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The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics

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  • Posted October 13, 2011

    The Physics Book

    Although Clifford Pickover is the author of over forty books, it has been two years since we have seen him produce a new one. It has been worth the wait. "The Physics Book" is a perfect companion to his work of 2009, "The Math Book." Both books present us with 250 milestones in their fields. However, their temporal scopes differ. While "The Math Book" covers a period from 150 million BC to 2007, seemingly a good chunk of time, "The Physics Book" outdoes it by orders of magnitude in both the past and the future. "The Physics Book" starts with the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, and as if that is not enough, goes past 100 trillion years into the future to finish with Quantum Resurrection. For each milestone, there is a page of explanation facing a full-page image, which illustrates the milestone. The images include photos, works or art, and even U.S. patents. My favorite images are the close-up photo of a hand holding a boomerang, a bowling ball plummeting from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and a supernova explosion. One charm of the book is that the images are not always the expected ones. For example, Pickover's idiosyncratic world view shines through in his use of a muskrat standing in for Brownian Motion. According to the book jacket, the author's inventiveness has resulted in over seventy U.S. patents. This inventiveness is apparent in the choice of images. Going cover-to cover, I see several themes emerge. The first is the physics of the very large: cosmology and astronomy. The second is that of the very small: particles, waves, and quantum mechanics. These two themes run from the very beginning to the very end. They are punctuated by the discoveries of the reality that surrounds us in the classical areas of optics, fluids, thermodynamics, and mechanics. There are the great discoveries of Newton, Einstein, and Hawking. Of course, we will always have Maxwell's Equations. Did the author omit anything? As a physicist, I can be very picky about my own field. I would like to have seen an entry about the Principle of Least Action and Feynman's application of that principle to quantum mechanics. Perhaps that will find its way into another Pickover book. No problem, it is covered in an edition of "The Physics Book" in a parallel world. I believe that the great achievement of "The Physics Book" is to make the subject of physics accessible to those who are not physicists. It does this through its use of images and one-page explanations. Equations are occasionally included, but only for their esthetic value. The book actually makes physics seem like fun, something that I had a hard time doing for my students. Some of the really fun topics include the curve ball, silly putty, the drinking bird, neon signs, and lava lamps. For those who wish deeper insight, I think that Pickover's "From Archimedes to Hawking," which explores the great laws of physics, is a good place to go next.

    21 out of 22 people found this review helpful.

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