PHYSICS by J.L. Heilbron


A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks
Email this review


A brief treatment of mankind's comprehension of the physical universe, from ancient Greek cosmologists to modern particle physicists.

Heilbron (Emeritus, History/Univ. of California; Galileo, 2010, etc.) writes that modern physics “has given civilization a somber, disturbing, and challenging world picture, many fertile and some terrifying inventions, and notice of responsibility for the outcome of the human story.” He credits Aristotle with identifying the guiding principle that has governed scientific inquiry for more than two millennia: the belief “that the natural world runs on law-like principles discoverable by the human mind and immune from interruption or cancellation by meddling gods and demons.” The book begins with a discussion of the Greek division of the universe into an earthly, terrestrial realm in which change occurs and an eternal “quintessential” heavenly realm. For them, there is an “absolute dichotomy between the laws of terrestrial and celestial physics." The author quickly touches on the scientific advances of the Arabic world, in the application of mathematics to astronomy and mechanics. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, Greek and Arab scientific writings were translated into Latin and became more available in the West. This inspired a scientific renaissance, with Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler setting the stage for Newton's comprehensive unification of celestial and terrestrial physics. “As Newton acknowledged,” writes Heilbron, “he had not assigned a physical cause to gravitation, but had recourse to a mathematical fiction, an immediate action at a distance.” In the 19th century, the synthesis of light and electrodynamics by Faraday and Maxwell provided the basis for the emergence of nuclear physics. The paradoxical interchangeability between waves and particles reintroduced a fundamental dichotomy due to the limitation on the accuracy of efforts to simultaneously measure a particle's position and momentum. The author's brush-stroke treatment of scientific advances over more than 2,000 years is likely to frustrate readers not already acquainted with the material, and he unfortunately provides few fresh insights for those already in the know. The description of three leading scientists in the postwar period as “Jewish cosmopolitan-extravert types” may also raise some eyebrows.

A disappointing effort to encapsulate the history of modern physics.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-19-874685-0
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2015


NonfictionA BEAUTIFUL QUESTION by Frank Wilczek
by Frank Wilczek
by Sean Carroll