John Ziman

John Ziman is Henry Overton Wills Professor of Physics at the University of Bristol and author of The Force of Knowledge and Models of Disorder.

Diary: On Cold Fusion

John Ziman, 18 May 1989

The first report of ‘test-tube fusion’ came on the morning news. We debated the plausibilities energetically over the breakfast table. Relative roles were quickly established. Professorial habits die hard. I found myself conducting a tutorial explaining why it sounded about as probable as a flying pig. Naturally, dogmatism was contested. Science must always allow a vast benefit of doubt for anything striking at established doctrine. I must not dismiss the work of Professors Fleischmann and Pons out of hand. We agreed that we must wait for more evidence.

What shall we look into now?

John Ziman, 21 May 1987

Nearly half the essays in this book are about Einstein, and the way he searched for a unified Weltbild – a coherent image of all reality. His lifelong task as a scientist was to puzzle out the cosmic jigsaw. He succeeded in finding a link between the pieces labelled ‘electromagnetism’ and ‘mechanics’ and showed that the piece labelled ‘gravitation’ belonged next to the one labelled ‘geometry’, but he failed to fit them all together with a single formula. The advance of physics since Einstein’s heyday has not really solved that particular problem, even though two new forces have been uncovered and one of them is closely connected with electromagnetism.’

Fear and Loathing in Los Alamos

John Ziman, 4 September 1986

If a speaker at one of his seminars began to explain how he had come by his ideas, the great Russian theoretical physicist L.D. Landau would stop him with disdain: ‘That is only an item for your autobiography.’ Landau died before reaching the age of reminiscence, but Rudolph Peierls was his friend and Nevill Mott was another near-contemporary. Now that they are both about eighty, they may feel able to risk his posthumous scorn. Mott is a sort of father-in-science to me, and Peierls an uncle. Yet it never occurred to me, until I read these memoirs, how very alike their careers have been. They both grew up into theoretical physics just after the quantum breakthrough of 1925, and quickly made their names in exploiting this new instrument of thought to solve a whole range of old problems. They both made outstanding contributions to the theory of metals and other solids. Both of them were professors at Redbrick universities before they were thirty – Mott at Bristol and Peierls at Birmingham. When they came back from wartime research in 1945, each was offered – in due order of age, I suppose – the Chair of Theoretical Physics at Cambridge, and each duly turned it down. Eventually, Oxbridge got them both – Mott as Cavendish Professor at Cambridge and Peierls as head of the school of theoretical physics at Oxford. They were both knighted. They both have strings of honorary degrees. Mott got a Nobel Prize in 1977. They say that Peierls would have got one too, if only his contributions to physics had been concentrated in a narrower field. Neither of them has clambered high up the pyramid of state power, but they have both been active in academic and scientific affairs. They also have one other feature in common: they both gave scientific employment to Klaus Fuchs and worked closely with him for a number of years without the least suspicion that he was not as he seemed.’

A Billion Years a Week

John Ziman, 19 September 1985

A computer is a tool, working the intentions of its designer or user. It is no more malevolent than the village clock whose chimes wake us in the night, or the car whose failed brakes run us down. We invest it with personality because it is an instrument of the mind, rather than of the hand. It extends and mimics the very function that has always seemed to distinguish us biologically from other organisms – the capacity to reason. At times, it almost seems as if, inside the black box, there is one of us. Computers are humanoid, too, in their versatility. Almost any computer can be instructed to do almost any one of the enormous variety of different things that computers in general can do. There has been nothing to equal it since the abolition of slavery.

Seductive Intentions

John Ziman, 2 August 1984

‘Science policy’ is not quite a contradiction in terms but it contains within itself a dialectical opposition between careful planning and the exploitation of opportunity. One might describe it as a strategy for groping around an unfamiliar blacked-out room. On the one hand, the results of research cannot be foreseen: if that were possible, then the research would not be worth doing. The prime characteristic of scientific work is the indeterminacy of its outcome. Every research project is essentially a step into the unknown. On the other hand, research projects have to be planned and executed with meticulous care. There is no human artefact so exquisitely designed as a space probe or particle accelerator. Big science experiments demand the co-ordinated efforts of people who have been trained for years in narrowly-specialised skills, brought together into teams within large, highly-organised institutions. Every research project is an action with a very conscious purpose.

What exactly did he discover?

John Ziman, 3 May 1984

It is less than three decades since Albert Einstein died, yet many different personae have been supposed behind the familiar mild exterior. Nobody would impute any lack of psychic integrity in the man himself. True enough, he was a peculiarly self-contained person whose inner life was always opaque, even to his most intimate companions. But there was no harsh discontinuity or irreconcilable inconsistency in his temperament, and we have no reason to suppose that he was nervously guarding some guilty secret like Newton’s heretical Unitarianism. His private and public activities are amply documented, and are seldom inexplicable to an intelligent and imaginative observer. Yet even in his scientific work, Einstein can be represented as playing several different roles, in several quite different dramas.


John Ziman, 4 August 1983

I first came across the name M. Ya. Azbel in about 1956. He was one of the three authors of a very remarkable paper, published in the Russian Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, showing how the electrical resistance of a very pure and perfect crystal of a metal might be expected to vary with direction in a high magnetic field at a very low temperature. This paper was a decisive breakthrough in the electron theory of metals, which was my own scientific specialty. It was not surprising to see the same name attached to other papers of similar brilliance, or to hear, later, that Azbel had moved from Kharkhov to Moscow. Some of my scientific colleagues who visited Moscow in the Sixties mentioned him as one of the most stimulating members of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he was chairman of a department; he was also a professor at Moscow University. In 1973, I heard he had applied for a visa to go to Israel. The plight of Jewish ‘refuseniks’in the Soviet Union was becoming a serious human rights issue at that time, so it was natural enough for me to join the campaign on behalf of this Russian ‘opposite number’. We sent letters and telegrams to various Soviet dignitaries, and I even spoke to Azbel on the telephone, direct from Bristol to Moscow, when a group of refuseniks were on a fortnight’s hunger strike to draw attention to their situation.

Carnivals of Progress

John Ziman, 17 February 1983

In the London Review of Books, John Maynard Smith said about scientists: ‘however interested they may be in politics or history or philosophy, their first love is science itself.’ If only I could follow this bent, and tell something of Hamilton as a mathematician. As it happens, he also wrote a good deal of poetry, but his poems lack the magic of his equations, which seem more beautiful and moving now than when they were imagined 150 years ago. His abstract and ‘useless reformulation of Newton’s equations of motion was taken up a century later by Heisenberg and Schrödinger and fashioned into the central formalism of quantum theory, where H – ‘Hamilton’s function’ – now stands for the Hamiltonian operator which drives every physical system through time. The theory of quaternions, Hamilton’s four-dimensional generalisation of complex numbers, was the first really abstract algebraic system, but turned out to be too complicated for practical use in theoretical physics – until proved to be equivalent to the spinor calculus that links quantum mechanics with relativity. You see, a complex number is really an ordered couple of real numbers, so that … No, I’m sorry, I will have to write about politics, history and philosophy, after all.


John Ziman, 18 March 1982

‘No one will take me seriously,’ complains the scientific pioneer, exploring far ahead of the pack. We fully sympathise: but it is not easy to ‘take seriously’ a surmise that seems wildly at variance with our comfortable notions of reality. ‘The Earth going round the sun? Fiddlesticks.’ ‘Men descended from Apes? Pshaw!’ ‘Drifting continents? Whatever next?’ How deplorable to scoff, and yet how difficult to pick out the one such idea in a thousand that is not, after all, as wrongheaded as it first seems.

Breeding too fast

John Ziman, 4 February 1982

There was a time when the only experts on matters related to nuclear fission were physicists. During the war, this expertise was extended to a highly selected corps of engineers. Nowadays, we need economists, industrial managers, medical specialists, military strategists and diplomatists to explain what is going on. There was a time when the whole affair was safely confined within the government apparatus of a few super-powers. Nowadays it spreads across the world, not only to Japan, India and China but also to smaller nations such as the Philippines and Israel, and has become a major factor of international commerce and private finance. The fiefdoms of the ‘nuclear barons’ extend from the uranium mines of Western Australia to missile warheads targeted across the North Pole. They influence, and are influenced by, the price of sugar in Brazil and the political status of the Golan Heights. They are prime movers of the world of today.

‘Reallocation of Responsibilities of Research Councils: Royal Society opposes Reform’ was probably the runner-up to ‘Small Earthquake in Peru: Not Many Dead’ in the famous competition for the least sensational newspaper headline. Nevertheless, here we are, a generation into the nuclear era. The scientific bureaucrat can no longer be laughed off as a cross between Professor Branestawm and Dr Strangelove. Exactly how scientific expertise should be employed in the affairs of the nation is a central question of modern politics.

Landau and his School

John Ziman, 18 December 1980

Name the greatest Russian physicist of this century. The public vote would go for Andrei Sakharov – but for moral stature rather than for contributions to knowledge. A generation ago, Pyotr Kapitza would have been supported by many, in the mistaken belief that he was the master mind behind the Russian Bomb. Among physicists, however, Ley Davidovitch Landau would stand preeminent. He ought, by rights, to be still with us, for he was born in 1908: but a ghastly car accident in 1962 destroyed his intellectual powers and in 1968 he died.

No scientist worth his research grant really wants to conceal his discoveries from the world at large. Many non-scientists are curious to know something of the latest scientific discoveries. There would seem to be quite enough moral earnestness and prospects of profit to get this gap bridged. Alas, the chasm is wide and deep, especially where it guards the mysterious heights of modern physics. As some recent television programmes have demonstrated, even a skilful web of visual aids and journalistic conceits may not succeed in establishing a connection between specialist and general knowledge of atoms, particles, forces and fields.

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