Gamow – Gravity

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Gravity, George Gamow, 1961 (BN Publishing reprint, 2009)

George Gamow tended to repeat himself. Material used to explain relativistic time dilation, or 4-dimensional space-time rotation, shows up in several of his earlier books, as well as this one. It’s not a bad thing, per se, and it doesn’t represent a large fraction of any given book, but it does become obvious after a while. Additionally, two of the chapters in Gravity are based on an article previously printed in Scientific American in March, 1961.

The idea in this book is to follow the works of three main scientists through history – Galileo, Newton and Einstein, to show how our understanding of gravity has evolved. From a simple expectation that this is “just how things are,” to a universal force, and then ending as a side effect of curved 4D space. There’s not that much in the way of derivations, and if you’ve had high school physics classes, then you should already know most of the simpler Newtonian and Keplerian formulas (Newton for gravity and attraction between masses; Kepler for planetary orbits). The only real math shows up in the third chapter, where George goes through the process Newton followed to originate the principles of calculus for taking derivatives, and integrating over a surface.

Otherwise, the book is Gamow’s regular mix of scientific theory with historical background. It’s not a difficult book, and it is a pretty fast read. The sections on Einstein’s contributions to our understanding of gravity are pretty short – Gamow felt that it was more important to see what Newton had accomplished, so the bulk of the book is dedicated to him. The last chapter is mainly just unanswered questions – is there a way to unify gravity with the other three forces? Can we have quantum time or quantum gravity? Can we create a negative mass that would have negative gravity? Do gravitons exist?

Overall, Gravity is a good book if you want to know the state of physics as of 1961 (when the Russians had fired rockets into space, and had gotten a satellite to the moon (1959), but man hadn’t made it there yet (1969)). He mentions one possible rocket propulsion system – where small nuclear bombs would be released from the rocket to explode and push the rocket with the force of the blast – that I don’t think is ever going to be adopted. But, if you want a more up-to-date textbook, this book isn’t it. Recommended if you like Gamow’s writing style and his other books.

On a side note, while the other Gamow books I received were reprinted by Dover, this one came from BN Publishing. There’s no information on them, and no reprint dates on the copyright page, so I’d kind of rather recommend the Dover version if you have any questions of the authenticity of the text.

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