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8 July 2008

Summer bookshelf

This year many of the world’s particle physicists will be spending the summer months hard at work on preparations for the LHC’s first collisions. Undoubtedly there will be little time for holidays, but to provide some ideas for more relaxed reading, this Bookshelf reviews a selection of books away from mainstream particle physics.

The story of measurement by Andrew Robinson, Thames & Hudson. Hardback ISBN 9780500513675, £13.97 ($25.51).

Try to imagine civilization without measurement. In addition to length, weight, height, or any of the other obvious scalar quantities that we use in our daily lives, time and language also require standards to make sense. Current quantification includes concepts inconceivable to the earliest humans – gigabytes, body-mass index, radioactivity, and even beam intensity … Without accurate measurements our society would become chaos. On the other hand, some measurements are far from accurate, but still give a very clear idea of the described quantity: "a scourge of mosquitoes", "a run of salmon," or "a handful of children" are all something we can easily visualize.

The story of measurement by Andrew Robinson, former literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement and the author of the bestselling The Story of Writing, consists of a series of chapters that can be read independently; it can also be read from cover to cover. However, by simply leaving the book on your coffee table you can enjoy it in silent moments in small doses every evening – and, I’m willing to wager, most of your guests will do the same, as they wait while coffee is being brewed.

Most people, perhaps with the exception of particle physicists who are used to aiming for "5σ detection" while doing their measurements, do not necessarily think about how measurements are going to be interpreted. Or maybe more subtle: who else is clear as to what accuracy means versus precision and error versus uncertainty? One chapter has been devoted to this interesting issue, and having originally trained as a survey engineer, this discussion brings back a lot of good memories for me.

The book has received mixed reviews, but it is not obvious which scale has been used for measuring the quality – after all it remains a coffee-table book and should be judged as such. I found it entertaining. Its potential popularity is also well reflected in that it exists in several language editions. Das Abenteuer der Vermessung and La storia della misurazione are already available in the bookshops. Read it yourself and make your own judgement, while, of course, applying all the rules that have to be taken into account for making a good measurement.

Jens Vigen, CERN.

Il fisico che visse due volte by Fabio Toscano, Sironi Editore. Paperback ISBN 9788851800963, €18.

Il fisico che visse due volte – the physicist who lived twice – is Lev Davidovich Landau, the iconoclastic physicist and 1962 Nobel Laureate. One of the greatest theorists of the Soviet Union, he made significant contributions to almost all fields in physics, from superfluidity to the properties of ferromagnetic bodies, from the absorption of sound in solids to the theory of phase transitions. This biography by Fabio Toscano, an Italian theorist with a broad experience in communicating science, nicely guides the reader through all aspects of this rich scientific production, never neglecting to present it primarily as a human adventure.

The main focus, as I expected, is on Landau’s attitude to physicists and people in general, and thanks to this book I discovered his rather peculiar personality. Unpleasant to most of the people with whom he interacted, he was loved by some of his colleagues and friends who had a great admiration for his broad knowledge and his courage always to say what he thought, regardless of constraints from politics, society or academic authority. His straight-talking attitude caused serious problems to both his career and his private life (he spent one year in prison) at a time when the Soviet Union was under Stalin’s dictatorship.

In addition to his written contributions and original articles, one of Landau’s main legacies for Russian science is the "Landau school". To be admitted to the school, students had to pass a comprehensive exam, the "Theoretical Minimum", designed personally by Landau. As Toscano explains, Landau kept personal contact with all his students until he died in 1968, six years after a car accident that brought him close to death. In the accident "not even the eggs Vera [the driver’s wife] had in her hands broke", but Landau’s brain suffered from serious injuries that left him in a coma for three months. He never fully recovered, and was afterwards much less creative.

This book certainly shows Landau with all his humanity, even emphasizing some of the scientific traps into which he fell. However, the details about Russia’s history and social situation that the author likes so much sometimes make the reading hard and the focus too distant. When "stuck" in such pages, I was eager to come back to Landau’s real life in Moscow or Baku or Karkhov and follow him, for example in meeting Bohr and quantum mechanics. Having studied some of the volumes of the Course of Theoretical Physics that Landau wrote with Evgeny Lifshitz and other colleagues, I appreciated this biography. Toscano’s account is very accurate – even scientific – and describes well Landau’s personality, the raison-d’être of the book.

Antonella Del Rosso, CERN.

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