21 August 2007

Engines of Discovery: A Century of Particle Accelerators by Andrew Sessler and Edmund Wilson, World Scientific. Paperback ISBN 978-9812700711. £17.

It is said that Galileo always kept 10% of his purse in reserve for his lens grinder so that he could look forward to peering further into the heavens through the next telescope in line. He also actively collaborated with the telescope builder and shared his joy of discovering each new star. Instrument builders and their users have often been the same community and sharing the enterprise together was the norm. Such was also the case with early sub-atomic physicists and chemists in the late 19th and early 20th century, with Ernest Rutherford, John Cockcroft, Ernest Walton, James Chadwick, and so on. The "chasm" began to open in the mid- to late 20th century with the emergence of the culture of large-scale experimental science via teams of specialists in accelerators, detectors, data processors, theoreticians, etc. Today, however, the demands of the next frontier in particle physics are sufficiently daunting that the gap is forced to close again. Witness the emergence of self-organized communities around the world that are working together in moving the field forward.

Engines of Discovery is written by two well-respected practitioners of accelerator science, recognized for their contributions to the field. Andrew Sessler and Edmund Wilson both began their careers at a time when the "chasm" had started to take root and continue in their trade today when it is beginning to heal again – a golden era in the history of development dominated by the use of large particle accelerators.

Sessler received a classical and advanced education from Harvard College and Columbia University in the middle of the last century at a time when the US was a scientific hot-bed, with great pre- and post-war scientists from around the world. Exposed to the greatest minds of the times, Sessler contributed to the very beginnings of the field via his contributions at MURA, the Wisconsin-based Midwestern Universities Research Association. This group pioneered the concept of the fixed field alternating gradient (FFAG) synchrotron – a concept that has been resurrected with a prototype for electrons now being built at the Cockcroft Institute and Daresbury Laboratory in the UK. Sessler then continued to lead the great laboratory in California created by one of the early pioneers, Ernest Lawrence. Sessler brings a substantive and unique perspective that is hard to match through his eminent stature in the community of scientists and humanitarians. He is known for his many contributions to theoretical accelerator physics, including collective beam instabilities, non-linear dynamics, muon colliders and free-electron lasers. Joining him is Edmund Wilson, a veteran from the world-renowned accelerator-based CERN laboratory. Educated at Oxford and having the rare experience of tutelage from and working with John Adams, the architect of many of CERN’s accelerators, Wilson brings his decades of research experience in operating accelerators and his formidable skills of inherited pedagogy, composition, literacy and the overall art of story-telling to complete this fascinating saga.

It is indeed a masterly tale of the emergence and growth of a field, told from a unique personal perspective, by two working scientists in the field. Understandably, the book is rich, dense and selective as it starts with the heritage of atomic, nuclear and particle physics and continues through to the end of the 20th century. The field eventually diversified into other basic sciences such as those driven by synchrotron radiation sources, free-electron lasers, laser-plasma interaction, high-field physics, etc – which have spawned much of the innovation and creativity of the latter years. The field has also become immensely global during the past few decades.

The book may appear relatively lean in promoting such diversity of sciences and characters in these recently emerging fields. Such incommensurate expression can be understood in the context of the historical footprint of the authors themselves and is only to be expected for a book of this scope. I would be remiss if I did not point out the brilliance, genius and creativity of the generation of bright emerging international scientists and technologists from Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa who are transforming the field today. The authors only hint at it in the book via colleagues such as Katsunobu Oide and Chan Joshi, but today one will find many others at institutions around the world.

This is not a book to look at through the lens of a precise historian – or with the obsession of a perfectionist – demanding a complete lexicon, chronology, historical credit, etc. It is above all a book of inspiration. Nevertheless, the book does achieve a natural sense of historical progress and is made even more exciting by the anecdotal and factual bits and pieces put together about some of the players – more so in their order of appearance on the scene, than in any other sense. For every player that is mentioned and adds flair to the book, there are many who are not, including the authors themselves, whose contributions have been substantive.

Above all, this book uplifts one’s spirit; one reads it with zest, admiration and awe. The power of sheer dedication, brilliance, creativity, humility and humanity of the whole enterprise expressed in the pages of the book is sure to inspire and motivate generations to come.

Speaking as an individual in the wake of a personal transition from the US to the UK, and taking stock of shifting priorities in the field, I must thank the authors for providing a contextual basis for carrying our work forward with the noble mission of the ultimate quest for the ways of nature and life.

Swapan Chattopadhyay, Sir John Cockcroft Chair of Physics, Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Lancaster, and director, Cockcroft Institute.

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