The next time you’re interested in a healthy dose of physics (with a generous splash of literature), resist the temptation of your Wikipedia bookmark, take a step back from the harried, irreverent blogosphere, and dive into the enrapturing prose of pre-Soviet Russia.
In 1913, Yakov Perelman wrote an enchanting book called Physics for Entertainment, and it’s just what Jules Verne and H.G. Wells would have turned out—had they any desire to teach the fundamental laws of the universe. Perelman’s book was only recently translated to English, and seeks (successfully) to “arouse the activity of scientific imagination, to teach the reader to think in the spirit of the science of physics…with all that he normally comes into contact with.”
In chapters like “How to Work Miracles,” “Mathematics and Imagination,” and “Fairy Tale Railway,” Perelman associates the laws of physics with an ample variety of both everyday phenomena (knots, eggshells, fire, jumping from a moving vehicle) and the wildest fantasies of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Cyrano de Bergerac, Gogol, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Pushkin, and Edgar Allan Poe. Blending flowery prose with equations, neither of which are burdensome, he weaves his own delightful narrative with the imaginations of a great writer, producing a highly engaging piece of educational literature.
Some excerpts, illustrating Perelman’s merging of science fiction with physics non-fiction:
• An extra chapter imagined for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Moon, in which the protagonist Michel Ardan attempts to cook breakfast for his fellow travelers inside a moon-bound projectile:
“Big drops of water crept about the pot as soon as they came into contact with it: they slid over onto the outside and soon the pot was enveloped in a thick layer of water.
‘There is an illuminating experiment to demonstrate the great force of cohesion,’ the imperturbable Nicoll calmly told the enraged Frenchman. ‘Don’t get so excited. You are dealing with an ordinary case of the wetting of solid bodies, only in this instance gravity is not interfering, and so we can see the entire process.’
‘It’s a great pity that it isn’t interfering!’ Ardan heatedly objected. ‘I must have the water inside and not around the pot. Look at it! No chef would ever consent to prepare consommé in these conditions!’”
• The catch-22 of H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man:
“Can an invisible man see? Had Wells ever stopped to ask himself this question before he embarked on his novel we would have never had the pleasure of reading his gripping narrative. Why couldn’t the invisible man be seen? Because every part of his body, including his eyes, was rendered transparent and possessed a refractive index identical to that of the air. Light will pass through the eye of an invisible man without hindrance; its rays will be neither refracted nor retarded… To sum up: an invisible sees nothing. He will derive no benefit from all his advantages. This formidable claimant to power would have to grope in the darkness begging for alms which nobody would be able to give, as the supplicant would be invisible. Instead of the most powerful of mortals we would have before us a helpless cripple doomed to a miserable existence.”
• Edgar Allan Poe’s illustration of an optical illusion in The Sphinx, in which the narrator mistakes a small, nearby butterfly as a beast in the distance (shortened quite a bit):
“Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter of the large trees near which it passed—the few giants of the forest which had escaped the fury of the land-slide—I concluded it to be far larger than any ship of the line in existence. The mouth of the animal was situated at the extremity of a proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length, and about as thick as the body of an ordinary elephant. Near the root of this trunk was an immense quantity of black shaggy hair- more than could have been supplied by the coats of a score of buffaloes; and projecting from this hair downwardly and laterally, sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild boar, but of infinitely greater dimensions. Extending forward, parallel with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal and in shape a perfect prism—it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the declining sun. The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the earth. From it there were outspread two pairs of wings—each wing nearly one hundred yards in length—one pair being placed above the other, and all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some ten or twelve feet in diameter. While I regarded the terrific animal, and more especially the appearance on its breast, with a feeling or horror and awe—with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found it impossible to quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge jaws at the extremity of the proboscis suddenly expand themselves, and from them there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of woe, that it struck upon my nerves like a knell and as the monster disappeared at the foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.”
This, Perelman tells us, is an example of the “faithful realist Edgar Allan Poe remaining loyal to nature”—the incident was different from magnification, as the angle of vision was unchanged.
In addition to literary excerpts, the book also contains a number of conundrums (you can boil water using snow, but you can’t boil water using boiling water), brain-teasers, and optical illusions. Volume one (of two) is available online in full.