The Beautiful Invisible: Creativity, Imagination, and Theoretical Physics

Giovanni Vignale. Oxford Univ., $34.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-19-957484-1
Vignale (Quantum Theory of the Electron Liquid) a Fellow of the American Physical Society and professor of theoretical physicist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, challenges the popular notion in our culture that "theory is the exact opposite of...science" in this fascinating examination of the nature of reality. In his view, theories are built on abstractions which give us ways of "thinking more deeply about reality." Reviewing the past 2,000 years of scientific discovery, he illustrates that older, empirical theories, based on "direct observation of nature," may seem more realistic than theoretical physics (where "it is possible to make discoveries...using only pen and paper"), but only because "they are based on more familiar concepts." In reality, concepts we now take for granted, like gravity and electromagnetic waves, were at first mystifying; and Copernicus' heliocentric hypothesis was at variance with ordinary observation. Each challenges common sense notions of objective reality. Vignale believes that this question lies behind the paradox of Zeno's arrow, when the Greek philosopher asked, "how do we know that the arrow is moving?" Its perceived motion, as in Muybridge's famous galloping horse, is frozen at every instant in time. Vignale covers everything from rainbows to Quantum mechanics in a rewarding read for science buffs. A good grasp of scientific principles is needed. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 05/02/2011
Release date: 04/01/2011
Genre: Nonfiction
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