A scintillating popular account of the interplay between mathematical physics and astronomical observations.

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THE HUNT FOR VULCAN

...AND HOW ALBERT EINSTEIN DESTROYED A PLANET, DISCOVERED RELATIVITY, AND DECIPHERED THE UNIVERSE

Levenson (Science Writing/MIT; Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist, 2009, etc.) connects Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity to Isaac Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In their day, each provided "a radical new picture of gravity" that ultimately depended on astronomical confirmation.

For Newton, his moment of truth occurred in 1687, when he established the universality of the inverse-square law of gravitation that governed the elliptical orbits of the planets. He showed that it also applied to the path of the major comet of 1680. "It was cosmic proof,” writes Levenson, “that the same laws that governed ordinary experience—the apple's fall, an arrow’s flight, the moon's constant path—ruled all experience, to the limits of the universe.” Newton based his theory on the estimated distance from the sun to the then-known planets. Pierre-Simon Laplace extended Newton's theory to account for the orbital perturbations caused by interactions between neighboring planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. Similar calculations allowed astronomers to predict the existence of Neptune based on discrepancies in the elliptical orbit of Uranus. The case of Mercury was more puzzling because its divergence from an ellipse could not be accounted for by the gravitational pull of neighboring Venus. Scientists entertained the spurious hypothesis of the existence of a heretofore-unobserved planet orbiting the sun, which they named Vulcan. Einstein solved the dilemma by replacing Newton's inverse-square law with his theory of general relativity, a complicated mathematical theory based on a simple geometrical image of "the sun with its great mass, creat[ing] a bulge in space time." Rather than action-at-a-distance, he introduced the curvature of space-time as a medium for the propagation of gravity. This allowed him to make a more precise prediction of Mercury's orbit, which was verified in 1917 by observations made during a solar eclipse. Though brief, Levenson’s narrative is a well-structured, fast-paced example of exemplary science writing.

A scintillating popular account of the interplay between mathematical physics and astronomical observations.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9898-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2015

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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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