Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science

Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science

by Bill Green
     
 

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A selection of the Scientific American book club

Recommended by MSNBC, Los Angeles Times,&American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SB&F magazine

“This wonderful scientific memoir captures the romance and beauty of research in precise poetic prose that is as gorgeous and evocative as anything

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Overview

A selection of the Scientific American book club

Recommended by MSNBC, Los Angeles Times,&American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SB&F magazine

“This wonderful scientific memoir captures the romance and beauty of research in precise poetic prose that is as gorgeous and evocative as anything written by Rilke, painted by Seurat, or played by Casals.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc and The Sparrow

“A radiant love letter to science from a scientist with a poet’s soul . . . Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas.” —Kirkus Reviews

In Boltzmann’s Tomb, Bill Green interweaves the story of his own lifelong evolution as a scientist, and his work in the Antarctic, with a travelogue that is a personal and universal history of science. Like Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder—this book serves as a marvelous introduction to the great figures of science. Along with lyrical meditations on the tragic life of Galileo, the wildly eccentric Tycho Brahe, and the visionary Sir Isaac Newton, Green’s ruminations return throughout to the lesser-known figure of Ludwig Boltzmann. Using Boltzmann’s theories of randomness and entropy as a larger metaphor for the unpredictable paths that our lives take, Green shows us that science, like art, is a lived adventure.

Bill Green is a geochemist and professor emeritus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is also the author of Water, Ice&Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes which received the American Museum of Natural History’s John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and was excerpted in The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Readers who prefer skimming a topic to immersion should enjoy Green's (Water, Ice & Stone) slim and thoughtful journeys to key places in the history of science. Green, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Miami University in Ohio, starts with Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the brilliant but depressed scientist whose certainty about the then-unpopular theory of "atomism" (the idea that all matter was made of smaller bits) led to his suicide in 1906. For Green, Boltzmann reveals "what it meant to be a scientist, what it meant to be life-and-death passionate about an idea." Copernicus's defiance of papal authority to insist that the Earth orbited the Sun, followed by the precision work of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo's astronomical observations, all reveal that, for scientists, data trumped a priori belief. Moving from astronomy to chemistry, Green reviews Lavoisier's painstaking work with gases and how Dmitri Mendeleev found a way to order the elements. Green's route meanders, but his writing is always graceful, often lyrical. This is science by way of Camus (whom Green enjoys citing), a book "about time and chance and dreams we bring with us and which shape who we are and what we become." Photos. (June)
Kirkus Reviews

A radiant love letter to science from a scientist with a poet's soul.

Geophysicist Green (Interdisciplinary Studies/Miami Univ.;Water, Ice and Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes, 2008, etc.) has written a book that defies simple categorization—part memoir of a life in science, part history of science since Copernicus, part essay on the relationship of place to intellectual discovery. The title refers to a red herring of a mystery Green sets up but doesn't solve: Why did the brilliant, visionary Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann kill himself while on a seaside vacation on the Adriatic? Boltzmann, who devised the formula for entropy, is a recurring character, a sort of angel of death, but the main character is Green, who was inspired to write this book by a question his daughter posed him while they were collecting samples from the Dry Lakes of Antarctica: "Why did you decide to work down here, Dad?" He gave her the short answer but was dissatisfied, stirred to dig deeper, taking as the real question,why science? Green retraces his steps from a boyhood in 1950s Pittsburgh spent playing baseball and experimenting with model rockets. Almost despite himself, he discovered a talent and fascination for chemistry at his Catholic high school, and he was encouraged by the nuns to consider a career in the field. He eventually moved from chemistry to geophysics and, ultimately, to his beloved McMurdo Base in Antarctica. As he revisits the cities where his career took him, he brings to life what it is about the scientific worldview that riveted him to his eccentric path. Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas.

The casual reader will derive pleasure not only from the science Green teaches but from the eloquence he employs to teach it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781934137529
Publisher:
Bellevue Literary Press
Publication date:
06/14/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
288
File size:
2 MB

Meet the Author

Bill Green is a geochemist and professor emeritus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He first went to Antarctica in 1968 and began doing his own research there in 1980. To date he has been there nine times and has published many articles on biogeochemical processes in the pristine lakes and meltwater streams of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In addition to Boltzmann’s Tomb, he is also the author of Water, Ice&Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes, which received the American Museum of Natural History’s John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and was excerpted in The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.

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