By Deborah Herrin, OSA’s Director of Information Technology
Here are several very readable and enjoyable books about physics and the people who have shaped the science.
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love, Dava Sobel
A biography of Galileo, with lots of great insights into the politics of the time, the role of the papacy and the internal struggle Galileo faced between his own religious beliefs and his scientific discoveries. I was reading this book during CLEO one year when I was invited to celebrate OSA past president Tony Siegman’s retirement. One of the presenters noted that scientists’ ability to measure was improving to such an extent that certain constants might prove to be variables in the future. I was struck by this juxtaposition of past and present: long-held truths that are proven to be incorrect.
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Dava Sobel
Since Sobel had impressed me with Galileo’s Daughter, I went back to this earlier book of hers–and was not disappointed. She describes how determining longitude required a precise determination of time; yet the most precise timekeepers relied on pendulums, which failed to work accurately when placed on a ship crossing the sea. After reading this book, I toured the U.S. Naval Observatory just up the street from OSA on the grounds of the vice president’s house. During the tour, you learn about time-keeping issues that the U.S. faced and how Western Union played a role; you see the atomic clock and the Internet clock, which shows how many computers are connecting to determine time every second; you visit a beautiful library where you’ll see OSA’s journals displayed; and, weather-permitting, you climb into the observatory to take a look through the telescope. After that, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Greenwich, England, where I visited the observatory, saw many of Harrison’s timepieces and straddled the prime meridian.
Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
OSA fellow Barry Masters turned me on to this book when he gave a brown bag lunch talk to OSA staff on one of the women in the book. This book presents the stories of 15 women who either won a Nobel Prize in science or played a significant role in Nobel-Prize winning research. The stories serve to highlight not only the science, but also women’s role in science and society as a whole. As an aside, when Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963, the local paper reported “La Jolla Mother Wins Nobel Prize.”
E=Mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, David Bodanis
This little book provides lots of information about physics and the people involved in the science leading up to nuclear physics. Did you know that Maxwell’s equations weren’t written by Maxwell? Or that several Nobel gold medals were dissolved in a solution in Denmark to avoid discovery by the invading Germans during WWII? The medals spent the war suspended in a solution and, after the war, the gold was recovered and made into new medals. One important tip as you read the book: read the notes at the back of the book as you go.
Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists, Robert Jungk
The previous two books, plus interest in learning more about Los Alamos, where many OSA members are, led me to this book. If you’re interested in this topic, you also should check out the play/movie “Copenhagen”, which deals with a meeting between two of the scientists–Bohr and Heisenberg. The controversy surrounding the play resulted in the Bohr Archive releasing early documentation related to that meeting.
Right now, I’m reading Measuring the World, by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from German). It’s a novel based on two Enlightenment-age scientists: Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, the latter played a key role in optics.
Next up: The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier. I heard the author and her husband (both science journalists and local residents) speak at the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academies of Science in January. The premise of the book is what key concepts scientists wish the general public understood. I’m also reading Color, A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay–this was a find at the Phillips Collection one lunchtime.
If you’ve read a good book related to science, please post a comment here to let us know about it!
2008-07 July, Optics history