Monday, January 30, 2012

Quantum Leaps by Jeremy Bernstein

Not a typical quantum mechanics book, this is a personal narrative from an insider who knew the people working at the cutting edge of 20th century physics.
Cover of Quantum Leaps
Jeremy Bernstein is the author of many books, including Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element; Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma; Albert Einstein; Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos and A Theory for Everything. He wrote for the New Yorker for more than 30 years.

His scientific career has taken him to such renowned places of learning and research as the Institute for Advanced Study, Brookhaven National Laboratory, CERN, Oxford, the University of Islamabad, and the Ecole Polytechnique.

The Quantum World

In Quantum Leaps, Bernstein takes the reader on a personal journey through the world of physics and the struggle to understand the behavior of matter at very small scales. In the macroscopic world it is, for all practical purposes, perfectly adequate to model the motions, actions and reactions of objects in accordance with the laws laid out by Isaac Newton, eg. force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma).

However, at the atomic level (and smaller) things get weird. So weird in fact, that our ability to understand them in commonly experienced everyday terms fails miserably. This book is mostly about the physicists who developed the quantum theory of matter. Bernstein met quite a few of them and weaves his own personal anecdotes from the world of big-time physics in with what is mostly a historical perspective.

A Shaky Start

The book gets off to a questionable beginning with a meandering and unfocused couple of chapters. Frankly it's kind of hard to tell what the point of the book is. Bernstein mentions that the famous Neils Bohr was a terrible lecturer, often mumbling and getting sidetracked during his presentations.

It is almost as if Bernstein is channeling Bohr then, as he jumps from one anecdote to another, mentioning a meeting here and an idea there, and then suddenly skipping over to a controversy on a tangentially related topic. Fortunately, Bernstein's reputation as a master explainer and science writer is confirmed by the material that follows this rather disappointing beginning.

The Real World of Physics

After struggling through the first 50 pages or so, the reader is rewarded by an interesting and entertaining account that seems to exist on two branches. In one sense, the book is biographical in nature, as Bernstein recounts his early years at Harvard as both an undergraduate searching for something to do and a graduate student who, for a time, is still searching for the "right thing." The right thing turns out to be physics.

Bernstein provides an interesting running commentary on the ideas of David Bohm and John Stewart Bell. Both of these men made important contributions to the development of quantum theory, although not everyone agrees that their ideas are helpful. Most of the big names in 20th Century physics make an appearance. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Dirac, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, the aforementioned Bohr, and many others are all here.

This isn't a book from which to learn a lot about the nuts and bolts of quantum physics. It is however, a fascinating look at how real science progresses from one idea to the next, as the thoughts of many great thinkers jostle with difficult ideas and try to understand and explain what is essentially unobservable (in the direct sense) and virtually unexplainable. Science is a messy affair; people disagree on the interpretation of experiments and some ideas that are initially ridiculed are eventually accepted. That is how it really is.

Bernstein, Jeremy; Quantum Leaps; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography by Jim Shull

Pinhole Photography Cover
Fancy digital SLR cameras are a lot of fun and take great pictures. In this world of continuing advancements in the ease of use and capabilities of all manner of gadgets, it's easy to to forget the simple ideas that had to come first. So much can be learned from revisiting the more primitive implementations of just about any technology. Making and using pinhole cameras and learning about pinhole photography is a fun and valuable experience for any photographer and can be rewarding in its own right.

Jim Shull's 1999 book The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography is a classic in the field. Although it is not the most technical treatment of the subject, it is a perfect introduction to pinhole photography, or—as Shell calls it—"fotography."

Easy Ideas for Pinhole Cameras
Before deciding how to make a first move into the world of pinhole, it is a good idea to read through the entire book. Having accomplished that, the interested reader will know where to comfortably begin. Some outside help in the form of web research to get more specific advice on camera construction would be helpful. You could get really creative and even make a camera out of LEGO.

Santa Barbara Pinhole Camera (Paul Sullivan/Flickr)
After a brief explanation of why a pinhole camera works, basic ideas on constructing a camera are presented. The aperture is of course a critical component of any pinhole camera. It is possible to create an image using a hole poked in the side of a shoe box with a pin, but a good pinhole camera that does not make. Shell provides an excellent method for constructing a good aperture using a thin sheet of brass.

A pinhole camera housing can be made out of just about anything so long as few basic requirements are met. For those unusual cases where a suitable box or can cannot be found, a plan for a camera made out of card stock is included in the back of the book.

Getting Started With Pinhole Photography
Camera in hand, it is time to take and develop some pictures. Oh, and a dark room of some sort will be needed. No worries. Shell gives some practical and useful tips for constructing a simple darkroom, set up with the bare essentials for producing prints.

Pinhole photo with great depth of field (Matt Callow/Flickr)
The author has left plenty up to the photographer. Shell has not provided a detailed step-by-step guide to becoming an expert in the technique and art of pinhole. Some data for aperture diameters, focal lengths, and exposure times are provided. It's just enough information to get started.

A first pinhole camera probably won't be the ultimate. Initial attempts at producing an image may fail and learning to develop film takes some practice. The best way to learn any new skill is to get out and do it and learn from mistakes. This book provides an excellent starting point to begin that journey.

Although it seems to out of print, The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography is available used (at collector's item prices) and there is a good chance a decent-sized library system will have a copy. Thanks to the publisher, it is also available in e-reader editions.

The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography; Jim Shull; Amherst Media, Inc.; Buffalo, NY: 2010

Note: This book review first appeared at

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Boy Scientist by the Editors of Popular Mechanics

Cover of The Boy Scientist
Popular Mechanics has been providing entertaining and practical information and advice from the worlds of science and engineering since 1902. The current editors at the magazine have gone through the archives and come up with 160 interesting ideas for projects that could lead to "who knows what" in the fertile mind of a curious youth.

Lab Tools and Techniques

The first chapter includes some useful devices that could very well come in handy for making some of the other projects in the book. Anyone with a small workshop who wants to build stuff will love this section. The simple lead screw fabricated from a small rod, some solder, and copper wire, is a great idea--but what would serve as a lead nut for the screw? Make a pushbutton switch, a Bunsen burner, a simple micrometer, a distillation apparatus -- all very cool!

From Measuring to Making

Once you have tried a hand at some of the helpful devices in the first chapter, it's time to get into the more complex, and arguably more interesting, offerings. The remaining chapters are "Measuring Our World," "Electric Education," "Motorized Investigations," "Chemistry" and "The Physical World." As can be seen from the chapter titles, there is something here for just about any interest.

The projects range from the simple and practical to the specialized and highly involved. On the simple side there is the method of using similar triangles to measure the height of a tree by lying on the ground with feet against a yard stick and sighting over the yard stick to the top of the tree. On the more intricate side there is the telescopic range finder in which the builder must use use skills in wood working, optics, and mechanics.

Of particular note are the basic instructions for making a model steam engine using only hacksaw, bench drill, grinder, files, and taps and dies. A machine shop was called for in fabricating the steam cylinder and fly wheel, but ingenuity could probably provide something that would work for these parts as well.

Have you always wanted to make an electric motor from scratch? Need a hydraulic turbine to turn the motor using a local stream or other flowing water source? You'll find instructions for how do those things and much more in this interesting little book.

Are some of the projects potentially dangerous (like the laboratory gas generator)? Sure! Never mind the danger, think of the fun! But seriously, adult supervision is highly recommended.

A Treasury of Quaint and Ingenious Devices

Anyone in need of some ideas for science projects, or information on how to make useful machine parts and electrical component on the cheap, will find much of interest in The Boy Scientist.
DIY crowd take note--anyone with a penchant for making things or performing experiments will love this book. Like the blurb on the book says "So Much Fun, Not Enough Time!" But who says it has to be limited to the Boy scientist?


The Boy Scientist; The Editors of Popular Mechanics; Hearst Books; New York, NY: 2009