Book Review: Science As A Box Of Chocolates

Retired LANL scientist Claude Phipps, author of  ‘No Wonder You Wonder: Great Inventions and Scientific Mysteries’. Photo by Roger Snodgrass/
Los Alamos Daily Post

It is impossible to square the circle, that is, to make one of those geometric figures with the same area as the other using only a compass and a ruler. The reason, according to Wikipedia, is because pi is not the root of any polynomial as Lindamann proved in 1882.

But hang on. It is not impossible to write a reader-friendly, entertaining book about science without reverting to advanced mathematics, as Claude Phipps demonstrated when his book No Wonder You Wonder! Great Inventions and Scientific Mysteries was published by Springer this year.

 Phipps is a retired scientist with a PhD in plasmas from Stanford University who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the field of pulsed lasers. He has been in the vanguard of efforts to develop a laser technology capable of cleaning up the mounting clutter of man-made space debris orbiting the Earth.

Every two years since 1998, he has put on an international conference in Santa Fe on High Power Laser Ablation, which includes technology for altering paths of small objects like comets and asteroids, as well as space debris.  In 2007, he edited, Laser Ablation and its Applications, part of the Springer Series in Optical Sciences.

The author is also something of a renaissance man, who harkens back to the early scientists and their multiple intersectional interests and unbounded curiosity

A few years ago, he was hanging out in Sorèze, a village of about 1200 people in the south of France, when he got an idea for writing a book about everything he wanted to say about technology and science, but without any differential equations.

It was as simple as that and kind of a revolutionary idea for such a highly specialized expert to turn around and try “to make the complex simple,” as he says in the preface to his book, “rather than the other way around.”

“I already did have a book out with Springer and so I wrote the editor there. and I said would you be interested in this idea,” Phipps recalled in an interview last month, and somewhat surprisingly he learned that rather than pull the usual business of wanting more of the same old stuff, they said they were looking for new stuff. “They took it on and I was pleased about that,” said Phipps.

So, Phipps’ new book is kind of a rarity in the Springer list, which specializes in very academic and technical subjects like Matrix and Tensor Factorization Techniques for Recommender Systems by Pangiotis Symeonidis and Andreas Zioupos, just to mention the first book that came up on their current featured books page.

Phipps invites readers to start reading his text anywhere their interests take them and then read backward or forward. “That’s my kind of book,” he said.

In the 331 pages, chock full of historical and contemporary prints, cartoons, photographs and charts and a number of illustrations by Friedelwolf Wicke, an Austrian collaborator, I could not find a dull moment in this compendium of instructive blurbs, insights, digressions and hard-won historical truths.  

It’s not just about a little of everything, it also turns out that everything is one of the author’s favorite subjects. Is this not exactly the kind of spirit a STEM teacher would like to get across in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math curriculum?

When I look out my window at the world, I see an infinitely complex place full of interrelated things. Poke it anywhere, ask a question like “why is the sky blue?” and that question will bore down and branch out into a thousand more questions which are all part of Physics. That’s why it’s such a great field. I don’t want to be a narrow expert in anything, but rather knowledgeable about it all. It is still possible! That’s one reason I wrote this book. I know there are a lot of you out there, who are curious, but are not encouraged by the way science is usually taught. You will notice it’s written here in a personal, narrative way, and that’s the same topic shows up in various ways in several chapters, rather than being organized in some hierarchy….The second reason for writing the book will become more clear in the very first chapter, where I insist that you are not entitled to your own facts. The Internet is a tremendous resource, but it has no filtering mechanism and it’s easy for one person’s particular opinion to become what “Einstein said.”

The first chapter, titled “Einstein said,” is characteristically not about what Einstein said, but rather what he didn’t say. Phipps explained: “In the crowd I run with, people are always saying ‘Einstein said….’ Well, he didn’t.”

The next chapter debunks a number of apocryphal sayings that are attributed to the Swiss theoretical and mathematical genius.

There are four sections in the book:

  • Basics
  • Who really did it first?
  • Modern Science and Engineering, the core of the big that romps through everything from relativity to machines, flight, electricity and electromagnetism , drones and robots, electronics and computers, biology lasers and nucleonic
  • Odds and Ends

“I like to start with numbers,” Phipps said, if only to make them accessible for that segment of audience, he says. “The ones who thought they could not learn it anyway and so they didn’t.”

He tells us he started wondering about the number 666, when he was on a train to Stockholm to a place where his grandmother lived 125 years ago, where he hoped to meet the modern descendants of his family. He pulled out his ticket and showed it to the conductor and asked if number 666 was the right train. “And the conductor said, ‘Yes, This is the devil train and it’s going straight to hell and falling in.’”

So, Phipps, always interested in cross-examining superstition, looked into and traced it back to the Babylonians, and to make the story short, Phipps said, “The ancients had 12 signs of the zodiac and 3 potentates for each one. Multiply them together and you get 36, and if you add up all the numbers from 1 to 36, you get 666.” Transmitted by way of the Jewish Kabbalah, 666 was used in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations as “the number of the Beast.”

“People lie to make things weird, powerful and strange, Friday the 13th and all that crap, the way I think about it,” Phipps said, who sees the need these days to emphasize that science is not just about faith or beliefs, but it is inextricably tied to reality. And now he has a whole book to back him up.

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