Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius
The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics
by Clifford A. Pickover
Sterling Publishing, New York, 2011
528 pp., 2011, Trade, $29.95
Reviewed by Wilfred Niels Arnold Ph.D.
Historian of Art and Science
The commanding position of physics among all of the sciences is a given. Unfortunately, the manifold applications that we encounter on a daily basis are barely acknowledged by the average citizen. Moreover, an understanding of principles is rare in the general population, virtually restricted to military applications within the political arena, and often excused as too difficult for young minds. Accordingly the present title might be expected to fill a gap at a very reasonable price.
Production aspects are delightful with regard to overall appearance, quality of paper, beautiful color illustrations, the multitude of small archival portraits of key scientists, and a striking dust cover. At first browse, everything seems wonderful. However the illustrations are sometimes constructed from an artistic rather than an educational point of view. A grievous example of artificiality is the picture of light diffraction through a prism on page 110, wherein a band of magenta is included. Magenta is not a spectral color but rather a mixture of red and blue (incorporated in color wheels as the complement of green).
Topics are arranged in a convoluted chronology that refers sometimes to an archeological discovery, or to the date of a practical application, or to the (more logical) era of scientific elucidation. The small index is of little help.
It is disappointing that the narrative is often “dumbed down” to the point of being inadequate, unless you already know the theory. This diminishes the book as a source. According to the introduction “each book entry is short ─ at most a few paragraphs in length. This format allows readers to jump in to ponder a subject, without having to sort through a lot of verbiage” (author). Or look elsewhere (reviewer)!