Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Beauty of Physics

Categories on the Beauty of Physics published by Vernacular Press is a science book for the literary and art minded person. The book is an all around delight. The pages are heavy, glossy paper and all the original art and the reproductions are in full color. The book is composed of 39 "chapters." Each chapter is a term used in physics from acceleration to force to mass to work. The chapter begins with a passage from a book that illustrates the term under discussion. The passages come from science books and literature as well as philosophy and psychology. To give you an idea, Ben Franklin is used for electricity; Don Quixote for entropy; Hamlet for uncertainty. The passage is then followed by a dictionary definition of the term. Next is an original piece of collage art followed by a physicist's single page explanation of the concept, a list of related terms in the book, and the equation (if there is one). Next comes a section called "Think About It" that supplements the physicist's explanation and includes related themes. After this is "Read About It." This is my favorite section because it lists two or three books and sometimes films, that further illustrate the concept. All recommended materials were verified by the editors to be readily found in libraries and bookstores. To be sure, quite a number of science books are suggested, but none of them are textbooks or for a specialized audience. But not all of the books are science books. For example, in the chapter on energy, the books recommended are Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do by Helen Caldicott and Physics for Poets by Robert March. The "Read About It" section is followed by "Talk About It." Here can be found questions to ponder and discuss such as a few found in "Entropy" which ask "Is decay always undesirable? Can entropy be seen as the progression from whole to particulate? Are rare objects precious because they cannot be remade or regenerated?" Once your brain is whirling from the questions, there is a photo of a work of art that further illustrates the term. For instance, Mary Cassatt's The Bath is used for the "Orbit" chapter. The chapter concludes with a short "review" of the book from which the chapter's opening passage was taken. At the back of the book, the editors kindly provide a bibliography that includes all of these books as well as all of the books from the "Read About It" sections. And let me just say, my TBR list has several new additions. What I liked about this book is that it not only makes the concepts easy to understand, but it also provides a wider context for them. I've not come across any other book that can bring a concept like "particle" to life in science (atoms, electrons, dark matter), art (A Sunday in La Grande Jatte by Seurat) and literature (Swann's Way by Proust). It really shows the interconnections between art and science and just how much they depend upon each other. Catergories on the Beauty of Physics is definitely worth your time.