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Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos. Jeremy Bernstein. Harper Collins (1993). ISBN 0-465-08897-X. 220pp.
Few physicists seem to be able to communicate easily with the general public. Bernstein is enough of a physicist to be able to describe some of the Deep Science that has been unravelled in the last hundred years or so. He is also an able enough writer to put before us an entertaining and thought-provoking profile of some of the great and not-so-great physicists of recent times. The fact that Bernstein knew many of his subjects personally allows his easy, anecdotal style to flow beautifully.
This rather unusual book is more about people than science and he starts with Einstein. He asks himself how he, as a physics professor, would reach to four pages on relativity arriving unannounced through the post. The story then develops through the eyes of Neils Bohr. It is easy, with hindsight, to see how Bohr was the link between classical and quantum mechanics, providing the building blocks for later physicists like Schrodinger, Pauli and Dirac to develop,. The way the author leads us with them through their pioneering work cannot fail to excite.
Ernst Mach's influence on the thinking of the times is then described, followed by an account of Schrodinger's behavior at the start of World War II. This is a foretaste of things to come! Chapters 5 and 6 discuss cosmology and a range of work from Gamow to Hawking. Although well documented elsewhere, Bernstein manages to bring out the human interest behind the developments. Chapters 7 and 8 are a personal profile of Alan Turing and Edwin Land. The author highlights tragically how scientists are not historical demi-gods, but people with ordinary failings.
It is in the latter part of the book that Bernstein develops his own views on major moral issues, namely intelligence, anti-Semitism and racism. This extraordinary account is given greater credence by the testimony of individuals through actual events.
Bernstein himself has been teaching physics for over 30 years. Not surprisingly he has formulated a few ideas of his own. The chapter on children's views, experiences and how they become scientists will be particularly relevant to those in education. The book lays to rest, for example, some of the myths surrounding the underperformance of women in science and this immensely important issues is addressed with candor. The question of "Why science should be taught to everyone" is dealt with extremely well. His clear thinking will provide refreshing reading for those involved in curriculum development.
Enjoying his style of writing, I would have liked Bernstein to have gone into a little more depth with the physics--but this would have been difficult in a volume of this breadth. This latest book, in a wide range of titles, is a welcome new non-standard text where the author's love of physics shines through. It will provide inspiration for senior pupils, teachers and scientists alike.
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