Splendid exposition, accessible to the mathematically challenged as well as the mathematically inclined.



Halfway through this articulate and droll history of math and physics, you wonder: Who is this guy with the unpronounceable name you want to recommend to all your friends?

And so you discover that Mlodinow has gone from Cal-tech professor to Star Trek scriptwriter to developmental VP for an educational software firm. That would account for his knack of presenting the evolution of mathematical thought with an insider’s insight, quirky humor, and titillating facts about the great and near-great. Describing the work of Boethius (who abridged Euclid’s Elements), Mlodinow writes, “his translations might be entitled ‘Euclid for Dummies’ or sold in TV ads imploring, call 1-800-NOPROOFS.” On the foundations of quantum mechanics he quotes Erwin Schrodinger (“It has never happened that a woman has slept with me and did not wish, as a consequence, to live with me all her life”). These little fillips engage the reader as the author chronicles how our views of the universe have been informed by concepts of space. Much of the text (and human history) does indeed reflect the view from Euclid’s window—in which space is flat, filled with points, lines, and figures (like triangles) whose angles add up to 180 degrees. That works only as long as you accept as an axiom that through a point outside a line one and only one line can be drawn parallel to a given line. Much ink was poured unsuccessfully over the years to derive this “axiom” from the other Euclidean axioms as a theorem. Then during the 19th and 20th centuries, in the works of Gauss, Riemann, and Lobachevsky, the notion of non-Euclidean curved space took root and revolutionized physics. Einstein demonstrated the curvature of space in general relativity, and he needed four-dimensional space-time to develop special relativity. Mlodinow concludes with the latest wrinkles on the geometry of space, from the early formulations of string theory and now M-theory to the abstruse work of mathematicians like John Schwarz and Ed Witten.

Splendid exposition, accessible to the mathematically challenged as well as the mathematically inclined.

Pub Date: April 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-684-86523-8

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2001

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (General Relativity: The Most Beautiful of Theories, 2015, etc.) shares his thoughts on the broader scientific and philosophical implications of the great revolution that has taken place over the past century.

These seven lessons, which first appeared as articles in the Sunday supplement of the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, are addressed to readers with little knowledge of physics. In less than 100 pages, the author, who teaches physics in both France and the United States, cogently covers the great accomplishments of the past and the open questions still baffling physicists today. In the first lesson, he focuses on Einstein's theory of general relativity. He describes Einstein's recognition that gravity "is not diffused through space [but] is that space itself" as "a stroke of pure genius." In the second lesson, Rovelli deals with the puzzling features of quantum physics that challenge our picture of reality. In the remaining sections, the author introduces the constant fluctuations of atoms, the granular nature of space, and more. "It is hardly surprising that there are more things in heaven and earth, dear reader, than have been dreamed of in our philosophy—or in our physics,” he writes. Rovelli also discusses the issues raised in loop quantum gravity, a theory that he co-developed. These issues lead to his extraordinary claim that the passage of time is not fundamental but rather derived from the granular nature of space. The author suggests that there have been two separate pathways throughout human history: mythology and the accumulation of knowledge through observation. He believes that scientists today share the same curiosity about nature exhibited by early man.

An intriguing meditation on the nature of the universe and our attempts to understand it that should appeal to both scientists and general readers.

Pub Date: March 1, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-399-18441-3

Page Count: 96

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 8, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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