Fall 2003


Book review

By Art Hobson (reprinted from Physics In Perspective with permission)

George Gamow and Russell Stannard, The NEW World of Mr Tompkins. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1999, ix + 258 pages. $24.95 (cloth), $16.95 (paper).

This is a revised and updated version of Gamow's 1965 classic Mr Tompkins in Paperback, which is in turn a revised and updated version of Gamow's even more classic Mr Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) and Mr Tompkins explores the Atom (1945). Science popularizer Russell Stannard revised 14 of the 15 chapters in Gamow's original and added four entirely new chapters.

George Gamow (1904 to 1968) was an influential physicist and cosmologist, a founder of the big bang theory, and popular with the general public as a science writer and lecturer. The two earliest Mr Tompkins books were widely read by non-scientists and scientists as an entertaining and authoritative introduction to the remarkable ideas of recent physics, for example c as the universal speed limit, relativistic length contraction, curved space, the second law of thermodynamics and Maxwell's demon, the expanding universe, quantum uncertainty, atomic structure, and nuclear structure.

The Mr Tompkins books, including Stannard's version, are neither science fiction nor straightforward science popularization, but instead a mix of fantasy and science. Mr C. G. H. (the initials are purposeful, as we will see) Tompkins is a mild-mannered bank clerk with a short attention span and a vivid imagination. Having extra hours on his hands, he attends a public lecture on Einstein's theory of relativity. During the lecture by "the professor" (Gamow's stand-in), and frequently throughout the book, Tompkins nods off into a dreamworld where the marvels of physics are commonplace experiences. In these other worlds, the speed of light (c) is so slow, or the gravitational constant (G) is so large, or Planck's constant (h) is so large, that special relativistic, general relativistic, and quantum effects manifest themselves directly.

Stannard updates Gamow's physics. The 14 revised chapters are slightly updated, for instance by the brief introduction of dark matter and the theory of cosmic inflation into a chapter on spatial curvature. Gamow's explanations are slightly improved upon but largely unchanged. The four new chapters are devoted entirely to new results since 1965: Stellar and galactic black holes, the cosmic background radiation, the strangeness quantum number, SU(3) symmetry, the latest in particle accelerators, quarks, gluons, the standard model of particle physics, supersymmetry, string theory, and cosmic inflation, all in the spirit and style of Gamow's original. The entire revision was done with the approval of the Gamow family.

Stannard also updates Gamow's book linguistically and socially. "By Jove!" becomes "Ah!," "The Gay Tribe of Electrons" becomes "The Merry Tribe of Electrons," and so forth. Happily, the professor's daughter Maud is radically transformed. For Gamow, she is a "painting" student who seldom speaks up for herself when her "Daddy" is around. In a typical exchange in the 1965 edition, Maud pouts and says, "Daddy, if you are talking physics again, I think I will go and do some work." The professor replies, "All right, girlie, you run along." In Stannard's revision, Maud is a prominent professional artist who is deeply conversant with the entire range of modern physics, assertive, and frequently remonstrative with her "Dad" for being overly academic and out of touch with non-scientists such as Tompkins.

Notwithstanding the historical importance of the originals, and the faithfulness of Stannard's revision, I cannot recommend this book either for the general reader or for scientists. The problem lies not in Stannard's revision but in the original works, as viewed today. In the 1940s, the Mr Tompkins books were a welcome breakthrough in rendering modern physics interesting and understandable to the general public. But today they do not measure up to recent non-technical science writing, and they are stylistically dated. Stannard's revision is too close to the original to change this assessment.

Mr Tompkins alternates largely between the professor's lectures, and Tompkins' dreams. Thus, Tompkins falls asleep during the professor's lecture about special relativity, and dreams of a city in which the speed of light is 20 miles per hour. Special relativistic length contraction, time dilation, aging, and so forth, are described in an entertaining fashion, but without any discussion of the theory because it's Tompkins' dream, not the professor's. This is a neat idea, and it works fairly well.

The professor, in the lecture through which Tompkins snoozed, then explains the physics behind the dream. But many explanations are too compressed and technical for most non-scientists. For a typical example,

The splitting of this four-dimensional spacetime continuum into a three-dimensional space and a one-dimensional time is purely arbitrary, and depends on the system from which the observations are made. Thus two events, separated in space by the distance l1 and in time by the interval t1 as observed in one system, will be separated by another distance l2 and another time interval t2 as seen from another system. It all depends on the particular cross-section one is taking through the four-dimensional reality, and that in its turn depends upon one's motion relative to the events in question.

This discussion is comprehensible to a physicist, but it is too compact, too devoid of examples, and too abstract for non-scientists. They will find it discouraging, especially in view of the importance the professor places on spacetime.

Stannard's book contains 20 equations that also appear in the original, most of them rather complex, including the Einstein field equations, with few of them explained for non-scientists. This will completely discourage most non-scientists. Nearly every physics popularizer these days manages to present good physics, and even good quantitative physics, without equations. The reason is that physics is fundamentally about observations and ideas, and both are describable in words, or perhaps proportionalities and graphs. Equations are required only if one wants to do, as contrasted with understand, physics.

Although the book is directed at adults, it has a storybook quality that ranges from the entertaining image of Tompkins waltzing around a human-sized atomic nucleus, to the silly "Cosmic Opera" in which the now-passe debate between the big bang and steady state cosmologies is set to music and poetry. This child-like quality might have been entertaining fifty years ago, but will probably not appeal to most readers today.

As readers of Physics In Perspective know, many non-scientists today are, like Tompkins, fascinated by modern physics. They attend sold-out performances of plays, such as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, with significant modern-physics themes. They enthusiastically read such books as Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Alan Guth's The Inflationary Universe, Paul Davies' The Mind of God, Leon Lederman's The God Particle, Steven Weinberg's Dreams of a Final Theory, and everything by Carl Sagan. Such works set a very high standard. The Mr Tompkins books were admirable pioneers in this worthy endeavor, but today's reader will find these recent entries more enlightening and engrossing than Gamow's originals or Stannard's rewriting of them.

Art Hobson
Department of Physics
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701 USA