Inward Bound

I’m reading a book at the moment recommended by Mr Sammut (awesome Physics teacher for those who don’t know him) – it’s Inward Bound, ‘of matter and forces in the physical world’ written by Abraham Pais, and although written in the style of a set of memoirs or a history of Science, it is designed to contain many mathematical and scientific assertions rather than to descend to the style of populist ‘appreciation of science’.

As its title suggests, the book is largely about Physics on the micro scale, tracing the path from the discovery of the electron all the way to that of the W and Z particles, the gauge bosons of the weak nuclear force. In brief, it steps through X-rays and radioactivity (including beta radiation, linking with electrons), spectroscopy, nuclear Physics, quantum mechanics, QED, while constantly describing the path of scientific progress from the beginnings of civilised science as we know it today to the recent discoveries of the book’s publishing date of 1986.

Flipping to a random page near the beginning of the book I already see familiar relativistic equations involving the Lorentz constant beginning to appear around p90 (of about 600) and Schroedinger’s awesome equation involving the best Greek letter ever, Psi, at around p256. Scanning pages in its vicinity, I notice asterisks appearing in the equations – any book that discusses complex conjugates of wavefunctions must be good!

While looking forward to a meaty meal from a Physics book, I can’t help but point out the superfluously copious quantities of popular science books. While genuinely interesting to read about how xyz always picked his/her nose while conducting experiments and how abc always wrote figures to a certain number of sig figs except on Sundays, such details really do not interest me. Granted, these are invented examples, but fundamentally what I look for in a book about Science is, unsurprisingly, the Science, and the history and anecdotal asides around the topic should be used at most as structure and supporting material (respectively) rather than form the backbone of any truly scientific work of literature. Often have I found myself opening up a book titled something promising that might give me a real insight into why and how the world works expressed in the natural language of physics – maths, and instead been confronted with pages and pages of black text, entirely absent of equations, numbers, diagrams etc. While it may be possible to draw endless parallels between branes and slices of toast, nothing at all like that can be proven truly elegantly without using maths.

This is what I find fundamentally annoying about popular books. They aren’t, I assert, bad books – in fact I really enjoyed reading Simon Singh’s writings – but they are simply inadequate to satisfy my curiosity: they are about science appreciation rather than science understanding, the latter of which is what I and in fact many of my peers are really after. They say ‘scientists have done this with GPS because of relativity’ or ‘the equations blow up in your face when you try to combine the two theories’ without actually explaining any of the maths behind relativistic calculations or relativity v quantum mechanics, and I find this profoundly infuriating – I intensely dislike taking someone’s word for something without finding out about the maths and logic and science behind it. Thank God (or should I say Xenu?) for the internet, whence all information flows. This is the fault I find with many popular science books – they underestimate their audience. In apparent desperation to make what they perceive an uneducated audience ‘understand’ a concept, especially a complicated one best expressed in equations, the very concept is reduced to an analogy, stripping from the arguments all that I find exciting about Physics – the maths and the rigour with which concepts are exposed, proven and developed, and the ‘understanding’ reduced to an appreciation of how similar the enthalpy of a system is to a bouncing ball.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Perhaps the problem doesn’t lie in the way popular scientific literature is written – there must be a reason it’s popular. But after reading about five such ‘popular bestsellers’ I feel I’m starting to get saturated. I know enough funny (or otherwise) anecdotes about how certain discoveries were very nearly not made. I know enough about Einstein’s quirks and his pain and anguish as he refused to believe a wholly probabilistic model of the universe. I now want to read in-depth information about Physics, not the surrounding paraphernalia (sp?). I simply think there are too many intelligent scientists who end up writing material for the ‘general public’ which for some reason is assumed to be not very intelligent just in order to make some money, and, as I might have said when still doing Spanish GCSE, es una lástima.

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6 Responses to Inward Bound

  1. egbertonline says:

    Don’t overlook the importance of history in the learning of science. After all, can you imagine teachers attempting to teach you atomic models based on Rutherford’s experiment, without first explaining the historic plum pudding model? Being able to follow the long term thought process of scientists is essential to understanding the end result. Although I admit, the personal quirks are unnecessary.

  2. Andrew Simmons says:

    Surely you mean the Lorentz factor? It is by no means a constant

  3. Andrew Simmons says:

    actually, cancel that last comment if you were referring to the L=ch lorentz constant, i just presumed, perhaps falsely, that you were talking about special relativity because you said “familiar”

  4. Bryant Tan says:

    both are familiar… (and present)

  5. hugs says:

    black text > numbers

  6. anon says:

    prove your conclusion with an equation pl0x

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