I wonder how many readers are alive to the fun of physics? Nuclear and quantum physics especially seem so intimidating, but they have stimulated remarkable works of whimsy and creativity, well worth a look—
Among the first is George Gamow’s Mr. Tompkins series, originally published before the second world war, and now available in paperback in a compilation called The new world of Mr. Tompkins: George Gamow’s classic Mr. Tompkins in which Mr. Tompkins, a mild-mannered office worker, happens to hear a series of lectures on quantum mechanics, and in his dreams, plays out the stuff of what he’s heard-shrinking to subatomic particle size, demonstrating relativity of motion on his bicycle, and so on.
Erwin Schrõdinger’s cat paradox is famous in the annals of physics—the cat in a box that cannot be investigated without spoiling the results of the experiment is an example of the nuclear physics difficulty of not being able to measure always changeable variables without changing them in an experiment. An interesting book about this paradox is John Gribbin’s In search of Schrödinger’s cat.
Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time is famous for being short (originally a lecture) and hard to understand—particles without substance but with color? And they spin? There is a new illustrated version of this book, updated and expanded.
The earliest days of any discovery are the headiest, and nuclear physics is no exception—a good book about the first splitting of the atom is Fly in the Cathedral by Brian Cathcart—it happened at Cambridge University in 1932—and the image of the physics students crouching in their little hut counting flashes of light is unforgettable, as is the sense of the different nations (United States, England, Austria, Germany) racing to be the first.
Finally, a study of some of the characters involved in the race to understand the nucleus is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, actually a play that discusses the moral dilemmas presented by physics research directed toward war. Frayne puts words into the mouths of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg but this is based on an actual meeting in 1941 when the two colleagues found themselves on opposite sides.
~ John S.