To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science
By Steven Weinberg
Harper Collins/Allen Lane
Hardback: £20 $28.99
Also available at the CERN bookshop
Steven Weinberg’s most recent effort is neither a treatise on the history of science nor a philosophical essay. The author presents instead his own panoramic view of the meandering roads leading to the Newtonian synthesis between terrestrial and celestial physics, rightfully considered as the beginning of a qualitatively new era in the development of basic science.
The first and second parts of the book deal, respectively, with Greek physics and astronomy. The remaining two parts are dedicated to the Middle Ages and to the scientific revolution of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton. The aim is to distil those elements that are germane to the development of modern science. The style is more persuasive than assertive: excerpts of philosophers, poets and historians are abundantly quoted and reproduced, with the aim of corroborating the specific viewpoints conveyed in the text. A similar strategy is employed when dealing with the scientific concepts involved in the discussion. More than a third of the 416 pages of the book contain a series of 35 ”technical notes” – a quick reminder of a variety of geometric, physical and astronomical themes (the Thales theorem, the careful explanation of epicycles for inner and outer planets, the theory of rainbows and various other topics relevant to the main discussion of the text).
Passing before you through the pages, you will see not only Plato and Aristotle, but also Omar Khayyam, Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste and many other progenitors of modern scientists. Nearly 2000 years separate the natural philosophy of the “Timaeus” from the birth of the scientific method. Many elements contributed serendipitously to the evolution leading from Plato to Galileo and Newton: the development of algebra and geometry, the divorce between science and religion, and an improved attitude of abstract thinkers towards technology. All of these aspects have certainly been important for the tortuous emergence of modern science. But are they sufficient to explain it? Scientists, historians and laymen will be able to draw their own lessons from the past as presented here, and this is just one of the intriguing aspects of this interdisciplinary book.
After reading this book quietly, you might be led to conclude that good scientific ideas and daring conjectures take a long time to mature. It has been an essential feature of scientific progress to understand which problems are ripe to study and which are not. No one could have made progress in understanding the nature of the electron, before the advent of quantum mechanics. The plans for tomorrow require not only boldness and fantasy, but also a certain realism that can be trained by looking at the lessons of the past. Today’s most interesting questions may not be scientifically answerable tomorrow, and lasting progress does not come by looking along a single line of sight, but all around, where there are mature phenomena to be scrutinized. This seems to be true for science as a whole, and in particular for physics.
• Massimo Giovannini, CERN and INFN Milan-Bicocca.
The Oskar Klein Memorial Lectures 1988–1999
By Gösta Ekspong (ed.)
Perhaps every reader of CERN Courier has heard about the Klein–Gordon equation, the Klein–Nishina (Compton effect) cross-section, the Klein paradox and the Kaluza–Klein compactified five-dimensional unified theory of gravity, electricity and magnetism. However, few will know about the scientist, Oskar Klein (1894–1977), the pre-eminent and visionary Swedish theoretical physicist from Stockholm whose work continues to influence us to this day.
This book is needed. The reason is described eloquently in the contribution by Alan Guth, whose words I paraphrase: how many recognize Oskar as the first name of “this” Klein? Compare here (by birth year, within 10 years): Niels B (1885), Hermann W (1885), Erwin S (1887), Satyendra N B (1894), Wolfgang P (1900), Enrico F (1901), Werner H (1901), Paul A M D (1902), Eugene W (1902), Robert O (1904). Thanks to this book, Oskar K (1894) will take his place on this short list.
Part of the book collects together all of the Oskar Klein Memorial Lectures given since the series began at Stockholm University in 1988, through to 1999, by many well-known theoreticians, from Chen Ning Yang to Gerard ’t Hooft. Some of these lectures relate to Klein because he often happened to “be there” at the beginning of a new field in physics. For example, in early 1948, Klein recognized immediately, following the disambiguation of the pion and muon, that muon decay and common beta decay can be described by the same four-fermion interaction (see the contribution by T D Lee).
The other part of the book – a third of the 450 pages – is a biographical collection about Klein and his pivotal scientific articles (about a fifth of the volume), all presented in English, although Klein published in Danish, French, English, German and Swedish, as a check of the titles in his publication list reveals. Having Klein’s important work all in one place can lead to interesting insights: for me, finding that 24 December 1928 was a special birthday.
On this day, just eight weeks after the Klein–Nishina paper on the interaction of radiation with electrons, the paper on the Klein paradox reached the editors of Zeitschrift für Physics. Klein concludes: “…(the) difficulty of the relativistic quantum mechanics emphasized by Dirac can appear already in purely mechanical problems where no radiation processes are involved.” The yet-to-be-recognized and discovered antiparticle – the positron – was the “difficulty”, allowing for both radiative and field-instigated pair production (the “paradox”), when vacuum instability is inherent in a prescribed external field configuration.
The Klein-paradox result resurfaced soon in the work by Werner Heisenberg and Hans Euler, and Julian Schwinger on the vacuum properties of QED. Today, as we head towards the centenary of the Klein paradox, pair production in strong fields is being addressed as a priority within the large community interested in ultra-intense laser pulses.
Oskar Klein was always a colleague I wished I could meet, and finally, I have. Thank you, Gösta Ekspong, for this introduction to my new-found hero. While at first my profound personal interest in this book arose from curiosity originating from many years of working out the consequences of the Klein paradox in heavy-ion collisions, I now see how Klein can serve as a role model. This is the book to own for anyone interested in seeing further by “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
• Johann Rafelski, The University of Arizona.
Crackle and Fizz: Essential Communication and Pitching Skills for Scientists
By Caroline van den Brul
Imperial College Press
The introduction of Crackle and Fizz sets out a trope that may sound familiar: a decade-old social faux pas between scientists and journalists at a dinner party, where the speed-dating format for presenting science was met with ire, derision and altogether not having a nice time. The claim is made that this could have been a chance to start over, to reframe science communication and realign the expectations of those involved. To do so misses out on the past few decades of development in the science-communication field, which is now reaching a reflective maturity and presence between academia, industry and media. Unfortunately, the same erasure is a leitmotif in many of the chapters that follow.
Caroline van den Brul’s credentials are impressive, with years at the helm of BBC productions and engagement workshops. This history forms the backbone of the book, setting an anecdote-per-chapter rate that reads more like an autobiography than an attempt to impart any lessons or experience to the reader. The remaining space is given over to consideration of narrative devices useful in contextualizing topics and engagement from a practitioner’s perspective. However, these are only superficially explored and offer little in variation. After many pages promoting the importance of clarity, the titular “Crackle” is eventually revealed in the final chapter to be a (somewhat forced) acronym that summarizes and distils all preceding guidance. Had this been the starting point from which each aspect was explored in depth, the tone and flow of the book may have made for a more compelling read. When used as the conclusion, it feels condescendingly simplified. It’s a shame that, considering van den Brul’s history, the final chapter is the main one worth reading.
Overall, the book feels less like the anticipated dive into years of experience, and more like a pre-lunch conference workshop. If you are in the first stages of incorporating engagement and communication into your current practice, working through each chapter’s closing questions could be of some use. Or, should you feel like refreshing your current framework, they might give you a moment’s pause and adjustment, but no more than any other evaluation.
• Will Davies, Live Science Team, @Bristol.
A Chorus of Bells and Other Scientific Inquiries
By Jeremy Bernstein
In this volume of essays, written across a decade, Bernstein covers a breadth of subject matter. The first part, on the foundations of quantum theory, reflects the author’s conversations with the late John Bell, who persuaded him that there is still no satisfactory interpretation of the theory. The second part deals with nuclear weapons, and includes an essay on the creation of the modern gas centrifuge by German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Two shorter sections follow: the first on financial engineering, with a profile of Louis Bachelier, the French mathematician who created the subject at the beginning of the 20th century; the second and final part is on the Higgs boson, and how it is used for generating mass.
The Beauty of Physics: Patterns, Principles, and Perspectives
By A R P Rau
Oxford University Press
Also available as an e-book
The selection of topics in this book reflects the author’s four-decade career in research physics and his resultant perspective on the subject. While aimed primarily at physicists, including junior students, it also addresses other readers who are willing to think with symbols and simple algebra in understanding the physical world. Each chapter, on themes such as dimensions, transformations, symmetries, or maps, begins with simple examples accessible to all, while connecting them later to more sophisticated realizations in more advanced topics of physics.