It's All Elementary: From Atoms to the Quantum World of Quarks, Leptons, and Gluons, Necia H. Apfel (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard: $7.25); The Particle Connection, Christine Sutton (Touchstone: $7.95). As scientific theories become more sophisticated, so too must science writers. Without clever interpretations, today's increasingly complex scientific concepts won't make the long haul into public discourse. Of course, not all researchers agree that informed public debate about science is possible or even vital. But most believe it is inevitable, with fields like biotechnology already raising a host of ethical and political issues. These two books, covering the search for a single "superforce" that will explain the behavior of all matter, illustrate the highs and lows of science reporting. Profiling scientific advances since the time atoms were thought to be the smallest particles, "It's All Elementary" is, unfortunately, too elementary, loaded with the questions of a schoolmarm: "What are the things around you made of?" "The Particle Connection," on the other hand, conveys respect for the intelligence of the lay reader. In the first 22 pages, Christine Sutton uses broad brush strokes to cover science's conceptual trip from atoms to quarks. She is free in the rest of the book, consequently, to take an in-depth look at an intriguing discipline of particle physics--the search for the "W Particle," a unit that will provide concrete proof to support the esoteric ideas behind a superforce.
Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, John H. Lenihan (University of Illinois: $10.95). In reel one of "High Noon," Marshall Kane rides his horse into Hadleyville, his upright posture and slow, syncopated pace reflecting his determination to stand up for man's nobler side, despite the efforts of a wild, lawless gang to take over the dusty little town. Not surprisingly--for "High Noon" is a classic Western--Kane's determination soon fades, and he is forced to hand out justice from his holster. As John Lenihan sees it, the struggle of characters like Kane reflects America's own efforts to understand the workings behind our increasingly urban society. In addition to communicating visual excitement and grandeur, Lenihan writes, Westerns are "heroic myths eulogizing America's greatness" and presenting alternatives to political bureaucracy just as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey offered adventurous escape from the alienation expressed by writers from the Lost Generation.
Omni's Catalog of the Bizarre, Pamela Weintraub (Doubleday/Dolphin: $9.95). "Until we reach Mars, we can write about Mars as we please." This quote, by Virginia Starret, appears early in the book, and the author seems to have taken it to heart, compiling dozens of highly unlikely stories about "unexplored phenomena." Considering that these writings first appeared in a magazine with more than 1 million readers, their technique--beginning with a statement of "scientific fact" and then dimming the sideshow lights so we can't see the masquerade--is disturbing. Pamela Weintraub's work is fun, nevertheless, if one ignores her claim that "experts" have backed up these reports: Chinese children who "can read with their armpits," plants that help you communicate with the dead and links between transsexualism and reincarnation.
J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds, Peter Goodchild (Fromm: $10.95). If popular opinion is any judge, nuclear weapons development during World War II was both too secret and not secret enough. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, atomic research was so mysterious that many Americans saw the weapons researchers as deserters, abandoning their country in a time of crisis. After the war, Sen. Joseph McCarthy lambasted officials for appointing "Communists" like J. Robert Oppenheimer to top leadership positions in nuclear weapons research. This engaging overview attempts to sort out the soap opera behind the science. Goodchild is far more sympathetic toward Oppenheimer than the book's title might suggest. He begins by profiling the scientist's growth from a confident young pioneer to a cynical activist deeply troubled by nuclear devastation, for which he felt responsible. Then, Goodchild moves on to explore the post-war period, painting less-than-glowing portraits of those who helped McCarthy. Edward Teller, for example, now an advocate of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, composed a memo during the hearings wondering if some way could be found to "deepen the charges" against Oppenheimer, only to later admit he had no grounds to consider Oppenheimer "a security risk."