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Physics Fest

March 8, 2002

“No serious book lover will ever die having read every book he had managed to collect. This is not a sign of dilatoriness but of eagerness, anticipation.” (from “A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning” by James V. Schall.)

This sentiment came to mind again upon seeing the stack of new physics books on my desk. I’d put my name on all of them so I could take a quick look before they went to the shelves.

Here’s a good example of “new” books that don’t go the “New Book Shelf.” Most books new to our collection go immediately to the main shelves.

Our science section needs some more attention, and we have a fair number of retired scientists in our valley (e.g., I.E., who suggested these titles) who may not need books like these for themselves but who can help us make selections for you. I welcome the advice.

I read “Understanding thermodynamics” by H.C. Van Ness during the quiet moments of the televised golf match last weekend. It’s a slim, 100-page discussion of the fundamental concepts, written for science and engineering students as a supplement to the usual textbook.

Thermodynamics is a mild but enduring fascination of mine. It is simple but sometimes counterintuitive, and computations can be complex. One of the concepts that keeps my curiosity piqued is entropy.

The idea, and misapprehension of it, seeped into popular culture many decades ago. Earlier this winter, an unattributed half-page ad appeared in this paper proffering a defense of creationism, but the science was wrong, including the usual misunderstanding of entropy.

It’s usually not worth the effort to argue a presentation like that, but occasional reading in science can help your own understanding of the world and perhaps support your intuition when you sense that such arguments are wrong.

Or you can read for fun. Some of “The new physics,” edited by Paul Davies, reads like SciFi. It’s really a fine book, well illustrated with color photos and plentiful charts and graphs, reminiscent of Scientific American articles. At least one chapter is based on such an article.

Other titles include two about Einstein’s theories of relativity: “Einstein’ s theory of relativity” by Nobel-laureate Max Born, written carefully for the non-scientist and using only high school algebra; and “Understanding Einstein’s theories of relativity” by Stan Gibilisco — “with 158 illustrations.”

Another related to relativity is “The riddle of gravitation” by Peter G. Bergmann, first published in 1968 and since revised. Revisions of classic science books stand as evidence for how science evolves under continual reconsideration. Before getting to the first chapter, you must pass “Preface to the Dover edition,” then “Supplement to the Dover edition,” then “Preface to the revised and updated edition,” and finally “Preface to the first edition.”

We also have “The inflationary universe: the quest for the new theory of cosmic origins” by Alan H. Guth. It is a firsthand account of modern theoretical physics, as well as a history of the related ideas.

The last book in the stack is “Black holes & time warps: Einstein’s outrageous legacy” by Kip Thorne, who is Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech and an award-winning science writer. The book is praised as an “engrossing blend of theory, history, and anecdote,” the kind of blend has made for some very fine science books in recent time.

You’ll never read everything you want to anyway, so grab a science book now and then.

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