cover image Boltzmanns Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics

Boltzmanns Atom: The Great Debate That Launched a Revolution in Physics

David Lindley / Author Free Press $35 (272p) ISBN 978-0-684-85

In this well-researched study, Lindley (The End of Physics), a physicist and editor at Science News, follows the career of Ludwig Boltzmann, who played a quiet yet crucial role in physics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1897, Boltzmann proposed the then-controversial premise that matter consisted of atoms and molecules. At the time, no proof of atomic theory yet existed, and many people considered it only a fiction. Boltzmann was the first to pursue the idea that molecules in gases move with varying velocities and that these variations could be evaluated using statistical methods. Lindley describes the controversy surrounding Boltzmann's scientific publications and his angst when his theories failed to gain wide acceptance. His search for academic acceptance led him to professorships in Vienna, Graz, Munich and finally back to Vienna, sometimes these settings blur as the author jumps backward and forward in time. But Lindley's precise detailing of the inception of modern atomic theory does not falter, and he leads the lay reader along with straightforward analogies. In 1905, toward the end of Boltzmann's life, Einstein applied Boltzmann's techniques, but his results were largely overshadowed by his papers on relativity, published the same year. Boltzmann, meanwhile, had sunk into a clinical depression. In the fall of 1906 he took his own life. Within a few years, his fundamental tools would enable the development of quantum theory. Lindley offers a well-crafted blend of biography and science; readers who sought out David Bodanis's E=mc2 will also enjoy this similar attempt to explain for laypeople the basis of modern physics. (Jan. 18)