This book was originally published hardback as Physics: A Short History from Quintessence to Quarks in 2015
How does the physics we know today – a highly professionalised enterprise, inextricably linked to government and industry – link back to its origins as a liberal art in Ancient Greece? What is the path that leads from the old philosophy of nature and its concern with humankind's place in the universe to modern massive international projects that hunt down fundamental particles and industrial laboratories that manufacture marvels?
This Very Short Introduction introduces us to Islamic astronomers and mathematicians calculating the size of the earth whilst their caliphs conquered much of it; to medieval scholar-theologians investigating light; to Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, measuring, and trying to explain, the universe. We visit the 'House of Wisdom' in 9th-century Baghdad; Europe's first universities; the courts of the Renaissance; the Scientific Revolution and the academies of the 18th century; and the increasingly specialised world of 20th and 21st century science. Highlighting the shifting relationship between physics, philosophy, mathematics, and technology – and the implications for humankind's self-understanding – Heilbron explores the changing place and purpose of physics in the cultures and societies that have nurtured it over the centuries.
"Elegantly written and entertaining."
– Daan Wegener, Isis Review
"delightful [...] Heilbron leaves us rooted in lived reality"
– Nature, Robert P. Crease
"manages to pack an awful lot into that very short space [...] interesting and informative for non-scientists"
– A Hermit's Progress
"The book is effectively a short history of ideas that moves around the cultures of Europe depending on time and place, so there is a fascinating chapter on Islamic contributions."
– Network Review
1: Invention and Diversity in Greece and Rome
2: Selection and Development in Islam
3: Domestication in the West
4: A Second Creation
5: Classical Physics and its Cure
6: From Old World to New
7: By Way of Conclusion
References and Further Reading
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John Heilbron was educated at the University of California, Berkeley, in physics and history; and began teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He returned to Berkeley in 1967, where he rose to become professor of history and vice chancellor. After retiring in 1994 Heilbron taught sporadically at Caltech and Yale, and lived mostly around Oxford, where he has been Senior research Fellow at Worcester College and the Oxford Museum for History of Science. He has written several books for Oxford University Press, including Galileo (2010) and Love, Literature, and the Quantum Atom. Niels Bohr's 1913 trilogy revisited (2013), with Finn Aaserud.