Natalie Angier's Bookshelf
By George Gamow
Not to condone procrastination, but I happened on George Gamow's marvelous Mr. Tompkins books in the Columbia University physics library while I was industriously not studying for a physics exam, and they changed my life. After reading the two slim volumes in a single sitting, I knew that I wanted to be a science writer. Gamow was a giant of 20th-century physics who thought that the revolutionary discoveries in his field were too astonishing for physicists to keep to themselves. How to convey Einstein's theory of relativity or, gulp, quantum mechanics to the general public? Gamow used Lewis Carroll's trusty trope, the picaresque dream. Mr. Tompkins is an earnest bank clerk determined to improve himself by attending physics lectures at a local university. Luckily for the reader, he can't help but fall asleep, and in his dreams abstrusities are dramatized by being rescaled to human size. We see how relativity works, for example, by visiting a town where the speed of light seems to be only 25 miles per hour, and we glimpse the bizarre realms of the atom in a land where billiard balls, kittens, and elephants all behave like subatomic particles. Dream on, Mr. Tompkins.