CRYSTAL FIRE by Michael Riordan


The Birth of the Information Age
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 This attempt to dramatize the events leading up to and following the invention of the transistor is mired down in scientific detail. Riordan (The Hunting of the Quark, 1987, etc.) and Hoddeson (History/Univ. of Illinois) attempt to flesh out the labors of the three Bell Laboratories scientists involved in the research (William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain) by placing their invention in the Modernist, relativist tradition descending from Einstein. The coauthors do a fine job of making understandable to the lay reader just what a transistor does: It takes the energy that goes into it and magnifies it hundreds or thousands of times before transmitting it. However, both historically and narratively, the transistor's inventors are overshadowed by events of the era, which included WW II and the Korean War (even when they were awarded the Nobel Prize for their invention in 1956, their fame swiftly faded because of events in Hungary and the Middle East). When, finally, near the end of the book, we get a glimpse of the true personalities of the trio, they are nearly impossible to like: Shockley espoused racist views based on notions of a link between heredity, race, and intelligence; and a misanthropic Brattain is quoted as saying in 1980, ``The only regret I have about the transistor is its use for rock and roll music. . . . I still have my rifle and sometimes when I hear that noise, I think I could shoot them all.'' Some final comments about the place of the transistor in the eventual development of the microchip and the computer are thought-provoking. But lacking human interest, Crystal Fire is likely to appeal only to scientists and tech-heads. (photos and drawings, not seen)

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-393-04124-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1997