A richly detailed account of the interplay of scientific and technical issues at the beginning of the modern era.

EINSTEIN’S CLOCKS, POINCARÉ’S MAPS

EMPIRES OF TIME

An argument that Einstein's theory of relativity was no stroke of genius but, rather, a logical development of ideas already in the air.

The problem of synchronizing timepieces was a preoccupation of many turn-of-the-century scientists, writes Galison (History of Science/Harvard; Image and Logic, not reviewed), and notable among them was Henri Poincaré, head of the French Bureau of Longitude. The growth of railroad networks and of the modern military made standardized time an issue of sweeping importance; the Franco-Prussian war had been decided largely by the German ability to mobilize its forces and deliver them to the front by rail. In addition, the creation of accurate maps depended critically on comparing the local time of astronomical events with the time at a standard location; accurate, synchronized clocks were essential. Poincaré, a product of the French École Polytechnique, was trained to consider a scientific subject for both its practical and theoretical implications, an orientation reinforced by his work on longitude. Several of Poincaré’s publications argue against the idea of absolute time, a point that would be a central issue in the relativity theory. Nor was Einstein a pure theoretician; his work at the Swiss patent office required evaluating inventions of all sorts, and a number of chronometers and techniques for electronic synchronization went through the office during his tenure there. In fact, the “crowning step” in Einstein's 1905 formulation of special relativity appears to have been an insight on the synchronization of clocks. Galison is careful to list the key differences between Einstein’s and Poincaré’s descriptions of time and space, but his key point seems clear: the theory of relativity was up for grabs, and Poincaré came close to capturing it well before Einstein.

A richly detailed account of the interplay of scientific and technical issues at the beginning of the modern era.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-393-02001-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2003

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A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

LETTERS FROM AN ASTROPHYSICIST

Tyson (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017, etc.) receives a great deal of mail, and this slim volume collects his responses and other scraps of writing.

The prolific science commentator and bestselling author, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, delivers few surprises and much admirable commentary. Readers may suspect that most of these letters date from the author’s earlier years when, a newly minted celebrity, he still thrilled that many of his audience were pouring out their hearts. Consequently, unlike more hardened colleagues, he sought to address their concerns. As years passed, suspecting that many had no interest in tapping his expertise or entering into an intelligent give and take, he undoubtedly made greater use of the waste basket. Tyson eschews pure fan letters, but many of these selections are full of compliments as a prelude to asking advice, pointing out mistakes, proclaiming opposing beliefs, or denouncing him. Readers will also encounter some earnest op-ed pieces and his eyewitness account of 9/11. “I consider myself emotionally strong,” he writes. “What I bore witness to, however, was especially upsetting, with indelible images of horror that will not soon leave my mind.” To crackpots, he gently repeats facts that almost everyone except crackpots accept. Those who have seen ghosts, dead relatives, and Bigfoot learn that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. Tyson points out that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so confirmation that a light in the sky represents an alien spacecraft requires more than a photograph. Again and again he defends “science,” and his criteria—observation, repeatable experiments, honest discourse, peer review—are not controversial but will remain easy for zealots to dismiss. Among the instances of “hate mail” and “science deniers,” the author also discusses philosophy, parenting, and schooling.

A media-savvy scientist cleans out his desk.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-324-00331-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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

THE ORDER OF TIME

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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