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A life in science.

Physics Is Fun: Memoirs of a Life in Physics

By Richard Wilson

602 pages; Richard Wilson, 2011


Nearly six decades ago, Richard Wilson arrived at Harvard, a British-born and Oxford-trained physicist who had made brief stops at Stanford and Rochester. Today he is the university's Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics (emeritus), with a curriculum vitae of over 900 published articles and a list of honors and awards that includes a medal as "Chernobyl Liquidator" from the Soviet Union. (Full disclosure: Wilson is also a member of Regulation's editorial advisory board.)

He recounts this remarkable life in his latest book, Physics Is Fun. It is a relatively long book, but that is appropriate to cover the enormous breadth and depth of his experiences. The book includes three primary sections: a personal autobiography of 47 chapters (about 320 pages), a scientific autobiography of 32 chapters (about 220 pages), and an appendix with a publication list of 917 items (about 45 pages). Additional appendices provide a list of descendents and his family tree, dating back to about 1800.

A short introduction provides a glimpse into his life, including a very interesting summary of 10 decisions that shaped his destiny, as well as some of the best career advice ever written. The chapters are short, each discussing one of the events in Wilson's life or career.

Growing up | The first section is primarily a recounting of Wilson's various escapades while growing up in London and is particularly intended for his children and grandchildren. It provides an excellent way for them and us-to become more acquainted with their patriarch.

In the early chapters, he describes-often in great detail--many significant adventures of his childhood. While reading the book, I was continually amazed by how much he could recall. I vaguely remember a few details of my childhood in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park, Illinois, during the 1940s and early 1950s: the chickens raised by our neighbor, Mrs. Miller, during the war; being beaten up by the kindergarten class bully who was also the daughter of the teacher; the trips to Chicago to the museums along the lake shore, and to see Cubs and White Sox baseball games; and my interest in music and ham radio. We played games in the street, spent some free time wandering around in the ragweed field a block from home, and walked to school, coming home to eat lunch. But my memories are nothing remotely like those of Wilson's. I was bowled over by how compelling this part of the book is; each story has some interesting aspect that provides a fascinating insight into his incredible mind as it grows and matures. In many ways it reads like Torn Sawyer. Even his childhood recollection of political events shows recognition of their significance well beyond what I recall during my childhood.

Wilson describes bicycle trips he would take through southern England: Kingston, Hounslow, Claygate, Leatherhead, and environs. I tried to follow him on those trips using Google Maps, but it was hard to follow details of" his cycling routes, probably because the area has been very heavily developed since the 1940s. I can well imagine a large herd of Wilson grandchildren and great grandchildren one day cycling throughout southern England, each with a copy of Physics Is Fun in one hand and a portable GPS device in the other, diligently seeking the landmarks that he so carefully documents.

One of the most interesting threads in the childhood section of the book involves how the young Wilson was given increased responsibility and freedom as he demonstrated that he was mature enough to handle each situation, particularly on his bicycle trips. His parents provided an exceptionally nurturing environment that encouraged both curiosity and responsibility. Every parent of young children could benefit from reading of how those experiences helped to shape his development.

Wilson belonged to the educated class in England, and he surely made the most of it, having a choice of at least a couple of excellent colleges. However, neither his intelligence nor his education shielded him from several personal and professional disappointments. How he rose above those events is one of the recurring themes in his book. One particularly sad theme involves the early deaths of several family members, including his mother. I was touched by the way that he described his mother and their relationship, as it reminded me very much of my mother. My mother was very good at math and encouraged us to practice arithmetic during long car trips, as did Wilson's mother. (Alas, my wife didn't share an appreciation of such practice, as it reduced the "unscheduled" time for my two sons.) I've often wondered how much this type of influence from my mother led to my developing an interest in mathematics and physics.

Competition and politics | In the book's second section, Wilson provides a thorough discussion of scientific and political issues that drove his professional life. His discussion of the issues involved in many contemporary science policy areas is very illuminating and could be effectively used as reference materials for university class study.

One of the more interesting and important stories involves his work on the Cambridge Electron Accelerator (CEA). Regularly throughout his work on the accelerator, he was in direct competition for federal funding with his brother-in-law, Wolfgang Panofsky, who worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC). Wilson was often conflicted by this, especially when political dealings in the operation of CEA and the relationship between CEA and SLAC became very intense and even personal.

The cut-throat competition and politicization of the relationships between various research groups created for Wilson, and continue to create today, a situation that is demonstrably not in the best interest of either science or the scientists involved. In recent years, problems involving political and personal issues have become increasingly ugly. A recent New York Times article ("A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts Calls for Reform," by Carl Zimmer, April 16, 2012) discussed the enormous increase in retracted articles in major journals such as Nature and described some problems resulting from a significant increase in the average time for a young scientist to obtain a tenure track position in major research universities. As Wilson points out, collaboration between groups seems by far the better way to achieve the best results from federal research money, both for the government and the scientists involved. It seems dubious, however, that this type of scientific utopia will ever occur in the current climate.

Ultimately, the explosion of the hydrogen bubble chamber at CEA in 1965 led to defunding of the laboratory. As a result, Wilson expanded his interests to risk analysis and governmental science policy, including studies of nuclear reactor safety and work on various chemical and biological health dangers. I would say that this later work was significantly more important than the bubble chamber, so perhaps the accident was a blessing in disguise.

The destruction of the CEA lab was a major loss to Wilson, both professionally and personally, but a particularly interesting one to me because the explosion was a result of largely avoidable problems, which he very thoughtfully describes. One problem that seems to arise regularly is that administrators for major physics research projects, or even departmental administrators, are often chosen based on their reputation for doing physics. But administering and conducting research are two very different skills, and my observation--consistent with Wilson's discussion--is that they seldom overlap. Physicists often tend to be a bit theoretical, giving short shrift to even important technical details in experimental equipment--something that I witnessed regularly during my 38 years as director of the University of Maryland Lecture-Demonstration Facility.

I can relate well to Wilson's sad commentary on the technical reasons for the explosion and fire at the CEA bubble chamber from my experience with the University of Maryland cyclotron and external beam transport system. I got my first job at the university by carrying out an analysis of model magnet design studies for the cyclotron under the general direction of my thesis supervisor, Henry Blosser of Michigan State University. I was asked to do this project because the accelerator design group at Maryland had been unable to get their computer program working correctly. The program originated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was taken to Michigan State, and then transferred to Maryland. As a young physicist designing the analyzing magnet system for the cyclotron, I had a major disagreement with the two greatest recognized experts in the field when both claimed that my estimate of analyzed beam current was 10 times what they had calculated. (Interestingly, one of those physicists was Karl Brown of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, with whom Wilson had once worked.) It turned out that a cross term in the equations had been derived incorrectly, resulting in blow-up of the beam, and then propagated into the forms of the program that they were using. And their calculations had been in use for over 20 years!

Like CEA, one of the primary reasons for closure of the Maryland cyclotron was also an avoidable mishap: a fire caused by a major power supply that had been designed and built fail-unsafe. The primary contractor for construction of the cyclotron was the French firm CSF, also mentioned by Wilson; their U.S. affiliate was the Raytheon Corporation, which at the time had never built such a high-power supply.

Wilson provides a very interesting discussion of the slow death of the Superconducting Super Collider in the early 1990s. Clearly the entire thing was very greatly politicized. As Wilson suggested, it seemed to me at the time that that this noble effort was not helped by the arrogance of the physicists who were leading the project.

Health and the environment | Perhaps the most important product of Wilson's second career is his study of the effect of small doses of potentially carcinogenic materials. He has become one of the world experts in the linear no-threshold theory of radiation, and has written extensively on the biological effects of low levels of ionizing radiation. This is a critical issue, both in terms of health and in how this type of scientific information is used by governmental agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency in regulating exposure limits both in the work environment and at home. As Wilson points out, the misuse of statistics and thoughtless abuse of scientific information can result in enormous costs to society. One particularly sad example that I would point out is closure of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository due to a combination of ignorance and politics.

An important, seemingly unresolved issue in both science and in setting EPA limits on exposure to carcinogens involves whether a linear no-threshold theory or a threshold theory best describes the effect of low levels of ionizing radiation. Wilson recognizes the problem by including a recent bibliography of publications on low levels of ionizing radiation that lists several articles by various authors with views different from his, including Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh. It would be most informative to see a debate on this issue between Wilson and Cohen, perhaps on YouTube. Both are scientists of the highest caliber and have a significant disagreement on an issue that is of great importance relating to critical government policy. This could be invaluable for the EPA, which seems at times to set its exposure limits at unnecessarily and impractically low levels.

As in several other issues discussed by Wilson, (anthropogenic) global warming has become incredibly politicized. Dominating the entire discussion are a number of "green" political issues. Funding seems to often drive the entire discussion, even among scientists, down to whether various positions on the issue should even be given representation in professional research groups. I have never witnessed such an ad bominem attack in a "scientific" context as that aimed by members of the meteorology department at a highly respected NASA scientist who expressed skepticism about the extent of the human contribution to global warming in a University of Maryland physics colloquium. I would like to hear more about how Wilson views the problem in 2012. He does suggest some ways to reduce greenhouse gases using market mechanisms, a far cry from those activists who would take far more draconian action to solve the problem.

At several times in the discussion of his professional life, Wilson was distressed at the lack of objectivity by funding agencies regarding distribution of funds. He pointed out the extreme difficulty of breaking into the group of those who obtain government grants, even referring to an elite "radiation club" whose "members" get the grants in that area. One result has been a collection of misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding such important issues as nuclear radiation and chemical exposure, and specifically with use of statistics. Another is that both the quality and the diversity of government-sponsored research are less than optimal. It is not clear that more appropriate information would solve these problems, but it most certainly would help.

This book is not only an autobiography, but also documentation of lots of informative scientific discussion. Professor Wilson's ideas on some issues contained information new to me, and his discussion of asbestos helped me to understand how litigation in this area has become so fraudulent. He has properly suggested that this work may be his most important lifetime contribution to science.

Conclusion | Perhaps the most exciting part of Wilson's tales of world travel involve his trips to the old Soviet Union during the cold war. He had more guts than I could have ever garnered in working around the various obstructing laws and procedures. Only through a combination of bureaucratic inertia and incompetence-perhaps with a touch of sympathy-did he end up avoiding jail time for some of those escapades. One of his most depressing experiences was trying to help Iraqis who had assisted the U.S. war effort to come to the United States to avoid retribution, including death, in Iraq--but due largely to U.S. bureaucratic inertia, he was unable to do so.

As in his professional life, Wilson's personal life is built on the same principles of objective analysis and collaboration. He demonstrates the highest love, affection, and support for Andree, his wife of over 60 years, and has very thoughtfully described how they worked together to make important decisions that affected their family and his career. Without an enormously supportive family and a fully collaborative relationship, it would have been impossible for him to have such a full career while they were successfully raising six children. I cannot imagine a more fascinating and educational childhood than that which they provided to their children.

This book is very important because it provides insight into real science and real life by a remarkable physicist who has confronted issues in a truly objective manner, but while clearly retaining subjectivism and collaboration in working with his colleagues. As I read the book, my respect and admiration for Professor Wilson grew exponentially. Every young person should read this book for guidance as to how to respond to issues that arise in his or her own life. Parents should read this book as a guide into how to encourage their children to become independent and responsible persons as they seek their way in an often hostile and very competitive environment.

Wilson is now in his 80s, but his scientific work is certainly not complete. While preparing this review, I noticed his latest paper, the American Journal of Physics "Resource Letter EIRLD-2: Effects of Ionizing Radiation at Low Doses." (He wrote the original "Resource Letter EIRLD-1" on this topic in 1999.) Clearly, for him, physics is still great fun.

RICHARD E. BERG (retired) was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland, College Park and director of the university's Physics Lecture-Demonstration Facility.
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Title Annotation:Physics is Fun: Memoirs of a Life in Physics
Author:Berg, Richard E.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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