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The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg

24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393337938
ISBN-10: 0393337936
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Although most people can recite Einstein's famous little equation, even if we don't know quite what it means, who has heard of the 18th-century mathematician Leonhard Euler, let alone know anything at all about his famous equation? Crease, a Stony Brook philosophy professor and popular science writer, has already taken on the ten most beautiful experiments in science in The Prism and the Pendulum, and in this enjoyable book he explores 10 rather beautiful equations. He begins with the beguiling simplicity of the equation that bears Pythogoras' name (although he says the Greek wasn't the first to discover it) and moves on to Newton's second law of motion and law of universal gravitation, the second law of thermodynamics, Maxwell's celebrated equations, discoveries by Einstein and Schrödinger and, finally, Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle. Crease explains the significance of each of these formulas for science and, in brief interludes between chapters, explores the journeys these scientists took from ignorance to knowledge, and the social lives of their theories—their impact on the larger culture. Any reader who aspires to be scientifically literate will find this a good starting place. 43 illus. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“More than just a celebration of the great equations . . . [Crease] shows how an equation not only affects science and math but also transforms the thinking of all people.” (Dick Teresi)

“Wry, probing, philosophically inclined.” (Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393337936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393337938
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #659,413 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Timothy Haugh VINE VOICE on June 18, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Chances were good that I would like this book, even as I read the title. Any book that looks to examine the history of math and science through some of the most important equations ever discovered automatically appeals to me. Still, I'm happy to report that the book pretty well lived up to its promise.

Dr. Crease does a number of things here I really like. Most importantly, he harps on one of the great, often ignored truths of discovery: they most often come about through the work of many minds, though we often attribute it to one. Many cultures discovered the "Pythagorean Theorem" independently. The form of "Maxwell's Equations" with which we're most familiar never appeared in Maxwell's work. The incredibly wide line-up that contributed to our understanding of entropy. In addition, his prose is very readable--an important consideration for someone like me, a teacher of math and physics, who is always looking for things that will help make things more understandable for my students. And, though his focus is more on history, sociology and philosophy than math and science, it works reasonably well when he keeps his prejudices at bay.

Of course, as clever as the premise is, it sets itself up for criticism. The choice of equations is personal. Some are missing and perhaps it's a stretch to include some. Though entropy and general relativity are both important and interesting, the equations are not really well known outside of the scientific world unlike the Pythagorean Theorem, the law of universal gravitation, or special relativity. These equations, great though they are, merely allow Crease to discuss topics in which he is interested. And where is the quadratic equation?
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Hugo Coolens on April 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
The author's writing style is quite lyrical for a technical book, his choice of words is sometimes beautiful, sometimes a bit long winded, however that's not too disturbing. I learned a few interesting things e.g. Maxwell's equations started with a mechanical model, unfortunately the author doesn't go very deeply into that and as a reader you are left behind wondering how exactly Maxwell went from that mechanical model to his equations which were written using quaternions. I also keep wondering which path Heaviside followed to reformulate these equations i.e. how did he make the transition from the quaternion-presentation to the vector differential representation, I'm also surprised the author didn't go deeper into the matter of the displacement current (e.g. google for Ivor Catt).

On p.150 the author becomes a bit unprecise, calling D and B currents and then presenting the equations without D

Chapter 5 fails to go into S = k log W and misses depth.

As the author knows of Richard Feynman's work, I thought Feynman's views on QED would have been discussed in the chapters on quantum theory, but unfortunately nothing about Feynman there.

I also missed clarifying illustrations now and then

a few minor disturbances:
On p.24 there is a picture which is printed unrecognizable
On p.138 In part II of the paper, _Faraday_ handled -->_Maxwell_ handled

As a whole this book is a nice read but it lacks depth
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By R. Yu on March 7, 2010
Format: Paperback
The Great Equations summarizes what the author feels are the ten greatest equations in the history of human intelligence, and who could argue with him? During the time reading it, I thought about Planck's resolution of the Blackbody Catastrophe, Dirac's QED eq, leading to anti-matter (actually Dirac was trying to unify Quantum Mechanics with Special Relativity, but 'stumbled' onto anti-matter),or Hubble's expanding universe (Einstein had postulated this much earlier, but recanted causing him to state that it was the greatest blunder of his life), but guess top 13 would be unlucky. Listed, not by import, but chronologically as follows:
1-Phythagoras's Theorem (~700 BC), which states that the sum of the squares of the lengths of the two sides whose vertex is a right angle, equals the square of the third side. This is not just some schoolchild postulate, but is the basis of ancient civilization. Structures and ideas were constructed on the basis of this deep insightful concept. But there is proof that in Asia, and South America, a similar theorem was proposed, evidenced by the level of their intellectual progress.

2-Newton's Second Law of Motion (1666), which states that any force produced by, or imposed upon a body, results from the product of its mass and its change in motion. This is the pillar upon which all explainations of motion and forces on any bodies, stand to this very day. Galileo was on the brink of this idea, but the concept of 'change in motion' was still too abstract then, plus he was having serious troubles with the Catholic Church. Sir Isaac was the first the understand this concept, and led him to discover differential calculus as an afterthought.

3-Newton's Universal Gravitation Law (1666).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Xarmanla on April 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
The book appeared to be one I would like with some quotes from my personal favorite, Dr. Richard P. Feynman. Oh how I wished Cal Tech would have accepted female students in the 1960's. I recently taught high school physics and hoped for a book I could recommend to students. While I could not quibble with the choice of equations, I felt cheated of that awe I experienced in high school when my trig derivations fell into place, or when I took a course in Z-transforms and I could solve the problems with pencil and paper. Additionally, material was repeated, the plethora of endnotes were disappointing and rarely added to the text. I would have loved to have reviewed this book before the final edit because the idea was truly inspired.
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The Great Equations: Breakthroughs in Science from Pythagoras to Heisenberg
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