Gravity: Cracking the Cosmic Code by Nicholas Mee

81qMlEpf3NLDr Mee’s quest begins with raw data used by Thales of Miletus to make an accurate prediction of a solar eclipse as early as 585 B.C. recorded in an the account of a battle by Herodotus. Thales analysed the highly accurate data provided by the skilled observations of the Babylonians. Early theories of the heavens are explored in detail with puzzles provided to encourage the reader, for example, to grasp the importance of Galileo’s experiments, Kepler’s revolutionary theories and the towering work of Newton. Midway through this engaging account Dante and the State of Denmark have all been touched upon. This book is a determined attempt to counter the ignorance of the public about basic science, famously propounded by C.P.Snow, and to introduce them to the latest theories about black holes, string theory and to covey the beautiful links between gravity and the theory of small particles, like leptons, with the grand structure of galaxies.

It is Nicholas Mee’s ability to combine incidental personal detail with grand underlying theories of gravitation that makes his study entertaining. Had you heard about Samuel Foster? He was Gresham Professor of Astronomy and fellow of Emmanuel College in 1632 and the author of treatises on quadrants and sundials. More importantly, he encouraged the observational skills of Jerimiah Horrocks who first attended the College, coming from a Toxteth family of watchmakers. Mee shows us how one generation can inspire another.

Gravity

The young Horrocks, generally little recognised, goes on to use Kepler’s tables whose accuracy he recognises to emphasise the importance of the Sun’s gravity. He explains the effects of the gravitational pull between Jupiter and Saturn. His theoretical ability enables him to explain the “irregularities” in the Moon’s orbit known as precession. Along with Crabtree he made observations of Venus in transit across the Sun. Mee consistently shows the importance of seemingly small disparities in data. Importantly, he indicates just how scientific knowledge is the product of a particular community and reiterates the importance of high quality scientific education.

The First World War was a very tough time for intellectuals posted into combat. Harold MacMillan consoled himself bravely with Greek Prose. Wittgenstein fighting the allies in the Austro-Hungarian Army and also under extreme conditions made philosophical notes and Schrodinger, an officer in the same Army, the future discoverer of quantum wave mechanics was using his physics to predict the path of projectiles for the Austrian fortress artillery. Schwarzschild who was forty years old and a professor at the prestigious at the ancient University of Gottingen was scrambling through trenches on their Eastern Front, also as an artillery officer, not only under attack by the Russians but also beset with a crippling auto-immune skin disease. However, such were his formidable mathematical skills, that he was able to use Einstein’s recently published formulation of General Relativity (1915), and whilst under extreme stress to use symmetry in a novel way. Using this elegant technique he produced a solution to describe the curvature of space-time in a spherical structure such as a star. Such an approach astounded Einstein and continues to inform theoretical astronomy today. “Gravity”, which is subtitled, “Cracking the Cosmic Code” abounds with anecdotes, such as these, to enliven the basic Physics. He mentions the human tragedy too; a few months later in 1916 Schwarzschild died without his ground-breaking work gaining significant recognition.

It is interesting that in an historical account intended for the common reader, there comes a point where theories and more particularly equations have to be stated rather than proved in full detail. There is something of a quantum leap from A-level to post-doctorate topics. In general, Mee handles this very well by maintaining interest with engaging stories and simple examples. There are essentially two chapters on Einstein’s theories and sadly, rather too small diagrams which do not facilitate the leap in comprehension. In short, you may be able to find two complete books which will cover this particular ground in detail. In other respects Mee does a sound job. He provides internet and other references in valuable end-notes. The book is lavishly illustrated with 14 coloured plates, but more thought might have been given here over the balance of choice. Personally, I could do without the mystical geometrics (the products of his software company?) which sit somewhat uncomfortably with a mural of Dante and medieval instruments. I was not thoroughly aware of Minkowski’s geometrical contribution to Einstein’s theories and this alone makes up for other minor weaknesses.

In the final chapters examining theories of space-time surfaces and the earliest expansion of the Universe, Mee touches on the essential grandeur of recent discoveries. Deep connections underlie the combination of colliding black holes with fundamental concepts like entropy and time’s arrow. The fascinating variety of supernovae is adumbrated. This book is certainly a challenging read but will repay the reader’s efforts to grasp the majesty of the mathematics of gravity; the force that holds our worlds together.

Visit Mees’s Website at www.nicholasmee.com.

Mee's previous book on the Higgs Force
Mee’s previous book on the Higgs Force

Inside The Centre: The Life of J Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk

Thinking back to the early 1960s, Bertrand Russell, the subject of another prize winning biography by Ray Monk, was frequently seen on black and white television declaring his concerns over Nuclear Weapons. He stated, Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear. For nearly seventy years, mankind has wondered in the words of Sting, How can I save my boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? As concerns about nuclear proliferation in relation to Iraq, Pakistan and North Korea escalate it is salutary to return to a thorough biography of the man, known as the father of the bomb, that felt a deep and urgent need to be at the centre and to belong, J Robert Oppenheimer.

JRO

Oppenheimer’s father, Julius, a wealthy cloth merchant came from Hesse and was among the many German Jews to arrive in America in 1888. Oppenheimer visited his Grandfather’s home at the age of four and thought it a medieval village. A strength of Monk’s biography is his facility in evoking locations. In adolescence Oppenheimer was attracted to New Mexico where he had been taken by his English teacher, Herbert Winslow Smith, and fell in love with horse riding and the landscape. At Cambridge, however, he was particularly miserable and suffered a nervous breakdown following his attempt to poison his elegant supervisor, P M S Blackett. His recovery on Corsica was due apparently to a passage from Proust, providing much needed stoic calm before his exciting time at the beautiful university and centre of theoretical physics in Göttingen.

The portrait emerging from letters and documents that Prof Monk has so carefully sifted, is of a highly intelligent man who assumes a debonair persona, motivating others, well-read and proficient in several languages from classical Greek to Sanskrit. His interest in physics covered the chemical bond to astrophysics, from quantum electrodynamics to cosmic rays. In all these fields he made major contributions. He even discovered the possibility of black holes. Here is a man that bullies and inspires his research students and whose lectures are displays of his own facility spiced with a high degree of arrogance and hauteur at the cost of clarity to his audience. Impatient and incompetent with arithmetical calculations, he was ham fisted with experiments. Oppenheimer, a tragic figure with a highly developed knowledge of classical tragedy lacked a real sense of self.

Oppie, Pauli and Rabi on Lake Geneva
Oppie, Pauli and Rabi on Lake Geneva

Monk’s biography is particularly good at clearly explaining basic physics. Especially the confusions between different formations of quantum mechanics, the difference between the absorption of neutrons in various isotopes of Uranium and the confusion between weak and strong nuclear forces in cosmic ray showers. This was an extremely exciting time in physics and the eloquence of this multi-layered biography lies in painting in both the political background and the personalities of Oppenheimer’s associates, friends, family and lovers.

This variety keeps the reader engaged throughout, iIn particular with the insight which Inside the Centre affords into American values and attitudes. Racism and anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained both in social and academic circles, notably at Harvard where he had been a student. Oppenheimer’s great contribution was the establishment of Berkley in California as a vital international centre for theoretical physics. Becoming a worthy American citizen was always a central concern to him. Seeing a fairer society was important to Oppenheimer who had actively supported a docker’s strike. This would land him in deep trouble with the FBI and later with the McCarthy inquisition and despite his endeavours at Los Alamos, his security clearance was withdrawn.

Inside the Centre by Prof Ray Monk
Inside the Centre by Prof Ray Monk

There is a sense of drama in this book which keeps the reader involved. This is due to the historically momentous events involved but enlivened by the personalities Oppenheimer encountered. His radical brother Frank was an able experimenter. There is the bulky, garrulous and memorable figure of the Swiss, Wolfgang Pauli, depicted among the thirty photographs with Oppenheimer in a boat on Lake Zurich and Ernest Lawrence obsessed with building larger and larger cyclotrons, using ersatz equipment like an 80 ton magnet rusting after WW1 in a junkyard. The contribution of one woman, a pacifist, Lisa Meitner, exiled in Sweden, together with that of Otto Hahn on Christmas Eve 1938 explaining nuclear fission and the devastating amount of energy released clarified the possibility of the construction of a weapon.

In conversation with Einstein at Princeton
In conversation with Einstein at Princeton

Monk’s technique when detailing a particular event or person, allows that the reader may see it differently. The detailed footnotes and comprehensive biography makes it possible to follow up alternative explanations. This is particularly useful in relation to a conflicted individual such as Oppenheimer who felt ambivalent about many issues, some of which he must have kept very close to his chest. There is a certain liberal generosity about Monk’s technique. This is a very fine intellectual biography.

An interview with Oppenheimer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVCL3Rnr8xE