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Friday, January 27th, 2006

Time Event
10:32a
Another book ...
Reading The Mind of GodWell, this was a remarkably quick read. When I got into it I figured it to be a couple of weeks of a chapter (handily 12-18 pages each) a day or so, but I had some chunks of time (like taking The Girls off to Chuck E. Cheese last night) to fill, so managed to buzz right through this.

James Trefil's Reading the Mind of God: In Search of the Principle of Universality is set up as a survey of how the idea of "universality" became established. This is the concept that the physical Laws that we are able to measure here on Earth are the same all across the Universe, and have been constant through all of time. While the idea ... that, for example, if you drop a rock on Mars (or drop a rock on some planet around a distant star) that rock will fall according to our understanding of the force of Gravity ... is hardly a shocker to our current world-view, this was not always the case. What Trefil does with this book is walk the reader through a series of discoveries/developments by scientists in various areas (Issac Newton, Edmond Halley, William Herschell, Joseph Fraunhofer, Gustav Kirchhoff & Robert Bunsen, Niels Bohr, Pieter Zeerman, Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer, John William Strutt Lord Rayleigh & Sir William Ramsay, James Hutton, Sir Charles Lyell, William Thompson Lord Kelvin, Arthur Eddington, Hans Bethe, Edwin Hubble, Alan Guth, and others) via concise thumbnails of their individual bios and work. The research goes in four basic areas, from gravity out into space, into the inner workings of Earth, to the functioning of the Sun and other stars, then to the structure of the atom and its constituent parts, and finally back towards the Big Bang, at each point showing how the idea of "universal physical laws" was built up.

This is a lot of material to pump into a 218-page book, but Reading the Mind of God is hardly a "dense read", focusing on the people who discovered the various bits and pieces, it has more the feel of a good biography, if of an idea rather than one person. Trefil also approaches his subject with a lot of humor, poking fun at various stereotypes, and even some of the scientists he profiles (noting that "ability and humanity" are not necessarily correlated). He throws in some very good "word pictures" which I don't think I'd encountered previously (like, if an atom's nucleus was a bowling ball on your desk, the atoms would be a handful of sand buzzing around many miles away ... a great way to envision how MOST of what we know as the physical world is nothing but empty space!), as well as some "random factoids" that were new to me (i.e., the quantum fluctuation from the void which triggered the big bang probably only involved 22lbs of matter!).

Obviously, with cramming so many ideas into so few pages, a lot of details get "glossed over", and the one thing I found irritating about the book was that Trefil wouldn't just say "we have no room to delve into that here", but would throw in an aside or a footnote saying that the information on that was in such-and-such of his other books. I suppose that is a small matter, but I wanted to smack him every time that came up

If you're looking to brush up on a LOT of science history in a quick read, I'd definitely recommend this book ... it is, if nothing else, a good way to become conversant on the who/what/where/when/why basics on 20 or so key figures in the development of our current understanding of science! Its theme of "universality" is also an interesting approach, as it is something which most folks probably don't have a specific conception of, yet the principle underlies much of the modern scientific world-view. And, again, as this is an "older" volume (from 1989), you can get it for cheap over on Amazon ... with "very good" copies going for as little as 45¢!


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