BAD SCIENCE

THE SHORT LIFE AND VERY HARD TIMES OF COLD-FUSION

Remember Stan Pons? Martin Fleischmann? Cheap power from a setup that looked like a freshman chemistry class experiment? Taubes, who plumbed the depths of nuclear-particle competition at CERN (Nobel Dreams, 1987), now continues his expeditions in an epic chronicle that reveals just how corroded and slimy the scientific pipes can get. ``Epic'' because Taubes goes on at too great a length, detailing the day-to-week-to-month chronology of events over a period of close to four years. The saga begins on March 16, 1989, when the University of Utah president felt he could no longer hold the lid on Pons and Fleischmann's work and scheduled a press conference, breaking a promise of cooperation with Brigham Young University, whose own resident fusion guru, Steven Jones, was viewed as a rival who might publish first. The rest, as Taubes tells it, is a horrific tale of claims and counterclaims, of true believers vs. skeptics, and of experiments and apparatus that leave much to be desired (including controls). The escalating war of tempers and temperaments eventually involved scientists, university brass, and local, state, federal, and foreign government officials, all of it well-aired by the press. Interestingly, while the consensus now declares cold fusion to be a myth, and the fallout has left at least one investigator dead and many a career in disarray, the principals are alive and well: Pons lives in Nice, presiding over a Japanese-backed institute; Fleischmann is back in England, appearing with Pons at meetings; Jones continues to investigate phenomena (no longer called ``cold fusion'') at Brigham Young. All of which could be interpreted to mean that if you want to believe it's true...or that you can still fool some of the people....

Pub Date: June 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-394-58456-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1993

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THE RIGHT STUFF

Yes: it's high time for a de-romanticized, de-mythified, close-up retelling of the U.S. Space Program's launching—the inside story of those first seven astronauts.

But no: jazzy, jivey, exclamation-pointed, italicized Tom Wolfe "Mr. Overkill" hasn't really got the fight stuff for the job. Admittedly, he covers all the ground. He begins with the competitive, macho world of test pilots from which the astronauts came (thus being grossly overqualified to just sit in a controlled capsule); he follows the choosing of the Seven, the preparations for space flight, the flights themselves, the feelings of the wives; and he presents the breathless press coverage, the sudden celebrity, the glorification. He even throws in some of the technology. But instead of replacing the heroic standard version with the ring of truth, Wolfe merely offers an alternative myth: a surreal, satiric, often cartoony Wolfe-arama that, especially since there isn't a bit of documentation along the way, has one constantly wondering if anything really happened the way Wolfe tells it. His astronauts (referred to as "the brethren" or "The True Brothers") are obsessed with having the "right stuff" that certain blend of guts and smarts that spells pilot success. The Press is a ravenous fool, always referred to as "the eternal Victorian Gent": when Walter Cronkite's voice breaks while reporting a possible astronaut death, "There was the Press the Genteel Gent, coming up with the appropriate emotion. . . live. . . with no prompting whatsoever!" And, most off-puttingly, Wolfe presumes to enter the minds of one and all: he's with near-drowing Gus Grissom ("Cox. . . That face up there!—it's Cox. . . Cox knew how to get people out of here! . . . Cox! . . ."); he's with Betty Grissom angry about not staying at Holiday Inn ("Now. . . they truly owed her"); and, in a crude hatchet-job, he's with John Glenn furious at Al Shepard's being chosen for the first flight, pontificating to the others about their licentious behavior, or holding onto his self-image during his flight ("Oh, yes! I've been here before! And I am immune! I don't get into corners I can't get out of! . . . The Presbyterian Pilot was not about to foul up. His pipeline to dear Lord could not be clearer"). Certainly there's much here that Wolfe is quite right about, much that people will be interested in hearing: the P-R whitewash of Grissom's foul-up, the Life magazine excesses, the inter-astronaut tensions. And, for those who want to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt throughout, there are emotional reconstructions that are juicily shrill.

But most readers outside the slick urban Wolfe orbit will find credibility fatally undermined by the self-indulgent digressions, the stylistic excesses, and the broadly satiric, anti-All-American stance; and, though The Right Stuff has enough energy, sass, and dirt to attract an audience, it mostly suggests that until Wolfe can put his subject first and his preening writing-persona second, he probably won't be a convincing chronicler of anything much weightier than radical chic.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 1979

ISBN: 0312427565

Page Count: 370

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 13, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1979

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THE GREAT BRIDGE

THE EPIC STORY OF THE BUILDING OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

It took 14 years to build and it cost 15 million dollars and the lives of 20 workmen. Like the Atlantic cable and the Suez Canal it was a gigantic embodiment in steel and concrete of the Age of Enterprise. McCullough's outsized biography of the bridge attempts to capture in one majestic sweep the full glory of the achievement but the story sags mightily in the middle. True, the Roeblings, father and son who served successively as Chief Engineer, are cast in a heroic mold. True, too, the vital statistics of the bridge are formidable. But despite diligent efforts by the author the details of the construction work — from sinking the caissons, to underground blasting, stringing of cables and pouring of cement — will crush the determination of all but the most indomitable reader. To make matters worse, McCullough dutifully struggles through the administrative history of the Brooklyn Bridge Company which financed and contracted for the project with the help of the Tweed Machine and various Brooklyn bosses who profited handsomely amid continuous allegations of kickbacks and mismanagement of funds. He succeeds in evoking the venality and crass materialism of the epoch but once again the details — like the 3,515 miles of steel wire in each cable — are tiresome and ultimately entangling. Workmanlike and thorough though it is, McCullough's history of the bridge has more bulk than stature.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1972

ISBN: 0743217373

Page Count: 652

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1972

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