Books by Bruce Schechter

Released: Sept. 10, 1998

A pleasing biography of the mathematician (the second this season after Paul Hoffman's The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, p. 795) by physicist, editor, and journalist Schechter. Erdos took part in the flowering of Hungarian creative and intellectual talent that developed in the first decades of this century with von Neumann, Teller, Szilard, von Karman, and Wigner in science, and Solti, Szell, Reiner, Dorati, Bartok, and Kodaly in music. His parents, nonpracticing Jews, were both high school teachers. At four, Erdos was already in love with numbers and at home with performing rapid calculations. When asked, "What is 100 minus 250?" he thought for a moment, and then shouted "150 below zero!," thereby inventing negative numbers for himself. And it was the theory of numbers that remained the first love of his mathematical life. What makes this biography so amenable to the general reader is that many conjectures raised by number theorists are also grasped easily by nonspecialists. Schechter reconstructs Erdos's life through interviews and memoirs of his friends, most importantly, Ronald Graham, the AT&T mathematician who became Erdos's "handler" after his adored and adoring mother's death. Indeed, therein lies a tale to titillate Freudians. It is said that Erdos had never buttered his own bread before leaving home for Cambridge. He chose not to marry and professed to be appalled by sex. Yet he loved children, whom he called "epsilons" (a math insider's joke) and was rich in friendships. Erdos left Hungary before WWII, never won a permanent teaching post, was usually short of money, and got into trouble during the McCarthy era, but was undaunted and eventually cleared. Not only did he advance number theory and create new specialties in mathematics, but he also shifted math's working style from that of a solo enterprise to joint and multiple collaborations. Schechter has mined his sources well to create a captivating portrait. Read full book review >
Released: April 28, 1989

A neat title for a first-rate account of the discovery of high(er) temperature superconductivity. Schechter, a particle physicist, is good in the historical details. He describes the 19th-century fascination with the notion of absolute zero and of men like James Dewar, whose silvered, evacuated double-glass-cylinders for keeping things cool were the ancestors of the thermos bottle. Dewar's goal to liquefy helium gas was achieved by Heike Omnes, a Dutch physicist who demonstrated superconductivity (when matter loses all resistance to the flow of electricity) by observing the drop in the resistance of mercury when exposed to liquid helium at 2 or 3 degrees above absolute zero, The story then rapidly turns to the recent developments in ceramics and to the band of solid-state physicists who stuck to their "schmutz" (dirty) physics in contrast to the glamour kids entranced by particles and accelerators. The appeal here is with experiments with oddball materials investigating changes and unusual properties—none predictable by theory. Indeed, there is as yet no theory to explain why the current crop of copper oxide rare-earth compounds displays superconductivity at temperatures of over 100 degrees above absolute zero. Schechter has talked to all the principals in the well-publicized race—with the exception of Paul Chu, who would not be interviewed; thus questions remain about priorities and credits, even as they did in Bruce Hazen's more personal and participant account, The Breakthrough (1988). Schechter concludes with a thoughtful account of the potential applications of superconductivity and the wonder that we have learned so much so fast. Super. Read full book review >