Five physics books that changed the world.
Science isn’t just experiments, labs and instruments. It isn’t merely theories, charts and observations. Science is knowledge. And it would go nowhere if that knowledge couldn’t be shared and spread.
Ever since the birth of science, there have been science books. Books that laid out revolutionary new ideas simply and elegantly. Books that inspired new generations of scientists. Books that brought the world within humanity’s reach. Books that inspired fear and wonder, shook up civilization, changed the course of history.
What follows is a survey of some of the most famous books in physics. Without them, the world as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Aristotle’s actual books haven’t survived: what we have are collections of lecture notes. Still, those notes were enough to build a foundation of systematic science on.
My teachers used to explain that Aristotle was the first to categorize. His methodical approach took the world into account, rather than relying upon pure philosophy. His views of physics dominated the Western world for thousands of years, and elements of his thought inform every branch of science. What those teachers never told me was that, without Islamic civilization, there would have been no Aristotelian thought at all. The Greek texts lost to the West in the Dark Ages lived on in the East, translated into Arabic, studied, expanded, and commented upon by brilliant Arabic scientists and philosophers like Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Physics was among the texts preserved, translated from Arabic to Latin by Medieval scholars during the cultural exchanges (and bloody Crusades) of the Middle Ages.
The eight books of the Physics cover everything from the scientist’s approach to nature to motion to the Prime Mover. Many of his ideas didn’t survive Newton and Einstein, but he correctly defined the rate of doing mechanical work, and he got everyone thinking like scientists, among many other great gifts to the modern world.
Hellllooo, heliocentric universe! Ptolemy had reigned virtually unchallenged before Copernicus made some observations, incorporated the observations of many others, saw that something wasn’t right, and worked out what actually revolved around what. He didn’t publish until just before his death.
Three years later, his little book began stirring up a storm, but that storm didn’t break for nearly sixty years. Galileo was forced by the Pope to proclaim the book “only a hypothesis.” It ended up on the Index of Forbidden Books, and withdrawn from general circulation. But it was too late. The Earth moved around the Sun, the Bible was wrong, and the cat was out of the bag and causing a ruckus in the alley. Scientists like Kepler and Galileo refined and corrected the heliocentric theory – Kepler was the one who realized that the planets moved in elliptical orbits, for instance, and Galileo’s pesky telescope proved that heavenly bodies didn’t consider the Earth the center of it all, no matter what the Church might proclaim. Eventually, even the Church had to give in to the weight of the evidence first presented in De Revolutionibus.
Everyone knows that the Principia contains Newton’s famous Laws of Motion, his law of universal gravitation, and a lot of talk of the motions of the planets. What most laymen don’t realize, however, is that this elegant book also put forth the Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy that define science to this day. His four simple rules set science free.
And so of course I have to quote them:
Rule 1: We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
Rule 2: Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
Rule 3: The qualities of bodies, which admit neither intensification nor remission of degrees, and which are found to belong to all bodies within the reach of our experiments, are to be esteemed the universal qualities of all bodies whatsoever.
Rule 4: In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur, by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions.
Breathtaking. They may not seem like that much to us, used to them as we are, but for their time, these were ideas so far out of the box that the box couldn’t even be seen. Newton was a true revolutionary, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and this book deserves its place as one of the canons of science.
Newtonian physics reigned supreme until another giant came along and stepped right beyond them. The clockwork universe became a strange place where gravity is a property of space and time (whodathunk that time had anything to do with it!), black holes, gravitational lenses, singularities, and observations changing depending on the position of the observer. Time had seemed a constant: now, it was revealed that time was in the eye of the beholder. A person moving close to the speed of light wouldn’t experience the same passage of time that an observer on Earth would. And then there was that phenominal little equation: e=mc2.
Einstein said of his book, “The present book is intended, as far as possible, to give an exact insight into the theory of Relativity to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics…. In the interest of clearness, it appeared to me inevitable that I should repeat myself frequently, without paying the slightest attention to the elegance of the presentation. I adhered scrupulously to the precept of that brilliant theoretical physicist L. Boltzmann, according to whom matters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor and to the cobbler.”
The elegance of the theory was enough to make it one of the most elegant books in science, and the foundation for the space age.
5. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 1988
This book may not revolutionize science. It contains some revolutionary ideas – Hawking radiation and such – but it’s more an overview of physics for a general audience. What makes this book revolutionary is its impact on pop culture: over nine million copies sold. That’s a lot of people reading hard physics and liking it.
Most physics in the popular imagination ended with Einstein. Hawking took the public further, explaining superstring theory, pushing the frontiers, gazing toward that holiest of grails in science: the Theory of Everything. The scientist who may yet merge relativity with quantum physics and thus provide that one grand theory might get his or her inspiration from this deceptively brief little book.
Hawking made physics exciting again. He even made it possible not to fear math, which is very nearly a miracle for some of us. It changed the way the public thought of science. Until then, popular physics books had become terribly watered-down. Hawking proved that the tough stuff could be chewed and swallowed by a general audience.
And that just might be the most revolutionary idea of all.
(Don’t worry, my darlings. I’m not neglecting the other fields of science – we’ll be doing biology and all that in future editions. Darwin will have his day!)