Nobel Dreams, Gary Taubes

Random House, 1986, 261 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-394-54503-6

Popular clichés are prompt to paint scientists as emotionless creatures purely concerned by the pursuit of knowledge, so intellectually driven that they can make abstraction of the petty human emotions shared by The Rest Of Us.

That, of course, is wrong. Scientists are human beings like everyone else, and the intellectual drone only existed in movies (if he wasn’t mad, like most other movie scientists). They laugh, scream and shout just as much as you and I, and matters get less and less purely intellectual when you try to stuff hundreds of scientists at the same place.

Even though now somewhat dated, there are few books that do a better job at representing conflicts between scientists than Nobel Dreams, a nonfiction book about a quest for subatomic particles, a huge subterranean ring in Geneva and a scientist named Carlos Rubbia.

The root of Nobel Dreams‘s interest lies in the intrinsic nature of a type of scientific experiments grouped under the term “Big Science”. Contrarily to scientific endeavours that can be accomplished by a single researcher or a small group of experimenters, Big Science requires massive equipments, large teams and carefully orchestrated logistics. It’s not only hugely expensive, but it requires a massive administrative and logistical effort. Particle research, because of the enormous energies it requires to operate, has been a Big Science poster child since World War II (which featured the most emblematic Big Science effort ever in project Manhattan) and Nobel Dreams is partly an examination of such an experiment and the groundwork required for a Nobel-prize-winning success.

To this end, science journalist Gary Taubes spent time in CERN, the European high-energy physics center, getting to know the personalities and issues involved in the discovery of the W and Z particle. All of it would have been a drier, less interesting exposé if it hadn’t been for the lighting-rod personality of Carlos Rubbia, a formidable scientist with a massive ego and an abrasive personality. Reading Nobel Dreams, we get a taste of the implacable politics inherent in running Big Science experiments, where scientific concerns take a back seat to power imperatives. Running those experiment takes money -the root of all that’s interesting- and considerable charisma, especially when dealing with a multi-national workforces composed of highly skilled, highly obstinate theorists and experimenters.

It’s a story of beating-the-other-team, of personal friction and petty vindictiveness. It’s a story of brilliance and arrogance, of self-sacrifice and personal vanity. It’s a story of victory (the W and the Z) and defeat (the latter, less successful, experiments to prove super-symmetry). But over all, it’s a great bunch of stories about a set of jobs that aren’t very well understood by a great many people.

There are, inevitably, flaws: While Taubes makes a great effort at vulgarizing his subject, there are still a few thick patches of jargon. Worse; even though the structure of the book is rather clear, it doesn’t include an index, making it nearly useless for references purposes. And, predictably enough for a book already fifteen years old, it’s difficult for laymen to know whether the suppositions advanced in Nobel Dreams are still valid, and if the people involved went on to other better things.

(Well, was difficult to know earlier. Today, with the magic of the Internet search engines, it’s relatively easy to find out that Gary Taubes is still writing acclaimed scientific vulgarization, that the Higgs hasn’t yet been conclusively identified and that Carlos Rubbia hasn’t disappeared from the planet even though he most definitely hasn’t won a second Nobel. It’s also really easy to find out that Nobel Dreams itself has earned a good reputation in the field of science nonfiction.)

In any case, the true value of Nobel Dreams is to uncover some of the less idealistic side of science; how humans, with all their faults, are still very much at the heart of science. And that, even while reading about despicable behaviour, is still a very comforting thought.

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