A Cultural History of Physics

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While the physical sciences are a continuously evolving source of technology and of understanding about our world, they have become so specialized and rely on so much prerequisite knowledge that for many people today the divide between the sciences and the humanities seems even greater than it was when C. P. Snow delivered his famous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures."

In A Cultural History of Physics, Hungarian scientist and educator Károly Simonyi succeeds in bridging this chasm by describing the experimental methods and theoretical interpretations that created scientific knowledge, from ancient times to the present day, within the cultural environment in which it was formed. Unlike any other work of its kind, Simonyi’s seminal opus explores the interplay of science and the humanities to convey the wonder and excitement of scientific development throughout the ages.

These pages contain an abundance of excerpts from original resources, a wide array of clear and straightforward explanations, and an astonishing wealth of insight, revealing the historical progress of science and inviting readers into a dialogue with the great scientific minds that shaped our current understanding of physics.

Beautifully illustrated, accurate in its scientific content and broad in its historical and cultural perspective, this book will be a valuable reference for scholars and an inspiration to aspiring scientists and humanists who believe that science is an integral part of our culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The book offers a total history of a discipline … Simonyi … largely succeeds in fostering the public understanding of a science in its broad historical context. … In the middle of the book the reader is treated with a sumptuous set of color plates attempting to give an overview of developments in physics interacting with the cultures of the successive periods. … its richly illustrated chapters and sections can be enjoyed independently, absorbed and savored slowly, by little doses of the magnificent history of our discipline.
—Amand A. Lucas, Il Nuovo Saggiatore (bulletin of the Italian Physical Society)

Simonyi bridges the gap between science and the humanities by presenting the history of physics in the context of the personalities and the culture in which the discoveries were made. The volume is lavishly illustrated with everything from pictures and drawings to facsimiles of pages from seminal research papers. … This is an extremely valuable reference for history of science and philosophy library collections. Highly recommended.
—C.G. Wood, CHOICE, July 2012

… lavishly illustrated, beautifully executed, with a tremendous number of quotations and unabashed use of equations. The author — who unquestionably has an uncommon talent for illustrating and organizing his ideas — made a tremendous effort to convey his extensive knowledge to potential readers. … My difficulty is of course in being able to adequately relate the worth of the treasure that the book is in a short review. I doubt that even a long review could give the book its due. … There is so much to be found in this book that make using it at all levels, from elementary school to university, interesting, indeed exciting. … I am convinced that those who read the book will enjoy the experience and end up with a cherished possession.
—Alex Bogomolny, MAA Reviews, June 2012

A Cultural History of Physics takes the reader on an immensely detailed and thoughtful tour. A Cultural History of Physics meticulously explains the specifics of its many examples, and it’s packed cover to cover with charts, graphs, and diagrams illustrating key physics discoveries and how they revolutionized the world. A working knowledge of algebra or basic calculus will aid the reader in fully understanding specific examples, but the broader picture of human history transformed by science is thoroughly accessible to lay readers. Highly recommended, especially for college and public library science shelves.
Library Bookwatch, April 2012

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568813295
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 3/1/2012
  • Pages: 636
  • Sales rank: 382,602
  • Product dimensions: 10.36 (w) x 11.02 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Károly Simonyi (1916–2001)
Károly Simonyi was born the seventh of ten children in a small village in Hungary. His talent for learning was apparent early on, and a prominent relative brought him to Budapest and sponsored his education. Simonyi went on to earn degrees in engineering and law.
After the tumultuous years of World War II, Simonyi returned to research, ultimately becoming a professor at the Budapest Technical University, where he was known as an outstanding teacher. He organized the Department of Theoretical Electrical Engineering, taught generations of electrical engineers, and published lectures and textbooks that have been translated into many languages.
Despite his accomplishments, the political climate of 1960s Hungary was not a favorable one for Simonyi, and his work at the university was increasingly curtailed until he ultimately lost his teaching position altogether. But even this could not keep Simonyi from his work. Though his profession was science, he had always maintained an interest in the humanities, and in his new circumstances he undertook a great project: to tell the story of the history of physics and the cultural, philosophical, and societal movements that had shaped and been shaped by its development. The book that grew out of this project, published first in Hungarian, then in German, and now in English, has been highly successful and widely read.

Charles Simonyi
Creation of the English edition of A Cultural History of Physics has been directed by Károly’s son Charles. A successful entrepreneur, Charles emigrated to the United States as a teenager and went on to become a software engineer at Xerox and at Microsoft, where he oversaw the development of what would become some of Microsoft’s most profitable products: Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Charles is a distinguished philanthropist, as well as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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Table of Contents

The History of Physics and Its Relevance to Our Lives Today
Assessment and Division into Epochs
Elements of the Philosophy of Science
The Dynamism of History

The Classical Heritage
The Greek Inheritance
The Harmonious, Beautiful Order
Matter and Motion: The Aristotelian Synthesis
The Greatest Achievements of the Ancient Sciences
The Twilight of Hellenism

The Stewards of the Heritage
The Thousand-Year Balance Sheet
The Salvage of Ancient Knowledge
The Indian and Arab Worlds
The West Awakens
Medieval Natural Philosophy
The Renaissance and Physics

Demolition and the Construction of a New Foundation
The World in 1600
Numerology and Reality
Galileo and Those Who Stood in His Shadow
The New Philosophy: Doubt Becomes Method
Light, Vacuum, and Matter through the Middle of the Seventeenth Century
After Descartes and before Newton: Huygens
Newton and the Principia: The Newtonian Worldview

The Completion of Classical Physics
Starting Capital for the Eighteenth Century
Worthy Successors: d’Alembert, Euler, and Lagrange
The Century of Light
From Effluvium to the Electromagnetic Field
Heat and Energy
The Structure of Matter and Electricity: The Classical Atom

The Physics of the Twentieth Century
"Clouds on the Horizon of Nineteenth-Century Physics"
The Theory of Relativity
Quantum Theory
Nuclear Structure, Nuclear Energy
Law and Symmetry
Mankind and the Universe

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