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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking Paperback – September 16, 2004

4.6 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Although genuine understanding of physical principles eludes the mathematically challenged, that has scarcely dented the popularity of biographies of physicists or their often best-selling general-interest works. Market-savvy publishers merely request that the math be confined to iconic equations, an f=ma here, an e=mc2 there. But Cropper has obviously won any arguments on that score in this work profiling 30 scientists; although he incorporates nothing beyond the ken of high-school calculus students, the chapter on Paul Dirac is titled "i[greek characters]=m[greek characters]." That equation describes the behavior of the electron, and in the late 1920s it reconciled competing interpretations of the spooky quantum world: Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and Schrodinger's wave mechanics. Since this equation immortalized Dirac, it is high time to let it out of textbooks and into general circulation. Fear not that Cropper stands merely at the blackboard in this work; his reworking of the abundant extant biographical material enhances the appeal of his book for reflective science students. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Digital edition.

Review

"This book provides encapsulated histories of 30 physicists who have made major contributions to the development of physics over the last five centuries, from Galileo to Hawking.... This has the wonderful effect of laying out the development of physics in an exciting continuous stream, interweaving the social and scientific lives of all the scientists very effectively. The individual chapters are scholarly yet brief, concise and to the point, focusing on the crucial life events and the major scientific breakthroughs.... We need something like this for mathematics now!"--Mathematical Reviews
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 16, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195173244
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199735167
  • Product Dimensions: 10 x 1.3 x 6.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #954,680 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Donald E. Fulton on August 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent book. Cropper must have put an enormous effort into researching and writing this 500 page, large format paperback, which has been nicely printed on white paper. At its current price of $12.97 an incredible bargain.

At first glance this book appears to be sort of a strange hybrid of biography and science, but the combo works. Cropper generally starts a chapter on a scientist with a few page biographical sketch followed by a longer, clearly written, physics section. I would estimate that the book is about 70% physics and about 30% biographical. The biographical sections are well done and interesting, but the book really shines in its overview of the physics.

Cropper covers 30 scientists with many of them in thermodynamics and atomic physics. Reading these sections you not only get a good overview of the science at a moderate technical level (a notch or two above the usual popular science writing level since Cropper is not afraid of using equations), but also you get an historical understanding of who did what and how their contributions fit together. Another plus is that Cropper will often describe in some detail how a key experiment has been done.

As a technical person (like a previous reviewer, I am an engineer), not only did I learn a lot from this book about how many of the secrets of this world have been discovered, but some of the gaps in my physics knowledge were filled in. Cropper set himself a big task to write an overview of much of physics, but he has pulled it off with style.
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Format: Hardcover
I've picked up many books over the years telling the stories of great scientists, but this is the only book of this type that I couldn't put down. I am a degreed engineer, now working in computers, with physics as a hobby. The coverage of Thermodynamics, which I have studied extensively, was fascinatingly rich and accessible. The complexity of other topics, such as nuclear physics, of which I know little, was surprizingly clear.
My curiosity attracts me to picking up compilations such as this, but I usually find them disjunct and uninteresting. Mr. Cooper has done an amazing job of weaving a coherent story of the lives of these fascinating characters spanning a history of 400 years.
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Format: Paperback
As others have stated this is an excellent summary of the history of physics. The mix of biographical background and technical overview is very well done.
I was disappointed only in the section on relativity which diminished the roles of Lorentz, Poincare and Minkowski. Unlike the section on thermodynamics, which traces the development of key ideas among several important players, Cropper seems to present Einstein as having developed the ideas of special relativity in a historical vacuum. For example, the key equation of relativity, the Lorentz transformation, is mentioned only in passing as having been developed by Lorentz. The mathematical structure of special relativity, developed by Minkowski, is also mentioned in passing. I would liked to have learned a little more about the lives of these important contributors. In general, these three figures (Lorentz, Poincare and Minkowski) deserved more attention than provided by Cropper.
The sections on the development of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics provide as good a historical summary as I have ever read.
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Format: Paperback
I received it as a present and I found it much better than I expected. The book tracks the progress of physics and some cosmology (with a dash of chemistry) from Galileo through the 20th century.

The format of the book is broken down into sections dealing with a topic (i.e. thermodynamics, particle physics) and then by chapter dealing with the biography of a scientist. The chapters roughly follow the format of biography, the science, and ending with later life / legacy / thoughts. But Cropper does not hold rigidly to this chapter format. Some scientists get mini biographies embedded into the chapters of others (Hetz, Otto Hahn) and some prolific scientists work outside of their "primary field" shows up in the chapters about other scientists; Maxwell's thermodynamic work appears in Boltzmann's in the Statistical Mechanics section. If one reads the book straight through this has the effect a making for a smoother narrative. If one is just looking up a single scientist this leads to some index work.

The biographies, while tertiary overviews based on longer works, are well done summaries. They are not overly romanticized accounts, and acknowledge personality flaws as well as strengths. The contributions of families and wives are also well noted, as well as when they are blown off or even betrayed.

A great advantage of this book as an overview is that Cropper is willing to put equations in the text, unlike some popular books about physics. The equations are not difficult, and can be understood by anyone who has taken middle school algebra. There are some calculus symbols that show up, but these are explained in the chapter on Newton. I was disappointed that the amount of math drops off in the later chapters.
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Format: Paperback
This is a great book. It is part biography and part physics (mostly the evolution of different disciplines). It is divided into sections covering: Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Electromagnetism, Statistical Mechanics, Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Nuclear Physics, and Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology. Each of the 29 chapters focuses on a different Physicist, with additional biographical information on others who interacted with the subject of the chapter.

I have read several other books on "Great Scientists" but this is far and away the best. Most of the others were largely superficial, focusing on the man (or in a few cases women). These other books generally had a lot of illustrations that added very little to the text and provided few details about the scientific work of the person being profiled. This book is different; its focus is more on physics, with the illustrations limited to a portrait or photograph of the subject of the chapter and any figures are limited to diagrams that support the physics being discussed. In some chapters the text is only 20% biography with 80% physics, but in others there is somewhat more biography (perhaps as much as 60-80%). There are great discussions spread throughout the book that clarified a lot for me. For instance, there is a half page discussion of symmetry and conservation laws that did more to clarify this idea than the other general physics books that I have read; likewise for the discussion of Hawking Radiation.

I particularly liked the section of thermodynamics. This subject is often overlooked in other books on scientists. Cropper (who is a physical chemist) shows the evolution of thermodynamics and how it was refined from scientist to scientist.
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