Mathematical or not

Read this and let it sink in for a moment: Michael Faraday could barely do basic algebra. Advanced mathematics was a closed book to the discoverer of electromagnetic induction and, as Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon put it in their book Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field, "Ampère's equations might as well have been written in Egyptian hieroglyphics." This fact makes his rise to the top of 19th-century physics all the more remarkable – but then, Faraday was a remarkable man. Born to a poor family and sent out to work at 13, he supplemented his meagre formal education with diligent private study. After becoming Humphrey Davy's assistant at London's Royal Institution, he rose to be the director of its laboratory. He also taught himself the art of public speaking, giving scientific lectures and demonstrations to the people who flocked to hear him. Given these successes, it is actually a little surprising that he never managed to learn his way around trigonometry or calculus. In any case, Forbes and Mahon argue that Faraday's lack of mathematical training "led him to derive his theories entirely from experimental observation...[and] gave him a deep-seated intuition into electromagnetic phenomena". It's a persuasive argument, but even so, Faraday clearly felt the deficit all his life. In one of the book's most touching passages, the authors describe Faraday's joy at receiving a paper entitled "On Faraday's lines of force", in which a young James Clerk Maxwell began to put the older scientist's ideas on firmer mathematical ground. In a cordial reply to Maxwell, Faraday wrote, "I was at first almost frightened when I saw the mathematical force made to bear on the subject, and then wondered to see that the subject stood it so well." This is not a complete biography of either Faraday or Maxwell, but it is a good introduction to both, with plenty of insights into their characters.

  • 2014 Prometheus Books $25.95hb 300pp

Finding the Higgs

Particle physicists are sometimes accused of being arrogant. When they write sentences like "Away from the LHC, other physics was going on," it's not hard to see why. To be fair to Jon Butterworth, who unloads that particular gem halfway through his book Smashing Physics, it's clearly meant as a comic understatement. And to be fair to particle physicists generally – well, they've had a lot to be arrogant about recently, so why not enjoy it with them? Smashing Physics tells the story of the discovery of the Higgs boson at the aforementioned LHC (Large Hadron Collider) from the perspective of Butterworth, a physicist at University College London and a leading member of the LHC's ATLAS collaboration. Butterworth has worked on LHC physics for a little over a decade, but in his words, this makes him "a bit of a Johnny-come-lately by experiment standards", since the LHC was approved in 1997 and its design was discussed officially back in 1984. What the reader gets, therefore, is a history of LHC science that skews heavily towards the present day, with a particular focus on the 36 months between the collider's late-2009 restart and the July 2012 announcement that the Higgs boson had, at last, been discovered. Like the Higgs hunt itself, Butterworth's story comes with plenty of detours. Some of these detours concern basic physics. Others cover the politics of working on a large collaboration, battles over UK science funding and, in one case, a memorably surreal night out in Hamburg. It's a lively account that gets somewhat more insider-ish as it goes along, but readers who are willing to do a bit of work to understand the material will find this a smashing journey.

  • 2014 Headline £20.00hb 304pp

Bombs, guns and trebuchets

Two years after the end of the Second World War, J Robert Oppenheimer told a lecture-room audience that "the physicists have known sin" for their work in developing the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the historical connections between physics and war are very much older. In The Physics of War, retired physicist and science writer Barry Parker sets out to explore these links, deftly interspersing physics explanations with accounts of battles ancient and modern. Unfortunately, reading it is a bit like drinking artificially flavoured cola: fine at first, but with a sour aftertaste. One problem is that the book is highly western-oriented, as shown by the author's sweeping assertion that "the world" entered the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome in 476 AD and "few advances in science were made" during the 1000 years that followed. This may come as a surprise to scientists (and historians) in, say, China, which is pretty well ignored throughout. But there are actual errors here as well as omissions. The trebuchet was not, as Parker claims, "invented by the Romans". The pioneering marine engineer and submariner of the American Civil War was called Hunley, not Hurley, and if Archimedes had really been born in 87 BCE, as the book states, that would be impressive, since he died around 212. By the 20th century, the book is on firmer ground. But by then, it's a little late.

  • 2014 Prometheus Books £22.99hb 340pp