Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Celebrity physicists

I used to think that I’m immune to the hype that fame brings. I never did, still do not, and probably will not ever, bother about which celebrity couple is getting married this month.

And who cares what their children’s names will be? Turns out that quite a lot of people do care, if the racks of tabloids in supermarkets are any indication.

Fame may not dazzle me to permanent blindness, but I’m not completely immune either.

On a trip to the university’s physics library, I saw a compilation volume of Chandrasekhar’s publications. That’s the Chandrasekhar who gave us the Chandrasekhar Limit, and the Chandra x-ray orbiting telescope is named after this same man.

“Wow, they have Chandrasekhar here!” was what ran through my mind that instant. In the end, I did not take it because most, if not all, the material was well beyond my comprehension.

What I did take, however, was a book on cosmic fractals “with an introduction by Benoît Mandelbrot.” Like Chandrasekhar, Mandelbrot is a household name (if stellar evolution and the Mandelbrot Set are what one talks about over dinner). As a cosmic fractal book, it sucked; I got drawn in by the Mandelbrot hype-up. Sounds like Star Wars II, doesn’t it? (I did not watch that. Really!)

Feynman’s lectures on quantum electrodynamics thrilled me, and I happily loaned his autobiography. It did not suck; in fact, it was quite an entertaining read.

All this started in 1999 when I borrowed a copy of ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Hawking, that physicist in a motorised chair who has appeared in several episodes of The Simpsons. It was an amazing introduction to modern physics. Imagine how exciting light cones (past and future) and black holes are compared to the elementary collision mechanics we did in school.

That particular book was acquired from Yuan Harng, who loaned it from Shyan Yih, who took it from his father’s collection. Along the way, the book got tattered badly, and Shyan Yih thought he’d rather not return that mess to his father. I passed it to someone else after reading it twice.

Hopefully, that little blue book is still circulating, inspiring people. Hopefully, it’s not in too bad a condition.

I’m currently contemplating the purchase (not loan, mind you) of ‘The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe’ by Roger Penrose. AU$50 for over a thousand pages of intense mathematics and physics seems like a better way to spend money than watching 5 movies at the cinema or investing in a flash unit for the camera.