A tour-de-force by a talented young author who makes a difficult subject accessible.



Fast-paced history from debut author Gilder, who employs invented but historically accurate dialogue to surprisingly good effect, revealing the personalities as well as the ideas of quantum physicists.

Though generally viewed as a gigantic achievement of human genius, quantum physics, which describes the behavior of atoms and subatomic particles, is also a troubling field. Its predictions have proven dazzlingly accurate, but they predict minuscule objects behaving in ways that everyone, physicists included, finds bizarre. In the subatomic world, observers can never locate an object precisely, only determine the probability that it will be in one place instead of another. Energy and matter behave as either solid particles or waves depending on the experiment performed. Most physicists were happy that quantum physics worked so well, but Einstein insisted that this relentless indeterminacy could not be true. In 1935, he and two co-workers devised the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky “thought experiment” (“thought” because it was considered technically impossible). If two subatomic particles are “entangled,” a state that obeys quantum laws, and then separated, changing one affects the other even if it’s very far away. Since this is clearly impossible, Einstein concluded that quantum theory was defective. Gilder, remarkably well-informed, delivers a comprehensive history that begins with early 20th-century giants Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Pauli. However, she differs from the authors of similar books in devoting even more space to less celebrated but equally brilliant physicists from the century’s latter half, including David Bohm, Anton Zeilinger and John Bell. Her inspiration is Bell, who died in 1990 before getting the Nobel Prize everyone agrees he deserved. His 1964 paper, showing that the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky experiment did not disprove quantum theory, inspired a generation of researchers who have clarified quantum physics without rendering it less bizarre. Although aimed at general readers, this work is less simplified than other popular accounts, but those who pay attention will find it highly rewarding.

A tour-de-force by a talented young author who makes a difficult subject accessible.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2008

ISBN: 978-1-4000-4417-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2008

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As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.


Undeterred by a subject difficult to pin down, Italian theoretical physicist Rovelli (Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, 2017, etc.) explains his thoughts on time.

Other scientists have written primers on the concept of time for a general audience, but Rovelli, who also wrote the bestseller Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, adds his personal musings, which are astute and rewarding but do not make for an easy read. “We conventionally think of time,” he writes, “as something simple and fundamental that flows uniformly, independently from everything else, uniformly from the past to the future, measured by clocks and watches. In the course of time, the events of the universe succeed each other in an orderly way: pasts, presents, futures. The past is fixed, the future open….And yet all of this has turned out to be false.” Rovelli returns again and again to the ideas of three legendary men. Aristotle wrote that things change continually. What we call “time” is the measurement of that change. If nothing changed, time would not exist. Newton disagreed. While admitting the existence of a time that measures events, he insisted that there is an absolute “true time” that passes relentlessly. If the universe froze, time would roll on. To laymen, this may seem like common sense, but most philosophers are not convinced. Einstein asserted that both are right. Aristotle correctly explained that time flows in relation to something else. Educated laymen know that clocks register different times when they move or experience gravity. Newton’s absolute exists, but as a special case in Einstein’s curved space-time. According to Rovelli, our notion of time dissolves as our knowledge grows; complex features swell and then retreat and perhaps vanish entirely. Furthermore, equations describing many fundamental physical phenomena don’t require time.

As much a work of philosophy as of physics and full of insights for readers willing to work hard.

Pub Date: May 18, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: April 3, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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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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