cover image First You Build a Cloud

First You Build a Cloud

K. C. Cole. Mariner Books, $14.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-15-600646-0

Contemporary physicists believe in, and depend on, theories and objects that, according to Cole, are now and always will be ""unseeable... untouchable, unmeasurable, and sometimes even unimaginable."" How can they do so, and why do they have to? Cole's admirable, clear set of essays will help lay readers understand and appreciate the laws, methods and language of working physicists, and of scientists in general. Where many science explainers focus on particular theories and gee-whiz facts, this volume (a reworked and expanded version of Cole's Sympathetic Vibrations) grounds itself in everyday experience (Why is the sky blue?) and explores the territory philosophers and literary essayists share with experimental physicists. Drawing on previous thinkers and writers from Newton and Einstein to Annie Dillard (and in particular on physicist and writer Victor Weisskopf), Cole explains how science uses metaphors; why scientists use, and need, many ""wrong"" ideas; how physicists learn to ""see"" invisible particles; what makes a theory beautiful; and how to distinguish between a force field, a force and a pseudo-force. Later chapters take on such specific key concepts of physics as wave-particles, relativity, resonant frequencies and quantum theory. Cole (who did the same for math in her The Universe and the Teacup) to balance concrete explanation and literary appreciation. Demystifying her peers' complex theories, she shows at the same time how ""even our view of strictly physical forces such as gravity can have a profound effect on the way we view ourselves."" (Apr.)