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THE FERMI SOLUTION by Hans Christian von Baeyer


Essays on Science

by Hans Christian von Baeyer

Pub Date: June 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-40031-1
Publisher: Random House

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.