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It Must Be Beautiful Great Equations of Modern Science
ISBN 1862074798 / 9781862074798 / 1-86207-479-8Find This Book
Through a study of celebrated examples, the collection of essays in It Must Be Beautiful sets out to reveal the true nature of an equation. What is an equation, after all? Why does it look the way it looks? Those lacking a scientific education can have only the vaguest idea. For a start, an equation is not one fixed thing. The same scribbles can be reinterpreted over time. (Frank Wilczek's chapter on the Dirac Equation offers fascinating insights into this process.) An equation's value can be contested, at one moment a mere "convenience", at the next, a profound expression of things. (Arthur I Miller, writing on Schrodinger's wave equation, beautifully captures the knives-drawn business of scientific interpretation.) An equation can even be a kind of political agenda. Take the Drake Equation--more properly, a formula, describing the likelihood of extra-terrestrial civilisations. Oliver Morton's acute account identifies in this equation "the classic technocratic lapse of mistaking the ability to state a question in the language of science with the ability to solve it using the practices of science". This problem haunts (as it should) the whole collection. As Farmelo writes in his introduction (paraphrasing Feynman) "... it may eventually turn out that fundamental laws of nature do not need to be stated mathematically and that they are better expressed in other ways".
Some essays here never really get to grips with the hieroglyphics, choosing instead to trace the evolution of their subject's thoughts. Others go to the other extreme. Roger Penrose's essay on General Relativity delivers the mathematical punches other science books normally pull. But by one route or another, according to your preference, you will come away from this book with a more-than-trivial insight into the power and beauty of equations. Indeed, the notion that the world could be "better expressed in other ways" is likely to be furthest from your mind. --Simon Ings [via]