Review of “Physics: An Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science” by Tom Jackson

In November, 1887, the physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley revolutionized physics by not finding evidence of a mysterious, ghostly substance they called the luminiferous ether, which was thought to serve as a medium for light waves. (You can read the report of their null result here.) This finding led to Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of special relativity, which explained the Michelson-Morley result and literally changed the world.

Albert Einstein as a very smart clerk in Bern, Switzerland, 1905

Albert Einstein as a very smart clerk in Bern, Switzerland, 1905

Thus, November is a good month to consider reading this wonderfully interesting book by Tom Jackson which presents 100 of the greatest breakthroughs in physics.

Physics provides, in a chronological progression, significant developments in both cosmological and elementary particle physics. That is, this is the story of how we have found out about both the smallest and the largest scales known to us in the universe. As the author states, “Physics in the foundation of all science. Without it all of our other knowledge would crumble and collapse.” [And math is the foundation of physics. But Jackson manages to lay out the magic of physics without requiring readers to decipher equations.]


The author has a daunting task. Whole books have been written on each of the subjects he covers in only one or two pages. But he does an excellent job, and will no doubt inspire readers to continue investigating the subjects on their own.


After he takes us through 100 discoveries, explained with the help of fascinating photos and diagrams, he then goes back to the basics, appending a section on concepts like mass, force, waves and electromagnetism. Next, he includes a short explication of today’s “imponderables”: a review of questions still in need of answers, such as the nature of dark energy.  A short biography of some of the greatest physicists follows. He does a nice job here too, managing to convey the gist of their discoveries with some of their quirks and “fun stuff” about them. (However, some may view this as an unfortunate distraction in the book. I suppose it depends upon the reader. Richard Feynman, who played bongos, inter alia, resented that his eccentricities were used to give, as one publisher said, “a human approach to a presentation of the difficult matter that theoretical physics represents.” Feynman wrote to the publisher, quite irritated, as shown in the quote below.)

“Dear Sir,

The fact that I beat a drum has nothing to do with the fact that I do theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is a human endeavor, one of the higher developments of human beings, and the perpetual desire to prove that people who do it are human by showing that they do other things that a few other humans do (like playing bongo drums) is insulting to me.
I am human enough to tell you to go to hell.


Finally, a large foldout included with the book gives over 1,000 milestone facts. This foldout is outstanding. On one side, it features such useful information as a table of derived units (pascals, joules, watts and so on); a great list of constants, providing their symbols, mathematical values, and relative standard uncertainties; conversion tables; and the periodic table. The other side is a timeline, showing important events that occurred simultaneously in four categories: Physics, Science & Invention, World Events, and Culture. Some of the “Cultural Events” included are rather odd, like: “1801: The Union Jack is adopted as the official British flag.” But the worst, in my opinion, is the 2013 entry. While the entry for Physics is the discovery of the Higgs Boson – a truly monumental event, the entry for Culture is “2013: Michael Jackson’s family accuse the dead musician’s promotors of negligence and sue for $40 billion.” Really? I shudder to think what that means if that is how “culture” is defined for 2013.


Evaluation: Small quibbles aside, this book would make an excellent gift or addition to anyone’s library, either as a coffee table book for intermittent perusal; as a book to excite young readers to look further into some of the many exciting findings; or as an introduction to the most important things we know about what we are, where we came from, and where we might be heading.

Both Jim and I are eager to see the other volumes in the series! Shelter Harbor Press is producing a series of these graphical books on breakthroughs that changed history. Previous topics have been about the elements, mathematics, and the universe.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Shelter Harbor Press, 2013


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3 Responses to Review of “Physics: An Illustrated History of the Foundations of Science” by Tom Jackson

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    When I saw Physics in my Reader, I knew it had to be on your blog. Just the word physics scares me. I feel sure this would be over my head but I bet Carl would enjoy it.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    I know nothing about physics but the practical application does affect all of us! So while that title scared me, I actually think this would be a fascinating book.

  3. Vasilly says:

    Once I read that the book is an illustrated history, I wanted to read it. Of all things to put under culture for 2013, the Jackson family’s lawsuit didn’t need to be one of them. 😦 I’m going to see if my library has this one.

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