Energy, the Subtle Concept: The discovery of Feynman's blocks from Leibniz to Einstein

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Energy is at the heart of physics and of huge importance to society and yet no book exists specifically to explain this elusive concept, and in simple, largely non-mathematical, terms. In tracking the history of energy and its discovery, this book explains the intellectual revolutions required to comprehend energy. Foundational texts by Descartes, Leibniz. Bernoulli. d'Alembert, Lagrange, Hamilton. Boltzmann, Clausius, Carnot, and others are made accessible, and the engines of Watt and Joule are examined.

The book covers some seldom-answered questions, including:

Why just kinetic and potential energies - is one more fundamental than the other?

What are heat, Temperature and action?

What is the Hamiltonian?

What have engines to do with physics?

Why was the steam engine discovered in just one place?

Why S=klogW works and why temperature is IT.

Which is better, the force- or the energy-picture?

The emergence of energy is shown to be, quite literally, a tale of 'smoke and mirrors', It is enlivened by biographical anecdotes and a sprinkling of cultural and philosophical asides.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The work is full of surprises, and some illuminating apercus. It makes one think about the subject in a new way - the connections made with dynamics, Hamilton and Lagrange are germane, and one never sees these in books on thermodynamics." --Sir Aaron Klug, Nobel laureate, President of the Royal Society 1995-2000

"I am pleased to heartily recommend Coopersmith's readable, enjoyable, and largely nonmathematical yet profound account of the development of an important physical concept - energy. With a vein of humor running throughout, it deals with an enormous compass of important topics seldom found elsewhere at this level. It should be of great interest and utility to students, both undergraduate and graduate, historians of science, and anyone interested in the concepts of energy and their evolution through time." --George B. Kauffman, Chemical & Engineering News

"In clear and engaging prose, Coopersmith shows how the modern understanding of energy was formulated, moving from the first documented discussions of simple machines and perpetual motion in ancient Greece, to the work of Gottfried Leibniz and other 17th-century thinkers, to Einstein's theory of relativity and beyond... Energy, the Subtle Concept is a fascinating read, both physicists and nonphysicists who want to learn more about the history of energy will enjoy it." --Lisa Crystal, Physics Today

"Coopersmith has been on a commendable personal journey to understand energy." --Colin Axon, Energy Group Newsletter

"The more I read this book, the more difficult it was to put it down ... [It] has a fascinating story to tell about the development of our understanding of energy as a physical quantity..." --Matt Chorley, Popular Science

"beautifully-written text ... Throughout, the book is sprinkled with anecdotes and, most importantly, insightful commentary, with a plethora of figures that assist the reader in digesting the concepts detailed." --Jay Wadhawan, University of Hull

"The conservation of energy is arguably the most important law in physics. But what exactly is being conserved? Are some forms of energy more fundamental than others? You will have to read the book to find out. Coopersmith sets out to answer such questions and to explain the concept of energy through the history of its discovery. This is neither a straightforward narrative nor one for the faint-hearted. Those not put off by the odd bit of mathematics, will be well-rewarded by dipping into this book." --Manjit Kumar, New Scientist

"This is a work of physics in substance and history in form. Energy, the Subtle Concept is as much concerned with physicists as with physics. Its scientific interest is matched by human interest. Jennifer Coopersmith deftly brings to life the people who made the science throughout its history." --Charles C. Gillispie, Professor of History of Science Emeritus, Princeton University

"This book makes me proud to be a physicist, for two reasons. First it is a tale of the giants of the past who contributed to our present understanding of energy, people whose astonishing intuition took them from gossamer clues to the understanding we have today of one of the most basic explanatory concepts in physics. We've had some pretty good players in our team. More than this - and this is the second reason - this is a story as much about invention as discovery ... I am sure all physicists would enjoy this book and indeed learn from it." --Australian Physics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199546503
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/13/2010
  • Pages: 392
  • Sales rank: 996,678
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jennifer Coopersmith took her PhD in nuclear physics from the University of London, and was later a research fellow at TRIUMF, University of British Columbia. She was for many years an associate lecturer for the Open University (London and Oxford) honing her skills at answering those "damn-fool profound and difficult questions" that students ask. She currently does similar work on astrophysics courses for Swinburne University in Melbourne.

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Table of Contents



List of Illustrations

1 Introduction: Feynman's Blocks 1

2 Perpetual Motion 5

3 Vis viva, the First √°Block' of Energy 14

4 Heat in the Seventeenth Century 46

5 Heat in the Eighteenth Century 63

6 The Discovery of Latent and Specific Heats 78

7 A Hundred and One Years of Mechanics: Newton to Lagrange 91

8 A Tale of Two Countries: the Rise of Steam Engine and the Caloric Theory of Heat 148

9 Rumford, Davy, and Young 168

10 Naked Heat: the Gas Laws and the Specific Heats of Gases 178

11 Two Contrasting Characters: Fourier and Herapath 201

12 Sadi Carnot 208

13 Hamilton and Green 230

14 The Mechanical Equivalent of Heat 246

15 Faraday and Helmholtz 264

16 The Laws of Thermodynamics: Thomson and Clausius 284

17 A Forward Look 304

18 Impossible Things, Difficult Things 324

19 Conclusions 350

Appendix I Timeline 361

Appendix II Questions 367

Bibliography 370

Notes and References 371

Index 395

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