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Physics: a short history from quintessence to quarks
Modern physicists like to compare themselves to the ancient Greeks — searchers for knowledge about the ultimate foundations of reality. But science historian John Heilbron argues in his latest book, Physics, that modern physics is not much like the Greeks’ contemplation of nature.
“In antiquity, physics was philosophy, a liberal art, the pursuit of a free man wealthy enough to do what he wished,” Heilbron writes. In Greek philosophy, “physics … inquired into the principles regulating the physical world from the high heavens to the Earth’s center, and from the human soul to the life of the least of living creatures.” It was about defining man’s place in nature, for the purpose of identifying “the ethical consequences of … the way the world began and persists.”
Few modern physicists would conceive of their quest in quite that way. And the Greeks did not pursue their quest with the methods that modern physicists employ, bothering little with experiments and only occasionally with math.
So Heilbron refers to premodern physicists as physici who practiced physica, and proceeds to tell the story of how the physica of the ancients became modern physics. In an engaging 200 pages, he documents the step-by-step transformation of the philosophy of the past into the science of the present.
Heilbron’s deep insight into the workings of scientific minds and the mechanisms of history informs every sentence of this concise but rich volume. Apart from a slight confusion on whether the modern idea of quintessence refers to dark matter or dark energy, it’s also a model of scientific as well as historiographic rigor.
|Photo: John L. Heilbron|
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Source: Science News