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It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science [Hardcover]

Graham Farmelo
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

28 Feb 2002
The exact sciences have an immense weight and influence in our culture. At the heart of their effectiveness lies the mathematical equation. The difficult form of the great equations - particularly those of modern physics - has often acted as an obstacle to any understanding and they have come to embody the mystery and terror of modern science. This volume brings together some living scientists, historians and writers about science. They each seek to unpack an equation so that it becomes understandable. The contributors include Roger Penrose, John Maynard Smith, Arthur Miller, Steven Weinberg and Oliver Morton.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books (28 Feb 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862074798
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862074798
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16 x 2.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 509,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Graham Farmelo is a By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

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Amazon Review

Through a study of celebrated examples, the collection of essays in It Must Be Beautiful sets out to reveal the true nature of an equation. What is an equation, after all? Why does it look the way it looks? Those lacking a scientific education can have only the vaguest idea. For a start, an equation is not one fixed thing. The same scribbles can be reinterpreted over time. (Frank Wilczek's chapter on the Dirac Equation offers fascinating insights into this process.) An equation's value can be contested, at one moment a mere "convenience", at the next, a profound expression of things. (Arthur I Miller, writing on Schrodinger's wave equation, beautifully captures the knives-drawn business of scientific interpretation.) An equation can even be a kind of political agenda. Take the Drake Equation--more properly, a formula, describing the likelihood of extra-terrestrial civilisations. Oliver Morton's acute account identifies in this equation "the classic technocratic lapse of mistaking the ability to state a question in the language of science with the ability to solve it using the practices of science". This problem haunts (as it should) the whole collection. As Farmelo writes in his introduction (paraphrasing Feynman) "... it may eventually turn out that fundamental laws of nature do not need to be stated mathematically and that they are better expressed in other ways".

Some essays here never really get to grips with the hieroglyphics, choosing instead to trace the evolution of their subject's thoughts. Others go to the other extreme. Roger Penrose's essay on General Relativity delivers the mathematical punches other science books normally pull. But by one route or another, according to your preference, you will come away from this book with a more-than-trivial insight into the power and beauty of equations. Indeed, the notion that the world could be "better expressed in other ways" is likely to be furthest from your mind. --Simon Ings


‘It Must Be Beautiful is long overdue. For anyone interested in what science has to say about the universe, it is fascinating’ -- The Guardian

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Snacking on Equations 19 July 2002
By A Customer
This book brings together world-class scientists, and gets each of them to write an essay on a great equation of modern science. If you are a scientist yourself, then this really is a pick-and-mix gem of a book. All of the essays can be read in isolation, and many are truly excellent - BoB May's account of the breakthrough which resulted in the birth of chaos theory is about the best introduction to the subject that anyone could write. Also, Oliver Morton's account of the Drake equation - which estimates the number of intelligent life forms in the galaxy - is fascinating, not least because of the unexpected subtelties which are revealed. But, although the amount of maths is almost zero, not all of the essays are accessible to everyone without a scientific background. In general, I would say that a complete non-scientist might enjoy three or four of the essays, a pre-university science student about half a dozen - and someone with a science degree would enjoy virtually all of the twelve.
If you have an interest in science, it is truly amazing to see how some of these really simple equations went on to provide insights into some of the deepest scientific questions known to mankind. And it is equally fascinating to see how some of our greatest minds were steered towards their historic discovery. Definitely a must-have!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Balancing Nature 7 July 2003
This is a collection of essays on various topics, such as quantum physics, chaos theory and ecology. The star in each essay is an equation which the author deems to be beautiful. Beautiful in the sense that it encapsulates and defines it's subject matter. Beautiful in the sense that it has an elegance, even when defining a complex topic.
The opening essay in this book centres on Einstein's E=hf equation and the foundations for modern quantum mechanics. It's a fascinating read, illuminating a truly revolutionary period in physics. The story is well told, down to Einstein's reluctance to commit himself to a particle view of waves.
Other physics essays are included, one in particular documenting the conflict that arose between Heisenberg, Schrodinger and Born in formulating quantum mechanics. It adds a truly personal and dramatic spin to the story. Other topics such as the Yang-Mills equation, governing invariances and symmetry in fundamental particles, I found less interesting, probably because I never liked that topic anyway.
The essay on ozone depletion, and the very simple equations that describe it, is very captivating. It shows how simple equations describe a phenomena that we were reluctant to face for years. The essay on modelling animal populations shows how mathematics has given a preciseness of sorts and a template for describing events to biology and ecology that did not exist before.
Moreover, this collection as a whole, serves to convey the fact that all sciences have changed radically over the last 100 years or so. Progress has occurred at an incredible rate, and many changes to the scientifuc way of thinking have taken place. But we always hope that our method for describing events will contain an inherent beauty, because after all the world around us is beautiful.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It is! 28 Feb 2003
The quantities on the two side of each of the equations in the book, are from science, or from life. The equations result from scientific experiments or from pure theory. Planck's equation signaled the start of atomic physics, and Einstein's E=m c^2 , the continuation. Dirac's equation reveals the secrets of the electron. All the equations predict physical reality; and yet they are strikingly simple to state, perhaps not to fully understand.-- They *are* beautiful! . Really! They are also fundamental discoveries that affect us all. Schrodinger's equation [along with the equivalt formulation of Heisenberg] puts quantum theory on a solid footing, and started wave mechanics. Shannon's equations initiated the age of information technology. And there are more: relativity, astronomy, dynamics, chemestry... The book consists of chapters written by authorities in the field, Roger Penrose, Steven Weinberg..., but no [or at least very little] knowledge of science is assumed on the part of the reader. Highly recommended!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By Keith Appleyard VINE VOICE
At first I was disappointed – the most beautiful equation in the world, e^i.pi = -1, was missing! As I read the book, I looked back at the title : great equations of Modern Science, not of Modern Mathematics. And indeed that is what the book is.
However I do have a few criticisms :
I knew by reputation only 2 of the 12 authors – who were the other people? Long after I had searched out their biographies on the web, I found them at the front of the book – but before the title page rather than after – how strange to put them there, or not at the back of the book ?
I didn’t think the Drake equation was that ‘great’ – and in Oliver Morton’s chapter he places the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Costa Rica when in fact its in Puerto Rico.
In the opening chapter, Graham Farmelo briefly alludes to ‘British Astronomers announcing their results’ without explaining what it was they were looking for and what they found? Only in the later chapters by Peter Galison & Roger Penrose respectively do they take pains to explain that Sir Arthur Eddington measured the bending of starlight during an eclipse.
I was confused in the chapter on Schrodingers Wave Equation – it didn’t describe the form I was familiar with. Then in the notes at the end of the book Arthur Miller explained the more general form - and confessed that the ‘time’ element had been ignored – rather a strange omission in my opinion.
Shannons Equations & the Logistic Map were both new to me – and very interesting they were.
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