Tag: biography

Book review: The Man from the Future by Ananyo Bhattacharya

von_neumannThe Man from The Future by Ananyo Bhattacharya has been sitting on my bedside table in the "to be read" pile for a little while. I was aware of Von Neumann largely through his work on computers, and game theory.

The book is organised thematically, firstly on Von Neumann’s early years then on the various fields in which he made contributions.

Neumann János Lajos was born in Budapest in 1903, the Hungary style was to put the family name first – his father was ennobled in 1903 – hence the "von" and he Anglicised his forename to John when he moved to America in 1930. Hungary, and Budapest, in Von Neumann’s time was a hot bed of intellectuals many of whom fled Europe to America with the rise of the Nazis. For someone with a background in physics it is a bit of a Who’s Who – Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Theodore von Kármán, Edward Teller, Dennis Gabor – were all his contemporaries and he seemed to know them personally.

Von Neumann’s first contributions to the academic world were in set theory, he published a paper on defining cardinal and ordinal numbers in 1921 which still stands today. This was at a time when maths was undergoing a foundational crisis, which Einstein described as "Froschmäusekreig" – a war of frogs and mice – a term I aim to use in future!

The set theory paper was written whilst he was still at school, he then moved on to study simultaneously a degree in Chemistry at Berlin, chemical engineering in Zurich at ETH and a doctorate in maths at Budapest – passing all with flying colours. He then moved on to Göttingen in about 1925 where Heisenberg was working. Von Neumann’s contribution was Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics published in 1932 – not translated into English for 20 years. His key contribution was demonstrating that Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics and Schrödinger’s wave equation theories of quantum mechanics were equivalent. To a degree I feel his contribution held back the field, backing as it did the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (i.e. "shut up and calculate") – it wasn’t until the late 1950’s that other started probing the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics in more depth.

It was during this period he was enticed to Princeton and the Institute for Advanced Studies. As German science declined under the Nazis due to their purges of "undesirables" from the civil service and universities, American science which had been in the doldrums rose – one at the cost of the other.

Von Neumann was clearly politically astute and had seen war coming in the early thirties, in the late thirties he was pro-actively trying to join the US army – fortunately redirected into the Manhattan Project (a project stuffed with scientists later to become Nobel Prize winners). His key contributions were in the simulations done for the implosion bomb (at a time when the idea of computer simulations was radical and new and not yet expressed). I hadn’t realised before was that airburst bomb are used because they are more destructive than the same explosives detonated at ground level, this is why the Trinity test was executed on a tower. Von Neumann was also on the committee that chose the targets for the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the war.

Von Neumann’s work on the Bomb, and his mathematical interests led him naturally into computing. Prior to the war, as part of the fundamentals of mathematics, Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing and Alonzo Church had done work essential to the foundation of computing. Turing’s work in particular demonstrated that theoretically a machine could be built which could carry out any computation but Gödel had shown that not all problems were computable. Von Neumann met with Alan Turing in 1942, it is not clear what they talked about I imagine both the Bomb and Turing’s codebreaking work at the Bletchley Park were topics of conversation.

Von Neumann had worked with computing devices on implosion calculations, an activity in which his second wife Klára Dán von Neumann was heavily involved. After the war a number of groups were working on computers, and he was convinced that the computer would be more revolutionary than the atomic bomb. His key contribution was a draft report on the EDVAC computer being built at the Moore School of Engineering in the University of Pennsylvania. The significance of this report was that it described clearly the architecture of a modern computer with input and output units, a central processor, memory and so forth – previously computers had largely been designed for very specific tasks and appear to have been logically complex. Von Neumann’s report was widely circulated much to the chagrin of his collaborators who had hoped for lucrative patents on the design of computers.

Stepping back in time a bit, Von Neumann had started working on what would come to be known as "game theory" in the 1920s, publishing his first paper in this area in 1926, followed by another in 1937 and finally a book written with Oskat Morgenstern, Theory of Games in 1943. After the Second World War mathematicians started to infiltrate economics departments and apply game theory ideas to economic problems. This has resulted in some very lucrative public auctions (designed using ideas stemming from game theory), and a fair number of Nobel Prizes in economics.

After the Second World War the US government set up the RAND Corporation which was a think tank, possibly the original think tank. They undertook a wide range of research, trying to maintain the spirit that drove the development of the atomic bomb, radar, codebreaking during the Second World War but also operations research. Von Neumann acted as a consultant and was seen very much as the father of the organisation without necessarily holding an exalted formal position. It was at this time, when they had the only nuclear weapons that the US contemplated a first strike against the Soviets. Von Neumann started quite hawkish but become more dovish over time.

The final chapter of the book is on cellular automata, stimulated by Alan Turing’s universal machine, and also how life works – in the post-war period the structure and mechanism by which DNA works was being elucidated and a number of physicists were interested in both the structure of DNA and how it transmits information. Cellular automata are perhaps best know by John Conway’s Life game. His work was prompted by Von Neumann, although Von Neumann’s book on cellular automata was not published until 10 years after his death in 1957 from bone cancer.

I must admit the book made me think of the nature of a biography, this one is quite heavily focused on scientific themes – Von Neumann is usually introduced at the beginning of the chapter with an outline of his contributions but then a wider cast of characters are brought in. The alternative is more focussed on the minutiae of the central characters life.

From a personal point of view we find Von Neumann is a bit of party animal, married twice with one daughter. His wives found him rather absorbed in his work. His occasionally harsh exterior harboured a more caring private side.

The Man from the Future is an enjoyable read if you have some interest in computing and physics, although deep knowledge of those areas is not required.

Book review: Richard Trevithick – Giant of Steam by Anthony Burton

A second hand book to review this time, Richard Trevithick – Giant of Steam by Anthony Burton. I bought it in Malvern. Richard Trevithick is best know as the inventor of the steam railway locomotive – the first person to put a steam engine on a carriage with wheels and put that carriage on metal rails. This followed his demonstration of a steam road carriage in 1801, with the railway locomotives in the following couple of years.

Richard Trevithick was born near Camborne in Cornwall to Ann Teague (a miners daughter) and Richard Trevithick Senior, a mine “captain”, in 1771. He died in 1833. He had a wife, Jane who would be well-described as “long-suffering” – Trevithick had little interest in providing a steady income for his family or at least if he had the desire he was inept at executing it and was briefly bankrupt in 1815. Furthermore he left for South America for a period of 11 years from 1816 to 1827, with little communication back home with his wife and friends in England during that period. Despite this his six children, and his wife, seemed to have held him in at least some regard and his son Francis, at the very least in high regard. Jane Trevithick lived until 1868.

The Cornish mining milieu is a key feature of his upbringing and subsequent career. The mine “captains” were very hands-on managers who led mining operations at the Cornish mines. They often had significant financial interest in mines. Cornwall in the 18th century was seen as a bit of an English Wild West with a degree of opposition to ideas developed outside the area. Steam engines had been born in the South West to drain mines, with the first made by Thomas Savery in 1698, followed by Thomas Newcomen’s more practicable engine invented in 1712. Both Savery and Newcomen were from the neighbouring county of Devon.

The James Watt / Matthew Boulton steam engine was to dominate the market for steam engines in the United Kingdom from 1775 until the end of the 18th century. It was a more efficient engine than those that went before, commercially it was protected aggressively by Watt and Boulton using patents which supressed other developments in the area until they expired.

Trevithick had a fairly minimal education but seemed to be a very adept calculator, he was a large, strong man with something of a temper. This caused him problems later in life with some of his inventions which essentially failed because he fell out massively with his backers/potential customers and stopped work on them. He had a life-long friendship with Davies Gilbert who was more scientifically inclined. Trevithick quickly moved to working in the local mines first as a helper to his father but then in his own right. It’s interesting that steam engines would have been a regular part of the Cornish mining industry for seventy or so years before Trevithick entered the scene. Developments were clearly relatively slow until the arrival of the Watt/Boulton engine. The key scientific development in the area, the discovery of latent heat – the energy required to bring water from the liquid to gaseous state – was only published in 1763 by Joseph Black.

On railway locomotives it turned out Trevithick was a little before his time, George Stephenson was to successfully kick off the railway revolution with the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 and the Liverpool and Manchester line in 1829 – twenty or so years after Trevithick’s demonstration. Trevithick’s effort suffered from two issues, one systematic issue was Trevithick’s approach which was to demonstrate many ideas but never to follow them through to successful, commercial exploitation. The second, technical, issue was that iron rails at the time were not tough enough to handle the weight of a steam engine and soon fractured. Interestingly Robert Stephenson, George’s son and a significant railway engineer in his own right, met Trevithick in Columbia in 1826.

Trevithick’s real innovation was in developing a high pressure steam engine, operating at pressures ultimately in excess of 150 psi compared the Watt-Boulton engine operating at less than 10 psi. This gave Trevithick a compact and flexible power source that could be used for a variety of purposes and, according to his vision, could actually physically propel itself to new work. Essentially he had invented the traction engine which wasn’t to be successfully patented and exploited until the 1860s.

Trevithick moved to London with his family in 1803, he had demonstrated his railway locomotive and a road stream carriage there initially but he moved on to work on dredging for the new docks, and also a tunnel under the Thames. He was frustrated that the Admiralty were unwilling to take on any of his ideas. Ultimately nothing came of his London stay, other than he was made briefly bankrupt. That said, he actually did a pretty good job on a tunnel under the Thames, a task only successfully completed by the Brunels following nearly 20 years of work from 1824.

Soon after returning to Cornwall from London he left again, this time without his family, to Peru where he had been taken on to supply and install steam engines for the mint in Lima, and a mine in Cerro de Pasco. His plans in Peru were foiled by revolution. He then moved on to Costa Rica, where he started a pearl-fishing business using a diving bell he had designed a few years earlier. He also attempted to start a gold mine but was unable to raise sufficient finance for this.

He died in 1833, 6 years after having returned from South America.

I’ve missed out any mention of Trevithick’s threshing machine, his ideas for steam-powered boats, a diving bell and using iron containers to carry liquids on boats!

I found this book fascinating, I’ve previously read books on Thomas Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, Matthew Boulton, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and William Armstrong who collectively span the Industrial Revolution in England – Trevithick fits into the earlier part of this story.

It has led me to wondering a little about being “before their time”, this was very apparent in the Trevithick story with so many of his ideas only coming to fruition decades after he died. Was he exceptional or is this not so uncommon – we simply don’t hear about those whose ideas required other developments for them to work? The names that have been prominent from the Industrial Revolution are those that not only invented but also were commercially successful, at least some of the time – leaving lasting monuments to their ideas.

Book review: The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

code_breakerFor my summer holiday reading I have The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson, the author was recommended by a friend. It is the story of CRISPR gene editing, and Jennifer Doudna, one of the central characters in the development of this system and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 with Emmanuelle Charpentier for this work.

CRISPR is an acronym for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats", a name derived from the DNA sequences that prompted its discovery. CRISPR are the basis of a type of immune system for bacteria against viruses. The CRISPR repeats form a fingerprint which matches the viral DNA and the associated system of enzymes allows a bacteria to snip out viral DNA which matches this sequence.

Whilst CRISPR is interesting in itself, it has applications in gene editing as a cure for disease in humans. CRISPR simply requires a short piece of RNA to match the target DNA in a gene to carry out its editing job. Short RNA sequences are easy to synthesise making CRISPR superior to earlier gene editing techniques. In addition there is potential to use CRISPR as a diagnostic tool for identifying infections such as covid and even as a cure for viral diseases. The Code Breaker does a good job of explaining CRISPR to a fair depth.

There is a section of the book on gene editing in humans and the moral issues this raises. Perhaps central to this is the story of He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who led the work to carry out germ line edits to add a gene protective against HIV. Germ line gene edits mean editing the genes in an early stage embryo which means that all the cells in the child it gives rise to have the edit, including reproductive cells, hence the gene edit will be passed on to descendants. This is considered more radical than somatic cell gene editing where the changes stop with the person treated. I must admit to having some sympathy for He Jianku. Principally Western scientists had made a great show of considering the moral issues in germ line editing eventually deciding that the time was not yet right, but going against a moratorium or regulation in the area. This seems an ambiguous position to me, and the associated comments that Jiankui had done his work for publicity is a bit rich from a group of scientists who have been so competitive in the research over CRISPR. Jiankui conducted his research with the approval of his local ethics board but was subsequently disavowed by the Chinese authorities and then convicted.

Coronavirus is woven through the book because the work on CRISPR is very relevant here from a scientific point of view, and the key characters including the author are involved, as we all are! As far as I can tell Doudna et al have been involved heavily in conventional covid19 testing and have done research on CRISPR-based diagnostic tests which have great potential for the future – essentially they would allow any viral illness to be definitively tested at home (rather than a sample being sent off to do PCR test) – but are not yet used in production. Similarly there is the potential for CRISPR-based vaccines but these are not yet been deployed in anger. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are based on RNA but use older technology.

A chunk of the book covers the patent battles over CRISPR principally involving Doudna and her co-workers and Feng Zheng, scientist at the Broad Institute. The core of the patent dispute is how obvious the step from understanding the operation of the CRISPR system (which Doudna’s team demonstrated first) to applying it to human cells (which Zhang did first) is. I think my key learning from this part of the book is that I’m not very interested in patent battles! Tied up with the patent issue is the question of the great science Prizes which similarly give a winner takes all reward to a small group. The Nobel Prizes have a limit of three on the number of winners, so do more recently instituted prizes. Science simply isn’t done this way, and hasn’t been for a long time. There’s a group of at least a dozen scientist at the core of the CRISPR story and probably more, singling out a couple of people for a reward is invidious. It made me wonder whether the big science prizes are really about the prize giver rather than the winner.

The book is written in the more journalistic style that has arisen in scientific biography relatively recently, that’s to say there is a lot of incidental detail about where Isaacson met people and their demeanour than in older scientific biographies. I must admit I find this a bit grating, I’ve tended towards collective biographies recently rather than single person biographies which have a bit of a "great man" feel to them. However, I’m starting to make my peace with this new style – it makes science feel like a more human process, and makes for a more readable book. It’s fair to say that this is in no way a "great man" biography, although Doudna and her life and personality are a recurring theme other people get a similar treatment.

Book review: The Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin

fermiThe Pope of Physics by Gino Segrè and Bettina Hoerlin is the biography of Enrico Fermi. I haven’t read any scientific biography for a while and this book on Enrico Fermi was on my list. He is perhaps best known for leading the team that constructed the first artificial nuclear reactor as part of the Manhattan Project. As a lapsed chemical physicist I also know him for Fermi surfaces, Fermi-Dirac statistics, and the Fermi method. Looking on Wikipedia there is a whole page of physics related items named for him.

Fermi was born at the beginning of the 20th century, his parents were born before Italy was unified in 1870 when illiteracy was not uncommon and people typically stayed close to home since travel quickly involved crossing borders.

Fermi was identified as something of a prodigy whom a friend of his father, Adolfo Amidei, took under his wing and smoothed his path to Pisa Scuola Normale Superior. As I sit here in in a mild lockdown I was bemused to note that the entrance exams Fermi took were delayed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. At Pisa Fermi learned largely under his own steam, at the time physics was not an important subject – the Pisa Scuola had five professors in physics and only one in physics. Fermi graduated at the top of his class.

After Pisa Fermi fell into the path of Orso Mario Corbino, a physicist, politician and talented organiser who set about helping Fermi to build a career in physics. At the time a new quantum physics was growing, led primarily by young men such as Pauli, Dirac, Heisenberg and Schrödinger who was a little older. Fermi met them on a scholarship to Göttingen in Germany. He later went to Leiden on a scholarship where he met Ehrenfest, and Einstein who was very taken with him. This was preparation for building a new physics capability in Italy.

The fruits of this preparation were a period in the mid-1930s which saw Fermi and his research group at Rome University invent a theory of nuclear decay which revealed the weak nuclear force and postulated the existence of the neutrino (this theoretical work was Fermi’s alone). The wider research group studied the transmutation of elements by slow neutron bombardment. This work was to win Fermi the 1938 Nobel Prize for Physics.

This research led on directly to the discovery of nuclear fission and the chain reaction which became highly relevant as Fermi fled Italy to the US with his wife on the eve of the Second World War. Many of Fermi’s friends, including his wife Laura, were Jewish. Fermi steered clear of politics to a large degree, he benefitted from the patronage of Mussolini but was no fascist enthusiast. The Italian uses of chemical weapons in Ethopia and, ultimately, the racial laws of the late 1930s which expelled Jews from their positions drove him from the country. He had visited the US a number of times in the early 1930s and had little trouble finding a position at Columbia University.

The route to the atomic bomb was not quick and smooth in the early years of the war, a number of physicists had noted the possibility of the fission bomb and attempted to warn politicians of its potential. This all changed when the Americans joined the war, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Building an atomic bomb presented a number of scientific challenges which Fermi was well-placed to address, primary amongst these was building “Critical Pile 1” the first system to undergo a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. It was constructed, slightly surreptitiously, in a squash court at Chicago University. It was built there as a result of a dispute with the contractor who was due to build it a little outside Chicago, at Argonne.

The “critical pile” demonstrated two things: firstly that chain reactions existed, and secondly it provided a route to producing the nuclear isotopes required to produce a bomb. It still left the question of how to purify the isotopes, and the question of how to produce a critical mass fast enough to cause a worthwhile explosion.

Fermi would go on to help in the Manhattan Project at Hanford and then Los Alamos where he held a position combining both universal scientific consultancy and administration, or at least organisation.

It is difficult to talk about Fermi’s strengths as a physicist – he had so many – he is almost unique in being both a top flight experimentalist, and theoretician. This is the great divide in physics, and people who are talented in both fields are rare. He was also clearly an excellent teacher, as well as undergraduate teaching and writing a high school physics book he supervised 7 students who would go on to earn Nobel Prizes in physics. Alongside this he was clearly personable.

Fermi died in November 1954 a little after his 53rd birthday, leaving in his wake a large number of prizes, buildings and discoveries as a memorial.

I found The Pope of Physics highly readable, the chapters are quite short but focused.

Book review: The Comet Sweeper by Claire Brock

thecometsweeperA return to women in science in this post where I review The Comet Sweeper: Caroline Herschel’s Astronomical Ambition by Claire Brock, a biography of a woman who discovered comets and nebulae and published a catalogue of astronomical objects in the later years of the 18th century. For scientists the name “Herschel” will not be unknown. Caroline Herschel’s brother William discovered Uranus, and was paid as an astronomer by King George III. Her nephew, John was also well known as a scientist. However, relatively little has been written about Caroline.

The Comet Sweeper is based substantially on the autobiographical writing of Herschel. However, she was sufficiently well-known at the time to be referenced elsewhere, and indeed later in her life was bestowed with various honours and medals for her astronomical work.

Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750, her father Isaac was a musician and very much a self-taught man – something he passed on to Caroline. Anna, her mother, gets a less than sympathetic treatment from her daughter and consequently this book. For her early years Anna treated Caroline as a servant, and stopped her education as soon as it appeared it would help her leave the Herschel household in Hanover. She was finally given a means of escape when her brother, William, invited her to Bath to work in music with him in 1771. She had no previous training in music and put herself assiduously to learning what she needed to know. William Herschel was earning up to £400 per year from music lessons and the like when he invited his sister to join him. It seems that Caroline became a significant musician in her own right, at least until her brother dragged her into astronomy.

This is something of a theme through the book, Caroline Herschel is clearly very capable and when given the opportunity can excel in whatever she turns her hand to. But the choices she has are limited. In the first instance her mother controls what she can do, then her brother – switching her from music to astronomy with little regard for her own wishes.

In astronomy Herschel started by assisting her brother in the workshop – at the time, to get the best telescope, you built them from scratch yourself. She supported him in his observations but she also carried out observations on her own. The “sweeping” of the title is the systematic scanning of the night sky with a telescope to identify static features such as stars and nebulae but more specifically to find comets. To a degree the discovery of nebulae was incidental to the main task of finding comets, nebulae were easily confused with comets so recording their locations was an essential part of finding comets. The Herschel’s work followed, but only by a few years, the publication of Charles Messier’s first catalogue of diffuse celestial objects in 1774.

As well as discovering comets and nebulae Herschel was also responsible for publishing Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars in 1798, which built on the earlier work of Flamsteed. Ultimately this became the New General Catalogue of stars. Amateur astronomers will know this work, Messier’s catalogue provides information on the 100 or so most prominent objects whose identifying numbers are prefixed with an M- beyond this are the NGC objects – from the New General Catalogue which is the descendant of Herschel and Flamsteed’s catalogue.

Herschel was honoured in her own lifetime with a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as honorary membership and medal from the King of Prussia, at the age of 96. She was the first woman to be published in Philosophical Transactions the journal of the Royal Society. These awards did come until quite late in her life although she was paid £50 per annum by King George III as an assistant to her brother. He was paid rather more, £200, but notably rather less than he earned as a musician.

I found the broader insight that The Comet Sweeper gave into the lives of Georgian women was interesting. Women did not have formal positions within the scientific community of the time but they contributed as wives, sisters, daughters. At the time there was little in the way of formal, paid, scientific community – it was very much a gentleman’s club but there was a place for women in it although not necessarily of equal status.

This was to change later in the 19th century when science became institutionalised, as a result women were excluded by, for example, not being able to receive degrees or even attend lectures at university.

The Comet Sweeper is not a long book, it is readable and casts an interesting light on women in science in Georgian England and the specific contributions of Caroline Herschel.