David E. Fisher: Much Ado about (Practically) Nothing. A History of the Noble Gases
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- Hojniak, S.D. Found Chem (2011) 13: 167. doi:10.1007/s10698-011-9114-0
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David E. Fisher is Professor Emeritus of Geological sciences and cosmochemistry at the University of Miami. He is the author of fourteen non-fiction books and nine novels.
The subtitle of the book is a little misleading. As the author states on the very first page, this book is about “how science works” and does not aim to present a comprehensive review on noble gasses, from neither scientific nor historical point of view. The book focuses on showing an entire process of obtaining a scientific goal: from an inspired idea for an experiment, through measurements accompanied by various obstacles till obtaining a new scientific discovery.
“Much ado about (practically) nothing”, perversely with the word “nothing”, proves that noble gases are related to almost every branch of science. Fisher’s book deals with the whole world of noble gases: from the discovery of each gas, through the experiments proving their properties, till their applications over the years. Amazing fact, how fundamental information about the (origin of) the universe can be deduced from a study of the noble gases. He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe, Rn are used to explain geological phenomena: “[…] everything from the history of water in the Sahara to the accumulation of ice in the arctic and practically every geological process occurring in between: the rise and fall of continents, the ebb and flow of lavas and glaciers, the accumulation of soil and the uplift of oceanic islands […].” They are also successfully employed in medicine, industry and various disciplines of everyday life.
Einstein once said that “if A is success in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, play is y and z is keeping your mouth shut.” Looking through the prism of this book we could paraphrase this quote as follows: a recipe for a scientific career would be x + y + z + a + b + c + d, where x, y, and z are as above, while a stands for good luck, b is personality of the scientist and his/her will to cooperate with the others, c is money and d is loads of university politics. Maybe surprisingly, Fisher’s book often deals with the last term and its influence on the course of the scientific discoveries.
“Nothing a theoretical physicist likes better than experimental verification of his ideas (unless perhaps it’s experimental refutation of someone else’s ideas).” “Much ado…” is written in a light and entertaining style. As for any good popular science book, dry facts are ably alternated with a gripping plot, grasping the reader’s attention from the very beginning. Although the author is an experienced scientist, he presents his early biographical details with a great self-humor and self-distance, bringing up most embarrassing and funny failures. Unfortunately, the overall writing style is uneven and some chapters are significantly better than the others.
The book suffers from two imperfections. First of all, the chronology is somewhat disturbed and misleading. Although autobiographical stories are aptly alternated with historical and scientific facts, anecdotes and quotations (ranging from Einstein to Freud and the “Twinkle twinkle little star” lullaby) confusion is unavoidable. It is caused by a chaotic interspersion of descriptions of both his own experiments and historical experiments, and by treating the preliminary and final results equally.
The second imperfection concerns the target audience. In most of the cases the author does not take it for granted that any of the discussed phenomena or theories could be too trivial for the reader and explains them plainly. Sometimes however, a stronger background on the topic is essential since an explanation is weak or is presented much further, ‘forcing’ the reader to supplement his knowledge beyond the book. For instance, an explanation of the widely known ultraviolet catastrophe is even enriched with a graph, while nuclear reactions are introduced without much commentary; the description on beta decay appears only one chapter further. Therefore, the book seems to be addressed to the readers who are familiar with the basics of the natural sciences (i.e. chemistry, geology, and astronomy).
All the books and papers mentioned in the text can be found in the Notes on the back of the book by simply searching up the page number and the topic. The resignation from using immediate referencing keeps the book layout clear and the content closer to a novel than to a scientific paper. Footnotes are used instead to add some extra information on the topic, often about some character or to emphasize certain facts, usually in a humorous way: “He [Pauli] was famous for […] the Pauli Effect, a magical curse that caused experimental apparatus to fail if he stepped into the laboratory*. *It was the only thing he and I have in common.”
“Wowee! I had a vision of completing a year’s research in one day … Yeah, right. It didn’t exactly turn out that way.” Those first words of the author after visiting his new postdoc laboratory are very familiar to young, green and enthusiastic researchers. The book seems to be a self-help book for young experimental scientists.
“Much Ado…” brings a clear and a very optimistic message to young scientists: Be focused, determined and honest in your research. If it really fascinates you, you are further than you think. Although your research may seem arduous and has not yet brought the desired results, it may lay the groundwork for a nascent, important scientific theory. Be patient, do not be discouraged by the lack of immediate breakthrough results. Do not give up. If you do your work conscientiously it should sooner or later bear fruit. Take your work seriously but with a great dose of self-irony. Do not forget, that none of us lives on a lonely island of own research, so interact with other scientist: two heads are better than one. Last but not least do not forget to find time for your family and friends.
And those are not vain words, because they are supported by numerous examples from the author’s own scientific career as well as from the biographical details of the most famous and influential scientists. “As happens not infrequently in science, his [Ray Davis’] first failure was his first success […].”
It seems that the author is unaware of the fact that his dream of magnetic levitation trains has become reality a long time ago. Maglev trains (MagneticLevitation) working on helium superconducting magnets, have become a serious and reliable means of transport. The first commercial maglevs had been used in England in 1984 and have since then been used to transport passengers in Germany, Japan, South Korea and China.
“Much ado about (practically) nothing” is certainly about something. It is perhaps a bit of a heterogeneous mixture, but this way, it is easier to risk the statement that everyone can find in this book something of an interest.