Thursday, March 26, 2009

Five Equations That Changed The World

Book Review : Five Equations That Changed The World
Author : Michael Guillen
My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

The complete title for this book is "Five Equations That Changed the World: The Power and Poetry of Mathematics".

Whenever there is a list of top N things that did this - be it the movies, songs, inventions, whatever - there can be little agreement about the choices. So let's not spend time arguing about the merits of the list chosen by the author Michael Guillen here. He has chosen Newton's law of gravitational attraction, Bernoulli's law of hydrodynamic pressure, Faraday's discovery of electromagnetism, Clausius and the second law of thermodynamics and finally of course Einstein's theory of special relativity. This list is as good as any other.

The first problem is these are actually discoveries of physics. These are not the most important mathematical equations !! The title is very misleading. But it's also more than that. Faraday was a brilliant physicist - but not really a mathematician. He was an extraordinary experimentalist - but knew little of higher mathematics like other contemporary physicists. Maxwell's equations would have been consistent with the title.

Besides that, how do the individual chapters fare? It depends on what expectations you have. If you really want to understand say the special theory of relativity, then there are many other books to choose from. Brian Greene is one name to start with. This book does not make much attempt to go much deeper into scientific explanation of the concepts involved. It only scratches the surface and leaves you for wanting more.

Then what is the book really about ? Is it about the drama surrounding the discoveries ? Yes and no. It's more about the main characters of individual chapters, and dramatic events in their life. Once again, the equation is chosen only as an excuse to talk about how Newton felt that his mother neglected him, or how the Beronoulli clan fought amongst themselves or how much Clasius loved his wife. Yes, these can be interesting topics, and yes, the author writes very well - but that's not what the title says !

I knew about the lives of Newton. Faraday and Einstein before I opened the book. On the other hand I knew very little about the Bernoulli clan and almost nothing about Clausius, hence I liked those chapters as short biographies. But that's all the book really has to offer. Overly dramatic account of the lives of five great scientists. And how accurate is that ? Who knows ? I mean how can we know what Clausius really was thinking about when his wife was dying ? By trying to make this book very accessible the author almost makes it Hollywoodish.

To be fair, the author expands the topic from the scientist in question to the work of other scientists that were also instrumental in laying the groundwork. For example, the chapter on Faraday explains the contributions of Ampere, Voltas et al.

Maybe I am not the right audience for this book. I think teenagers who have some interest in math and physics would like the book. The writing style very engaging and there are nice anecdotes.

I can recommend neither for nor against reading this book. If you decide to read this, set your expectations correctly.

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