Physics for Poets

Physics for Poets
by Robert H. March

Bibliography; Index


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According to Samuel Coleridge: "Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science." Poets since 1818 have not found science much less antithetical. Some may also hold science responsible for dirtying the skies, the seas, obliterating innumerable darling buds of May and other things cherished by poets.

Books with titles like "Physics for Poets," such as this one by Robert March, should be legitimate occupants of the well-rounded 20th-century bookcase. But this text comes at a time when esteem for physics is at a low and receding ebb. Physics seems to many to be peripheral and too hard to bother with: it takes years of dreary graft to discover any beauty in a quark. Physicists in Britain now have the social cachet of train spotters, except for the occasional star, such as Stephen Hawking.

Will this book help? There is no poetry here in the literal sense. March has not peppered the text with quotations. Nor will you be faced with "I wandered lonely as a neutron..." or the like; the style is strictly prose. The author has shunned any sort of metaphysical speculation. He also spends less time than one might expect in the esoteric wilderness of modern physics, yet carefully elaborates basic, school-level concepts such as momentum and energy. And by the author's own admission, while the first edition was written in the flower-child days of the 1960s, this second one is the child of a more static time.

The book is a clear and comprehensive overview of the whole of physics, written in terms accessible to nonscientists. There is a strong emphasis on the history and philosophy of physics. March has also unearthed lots of less well-known anecdotes illustrating the methodology of physics and its often erratic evolution. So even physicists might get something out of it.

For example, I found out that Albert Einstein was helped by a lucky failure. In 1914, not having yet straightened out his theory of curved space-time, he made an incorrect prediction for the amount by which the Sun bends starlight. An expedition of German astronomers set off for the Crimea to test his prediction. Fortunately--for Einstein alone--the First World War began, and the astronomers were thrown into jail by the Russians as enemy aliens. By the end of the war, the theory of general relativity was complete, Einstein corrected his prediction and Arthur Eddington did the experiment in 1919 that established the theory as one of the foundations of physics.

More unusually for such a book, March also places successive scientific revolutions in the social context in which they took place--such as the dismantling of Isaac Newton's deterministic clockwork universe in the chaos of the Germany of the 1920s.

On balance, the book is a friendly, down-to-earth introduction to physics suitable for stockbrokers, estate agents, tax collectors, train spotters--as well as poets.

--Reviewed by Tania Monteiro in New Scientist, (September 19 1992).