Three history of science books.

I have one new post up on, on prep lefty Brady Aiken, the top prospect right now for this year’s Rule 4 draft.

I’ve listened to three history of science audiobooks in the last month, two of which became more relevant in the wake of Monday’s announcement of a discovery of evidence relating to the initial moments after the Big Bang. Of those three books, one was excellent, one was disappointing, and one had a little bit of both.

By far my favorite of the three was Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science, a book about the discovery of quantum mechanics and the difficulty the theory’s proponents had in convincing the advocates of the standard model of physics – a group that included Einstein and Bohr – that God does indeed play dice, at least with subatomic particles. The book is thorough, speaking as often as possible through the words of its many characters, while making a complex scientific subject easily accessible to lay readers who, like me, may not have taken a physics class in 20+ years.

The book builds up to Werner Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle, and then deals with the massive fallout (pun intended) from the theorem’s introduction and subsequent examinations within a skeptical physics community. The principle is popularly interpreted to mean that we cannot simultaneously know the location of a subatomic particle and its velocity, but that oversimplifies it a bit. Heisenberg actually argued that the more accurately we can measure the position of a particle, the less accurately we can measure its momentum. This is separate from the observer effect, also discussed by Heisenberg, which states that the act of observing a particle alters the characteristics of that particle that the observer is attempting to measure. The uncertainty principle itself is critical to the understanding of quantum mechanics and measuring the behavior of subatomic particles after the demise of the “predictable” model of classical physics. This uncertainty is an inevitable result of the fact that every particle in the universe is also a wave, which is where Herr Schrödinger comes into play.

Uncertainty has to deal with a lot of phenomena that aren’t covered in high school physics classes, and some that are but might be unfamiliar, such as the discovery that electrons do not in fact orbit the nucleus of an atom as planets in the solar system do. The book also has the best explanation I’ve come across of the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, as the physicist himself looms large in the early days of the theory and refinements of quantum mechanics. The paradox was Schrödinger’s response to the seemingly impossible claim of the quantum theorists that a subatomic particle could simultaneously exist in multiple “states.” Schrödinger’s cat existed in a box where a canister of poison would open with the release, at some arbitrary point in time, of a single particle. He argued that if quantum mechanics were true, the cat would simultaneously be alive and dead – at least until the observer opened the box, at which point the cat would clearly have to move entirely to one state (alive) or the other (dead). This paradox sidestepped the question of whether quantum characteristics of subatomic particles do or should apply equally to relatively large objects, but the paradox has led to multiple interpretations, from the slightly insane (the Copenhagen interpretation, where observing the object ends the superposition of multiple states) to the totally insane (the many-worlds interpretation, where observing the object splits the universe into two universes and I can’t even continue with this). I’ve always understood it as a probabilistic model: The cat is only “half alive and half dead” in a mathematical sense, as in 1/2(alive) + 1/2(dead). No one can seriously argue that the cat exists in two superposed states until we open the box, right?

Lindley’s greatest trick here is to present the various scientists involved in the debate over quantum phenomena, particularly Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, and Schrödinger, as full-fledged individuals, capable of insight, humor, doubt, and even pettiness. Heisenberg’s postulate threw a huge wrench into the well-oiled machine of classical physics, where the behavior of particles was thought to be predictable and well-understood. Heisenberg didn’t just say that their behavior was unpredictable, but that it could never become predictable, and that there was an upper bound on our ability to observe and understand the behavior of certain subatomic particles.

The second book of the three, the one on which I’d put a middling grade, was Ray Jayawardhana’s Neutrino Hunters: The Thrilling Chase for a Ghostly Particle to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe*, about the lengthy and difficult question to understand these particular subatomic particles, ones that seemed to also defy conventional wisdom on how such particles should behave. Neutrinos are almost massless and can pass through an entire planet without touching another particle. They also explain the full process involved in beta decay, where an atomic nucleus emits an electron or a positron as well as electron neutrino (or antineutrino, but hold that thought). Without the neutrino to balance the scales, physicists were left with an apparent loss of momentum and energy from beta decay. As it turns out, the Italian physicist Wolfgang Pauli wasn’t just making stuff up when he posited the existence a previously unknown particle, which another Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, dubbed the “neutrino,” or “little neutron.”

* Subtitles have gotten completely out of control.

Jayawardhana starts off with a brisk history of physicists’ understanding of the atom and radioactive decay, getting us fairly quickly to Pauli and the stir that his hypothesis created in the world of nuclear physics. Undiscovered particles are always good fun in that realm, but Pauli’s subatomic idea was a naughty bit, appearing to have no mass, possibly having no charge (but having “spin,” tying to Pauli’s other great contribution to science, for which he later won a Nobel Prize), and defying decades of attempts to find it. Pauli’s guess was right, as the neutrino did exist, but wasn’t discovered until 26 years after his first paper describing it, and physicists continue to build larger and more expensive contraptions to capture enough neutrinos to try to better understand them, graduating from capturing solar neutrinos (emitted during the nuclear fusion that powers the star) to those that reach us from distant supernovae. Neutrinos also gave rise to our understanding of the weak interaction, one of the four fundamental forces of nature, and are one of the handful of remnants left over from the Big Bang still hanging around the background fabric of the universe.

When Jayawardhana is explaining the “invention” of the neutrino, its formation, and the various “flavors” of neutrinos now known to science, he keeps the material moving and strikes the ideal balance between rigor and accessibility. But the last third of the book bogs down in descriptions of those enormous devices used to try to catch the little sneaks, and the lengthy efforts involved in funding those experiments and waiting for results. The discussion of why neutrinos matter suffers in comparison for its brevity, when in fact that’s the topic that deserved greater explanation. The revelation that neutrinos may actually serve as their own antiparticles is just thrown in near the end of the book, even though that’s kind of a big deal. Jayawardhana also falls into the trap of dismissing the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat by saying, without any explanation, that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead inside of the box, an interpretation that, even if you accept it, isn’t the only one out there.

Unrelated to the book itself, the audiobook was narrated by Bronson Pinchot, so if you’ve always wanted to hear Balki talk to you about double beta decay, here’s your chance.

The disappointment was Dava Sobel’s A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos, a description of Copernicus’s earth-shattering (pun intended) discovery that the earth revolves around the sun, not, as the Catholic Church decreed, that the universe revolves around the earth. Copernicus also pointed out that the stars are much farther away from earth than scientists of his era believed them to be. Sobel’s book paled in comparison to her wonderful debut, Longitude, but also suffers from the paucity of original source material, as Copernicus left little besides his On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, and after his death the work was condemned by the very church he’d once served as a canon.

To fill in the gap, Sobel resorts to a dubious technique of imagining dialogues between several of the major players in the drama, incorporating a short play in the middle of her more serious work. Historical fiction itself is problematic enough when the author puts words or actions with real historical figures, but Sobel’s device here seems unconscionable. That we know so little of Copernicus’ life beyond his magnum opus is lamentable, but it is no excuse for fabricating an entire personality for him and others involved in the story of his discovery, such as making Georg Rheticus, the mathematician who published On the Revolutions, into a pederast. Expanding the tome to discuss Johannes Kepler, who built on Copernicus’ work and discovered that planetary orbits are elliptical rather than circular, at greater length would have been a better use of the space.

I’ll apologize here for any errors in my descriptions of the physics explained in these books. Please submit any corrections or clarifications in the comments.


  1. I’d put forward Frank Close’s Neutrino as an alternative (without subtitle) for the topic, and Ian Sample’s Massive is a good one for the history of particle physics and particularly the hunt for the Higgs (gets a slight downgrade for being published before the most recent findings were published).

    I had looked into getting A More Perfect Heaven after enjoying Longitude, but I think I’ll steer clear on your advice.

  2. BTW, it still pisses me off that I have a science/engineering degree and didn’t really learn much about the history of science. Because scientists have nothing to learn from history, I guess.

  3. Do you really believe that the Big Bang Theory exists? I feel that science has become more concerned about proving evolution and the big bang, than saving the ozone, tracking asteroids, and curing cancer.

    • @Evan: You’re asking two separate questions. Do I believe that the Big Bang is the explanation for how the universe came into being and for whether it’s still expanding? Yes, I do, mostly because that’s a nearly unquestioned consensus among scientists. Much of the evidence involved requires more education than I received.

      As for whether “science is more concerned about proving” other things, “science” isn’t a person, and there are so many scientists around the world working in so many fields I can’t support such a broad generalization. I also don’t see any reason to believe that subjects like the ozone layer or cancer treatments/prevention are receiving short shrift.

  4. I really appreciate your feedback, and I often read your articles on ESPN. However, science isn’t meant to understand supernatural things, it is meant to rationally explain events and problems. Both creation and evolution rely on the fact that in the beginning there was something. I feel that the big bang theory is much more unrealistic due to the fact of the chance that macroevolution is so unrealistic, and how complex everything is. Just look at the beauty of nature, and wonder how it all could just be an accident.