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Sun Oct 22, 2017, 01:46 AM

The Dreams that Stuff is Made of (review)

edited by Stephen Hawking

On first glance, this should be an extraordinarily interesting book: it bills itself as Stephen Hawking's selection of key papers in the development of quantum mechanics, with his introductions. It is massive, weighing in at over a thousand pages and reasonably priced --- I think I paid a bit over $30 for it

In some ways, it does not disappoint: you will indeed find some key papers here (such as Planck's discussion of black body radiation or Bell's proof of his inequality), but its defects are substantial

Careful editorial work is quite lacking: for example, on page 8, there is a note in the middle of the page indicating that the original German text should be inserted there (which it is not); while on page 76 (and at several other places), what probably should be "Roentgen" is rendered as a cryptic soup, rather like "RA¶ntgen", as if no one ever bothered to check the typesetting program carefully

More irritating are the page headings: the thirty-three papers are divided into eight chapters, but at the page tops nothing appears except the chapter number and the book title, making the book very difficult to browse intelligently, especially as the lengths of the selections/excerpts vary from around ten pages in some cases to nearly a hundred in others. Nor does the plan of organization seem immediate and straightforward

The choices are also sometimes somewhat odd: not everything is really a key paper -- one has a long excerpt from Heisenberg's easily-available lectures and also some excerpts from Gamow's well-known "Thirty years that shook physics." The acknowledgements may suggest the choice of material, since no one is ever thanked for allowing reproduction of copyrighted material, which probably means everything is already in the public domain -- and in fact, I already had inexpensive reprints of some of the excerpted books sitting on my shelves

Hawking's harmless pablum chapter introductions are somewhat incongruous in comparison to the technical depth of some of the papers: one might have hoped for material a bit more informative, but they are quite vague and written for a very general audience. I think anyone who can read these papers without much help will find Hawking says nothing interesting about them, while anyone who needs some help approaching the papers will find Hawking says nothing useful about them

I do not regret the purchase, since having this on my shelf does allow me access to some important papers; but the book is somewhat of a mishmash, cobbled haphazardly together. But other collections of source texts will still often seem more useful: there is, for example, van der Waerden's old book or Wheeler's compilation of quantum measurement

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Reply The Dreams that Stuff is Made of (review) (Original post)
struggle4progress Oct 2017 OP
hermetic Oct 2017 #1

Response to struggle4progress (Original post)

Sun Oct 22, 2017, 01:21 PM

1. WOW

Excellent! Reading the whole thing. Noticing the glitches. (As an editor, mistakes in books make me want to scream!) Understanding it. I am fascinated by quantum mechanics and I wish I knew you in person so you could tell me more about this book and what it means. Thank you!!

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