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Optical Allusions

Samuel Petuchowski

Waves and Grains: Reflections on Light and Learning. Mark P. Silverman. xii + 410 pp. Princeton University Press, 1998. $22.50.

This is a special physics book in that it is personal: It is Sir Peter Medawar's Advice to a Young Scientist and much more. It is "What Physics Means to Me" from someone to whom physics clearly implies connections across not only subdisciplines but also centuries. It is about physics as a discipline and a human pursuit. What's more, it is written in the language of physics. Although not Physics for Poets, it is poetry for physicists who might be wondering what drew them to their discipline and for others with an inkling that they might be so drawn.

This book doesn't teach optics; it teaches the joy of optics. Mark Silverman is matter-of-fact about his calculations—neither condescending nor tutorial. He allows the reader to glimpse his world, and one may either admire his algebraic facility or gloss over it and come back to it in graduate school.

The material collected here appears to be the overflow of an autobiography, the apocrypha, as it were, of a career. Each chapter is an etude executed with its own virtuosity, drawing yet another connection. Some chapters start out as technical studies, as a pianist might practice fingering but with analytical agility. Insights spill out. Some of them deal with fundamental concepts such as the wave-particle duality of light; others deal with the seemingly esoteric, with experiments that seldom receive attention because they are analytically messy—but here again, connections emerge. Silverman has made a career, he informs the reader, of studying the unfashionable.

This approach leads Silverman to a philosophy of scientific pedagogy and to a thoughtful analysis of the role of the science professor. I was inspired to imagine a holographic physics curriculum in which concepts such as interaction or scaling or invariance might be taught from the inside out and applied, by way of examples, to various sub-disciplines.

Silverman concludes that the qualities that have advanced and enriched the history of optics (and, by extension, science) have been creative genius, experimental skill, articulate expression, incisive wit, personal courage and, in a few cases at least, compassion and simple humanity.— Samuel J. Petuchowski, Bromberg & Sunstein LLP, Boston


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