In Physics: A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks, John Heilbron sets himself an ambitious task: to cover some 2500 years of scientific development in a few hundred pages. Thinking about non-fiction in terms of pacing seems odd, but one of the things I thought about most while reading Physics was that it was moving too fast for me. Ironic? Maybe.
The book jumps rapidly through time, pausing occasionally to linger on critical moments in the history of the study of physics. In a way, that makes it an excellent book for the layperson/enthusiast, since it can point interested readers to periods of time that pique their curiosity in particular. For my part, I now want to read much more about the development of astronomy and mathematics in the age of Muslim intellectualism, the ancient Greek schools, and 19th and 20th century developments.
There are portions of Physics where Heilbron relies heavily on jargon and lightly-defined terminology. I consider this a point against the book, only if this is the reader’s first foray into the casual study of physics. I thought I was familiar with a fair amount of concepts and terms in physics, but I found myself lost more than a few times when Heilbron tossed a term or equation into the mix, satisfied that it served as a solid enough basis for continuing his sprint through hundreds of years of inquiry.
Part of making that sprint possible is the careful selection of details to focus on; alternatively, that can be seen as the careful selection of details to omit. It was fascinating to get the occasional glimpse into the broader sociological conditions that aided or hindered the development of scientific thought, and I would have loved to dig a bit deeper into the broader settings in which some of the more monumental discoveries were made.
I suppose that’s the crux of my experience reading Physics: it moved so fast that I wanted a longer history of physics. As it is, this is a very good book to whet the appetite of a dabbler in science literature—the perfect foray into other, more detailed accounts of the epochs Of scientific discovery. In a perfect world, Physics: A Short History would serve as a long-form index, and Heilbron would release several other books that take a closer look at some of the moments touched so briefly in this book.
Caveat Emptor. If you haven’t read many books on physics, consider putting this one a few rungs down the list, after reading some simpler texts. If you’re somewhat familiar with the content, dig in—this is a hearty and filling sampler that spans centuries of cerebral achievement.