Skip to main content

Energy: the subtle concept – Jennifer Coopersmith ****

There are many reasons why, by rights, this shouldn’t be a great popular science title. Physicist Jennifer Coopersmith makes clear at the very beginning that a background in the physical sciences is assumed for parts of the book. We have quite a few equations, and throughout the book Coopersmith does not hesitate to mention such words as tensors, integrals and vectors, with little in the way of definitions for the layperson. In addition, there is a lot packed in here – at 360 pages, whilst there are certainly longer books out there, I wondered when starting the book whether the non-specialist might suffer from information overload.
And yet, the more I read this book, the more difficult it was to put it down, and I was always excited about returning to it. (To give some indication of how much I enjoyed the book: I am often unable to get down to reading until 8 or 9 o’clock at night during the week, because of a long commute. For this book, however, I got up especially early on one occasion to continue reading so I didn’t have to wait until the evening.) This is because, despite all the shortcomings mentioned above, the book also has a fascinating story to tell about the development of our understanding of energy as a physical quantity, and overall, the way Coopersmith describes this development means that these shortcomings, while never going away, become less significant.
We begin with Liebniz’s concept in the 17th century of vis viva, or ‘live force’, defined as some kind of ‘activity’ that was conserved and which was ‘the cause of all effect in the universe.’ After tracing developments in the 18th and 19th centuries, we go on to consider our modern understanding of kinetic and potential energy, via discussions of quantum mechanics (where we find that, contrary to what we had believed, the principle of conservation of energy can be violated due to the uncertainty principle) and relativity (a consequence of which is that we understand energy as being interchangeable with mass). Along the way, we meet a varied cast of characters who have contributed to our understanding of energy, and the biographical sections we get on the scientists involved complements well the explanations of the science, and makes the book, on the whole, very readable. Particularly interesting is the section on Sadi Carnot.
It is also the case that, whilst the science can often be challenging, if you put in the effort you will be more than compensated for your trouble, and it is possible to get real insights into the nature of energy, which, unlike less abstract physical quantities like mass or momentum, can be difficult to get a feel for. Yes, there are equations, and yes, there are tricky concepts which could have been introduced more gently. But if you persevere, and continue reading where you may otherwise be liable to get a little stuck, it is worth it, and you always get, at the very least, a good idea of the big picture.
I can’t completely overlook the drawbacks mentioned above, so am unable to give the book the full five stars. But I would still highly recommend this. Although perhaps ideal for physics undergraduates, this book is still of great value for the layperson, who would be likely to get a lot out of it.
Hardback:  
Review by Matt Chorley

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…