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The Physics Book by Clifford A. Pickover

When you heard the name Clifford A. Pickover, you might think of the website Clifford Pickover’s Reality Carnival. Or you might think of the book The Math Book: Milestones in the History of Math, which we featured here a couple of years ago. Pickover has done it again, with a new book called The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics.

The Physics Book is a large, substantial book, but don’t let that fool you! It’s a treat to read, whether you have a background in physics or not. I don’t, so I was delighted to see how interesting and accessible The Physic Book is. The 500 pages are broken down into 250 subjects, with a one-page explanation plus a gorgeous, full-page illustration for each. This means that each of those 250 physics topics can be consumed in bite-size pieces at your leisure. They are laid out in somewhat chronological order -”somewhat” meaning that the order is either when something happened, when it was discovered, or when it was particularly meaningful. So you can start at the beginning if you like and get a good overview of the timeline of physics or you can browse topics that interest you anywhere in the book. Of course, there’s an alphabetical index so you can easily find any of them.

The topics range from simple everyday subjects to higher concepts you’ve heard of, but don’t (yet) understand. In the simpler subjects, Pickover gives us a short explanation of scientific milestones and basic concepts that make the mundane into something fascinating. For example, for the hourglass, a mundane yet ingenious device, you get both history and science in one page.

Interestingly, the sailing ships of Ferdinand Magellan retained 18 hourglasses per ship as he attempted to circumnavigate the globe. One of the largest hourglasses -39 feet (11.9 meters) in height- was built in 2008 in Moscow. Through history, hourglasses were used in factories and to control the duration of sermons in church.

In 1996, British researchers at the University of Leicester determined that the rate of flow depended only on the few centimeters above the neck and not on the bulk of sand above that. They also found that small glass beads known as ballotini gave the most reproducible results. “For a given volume of ballotini,” the researchers write, “the period is controlled by their size, the size of the orifice, and the shape of the reservoir.”

Read the rest on page 68. My younger children didn’t realize that gears had anything to do with physics until they saw page 57.

Rotating gears, with their intermeshed teeth, have played a crucial role in the history of technology. Not only are gear mechanisms important for increasing the applied twisting force, or torque, but gears are also useful for changing the speed and direction of force. One of the oldest machines is a potter’s wheel, and primitive gears associated with these kinds of wheels probably existed for thousands of years. In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle wrote about wheels using friction between smooth surfaces to convey motions. Built around 125 B.C., the Antikythera Mechanism employed toothed gears for calculating astronomical positions. One of the earliest written references to toothed gears was made by Hero of Alexandria, c 50 A.D. Through time, gears have played a crucial role in mills, clocks, bicycles, cars, washing machines, and drills. Because they are so useful in amplifying forces, early engineers used them for lifting heavy construction loads. The speed-changing properties of gear assemblies were put to use when ancient textile machines were powered by the movement of horses or water. The rotational speed of these power supplies was often insufficient, so a set of wooden gears was used to increase the speed for textile production.

And then Pickover goes on to explain exactly how gears do these things. Other basic concepts covered include the invention of the telescope, the discovery of planets (which is, of course, related), and how things like boomerangs and pulleys and atomic bombs work. But it’s not only simple physics concepts. Interested readers can select puzzlers like the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, proposed by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935 and explained on page 376.

Schrödinger had been upset about the the recently proposed Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that stated, in essence, that a quantum system (e.g. an electron) exists as a cloud of probability until an observation is made. At a higher level, it seemed to suggest that it is meaningless to ask precisely what atoms and particles are doing when unobserved; in some sense, reality is created by the observer. Before being observed, the system takes on all possibilities. What could this mean for our everyday lives?

Schrödinger said that his experiment demonstrated the invalidity of the Copenhagen interpretation, and Albert Einstein agreed.

Which just goes to show that all those who say it’s silly to think a cat can be both dead and alive at the same time until observed were actually agreeing with Schrödinger himself!

The Physics Book lays out some of the more difficult concepts in relatively simple terms, like chaos theory, the Fermi paradox, time travel by wormhole, the universe as a computer simulation, and antimatter (page 364). Antimatter is real and has been observed since 1932. It even has practical applications. And it also leads us to further speculation on the nature of the universe.

Modern physicists continue to offer hypotheses to explain why the observable universe appears to be nearly entirely composed of matter and not antimatter. Could regions of the universe exist in which antimatter predominates?

Upon casual inspection, antimatter could be almost indistinguishable from ordinary matter. Physicist Michio Kaku writes, “You can form antiatoms from antielectrons and antiprotons. Even antipeople and antiplanets are theoretically possible. [However], antimatter will annihilate into a burst of energy upon contact with ordinary matter. Anyone holding a piece of antimatter in their hands would immediately explode with the force of a thousand hydrogen bombs.”

Oh my. I’ll make a note not to do that. The Bose-Einstein condensate sounds like a difficult concept, but that’s mainly because I was unfamiliar with it -until I read Pickover’s explanation on page 496.

The cold matter in a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) exhibits an exotic property in which atoms lose their identity and merge into a mysterious collective. To help visualize the process, imagine an ant colony with 100 ants. You lower the temperature to a frigid 170 billionths of a Kelvin -colder than the deep reaches of interstellar space- and each ant morphs into an eerie cloud that spreads through the colony. Each ant cloud overlaps with every other one, so the colony is filled with a single dense cloud. No longer can you see individual insects; however, if you raise the temperature, the ant cloud differentiates and returns to the 100 individuals who continue to go about their ant business as if nothing untoward has happened.

Which, like all these excerpts, is only a partial explanation. Each page takes only a few minutes to read, but you’ll come away with a better understanding of the overall idea of physics as well as the particular topic on each page. And there are some lighthearted yet still interesting entries, like “Stephen Hawking on Star Trek” on page 494.

According to surveys, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is considered to be “the most famous scientist” at the start of the twenty-first century. Because of his inspiration, he is included in this book as a special entry. Like Einstein, Hawking also crossed over into popular culture, as he has appeared on many TV shows as himself, including Star Trek: The Next Generation. Because it is extremely rare for a top scientist to become a cultural icon, the title of this entry celebrates this aspect of his importance.

If Hawking and Einstein did it, what is to stop other physicists from becoming pop culture icons? Physics is cool, and The Physics Book is a great way to get yourself up to speed. It will make a great Christmas gift for a student, a family, or anyone with a bit of curiosity -and if you give it to someone who doesn’t think physics is cool, this will likely change their opinion! The Physics Book by Clifford A. Pickover is available now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Visit the author at his website Clifford Pickover’s Reality Carnival.

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