Skip to main content

Physics and Technology for Future Presidents – Richard A. Muller ***

This is, in a way, the supercharged version of one of my favourite popular science books, Physics for Future Presidents. That book is superb. It’s pitched at just the right level and explains all the physics-based science any administrator could need, in language that is approachable and enjoyable. It’s a delight.
This is a more heavyweight take on the subject. Quite literally – it weighs getting on for two kilos, and I felt I’d been doing weight training when I finished reading it. Once again, Richard A. Muller gives us an approach that is supposed to give potential presidential candidates and other administrators the details they need to get a good grasp of the physical sciences and technology, but somehow, for me it just didn’t work as well this time.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots of good stuff in it. Muller really gives a complete introductory physics course here, going into a lot more depth about the fundamental science rather than just the applications, which he concentrates on in the earlier book. It has most of the content of the other title (some omissions – I was sad that pebble bed reactors only get a passing reference now), but much, much more theory. That isn’t as frightening as it sounds – it’s theory presented in a very accessible and friendly fashion.
So why don’t I like it as much? In the first place, there’s just too much in it. It really is more like the book of a course than a popular science book, down to each chapter ending in discussion topics, research topics, essay questions, multiple choice questions… far too much of a textbook. Strangely, I also disliked it when the author got a bit too personal, bringing in more about himself. This usually works well in popular science, but seemed out of place in something so like an academic course.
There was also one point of the physics that worried me. To keep things simple, I guess, Muller makes a big thing of light being a wave, and despite covering quantum theory does this as much as possible from a wave viewpoint. Photons have to get a mention but are brushed aside with great frequency and he plays them down as wave packets rather than particles. I can only quote Richard Feynman: ‘I want to emphasize that light comes in this form – particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I’m telling you the way it does behave – like particles.’ Much though I like Richard Muller’s writing, I can hardly disagree with Feynman.
All in all then, it’s a great textbook for a physics course for non-scientists, and there’s plenty of stuff in there to interest scientists as well. But for an enjoyable popular science read, please turn to Physics for Future Presidents.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…