I felt like I was listening to a great-grandfather talking about
his youth. The stories themselves were interesting, and quite varied,
but the style was wandering, the anecdotes were disconnected from each
other, and the subjects were too personal for the author.
He starts and ends with a similar topic: women in physics and
astronomy. At the beginning, he describes Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia
Payne-Gaposchkin, who were instrumental in analyzing photographic plates
at the beginning of the century, and cataloging stars. Cannon seemed
to be a loner, but Payne went on to do some great science. Both,
unfortunately, were denied credit and scientific positions because they
At the end, he describes Margaret Geller and John Huchra, who
made the very recent discovery that the universe appears to be sponge-like,
instead of uniform, as initially thought. A giant aside describes
women in physics fields today, barely talking about the astronomer at all.
In between, we get a profile of Ludwig Boltzman, who found an
ingenious way to describe the second law of thermodynamics, George Gamow,
a Russian who helped pioneer the field of quantum physics, and Homi Bhabha,
who seems to have developed science in India from the ground up.
All of these people were geniuses, able to look at the world in a different
way than their contemporaries.
There is also Luis Alvarez, who did many things in his career,
working on the atom bomb, and then working on high-energy physics, creating
a detector for the particle called the muon. He is most famous, though,
for collecting evidence with his son that offered hard evidence that a
giant impact killed the dinosaurs.
Another person who changed careers often was Richard Feynman,
who dealt mostly with electromagnetism and quantum mechanics, superfluid
helium, and others. He developed a unique method of representing
entire equations by diagrams. But the best story was his humanity.
He was rough and could be cruel to those he considered to be below his
stature, but he loved his sick, first wife. The story of his trips
to the hospital were heartbreaking.
Finally, there was Martin Perl, who worked most of his life in
the superconductor, and discovered the tau particle. There is another
giant aside describing the state of big science today, and it is obviously
a subject dear to the author's heart.
He makes the stories too personal for him, revealing that he
was brought to tears by one, outrage at another, and on and on.
I realize that he was trying to let us know about the real people,
but in a way, there were too many anecdotes, because they were so disconnected,
in most cases. On the other hand, there were too few. I didn't
feel that I really got to know these people at all.
There is a brief section of biography on each, and a section
describing their work, in terms that I believe anybody with even a small
science background could understand.
The book perhaps should have been longer, to accommodate more
information about the people. But even so, I was not particularly enamored with the style, so it might have dragged on for me.