Monday, February 12, 2007

A New Book by David Lindley on Quantum Mechanics

The NY Times has a review of a new book, Uncertainty by David Lindley, author of Boltzmann's Atom, a superb book on the late 19th century debate over atoms and the development of statistical mechanics. This latest book is about one of the most fascinating periods in the history of science - the development of quantum mechanics and its aftermath, especially the debates among Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg. Thinking about this period in science makes you wonder where such giants are today, ones in the same league as Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, Dirac, Bethe, Feynman...

Maybe this is just like the disappearance of the 0.400 hitter in baseball. Or maybe it has to do with the massive increase in the number of scientists since WWII and hence increasing competition, which produces pressure to pursue science that generates more immediate rewards - lots of quick, high profile papers, with a concomitant emphasis on multitasking as opposed to finding large, uninterrupted blocks of time to concentrate on a single deep problem. Maybe it's the length of time it takes now before a young scientist can truly work independently and the push for big interdisciplinary teams, sometimes at the expense of the interdisciplinary individual.

I'll get off my soapbox now. Lindley's book looks like it's worth checking out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading David Lilndley's book, and wholehartedly agree with Janet Maslin's opinion of it in her Times review. However, as an old history buff who years ago actually read Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, I didn't appreciate Lindley's caricature of Spengler in chapter 15. About Spengler's main thesis one can argue, but several large-scale societies, which he called high cultures, do seem to have passed through a similar process of development. Lindley says Spengler was anti-science, and thought its ills go back to the Greeks, but I don't find this in the Decline. See vol. 2, chapter 14. It's easy to criticize Spengler's florid prose, exaggerations, etc, but that doesn't touch his thesis. I don't believe the hatchet job was necessary. I do believe that Spengler would have agreed with your musings about the passing of the giants.