Reviews

Monday, April 01, 2002

Books

Physicists Who Built the Bomb, and Why They Hated It

Can a comic book change our perception of physics' greatest sin?

By Tim Folger

Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb

By Jim Ottaviani, Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, and Jeff Parker

G.T. Labs, $19.95

In the summer of 1939, Hungarian émigré physicist Leo Szilard visited another expatriate, Albert Einstein, at his summer home on Long Island. Szilard wanted Einstein to sign a letter to President Roosevelt urging that the United States begin work on developing an atomic bomb. Szilard, like Einstein a refugee from Nazi persecution, feared that Germany, with its many superb physicists, would build the bomb first. Einstein didn't need much convincing. A couple of months later, the fateful letter helped spur Roosevelt to commit the United States to the creation of a weapon of horrible and unprecedented power.

The task of directing the most daunting technical undertaking in history fell to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the central figure in Fallout. Like Maus, artist Art Spiegelman's graphic chronicle of the Holocaust, Fallout is a comic book for sophisticated adult readers. Darkly evocative illustrations by Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, and Jeff Parker are an integral part of author Jim Ottaviani's meticulously researched account of the Manhattan Project, America's desperate effort to build the first atomic bomb. In the right hands, comics can enliven history by conveying moods and details of character with cinematic immediacy. Fallout's illustrators capture wordless exchanges among ambitious men, expressions of anger and despair. One series of panels shows the construction of the world's first atomic reactor, brick by brick, on squash courts at the University of Chicago. Where a written description might be tedious, the drawings are simple and unforgettable.

Fallout vividly depicts the immense toll exacted on all who labored on the Manhattan Project, of whom none suffered more than Oppenheimer. When the bomb was finally tested in New Mexico's isolated Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) Valley on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer, who was over six feet tall, had turned into a wraithlike figure who weighed just 100 pounds. The book concludes with Oppenheimer's tragic postwar years, when the government revoked his security clearance, largely because of his support for arms control and past links to the Communist Party, links he had always freely admitted to. Although Oppenheimer went on to work at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, the public humiliation he endured after the war left him a visibly broken man.

One of the book's strengths is the detailed appendix of notes, in which Ottaviani takes pains to point out where he has created dialogue or incidents for the sake of his story. But with a cast of characters that includes Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Enrico Fermi, and other towering figures of 20th-century physics, Ottaviani seldom needs to depart from the strict historical record. As Oppenheimer himself remarked, "Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics."

After the war, Oppenheimer mused, "Physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." One story line Fallout does not explore is Einstein's ambivalence about having encouraged the development of nuclear weapons. The end of the war found him vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Upon hearing the news from his personal secretary of Hiroshima's destruction, he sighed in German, "Oh, weh"— alas.


 


Museums

Fantastic Voyage
Exploring the Internet from the inside out

By Fenella Saunders

Networld, at the the museum of science and industry, chicago (permanent exhibit)
www.msichicago.org/exhibit/ networld/networld.html


One hands-on display (shown in a design sketch) uses a lever to trigger a graphic of data-transmission speeds.
Illustration courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
In the decade since Tim Berners-Lee, a software developer then at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland, created the first site on what he dubbed the "world wide web," the Internet has burgeoned into a ubiquitous presence in everyday life. Now more than half of all American homes have Internet connections that give them access to an estimated 2 billion Web pages. People take it for granted these days that they can reach remote corners of cyberspace in an instant, but few casual Web denizens know much about the technology that makes such fantastic armchair adventure possible. NetWorld, a 5,000-square-foot hands-on exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, brings the inner workings of the Web to life.

Visitors are immediately immersed in a stream of 1s and 0s—projected on the walls, floor, and ceiling—and invited to dive into the digital bit stream that undergirds the Net. The first stop is a vending machine, where $2 buys a NetPass with an embedded microchip that activates your own personal digital self, a virtual sidekick that will shadow you throughout the exhibit. As a digital camera snaps your photo, this electronic stick figure pops up on a screen and immediately grabs your image and plasters it over its face.

Your digital self subsequently appears at each display in the exhibit when you wave the NetPass over a scanner. At the immense Portal Wall, 6 feet high by 30 feet long and made up of indigo-colored LCD screens, the NetPass triggers a spectacular view of the flow of digital data on the Internet. Your digital effigy appears on the left side of the screens and breaks apart into little pieces that become a stream of 1s and 0s—the bits that represent the most basic building blocks of data.

Another hands-on display shows how a message or data file is broken into segments—called packets—on its journey through the Internet. You select words on a touch screen to compose an e-mail message then watch as each word explodes into 1s and 0s before they are encapsulated within a pill-shaped packet. The color-coded, numbered packets then travel to another screen behind you, where other visitors can select them in the correct order to reassemble the message, much the way a computer does with an incoming e-mail.

The speed at which all this data moves depends largely on the bandwidth of the "pipe" it travels through. At one display, you can pull a large lever that graphically shows how quickly data moves through a typical 56,000-bit-per-second modem as compared with one of the Internet's main fiber-optic backbone cables—only a few dozen of these exist in the world—that carry 10 billion bits per second. To grasp the enormous difference in capacity, a wall panel invites you to imagine a drinking straw, then compare it to a tunnel two-thirds of a mile in diameter.

One display close to the end of the exhibit features a historical time line that chronicles the huge social impact the Internet has had during its relatively brief existence. The Internet had little direct influence on the lives of most Americans until 1994, when Netscape introduced the first Web browser. Yet today, more than 100 million people shop online each year, and Internet users send some 2 billion e-mails each day. Every time users log on, they entrust their most personal data to a system they can't even see.

That system includes "cookies," the small chunks of data that various Web sites place on users' computers to record their preferences or, more ominously, to track their movements on the Web. Your NetPass acts as a cookie. As you bid adieu to your digital self and prepare to leave the exhibit, a monitor indicates which displays you visited and when. But unlike the cookies on your computer, which can persist for years and keep all kinds of information on you, the museum doesn't save your data. In NetWorld, unlike most of the Internet, you can remain anonymous.


 


Books

The Eco-Warrior Writes Again
E. O. Wilson devises a new battle plan to save planet Earth

By Josie Glausiusz

The Future of Life
By Edward O. Wilson
Alfred A. Knopf
$22

The Petén region of Guatemala, home to the brilliantly hued quetzal bird of sacred Mayan lore, was once a pristine expanse of tropical rain forest. Then in the early 1970s, Guatemala's military junta embarked on a road-building campaign, hoping to profit from logging and oil exploration. In the years since, half of the Petén's virgin forest has been slashed, burned, and destroyed. Meanwhile, some 6,000 indigenous families living in an area that has so far escaped deforestation have profited handsomely from the harvesting and sale of rain forest products, such as palm nuts and berries, allspice, potpourri, honey, handicrafts, and chicle, a natural form of latex. In The Future of Life, celebrated naturalist Edward O. Wilson reports that these people earn a combined annual income of $4 million to $6 million—more than could be gained by converting the forest into farms and cattle ranches. And if they can profit from protecting rather than plundering the forest, Wilson suggests, maybe others could reap similar benefits from environmental stewardship.

The profit motive is not a traditional hallmark of the environmental movement. But Wilson, who won one Pulitzer in 1979 for On Human Nature and another in 1991 for The Ants, argues in his provocative new book that the future of life on Earth depends on figuring out profitable ways to reconcile the needs of the poor with the need to preserve biodiversity. Both situations are dire: Some 800 million people now live without sanitation and adequate food. Sadly, their search for land and freshwater can lead to deforestation and other forms of destruction, both of which are now driving species extinct so fast that if current trends continue, one-fifth of all animals and plants are expected to vanish by 2030. Half would disappear by the end of the century.

Wilson contends that this disaster can be averted by giving struggling nations and poor people the means to capitalize on conservation. For example, the EcoMaya program in the Petén brings ecotourists to schools in the region, where they can not only learn Spanish but also explore the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Carbon-credit trading is another profit-making enterprise, in which carbon-absorbing sinks such as newly planted forests are "sold" to polluting industries that need to meet emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Wilson also advocates bio-prospecting—harvesting potential drugs from rain forest plants—as a source of local income. He calls for conservation groups to buy government contracts for land that would otherwise be leased to loggers and use it instead as a sanctuary. Breaking ranks with many other conservationists, he argues that the use of genetically modified crops, livestock, and farmed timber would increase productivity and thereby prevent further conversion of wildlands into cultivated farmland.

The viability of these proposals has yet to be proved. Critics argue, for instance, that the people most likely to profit from bio-prospecting are the pharmaceutical companies that comb the forests and fields of the developing world in search of the latest wonder drug. But it's hard to dispute Wilson's fundamental argument that the cheapest—and sanest—way to preserve species is to protect the natural ecosystems in which they now live. For this reason he pays tribute to the ground troops in the battle to sustain biodiversity: the protesters, picketers, and tree-dwellers whose loud shouts act as nature's early warning system. "They are the living world's immunological response," writes Wilson. "I say bless them all."


 


Toys

Brainy Bots
Build your own cardboard robot

By Fenella Saunders

The Ultimate Robot Kit
Dorling Kindersley
www.dk.com
$29.95

Click on the image to enlarge. (40K)

The Ultimate Robot Kit comes with step-by-step instruction cards for each model, as well as a colorful booklet describing real-world robots that operate on the same basic principles.
Image courtesy of Dorling Kindersley
If you think robots require metal bodies and silicon brains, think again. In The Ultimate Robot Kit, cardboard, paper clips, string, and glue are the primary materials you use to make the bodies and even many of the moving parts of some rudimentary robots. But don't let the low-tech approach fool you. These robots, which are powered by an AA battery and a simple motor that is included in the kit, feature some surprisingly ingenious mechanics that function like basic computer algorithms.

Of the four predesigned models included in the kit, the KnotBot is the best example of this sort of physical programming. When you tie a set of two-foot-long strings to this bright-yellow 3-by-6-inch robot, the knots in the length of the string behave like a simple program, telling the robot when to move left or right. The strings are tied to the spokes of the front wheels and threaded through notches on a cardboard "steering assembly." As the robot moves forward, the front wheel spokes wind up the draping string; when a knot hits a notch, the rear wheel jerks to one side and turns the robot. By changing the position of the knots, you can alter the sequence of turns and direct the cardboard robot to follow a completely different course.

Each of the three other predesigned robots in the kit has a signature mechanical feature. When a sensorlike disk on the top of BounceBot comes in contact with a wall or other obstruction, the robot body rotates and heads in another direction. The CreepycrawlyBot has an axle that moves its cardboard legs up and down in unison so it can lumber over obstacles in its path. The GobbleBot resembles a bulldozer; a turning cam opens and closes its maw so it can scoop up small objects. Finally, you can design and build your own DIYBot (as in Do It Yourself), with other included parts.

The real reward is that you're not just building models, you're actually programming robots—with no computer in sight.


 


Science Best-sellers

1. The Universe in a Nutshell
By Stephen Hawking,
Bantam
2. The Future of Life
By E. O. Wilson,
Knopf
3. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are
By Joseph Ledoux,
Viking
4. Uncle Tungsten
By Oliver Sacks,
Knopf
5. Audubon Sibley Guide to Birds
By David Allen Sibley,
Knopf
6. The Birds of Heaven, Travels with Cranes
By Peter Matthiessen,
North Point Press
7. Six Easy pieces & Six Not So Easy Pieces
By Richard Feynman,
Perseus
8. The Map That Changed The World
By Simon Winchester,
HarperCollins
9. The Essential John Nash
By John F. Nash,
Edited by Sylvia Nasar and Harold Kuhn,
Princeton University Press
10. Don't Know Much About the Universe
By Kenneth C. Davis,
HarperCollins
* Source: Barnes & Noble Booksellers



We also like...

Measuring Eternity:
The Search for the Beginning of Time

Martin Gorst
Broadway Books, $23.95

In 1649 James Ussher, an Irish Catholic bishop, declared that Earth was created by God at precisely 6 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C., a date accepted as gospel truth for many years. Gorst chronicles the efforts of Lord Kelvin, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, and other scientists to scientifically determine the age of Earth (4.5 billion years) and the universe (roughly 14 billion years).

Corpse:
Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death

Jessica Snyder Sachs
Perseus, $25

The study of chronology is not limited to physicists and astronomers; it also preoccupies forensic scientists and other crime investigators. Sachs reveals how maggots on a festering body or dying leaves underneath a putrid leg bone can indicate the time of a murder. She also provides a historical survey of how biology, botany, and entomology have transformed forensics.

Secret Agents:
The Menace of Emerging Infections

Madeline Drexler
Joseph Henry Press, $24.95

Drexler argues that microorganisms, not humans, rule the world. In the wake of heightened concerns about anthrax and other potential weapons of bio-terror, she contends humanity is in even greater danger from mutant strains of the normally mild influenza virus and even deadly bacteria lurking in the alfalfa sprouts at salad bars. Luckily, a host of epidemiologists and microbiologists are frantically working to avert disaster.

Bright Earth:
Art and the Invention of Color

Philip Ball
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27

The science of making pigments and dyes—accelerated by advances in chemistry—has given artists access to the fuchsias, crimsons, and ultramarines they required for their paintings, frescoes, textiles, and photographs. Ball documents the parallel development of the science and art of color through the centuries.
Maia Weinstock


 




For a brief history of J. Robert Oppenheimer's life, see www.labri.fr/Equipe/CombAlgo/ membre/loeb/tree/julius.html. Read about the Manhattan Project at www.childrenofthe manhattanproject.org/index.htm.

Conservation International in Guatemala: www.conservation.org/xp/CIWEB/ regions/meso_america/ guatemala/guatemala.xml. Check out the beautiful and endangered quetzal at www.geocities.com/endangeredsp/SAmerica B28.html.
Comment on this article
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
DSCNovCover
+

Log in to your account

X
Email address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »