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For many of us, physics, like math, has always been a thing of mystery and complexity. In First You Build a Cloud, K. C. Cole provides cogent explanations through animated prose, metaphors, and anecdotes, allowing us to comprehend the nuances of physics-gravity and light, color and shape, quarks and quasars, particles and stars, force and strength. We also come to see how the physical world is so deeply intertwined with the ways in which we think about culture, poetry, and philosophy. Cole, one of our preeminent ...
For many of us, physics, like math, has always been a thing of mystery and complexity. In First You Build a Cloud, K. C. Cole provides cogent explanations through animated prose, metaphors, and anecdotes, allowing us to comprehend the nuances of physics-gravity and light, color and shape, quarks and quasars, particles and stars, force and strength. We also come to see how the physical world is so deeply intertwined with the ways in which we think about culture, poetry, and philosophy. Cole, one of our preeminent science writers, serves as a guide into the world of such legendary scientific minds as Richard Feynman, Victor Weisskopf, brothers Frank Oppenheimer and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Philip Morrison, Vera Kistiakowsky, and Stephen Jay Gould.
I realize now that this is precisely what I've become: an official noticer. I get paid to be the ultimate voyeur. I peer over scientists' shoulders as they build machines of almost unfathomable proportions that re-create -- albeit on a small scale -- the creation of the universe. I eavesdrop as they struggle to find the unifying principles of nature in ten-dimensional space. I hang out in laboratories and lecture halls where scientists try to decode the messages written on the walls of the universe or streaming from the deep throats of black holes.
I certainly didn't start out as someone who was interested in science. I wanted to understand the way the world works. And I thought the way to do that was to study the social sciences: psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science. Like most people with an interest in human affairs, I never gave much of a thought to math or physics -- fields that seemed to have little to do with the kinds of things that interested me.
One of the reasons, of course, was that most of the science I learned in school was crammed into rigid boxes labeled geometry, biology, physics -- as if they have nothing to do with each other, much less with human experience. It was science stripped of all the wonderful ambiguity that pervades the real practice of science: the wrong answers; the right answers to the wrong questions. Most of all, it didn't reflect the role -- the critical role -- that our understanding of the physical universe plays in shaping our emotional and philosophical one.
I first started making these connections in a series of "Hers" columns for The New York Times. These grew into my first science book: First You Build a Cloud: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life. It explores what hard science has to say about quasi-philosophical questions such as the nature of right and wrong, cause and effect, aesthetics, disorder, and the use and abuse of metaphor.
The next book, similarly, grew mostly from articles I had written for The Los Angeles Times that linked mathematics with everything from the O. J. Simpson trial to fairness in divorce settlements. It is called The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, and it's a celebration of mathematics as a singular set of rules for seeing the truth.
The subsequent book is perhaps less obviously philosophical. Yet The Hole in the Universe: How Scientists Peered Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything (you can see I have a fondness for long subtitles) also links physics, mathematics and perception in an exploration of the invisible forces that shape everything. We only call them "nothings" because we aren't aware of their existence. But they hold up the universe just the same. Like physics and philosophy, something and nothing are two sides of the same coin.
--K. C. Cole