially a collection of four “lost” lectures and could be thought of as four chapters that somehow didn’t make it into The Feynman Lectures on Physics – the well known three-volume set by Feynman and colleagues Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands. To complement these, Michael A Gottlieb and Ralph Leighton (Robert’s son) have added a fifth chapter with selected problems from Exercises in Introductory Physics by Leighton Sr and Rochus Vogt. To set the scene, they also include a “memoir” by Sands on the origins of the famous three books in their distinctive red covers and – new for this edition – three interviews, with Leighton Sr, Vogt and Feynman himself.

The first thing to say is that the scientific level of the four lectures is far below that of the other published lectures. The first lecture, “Prerequisites”, is an elementary reminder about the importance of learning basic calculus and vector algebra and it is unlikely that anyone reading this review will find anything new. Perhaps the main point of interest is Feynman’s discussion on how to deal with not being the top member of a group comprised of many talented people. This might provide some inspiration to bright high-school students who go from being top of their class to no longer being at the top at a good university.

The second lecture, “Laws and Intuition” attempts to explain to students the importance of having a feel for the material and using physical intuition to back up mathematical calculations. This could help students, who far too often, in my experience, just want to know “what formula to use”.

“Problems and Solutions”, the third lecture, is pitched at a slightly more advanced level. It would be suitable for a good high school student or first-year university student and covers a range of interesting topics from satellite motion to rockets (including ion and photon propulsion) as well as a couple of simple particle-physics examples: electrostatic deflection of a proton beam and the determination of the charged-pion mass.

Last, “Dynamical Effects and Their Applications”, is essentially about gyroscopes. It contains little mathematics and the technology is quite dated but it is fun to read. In fact, even the datedness of some of the material has its charm. Feynman says: “Computing is mostly analogue at the moment, but it is likely that it’ll turn into digital – in a year or two, probably – because that has no errors in it.” How things have changed since 1962!

While there is not much here for the practising physicist, it is a quick and easy read and contains many interesting things about the history of The Feynman Lectures in Physics in the introduction (and the surprising statement that there are more than 170 errors in the 3 volume set). As such, it is worth the hour or two that it will take to read – and, after all, it is Feynman. While it is unlikely to find much use as a reference work, it would make a nice gift for someone about to start studying physics – but together with the full 3-volume set.

John Swain, Northeastern University.

A Journey with Fred Hoyle (2nd Edition)
By Chandra Wickramasinghe and Kamala Wickramasinghe (ed.)
World Scientific
Paperback: £28
E-book: £21

Fred Hoyle was undoubtedly among the most original thinkers of his time and one of the leading figures of 20th-century physics. From the purely scientific viewpoint, his name is associated with at least three ideas: the synthesis of heavy nuclear elements in the cores of supernovae (developed in collaboration with William Fowler, Margaret and Geoffrey Burbidge); the steady-state model of the universe (formulated together with Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold); and some of the early applications of anthropic arguments to astrophysics and cosmology. Hoyle also contributed to many other fields – such as stellar structure, planetary formation, galactic dynamics and the origin of large-scale magnetism – where his creative imagination often made the difference.

A Journey with Fred Hoyle – now in a second edition that incorporates relevant developments that have occurred since the original was published in 2005 – is a respectful, lively and at times exciting tribute to an independent thinker, a capable teacher and an inventive scientist. It is an extremely well written collection of scientific memoirs and an intriguing journey in the realm of scientific controversies, which often accompany the achievements of those who like to think a little differently. The author started his PhD under the guidance of Hoyle in the early 1960s and was still collaborating with him in 2001 when Hoyle passed away. His narration begins in Cambridge where, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, three disciplines thrived serendipitously: biology (with the monumental discovery of James Watson and Francis Crick of the famous double helix structure of genetic material); cosmology and astrophysics (with the work of Hoyle at the institute of astronomy and of Martin Ryle with the radio-astronomy group) and particle physics (with the Lucasian professorship of Paul Dirac).

The Cambridge atmosphere probably inspired a quest for the unification between astrophysics and biology – a field that later became known as astrobiology and gained funding and respect from the whole scientific community. The starting observation made by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe was that interstellar clouds are not made of ice, as originally thought in the 1950s and early 1960s, but rather of carbon. By analysing the way that interstellar dust dims starlight the authors proposed, in a crescendo, that the carbon was part of complex organic molecules and, eventually, bacteria or even viruses. This combination of science and inventiveness led to the theory of panspermia, i.e. the hypothesis that life exists throughout the universe distributed in meteorites and asteroids.

Is it really true that life on the Earth came from the cosmos? This is probably not the most relevant question. What matters here is to appreciate that the current success of astrobiology started – amid inevitable controversies – from the analysis of organic compounds in interstellar space. This is an interesting book and worth reading for those who like to follow the complicated fate of successful ideas. Recalling the title of Hoyle’s autobiography, we could say that “home” for scientists is, sometimes, “where the wind blows”.

Massimo Giovannini, CERN and INFN Milan-Bicocca.

Networks Geeks: How They Built the Internet
By Brian E Carpenter
Paperback: £15 €21.09 $19.99
E-book: £11.99 €15.46 $9.99

In Network Geeks, Brian Carpenter weaves the history of the early internet into an entertaining personal narrative. As head of CERN’s computer-networking group throughout the 1980s, he is well placed to describe the discussions, the splits, the technical specifications and countless acronyms that made up the esoteric world of networking in the early days of the internet in Europe. Just don’t expect to be spared the technical details.

Carpenter joined CERN in 1971, at a time when computers filled entire rooms, messages were relayed by paper tape or punched card and numerous local networks ran bespoke software packages around the laboratory. Simplifying the system brought Carpenter into the world of the internet Engineering Task Force – the committee charged with overseeing the development of standards for internet technology.

I enjoyed the fictional account of a meeting of the Task Force in 1996, which gives a vivid idea of the sheer number of technical issues, documents and acronyms that the group tackled. That year, traffic was doubling every 100 days. Keeping up with the pace of change and deciding which standards and protocols to use – TCP/IP or OSI? – were emotive issues. As with any new technology, there was lobbying, competition and elements of luck. Nobody knew where the internet would lead.

Carpenter’s enthusiasm is the strength of Network Geeks. He recounts his early interest in science – a childhood of Meccano and Sputnik – with an easy nostalgia and his memories of informal meetings with often-bearded computer scientists show genuine warmth. But it is no easy read. The autobiographical narrative jumps jarringly between lyrical descriptions of the author’s youth and the rather mundane details of computer networking. At times I felt I was drowning in specifics when I was really hoping for a wider view, for implications rather than specifications.

Networks Geeks reminded me that the evolution of technology can be as much down to politics and luck as to scientific advances. It gave me a great overview of the climate in the early days on the internet. At the same, the heavy layers of jargon also reminded me why I’m no computer scientist.

Cian O’Luanaigh, CERN.

Books received

Handbook of Radioactivity Analysis (3rd edition)
By M L’Annunziata (ed.)
Academic Press
Hardback: €120
E-book: €129

Updated and much expanded, the new edition of this authoritative text provides the principles, practical techniques and procedures for accurately measuring radioactivity, from the low levels encountered in the environment to higher levels measured, for example, in radioisotope research, nuclear medicine and nuclear power. The book describes the basic principles of radiation detection and measurement and the preparation of samples; assists in the selection and use of appropriate radiation detectors; and presents state-of-the-art methods of analysis. Fundamentals of radiation properties, radionuclide decay and methods of detection provide the foundation of the analytical procedures. It is also suitable as a teaching text for university and training courses.

bright-rec iop pub iop-science physcis connect