August 22, 2008

Summer physics reading

I seem to have finished a bunch of popular physics / history of physics-type books in the last few months, so I thought I'd do a combined review of all of them. Especially since I really don't have too much to say about most of the individual titles. Except for the Pickover, I'd say that they're all slam-dunk acquisitions for any academic library that collects at all in popular or historical physics material.

Smoot, George and Keay Davidson. Wrinkles in time: Witness to the birth of the universe. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007. 331pp.

George Smoot won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 with John Mather "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." This book, originally published in 1994 and now republished to take advantage of Smoot's notoriety, tells the story of he and his teams efforts to discover that cosmic background radiation.

A very engaging book overall, it starts with a fairly extensive history of cosmology that covers several chapters. This is probably the weakest part of the book and it's a shame that many may have given up on the book during these fairly dry chapters. What's really engaging about the book and what makes it really worth reading is Smoot's story about the trials and tribulations of the various experiments his team devised and implemented. These included using spy planes and high altitude balloons and culminated in a trip to the Antarctic for one final experiment. All of those are great stories -- I thought the sections in Antarctica to be the best in the book and among the best descriptions of working science that I've ever read. They really should have been more foregrounded in the book. Overall, a great book.

Batterson, Steve. Pursuit of genius: Flexner, Einstein and the early faculty at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Wellesley: AK Peters, 2006. 301pp.

Another really fine book with a historical theme, this one strongly related to physics as well as math and other fields. This is a history of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, the place where Einstein worked when he moved to the US. In mostly concentrates on the early years of the institute until the 1960s then does a quick summer of more recent decades.

The early chapters are the story of Abraham Flexner, the founder of the Institute, and his inspirations and early efforts to get funding and get his dream up and running. This is easily the best part of the book, engaging and fascinating. It also functions as an intellectual history of the US in the early part of the 20th century. It also touches on the chicken-and-egg problem of getting the first few scholars to commit to the Institute.

Later chapters are devoted to the political wranglings of running an institute filled with scientific prima donnas as well as securing funding from governments and donors. These bits are considerably less compelling.

Overall, though, this is a fine book, one that I enjoyed quite a bit.

Pickover, Clifford A. Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of science and the great minds behind them. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 514pp.

Did this book make me smarter? Did I retain any of the massive amount of physics and chemistry I read about?

First of all, the idea behind Clifford Pickover's new book is to take a bunch of "laws of science & nature" that have been named after their most well known proponent (not necessarily the person who discovered the law) and explain them in a way suitable for a popular audience. Along with the explanation he also provides quite a bit of historical and biographical background on the law. The explanations are, on the whole, a little too detailed and technical for my liking however I'm probably not the ideal audience. Some of the bio & historical detail is pretty good, and some is pretty dry. However, I did read the book cover-to-cover and it is probably better to dip into rather than attempt comprehensiveness. One thing I would like to mention is that each law's section has a good bibliography of sources; my only complaint is that Pickover seemed to mostly consult books from his undergrad days -- ie. the reading lists tended on the older side. Another nice thing is that each section had two series of quotes, one directly about the law in question and the other with more general, and more provocative, quotes of a philosophical nature about what science and laws of science really are.

Which leads me to my biggest complaint, and the point which causes me to hesitate to recommend this book to libraries. The religious agenda. So much of the book seems to really be about reconciling the scientific viewpoint with religious and "spiritual" feelings. Nothing is more consistently highlighted in the biographical sections than how religious that particular scientist was. Now I have nothing is particular against attempts to reconcile science and religion (as pointless as think those attempts may be), but to have such an agenda, so clearly and consistently explicated in the text, without making it very clear in the title and descriptions of the book seems to me to be a bit dishonest. For that, I'm not sure if the publishers or Pickover are more at fault but I can only judge by the book that I have in my hands. Buyer beware.

Before I forget: did this book make me smarter? Well, maybe a little. Certainly, I have very little recollection of many of the details of the various laws. On the other hand, I do have much more of a sense and appreciation for the breadth and variety of those laws.

Luminet, Jean-Pierre. The wraparound universe. Wellesley: AK Peters, 2008. 313pp.

Did this book make me smarter? I think so, maybe a little. I've been reading so many popular physics books lately, that some of it might be sinking in.

This one is a bit different from the others in that it tries to make a case for the author's theories on the shape of the universe. The first part of the book is a detailed explication of Luminet's theories with the second part mostly being the background and supplementary information that goes with the first part. The epilogue is basically Luminet's story of how he got his somewhat controversial ideas published.

Not being a physicist, I leave it to you to explore the content of Luminet's ideas. The book is often quite advanced, perhaps a little beyond my cosmology comfort zone. That said, I think I got 50-75% of the book, which isn't bad. You do need to exercise a little attention and concentration and especially to take it in small doses. This book really stretches notions of "popular" science.

In any case, Luminet's lively prose and relaxed style survive Erik Novak's fine translation. I would heartily recommend this to academic libraries but public and school libraries might find it too advanced for most of thier patrons. Go with the Smoot book instead, it's really the best and most entertaining of the bunch as well as being the most appropriate for a mass audience

(The Batterson, Luminet and Pickover books were all provided by the publisher. The Smoot book was a Father's Day gift from my sons.)


Anonymous said...

I read with interest the reviews you posted. A question: are these readings useful for your library job? I mean: I am librarian in a small documentation centre regarding psycho-social aspects of blindness, and sometimes find difficulties in answering the questions of patrons due to my lack of knowledge in the field. Sometimes difficulties arise also in subject indexing. But I am a librarian and not a professional in the field. What is - if any - the right balance between the knowledge we have as librarians and the knowledge of the specialized field in which we operate?
Any opinions about that?
Thanks very much and sorry for my bad english.
Francesco, Rome (Italy)

John Dupuis said...

Hi Francecso,

Thanks for the comment. And don't worry about your English -- it's far better than my non-existent Italian!

Your question is a very good one, one that doesn't have an easy answer.

Personally, I already have a strong interest in science, so it's easy for me to read a lot in the field because I like it. As well, I find it helpful to know the main trends in the fields of the faculty I support. That way I can anticipate their issues and better understand their problems.

Also, when I meet with them, it gives me more credibility with them if I understand the language and history of the work they do. I find reading books helps me with that. Other people might have different strategies.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
many thanks for your answer. It is interesting what you said about credibility, as I would like to spread the work we done at the documentation centre among scholars and academic institutions (so I need perhaps a deeper knowledge of the field). Sometimes, time is lacking for both library knowledge and the knowledge of the specialized field in which library operates.
Thanks again.

John Dupuis said...

The work we do as subject librarians is so closely tied to our knowledge of the history and scholarly communications patterns of the students and researchers we support so anything that gives us a greater appreciation of those things has got to be a plus.