Archive for the 'Physics' Category

(Six Easy Pieces from) The Feynman Lectures on Physics, by Richard Phillips Feynman

SEL Books: QC21.2 .F49 1989

I just finished Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and to my surprise and consternation, our library doesn’t carry it. But don’t despair. The six lectures presented in the book I wish to recommend are contained in the SEL book listed above.

You may remember Feynman from his role in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was the one who succinctly illustrated the problem by dropping the O-ring in the glass of ice water to demonstrate how brittle they become in the cold.

In these Six Easy Pieces, Feynman presents some of the most basic ideas of physics in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand. As someone who began my academic career as an engineering major, most of what I read was review, with the exception of the lecture on quantum theory. But it brought back that sense of excitement I had when I first began studying the physical world, and how awe-inspiring it was for me. With a bit of imagination, studying physics opens up new worlds of ideas.

I remember how amazed I felt when I understood that most of what we understand as the material world is really vacuum, that solidity is an illusion, and that the subatomic world is nothing like what we understand as “reality.” These ideas challenged many of my cherished notions of reality, and so changed utterly my entire world-view. It takes one’s breath away.

If you get The Feynman Lectures on Physics and want to read the six lectures I’m recommending, here is a list of the six easy pieces: Atoms in Motion, Basic Physics, The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, Conservation of Energy, The Theory of Gravitation, and Quantum Behavior. The book also contains many other lectures, including six that were collected in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time (SEL Books: QC 793.3 .S9 F49 1997), which I have not yet read.

For those interested in this fascinating, brilliant, and well-loved physicist, but don’t want to read about physics itself, I recommend you pick up two delightful autobiographical works Feynman wrote with Ralph Leighton: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” : Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A37 1986) and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A3 1988).

(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)

The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, by Brian Greene

QC794.6 .S85 G75 1999

This book is an excellent choice for anyone interested in exploring string theory (or M-theory), a concept that posits that all matter in the universe consists of tiny strings. The strings’ vibrations produce all fields and wave-like properties, such as forces, light and sound.

Greene, a Columbia University professor who is one of the world’s foremost string theorists, writes in an entertaining and accessible way. He clarifies difficult concepts using everyday analogies. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

The PBS show Nova made a television series based on this book, with Dr. Greene hosting the show. He proves to be as entertaining and engaging on film as he is on paper. While the show didn’t delve nearly as deeply into the subject as the book, it provided a good overview of the concepts and provided visual queues that clarified some ideas that may not come across as clearly in writing. Anyone who enjoyed that series would greatly improve their understanding by reading this book.

UTA’s collection also contains another book by Dr. Greene, which I am currently reading. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (QB982 .G74 2004) provides insight about current issues in physics.

(Originally published in Connections, November 2005)

Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness, by John S. Rigden

QC16.E5 R54 2005

This is the final installment in my series of books by or about Einstein in celebration of the World Year of Physics 2005. Its author, John S. Rigden, will be speaking at several UTA events beginning September 15. Read ahead and you’ll be prepared to ask intelligent questions when he appears.

One hundred years ago this year, Albert Einstein published five papers that revolutionized physics. While the general public knows that Einstein was highly intelligent (indeed his name is synonymous with genius), few of us understand why. This book, which is directed to a non-scientist audience, illuminates the importance of his work.

Aside from a prologue and epilogue, the book contains a section for each paper. They are (March) The Revolutionary Quantum Paper, (April) Molecular Dimensions, (May) “Seeing” Atoms, (June) The Merger of Space and Time, (September) The Most Famous Equation.

Each section describes the contents of the paper, how the concepts fit in relation to other scientists’ work, and the significance of the paper on consequent scientific thought. The reader emerges with a clearer understanding of Einstein’s work in the context of science, philosophy, and the greater human culture.

UTA Libraries holds six more titles by Dr. Rigden, including Hydrogen : the Essential Element (SEL: QD181.H1 R54 2002), Most of the Good Stuff : Memories of Richard Feynman (SEL: QC16.F49 A3 1993), and Physics and the Sound of Music (Central: ML3805 .R56).

(Originally published in Connections, September 2005)

Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer

SEL Books: QC16 .E5 J36 1999

This is the first time I’m recommending a book in this column that I haven’t yet finished. Since it isn’t a novel, a plot twist at the end will certainly not drastically change my opinion of the work.

For those interested in Einstein the man, and even Einstein the scientist, I believe this book is an important part of that study. His spiritual views were inextricably entwined with his scientific endeavors. Indeed, in an oft-quoted remark, Einstein maintained that his physics work was an attempt to read the mind of God.

It needs to be said that this book is not a religious work. Its intention is not to further any religious philosophy—it neither agrees nor disagrees with Einstein’s views. Its purpose is merely to illuminate the man and his work in relation to religion.

The book is divided into three chapters. “Einstein’s Religiosity and the Role of Religion in His Private Life” looks at his attitudes towards and experiences with religion from his early years until his death. “Einstein’s Philosophy of Religion” describes his views on religion from a philosophical (not a theological) standpoint. And “Einstein’s Physics and Theology,” the longest, and, for me, the most fascinating part of the book, looks at science’s influence on Einstein’s own religious philosophy and its implications for religious issues around the world.

Jammer was a pupil and colleague of Einstein’s, so his work provides special insight into the man. The work is scrupulous and scholarly, containing information from numerous writings by and about Einstein, and his theses are well developed.

This book should be an integral part of anyone’s study of Einstein’s life or work.

Other Max Jammer titles in UTA’s collection, none of which I have yet read, include Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics (foreword by Albert Einstein, SEL Books: QC173.59.S65 J36 1993), Conceptual Development of Quantum Mechanics (Central: QC174.12 .J35), and Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics: The Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics in Historical Perspective (Central: QC173.98 .J35).

(Originally published in Connections, August 2005)

Out of My Later Years, by Albert Einstein

Central QC16 .E5 A3 1970

The essays comprising this book were my first contact with Einstein’s writing. I was amazed both by the clarity of his writing and the warmth of his delivery. I had seen him as larger than life. In this book, I discovered something of the man.

The essays are organized into six sections: Convictions and Beliefs, Science, Public Affairs, Science and Life, Personalities, and My People. The majority of the writing requires little or no scientific or mathematical background.

As you make your way through the sections, a portrait emerges of a man of profound intellect, who somehow maintains a deep sense of his own humanity. Certain themes recur throughout the essays, including his desire to transcend the boundaries of race, class, religion, and country and his near obsession with establishing organizations that would ensure world peace.

This book is not a biography, but reading it allowed me to feel that I had glimpsed something of the heart and mind of the man behind the myth.

(Originally published in Connections, July 2005)

E=mc2 : A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis

SEL Books: QC73.8.C6 B63 2000

As part of the centennial celebration of Einstein’s four 1905 ground-breaking publications, I’m going to recommend several books by or about the great man and his work. I can think of no better place to start than Bodanis’s E=mc2. It is a great introduction to Einstein’s ideas and is written for a general audience.

The book is a fun and compelling read. It engages the reader by combining the fascinating history of certain scientists with the history (biography) of each element in the equation. Each section focuses on one element (such as E, or energy) and explains how perspectives towards the element changed over time. One gets the sense that a mystery is working itself out as the story progressing.

If you think you can’t understand what this famous equation means, this book will change your mind.

The Central Library collection has another book by David Bodanis that I haven’t yet read: The Body Book : A Fantastic Voyage to the World Within (SEL Books: QP38 .B59 1984)

(Originally published in Connections, May 2005)

Mind Over Matter : Conversations with the Cosmos, by K.C. Cole

SEL: Books Q162 .C584 2003

This book is a collection of columns by LA Times science writer K.C. Cole. Each essay discusses current scientific issues and philosophies in relation to topics like politics, art, literature, and daily living.

Cole captures the essence of how science and mathematics play an important role in our everyday lives. Scientific chapter titles like “Eclipse,” “Calibrations,” “Patterns,” “Resistance” and “Time” live adjacent to the more esoteric “Beethoven and Quantum Mechanics,” “Love and Bosons,” “Play” and “Apocalypse Soon.”

I have also read and recommend two more books by K.C. Cole: The Universe and the Teacup : The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty, (SEL: Books QA 36 .C65 1998), which reveals how integral mathematics is in our everyday lives, and The Hole in the Universe : How Scientists Peered over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything (not available at UTA), which contains the fascinating history of the concept of nothing—the vacuum, the void, and the number zero.

Also by Cole in the UTA collection is Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life, (SEL: Books QC 21.2 .C62 1985).

(Originally published in Connections, March, 2005)