A tour of subatomic physics that dazzles like the stars.

KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR

HOW PHYSICS AND SCIENTIFIC THINKING ILLUMINATE THE UNIVERSE AND THE MODERN WORLD

From Randall (Theoretical Physics/Harvard Univ.; Warped Passages: Unraveling the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions, 2006), a whip-smart inquiry into the scientific work being conducted in particle physics.

The author examines some fairly recondite material—the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of the study of elementary particles (with a brief foray into cosmology)—and renders it comprehensible for general readers. She brings a thrumming enthusiasm to the topic, but she is unhurried and wryly humorous. She explains how physicists conduct their theoretical studies, the logic involved and the confidence that comes only in what’s verified or deduced through experimentation. That knowledge must always be open to change, surrounded as it is by an amorphous boundary of uncertainties, where research is conducted in a state of indeterminacy, testing and questioning to ascertain veracity and implications (which includes investigating the likes of string theory, which doesn’t yield experimental consequences but may provide new ways of thinking). Randall brings great clarity to the application of theory. Not only will readers come to feel comfortably familiar with scaling—why, for instance, Newton’s laws work on one scale but not another—or how the Large Hadron Collider will provide access to fundamental particles, but appreciate how one “sees” a subatomic particle when visible light’s wavelength is too big to resolve it. While much of the book concerns the behavior of quarks, leptons and gauge bosons, the author ranges freely into the advantages and disadvantages of aesthetic criteria in science, the importance of symmetry and the creation and nature of black holes, black energy and black matter: “Why should all matter interact with light? If the history of science has taught us anything, it should be the shortsightedness of believing that what we see is all there is.”

A tour of subatomic physics that dazzles like the stars.

Pub Date: Sept. 20, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-06-172372-8

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2011

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

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

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SEVEN BRIEF LESSONS ON PHYSICS

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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