Thursday, December 13, 2012

Allan Franklin's oeuvre

Before I move on to the details of Stan's academic career, I realize that I overlooked mentioning the rest of my literature search for information about Stan's work at Brookhaven.

First of all, Franklin's 2008 paper that we have discussed is far from his first treatment of the subject. (That's Franklin at left.) His 1990 book Experiment, Right or Wrong covers the Rustad-Ruby experiment in detail. His 1998 encyclopedia essay on Experiment in Physics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) includes Rustad-Ruby as one case study, and the article's Appendix 8 is his best summary of the matter in a publicly assessable location. I urge you to read that one. Then, as we have seen, he revisits the entire matter in his 2008 "Inevitability" paper, this time in the context of the academic debate between scientific social constructionists and rationalists.

Nor is Franklin the only historian or memoirist to cite the significance of the Rustad-Ruby episode. Many of the scientists who played a role in the wider story of beta decay and development of the weak nuclear force had opportunities to reflect on the events in later years; or  were the subject of historical articles.

The first ones I discovered were two 2009 tributes to George Sudarshan, covering the questions raised about Rustad-Ruby by one of the key theorists involved in proposing the V-A theory. Another of the theorists, Richard Feynman, appears to reference it in his popular book "Surely You are Joking, Mr. Feynman" (more on that later). T.D. Lee .... Maurice Goldhaber, the head of the physics group at Brookhaven National Lab and later its lab director, talks about it in a retrospective 2002 talk on the roots of neutrino research.

And there is more. I don't have all the references handy. But the point is that the Rustad-Ruby experiment, so little known about in our family, is very widely known and discussed in the literature of physics history. This is due in part to the dogged efforts of one historian who has made it one of the touchstones of his academic narrative, but also to science's natural process of documenting its history both in the moment and in retrospect.

So the reality is that, despite the successes of his later work in the Mössbauer effect and related subjects, Stan Ruby will be most remembered for an experiment that went wrong. We will want to understand just exactly what the error was, and how and why it came to pass.

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