Book review, Clifford A. Pickover, The Physics Book : From the Big Bang to the Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics


Clifford A. Pickover,
The Physics Book :
From the Big Bang to the Quantum Resurrection,
250 Milestones in the History of Physics
Sterling Publishing Co.
Hardcover, 526 pages, 2011
ISBN 978-1-4027-7861-2

The Physics Book is a pleasure-reading book (assuming that science to you is a pleasure), and not a textbook, despite the impression that the title may have produced.

Its format is 250 one-page articles, on the left face, each followed by an exquisite color illustration, a photograph or a work of art, on the right face. The articles are not arranged by subject, but in chronological order by year of discovery, e.g.:

1841 Fiber Optics
1842 Doppler Effect
1843 Conservation of Energy
1845 Kirchhoff's current Laws
1846 Discovery of Neptune
1850 Second Law of Themrodynamics
1850 Ice Slipperiness
1854 Foucault's Pendulum

...... and so on, through the series of 250 breakthroughs in human understanding.

The author (Ph.D. from Yale in 1982) is accomplished in mathematics and science, and even in the field of science fiction. He also wrote quite a few other books both before and after this one.

Dated 212 B.C., you may have heard the tale, some say aprocryphal, of the Greek army following the advice of inventor Archimedes, using their polished shields to focus the sunlight onto the sails of the invading Roman fleet, and causing the ships of the invaders to go up in flames. Dr. Pickover descibes a more recent experiment in which seventy mirrors were used to focus the solar rays to a point and succeeded in causing a wooden boat to combust. [page 50]

It is a common misconception that people prior to the most recent centuries believed that the earth was flat. In 240 B.C. the inventive Greek named Eratosthenes not only demonstrated the sphericality of the earth, but even used such simple implements as the shadows cast by sticks to calculate the circumfenrence of earth, achieving that with decent precision. [46]

Progress did not stop during the Dark Ages, when science was the work of the devil, but we can see the increments of learning occur at a hastened pace once the calendar reaches the 1600s and the 1700s. Achieving the telescope in 1608, the barometer in 1643, Newton's prism experiments in 1672 and three laws of motion and law of universal gravitation in 1687, the progress accelerated much more quickly once the devil and the witch have been expelled, and humanity has achieved the age of enlightenment.

In addition to learning about the vast space "out there", achieved through Kepler laws of the solar system, and Cassini's measurments of the solar system, people also learn about the world of the very small, such as Dalton's proposal that matter is made of atoms which are always combined in particular proportions.

In addtion to great ideas, the author also recognizes practical inventions, from the stethoscope to dynamite. Advancing our use of electricity, The first battery was invented just 48 years after Benjamin Franklin's kite experiments.

Proably within the memory of the reader, people were surprised by dark energy, amazed by the Large Hadron Collider, and perhaps more entertained than factually informed by a theory about using wormholes to travel through time.

The book contains very little mathematics, but one place where it requires some is in the description of the Lorentz transformation, formulated in 1904. [290] This is the description of the warping of space and time which occurs when the motion of a body approaches the speed of light -- the description swept into Einstein's 1905 achievement known as the special theory of relativity. [292]

People dream of an age of free energy which is promised if we attain mastery over nuclear fusion. Despite several false alarms, people continue to dream. The Tokamak devices, first set up by Russians in 1956, and more recent versions constructed in other countries, make small steps along that path. [422]

If you like the more philosophical topics, you will enjoy the articles about Schrodinger's cat, the Fermi paradox, and the Dyson sphere. I prefer the more tangible ideas -- the inventions that I can make do useful things for me.

Those with an engineering background will know what I mean by the tradeoff. When developing a product, we always make a tradeoff in the choice of a method or a component. Each plan and each part has its advantages and its disadvantages, and we have to lose something to gain something. Well, almost always. The one exception was the transistor, achieved by the workers at Bell Labs in 1947. [392] Compared to the earlier vacuum tube, no tradeoff was necessary. The transistor was smaller, faster, consumed less power, more reliable, less susceptible to electrical noise, and cheaper to manufacture and buy. That's not supposed to happen.

Perhaps this article is for comic relief. The toy bird that continuously bobs its head up and down, producing the illusion of drinking water, was invented by Miles V. Sullivan at Bell Labs in 1945. [386] Radio-TV broadcaster Alan Colmes once told me that this contraption was invented by the Green Acres actor Eddie Albert, and perhaps he was only joking with me, but now I have been set straight.

The two-page four-column index is a compact organizing aid, and you may consider it essential because of the books's chronological rather than conceptual structure.

Apart from educational value to the purchaser, the book is also of the quality to make it a great gift, if you love a person who loves science.

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