Monday, January 28, 2008

Roy Lovell "The Book That Changed My Life"

"The way Jay Leno acquires motorcycles, I acquire books: excessively, unceasingly, unapologetically, driven by some mysterious internal force that aligns me with these particular material objects and hounds me until I possess them. I have boxes and boxes of books in my attic, too many to display, too many to read, yet I keep buying more. Asked to name one "book that changed my life," my first impulse is to compile a lengthy list. But one book, not a list, is requested here. So…

When I was a senior in high school, I was taking physics from a nice gentleman-chemistry major-who had earlier taught me a solid chemistry course. Pressed into service as a physics teacher, and being therefore out of his area of expertise regarding "subject matter knowledge," he was soldiering on, teaching a course that was fairly shallow, uninspired and tentative. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by physics.

Before there was internet commerce, there were (and in some places, still are) used bookstores-places where, for the price of one new book, one could walk away with an entire armful of "finds." It was in such a place I found a little paperback that had been published in 1946. The title page identified the author as a "professor of theoretical physics" (whatever that was) named George Gamow. The book was called One, Two, Three…Infinity. This book opened up a whole new world for me, heretofore undreamed of-the world of advanced mathematical and scientific reasoning. In this book, I encountered for the first time, expressed in lively, lucid prose, numerous mathematical and scientific ideas that have continued, ever since, to puzzle, amaze, and challenge me: Cantor’s transfinite arithmetic, Euler’s imaginary numbers, "pure" vs. "applied" mathematics, number theory, "geometry without measure" (i.e., topology), "curved space," "four-dimensional distance," relativity of spacetime, presocratic atomism, subatomic particles other than protons, neutrons and electrons, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Bohr’s Complementarity Principle, quantum superposition, matter waves, positive electrons (i.e., antimatter), cosmic ray showers, nuclear fission and fusion, "atom smashers," entropy, absolute zero, statistical fluctuations, the "riddle of life," the galaxy of stars, the universe of galaxies, stellar evolution, the expanding universe, and the cosmic singularity, to name a few.

I asked my physics teacher to explain some of these topics to me, but he only shrugged and said he didn’t know about any of that. At that time I resolved to learn about these things, and I am still doing so. Along the way I acquired a passion for the work of passing on the profundities of math and physics to the next generation. I am still doing that too. The book is yet in print from Dover Publications, though the enclosed photo depicts the original cover."
Many thanks to Roy Lovell for sharing this experience with us. If you're interested in writing a post about a book that changed your life, please contact Librarian Barker:

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