Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book review: "Energy, a subtle concept"

How energy has emerged progressively as one of the major concept in physics from antiquity to Richard Feynman is what Jennifer Coppersmith is discussing in her book.  This tantalizing and challenging task requires to deal not only with the history of energy but with the history of physics in a whole. In 360 pages, Dr. Jennifer Coopersmith - who received her PhD in nuclear physics from the University of London - succeeds in embracing this history in book which is an illuminating and highly enjoyable reading. 

Coopersmith interweaves historical anecdotes and scientific accuracy. For instance, we learn how Fahrenheit was important for heat during the Eighteenth century; we also learn that Daniel Fahrenheit "didn't have a very auspicious start to his career. His parents died of mushroom poisoning and his legal guardians arranged for him to train as a book-keeper; but Daniel wasn't interested, stole some money, and ended up with a warrant being issued for his arrest..." And it's not the end of his story...Another story concerns Thomas Young. Young was an english physicist who used the term "energy" in 1807 during a course at the Royal Institution instead of the 'Leibnizian' Vis Viva.  He was the first to use this word in physics since its introduction by Johann Bernoulli in 1717 in his letter to Pierre Varignon. Young was also a "child prodigy of the best kind, 'the kind that matures into a adult prodigy'. At the age two he was fluent reader, by six he had read through the Bible twice, and by 13 he was teaching himself Hebrew, Chaldean, Syriac, Samaritan, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Ethiopic." Just amazing...

The book follows different tracks to explain how each of the "Feynman's blocks - mechanic energy, heat, ..., as called by Coopersmith - developed itself and how these blocks merged together to give the principle of energy conservation. You can understand easily that I strongly recommend the reading of this book for specialists or non-specialists. Why is such a book so important ? Learning energy history is key to understanding what energy is. Knowing energy is key to understanding what the main energetic problematics are nowadays.  

Jennifer Coopersmith, "Energy: a subtle concept", Oxford University Press, USA (August 13, 2010)

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