Tuesday, 14 December 2010

C.P. Snow - The Physicists

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, C.P. Snow's The Physicists


Either my understanding of physics is getting better, or C.P. Snow was a gifted science communicator. I'm happy to think maybe my enjoyment of The Physicists owes a little to both.

'The Physicists' is the first draft, completed just before Snow's death in July 1980, of what was intended to be a much longer book on the history of nuclear physics. According to the introduction Snow wrote the book largely from memory: his editor, William Cooper, observes

It's odd - memory, even a memory as comprehensive as his, has its selectiveness, its patches, its things that stand out for reasons of other than factual importance. When an artist calls upon memory, what he writes has a life and a moving quality which scarcely ever infuses the product of the filing cabinet which we now refer to as researched information.

Snow viewed the development of the study of nuclear physics - through theory and through experiment - as the defining intellectual achievement of the 20th century. His book begins with Faraday, Maxwell Clark, J.J.Thomson, Roentgen and the Curies, and then spends a long, pleasurable time with Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein, looking at how experimental and theoretical science spurred each other along.

Snow's thumbnail sketches of scientists of this period - many of whom he studied under, worked with or met during his time lecturing at Cambridge prior to WWII and his entry into the public service - are sympathetic and insightful. He captures the magic of this time, the collegiality, the courtesy, the extraordinary advances in knowledge.

So far in my reading about 20th century physics I've avoided the atomic bomb. Perhaps like some scientists of the era, I feel like this moment in our history somehow desecrated the beauty and the purity of the research - a betrayal of the intellect. Snow's chapters on the science and politics of the development of the nuclear (and later hydrogen bomb) are engrossing, but I find his final verdict - that a nuclear stand-off, where everyone has enough power to blow up bits of the world and therefore has reason not to exercise it - a little chilling. The end of the book seems to want to divert concern away from the threat of nuclear weapons towards hopes for clean nuclear energy (a potential, he thought, that would 'be realised within our children's life times').

Snow's interest in the moral questions of science make for interesting reading. This book was written the year after I was born, after 35 years of concern and fear around the bomb. Snow points to a new area of worry - the development of computers and microprocessors. The threat they posed was to to disrupt the labour force, and create widespread unemployment. "It is silly to be frightened of computers" he writes, but this latest development in applied physics may, "Like other gifts, ... be a two-edged sword or have two faces".

Near the end of the book Snow touches on molecular biology. He comes to it via crystollography, a branch of physics examines the physical structure of atoms using radiography, a science that, although respectable, Rutherford would not allow into the Cavendish Lab, and ultimately, the science that provided Crick and Watson to put together the model of the double helix. Here I found Snow's observations particularly interesting:

'Biotechnology' is becoming a major new industry. Philosophically, the ability to alter the basis of life at will may have even more effect. The meaning of this work hasn't sunk into popular consciousness, even among intellectual persons, with anything like the rapidity of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. In the long run it may do as much or more to alter men's view of themselves. That, though, will have to wait until the twenty-first century.

A far more accurate prediction than his hopes for fusion energy, it turns out. Overall, this short, swift book is a robust discussion of roughly a century of science, highly personalised but not in the least quirky or whimsical. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Snow's hopes for the future of fusion energy have so far been stifled but perhaps the jury is still out.

Snow is the man who also coined two very important phrases which have become colloquial in the English language and suspect many other as well.

Corridors of Power
The Two Cultures

Understand the forces described in these contributions to our common language we may move toward a better understanding of Snow's optimism and find a light to overcome the dark entropy of our times.

We can only hope.