RAINBOWS, SNOWFLAKES, AND QUARKS: Physics and the Worm Around Us by Hans C. Von Baeyer

RAINBOWS, SNOWFLAKES, AND QUARKS: Physics and the Worm Around Us

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Von Baeyer, a College of William and Mary physicist, has chosen familiar objects or ideas--like the title words--as springboards for expositions of what and how and why. He tells us that physics, literally translated, means ""natural things""; and for all contemporary physics' flirtation with the exotic, the way of thinking has not changed. Allusion is made to Gerald Holton's ""themata""--principles like atomism, symmetry, parsimony, and the like that undergird Western thought. That is all by way of introduction. What follows are wonderfully wrought essays on how the ""homely"" and natural illustrate the profound and beautiful. Snowflakes are an excursion into hexagons and beehives, beach sand and cannonball packing, and, finally, the 120-degree angles in the water molecule that mark the position of hydrogen atoms linked to oxygen ""like ears on Mickey Mouse's head."" Essays on waves and whirlpools let von Baeyer invoke an experiment in which men blew trumpets while traveling 30 miles an hour on a Dutch train (an early confirmation of the Doppler effect) and a lengthy Leonardo quote on how to paint the Flood that's alive with whirling eddies and turbulent foam. Von Baeyer is also fond of firsts: an 11th-century Chinese, Shen Kua, penned the first description of the compass (according to Joseph Needham, China's greatest gift to science). Niccolo Tartaglia was the 16th-century pioneer of projectile motion; while Theodoric of Freiberg was the 13th-century scholastic who fathomed the nature of rainbows. The range of subjects (also gravity, atoms, warmth, and quarks), the kitchen-table demonstrations, the underlying scholarship and sophistication, are a rare combination.

Pub Date: Aug. 6th, 1984
Publisher: McGraw-Hill