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A Cultural History of Physics Hardcover – January 25, 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1568813295 ISBN-10: 1568813295 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 636 pages
  • Publisher: A K Peters/CRC Press; 1 edition (January 25, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1568813295
  • ISBN-13: 978-1568813295
  • Product Dimensions: 11.3 x 9.8 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #618,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


The book offers a total history of a discipline … Simonyi … largely succeeds in fostering the public understanding of a science in its broad historical context. … In the middle of the book the reader is treated with a sumptuous set of color plates attempting to give an overview of developments in physics interacting with the cultures of the successive periods. … its richly illustrated chapters and sections can be enjoyed independently, absorbed and savored slowly, by little doses of the magnificent history of our discipline.
—Amand A. Lucas, Il Nuovo Saggiatore (bulletin of the Italian Physical Society)

Simonyi bridges the gap between science and the humanities by presenting the history of physics in the context of the personalities and the culture in which the discoveries were made. The volume is lavishly illustrated with everything from pictures and drawings to facsimiles of pages from seminal research papers. … This is an extremely valuable reference for history of science and philosophy library collections. Highly recommended.
—C.G. Wood, CHOICE, July 2012

… lavishly illustrated, beautifully executed, with a tremendous number of quotations and unabashed use of equations. The author — who unquestionably has an uncommon talent for illustrating and organizing his ideas — made a tremendous effort to convey his extensive knowledge to potential readers. … My difficulty is of course in being able to adequately relate the worth of the treasure that the book is in a short review. I doubt that even a long review could give the book its due. … There is so much to be found in this book that make using it at all levels, from elementary school to university, interesting, indeed exciting. … I am convinced that those who read the book will enjoy the experience and end up with a cherished possession.
—Alex Bogomolny, MAA Reviews, June 2012

A Cultural History of Physics takes the reader on an immensely detailed and thoughtful tour. A Cultural History of Physics meticulously explains the specifics of its many examples, and it’s packed cover to cover with charts, graphs, and diagrams illustrating key physics discoveries and how they revolutionized the world. A working knowledge of algebra or basic calculus will aid the reader in fully understanding specific examples, but the broader picture of human history transformed by science is thoroughly accessible to lay readers. Highly recommended, especially for college and public library science shelves.
Library Bookwatch, April 2012

About the Author

Károly Simonyi (1916–2001)
Károly Simonyi was born the seventh of ten children in a small village in Hungary. His talent for learning was apparent early on, and a prominent relative brought him to Budapest and sponsored his education. Simonyi went on to earn degrees in engineering and law.
After the tumultuous years of World War II, Simonyi returned to research, ultimately becoming a professor at the Budapest Technical University, where he was known as an outstanding teacher. He organized the Department of Theoretical Electrical Engineering, taught generations of electrical engineers, and published lectures and textbooks that have been translated into many languages.
Despite his accomplishments, the political climate of 1960s Hungary was not a favorable one for Simonyi, and his work at the university was increasingly curtailed until he ultimately lost his teaching position altogether. But even this could not keep Simonyi from his work. Though his profession was science, he had always maintained an interest in the humanities, and in his new circumstances he undertook a great project: to tell the story of the history of physics and the cultural, philosophical, and societal movements that had shaped and been shaped by its development. The book that grew out of this project, published first in Hungarian, then in German, and now in English, has been highly successful and widely read.

Charles Simonyi
Creation of the English edition of A Cultural History of Physics has been directed by Károly’s son Charles. A successful entrepreneur, Charles emigrated to the United States as a teenager and went on to become a software engineer at Xerox and at Microsoft, where he oversaw the development of what would become some of Microsoft’s most profitable products: Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Charles is a distinguished philanthropist, as well as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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Customer Reviews

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This book is a treasure!
Alvaro Castro
The book brings out the great subject of Physics and its history in a rich and colorful fashion. .
Sigurdur Helgason
In addition, the book is beautifully rendered with over a thousand illustrations.
Herbert L Calhoun

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Sigurdur Helgason on June 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The appearance of this book by Karoly Simonyi is a major publishing event. Originally published in Hungarian in 1978 it has appeared in five Hungarian and three German editions. This first English edition (translated by David Kramer) now appears through the initiative of Alice and Klaus Peters of A K Peters and the author's son Charles Simonyi who writes an engaging Foreword to the book. This new edition ends with an Epilogue by E.Witten, entitled "Looking ahead in Physics".

Starting with an introductory essay on the history of physics and its relevance to our lives today the book traces the developemnt of physics from antiquity to the present. The beginning of science with focus on Egypt and Mesopotemia is followed by a very detailed account of the classical Hellenistic period, explaining works of the Pythagoreans and Plato, Socrates, Aristoteles and Archimedes. Their work is described in considerable detail through explicit proofs, revealing figures and historical quotations. The next chapter relates how the Hellenistic period was followed by a dormant period in science which stretched into the Renaissance. Then in Chapter 3 the book describes the work of Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Descartes, Fermat, Huygens, leading to the Newtonian world view. Chapter 4 is entitled "The Completion of Classical Physics" followed by the last chapter "The Physics of the Twentieth Century".

While the text is devoted to the history of physics, it is complemented by very detailed and clear illustrations enabling the reader to acquire real understanding of the arguments. Thus in addition to its historical character, the book can serve as a complement to a textbook.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Donald J. Albers on July 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Over the years I have read lots of physics, including historical material. It is my view that physicists and many non - physicists have done a good job of writing historical accounts of the subject - Gamov,Pais, Galileo, Koestler, Wilson, Feynman, Cathcart, Richard Rhodes, Weinberg, and many others. But the recent publication of A Cultural History of Physics by Simonyi stands out as a spectacular accomplishment. The careful presentation of the history with an amazing amount of scientific detail together with the imbedding in the broader cultural environment is a landmark presentation. Wonderful illustrations, including several photographs that I have never seen before, and nice accounts of many mathematical ideas underscore the breadth and depth of the author. I don't know why it took so long for an English translation to be done, but it must be very gratifying to the publisher AK Peters to have brought this treasure to publication. If only a mathematical counterpart to Simonyi existed.

Donald J Albers
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of my favorite books is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything; a sweeping tour through modern science (and how we "know what we know" - it's a wonderful book).

This volume, by Hungarian physicist Karoly Simonyi (father of Charles Simonyi - who wrote the forward) is an amazingly detailed account of how we have come to understand the natural world. It's also a beautiful book filled with quotations by scientists and writers as well as wonderful diagrams (and plenty of equations).

While not for the faint of heart (though many of the detailed formulas can be skipped in a more casual reading), the book can be consumed in parts - each covering a distinct period of history. One of my favorite diagrams - an interconnected graph of what different scientists and philosophers thought of each other (including what Descartes thought of himself!).

If you get the Kindle edition, I recommend reading it on at least an iPad sized screen to get the full benefit of the layout, photos, and typography. This is one book I'm getting in hardcover even though most of my reading is done on the Kindle now-a-days.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By silviugherman on July 20, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This will surely be in my library as one of the most treasured books, if not the most treasured of all. The quality and quantity of the provided material is simply astounding and makes one truly appreciate the effort, the care and the love that has been poured into this book. Not only is the material masterfully organized, enhanced by useful images and carefully following ideas and their developments throughout the ages, but the book itself is a sturdy and beautiful object, which will most likely be a lifelong companion.

Living in the 21st century, in an age of ready-available information structured into a myriad of books, there are still gems like this one that give deep meaning to the idea of the physical book. I am an avid Kindle user, but no ebook experience can ever come close to holding this gentle giant in my hands.

Highly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Herbert L Calhoun on November 19, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I first learned of this beautifully rendered book when the author's son reviewed it on the Charlie Rose Show last month. I went right out saw how expensive it was and then ordered it used from Amazon, for the book and the TV discussion was right up my alley.

It will not disappoint even though it is oversized, costly (about 60 bucks) and is 600 pages. The good news is that it covers everything in physics from its beginning. And here I mean from prehistoric times to the present.

Every important idea in physics is introduced the way it came to be recognized as a problem that needed a solution, and in the context of the times in which it arose. The explanations proceed in just the way a scientist of the period in question would have proceeded. Often the side bars contain the exact words of those Scientists used as the discoveries were being made.

In addition, the book is beautifully rendered with over a thousand illustrations. One of the authors four motives was to try to marry the scientific world with other cultural worlds, with a view to convincing the reader that they are one united world culture. I believe in the end this is an easy job as the history of science sort of does most of the heavy lifting all by itself.

I can understand why the book is being used as a college textbook as an introduction to general science. The bonus is that it contains "fine print," in which the more advance mathematical notions associated with a particular theory, idea or technique is introduced as a kind of fine print side bar.

These advanced technical notes are very enlightening even for the technically unsophisticated, as they can be read or omitted without lost of continuity.
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