Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Book Review: Sun in a Bottle

I haven't read anything by Charles Seife, at least in book form. I recognize his name from science journalism by-lines, but didn't place it. But i'm going to have to look for more of his stuff, because he's very good. This book's about fusion: fusion bombs, fusion reactors, and fusion fraud. Seife himself was involved with the journal that published the latest fusion fraud, "bubble fusion." He actually goes into a little too much detail in that chapter for my taste, mainly in a defensive posture, but overall this book was very interesting and a good reminder of why peer reviewers are so, well, mean sometimes. They have to be when frauds or wishful thinking verging on fraud shows up.

The "cold fusion" wishful thinking/fraud in the late 80's came up before I was into the scientific literature, so it was illuminating to follow that story and see just how weird it all was. "Bubble fusion" was something I actually reported on in one of my senior seminar lectures, for just a slide or two, but I had to take it out when it was revealed to be probably wrong as well. This book is fascinating just for showing both sides of science: science being wrong, and science eventually (although painfully) getting it right.

Mostly this helps me as I write the research paper I'm working on right now, to stick to the facts and avoid even editorializing adverbs. But the stories and the characters are very interesting in their own rights, and Seife has some excellent metaphors in this book: how is laser excitement of atoms like an apple tree? Read it to find out.

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