Saturday, January 06, 2007

Everything's Relative and Other Fables from Science and Technology by Tony Rothman

Sometimes when I get home from the bookstore, I wonder why I bought a certain book. Everything's Relative was one of those, but I decided to give it a chance. The preface spells out the important ideas to be gleaned from the book -- discoveries sometimes happen simultaneously (who gets credit from whom can depend on nationality) and discoveries are almost always based on the work of predecessors, many of whom were pretty darn close to achieving what the "famous" discoverer did.

Although Rothman says Everything's Relative is written for a "popular" audience, he clearly assumes the reader is well versed in physics and other college-level science material. My recollections of those subjects are foggy at best. I spotted a familiar name or theory from time to time but generally floundered through the text. I valiantly plowed through the first chapter about whether Galileo dropped things off the Leaning Tower of Pisa and invented the barometer (disparate topics that involved the same group of scientific peers). I tried to read the next chapter but decided I could never finish the book straight through.

Instead I skipped ahead to topics that interested me, such as the discovery of the planet Neptune. The common story is that mathematicians calculated where it would be based on the gravitational effect of an unknown body on Uranus, and all the astronomers had to do was look where they were told. Like many topics in Everything's Relative, this story is sort of true but not completely. This sort of nitpicking really requires a more intense interest in the subject than most people have, but I used to be an astronomy enthusiast many years ago. While Neptune was indeed discovered where predicted, it was somewhat by luck because the mathematicians had made invalid assumptions in their calculations. There is also evidence that another astronomer discovered Neptune years earlier except he presumed that he had made a mistake in recording his observations.

Rothman tackles other great discoveries and inventions in this manner, but I couldn't stay interested. I read most of the chapter about the light bulb and half of the chapter about the telephone before giving up. I would recommend this book only to someone with a very strong interest and background in science, particularly physics; I really don't think it is appropriate for the layman as advertised on the book jacket.

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