Physics: A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks

J.L. Heilbron. Oxford Univ., $11.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-1987-4685-0
Heilbron (Love, Literature, and the Quantum Atom), professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Berkeley, explores the influence of culture on the development of physics, from ancient Greece to modern research efforts. Greek thinkers invented the earliest "theories of everything," Heilbron writes, but their preference for explaining the world without the intervention of a creator deity was reversed by Islamic scientists, who prioritized astronomy (it helped determine the direction of Mecca) and doubted the spiritual value of physics. Heilbron describes how translations of Greek and Arabic documents allowed Europeans to "domesticate" physics for early universities, and frames the scientific revolution with Galileo's experimentation, Copernicus's heliocentric solar system, and Newton's gravity. Then he wryly cites the invention of the air pump as the basis for the Enlightenment's boom in experimenters and their illuminating public demonstrations. Coupled with advances in math and data measurement, the stage was set for modern physics and its big questions, including the origins of the universe and further theories of everything. Covering topics concisely and briskly, Heilbron's history assumes that readers know a fair amount about physics, and focuses on illuminating the cultural and historical context of the science. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 12/21/2015
Release date: 01/01/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
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