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David and the Goliaths : THE BREAKTHROUGH The Race for the Superconductor by Robert M. Hazen (Summit Books/Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 271 pp., illustrated; 0-671-65829-8)

August 21, 1988|Michael Riordan | A physicist at Stanford University, Riordan is author of "The Hunting of the Quark" (Simon & Schuster)

Superconductors finally surged into the public eye last year. What had long been an obscure field of science made front-page news repeatedly. The cause of all the excitement was the discovery of a new class of ceramic materials that become superconducting at temperatures far higher than had ever been encountered before. This breakthrough may prove as important as the late-1940s discovery of the transistor.

Superconducting materials conduct electric currents with little or no resistance. Once initiated, these currents can continue circulation almost indefinitely. But until 1987, every known superconductor had to be cooled nearly to the temperature of liquid helium--four degrees above absolute zero, or -269C--before this behavior could begin. Given the cost and the difficulty of handling liquid helium, practical applications were few.

By contrast, some of the new materials become superconducting at fairly high temperatures--above that of liquid nitrogen, an inexpensive and easily handled coolant. The once distant hope of using superconductors for power transmission, energy storage, magnetic levitation, magnetic resonance imaging scanners and supercomputers suddenly seems an immediate prospect. A multibillion-dollar industry is about to be born.

The discoverers of this new class of materials, Georg Bednorz and Alex Muller of IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, received the Nobel Prize in record time. And now we have the first book, "The Breakthrough" by Robert M. Hazen, purporting to be "how three scientists unlocked the secrets of superconductivity and made a discovery that will change the way we live." I cracked it eagerly, expecting an account of Bednorz and Muller's work plus that of Paul Chu, the University of Houston physicist who found the first material that becomes superconducting at liquid nitrogen temperatures.

But Bednorz and Muller are allotted just four pages at the beginning of this book--a brief summary of their landmark discovery. What must have been years of repeated trials and frustrating failures has been compressed here into a short prologue. The secretive Chu fares better, with four full chapters devoted to his crucial contributions and his adventures in creative publishing.

The great bulk of "The Breakthrough," is devoted to the exploits of the author and his colleagues at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington. Hazen heads a group of crystallographers who are asked by Chu to discern the atomic structure of his new superconductor--how its atoms of yttrium, barium, copper and oxygen are positioned in a three-dimensional crystal lattice. The answer to this key question may yield the secrets of its curious superconducting behavior. The Carnegie scientists have perhaps a week's head start on their competitors, major industrial powers like IBM and AT&T.

Hazen's prose, which had been rather plodding until this point, finally comes to life as he starts to describe his own research. He and his colleagues employ a "diffractomer"--a device that fires X-rays at a crystal and records the angles at which they ricochet--in an attempt to elucidate the structure of Chu's superconductor. It is a straightforward procedure employing standard techniques that have been in common use for most of this century. More than 30 years ago, for example, similar X-ray measurements by Rosalind Franklin helped Francis Crick and James Watson determine the double-helix structure of DNA.

Still, Hazen manages to communicate the drama and urgency of his quest. In these days when Big Science seems to grab all the headlines, with news of billion-dollar projects like the space station and the supercollider, it is refreshing to read about a small group of scientists battling the odds stackedagainst them. After less than a month of feverish activity, Hazen's team announces its findings--in a photo finish with its bigger and better-funded competitors.

If I have one major complaint about "The Breakthrough," it has to do with balance. A good writer, Hazen could have penned a comprehensive account of the discovery of the new superconductors, given his insider's view of key events. Instead, he chose to trumpet his own small contribution, which is of decidedly secondary importance in the overall scheme of things. Thus, readers have to endure accounts of his petty squabbles with his wife, his observations on being a part-time musician, and his platitudes about the life of a scientist--all of which are exceedingly tedious.

I, for one, would have preferred to learn more about Bednorz and Muller's pivotal discovery. Theirs was the true "breakthrough" that launched the whole exciting affair. But that will require another book.

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