Friday, May 23, 2014

Fin de siècle (1800s) Physics

Forgive me for picking up another book on physics this week: Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century. I had high hopes after enjoying so much The Perfect Theory on general relativity.

It's not a good sign that I am a little bored and disappointed after the introduction and the first chapter. This sentence in the introduction in and of itself may have predicted the doom of this book for me: "I have described, rather than analyzed, important parts of the development of physics between 1895 and 1995" (xiv).

The first chapter, on "end of the century" physics at the end of the 1800s, kept the author's promise. It seemed to me a cluttered and somewhat boring catalog of people and their ideas at the end of the 1800s. I feel like I could write a more interesting account... who cares that it wouldn't be nearly as accurate. :-) Give me the flavor. Give me the controversy. Give me the narrative. Give me Gamow. Give me Hawking.

The standard narrative is that physics was all but putting on the finishing touches and letting the paint dry at the end of the 1800s. Kragh says not so fast. He no doubt treats these figures much more fairly. But, come on, I want to feel smart by making these guys look silly.

Maybe someday I can write the Mickey Mouse version of 20th century physics...

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