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True Genius: The Life And Work Of Richard Garwin by Joel N. Shurkin (book review)

The sub-title of Joel N. Shurkin’s book, ‘True Genius: The Life And Work Of Richard Garwin’ is ‘The Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of’. You might not have heard of Richard Garwin but you’ve certainly seen his work. Where the Manhattan Project was concerned, we all know the names of many of the theoretical scientists who contributed to creating the first atomic bombs but it still needed someone to make it a physical reality. In this case, this was Richard Garwin, a prodigy who was an assistant to Enrico Fermi and was brought in for his mechanical expertise as a practical physicist and designed and built the fuse mechanism. His wife, Lois, was a computer. Not the kind we use today but the name for someone who could do accurate calculations and was employed to work for Edward Teller, the head of the group.

After the war, Garwin worked for IBM and the US government and, like a lot of the Los Alamos scientists, went on to argue for disarmament. For those interested in computers, Garwin also came up with the first touchscreens and laser printers, even though they were initially rejected his prototypes were the ones they returned to. Working at the CERN laboratories, long before what they are known for today, he made in short order a working device to prove there were non-parity atomic particles. That is, particles that didn’t have an opposite particle. Shurkin points out that where other people might have taken 36 days to make the theory practical, he did it in 36 hours.

What makes this book especially fascinating is the insights it gives between the American scientific community and the military, the latter often determined to ignore anything unless it is very expensive. I did have a ponder on this and although Shurkin doesn’t do analysis, from my UK perspective, any arm of the government doesn’t want to see their funds potentially cut back so tends towards ever more spending. Even so, you would think with a more viable cheaper solution, such funding could be applied elsewhere.

There are a lot of reveals in this book that will make you think, especially about how defence networks work or rather don’t work and why Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is what has stopped America and Russia attacking each other and a better balance than any other means. This gives far more food for thought over Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ satellite scheme which Garwin showed the numbers wouldn’t work simply because you couldn’t blast all the missiles in flight.

In the final chapter, Shurkin points out that Garwin is not media popular. Whereas other sited scientists examples, like Carl Sagan, could sum up the answer needed in a couple paragraphs, Garwin was more long-winded so tends not to be approached so much. From my point of view perspective, I think there’s room for both in the media. To rely on short responses tends to make potential scientists that there is no room for those who need more space. Considering how much Garwin has contributed over his some 90 years, you will come away from this book wishing that there were more people like him around.

GF Willmetts

March 2017

(pub: Prometheus Books. 290 page hardback. Price: $25.00 (US), $ (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-63388-223-2. Ebook: Price: $11.99 (US), £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-63388-224-9)

check out website: www.prometheusbooks.com