A Cultural History of Physics

A Cultural History of Physics” is an extraordinary book written by my late father. It covers the development of ideas that comprise our understanding of the physical world from pre-history to the millennium, all in the context of the culture of the ages. It is a large book, 600 pages, with over a thousand illustrations and original quotes on the sidebars. The main text is also divided into a very accessible discourse and some “fine print” of highly technical details that underlied the ideas. These may be especially interesting – and novel – to programmers who have the ability to follow formulas. Ancient wisdom has been thoroughly re-cast into modern notation and terminology but still kept intact in its essence, warts and all.

The book went through 5 editions in Hungary – all sold out for a total of over 60,000 copies in a language spoken by only 15 million people. There were 3 German editions as well, but it is only now that the book has been successfully translated into English and is available to many more people in the world.

Nicolai Copernicus book "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium", published in 1543, with Tycho Brahe's handwritten notes.

History is complex, and it was seldom the case that progress was retarded by sheer ignorance. Instead, progress was difficult. What would you answer to a critic of Copernicus who said: if Earth moved around the Sun then stars would have to appear at slightly different places in the sky in winter and in summer because of parallax, yet no such effect was noticed. You could claim, together with Copernicus, that the stars are too far for the instruments of the time to notice any parallax, but your words would ring hollow: you would be just manufacturing additional assumptions to support your pet theory.

The discussion of Kepler’s laws is one of my favorite chapters. We all know (or should know) that Kepler showed that the planets moved on elliptical orbits, by itself a boring fact. But how did he figure that out – before Newton there was no reason whatsoever to think that way and there were plenty of reasons to think otherwise. Indeed, Kepler was certainly not looking for an ellipse; he wanted an oval – composed of circular segments – and seized on the ellipse only as an approximation for the oval after noticing some strange patterns in his data. The whole process was dependent on a number of fortunate coincidences. He had at his disposal the most precise observations of Tycho Brahe – and also Brahe was dead, so Kepler, his student, was freed from his duty having to prove Brahe’s theories. Also, the actual orbit of Mars, among all the planets studied was the most elliptical; furthermore the orbit of Earth is the most circular. Still, the determination of the orbit of Mars from its apparent motion on the sky of the Earth whose orbit was not known either, is one of the “most remarkable achievements in the history of science.” The book traces Kepler’s ideas through the following stages: experimental data => Ptolemaic elements in the Copernical system => respecting the precision of measurements, combining traditional and novel elements, having to avoid mathematical difficulties => blind luck, daring generalization, mathematical genius => elliptical orbits.

How the great figures of the seventeenth century judged one another.

At some point Kepler recognized that the number he needed to adjust the oval (.00429) was 1 less than the secant (inverse cosine) of a key angle in the observations – this was the blind luck. It is also interesting to note that Kepler’s other speculations – about the connections of nested regular solids and planetary orbits, or the music of the spheres – which he took literally – either did not disturb the picture or, in case of the third law, actually provided a lucky inspiration for the “the celestial harmony.”

Edge.com has about 60 pages of the book online, including my favorite page 275 where the greats of the 17th century gossip about each other. If you follow @charlessimonyi or #CultHistPhysics on twitter you can see a lot of pithy quotes from the book, from the antique times to the atomic age. Enjoy!