Book Review: Physics: A Short History

Physics:  A Short History:  From Quintessence To Quarks, by J.L. Heilbron

For the most part, this book is an excellent and somewhat high-level look at the larger patterns of the history of physics from ancient Greece to today.  Yet there are a couple of aspects of this book that detract from its overall pleasure to me as a reader who sometimes enters the realm of reading about the history of science and mathematics [1]. For one, the author seems particularly anti-American, gloating over what he perceives as a growing internationalism in science, and an anti-American attitude is not something I tolerate particularly well in works of any nature.   The second problem is a greater problem, and that is the way that the author’s defective religious and cosmological worldview leads him into great despair:  “If humankind accepts the responsibility and the concomitant loss of providential deities and sacred dicta, the human species might beat the odds against the survival of an electromagnetic civilization, preserve the Earth, and in the fullness of time, arrive at several satisfactory theories of Everything (200).”  Unfortunately, without a proper attention to those sacred dicta and the providential hand of a beneficent Deity, it seems unlikely we will survive.  The author makes a non sequitor by disastrously conflating moral decline and human survival, and this pessimism and lack of moral sense shows a great deal of what is wrong with the author’s approach.

Thankfully, most of the content of this book avoids such disastrous logical and moral error.  The author divides this 200-page text into seven chapters, the seventh and last one on the quintessential being a very short one.  The other six chapters look at the beginning of science as we would view it in the Greek world, the preservation of science selectively in the Muslim world of the early Middle Ages, the domestication of science in Europe during the latter part of the Middle Ages, the second creation of science in the world of the Renaissance and the so-called enlightenment, “classical” physics in the post-Newton world and its cure in the early 1900’s, and the move of science excellence from the Old World to the New World in the 20th century.  Overall, the book’s historical approach pays a great deal of attention to issues of the cultures and institutions in which scientists have worked and which has influenced their viewpoints and perspectives.  The author seems to have a great deal of fondness for government largess as well as a broad-minded view of culture as a whole, so it is not as if the author is entirely lacking in praiseworthy qualities as he conducts a very thoughtful examination of the history of science.

Ultimately, though, this book is hindered by its worldview.  The author simply cannot resist trying to score points by being critical of people in the history of science from the perspective of chronological snobbery.  This book is full of witty comments, but some of them appear quite mean-spirited, and this author does not appear like someone one would want to eat dinner with and have a conversation with, which in a book like this that depends a great deal on the warmth and humanity of the author is a critical mistake.  There is a great deal of interest to be found here, but this book fails on its first principles, and so it is of limited value to a reader who is looking for something more than an entertaining story about science in worlds gone by.  The author’s pessimism and his despair at the lack of other interstellar societies to communicate with lead him to a belief that our survival is in grave peril and that unless bigoted scientists like himself are given control of humanity than our potential for survival is hopeless.  If this is the sort of thing many scientists believe, then we ought to have a good deal less faith in them than we seem to at present.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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