Monday, February 08, 2010

Birkhoff, Whitehead, and Synge; Weyl, Eddington, and Dirac

*Cosmos* from Marginal Revolution by Tyler Cowen
The author is John North and the subtitle is An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology.  Excerpt:

Other alternatives to Einstein's general theory of relativity were the theories of gravitation developed by G.D. Birkhoff, A.N. Whitehead, and J.L. Synge.  All of them had cosmological implications.  They were symptomatic of a period of great intellectual vitality.  They were no doubt partly motivated by a desire to create something comparable with what Einstein had produced.  Some ideas of a very different kind were then being put forth by Hermann Weyl, Eddington, and Dirac -- the first two in 1930, and Dirac in 1937-38.  They seemed to many to be suggesting that cosmological observation was superfluous, and that all could be deducted from the constants of physics.  Eddington, for instance, thought that all the dimensionless constants (pure numbers) obtained by suitably multiplying and dividing powers of the constants of physics -- the mass of a proton, the charge on an electron, and so forth -- turn out to be close to unity, or of the order of 10 raised to the power 79.  This vast number he thought might characterize the number of particles in the universe. 

This is a truly splendid history of science book, especially if you are snowed in for a weekend.  It has plenty of material on the early history of astronomy and on the one topic I know something about -- the Aztecs -- it seems very good to me and very accurate.

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