BOLTZMANN’S TOMB by Bill Green
“This is not a book about the great Austrian physicist, Ludwig Boltzmann, nor, despite its importance in my life, is it about Antarctica. It is more about time and chance and the images and dreams we bring with us from childhood which shape who we are and what we become. It is about science and atoms and starry nights and what we think we remember, though we have made it up.”
Review by Bill Brody Â (DEC 18, 2011)
Boltzmannâ€™s Tomb: Travels in Search of Science by Bill Green is at once a travelogue and joyous celebration of science. The author is a chemist who has done significant research in the dry lakes of Antarctica. Boltzmann was a brilliant physicist and teacher, a pioneer in the study of entropy. He was an early champion for the atomic model of matter in the 19th century, to the derision of many of his peers.Â Ironically, he committed suicide at almost the same time as Einstein was doing his pioneering work on brownian motion. This work, unknown to Bolztmann, provided persuasive evidence for the atomic model by demonstrating the existence of tiny units of matter, so small they are invisible and yet energetic enough that they cause macroscopic dust particles to move randomly in water. The author notes that Boltzmann died in Duino, the same city where Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies, brilliant poetry of profound melancholy. Boltzmann and Rilke were kindred spirits in the sense that both suffered profound depression, and were tortured by self-doubt. More importantly, the two shared the supreme gift of being able to take experience and use their respective media of mathematics and written language creatively to express unique truths.
This short work is not intended to do justice to the arduous task of skeptical inquiry and the continuing cycle of intellectual labor turning observation into theory, theory into prediction, prediction into experiment that supports or falsifies the theory. What this book does is illuminate the spark that drives scientists, and it makes clear that science comes from the work of real people who are so moved by the mystery and magic of their experience that they will walk through the fire of scorn, self-doubt and in the case of Galileo, the very real fear of torture, to seek and speak truth.
Boltzmannâ€™s entropy formula S= k*log(W) is carved onto his tomb. His work on entropy describes the relationship between what one can observe such as the temperature of a volume of gas and a statistical description of the more or less random states of tiny units such as the motion of the constituent molecules. His work on entropy metaphorically focuses our attention on the role of chance in our every endeavor. Chance encounters with scientists during the authorâ€™s travels as a younger man lead to opportunities such as the chance to work in Antarctica. The capacity for poetic wonder at the splendors of nature fueled his scientific career. The message is that what comes to everyone does so more or less by happenstance, but some find mystery and beauty in these chance encounters. Creative souls, the scientists and poets, are then inspired for a lifetime of expression.
Boltzmannâ€™s Tomb is a scientific travelogue celebrating a number of pilgrimages to the places where great science was made. As we follow the author on his travels, we visit the Vienna of Boltzmann and so many others in science and the arts. We spend time in Galileoâ€™s Florence, hometown of the Renaissance. Cambridge was home to Isaac Newton and Watson and Crick of DNA fame. We visit Prague where Copernicus and Kepler created the basis for modern astronomy and laid the groundwork for Newtonâ€™s description of gravity. Along the way we see the scientists as human beings, creatures of their place and time and inspired to transcend their beginnings by creating glorious structures of thought to explain the mysteries of the universe. We come to appreciate the passionate and poetic wonder that informs much of great science. Do yourself a favor and put this book on your shelf of inspirational literature.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 1 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Bellevue Literary Press (June 14, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Bill Green|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:
- Improbable Eden (2003)
- Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes (2008)
- Boltzmannâ€™s Tomb: Travels in Search of Science (June 2011)