Book Review: From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves

From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves: Classical Physicists and Their Discoveries by Emilio Segre

The era of classical physics has a reign of about 300 years, from the late 1500s to the late 1800s, with the year 1900 or there abouts being a good place to mark the beginning of modern physics with the emergence of special relativity and quantum theory (of course, the roots of science went further back and classical physics is still around). This time period, from Galileo to Gibbs, is the the subject of From Falling Bodies to Radio Waves.

Written roughly chronologically, the book traces the developments of the main pillars of classical physics as the ideas were born, subjected to experiment, changed, refuted, expanded up, fleshed out, and ultimately fashioned in the form we encounter them now. Classical mechanics, optics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and the kinetic theory (early statistical mechanics) are each developed in turn as the decades pass. This takes us up to the end of the 19th century, and Segre’s book From X-rays to Quarks takes up the slack from there, though it was written first (I’ll be tackling it soon).

I’m inclined to call this less a book on the history of physics than on the history of physicists. A great deal is expended on biographical details of the big (and small) names of classical physics, with many references to contemporary works and texts which gives us insight into the motivation, psychology, and abilities of physics’ early developers and practitioners. With such a focus on their character, in sharp relief we are reminded of just how remarkable men like Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Helmholtz (to name but a few) were.

The book concludes with fourteen mathematical appendices fleshing out the details of some of the topics from the book, going from Newton’s determination of the mathematical principles of centripetal forces to van der Waal’s equation.

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