A physics-for-poets guide that’s more exuberant than enlightening.

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THE JAZZ OF PHYSICS

THE SECRET LINK BETWEEN MUSIC AND THE STRUCTURE OF THE UNIVERSE

Look to jazz greats like John Coltrane for insights into subatomic particles and the history of the cosmos.

In this loosely autobiographical meditation, Alexander (Physics/Brown Univ.) explores resonances between music and physics in Pythagoras’ “music of the spheres,” Albert Einstein’s love of music, Coltrane’s love of Einstein, and his own ideas as a theoretical physicist and jazz saxophonist. It’s a vast, cosmic theme that includes quantum mechanics, superstring theory, the Big Bang, the evolution of galaxies, and the process of scientific theorizing itself. Alexander mines music for analogies to physical reality and credits jam sessions as a method of opening his mind to scientific insights. The comparison between music and physics rests on the fact that sound is a wave with similarities to the wave phenomena that underlie modern physics. That observation sometimes yields illuminating results—e.g., the notion that the early universe contained tiny density fluctuations that looked like 300,000-light-year-long sound waves and eventually clumped into stars and galaxies. Unfortunately, Alexander rarely finds a satisfying middle ground between facile metaphor—“in jazz combos, the ‘gravitational’ pull comes from the bass and drums”—and obscure arcana. Most of the discussions (and the accompanying diagrams and math equations) are rapturous but murky. Many are too difficult and sketchily explained for laypeople to grasp, whether they are about physics—“D-branes were the objects that carried the Ramond-Ramond charge the same way a point particle (0-brane) carries electric charge”—music theory (“in the key of C, the V is a G-dominant chord and its mirror image/tritone for G is D-flat dominant”), or the effusions of jazzman Sonny Rollins (“I don’t want to play the music; I want the music to play me”). Alexander’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, but that won’t help readers fully understand it.

A physics-for-poets guide that’s more exuberant than enlightening.

Pub Date: April 26, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-465-03499-4

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE

A collection of articulate, forceful speeches made from September 2018 to September 2019 by the Swedish climate activist who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking in such venues as the European and British Parliaments, the French National Assembly, the Austrian World Summit, and the U.N. General Assembly, Thunberg has always been refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt in her demands for action from world leaders who refuse to address climate change. With clarity and unbridled passion, she presents her message that climate change is an emergency that must be addressed immediately, and she fills her speeches with punchy sound bites delivered in her characteristic pull-no-punches style: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” In speech after speech, to persuade her listeners, she cites uncomfortable, even alarming statistics about global temperature rise and carbon dioxide emissions. Although this inevitably makes the text rather repetitive, the repetition itself has an impact, driving home her point so that no one can fail to understand its importance. Thunberg varies her style for different audiences. Sometimes it is the rousing “our house is on fire” approach; other times she speaks more quietly about herself and her hopes and her dreams. When addressing the U.S. Congress, she knowingly calls to mind the words and deeds of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. The last speech in the book ends on a note that is both challenging and upbeat: “We are the change and change is coming.” The edition published in Britain earlier this year contained 11 speeches; this updated edition has 16, all worth reading.

A tiny book, not much bigger than a pamphlet, with huge potential impact.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-14-313356-8

Page Count: 112

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2019

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