Rubbia and His Team's Tricks of The Trade

Nobel Dreams. Gary Taubes. Random House, New York, 1986. 261 pp. $19.95. The days of the solitary scientist sounding out nature with homemade equipment are gone.

By | June 15, 1987

Nobel Dreams. Gary Taubes. Random House, New York, 1986. 261 pp. $19.95.

The days of the solitary scientist sounding out nature with homemade equipment are gone. This is nowhere more true than in particle physics, where the search for smaller and smaller units of matter has progressed from van Leeuwenhoek's microscope to Rutherford's alpha-particle beams to today's city-sized particle accelerators, each costing many hundreds of millions of dollars and gobbling up the resources and reputations of whole institutions.

In the high-stakes arena of particle physics, the gentlemanly pursuit of knowledge has been transformed into major league hardball. The individual has been replaced by the team. Friendly rivalry has given way to ruthless competition. Academic caution has been trampled by hard-sell propaganda, modesty by "intellectual exhibitionism." Speed has been substituted for accuracy. Honesty has been devoured by ambition. The team leader is warlord.

Science writer Gary Taubes captures these seedy developments in a jaunty, politically savvy and hard-hitting account of the career of physicist Carlo Rubbia, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1984 for discovery of the W particle. Rubbia has mastered the tricks of his trade. In his feverish struggle for glory and his desire to be first with the most, Rubbia is admired but detested.

The reader will find revealing portraits of other particle physicists as well. Samuel Ting, also a Nobel Prize winner, describes his priorities as follows: "To be first and to be correct is the most important. To be first but to be wrong I think is not as good." Antoine Leveque is a small, shy Frenchman, "the straight man in Rubbia's vaudeville team," who "wears a tweed flannel jacket that is a little too large." Sheldon Glashow, while shopping in Milan and noticing Rubbia's face on every copy of L'Uomo Vogue, wondered why he, Glashow, hadn't gotten on the cover of fashion magazines after his Nobel a few years earlier.

Then there are the team players, the vast numbers of support physicists who are allowed to shine only in the reflected light of their leaders but who will nevertheless work day night, at the expense of their s and children, when the competition heats up. When the management of CERN, the European laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, wanted to make sure that their physicists left for Christmas vacation, they turned off the computers as well as the heat, Taubes writes. They knew that many physicists would "gladly freeze to death" as long as they could get computer time.

Taubes spent several months at CERN, interviewed dozens of people, and followed Rubbia to conferences around the world. Although Taubes uses a large amount of technical lingo and concepts that will be gibberish to outsiders, he has done a fine job of investigative reporting. Particle physics and its group leaders come out smelling bad. As in a Greek tragedy, it seems almost inevitable that science has become tainted with human nature, given the enormous cost of experiments these days. Even the sacred scientific method appears defiled, as eager physicists divine new effects in their computer printouts when there are none, and cannot admit they are wrong. Yet the scientific method actually works through the community, rather than the individual, and wrong results are eventually found out.

Ultimately, NobelDreams shows that scientists are human beings, which might have been guessed before CERN or Alfred Nobel. It is worth keeping in mind.

Lightman, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, teaches at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. He is the author of A Modern Day Yankee in a Connecticut Court (Viking, 1986).

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