Boltzmanns Atom: The Great Debate That Launched A Revolution In Physics

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9780684851860: Boltzmanns Atom: The Great Debate That Launched A Revolution In Physics

BOLTZMANN'S ATOM tells the story of the crucial scientific struggle over the existence of the atom during the second half of the 19th century. This struggle was a turning point in the history of the modern world. It would never have happened without the forgotten genius of Ludwig Boltzmann, a 19th century Austrian theoretical physicist who had a string of deeply profound insights primarily into the physical nature of heat, but also gas, matter, and, in fact, literally everything. In 1850 no university taught such a subject as theoretical physics, but by 1900 it was a fully fledged discipline with whole institutes devoted to it. This burgeoning scientific movement led within just a few years to the discovery of quantum mechanics by Max Planck, radioactivity by Marie Curie, general relativity by Albert Einstein, the uncertainty principle by Werner Heisenberg, and more recently quantum electodynamics by Richard Feynman, the quark by Murray Gell-Mann, and even up-to-the minute developments in chaos and superstring theory. Indeed, as David Lindley shows, Boltzman's brilliant insights brought about the golden age of physics that we continue to live in today. David Lindley frames his story with the long running debate between Boltzmann and Ernst Mach who held that theoretical physics was completely misguided. Mach's memorable line in 1900 "I don't believe atoms exist" is where the book begins.

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Review:

Born in Austria and something of a bumpkin by nature, the 19th-century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann did not fit in easily in the highly cultured German universities at which he taught for many years. To add to his difficulties, Boltzmann stirred up controversy by proposing that scientists could make intelligent guesses about the behavior of atoms, which, though they moved randomly, could be described by certain probabilistic generalizations. His suggestion, hinging on novel interpretations of statistical theory, was not immediately acclaimed. "To an audience of physicists raised in the belief that scientific laws ought to encapsulate absolute certainties and unerring rules," writes scientist and journalist David Lindley, "these were profound and disturbing changes."

Opposed by the then-influential physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, who urged that scientists stick to classical thermodynamics, Boltzmann was hard-pressed to convince his colleagues that the behavior of atoms could be explained by laws thought to apply only to the gaming table. Mach objected, and with some cause, that "the fact that the theory worked was not enough to prove that the assumptions on which the theory rested were true." It would take the next generation of scientists, among them Albert Einstein, to provide more solid proof for Boltzmann's hunches. And, while Mach's contributions to physics have largely been superseded, Boltzmann's endure in quantum mechanics and the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution for the velocities of atoms in a gas. In this lively account, David Lindley tells the story of Boltzmann's many failures, and of his eventual success. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

David Lindley has worked as a theoretical physicist at Cambridge University and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and as an editor at Nature, Science, and Science News. He is the author of The End of Physics and Where Does the Weirdness Go? He lives in Wisconsin.

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