Upstream struggle to remove blinkers

Against The Tide
January 12, 2001

Les Woods's no-nonsense approach to science and the world in general has been a wonderfully refreshing influence on many lives, not least my own. Frankness is the keynote of this personal and scientific autobiography, which is constrained only by the mores of contemporary publishability. It is ironic that the Institute of Physics has been brave enough to take up his manuscript when it is part of the physics establishment that has suffered the most bruising of the many encounters that Woods has had with "authority".

The book's scientific crescendo is entitled "The Tokamak fiasco". Even in the 1970s, Woods had an order-of-magnitude calculation of the instability that is inevitable when a toroidal magnetic field is being used to confine a doughnut of hot, ionised gas called a plasma. This showed that it was only possible for the configuration to be stable by moving to a totally unrealistic parameter regime for time and temperature. His ab initio estimate, which did not build on conventional theories of plasma physics, was a dire warning for those trying to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. Yet decades later it was still unheeded by a community not otherwise known for scientific inadequacy.

How could scientists behave in such a blinkered way? Could such a situation have arisen had not enormous sums of money and national prestige been involved? More recent large-scale fiascos such as BSE pose the same questions, so studying what went wrong with the Tokamak may give valuable pointers for big science in future.

Chief scientific advisers and the like will not only learn a lot about collective scientific irrationality, they will also be entertained by the author's encounters with other, less awe-inspiring establishments. The Royal New Zealand Air Force came closer to killing Pilot Officer Woods than the Japanese by relegating him to hilariously hazardous duties. It was with Oxford University that he came up against an organisation whose anarchy he could exploit with spectacular success: from pilot officer to professor in 20 years is no mean feat.

Colourful details of his private life are intertwined with vivid accounts of his disagreements with the gurus of so-called "rational mechanics", whom he likens to logical positivists. For the mathematical reader, this will be the best part of the book. How closely should a mathematical model be tied to experiment? Should as much applied mathematics as possible comprise logical deduction from minimal observations, or even just axioms? Woods makes the convincing case that the risk of reaching conclusions at variance with physical laws that have stood the test of time is so great that comparison with the real world should permeate all the steps of applied mathematics.

But, at the end of the day, who can assert whether axiomatics or pragmatics is the better navigational aid for any individual who wishes to use mathematics as a rudder in the sea of scientific turbulence? This has been the fundamental intellectual dilemma for Woods, and in this book he expounds it with sincerity and sensitivity.

John Ockendon is lecturer, centre for industrial and applied mathematics, University of Oxford.

Against The Tide

Author - Leslie C. Woods
ISBN - 0 7503 0690 4
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing
Price - £26.00
Pages - 319

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