It’s hard to go more than a couple of days without seeing another “imminent death of publishing” article somewhere, predicting the ultimate triumph of ebooks, There’s one category of books that I expect to remain safe for the foreseeable future, though, namely books that are specifically constructed to be aesthetically pleasing. In other words, coffee-table books.
Clifford Pickover’s new Physics Book is one of these. It’s a very attractive and well-made book, pairing some 250 full-page images representing milestones in physics, paired with one-page descriptions of the underlying scientific concept. The link above goes to the author’s page for the book, which includes a fairly representative sample of the images from the book.
The nature of the genre, as it were, means that this isn’t a book that you would sit down and read in one sitting, Instead, it’s something to flip through and read an entry or two, and follow some of the abundant cross-references to other entries. Accordingly, I can’t say I’ve read the whole thing, but I have jumped around a bit. The entries are well written, giving a brief and clear description of the core concept, and the cross-references are well selected and make for interesting browsing.
I have not run across any description that I found any problems with in terms of accuracy. Some of them are a little short, but that’s a necessary constraint of the format. The topics selected use a fairly broad definition of physics, including a number of technological innovations that some might view as engineering rather than physics. But then, it’s hard to complain too much about this, since it allows a discussion of the trebuchet, and trebuchets are awesome.
The images are often more impressionistic than technical– they’re artistic photographs rather than physics diagrams, which may disappoint some people. But again, this is a necessary constraint of the format.
In the end, what you want from a coffee-table book is something that’s pleasing to look at, and can prompt some thought about the subject that may spur people to look elsewhere. By that measure, The Physics Book is a great success, providing striking images and interesting descriptions, and even a few pointers to other resources that I hadn’t heard before, including a reference to a paper on “Mechanics of the Sand Glass” that I’ll be using in this winter’s course on timekeeping.
If you’re interested in physics, and like pretty pictures (and, really, who isn’t?), you should definitely check this out.