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From physica to physics

29 Mar 2018 Tushna Commissariat
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Physics World

The History of Physics by John L Heilbron outlines how the subject began as a philosophical discourse, and over 2500 years morphed into the meticulous, experimental process it is today, says Tushna Commissariat

artwork of House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)
House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)

A couple of years ago, Margaret Harris – my predecessor as reviews editor at Physics World – and I promised one another that if we ever wrote a popular-physics book, we would not fall into the trap of starting the book with a chapter on Greek science before jumping to Kepler, Copernicus, Newton and finally fast-forwarding to Maxwell or Einstein. I was unsurprised to say the least when author John L Heilbron began his The History of Physics: a Very Short Introduction with a chapter titled “the Greek way”. Good then that I did read the book anyway, because I was pleasantly surprised.

The aforementioned “Greek way” states that physics in antiquity was much more philosophy and a liberal art than the rigorous experimental science we practise today. Physics was something between logic and ethics, rather than a hunt for first principles, and Heilbron refers to this as physica. “This short book describes some of the ways by which ancient physica became modern physics,” he writes in the introduction. “It does not ransack history to find items in ancient and medieval science that looks like physics, but sketches the place and the purpose of physica in the societies that supported it.”

Heilbron goes on from the Greek disciplines to the vast enterprise that was Islamic science. I particularly enjoyed reading about the House of Wisdom – a library-cum-academy set up in Baghdad in the early 9th century that quickly amassed an impressive collection of ancient manuscripts, but also sponsored scientific expeditions. The author then tackles the more well-known Western intellectuals such as Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton, before discussing the science done at the courts of the Renaissance and, finally, the scientific revolutions of the 18th century that eventually led to current-day physics.

Like most history and philosophy books, the language is formal and somewhat monotonous, and there are many names and dates to contend with, but as it is such a short book, I found it easy to get through. Pick up a copy to get to grips with the 2500-year history of physics.

  • John L Heilbron 2018 The History of Physics: a Very Short Introduction Oxford University Press 192pp £7.99pb

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