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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


Frank Close

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To purchase Neutrino

Title: Neutrino
Author: Frank Close
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 166 pages
Availability: Neutrino - US
Neutrino - UK
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Neutrino - India
Neutrino - Deutschland
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Our Assessment:

B : interesting story of the super-abundant but elusive particle

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 27/11/2010 Steven Poole
New Scientist . 6/11/2010 Manjit Kumar
Wall St. Journal . 13/11/2010 Peter Pesic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Much of it is a chronicle of apparent failure, although hindsight tempts the author to offer some mischievous interpretations, such as that the failure to discover something "implicitly proved" the existence of something else. Thematically it is also a detective story about the sun" - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "In this short and informative book, Frank Close recalls those who had the ingenuity and patience to catch and understand this elusive particle that barely interacts with other matter." - Manjit Kumar, New Scientist

  • "A skilled physicist, Mr. Close tells this story with verve and precision. His writing is admirably clear and eminently accessible." - Peter Pesic, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       At the beginning of his book Frank Close calls neutrinos "the commonest and weirdest" of all the things that make the universe. With no electric charge and the tiniest of masses they course through everything (at practically light-speed) in super-abundance (among the statistics: "A nuclear reactor typically would emit ten trillion neutrinos per square centimetre per second"), traveling as easily through the entire earth mass as most larger objects travel through space. Neutrino tells the quite fascinating story of their (theoretical) discovery -- and then the difficulties in obtaining experimental verification of their existence and nature (as well as determining just how many neutrinos (and of what sort (or flavor)) come from various sources, especially the sun)
       Close came to write this after writing Ray Davis' obituary for The Guardian, but came to discover that Davis wasn't the only fascinating figure in the neutrino-hunting story; among the others is Bruno Pontecorvo, a Fermi-collaborator who also fled Italy under Mussolini, first for France, then the US, then Canada, before winding up in the UK after the war, and taking British citizenship -- before defecting to the Soviet Union in 1950. He continued to do significant work in the field, but with neither the resources nor the attention that scientists enjoyed in the West remained largely overlooked -- despite, as Close shows, providing several key insights. (There does not appear to be any English-language biography of Pontecorvo (beyond what's in Alan Moorehead's The Traitors), and someone might want to look into that; a fascinating life story (and journey), and an important scientist.)
       Bit by bit the pieces of the atomic model came together nicely in the late 19th and early 20th century: electron and proton, then eventually neutron -- but, of course, things didn't turn out to be anywhere near so tidy. The idea of a 'neutrino' (Fermi's coinage) had some appeal -- the obvious explanation, to Pauli and Fermi, of some atomic behavior -- but had a hard time catching on, especially since it was so hard to pinpoint. Fermi's paper laying out the theoretical fundamentals was even rejected by Nature in 1934, as containing: "speculations too remote from reality to be of interest to the reader".
       Even as the concept then gained acceptance, experimental verification and then useful readings proved very hard to obtain: catching sight of a neutrino, as it were, is not easy. It also wasn't an enormously popular field: as Close notes: "Davis's chlorine experiment was the only one recording data during those two decades" (1968 to 1988). Eventually, neutrinos did become more popular to study -- with hard data offering, among other things, insight into how the sun (and other, distant stars) work (i.e. 'burn' the way they do) --, and Close describes some of the always complicated projects designed to detect the neutrinos, requiring huge amounts of some substances ("These 60 tonnes [of gallium] that went to SAGE represented the total world supply of the element at that time") and deep underground (or water) locales, including AMANDA, the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array, "buried under a kilometre of ice".
       Neutrino offers a relatively quick tour of neutrino research, from the beginning to the near present, and both the science (theoretical and experimental) and the personalities (especially Pontecorvo) are often fascinating and quite well presented. The physics is explained fairly simply and clearly (though Close does avoid going into greater depth at some points where one might wish he had), and all in all it makes for a good, informative read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 December 2010

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Neutrino: Reviews: Neutrino detection/telescopes: Frank Close: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British physicist Frank Close teaches at Oxford.

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© 2010-2021 the complete review

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