Reviews

Radiation: Fundamentals, Applications, Risks and Safety • From My Vast Repertoire …  Guido Altarelli’s Legacy • Signatures of the Artist

Radio-euphoria rebooted?

Radiation: Fundamentals, Applications, Risks and Safety, by Ilya Obodovskiy, Elsevier

Handle with care

Ilya Obodovskiy’s new book is the most detailed and fundamental survey of the subject of radiation safety that I have ever read.

The author assumes that while none of his readers will ever be exposed to large doses of radiation, all of them, irrespective of gender, age, financial situation, profession and habits, will be exposed to low doses throughout their lives. Therefore, he reasons, if it is not possible to get rid of radiation in small doses, it is necessary to study its effect on humans.

Obodovskiy adopts a broad approach. Addressing the problem of the narrowing of specialisations, which, he says, leads to poor mutual understanding between the different fields of science and industry, the author uses inclusive vocabulary, simultaneously quoting different units of measurement, and collecting information from atomic, molecular and nuclear physics, and biochemistry and biology. I would first, however, like to draw attention to the rather novel section ‘Quantum laws and a living cell’.

Quite a long time after the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity, the public was overwhelmed by “X-ray-mania and radio-euphoria”. But after World War II – and particularly after the Japanese vessel Fukuryū-Maru experienced the radioactive fallout from a thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll – humanity got scared. The resulting radio-phobia determined today’s commonly negative attitudes towards radiation, radiation technologies and nuclear energy. In this book Obodovskiy shows that radio-phobia causes far greater harm to public health and economic development than the radiation itself.

The risks of ionising radiation can only be clarified experimentally. The author is quite right when he declares that medical experiments on human beings are ethically evil. Nevertheless, a large group of people have received small doses. An analysis of the effect of radiation on these groups can offer basic information, and the author asserts that in most cases results show that low-dose irradiation does not affect human health.

It is understandable that the greater part of the book, as for any textbook, is a kind of compilation, however, it does discuss several quite original issues. Here I will point out just one. To my knowledge, Obodovskiy is the first to draw attention to the fact that deep in the seas, oceans and lakes, the radiation background is two to four orders of magnitude lower than elsewhere on Earth. The author posits that one of the reasons for the substantially higher complexity and diversity of living organisms on land could be the higher levels of ionising radiation.

In the last chapter the author gives a detailed comparison of the various sources of danger that threaten people, such as accidents on transport, smoking, alcohol, drugs, fires, chemicals, terror and medical errors. Obodovskiy shows that the direct danger to human health from all nuclear applications in industry, power production, medicine and research is significantly lower than health hazards from every non-nuclear source of danger.

Vladislav Grigoriev, Moscow Engineering Physics Institute.

From My Vast Repertoire …  Guido Altarelli’s Legacy, by Stefano Forte, Aharon Levy and Giovanni Ridolfi (editors), World Scientific

“From my vast repertoire …” is a rather peculiar opening to a seminar or a lecture. The late CERN theorist Guido Altarelli probably intended it ironically, but his repertoire was indeed vast, and it spanned the whole of the “famous triumph of quantum field theory,” as Sidney Coleman puts it in his classic monograph Aspects of Symmetry. There can be little doubt that a conspicuous part of this triumph must be ascribed to the depth and breadth of Altarelli’s contributions: the HERA programme at DESY, the LEP and LHC programmes at CERN, and indeed the current paradigms of the strong and electroweak interactions themselves, bear the unmistakable marks of Guido’s criticism and inspiration.

From My Vast Repertoire … is a memorial volume that encompasses the scientific and human legacies of Guido. The book consists of 18 well-assorted contributions that cover his entire scientific trajectory. His wide interests, and even his fear of an untimely death, are described with care and respect. For these reasons the efforts of the authors and  editors will be appreciated not only by his friends, collaborators and fellow practitioners in the field, but also by younger scientists, who will find a timely introduction to the current trends in particle physics, from the high-energy scales of collider physics to the low-energy frontier of the neutrino masses. The various private pictures, which include a selection from his family and friends, make the presence of Guido ubiquitous even though his personality emerges more vividly in some contributions than others. Guido’s readiness to debate the relevant physics issues of his time is one of the recurring themes of this volume; the interpretation of monojets at the SPS, precision tests of the Standard Model at LEP, the determination of the strong coupling constant, and even the notion of naturalness, are just a few examples.

While lecturing at CERN in 2005, Nobel prize-winning theorist David Gross outlined some future perspectives on physics, and warned about the risk of a progressive balkanisation. The legacy of Guido stands out among the powerful antidotes against a never-ending fission into smaller subfields. He understood which problems are ripe to study and which are not, and that is why he was able to contribute to so many conceptually different areas, as this monograph clearly shows. The lesson we must draw from Guido’s achievements and his passion for science is that fundamental physics must be inclusive and diverse. Lasting progress does not come by looking along a single line of sight, but by looking all around where there are mature phenomena to be scrutinised at the appropriate moment.

Massimo Giovannini, CERN and INFN Milano-Bicocca, Italy.

Signatures of the Artist, by Steven Vigdor, Oxford University Press

MC Escher’s 1941 woodcut Plane-Filling Motif with Reptiles depicts two tessellating tetrapods, one black and one white, with intertwined legs and feet on the adjacent sides. Reflect the image horizontally and vertically, and the result is a photo negative: maximal parity violation. A black–white transformation – charge conjugation in the metaphor that inspired Steven Vigdor’s book – and, as in nature, we return to the original. Well, almost. We can tell the difference from the position and colouration of Escher’s stylised initials in the corner. The only imperfection is the signature of the artist.

Vigdor’s idea is that such deviations from perfect symmetry are not in fact “bugs”, but are beautiful and essential. In the case of CP violation – an essential ingredient in Sakharov’s baryogenesis recipe – the artist’s signature is indispensable to our very existence, and the subject of a glut of searches for physics beyond the Standard Model.

Taking no position on the existence of a creator artist per se, Vigdor’s aim is rather to complement books that speculate on new theories with an exposition of the “painstaking and innovative” efforts of generations of experimentalists to establish the weird and wonderful physics we know. His book is a romp from quantum mixing to the apparent metastability of the vacuum (given current measurements of the Higgs and top masses), with excursions into cosmology, biology and metaphysics. The intended audience is university students. As they cut their way through a jungle of mathematical drills in 19th-century physics, many lose sight of the destination. Cheerful and down to earth, this book offers an invigorating glimpse through the foliage.

Mark Rayner, CERN.