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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
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BOOK REVIEW: Merging Arts and Science
By Robin Tatu

A provocative new book helps connect the dots between physics and the humanities.

Categories on the Beauty of Physics Essential Physics Concepts and Their Companions in Art & Literature
Contributors: Emiliana Sefusatti, John Morse, Hilary Thayer Hamann
Vernacular Press

Categories on the Beauty of Physics Essential Physics Concepts and Their Companions in Art & LiteratureIf gazing at a Joan Miró canvas puts you in mind of particle duality, Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” raises thoughts of motion or description of a sword in “Beowolf” strikes you as a prime example of angular velocity, then “Categories—on the Beauty of Physics” will speak to you. For those of us who may not make such connections as readily, author Hilary Thayer Hamann seeks to ignite our imagination. “Categories” is not a textbook, she explains, but a book about physics, one that promotes science literacy by exploring the links between physics and the arts.

To produce this work, Hamann collaborated with both artists and scientists, arriving at a careful consideration of 39 key principles of physics. These are arranged alphabetically, with a separate chapter devoted to each. The chapters open with a dictionary definition and equation, followed by a scientific overview of the concept written clearly enough for novices but with enough flair to capture the interest of more advanced readers. “For most of human history, the falling of an apple and the motion of the Moon in the sky were thought to be very different things,” begins the discussion on gravity before expounding Newton’s formulation of the universal law of gravity. For the concept of relativity, readers are asked to imagine themselves on a train with no windows that moves without vibration. Falling asleep, then waking again, “we would not be able to discern if the train was standing still or moving at a constant velocity.”

The sections that follow these explanatory introductions seek both to extend understanding and to encourage contemplation. The section Think About It examines fundamental issues associated with the concept, noting the importance of kinetic energy in determining mass, for example, or the role of uncertainty in quantum mechanics. Read About It makes note of relevant books, articles and films. These include such classic works as Newton’s “The Principia” and Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” as well as more whimsical references, like the skateboarding film “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” used to illustrate the applied dynamics of velocity. In the section Talk About It, Hamann raises open-ended questions as a way to move from science to personal reflection: “Is decay always undesirable?” she writes on entropy and time. “Are rare objects precious because they cannot be remade or regenerated?”

In the final section, connections are made to literature and visual art. In addition to the colorful collages that accompany each chapter, famous works of art are handsomely reproduced. The chapter on pressure features Hokusai’s renowned woodblock “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” with commentary on the artist’s achievement of visual pressure through his juxtaposition of the monstrous wave with the tiny fishing boats and dwarfed peak of Mount Fuji in the distance. Ernest Hemingway’s prose is held up as a demonstration of torque, “language infused with tension,” while Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandius” is Hamann’s inspired choice for entropy.

In her introduction, Hamann expresses the hope that this book will encourage readers to make intelligent connections between science and the humanities. Concerned by declining interest in science and technology, she advocates more imaginative approaches to learning, for “material enhanced by allusion has the capacity not only to enrich the quality of our impression but the integrity of our creations.” Indeed, “Categories” is much more than an encyclopedic catalogue of terms, with each provocative chapter prompting exploration of those underlying links among the fields of science, literature and art. This book should prove to be of interest for Prism readers seeking creative ways to engage their students. It also provides a pleasurable departure point, allowing one to revisit familiar and favorite works of art, literature and scientific inquiry, as well as to discover new works and ways of perceiving. How many of us ponder the scientific concept of chaos when viewing Paolo Uccello’s 15th depiction of the Battle of San Romano? After reading “Categories,” such associations may come more effortlessly.

Robin Tatu is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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