Boltzmann's Tomb: Travels in Search of Science
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
A selection of the Scientific American book club
Recommended by MSNBC, Los Angeles Times, & American Association for the Advancement of Science’s SB&F magazine
“This wonderful scientific memoir captures the romance and beauty of research in precise poetic prose that is as gorgeous and evocative as anything written by Rilke, painted by Seurat, or played by Casals.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of Doc and The Sparrow
“A radiant love letter to science from a scientist with a poet’s soul . . . Green is an exquisite writer, and his fierce focus and mastery of style are reminiscent of the biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas.” —Kirkus Reviews
In Boltzmann’s Tomb, Bill Green interweaves the story of his own lifelong evolution as a scientist, and his work in the Antarctic, with a travelogue that is a personal and universal history of science. Like Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder—this book serves as a marvelous introduction to the great figures of science. Along with lyrical meditations on the tragic life of Galileo, the wildly eccentric Tycho Brahe, and the visionary Sir Isaac Newton, Green’s ruminations return throughout to the lesser-known figure of Ludwig Boltzmann. Using Boltzmann’s theories of randomness and entropy as a larger metaphor for the unpredictable paths that our lives take, Green shows us that science, like art, is a lived adventure.
Bill Green is a geochemist and professor emeritus at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is also the author of Water, Ice & Stone: Science and Memory on the Antarctic Lakes which received the American Museum of Natural History’s John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and was excerpted in The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.
I got involved, even though I was reluctant to work with benzene and trichloroethylene—solvents people were just beginning to understand might cause cancer. But I was young and immortal and, besides, like every student of chemistry, I had been in contact with benzene a thousand times. I found the work interesting, and we published some well-received papers. Toward the end of summer, Lee and May Beth and Wanda and I went to dinner at a fine restaurant in Dallas. Fred asked me if I would work with
Angeles, Singapore, and New York beaded in radiance across the midnight globe. And they gave us all of the smallest things that exist beneath our seeing: the jostling, wandering atoms that Boltzmann knew were there; the orbitals and the spun clouds of hydrogen and oxygen; the frames of carbon built on carbon that lay in pools in the darkness beneath Titusville, Pennsylvania, and beneath the sands of the Arabian Peninsula. On the way out of the park, in front of the Astronomer’s Monument, there
home in Birmingham, when a mob set fire to the family house and destroyed his laboratory. An outcast, he arrived in 1791, at the age of sixty, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the placid Schulkill River in the midst of trees and nothing much else. Today you can visit his laboratory, view his study, and learn that he was the inventor of carbonation, a process that enhances the quality of the very beer I was sipping at the café. Every museum of science that I visited in Europe had
easy to discern: phosphorus poured in springtime from the surrounding farm fields so that the loading—relative to the area and depth of the lake—was high. My hand became a shadow inches beneath the surface. Reconstruction of the fission table at the Deutsche Museum in Munich, Germany To all of this there was a Boltzmannesque theme: nature’s power to disperse, to scatter and dismiss, to allow nothing to stay long where you had put it. Fertilizers were made from rocks or from the atmosphere,
against the near horizon. Beneath it, suspended on long cords, a capsule oscillated above the rust-colored surface of the planet. The surface looked much like the landscapes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In time, the oscillations ceased and the whole assemblage rushed toward the hard ground below. After a long parabolic skip-dance across the plains of Mars, the capsule, made of plastic spheres, opened and the rover emerged. The rover, a robotic Lewis and Clark lighting out for some distant