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The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and…

The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics (1991)

by Timothy Ferris

Other authors: Clifton Fadiman (Foreword)

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The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics, edited by Timothy Ferris (1991)

A compilation such as this can be intimidating to many and so it might be worth the effort to encourage those who are afraid of not being astute enough to handle the "spicy meat" of quantum mechanics and matrix math to jump in anyway.

And let me not gloss over the fact that some of the essays cause me to wonder just what the book's theme really is. I did find the editor to be somewhat confused as to what it was he wanted to communicate…which is why I gave it a 4-star rating, rather than 5---for whom did he think he was compiling this book? My recommendation is to feel free to skim through the several essays that were written for specifically erudite audiences and enjoy the rest of the book.

As a background, I received my BSc in Physics/Math from Stony Brook and worked, as an undergraduate, in the Brookhaven Bubble Chambers with Juliet Lee Franzini and C.N.Yang. I flunked quantum physics twice and graduated with a C (and was darned happy for it). This is by way of saying that I'm familiar with many of the buzz words….but don't really have a clue what they mean. If you can deal with a few obscure references (i.e. recognize that you probably wouldn't be able to understand them even if you had studied the topic and are willing to pass over them) this book will be rewarding anyway.

If you have a passing interest in Physics/Astronomy/Mathematics then don't worry about the math and theory because they're not all that crucial to appreciating this book. Yes, there are a few chapters that include references to really esoteric concepts, many—ok, most—of which I'd never heard of before (and there's very little attempt to explain them), but that's not what this book is about.

The only chapter I found difficult to work through was the excerpt from Julian Schwinger's Memorial Lecture on Sin-itiro Tomonaga. My guess is that the handful of people who could understand this lecture were there when he delivered it, or would already have read the original by this time.

In general, though, these essays give us a taste of how true genius functions. Not for us to understand how it's done—but to vicariously share the thrill of people peeking into the inner workings of God (or the Cosmos, or Nature, or whatever).

In "Genius, the Life and Science of Richard Feynman" James Gleick defines two kinds of genius. To summarize: when the first kind of genius tells you what he's done and how he did it you smile and think "of course! Why didn't I think of that?"; the other kind of genius can explain in great detail, in simplified language, what's going on … and you still haven't a clue what he's talking about.

This book is filled with stories of, by and about people who fall into this second category of genius. To get a taste for how these people think, to learn about their fragile humanity and silly weaknesses and "mystical" insights [my phrase] is worth the payment of reading about concepts that ARE mystical (at least to me). For example, is our mathematics helping us to describe Nature? Or is it forcing us to see Nature in a predefined mold? forcing a particular (limiting) structure on the way we see Nature? Kind of like the blind men and the elephant?

One other payment that many of these essays require is the willingness to make the effort to hold the various strings of thought in your head and to try to make sense of them. The vocabulary and grammatical structure is seriously above high-school level. In fact, they're at a level that I rarely, if ever, experience in normal life. These are people who have learned the necessity of being precise and concise; these are people who explain themselves in terms that are intensely "necessary and sufficient". (If you can smile from fond memories associated with that phrase, you will enjoy this book.)

When a genius describes the efforts he made to discover a new view of reality it's in his nature to use the fewest words possible to convey the greatest meaning possible. This is why these stories and essays require some mental mastication…you have to contemplate the implications of what these people are saying before you can truly appreciate what they're saying.

So yes, this collection is not for everyone. But not everyone is interested in Physics and Astronomy and Math enough to be curious about some of the greatest minds to have lived and how they lived. If you're curious enough to be reading this review, you already imply that you can find enjoyment and edification from reading the book itself.

Some of the puzzles that these essays describe painfully illustrate why I believe these men and women could be called mystics. This book illustrates how and why very strange humans study very strange subjects.

[Sometime in the near future, I expect to read "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" (2016) by Carlo Rovelli and Simon Carnell and Erica Segre. I don't need to do the math to be able to enjoy the mystery of a sunrise. Just knowing that someone else shares the same need to explore that ineffable joy and wonder that I feel when I contemplate "billions and billions" of stars fills me with optimism for the human race; and joy for my small place in it.] ( )
  majackson | May 16, 2016 |
Excellent. Covers several of the titles subjects.It is one of the series of World Treasures.
  Ipsofacto | Jul 31, 2008 |
A compendium of the seminal ideas and articles of the entire cast of preeminent scientists and mathematicians of modern times. Articles by and about Einstein, Rutherford, Feynman, Von Neumann, Planck, Hawking, Bohr, Heisenberg, and many other notable modern scientists give a great first-hand overview of what we know about matter and math. I found particularly interesting, the discussion about religion and science (many great scientists believe in God and support that science is his method and creation), great (and eccentric mathematicians), the culture and participants of Los Alamos; the great debates about black holes; and the varying "definitions" of science and mathematics. There is also a strong skepticism of religion and politics by most of the writers (many still allude to bitterness over Galileo's persecution, e.g.). ( )
  jpsnow | Apr 11, 2008 |
Read the Annie Dillard piece first, it is stunning. Then wade through the headier stuff - I'm still working my way through. ( )
  readaholic12 | Jan 5, 2007 |
Education & Psychology
-This is a collection of over 60 articles on a variety of subjects by many of the world's finest scientists and mathematician
  jmdcbooks | Oct 2, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Timothy Ferrisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fadiman, CliftonForewordsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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From the Publisher: An astonishing cast of more than ninety renowned writers provides thoughtful and lucid reflections on some of the major scientific topics of our time-from black holes and galaxies to artificial intelligence and chaos theory. Featuring essays, articles, and poems penned by notables in the worlds of both science and literature, this unique book will delight the science enthusiast and the inquisitive general reader alike.… (more)

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