Reflections On The Meaning Of Physics
Hans Christian von Baeyer
Penguin, London, 1993.
Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi excelled at solving difficult problems by breaking them down into smaller ones and then estimating the solutions to them. The method involves making informed assumptions about the problem and making rough estimates of the range of values concerned at each stage of the process. The errors are likely to cancel each other out over a string of calculations. A prerequisite is the self-confidence to work out the problem oneself rather than seeking the solution from other quarters.
This collection of essays discusses a great range of contemporary themes: dark matter, gravitational lensing, magnetic cooling, superconductivity, gauge theory, quasicrystals, and our conception of a vacuum.
Avogadro's Number is tackled (p.116) by use of the Caesar's Last Breath Theorem: your every breath inhales one molecule from Caesar's Last.
How does a falling cat spin round so as to land on its feet? The answer is revealed in the course of a discussion of geometric phase, gauge theory and quantum mechanics.
As well as outlining the findings of physics, von Baeyer touches on the interlocking issues of the relationships between mathematics and physics, theorists and experimentalists, aesthetics and science. The subtleties discussed transcend simplistic notions of science as being merely an abstract theoretical game, or as being devoid of values of beauty.
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© Paul Taylor 2001