Here are still more books that I have read and enjoyed. The books by William Bragg and Erwin Schrödinger are 'old', having been published 50 to 75 years ago, but they are among the best science books ever written. The collection of lectures by Chandrasekhar contains some of the best ideas most beautifully presented about the role of creativity and the place of beauty in both the sciences and the arts. John McPhee's book about Bill Bradley is John McPhee at his best. Paul Hoffmann's book about the eccentric mathematician Paul Erdös is full of amusing and improbable stories, and actually makes a person want to learn about number theory. The book by Kari Mullis has some good parts for organic chemists and people who worked with first NMR machines.

I have listed the books alphabetically by author.


Sir William Bragg: Concerning the Nature of Things. Dover Publications, Inc.; 1925; 232 pages; L. C. Catalog Number 54-10016.

"Six Christmas Lectures given at the Royal Institution in 1923-24 to describe certain features of the recent discoveries in physical science."

The lectures are:

  • The Atoms of Which Things are Made
  • The Nature of Gases
  • The Nature of Liquids
  • The Nature of Crystals: Diamond
  • The Nature of Crystals: Ice and Snow, and
  • The Nature of Crystals: Metals.

  • Throw away your chemistry and physics textbooks and learn about the submicroscopic world of atoms and molecules from someone who knows and understands everything, and can explain it to anyone.

    Professor Bragg has followed Einstein's dictum and has "made it as simple as possible, but no simpler." He has the perfect example or perfect metaphor for everything. The back cover of my copy states “This book requires no scientific background of its readers. In language an intelligent child can understand it answers such questions as ..." "More interesting than any bestseller among novels which we have ever seen."


    S. Chandrasekhar: Truth and Beauty. Aesthetics and Motivations in Science; The University of Chicago Press, Chicago; 1987; 170 pages; ISBN 0-226-10087-1.

    The seven lectures, presented between 1946 and 1986, are:
     


    The first four lectures can be appreciated in their entirely by anyone, regardless of their level of scientific sophistication. The last three occasionally expect a somewhat more technical understanding of science. The big ideas, however, will be apparent to all.

    I especially recommend lectures three and four, Shakespeare, Newton and Beethoven, and Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science, to those who are interested in the role of creativity and the place of beauty in the sciences and in the arts.

    I have included here Chandrasekhar's Preface so that you can read for yourself the goals that he sets for himself in these lectures, and so that you can appreciate for yourself the skill and insight that he brings to these tasks.

    Click to read about Kameshwar C. Wali's biography of Chandrasekhar.

     

     Preface

    The seven lectures collected in this volume present my general thoughts pertaining to the motivations in the pursuit of science ;and. to the patterns of scientific creativity. While the first of these lectures was given forty years ago (under a special circumstance I shall presently describe), the remaining six were given in the decade following 1975. As such. they may illustrate the changing (maturing) attitudes of one scientist.

    All of the lectures were prepared with care and attention to details and phrasing. They were, in fact, read on the occasions: the printed lectures are the unaltered original texts (apart from the elimination of some "preliminary" material).

     

     I

    The lectures fall in, roughly, two categories. The first four deal primarily with questions of esthetics and motivations. The remaining three lectures, bearing the names of Milne, Eddington  and Schwarzschild, while in part biographical, do address themselves, albeit indirectly, to the same general questions; and especially the Karl Schwarzschild lecture in which the larger part is addressed to the aesthetic base of the general theory of relativity and continues the arguments of the earlier lecture on "Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science."

     

    II

    The span of thirty years that separates my lecture on "The Scientist" given in 1946 and the second Nora and Edward P, Ryerson Lecture on "Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, or Patterns of Creativity" given in 1975, is, as I have stated, the result of special circumstance. Scientists, as a rule, do not regard motivations in the pursuit of science or the aesthetic base for such pursuits as subjects worthy of serious discussion; and they tend to look askance at those who do. I probably shared these common views m 1943. But a letter from Robert Maynard Hutchins (then the Chancellor of the University or' Chicago) inviting me to give the lecture on “The Scientist” in a series he was organizing explained:

    The purpose of the lecture series is to stimulate the student's critical abilities in order to enable him to appreciate the excellence of a work, and to induce him to an attempt to produce good things himself, [with the hope] that each of the lecturers will speak from his own experience on the work of his art or profession, and that he will demonstrate its value by elucidating its nature, formulating its purpose, and explaining its techniques.

    I was, in the first instance, reluctant to accept the invitation: I had not given any serious thought to such matters. Besides, I was intimidated by the list of the other lecturers (including Frank Lloyd Wright, Arnold Schoenberg, Marc Chagall, and John von Neumann, among others) whom Hutchins had also invited. (Indeed, who would not be intimidated by such a list?) But I was too young to withstand the authority of the Chancellor of the University! And I was compelled to think on matters that were not natural for me at that time.

    Rereading that lecture of forty  years ago, I find much that I would not say or would say differently from my present vantage. But I have included it in the present collection (perhaps, against better judgment) since reading it in juxtaposition with the lecture on "The Pursuit of Science: Its Motivations," given in 1985, may illustrate how the attitudes of a scientist can alter over the years.

     

     III

    Chronologically, the lecture I gave after "The Scientist" was the Ryerson Lecture of 1975. A forced convalescence of some six months, in the preceding year, gave me the unique opportunity to think, undistractedly, on matters and issues that I had never seriously thought of before. Those six months of study and thought provided me the base not only for the lecture that I was to give, but also for my continuing interest in the role of aesthetic sensibility in the cultivation of science. In some respects, my increasing involvement in certain mathematical aspects of the general theory of relativity has strengthened the same interests. (I may add, parenthetically, that in some strange way, any new fact or insight that I may have found has not seemed to me as a "discovery" of mine, but rather as something that had always been there and that I had chanced to pick up.)

     

     IV

    There is a pair of intertwining threads that runs through all of the lectures given since 1975: the same illustrative "stories," in different shades of context, find their places m several of them. One of the running threads is related to the quest for beauty in science, and the other, to the question explicitly asked in my Ryerson Lecture concerning the origin of the different patterns of creativity in the arts and in the sciences. That there is a difference in the two patterns is brought out most clearly m the contrasting premises that commonly underlie the discussions pertaining to the works of an artist and the works of a scientist. In assessing an artist, one often distinguishes an early, a middle, and a late period; and the distinction is generally one of growing maturity and depth. But this is not the way a scientist is assessed: he (or she) is assessed by the significance of one or more of the discoveries that he (or she) may have made in the realm of ideas or in the realm of facts. And, it is often the case that the most “important” discovery of a scientist is his first. In contrast, the deepest creation of an artist is equally often his last. I continue to be puzzled by this dichotomy.

    There is one aspect of this dichotomy that has recently occurred to me and to which I may briefly allude: it is the apparently differing goals of the scientists of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries and of the scientists of the present. Consider the supreme example of Newton. He discovered his laws of gravitation (and much else) while sojourning in Woolsthrope during the great plague. When some twenty years later, he undertook to write out afresh, for the benefit of Halley, his derivation of Kepler's first law, he did not stop with his derivation. He was not satisfied either with his lectures De Motu Corporum in gyrum that he gave subsequently. He had to write the entire Principia and he wrote it with a speed and a coherence unparalleled in the intellectual history of man. A revealing aspect of this effort, from our present vantage point, is that Newton was not content with a bald enunciation of his discoveries: he seems to have been concerned, far more, in placing his discoveries in the context of the entire domain of science that he was able to construct and perceive as a whole. Newton's attitude in this respect was not exceptional for his times. Kepler could have been content with giving a simple account of his laws of planetary motion, he chose, instead, to write Astronomia Nova. Galileo could have stopped with the announcements of his great discoveries; but he, apparently, felt compelled to write his Dialogs Concerning the Two New Sciences. And the tradition of Kepler, Galileo, and Newton was passed on to Laplace and Lagrange.

    It is of course idle for any normal person to wish to emulate, in scale or in magnitude, the examples of' Newton, Kepler, and Galileo. But the examples do suggest that the goals of science, as they sought in their enlarged visions, might have retained currency with more modest but similar goals. But the goals changed; the emphasis became increasingly in identifying discoveries that change the directions of science. Perhaps the change was inevitable. The discoveries associated with the names of Volta, Ampere, Oersted, and Faraday, by their very nature, had to precede the synthesis by Maxwell; and they required different types efforts. In any event, the tendency to focus on "discoveries" has continued; and it has been enhanced and emphasized by an outlook that perceives in discoveries the principal ingredients of scientific accomplishment. The value of synthesizing one’s vision, even if of a limited range, in one simple mosaic has faded. We do not, for example, ask whether Einstein, twenty years after the discovery of his laws of gravitation, might have wished (or, felt able) to write an account of the general theory of relativity in the manner of the Principia.

    May it not be, that had the goals of science, as sought by the great scientists of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, retained their currency, the present dichotomy in the patterns of creativity of the artist and the scientist might not have arisen?

    It remains to add that while preparing the lectures collected in this volume (as well as others) I have discussed in depth with my wife, Lalitha, the various issues that arise. Her critical understanding and parallel insights have contributed greatly to the final versions. I am also indebted to her for her constant encouragement and advice.

    S. Chandrasekhar
    8 December 1986



     

    Paul Hoffman: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers . The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth. Hyperion, New York; 1998; 318 pages; ISBN 0-7868-8406-1.

    "Marvelous .. vivid and strangely moving." Oliver Sacks

    "One of the most captivating books I have read in years ... a completely absorbing, fast-paced memoir." Kay Redfield Jamison

    "Paul Erdos was one of the most prolific and eccentric mathematicians of our time, a man who possessed unimaginable powers of thought yet was unable to manage some of the simplest daily tasks. For more than two decades he lived out of two tattered suitcases, crisscrossing four continents at a frenzied pace, chasing mathematical problems in pursuit of lasting beauty and ultimate truth."

    Some of the gems in this book include:

    "... you need to know pi to only 39 decimal places on order to compute the circumference of a circle girdling the known universe with an error no greater than the radius of a hydrogen atom."

    "A physicist and a mathematician are flying cross-country together. Each is keeping a diary of the trip. They fly over a white horse in Iowa. The physicist writes, 'There is a white horse in Iowa.' The mathematician writes, 'There exists, somewhere in the Midwest, a horse, white on top.'"

    "I even know of a mathematician who slept with his wife only on prime-numbered days ... It was pretty good early in the month ... but got tough toward the end when, when the primes are thinner ..."

    From Stanislaw Ulam: "The first sign of senility is that a man forgets his theorems, the second is that he forgets to zip up, the third sign is he forgets to zip down."


    John McPhee: A Sense of Where You Are. a profile of Bill Bradley at Princeton; The Noonday Press, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York; 1978; 144 pages, plus photographs; ISBN 0-374-51485-2; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York; 1999; 0-374-52869-3

    "Author's Note, 1978: What follows was written in the middle nineteen-sixties and is a portrait of Bill Bradley as he was in college - student and athlete. Viewed from this distance in time, the story suggests the abundant beginnings of his professional careers in sport and politics, and is therefore republished now. This note is  written so that no reader coming upon the book for the first time will be led to expect other contents."

    The book opens: "My father, for fourteen years or so, has served as physician to United States Olympic teams. And for more than forty years, before his retirement in June of 1964, he was a physician to college athletes, almost all of that time at Princeton. I know that he greatly admires excellence in athletes, and that he would regularly become quite caught up in the evolution of a Princeton team’s season, its hopes for a championship, and the kind of performance an individual might be sustaining; but these things were discernible only in highly indirect ways. He  has a taciturnity celebrated in his circle, and he can watch, say, a Princeton halfback go ninety-eight yards for a touchdown without even faintly showing on the surface the excitement he feels within him. In fact, from the late thirties, which is as far back as I can remember, until the winter of 1962, I had never heard him actually make a direct statement of praise about any athlete, let alone make high claims, proud or otherwise, for an athlete’s abilities. Then the phone rang one day in my apartment in New York, where I had been living  for some years, and my father was on the other end, saying, "There’s a freshman basketball player down here who is the best basketball player who has ever been near here and may be one of the best ever. You ought to come down and see him."

    "I remember being so surprised that I felt more worried about my father than interested in the basketball player. Finally, I said, 'What’s his name?'"

    "What difference does that make? They’re playing Penn tomorrow night at six thirty."

    And then: "I watched the general flow on the court for a while, and it was soon clear enough who had drawn the crowd, and that he was the most graceful and classical basketball player who had ever been near Princeton, to say the very least. Every motion developed in its simplest form. Every motion repeated itself precisely when he used it again. He was remarkably fast, but he ran easily. His passes were so good that they were difficult to follow. Every so often, and not often enough, I thought, he stopped and went high into the air  with the ball, his arms rising until his hands were at right angles to one another and high above him, and a long jump shot would to into the net ... I looked from the boy’s number down to the mimeographed sheet in my hand. His name was Bill Bradley. He was six feet five inches tall. And he came from Crystal City, Missouri."

    Another fascinating book by John McPhee, especially if you have even a slight interest in either basketball or Bill Bradley.


    Kary Mullis: Dancing Naked in the Mind Field ; Pantheon Books, New York; 1998; 212 pages; ISBN 0-679-44255.

    "Here are the outrageous ideas and extraordinary adventures of the world’s most eccentric and outspoken Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993 [he] has frequently been at odds with the scientific establishment. Legendary for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction. (PCR), ... [he] is also an accomplished surfer, a veteran of Berkeley in the sixties, and perhaps the only Nobel laureate to describe a possible encounter with aliens."

    For those of us who have spent some time in the Orgo lab, his adventures as a synthetic organic chemist (pages 29-35), with the Varian A-60 NMR machine (pages 36-38), and with the safety officer (pages 39-43) will make it worth taking a look at the book.

    Click if you want to know what Kary Mullis said when he had conceived of PCR.


    Erwin Schrödinger: Mind and Matter; Cambridge at the University Press; 1959; 103 pages.

    also:

    Erwin Schrödinger: Mind and Matter, Cambridge University Press; 1992 (first published in 1959); with What is Life? and Autobiographical Sketches; ISBN 0-521-42708-8.

    The Tarner Lectures; delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October, 1956.

    Six lecture/essays about the world and our experience of the world. The lectures are:
     

  • The Physical Basis of Consciousness
  • The Future of Understanding
  • The Principle of Objectivation
  • The Arithmetical Paradox, or the Oneness of Mind
  • Science and Religion
  • The Mystery of the Sensual Qualities.

  • The big question that Schrödinger considers here is the connection between what we experience in the way of sensations and emotions and the apparently material nature of the world and everything in it. No answers but a clear statement of the issues and the best ideas so far.


    Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life? Cambridge University Press; 1992 (first published in 1944); with Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches; ISBN 0-521-42708-8.

    It may be hard to believe that the physicist Erwin Schrödinger, inventor of quantum mechanics, could write a classic in the field of biology that can be understood by a non-specialist. For this reason I have included here the Foreword by Roger Penrose, Schrödinger’s Preface, and the introductory paragraphs from the book.

     Foreword

    When I was a young mathematics student in the early 1950s I did not read a great deal, but what I did read - at least if I completed the book - was usually by Erwin Schrödinger. I always found his writing to be compelling, and there was an excitement of discovery, with the prospect of gaining some genuinely new understanding about this mysterious world in which we live. None of his writings possesses more of this quality than his short classic What is Life?, - which, as I now realize, must surely rank among, the most influential scientific writing in this century. It represents a powerful attempt to comprehend some of the genuine mysteries of life, made by a physicist whose own deep insights had done so much to change the change the way in which we understand what the world is made of. The book’s cross-disciplinary sweep was unusual for its time - yet it is written with an endearing, perhaps disarming, modesty at a level that makes it accessible to non-specialists and to the young who might aspire to be scientists. Indeed, many scientists who have made fundamental contributions in biology, such its J. B. S. Haldane and Francis Crick have admitted to being strongly influenced by (although not always in complete agreement with) the broad-ranging ideas put forward here by this highly original and profoundly thoughtful physicist.

    Like so many works that have had a great impact on human thinking, it makes points that, once they are grasped, have a ring of almost self-evident truth; yet they are still blindly ignored by a disconcertingly large proportion of people who should know better. How often do we still hear that quantum effects can have little relevance in the study of biology, or that we heat food in order to gain energy? This serves to emphasize the continuing relevance that Schrödinger’s What is Life? has for us today. It is amply worth rereading!”

    Roger Penrose
    8 August 1991

    Preface

    A scientist is supposed to have a complete and thorough knowledge, at first hand, of some subjects and, therefore, is usually expected not to write on any topic of which he is not a master. This is regarded is a matter of noblesse oblige. For the present purpose I beg to renounce the noblesse  if any, and to be freed of the ensuing obligation. My excuse is as follows:

    We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given to the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole; but, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to comprehend more than a small specialized portion of it.

    I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost for ever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them - and at tile risk of making fools of ourselves.

    So much for my apology.

     Chapter I

    The Classical Physicist's Approach to the Subject

    Cogito ergo sum. DESCARTES
     

    The General Character and the Purpose of the Investigation

    This little book arose from a course of public lectures, delivered by a theoretical physicist to an audience of about four hundred which did not substantially dwindle, though warned at the outset that the subject-matter was a difficult one and that the lectures could not be termed popular, even though the physicist’s most dreaded weapon, mathematical deduction, would hardly be utilized. The reason for this was not that the subject was simple enough to be explained without mathematics, but rather that it was much too involved to be fully accessible to mathematics. Another feature which at least induced a semblance of popularity was the lecturer’s intention to make clear the fundamental idea, which hovers between biology and physics, to both the physicist and the biologist.

    For actually, in spite of the variety of topics involved, the whole enterprise is intended to convey one idea only - one small comment on a large and important question. In order not to lose our way it may be useful to outline the plan very briefly in advance.

    The large and important and very much discussed question is:

    How can the events in space and time which take place within the spatial boundary of a living organism be accounted for by physics and chemistry?

    The preliminary answer which this little book will endeavor to expound and establish can be summarized as follows:

    The obvious inability of present-day physics and chemistry to account for such events is no reason at all for doubting that they can be accounted for by those sciences.

    Statistical Physics. The Fundamental Difference in Structure.

    That would be a very trivial remark if it were meant only to stimulate the hope of achieving in the future what has not been achieved in the past. But the meaning is very much more positive, viz. that the inability, up to the present moment, is amply accounted for.

    Today, thanks to the ingenious work of biologists, mainly of geneticists, during the last thirty or forty years, enough is known about the actual material structure of organisms and about their functioning to state that, and to tell precisely why, present-day physics and chemistry could not possibly account for what happens in space and time within a living organism.

    The arrangements of the atoms in the most vital parts of an organism and the interplay of these arrangements differ in a fundamental way from all those arrangements of atoms which physicists and chemists have hitherto made the object of their experimental and theoretical research. Yet the difference which I have just termed fundamental is of such it kind that it might easily appear slight to anyone except a physicist who is thoroughly imbued with the knowledge that the laws of physics and chemistry are statistical throughout For it is in relation to the statistical point of view that the structure of the vital parts of living organisms differs so entirely from that of any piece of matter that we physicists and chemists have ever handled physically in our laboratories or mentally at our writing desks. It is well-nigh unthinkable that the laws and regularities thus discovered should happen to apply immediately to the behavior of systems which do not exhibit the structure on which those laws and regularities are based.

    The non-physicist cannot be expected even to grasp - let alone to appreciate the relevance of - the difference in ‘statistical structure’ stated in terms so abstract as I have just used. To give the statement life and color, let me anticipate what will be explained in much more detail later, namely, that the most essential part of a living cell - the chromosome fiber may suitably be called an aperiodic crystal. In physics we have dealt hitherto only with periodic crystals. To a humble physicist’s mind, these are very interesting and complicated objects; they constitute one of the most fascinating and complex material structures by which inanimate nature puzzles his wits. Yet, compared with the aperiodic crystal, they are rather plain and dull. The difference in structure is of the same kind as that between an ordinary wallpaper in which the same pattern is repeated again and again and again in regular periodicity and a masterpiece of embroidery, say an Raphael tapestry, which shows no dull repetition, but an elaborate, coherent, meaningful design trace by the great master.

    In calling the periodic crystal one of the most complex objects of his research, I had in mind the physicist proper. Organic chemistry, indeed, in investigating more and more complicated molecules, has come very much nearer to that 'aperiodic crystal' which, in my opinion, is the material carrier of life. And therefore it is small wonder that the organic chemist haw already made large and important contributions to the problem of life, whereas the physicist has made next to none.

    This ends the Preface.

    Although this book was published in 1944, well before the double-helical structure of DNA had been established by Watson and Crick, Schrödinger clearly anticipated the aperiodic nature of the chromosome, just as Pasteur had anticipated the existence of handed molecules.


    January 18, 2000