Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics

The Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics edited by Jed Z. Buchwald and Robert Fox

ISBN-13: 9780199696253
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Published: January 1, 2014

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Reading note: Started on May 19, 2017 and finished on March 15, 2019.

When this beautiful and hefty book arrived in my office in May 2017, I knew I had to read it. I enjoy reading history and I also have an interest in modern physics. One of these two interests was satisfied by this book, but the other was left disappointed. I set the book aside many times to read other books, which is why it took so long before I finished it.

Most of the book covered “classical” physics, the period that can roughly be though of as predating quantum theory and relativity. Classical physics topics covered include Galileo’s mechanics, Newton’s Principia and Opticks, fluids, mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, energy, electromagnetism, electrodynamics, and side chapters on textbooks, medicine, and metrology.

While the book contains 976 pages (917 of content), Part IV (out of four) on Modern Physics doesn’t begin until page 719. Even then, the first chapter titled “Rethinking ‘Classical Physics’ ” is a discussion on the inability of physicists and historians to agree on when “modern physics” began. Modern physics topics include statistical mechanics, relativity, quantum physics, a tangential chapter on semiconductors, and finally cosmology. The first mention of dark matter doesn’t come until page 910; on page 913 the book finally mentions CERN; the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is briefly mentioned on page 914; black holes on page 915; and string theory is quickly noted on page 918. Very little was written about the discovery of the atom and subatomic particles! I don’t remember the terms quark or Higgs boson stated at all. Physicists such as Rutherford, Fermi, Feynman, and Hawking were barely covered or not mentioned at all! Perhaps Part IV could be pulled from this book and used as the beginning of a second volume on modern physics.

The 29 chapters read like 29 individual papers written by nearly as many different authors, which they are. Due to this fact and the varying subject matter, the writing style and difficulty varied greatly from chapter to chapter. Some chapters were easily read and could be comprehended by anyone, even those without a physics or engineering background. Other chapters were very difficult—some including calculus and differential equations—which were difficult for me, even with a degree in electrical engineering. Some had useful diagrams and photographs while others contained only text.

Here is an example of one difficult paragraph from page 781:

Whereas Boltzmann had reasoned in terms of temporal probabilities for a single system, Maxwell adopted the ‘statistical specification’ of a system, in which the equilibrium properties of a thermodynamic system are to be compared not with those of a single mechanical system but with those of a stationary ensemble of such systems. He proved the stationarity of the microcanonical ensemble for any Hamiltonian dynamics and derived the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution and energy equipartition from this ensemble. But he did not explain why stationary ensembles represented the thermal properties of macroscopic bodies. He regarded this property as a plausible assumption, to be tested by experiment and perhaps to be justified someday by ergodicity.

Did you get that? Probably not, if you don’t have a PhD in physics.

However, there are many non-technical chapters scattered throughout the book. The most layman reader-friendly was Chapter 10 titled “Physics on Show: Entertainment, Demonstration, and Research in the Long Eighteenth Century”. If you want a good history of scientific instruments and instrument makers, there is a book-within-a-book here. You could simply read the following three chapters for a great overview:

4. Physics and the Instrument-Makers, 1550-1700
11. Instruments and Instrument-Makers, 1700-1850
20. From Workshop to Factory: The Evolution of the Instrument-Making Industry, 1850-1930

The book did have several strong points. Many chapters wove the history of physics with the world at-large, demonstrating how politics and wars affected scientific inquiry and cooperation. While we see the building of theories on top of each other (the “standing on the shoulders of giants”), the book also showed how competition pushed scientists to make their discoveries. Also, the book presented an excellent history on the caloric theory of heat, which—because it was proven to be false—is not taught in contemporary textbooks. Although not falling directly under physics, the chapter “Physics and Metrology” provided an interesting look at the rare topic of metrology, “the science and technology of standards of measurement” and how it is both a product of physics and an essential tool for its advancement.

For Further Reading

As I read through the history, I compiled a list of written works referred to as important and influential. These are original physics papers and publications containing the actual theories and experiments. It provides a great source for further reading to learn in-depth about any major physics discoveries.

Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems by Galileo (1632)

Discorsi by Galileo (1638)

Le Monde by René Descartes (1629-1633)

Discours de la Méthode by René Descartes (1637)

Principles of Philosophy by René Descartes (1644)

Horologium Oscillitorium by Christiaan Huygens (1673)

Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Isaac Newton (1687, 1713, 1726)

Opticks, Or a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light by Isaac Newton (1704)

Théorie des phénomènes électro-dynamiques: uniquement déduite de l’expérience by André-Marie Ampère (1826)

Theory of the Motion of Solid or Rigid Bodies by Leonhard Euler (1765)

Hydraulics by Johann Bernoulli (1742)

Mécanique céleste by Pierre Simon Laplace (1799-1825, 1829)

Réflexions sur la puissance motrice du feu by Sadi Carnot (1824)

Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell (1873)

Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein (1920)

Principles of Quantum Mechanics by Paul Dirac (1930)

The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory by Werner Heisenberg (1930)

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The Oxford Handbook of the History of PhysicsThe Oxford Handbook of the History of Physics by Jed Z. Buchwald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars