Over Thanksgiving vacation, I finished reading Great Physicists bt William H. Cropper. In this book, Cropper introduces us to 30 of the greatest physicists of all time, starting with Galileo and ending with Stephen Hawking. Even though many of these physicists made seminal contributions to multiple fields of physics, Cropper groups the scientists into nine sections, defined by sub-fields of physics. This presentation also lets him present the scientists in a rough chronological order that mirrors the development of physics. These sections include mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear physics, among others.Each chapter introduces one scientist, describes their early history, goes into their contributions to physics, and ends with the tale of each scientist’s later years. Cropper’s description of the contributions of these scientists does not skimp on the math. While complex integrals are not presented, the seminal equations along with their meaning are described. Their importance for physics are also discussed.I found this book to be marvelously interesting. Cropper does a great job with each scientist, not only describing the importance of his or her work, but putting it in the context of the development of physics as well as the state of the world during that scientist’s life. He describes how these scientists interacted, including the feuds amongst them. He also goes into the unique challenges each scientist encountered in growing up, trying to do their work, and in their later years.
I learned a great deal in reading this book. First, I was a bit dismayed by how much of my physics I have lost since school. While in the middle of graduate school I may have been more familiar with the science presented in this book, now, as I don’t use most of it on a daily basis, I am not as crisp with most of it as I would like. For that alone, this book is a nice primer or refresher of the basics of physics, covering all of the key fields.
As interesting are the lives of these men and women. Most of them were very unique personalities and most also went through a great deal in their pursuit of science. Many were very dedicated, almost obsessed, people. Many had some kind of mental issue, often in the form of depression. I was particularly captivated by the lives of Gibbs and Boltzmann, two of the most interesting but more unknown of the figures presented in this book.
I was struck, in reading this book, by how little most of us know of these great figures who have transformed our lives more than probably any other set of people. Not only did the people presented here radically transform our view of the world, from the development of Newtonian physics and the view of the world as a sophisticated clock to quantum mechanics and its revelation of the world as indeterminate and “fuzzy”, but their work led to the incredible technological advances science has afforded us. In my view, these people deserve greater recognition by society. They should be our celebrities, our rock stars.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is considering any kind of life in science, especially students in the midst of studying science. The amazing work of the people Cropper presents is an inspiration. The achievements of these physicists are also daunting as they seem so incredible, especially considering the state of science at the time they were made and the world conditions they were made in. The science that these people developed was amazing, and is difficult to understand even with the advantage of the further development and testing we now enjoy.
More treatments such as this book would be welcome for other fields. The format was great, with each chapter not overly long, but giving enough detail to give a basic understanding of each scientist. I would be interested in such an approach for historical figures, including say explorers of the US west or pirates, or mathematicians, etc.