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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Wrinkles in Time - George Smoot, Keay Davidson I am warned that I should take this book with a pinch of salt, since Smoot may not be telling us the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But dammit, I want to believe him. This is what science should be like: go out and look for the data, no matter what it costs you. At several points, you just can't help comparing him with Indiana Jones.

Smoot started off in the early 70s as a particle physicist, where the norm was already for people to work together in big teams. But he was ambitious, and thought he'd never get anywhere as an anonymous member of a giant collaboration. He looked around and got interested in observational cosmology, which was finally starting to take off. In particular, he was greatly influenced by Peebles's book on the subject. People had just found the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation - the faint radiation coming from all over the sky that was generally assumed to come from the Big Bang - but no one knew much about it. Peebles urged researchers to find out more.

Smoot started doing cosmology, though he didn't immediately get involved with the CMBR. His first project was an attempt to detect antimatter atoms in cosmic rays, which at the time was another hot topic: some people thought there was a lot of antimatter out there just waiting to be discovered. Maybe there were antimatter suns with antimatter planets orbiting them. (This is for example the premise of Jack Williamson's SF novel Seetee Ship). Now, it's hard to remember that it was ever more than science-fiction, but then it was taken seriously.

Smoot set out to look for antimatter in cosmic rays, flying experiments in balloons to get them high enough to have a chance of catching something. There were all sorts of exotic accidents. One balloon crashes on a farm in the Badlands, and they have to retrieve the tapes from the wreckage. At the end, they have tens of thousands of events recorded, and they analyze them all to try and figure out if they've found any antimatter. They can explain every event as normal, with one single exception; as far as they can see, it's possible that it's antimatter. But the odds are only three to one in their favor, so they decide to run a bunch more balloon experiments. They never find another possible antimatter event - so it's a negative result, but an interesting one which more or less refutes the idea that there are antimatter stars.

As you can see, Smoot is a careful guy who knows how to get things done. He then starts a new project which finally does get to looking at the CMBR; he wants to use it to establish a universal frame of reference, so that he can measure the absolute velocity of the Earth. Everyone tells him this can't be done, since it means measuring temperature differences in the CMBR of around a thousandth of a degree, and there is no way to fly the experiment. But Smoot has heard that old U-2 spy planes are possibly being made available for scientific research purposes, he works his connections, he persuades people to do the incredibly tricky engineering, and he gets data which indicates that the Earth's velocity (indeed, our galaxy's velocity) is far greater than it should be, which has many interesting consequences for cosmology. Unfortunately, skeptics argue that it could be a false signal, and the only way to find out is to redo the experiment in the Southern Hemisphere. He somehow ships everything down to Peru, bribes and wheedles his way into getting approval, and collects his data. It turns out that the signal is genuine.

I haven't even got to the COBE satellite mission, the high point of the book, but you get the picture. In a way, I don't care if Smoot is stretching the truth or exaggerating his role. I think people like him are essential when you have a new field that's just opening up; another example that springs to mind is Galileo, clearly one of his heroes. Smoot advanced the state of our understanding of the universe a great deal by being willing to do whatever it took to find answers to questions that many people thought were too difficult to investigate. He learned tricky theoretical ideas and turned them into concrete experiments, he put together crack teams of engineers and forced them to build devices with ridiculous levels of robustness and accuracy, he sat in budget meetings and persuaded people who didn't like him to give him money, and when necessary he went in person to the Amazon jungle or the South Pole to get the observations he needed.

And all the time, he was careful never to believe he'd found something when it was possible that all he had was wishful thinking. He tried his damnedest to eliminate uncertainties, and at one point towards the end of the COBE project he offered a substantial reward to any member of the team who could show why the current results were not correct. Maybe he wasn't 100% honest, but neither was Galileo. For my money, Smoot will go down in history as another truly first-rate experimental scientist.