NEUTRINO HUNTERS

THE THRILLING CHASE FOR A GHOSTLY PARTICLE TO UNLOCK THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE

Jayawardhana includes a fascinating account of the disputes between the theorists and experimentalists in this epic...

An astrophysicist explains why scientists are eager to learn more about the elusive, “pathologically shy” neutrino.

“[N]eutrinos are the most abundant matter particles in the universe,” writes Jayawardhana (Observational Astrophysics/Univ. of Toronto; Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life beyond Our Solar System, 2011, etc.). “[A]bout a hundred-trillion neutrinos produced in the nuclear furnace at the Sun's core pass through your body every second…yet they do no harm and leave no trace.” The author traces their discovery to the dawn of the quantum age, when the release of radioactive materials appeared to challenge conservation of energy. In 1930, physicist Wolfgang Pauli suggested the existence of a putative, still-undetected particle (the neutrino) as a way to balance the energy equation. At that time, only three elementary particles (the proton, the electron and the photon) were known. With the discovery of the neutron, the role of the neutrino in transformations between neutrons and protons became clearer. Jayawardhana explains that despite the fact that fission and fusion release “staggering bursts of these particles,” their experimental verification only became possible as an outgrowth of the effort to produce an atomic bomb in the days leading up to World War I. “Since then,” he writes, “we have realized that the shy neutrinos hold the key to unraveling a great many cosmic mysteries.” Further experiments led to new anomalies and the recognition that the ghostly neutrino was not, as first thought, without mass. Today, we may now be on the verge of “solving the great mystery of how matter came to dominate the universe.”

Jayawardhana includes a fascinating account of the disputes between the theorists and experimentalists in this epic scientific adventure story with—as of yet—no last chapter.

Pub Date: Dec. 10, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-22063-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2013

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A quirky wonder of a book.

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both...

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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