Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Go Big Read!

It's nearly the beginning of the Fall Semester.  Students are arriving in Madison, courses will be underway shortly, and the Physics Library will get a lot busier in the coming weeks.  All of this also means that it's almost time for the Go Big Read program to start again.  Soon there will be book discussions and other events all over campus as all of UW reads the same book.

This year the scientists, and specifically physicists, are getting a little love.  The selection is Radioactive: a Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.  According to the Go Big Read Website:
 "This highly visual book depicts the Curies discovery of radioactive power. Through her writing, Redniss, captures the complexity of the intersections between science, history, and biography. The images of the book were developed using a technique called 'Cyanotype.'"
Also on the website is more information about events and discussions happening around campus this semester.  You should especially consider going to Redniss's talk at Union South Varsity Hall on October 15 at 7:00 PM.

Copies of Radioactive at campus libraries or see other ways of getting access to this book.  View Redniss' website and see sample pages at http://www.laurenredniss.com/radioactive/ .

If you read this book and want to offer your opinion, send us a review!

Book Review: The Infinity Puzzle

Close, F. E. (2011). The infinity puzzle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Infinity Puzzle by Frank Close (Oxford) is a history of the development of Quantum Field Theory from the late 1940's to the 1970's.  The book is exceptionally well written and the author has done dozens (at least) of interviews in order to tell the story of how some the components of QFT came into being. Prof Close in several instances offers his own take who gets credit for what and to what extent history sees the evolution of the subject in the same way. For example Ron Shaw and John Ward are singled out as having been sorely neglected in the distributing of awards (Shaw for his own version of Yang-Mills, and Ward for his contribution to the electro-weak theory).

The author does not give any indication of what background the prospective reader should have, but it is clear to me that a familiarity with the details of doing calculations in QFT is more than just helpful. This, technically speaking, is not a book about science but rather about how the ideas that make up QFT were discovered/invented. In my opinion it would help if the reader has some previous experience with the Lagrangian formulation of field theories, the computational details of renormalization, and some idea of how SU(2) and SU(3) come into play.

On the other hand, the chapters on the Higgs mechanism, the creation of electro-weak theory, and asymptotic freedom are likely to be of considerable interest to historians as well as physicists. Close interviewed all the many people associated with the development of the Higgs mechanism, and tells the interesting story of the Harvard/Princeton back-and-forth that lead to the creation of asymptotic freedom.

To give some perspective, two earlier books came to mind as I was reading The Infinity Puzzle: The Second Creation (Robert Crease and Charles Mann), and Constructing Quarks (Andrew Pickering). Of these two the former has the best claim to being accessible to the general reader (it also covers a longer period of time), while the latter is rather more technical on the science material, while not actually being as complete on the history of the ideas. Unlike Close, who is a physicist and who did research in the field, these other authors are historians/sociologists.

The best recommendation to give a book is to say that I found it worth investing in a personal copy.

Submitted by Bob Kariotis

Friday, August 24, 2012

August New Books

New On Stars by eady - The word
The books that arrived at the Physics Library in August are now on the New Book Shelf!  Make sure to take a look before classes start and the semester is in full swing.  You can preview the list on the Physics Library Website.

Book Review: Bonk

Roach, M. (2008). Bonk : the curious coupling of science and sex. New York: W.W. Norton.

“Bonk” is a lighthearted exploration of the intersection between scientific research and sex. It answers many questions that we’ve all pondered at one point or another, such as “do vibrators actually improve fertility in pigs?” or “what exactly is a vaginal photoplethysmograph anyway?” The author’s narrative style is very accessible to readers from all backgrounds; while Mary Roach is not a scientist herself, she includes enough references to current research to keep scientifically inclined readers happy, while maintaining a light tone in the narrative. She draws heavily on her own experience (such as interviews with researchers, and personal participation in various studies). All material is presented in a tasteful manner, and the narrative, while witty, is never crude or distasteful. All in all, a well-written book that’s both informative and good for the occasional laugh. Highly recommended.

Submitted by Anonymous

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Book Review: How Experiments End


Galison, P. (1987). How experiments end. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

"How Experiments End" is an intriguing history of experimentation in modern physics. Galison describes how experimentation transitioned from the table-top experiments of the early 20th century to the large-scale particle experiments of the 1970's. He argues that the earlier, smaller experiments were ended when the individual experimenter believed he had physically manipulated and altered his apparatus enough to diminish all sources of error. Later and larger experiments, however, were ended only after initial data was sorted, analyzed, and compared to computer simulations in order to eliminated background effects and determine the reliability of results. Galison’s conclusions about how experiments end are well supported by research into experimental apparatuses, collaboration memos, conference minutes, and computer records. In fact, he often presents more detail than needed to back up his claims. Overall, “How Experiments End” is a fascinating, thoughtful probe into the history of experiment, considering themes often ignored by most theory-centered histories of science.

Submitted by David Britton

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Book Review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus


Mann, C. C. (2005). 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Knopf.

Growing up in Colorado, I was vaguely aware of the importance of Indian culture in that region (Boulder High School is located on the site of an Arapahoe settlement). Marrying a New Mexican who grew up near the Bandelier Pueblo increased my interest in pre-Columbian history. Two years ago, I enjoyed a visit to the Taos pueblo, which I believe is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in North America. Then last week I spent a day at Mesa Verde National Park, the site of an ancestral home of our modern Pueblo Indians. My Mesa Verde experience was greatly enhanced by the coincidental birthday gift of ʺ1491ʺ.

ʺ1491ʺ exposed me to modern research revealing the dramatic impact of pre-Columbian civilizations on the Western Hemisphere. Besides the obvious question of how the Indians got here (toss out the too-clean Ice Age land bridge picture from high school history class), the book details how perceptions of the extent and complexity of Indian populations have changed over the past few decades. And when I say ʺdetailsʺ, I mean it: over 100 pages of notes and bibliography document the 400 pages of text.

Besides considering the issues of origins, the book describes how researchers have come to conclude that Indian populations literally collapsed from the inadvertent introduction of smallpox by the earliest Europeans. And the resulting population explosion of bison, elk, and passenger pigeons. And how the extensive trade networks caused the epidemics to reach Peru before Pizarro, thus softening up the Inka empire for his historic conquest. And how the Inkan ancestors genetically engineered maize (well, no question that they did it, but how is still up for debate). ʺ1491ʺ tells about the milpa farming practices of southern Mexico that allowed continuous cultivation of corn, beans, and squash on the same land, without fertilizer, for 5000 years. And about Indian land and forest management of the Amazon, producing fertile soil out of the nutrient-bereft rain-forest earth by ʺslash and charʺ agriculture. And Indian land management of the Midwestern US (the forests explored by Lewis and Clark were actually relatively young, having arisen after the decimation of the Indian populations by disease). And much, much more.

Actually, I'm amazed and impressed at just how much information is packed into a mere 400 pages. The book is actually quite well-written and easy to read, partly due to the author incorporating juicy scientific controversies and spats into the narrative. Here's a revelation: science is done by people. Humans, as a matter of fact. With (gasp) agendas. It is fascinating to see in this tale an example of the inherent conservatism of science, where the existing paradigm is vigorously defended against discordant new information. Despite those agendas, despite having to reject cherished views, when the weight of the evidence is sufficiently great the new perspective eventually gains widespread acceptance (dark energy?). And, in a bonus for UW readers, several UW faculty, in particular William Denevan from the Geography Department, play prominent roles in the new developments.

ʺ1491ʺ certainly challenged my understanding of pre-Columbian history. It seems quite well researched and documented, and from what I can glean from the internet, hasn't been pilloried too badly by true experts in the field. A great book to read on vacation when your family disapproves of you bringing physics books along.

Submitted by Thad Walker

Copies of this book at UW-Madison Libraries

Book Review: Lords of Sipan

Kirkpatrick, S. (1992). Lords of Sipan: A tale of pre-Inca tombs, archaeology, and crime. New York: Morrow.

Throughout South America there are ancient ruins produced by a variety of pre-Columbian civilizations. "Lords of Sipan" is the story of a particular pyramid complex in Peru that was recently (late '80s) looted by locals. This story involves impoverished natives, ruthless smugglers, intrepid archaeologists, and a Nobel-prize winning physicist who "rationalized (his) purchases with specious arguments and a sanitized, post-card vision of Latin America". The book is a fun and easy, shake-your-head read that I hope whets your appetite for the meaty main course of 1491.

Submitted by Thad Walker