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

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

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

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


Here is a lively history of modern physics, as seen through the lives of thirty men and women from the pantheon of physics. William H. Cropper vividly portrays the life and accomplishments of such giants as Galileo and Isaac Newton, Marie Curie and Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, right up to contemporary figures such as Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Stephen Hawking. We meet scientists--all geniuses--who could be gregarious, aloof, unpretentious, friendly, dogged, imperious, generous to colleagues or contentious rivals. As Cropper captures their personalities, he also offers vivid portraits of their great moments of discovery, their bitter feuds, their relations with family and friends, their religious beliefs and education. In addition, since scientists in a particular field often inspire those who follow, Cropper has grouped these biographies by discipline--mechanics, thermodynamics, particle physics, and so on--each section beginning with a historical overview. Thus in the section on quantum mechanics, readers can see how the work of Max Planck influenced Niels Bohr, and how Bohr in turn influenced Werner Heisenberg. By sequencing the biographies in this way, Cropper gives us an overall portrait of each field. Our understanding of the physical world has increased dramatically in the last four centuries, starting with Galileo and his telescope and stretching to Stephen Hawking's work on black holes and cosmology. With Great Physicists, readers can retrace the footsteps of the men and women who led the way.


This book tells about lives in science, specifically the lives of thirty from the pantheon of physics. Some of the names are familiar (Newton, Einstein, Curie, Heisenberg, Bohr), while others may not be (Clausius, Gibbs, Meitner, Dirac, Chandrasekhar). All were, or are, extraordinary human beings, at least as fascinating as their subjects. The short biographies in the book tell the stories of both the people and their physics.

The chapters are varied in format and length, depending on the (sometimes skimpy) biographical material available. Some chapters are equipped with short sections (entitled “Lessons”) containing background information on topics in mathematics, physics, and chemistry for the uninformed reader.

Conventional wisdom holds that general readers are frightened of mathematical equations. I have not taken that advice, and have included equations in some of the chapters. Mathematical equations express the language of physics: you can't get the message without learning something about the language. That should be possible if you have a rudimentary (high school) knowledge of algebra, and, if required, you pay attention to the “Lessons” sections. The glossary and chronology may also prove helpful. For more biographical material, consult the works cited in the “Invitation to More Reading” section.

No claim is made that this is a comprehensive or scholarly study; it is intended as recreational reading for scientists and students of science (formal or informal). My modest hope is that you will read these chapters casually and for entertainment, and learn the lesson that science is, after all, a human endeavor.

William H. Cropper . . .

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