Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

ix
ASTRONOMY,
ASTROPHYSICS, AND
COSMOLOGY

Historical Synopsis

Our story ends where it began, with physicists scrutinizing the night skies for clues about the universe we inhabit. In the first two chapters, we saw Galileo confirming with his telescope the Copernican message that Earth and other planets orbit the Sun, and Newton building his universal gravitation theory to calculate the planetary orbits and the motion of all the other heavenly bodies. In this part of the book, we see some of the great strides taken in the twentieth century by physicists in their efforts to map our universe, define its dynamics, and write its history. The main characters in the modern story are an astronomer, Edwin Hubble; an astrophysicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar; and a cosmologist, Stephen Hawking.

Edwin Hubble was the first to identify galaxies beyond our own. He used the greatest telescopes of his time to estimate distances in this extragalactic realm. Then he made a careful study of the colors of distant galaxies and found that the greater the distance to a galaxy, the more its color shifted toward the red. He proposed a simple linear relationship between distance and this “redshift.” Because the redshift of a galaxy can be interpreted to mean that the galaxy is moving away from us, Hubble's data suggested that the universe as a whole is expanding. Hubble was at first cautious about adopting this interpretation, but others were more easily convinced, and the first steps were taken in the development of the now dominant “big bang” theory of the origin and history of the universe.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (or “Chandra,” as he was known) was a man who excelled in probing the complexities of stellar physics. In his long career as an astrophysicist, he studied stellar structure, dynamics, and evolution. One of his last efforts was an investigation of the mathematical theory of “black holes,” massive

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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