A History of Physics Worth Fifty-One Thousand Words

Celestia Ward

Drawing Physics: 2,600 Years of Discovery from Thales to Higgs. By Don S. Lemons. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017. ISBN: 978-0262035903. 246 pp. Hardcover, $27.


In this little red book, Don S. Lemons has assembled a very useful and accessible collection of fifty-one physics concepts organized according to era and illustrated with drawings by Jesse Graber (as well as a few in Galileo’s own hand). One need not have a degree in a STEM field—or even a good grasp of high school physics—to understand the ideas outlined. Far from presenting dry formulas and math problems, Lemons uses simple drawings to walk readers through discoveries that have helped humans grasp how the world around them works. Lemons says the book is for readers “interested in the world in which they live but who, for various reasons, know little mathematics or physics.” Each section is a small, digestible vignette of several pages that can be read as a standalone explanation of a concept in physics. Due to this self-contained approach, there is, by necessity, a bit of repetition if you read the book straight through, as concepts are reviewed for an understanding of what comes next.

As the title states, the physics discoveries themselves are framed using drawings: not elaborate, comics-style panels or detailed technical illustrations but rather (as the cover implies) the scribbled-upon-napkin or back-of-the-envelope variety. The author explains how useful such “cartoon approximations” are in teaching otherwise complex ideas to students. He also paints a picture with words of how such images helped philosophers and scientists formulate their theories of the universe, taking us back to antiquity as a seventy-five-year-old Archimedes, drawing in the sand, yells out what turned out to be his last words, ordering a Roman soldier to “Stand back from my diagrams!” (30), or to seventeenth-century England, where an aloof and peculiar Isaac Newton sketched figures in the gravel walks of Trinity College (103). Drawings sometimes took the place of numbers, as with the electromagnetic discoveries of Michael Faraday, whose mathematical knowledge was not advanced enough to translate his ideas into formulas, but for whom “visualizations, of which the magnetic lines of force are a prime example, did the work of mathematics” (153).

The collection begins by looking outward, as the ancient Greeks pondered the heavens, and ends with the search inward, for knowledge about matter’s tiniest states, as Lemons takes us on an illustrated physics tour through antiquity, the Middle Ages, the early modern period, the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century and beyond (the book’s five parts). The drawings are accompanied by scientific history, philosophy, and trivia that help unpack the thought process that led a particular thinker, or group of thinkers, to a discovery. We also get a feel for the scientific zeitgeist of many particular moments throughout humankind’s search for knowledge. The ancient Greeks had an aversion to experiments and instead approached the study of nature as a process of inference. “To manipulate a natural phenomenon, is to spoil its naturalness—at least according to Aristotle” (17). The seventeenth century was characterized by viewing the world through a prism of materialism, as Christiaan Huygens put it, “the true philosophy, in which one conceives the causes of all natural effects in terms of mechanical motions” (118). Later, scientists in the Romantic period—the last to call themselves “natural philosophers”—would be inclined to see connections everywhere, imagining “that all the forces of nature were but different aspects of a single, all-encompassing, invisible power” (140).

While keeping each section brief and engaging, Lemons moves beyond workmanlike reporting of facts, pointing out how some scientists were a product of their time and how others went against the prevailing notions of their era. We see how ideas about the world evolved through both thought experiment and actual demonstrations—from the falling speeds of heavy versus light objects to the particle-wave duality of light. We see how some thinkers have tried to create a theory that will explain everything (something both ancient and modern thinkers have wrestled with), while others concentrated their efforts on fully dissecting one small aspect of how things work. From planetary orbits to magnetic fields to the atom, we also see how ideas in physics can represent fundamental, real aspects of how things work, or simply act as a model or placeholder explaining how things seem to behave—until a better model or more data comes along.

Each section not only contains a good description and analysis of the physics problem but also a few paragraphs on the scientist’s personal life: here we see father-son rivalries, a family split by war, many expressions of piety and religious devotion, quite a few Nobel prizes awarded, and epitaphs carved on tombstones. Don’t expect to see any contributions by female scientists highlighted, though: all of the major thinkers profiled are men, and women are mentioned a total of three times in the book (beer is mentioned twice). Lemons chose the material purely on the basis of what, as he states, can be drawn and seen—an approach that favors older astronomical problems over more recent studies. It is to his credit that he did not artificially shoehorn diversity into a landscape where it historically did not exist. Lemons might be accused of trespassing into the political arena in his section titled “Global Greenhouse Effect,” where his last few paragraphs emphasize the conclusions of physicists studying global warming, point out the Genesis quote used by Senator James Inhofe to wrongly dismiss climate change, and urge us all to have “the courage to change those things that should be changed.” It’s an anomalous prescription I applaud in this otherwise purely descriptive book on science history and philosophy.

Readers will find the notes section useful but unobtrusive, and the book benefits from a well-prepared index. A must-have for teachers, Drawing Physics would also be enjoyed by any layperson interested in improving their grasp on physics and learning about the history of scientific thought.


Drawing Physics: 2,600 Years of Discovery from Thales to Higgs. By Don S. Lemons. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2017. ISBN: 978-0262035903. 246 pp. Hardcover, $27. In this little red book, Don S. Lemons has assembled a very useful and accessible collection of fifty-one physics concepts organized according to era and illustrated with drawings by …

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