Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book review: "Quips, Quotes and Quanta" by Anton Z. Capri

Quips, Quotes, and Quanta: An Anecdotal History of Physics
By Anton Z. Capri
World Scientific Publishing (2007)

I came across Capri's book "Quips, Quotes and Quanta" while searching fodder for our 2011 advent calendar with anecdotes about physicists. It took a while for the book to arrive, but I finally received it a few days before Christmas.

Capri's book is a collection of stories and quotations from the history of physics of the late 19th and early 20th century. The author uses these stories to embed the physics of that time and covers some parts of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics around the lives of Dirac, Schrödinger, Pauli, Bohr, Boltzmann, Ehrenfest, Hilbert, Heisenberg, Planck, to only mention the usual suspects. I will admit on not reading the physics elaborations too carefully, but for all I can tell the scientific content was flawless, if with the superficiality that brevity brings.

While it sounds like a nice idea to get across science with anecdotes, the realization of that idea is poor. The writing is uninspired, sloppy and without style. It is so bad that in parts it reads like copy and pasted from Wikipedia; a list of paragraphs with things soandso allegedly said or did, vaguely collected by name or topic. At least one paragraph appears twice in the book (search inside for "Sommerfeld had this to say about Pauli").

The book does not list a single reference. None of the stories or quotations comes with a source, not even the biographical details. I happened to know some of the sources, and the respective paragraphs appear to me just as scrambled enough so they cannot be identified as exact copies. Bohr's theory of the Wild West for example probably originated in Gamow's recollection. Other anecdotes I know to be wrong, for example that of Bohr and the horseshoe and that Donald Glaser allegedly invented the bubble chamber after watching bubbles raise in beer (which even Wikipedia knows to be made up).

The author, Anton Capri is a retired professor for Engineering Physics. He is not a historian, but as a scientist he should have learned to check and list sources. If you have a scale on which you'd want me to rate this book, mark the lowest possible score. Unless you don't care if an allegedly historical anecdote is entirely fabricated, I recommend you do not spend money on this book.

11 comments:

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Well I must thank you as in being given an eReader for Christmas I thought I might down load this book. As you know as you I prefer the dead tree format yet in now having been given one I supposed I should at least give it a try. I actually down loaded one of the books you recommended some time ago being Thomas Home-Dixon’s “The Ingenuity Gap” which I’m now chewing my way through. I also find it inexcusable for a Professor to write a book offering anecdotes and quotes and not listing sources.

Of course he could claim he did so as being so inspired by Einstein and yet that too would have been to misunderstand the author, even if not certain of the source, which by way despite my best efforts I can’t claim as able to confirm:-)

"The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources."

-(allegedly) Albert Einstein

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

As a postscript to my comment I was going to hit the like button on this and yet thought I better not as might having some believe it was a recommendation of the book ; not that it then could be somewhat deserved if not checking first for context. However I like to think although it may be fair to be subtle at times one should not be malicious ;-)

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Glad that you found this review useful. There is a 2nd part to that book btw, which I didn't read (and have no intention of reading).

How do you like the eReader and which one do you have? I've been thinking about getting one, yet I'm not sure I'd actually use it enough to justify the investment. Do you like it so far?

Yes, I still think Homer-Dixon's book is one of the best I've ever read. Still very timely. I wish more people would listen to him. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Well the one I was given is the Kobo Touch which I haven’t had actually long enough to be able to give you a truly considered opinion. However from what I’ve experienced thus far it’s small and light enough to be able to tote around. Its display I find easy on the eyes as it’s what they call liquid ink and therein not back lit as to be more like paper. It also has a touch keyboard you can call up to search a book or use to highlight sections to be saved; this is an advantage I appreciate as many of my dead tree format books look like porcupines with all the paper’s stuffed between their pages, with some including notes (the worst of these being Penrose’s “The Road to Reality”; as it looking like one on a bad hair day:-) ). It also has lots of capacity built in, purportedly enough for a thousand books expandable with added flash memory to take you to 30,000 (as if someone would live long enough to need it). The good news is if you put it down it goes into sleep mode to display just the title of the book and will return to where you left off with a touch of one of its only two buttons.

As for the down side, as like many of these one is restricted to the service it’s designed for as to source of book, with Kobo thus far finding its library underrepresented in respect to science, with physics being more so. However perhaps its greatest disadvantage is it only displays in grey scale and not colour, although they have one that does, since as when it comes to things such as graphs, illustrations or photos this would have it to be better or perhaps even necessary at times (not that I should complain as Santa being so generous, thoughtful and kind).

As for a wish list, I wished I could purchase some in dead tree format with an option to download the “e” version with paying a reasonable nominal premium; yet perhaps that’s asking for too much ingenuity as an in being a feature that many would find as redundant. Another thing that would be very useful if they had the ability to load up academic papers and at a price that was reasonable; perhaps something Stefan could bring to light and move the ball on ;-).

So bottom line being thus far I find it having more pluses than minuses, with perhaps admittedly it being most likely dependent upon if this old dog is still being able to learn a few new tricks.


Best,

Phil

Eric said...

Bee,
I think you will like the e-reader but I also know it is un-pc to like it. I have had one, the Kindle, for a couple of years and I really like it. Having said that I always feel a little guilty about it because it makes it too easy to relegate brick and mortar stores to the mausoleum. What to do? I don't have an answer.

The reason I enjoy it so much is for two reasons. The first reason is instant gratification. If something looks interesting I just download it from Amazon and it arrives within about a minute. It doesn't hurt that it is usually cheaper than the print version. Instant gratification is hugely addictive on a primitive level.

The second reason I like it is for traveling.you can retain an almost unlimited number of books in storage in that one device. The reason that is important for traveling is that you can't always anticipate how much you will enjoy a book. Sometimes you just aren't in the mood for a certain genre and if that is the print version you brought along then you are screwed.

Some other things to think about. Nothing looks as good as the printed word. For equations my Kindle is laughable so I don't buy e-books that have extensive equations. For the regular printed word I find the digital ink in my kindle to be nearly as good as ink along with low reflectivity. My Apple iPad causes much more eye strain though it has other benefits. Another advantage of digital ink is that it uses very little juice. I would say I can read 8 hours a day for three days before it needs a charge. Great for short trips. One more advantage for e-books is the instant look up of words just by highlighting with the cursor and using the internal dictionary.

They might have improved the kindle for equation since I got mine several years ago. Maybe someone else would know. Like I say, I still feel a bit guilty about like it so much.

Bee said...

Hi Phil, Eric,

Thanks for the reports... It sounds like I'd like the reader itself, but not the selection of what I'd get to read. (Does the selection have a language filter? I'm kinda concerned if I'd buy one here, most of the books I could download would be in German.) I guess what I'd have most use for would be uploading papers (pdf or ps, the rare word-doc) and marking them, so I wouldn't have to carry them around. Maybe a few textbooks, but then I would probably not want to buy them a 2nd time, expensive as they are. Would that work with the readers you have? Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Mine only can be only loaded with what Kobo provides so what you mention except the textbooks they have would not be possible. As for the language concern that again would depend on your provider. For the most part the functionality and utility you are looking for would probably be better served by a tablet about which I have little knowledge.

Best,

Phil

Plato said...

Actually Phil the tablet might be the way to go giving the constraints around product applicability. Like Eric if you are going to buy many books from one outlet?

I would think you want the freedom to access Google Books Library Project where ever you are to do your research?

Best,

Eric said...

Hi Bee,
Unfortunately, I think you might be disappointed if you use an ebook to get textbooks. The one I have is just not up to to the special formatting required in textbooks for tables, figures, equations, etc. I think you would almost have to get a specially designed ebook to handle that - maybe something closer to a regular pc or apple in compact form. For what you are looking for an ebook might be a disappointment. Plain text is where they excel. It's too bad too because who wants to lug around heavy textbooks.

Bee said...

Hi Eric,

Yes, it sounds like I better wait till the technology is more flexible in application. What I'd really have use for is something equally good or better than a stack of papers and books, a pen, and a notebook. And to that end, so far nothing has scored very highly. Kind of funny, you'd think it's exactly the textbooks and similar technical stuff that you can't easily find online, yet need all the time, that people have use for, even more than literature for leisure that is, to some extend, replaceable. Best,

B.