The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics

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Challenging the image of physics as dry and dusty, The Beautiful Invisible shows that this highly abstract science is in fact teeming with beautiful concepts, and the task of imagining them demands profound creativity, just as creative as the work of poets or magical realist novelists such as Borges and Musil. "A good scientific theory is like a symbolic tale, an allegory of reality," writes Giovanni Vignale, as he uncovers the unexpected links between theoretical physics and artistic creativity. In engaging and at times poetic prose, and with ample quotations from many of the writers he admires, Vignale presents his own unorthodox accounts of fundamental theoretical concepts such as Newtonian mechanics, superconductivity, and Einstein's theory of relativity, illuminating their profound implications. Throughout, the author treats readers to glimpses of physics as "exercised in the still night, when only the moon rages." Indeed, as we delve behind now-familiar concepts such as "electron spin" and "black hole," the world that we take for granted melts away, leaving a glimpse of something much stranger.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Vignale (Quantum Theory of the Electron Liquid) a Fellow of the American Physical Society and professor of theoretical physicist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, challenges the popular notion in our culture that "theory is the exact opposite" in this fascinating examination of the nature of reality. In his view, theories are built on abstractions which give us ways of "thinking more deeply about reality." Reviewing the past 2,000 years of scientific discovery, he illustrates that older, empirical theories, based on "direct observation of nature," may seem more realistic than theoretical physics (where "it is possible to make discoveries...using only pen and paper"), but only because "they are based on more familiar concepts." In reality, concepts we now take for granted, like gravity and electromagnetic waves, were at first mystifying; and Copernicus' heliocentric hypothesis was at variance with ordinary observation. Each challenges common sense notions of objective reality. Vignale believes that this question lies behind the paradox of Zeno's arrow, when the Greek philosopher asked, "how do we know that the arrow is moving?" Its perceived motion, as in Muybridge's famous galloping horse, is frozen at every instant in time. Vignale covers everything from rainbows to Quantum mechanics in a rewarding read for science buffs. A good grasp of scientific principles is needed. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199574841
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/15/2011
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,559,269
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Giovanni Vignale is Curator's Professor of Physics at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

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Table of Contents

1. The way of the abstract
2. Limits
3. Laws are made to be broken
4. Of first and last things
5. Representations
6. The invisible light
7. The double helix
8. Quantum mechanics: the triumph of the abstract
9. Tales of quantum reality
10. The spinning electron and other metaphors
11. Margarita

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