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.

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