Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

Oxford University Press
Free sample

Here is a lively history of modern physics, as seen through the lives of thirty men and women from the pantheon of physics. William H. Cropper vividly portrays the life and accomplishments of such giants as Galileo and Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, right up to contemporary figures such as Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Stephen Hawking. We meet scientists--all geniuses--who could be gregarious, aloof, unpretentious, friendly, dogged, imperious, generous to colleagues or contentious rivals. As Cropper captures their personalities, he also offers vivid portraits of their great moments of discovery, their bitter feuds, their relations with family and friends, their religious beliefs and education. In addition, Cropper has grouped these biographies by discipline--mechanics, thermodynamics, particle physics, and others--each section beginning with a historical overview. Thus in the section on quantum mechanics, readers can see how the work of Max Planck influenced Niels Bohr, and how Bohr in turn influenced Werner Heisenberg. Our understanding of the physical world has increased dramatically in the last four centuries. With Great Physicists, readers can retrace the footsteps of the men and women who led the way.
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About the author

William H. Cropper is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at St. Lawrence University. He lives in Saugerties, New York.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Oxford University Press
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Published on
Nov 15, 2001
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Pages
514
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ISBN
9780195350272
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
Biography & Autobiography / Science & Technology
Science / History
Science / Physics / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Eligible for Family Library

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In 1900 many eminent scientists did not believe atoms existed, yet within just a few years the atomic century launched into history with an astonishing string of breakthroughs in physics that began with Albert Einstein and continues to this day. Before this explosive growth into the modern age took place, an all-but-forgotten genius strove for forty years to win acceptance for the atomic theory of matter and an altogether new way of doing physics. Ludwig Boltz-mann battled with philosophers, the scientific establishment, and his own potent demons. His victory led the way to the greatest scientific achievements of the twentieth century.

Now acclaimed science writer David Lindley portrays the dramatic story of Boltzmann and his embrace of the atom, while providing a window on the civilized world that gave birth to our scientific era. Boltzmann emerges as an endearingly quixotic character, passionately inspired by Beethoven, who muddled through the practical matters of life in a European gilded age.

Boltzmann's story reaches from fin de siècle Vienna, across Germany and Britain, to America. As the Habsburg Empire was crumbling, Germany's intellectual might was growing; Edinburgh in Scotland was one of the most intellectually fertile places on earth; and, in America, brilliant independent minds were beginning to draw on the best ideas of the bureaucratized old world.

Boltzmann's nemesis in the field of theoretical physics at home in Austria was Ernst Mach, noted today in the term Mach I, the speed of sound. Mach believed physics should address only that which could be directly observed. How could we know that frisky atoms jiggling about corresponded to heat if we couldn't see them? Why should we bother with theories that only told us what would probably happen, rather than making an absolute prediction? Mach and Boltzmann both believed in the power of science, but their approaches to physics could not have been more opposed. Boltzmann sought to explain the real world, and cast aside any philosophical criteria. Mach, along with many nineteenth-century scientists, wanted to construct an empirical edifice of absolute truths that obeyed strict philosophical rules. Boltzmann did not get on well with authority in any form, and he did his best work at arm's length from it. When at the end of his career he engaged with the philosophical authorities in the Viennese academy, the results were personally disastrous and tragic. Yet Boltzmann's enduring legacy lives on in the new physics and technology of our wired world.

Lindley's elegant telling of this tale combines the detailed breadth of the best history, the beauty of theoretical physics, and the psychological insight belonging to the finest of novels.
Acclaimed popular-science writer Brian Clegg and popular TV and radio astronomer Rhodri Evans give us a Top Ten list of physicists as the central theme to build an exploration of the most exciting breakthroughs in physics, looking not just at the science, but also the fascinating lives of the scientists themselves.

The Top Ten are:

1.Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
2.Niels Bohr (1885-1962)
3.Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
4.Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
5.James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)
6.Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
7.Marie Curie (1867-1934)
8.Richard Feynman (1918-1988)
9.Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)
10.Paul Dirac (1902-1984)

Each of these figures has made a huge contribution to physics. Some are household names, others more of a mystery, but in each case there is an opportunity to combine a better understanding of the way that each of them has advanced our knowledge of the universe with an exploration of their often unusual, always interesting lives.

Whether we are with Curie, patiently sorting through tons of pitchblende to isolate radium or feeling Bohr's frustration as once again Einstein attempts to undermine quantum theory, the combination of science and biography humanizes these great figures of history and makes the Physics itself more accessible.

In exploring the way the list has been built the authors also put physics in its place amongst the sciences and show how it combines an exploration of the deepest and most profound questions about life and the universe with practical applications that have transformed our lives. The book is structured chronologically, allowing readers to follow the development of scientific knowledge over more than 400 years, showing clearly how this key group of individuals has fundamentally altered our understanding of the world around us.

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