Ossus Library Index Non-Fiction Index


By George Greenstein (1998, John Wiley & Sons)

A profile of ten people who contributed great discoveries to the fields of physics and astronomy.



2 stars

Read July 31st to August 4th, 2000  
    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 were women. 

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.


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