THE FERMI SOLUTION

ESSAYS ON SCIENCE

Further essays from William and Mary physicist von Baeyer, who pleased with Taming the Atom (1992) and Rainbows, Snowflakes, and Quarks (1984). The compass here is physics: Newtonian, quantum, and astro-, with some commentary on the style of doing physics, along with its attendant aesthetics and pleasures. The title essay, for example, demonstrates Enrico Fermi's way of tackling seemingly intractable problems by breaking them into manageable bits with reasonable assumptions. So von Baeyer details how to solve the legendary problem that Fermi posed to his students: ``How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?'' (answered by estimating how many families; how many pianos; how many pianos a tuner can tune a year, etc.). Von Baeyer's explanation should be must reading for all high-school students (it also applies to business, economics, estimations of risk, etc.). For the rest, the author neatly comments on dark matter, the not-quite-empty void, gravity waves, absolute zero, the elusive monopole, and other quantum esoterica. He's at his best when using everyday analogies- -e.g., gut memories of gravity walls and roller coasters to illustrate points of equivalence between gravity and inertial forces. Several essays deal with new phenomena such as quasi- crystals and nondestructive, noninvasive analytic techniques. Here, the author should be cautioned that CAT and PET scans are by no means ``noninvasive,'' since they expose patients to radiation. Overall, von Baeyer does extremely well by words alone, but a few illustrations would have underscored the trickier points.

Pub Date: June 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-679-40031-1

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1993

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THE GREAT BRIDGE

THE EPIC STORY OF THE BUILDING OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

It took 14 years to build and it cost 15 million dollars and the lives of 20 workmen. Like the Atlantic cable and the Suez Canal it was a gigantic embodiment in steel and concrete of the Age of Enterprise. McCullough's outsized biography of the bridge attempts to capture in one majestic sweep the full glory of the achievement but the story sags mightily in the middle. True, the Roeblings, father and son who served successively as Chief Engineer, are cast in a heroic mold. True, too, the vital statistics of the bridge are formidable. But despite diligent efforts by the author the details of the construction work — from sinking the caissons, to underground blasting, stringing of cables and pouring of cement — will crush the determination of all but the most indomitable reader. To make matters worse, McCullough dutifully struggles through the administrative history of the Brooklyn Bridge Company which financed and contracted for the project with the help of the Tweed Machine and various Brooklyn bosses who profited handsomely amid continuous allegations of kickbacks and mismanagement of funds. He succeeds in evoking the venality and crass materialism of the epoch but once again the details — like the 3,515 miles of steel wire in each cable — are tiresome and ultimately entangling. Workmanlike and thorough though it is, McCullough's history of the bridge has more bulk than stature.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1972

ISBN: 0743217373

Page Count: 652

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Oct. 12, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1972

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Weisman quietly unfolds his sobering cautionary tale, allowing us to conclude what we may about the balancing act that...

THE WORLD WITHOUT US

Nicely textured account of what the Earth would look like if humans disappeared.

Disaster movies have depicted the State of Liberty poking out from the ground and empty cities overgrown with trees and vines, but what would really happen if, for one reason or another, every single one of us vanished from the planet? Building on a Discover magazine article, Weisman (Journalism/Univ. of Arizona; An Echo in My Blood, 1999, etc.) addresses the question. There are no shocks here—nature goes on. But it is unsettling to observe the processes. Drawing on interviews with architects, biologists, engineers, physicists, wildlife managers, archaeologists, extinction experts and many others willing to conjecture, Weisman shows how underground water would destroy city streets, lightning would set fires, moisture and animals would turn temperate-zone suburbs into forests in 500 years and 441 nuclear plants would overheat and burn or melt. “Watch, and maybe learn,” writes the author. Many of his lessons come from past developments, such as the sudden disappearance of the Maya 1,600 years ago and the evolution of animals and humans in Africa. Bridges will fall, subways near fault lines in New York and San Francisco will cave in, glaciers will wipe away much of the built world and scavengers will clean our human bones within a few months. Yet some things will persist after we’re gone: bronze sculptures, Mount Rushmore (about 7.2 millions years, given granite’s erosion rate of one inch every 10,000 years), particles of everything made of plastic, manmade underground malls in Montreal and Moscow. In Hawaii, lacking predators, cows and pigs will rule.

Weisman quietly unfolds his sobering cautionary tale, allowing us to conclude what we may about the balancing act that nature and humans need to maintain to survive.

Pub Date: July 10, 2007

ISBN: 978-0-312-34729-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2007

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